iPhone X review: If any phone is worth £1,000, this is it
The one thing you cannot help but notice when you turn on the iPhone X is its screen.
Maybe it’s because I’ve grown used to the flat, rectangular design the iPhone has had for so long. Maybe it’s the years of handling brilliant, boundary-pushing Android phones and just wishing there was a phone like this that ran iOS. But when you turn the X on, and that screen, which dominates the handset, lights up from every corner, it feels like this is the iPhone many have been waiting for.
The iPhone X is the biggest overhaul of Apple’s phone since the original, a decade ago. It boasts a corner-to-corner screen that leaves no room for the home button, and thus no fingerprint scanner.
No fingerprint scanner means there’s a new way to unlock the phone, Apple’s “Face ID” facial recognition system. And that facial recognition technology, a collection of sensors known as the TrueDepth camera, opens up new possibilities for the front-facing camera that wouldn’t have been possible without it.
It’s a lot of new technology in one go, and at £999, you’d expect so. A lot of people will say that no phone can be worth a grand. But for everything that is new in the iPhone X, my favourite thing is the simplest: that big, brilliant screen.
Design and display
The iPhone X’s screen measures 5.8 inches corner to corner, bigger not only than the normal-sized iPhones of recent years but also than the 5.5-inch Plus phones.
But hold it in your hand, and it’s much closer to the smaller iPhone than the Plus, albeit a touch wider and taller. The big borders on the old iPhones have been almost entirely removed, so only a thin black margin separates the screen and the edge.
I’ve always preferred the plus-sized iPhones because of their bigger screens and better battery lives. But for some people’s hands, not to mention pockets, they are simply too big. The X manages the best of both worlds – big screen, small form factor.
While Apple is by no means the first to launch a phone with an edge-to-edge screen, what is unique is that the X’s borders are uniformly thin all the way round the display, which creates the impression that they fade into the background.
With one exception: the notch. You can’t miss the notch.
The front camera sensors all sit in a rectangular black silhouette at the top of the phone, cutting into the screen and giving it two “horns” at the top. There’s no doubt about it: the notch blights the phone; a concession to function on what would have been an otherwise unblemished display. And yet, after a few days with the phone I really do not mind it.
Apps are designed to work around it, placing indicators like time and signal bars either side of it, and those that aren’t should receive updates soon. The notch is a bit ugly, but that’s it: it does not make using the phone worse, at least when using the phone in portrait mode. Watching a video in landscape mode gives you the choice of watching in full screen, with the notch cutting in, or in a letterboxed mode.
The screen itself, by the way, is glorious. Apple has introduced what it calls Super Retina, and what everyone else calls OLED, to an iPhone for the first time. Whatever you call it, the screen is superb: the best I’ve seen on any smartphone, not just any iPhone. Of course, videos look really good, and the phone supports standards such as HDR that allows it to take full advantage of Netflix and the like, but it’s also simply a great screen for reading Kindle books or scrolling through Twitter.
Phone colours are a straight choice of space grey or silver – there’s no rose gold here. The back of the phone is glass, which allows for wireless charging, and the edges are chrome – a nice throwback to the iPhone 4, which many consider to be the best looking iPhone.
Where’s the home button?
The home button has been key to the iPhone since its launch: one button takes you to the home screen, whatever you’re doing. So getting rid of it was a big move – you only have to look at the response when Windows 8 killed the start menu for evidence of that.
But an all screen phone means there’s no room, so goodbye home button, and thanks for the memories. And when it’s gone, you realise all the things you rely on it for – not only going home but launching Apple Pay, taking screen shots, switching apps, activating Siri by mistake, and so on.
So the X requires you to learn a bunch of new functions to do all these things. You swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go home, swipe and hold to flick between apps, and double tap the lock button to open Apple Pay. Screenshots are created by pressing the lock and volume up buttons together, and you activate Siri by holding down the lock button. Accessing the control centre is now a swipe down from the top right of the screen, with notifications brought up by swiping down from the top left.
It sounds like a lot to learn, and after years of muscle memory, I thought this was going to take me a while, but it’s been a lot easier than I thought, even if I do occasionally find myself pressing a phantom home button. Apple’s also added a new function for getting around – swipe left and right along the bottom of the screen to quickly switch between recently used apps. It’s a nice touch, and now I feel like I’d miss it if I were to go back.
The one downside of swiping up to go home, instead of using the home button, is it means a virtual bar at the bottom of the screen follows you around apps, just to remind you it’s there. It doesn’t annoy you after a while but it does take up valuable real estate: observe the wasted space below the keyboard.
Out goes Touch ID, say hello to Face ID
The home button wasn’t just a button – the fingerprint scanner embedded in it since 2013 has been an increasingly crucial feature. Instead of trying to move it – to the back or side of the phone – Apple has got rid of Touch ID entirely in the iPhone X, and replaced it with “Face ID”, its new facial recognition system.
Facial recognition has been on phones before, but previous systems have largely been based on image processing, a basic system that’s easily fooled and doesn’t work in many situations. Face ID, by contrast, uses an array of sensors to build up a 3D map of your face, and then throws thousands of invisible light beams onto your face, checking against the existing record, every time you use it. Apple says the chances of it being fooled are one in a million, compared to one in 50,000 for Touch ID.
And it really does work. Setting up Face ID is a doddle compared to the repeated fingerprint scans that Touch ID required – you literally move your head in a circle twice and that’s it.
In the hundreds of times I’ve unlocked my phone in the last few days, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to enter my passcode – a much better success rate than Touch ID. It works in the dark, in bright sunlight, and if I’m wearing glasses (I don’t wear them, but thanks to all my colleagues’ who let me wear theirs to check). Two caveats: the phone has to be facing you – while you don’t have to hold it right up in front of you, it won’t work when the phone is face up on a desk – and if your mouth, nose or eyes are covered, it also won’t work.
Face ID will mean a change in habits depending on which way you use Apple Pay. For those who press the home button twice to prime the phone before touching it to a payment terminal, the process is largely the same – double tap the lock button, and scan your face to activate it. For those who do it the other way – holding their phone to a terminal and then verifying with their fingerprint – well, you’ll have to learn the other way. Other apps that are unlocked with Touch ID automatically do it with Face ID now.
Apple has built some other handy other features in to Face ID: when you get a notification, it will show up on the screen, but its contents will remain hidden until you look at it, at which point the message is revealed. You can turn this feature on and off for various apps (I found it annoying to have to unlock my phone every time an email popped up), but it’s a good way of stopping prying eyes.
After a few days of use I’m convinced that Face ID isn’t just an adequate replacement for Touch ID; it’s actually a better system. When you’re looking at the screen, the phone is unlocked; when you’re not looking at the screen, the phone is locked. Makes sense when you put it like that, doesn’t it?
First things first, I can’t quite believe there’s a section of this review dedicated to the fact that you can now impersonate a talking poo, but here we are. Since the 3D sensing technology that enables Face ID also allows the phone to build up an incredibly detailed picture of your face, Apple has created Animoji, a collection of 12 different animated emoji within iMessage that track your facial movements, which you can use to record short video messages.
Earlier in the week I wrote off Animoji as a gimmick. I still think that’s the case – but they are also going to be a very successful gimmick.
Almost everyone I have shown animoji to appears to be, for some reason, obsessed with watching themselves mirrored in cartoon animal form. Call it a sad reflection on society, but hey, it works.
What doesn’t work for me is that Animoji are baked within iMessage. As someone who does almost all my texting on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, it feels like this feature is going to gather dust except when showing it off in person.
You can export the files outside of iMessage, but it’s a convoluted process that involves sending the message, downloading it, and then sending it again in your app of choice. I understand why Apple has done it – it gives iMessage an advantage over other messaging apps – but it doesn’t make it any less annoying.
What Animoji does do is demonstrate the potential of the iPhone X’s TrueDepth camera. While the feature is a little silly, the technology behind it is very cool.
Camera and performance
The iPhone X’s rear camera is largely the same as that on the iPhone 8 – that is to say a very very good camera that, in my opinion, is marginally beaten by Samsung’s Note 8and the Google Pixel 2.
It has the same dual camera system as the iPhone 8 Plus, which allows for the background-blurring Portrait mode, as well as a better optical zoom effect. For a longer read on its ins and outs, my iPhone 8 review is here, but suffice to say, it’s up there with the best, and I certainly wouldn’t pick one phone or the other based on the slight differences in their picture quality.
The one difference to the rear camera is that the second telephoto lens has optical image stabilisation and a better aperture, meaning your long range shots should have less blur and let more light in. I managed to get some nicely-detailed long range shots from Row Z at Wembley this week, but the improvements are gradual, not mindblowing.
The big news is on the front camera, which uses that TrueDepth system to add Portrait mode to selfies. Since the Portrait mode was introduced last year, I’ve felt that the feature will really only come into its own when people can use it to take photos of themselves. Google’s Pixel 2 beat Apple to the punch by adding the feature to its phones, but results on the iPhone X looked a lot better in my testing, creating a more subtle effect than the more blurry Pixel 2 selfies.
As for performance, the phone runs the same chip as in the iPhone 8, and it’s just as impressively zippy, capable of handling anything you throw at it. Battery life is iPhone battery life – I’ve got to the end of each day without having to charge it, but only just.
- The iPhone X comes in 64GB and 256GB varieties. You have to use up a hell of a lot of memory to justify the larger option – iOS now stores photos much more efficiently. The hundreds of apps, songs and photos on my phone only add up to 39.5GB.
- No, Apple hasn’t brought back the headphone jack for the iPhone X. That ship has sailed
- As with the iPhone 8, there’s wireless charging as well as fast charging, although you’ll need a special cable for the latter.
- The camera lens on the back of the phone protrudes a more than I’d like, so if you put it down on a surface it can even wobble a little. Not a problem if you put it in a case.
- Not a single person I have spoken to about it outside of the tech world has called it the iPhone ten, as Apple intends. That battle is lost.
Shall we mention the price? £999 is a lot to shell out for any phone, more than many people will ever consider paying. If that’s the case, the iPhone X isn’t for you, and it was never going to be.
For a lot of people considering the iPhone X, the question is whether it is worth the price increase on the £699 iPhone 8, although given the screen size and dual camera, a fairer comparison might be the 8 Plus, which at £799, is £200 cheaper.
The iPhone X won’t run any different apps, a lot of the time it won’t take better pictures, and its battery won’t last any longer. But in my book, there’s no question it’s worth it.
Face ID, Animoji and Portrait selfies are all nice touches, but it is the truly excellent screen that clinches it. Apple has made us wait for the modern smartphone it needed, but the end result is its best effort in years.
Pros: Brilliant screen, Face ID is better than Touch ID, home button replacements work well
Cons: Expensive, the notch is a bit ugly, Animoji are mainly useful for big iMessage users