It’s been a decade since the original iPhone was released. My own 2007 vintage handset has seen better days, but it’s still going strong. So 10 years of iteration and development has led us to this hyped up anniversary edition. But is the new iPhone X (ten) all it’s cracked up to be?
Glass & Stainless Steel
Even before you turn it on it’s clear that this iPhone is a little different. Made from the ‘most durable glass ever’ and ‘surgical‑grade stainless steel’ (Apple uber-marketing speak) it does have a premium look and feel.
Speaking of feel, I often read that the aluminium backed iPhones are slippery and hard to hold. I’ve never found that and I’ve always gone naked. I’m a firm believer that covering up an iPhone with a $2 piece of plastic is sacrilege. However that may have to change as it looks like breaking the rear glass alone could cost £556.44 to repair and the only part of an iPhone I’ve ever broken is the glass back of my iPhone 4. The Apple silicon case is nice but it covers up that pretty back so I ordered this Spigen Ultra Hybrid Transparent case, but it’s an abomination and I’ve taken it off already. It does feel a bit like Russian roulette without a case though, with knowledge of those repair costs.
The new glass back is a bit grippier and along with that steel frame the extra density gives it a reassuringly solid feel, it’s 0.2mm thicker than the Plus. The 2.5D curved glass meets the stainless steel in a more seamless way than previous designs, helping to make it ‘splash, water and dust resistant’ (IP67).
The steel band is polished on my Silver model, similar to the steel apple watch, while the Space Grey versions get a layer of matching colour using vapour deposition. Unlike previous iPhones both colours now have black front bezels.
It’s All Screen
Is it? The bezels are slim, but the Galaxy 8S with its Infinity display is bezel free, on its sides at least.
The new 5.8″ ‘Super Retina HD Display’ is the first OLED on an iPhone. It has a resolution of 2436×1125 at 458 ppi and its High Dynamic Range (HDR) display supports Dolby Vision and HDR10 for your Netflix and iTunes movie enjoyment. As with all OLED displays, the contrast ratio is off the charts. It reminds me of my ageing but still loved Pioneer Kuro Plasma TV.
Independent of the pixel dimensions, is the point size, which is how the UI sees the screen and what it can fit on it. With the Ten’s 3x image scale factor that’s 375 points wide by 812 points high. That compares to 414 by 736 for the Plus phones (here’s a great illustration of the different pixel and point sizes on each generation of the iPhone).
So although the 5.8″ display sounds bigger than the 5.5″ of the plus, the X has a narrower aspect ratio (19.5:9). Add that to the rounded corners, sensor housing as well as the ‘Home Indicator’ (the line at the bottom of the screen that gives the user a hint at the swipe feature) and you are left with an extended safe area for developers.
Unlike the Plus phones the icons don’t rotate when you are in landscape mode and you don’t get the 2 panel version of the mail app etc. If you want maximum screen real estate, especially in landscape mode, then the Plus model may still be the one you need
It’s probably more accurate to think of the X as some where between the 8 and 8 Plus. However coming from a Plus model the screen feels far from a backwards step.
At 120hz the touch sample rate of this display is twice that of other iPhones and unlike any previous model you can touch any part of the display to wake the device.
Apple claim the best colour accuracy ever for an iPhone with P3 and sRGB colour gamuts available. ‘True Tone’ tech uses a new ambient light sensor to adjust the screens white balance to match the colour temperature of your surroundings. This warms things up and cools them down as required and is subtle and pleasing. Only when I brought my 6S Plus near the new phone was it really noticeable how different the colour temperatures were.
3D touch is still here. After 2 years though I use it very little, mainly for clearing all notifications and positioning my cursor in text. The 10’s home screen now helpfully has a flashlight and camera icon that use 3D touch to quickly launch them.
There will be a wait for apps to be revised for the new layout, but with many updates coming each day hopefully this won’t take long. Here’s a before and after example of the Downcast podcast app being updated for the taller screen. You can see the software bezels the system uses on the left before apps are updated.
The notch has been one of the biggest talking points on the X. It’s particularly noticeable in landscape mode when playing video full screen. Actually viewing 16:9 video content doesn’t encroach on the notch, although you can choose to zoom to full screen and lose a bit off the top and bottom of the video. I found playing full screen and holding the phone one handed your thumb covers most of the notch anyway. In portrait mode in apps with a black UI the notch disappears completely.
I’ve always thought of the notch as giving me more screen rather than taking some of it away. While most other modern designs have thicker bezels top and bottom Apple has maximised this area better than most (with the exception of the Essential Phone). Here’s a quick (badly) Photoshopped image to show what I mean on the Galaxy S8 Plus.
So the notch can be considered to be reclaiming screen, rather than reducing it, although it’s probably the aesthetics that most object to. I’m taking a glass half full attitude to the notch, but of course ideally Apple could magic away all those sensors and have zero bezels.
For now though the notch houses the usual suspects. The earpiece speaker, proximity sensor and light sensor. In addition it’s home to the 7MP ƒ/2.2 TrueDepth Camera along with an array of sensors and emitters that together make up the Face ID system.
30,000 invisible dots are beamed onto your face to create a 3D depth map. Apple say there’s now a 1 in a 1,000,000 chance of a random stranger being able to unlock a Face ID equipped iPhone compared to 1 in 50,000 for Touch ID. They’ve apparently worked to ensure the system cannot be fooled by photos or even 3D masks, unlike some of the joke facial recognition of its competitors.
You can bet your house though that the worlds hackers are at this very moment devising cunning plans to try and out fox the system. Sometime in the future we’ll find out how secure it is. For now the best low-tech way to unlock someone else’s iPhone X is to be their (near?) identical sibling.
Setting up Face ID involves a movement akin to drawing a circle in the air with your nose. This movement allows the system to capture your face quickly and the setup process is faster than for Touch ID.
When you first use it to unlock the phone it seems strange that it does not reveal the home screen as is the case with the Touch ID operation. You need to swipe up to do this. There’s a reason though. Face ID is ‘attention aware’ and it will unlock your device when you look at it with your eyes open (you can switch this off). That’s useful when looking at notifications as they reveal their details once you glance at the phone. If you have no notifications then you simply raise the phone and swipe up at the same time as you look towards the sensor. It becomes one fluid motion and feels like you don’t even have biometric security switched on.
It works fine with both my sunglasses and the coated varifocal lenses of my regular glasses. It worked after I shaved, while I was wearing my big headphones and a hat. I wondered how this would work when the phone was in its cradle in the car and lying flat on my desk. In practise it’s fine in the car because it’s facing me, but less convenient on a desk as you do have to move your head over the phone. Face ID does not work in landscape orientation and a friend also tells me it doesn’t work for him when he has a boom mic across his face while flying his plane. On the upside no more problems with wet fingers or gloved hands trying to unlock Touch ID. So pros and cons. I’d say after just a few days Face ID is better in around 95% of situations and worse in around 5%. Remember you can turn it off and use a passcode if you prefer.
The system totally replaces Touch ID and is used to authenticate Apple Pay as well. A quick visit to a filling station for milk and bread was a good test of the new way. Now a double tap of the side button invokes the system followed by a glance to unlock before putting the phone near the reader. Simple.
It will be interesting to see if all this hardware will be able to do anything similar to this cool Sony feature that can build a 3D scan of your head to place an amazing likeness of yourself into games etc.
For now all that tech is employed for these ‘Animoji’. You capture your personal expressions represented by a variety of animated emoji and send them to someone who cares. Millennia of human development has led to the animated poo emoji.
So with no home button how do you get to the home screen now? Well prepare to format and re-write 10 years of muscle memory. There’s now a new series of gestures to learn.
- Swipe up for Home
- Swipe up and pause for app switcher
- – or – Swipe right / left on Home Indicator to switch between apps
- Swipe down from top right for Control Centre
- Swipe down from top middle or top left for Notifications
In addition there are new button presses too
- Apple Pay – Double click the power button (now rechristened the side button)
- Siri – Long press side button
- Power Off – Hold side button with either volume button
- Screen Shot – Side button plus Volume up
Surprisingly the home gesture was locked in really quickly and easily. Some of the others may take a while longer.
A11 Bionic CPU
There’s lots of new hardware here like Bluetooth 5.0 which should support 2 headphones connected simultaneously if Apple enables it? The stereo speakers are louder too, I know this because I can still hear my podcasts over the noise of the kettle boiling in the morning. But the star of the show is Cupertino’s latest CPU.
The 64-bit 6-core A11 ‘Bionic’ has 4.3 billion transistors. Four efficiency cores that are up to 70 per cent faster than A10 Fusion, plus two performance cores which are up to 25 per cent faster (the three-core GPU is up to 30 per cent faster than the last gen). The CPU can fire up all 6 cores when it really feels the need for speed.
It’s been benchmarked with a similar performance to a Core i5 MacBook. Although unlike a laptop the phone would not be able to sustain that sort of performance. None-the-less it’s an impressive feat in such a diminutive device. Apple’s custom silicon seems to be light years ahead of the competition, leading Tom’s Guide to recently review the A11 powered iPhone 8 with the headline, World’s Fastest Phone (It’s Not Even Close).
So whats the need for all this power? Well apart from making the phone feel incredibly snappy, its neural engine utilises it for on-device machine learning tasks, avoiding the latency of a trip to the cloud and back and its associated privacy and security concerns. Its 600 billion operations per second are employed for other new features like Face ID and augmented reality. Oh, and of course the camera.
I skipped the iPhone 7 Plus so coming from a 6s Plus, this is my first iPhone with dual rear (12MP) cameras. The bump on the rear is still there and is actually bigger than on my old phone.
The ƒ/1.8 wide angle and ƒ/2.4 telephoto, both employ optical image stabilisation, the only iPhone to do so (the iPhone 8 Plus has OIS its wide angle lens only).
Apple’s new ISP chip, more custom silicon, can recognise and optimise elements in your photo as well as provide faster autofocus and improved HDR shots (only the HDR shot is saved by default now). As with lasts years iPhone 7, Portrait Mode provides that big camera, shallow depth‑of-field effect we all love and it’s now available on the front camera too. New for this years 8 and X is the Portrait Lighting feature (check out Austin Mann’s superb review for more details). Here’s a quick test photo in difficult lighting conditions (this is not using the portrait mode).
I never use flash, ever. It’s awful. This time however there’s a chance that might change. The Quad-LED True Tone flash now has slow sync, a feature that combines a slow shutter speed with a short flash pulse. This is especially useful at night and allows the camera to capture background detail instead of just blowing everything out in the foreground and leaving everything else black
The new HEIF format means smaller file sizes for photos (if you want to learn more read this great article). Exports are still in JPEG to make sharing easy until the rest of the world catches up. You’ll need to be on macOS High Sierra for support of the newer format, or you can choose to remain shooting in JPEG if you prefer.
HEIF is a container that uses the High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) or H.265 standard. The phone now shoots 4K in up to 60 FPS. Slow motion is improved too with up to 240 FPS available in 1080p now. Smaller file sizes combined with 256GB storage on board (as much or more than many SSD equipped laptops these days) means there should be no shortage of storage.
Replacing the aluminium with glass on the back of the 8 and X allows inductive charging for the first time on an iPhone. It’s been a long time coming, this is serious catchup for Apple.
The good news is they have gone with the Qi (chee) standard here and didn’t try reinventing the wheel (please dump Lightning for USB-C next). So owners can use the charging mats in coffee shops, airports and built into Ikea furniture etc.
I bought this RAVPower Fast Wireless Charger to try out inductive charging. This unit supports Apple’s 7.5W fast charge that’s coming in a future software update too, although even this isn’t that quick. But it’s ideal for an overnight charge without leads and it now lives on my night stand.
As with the AirPods rift on Bluetooth, Apple are extending and enhancing the Qi standard for their own hardware here too. The AirPower mat will charge an iPhone 8 or X, S3 Apple Watch and AirPods (in a new charging case) when it arrives next year for a rumoured $200.
For wired connections there’s a new fast charge option that can provide up to 50 percent in 30 minutes. You’ll need a charger that supports USB-C Power Delivery (USB-C PD), plus a USB-C to Lightning cable. Neither of these things are included in the box of your new £1,000+ iPhone. Thanks Apple. I’ve ordered this Anker 60W USB Charger and the cable to give it a try.
Lack a Jack
I don’t understand the amount of bitching that goes on about this. I also find it hilarious that all those other manufacturers have dropped headphone jacks from their own phones less than a year after poking fun at the iPhone 7.
There’s no excuse for not picking up a pair of bluetooth headphones these days and there’s an adaptor in the box if you really must stay wired. No big deal.
Some things are new here (notably control centre) but most stay the same. Whilst of course it’s all comfortably familiar, it’s long felt a bit staid.
The hardware is unrecognisable from that original iPhone 10 years ago, but springboard has seen surprisingly little change over that same period.
Siri was full of promise at launch, but Apple has squandered its lead here too and it still falls short far too often for me.
Here’s an example, I’ve been trying this query since Siri launched. Years later it still doesn’t know about the sixth most popular sport in the world.
It’s not only smart assistants that Apple is losing the battle on. As has been the case for many years for me now, I use Google’s services on Apple hardware.
Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Photos are all my services of choice.
There’s been a lot of consternation surrounding the supposedly new $1,000 price point for a smartphone too (£999 for the 64GB, £1,149 for the 256GB). But hasn’t that been a thing since at least 2014? The Google Pixel 2 XL was $949 – at least until it dropped $50 after all of those issues came to light.
Remember too that iPhones hold their value, so it’s worth looking at the total cost of ownership. A quick look at the CEX site shows my 2 year old 6S Plus is worth an absolute minimum of £204 and with their WeSell price at £435, I should be able to do much better if I can find a private buyer.
The more annoying issue for me is that in Apple Land $1,000 = £1,000. Even taking 20% VAT into consideration and the recent Brexit effect on exchange rates this still simply does not add up.
Apple’s gouging on things like Lightning cables is also getting harder to stomach. The standard 1m cable is now £19 and if you want it a metre longer you’ll pay £29. At £10 for 1 metre that must be some serious oxygen free, gold plated unicorn skin sheathed wire right there.
After just one weekend with the iPhone X it’s too early for firm conclusions on all its features, including any meaningful details of the battery life.
But already I can tell you a couple of things I’m sure about. First of all, the lack of a home button is not an issue, you’ll retrain your thumb in less than a day (it felt like less than an hour for me).
Secondly the notch is a red herring that fades away and does not detract from that glorious bright screen. The display is particularly beautiful when you use a black background for your home screen to accentuate that OLED contrast ratio.
The smaller body also means its much easier to use one handed, I didn’t need to turn on the reachability feature. If you’ve ever fancied the bigger screen of the Plus, but couldn’t put up with the bigger body then this is for you.
Is it worth £1,000? Only you can answer that. There’s a bigger iPhone range than ever now with prices starting at £349 for the SE.
And of course the X’s reign as top iPhone dog is already counting down to its obsolescence. Perhaps there will be an X Plus this time next year?
Who knows. For now I’m basking in the endorphin fuelled euphoria of my full screen phone of the future.