I'm Lance Somoza, a professional IT Consultant with over 15 years of industry experience and an obsession for technology. This is my tech soapbox.

iPhone X Review: Magic Glass

Remember the delight of experiencing iPhone for the first time back in 2007? That vision of the future, free from flip phones, T9 texting, WAP websites, carrier logos plastered all over your device — the list goes on.

Ten years have gone by in the blink of an eye, and there is still no mistaking the clear and apparent magic dwelling in every iPhone. Never has that been more apparent than iPhone X — Apple’s modern masterpiece.

As much as the original was a vision of the future, so is iPhone X, as a wondrous piece of magic glass.

Apple has never been afraid of changing the iPhone experience on us when new technology demands it. Never before, though, have they changed it so radically than is apparent with iPhone X. Never before has Apple released three different flagship phones with differing interface elements. You know what they say — never say never. Apple is keeping us on our toes.

It’s a year of massive change for iPhone, so let’s dive in with my most extensive review yet.


Table of Contents

Design

After careful consideration, I opted for the silver iPhone X — a deviation from the norm — and I’m so happy with my decision. What really pushed me over the edge was the simple fact that the front of the phone is black to match the back side. Plus, an added benefit of the silver model is the ability to polish the stainless steel band in order to rid it of fine scratching.

This phone is absolutely stunning. It is hands-down the best looking iPhone ever made, usurping the legendary design of iPhone 4. You could say iPhone design has largely been iterative since iPhone 4, alternating between various amounts of glass and aluminum on the back of each model. The introduction of Touch ID accounted for a design change as well, but nowhere near the same level as iPhone X. In fact, we’ve come full circle. iPhone 8 and iPhone X return to the glass sandwich design, eschewing Apple’s beloved aluminum in the process.

Here’s a quick recap of major design changes since iPhone 4 (excluding ‘S’ models and iPhone 5C):

  • iPhone 4: All-glass back with stainless steel band.
  • iPhone 5/SE: Mostly-aluminum back with glass windows for radio transmission. Retained stainless steel band.
  • iPhone 6/7: All-aluminum back and sides. No more stainless steel band. Jet Black finish for iPhone 7 was polished.
  • iPhone 8: All-glass back. Aluminum band.
  • iPhone X: All-glass back, stainless steel band, no home button, longer side button (previously known as the sleep/wake button).

The polished stainless steel frame on iPhone X echoes the elegance of the stainless steel Apple Watch — particularly on the Silver model. Coupled with the white finish, it harkens back to the iPods of old (classic Apple).

It feels absolutely great in the hand; solid and dense. It is full of tack and casts away the slipperiness of aluminum found in iPhones 6 and 7.

If there is any downside to the design, it would only be the small uncertainty in how you have the phone oriented if you’re not looking at it (i.e. when pulling it out of your pocket). A few times, I’ve had to flip the phone around one way or another. But, you have to look at it anyway for Face ID, so it’s not a huge to-do.

One final point: as a design element, the screen gives iPhone X a unique look (notch and all), but more on that later.

Performance

I’ll be brief on this, as much has been said and discovered about the A11 Bionic 1 chip inside iPhones 8 and now iPhone X. In a nutshell, the A11 Bionic is insanely impressive.

For the first time, Apple’s custom System On A Chip (SOC) contains a neural engine for tackling facial recognition, as well as an Apple-designed Graphics Processing Unit (GPU).

Silicon literally runs the world, so Apple’s serious investment here should make you extremely excited about what the future holds.

In my experience, there has never been a faster, smoother, more powerful iPhone than this one. Hard stop.

Super Retina Display

Apple says iPhone X is all screen. While that may not technically be true, for all intents and purposes, it’s an accurate statement.

Quality

Known for their prowess with LCD, Apple switched gears and opted for a custom, Samsung-made OLED display. OLED has a bunch of trade offs, but I think the pros far outweigh the cons.

Pros

  • Thinness. Pixels provide their own light, so a separate backlight is not needed as is with an LCD display.
  • Deep blacks. When true black is displayed, pixels are simply turned off. This results in much deeper black color than you would see on an LCD screen.
  • Power efficiency. In general, and especially when displaying large amounts of true black, OLED results in higher power efficiency.
  • Higher Contrast Ratio. iPhone X is 1,000,000:1 whereas even iPhone 8/8 Plus is 1,300:1. Talk about a huge difference.

Cons

  • Off-angle color shifting. When tilting the display, the overall colors shift to a typically blue tinge.
  • Burn-in. Similar to how plasma TVs experienced burn-in, this is an inherent downside of any OLED display that varies from panel to panel. Static elements depicted on the display for long amounts of time can leave a ghost image of themselves, but this is typically after years of use.
  • Pentile pixel layout. Instead of sub-pixels arranged in stripes of red/green/blue, they are arranged in a diamond-like shape referred to as pentile. The arrangement has been polarizing, since the pentile pattern can be distracting up close depending on the display.

In classic cover-your-ass fashion, Apple released an article on the first two cons to get ahead of any complaints of what amounts to typical OLED behavior. The color shifting is very apparent when tilting the device even a little off-axis, but it’s OK since you’re looking at the phone head on most of the time.

In actuality, iPhone X’s display is simply stunning. The blacks are insanely deep, colors are extremely vivid without being washed out, and everything literally appears as if it is painted on top of the glass. Similar sentiments have been made by others in the past as Apple more closely laminated their LCD displays to the cover glass, but it has never been more true than now. Even in person, iPhone X’s display looks like a render (especially when there’s a colorful image on screen). It’s simply mesmerizing to look at.

While the display is made by Samsung, Apple has engineered a number of mitigations against the inherent cons of OLED as described above. Time will tell exactly how well the display holds up, but the superb quality is apparent even after using the device for a short amount of time.

In fact, after an extensive OLED shootout, authoritative screen review site DisplayMate said iPhone X is “the most innovative and high performance Smartphone display that we have ever tested.”

Sensitivity

Apple says the touch layer has been upgraded to be more sensitive and responsive to gestures — of importance given the new gestural navigation model. I have found this to be true, and I have also found the display to be much more sensitive to extremely light touches. This takes a little getting used to, as light touches on prior iPhone models might not even be registered.

In fact, a major reason for this increased sensitivity is because touch input is now sampled at 120Hz, even though the screen refreshes at 60Hz. This is not dissimilar to how iPad Pro samples Apple Pencil data at 240Hz while the display refreshes at 120Hz.

The tiny bezels force you to make adjustments when it comes to holding the phone. I’ve accidentally hit elements close to the edges of the display a few times, but I have already become more cognizant of it and am adjusting accordingly. Adapt or die, right?

True Tone

True Tone finally makes its way to the iPhone line with iPhones 8 and iPhone X. Different than Night Shift, True Tone monitors the ambient light in the room and adjusts the colors of the screen to match with your environment. It does this on-the-fly, so you can see the screen adjust as you move your device from one environment to the next. The benchmark it shoots for is making the white you see on screen appear as if it was a white sheet of paper in the same space.

I wasn’t so sure about this feature when I first started using it on my iPad Pro 10.5-inch earlier this year, but I have since come around. That said, I have found True Tone on iPhone X to compensate a bit more than my iPad Pro. It tends to be more yellow in color, perhaps because of Apple’s introduction of OLED? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple make some adjustments to this going forward.

Either way, the difference is drastic compared to the iPhone 7 I use for work, with it’s blindingly-blue tinted screen. Rock on, True Tone.

The Notch

Here’s my requisite take on the notch: it’s a non-issue, especially in portrait. You won’t even notice it’s there after a couple days.

To get a sense of what the home screen would look like without it, [you can use the Notcho app](Notcho by Cromulent Labs) to mask your wallpaper and make your phone look Android-esque. It’s an interesting gimmick, but it really makes it look like something is missing.

Notcho in action. Something about it looks wrong, doesn’t it?
Notcho in action. Something about it looks wrong, doesn’t it?

In landscape, it is more noticeable while watching video or reading, but it melts away and doesn’t really draw your eye. For video, you can double tap to letterbox and/or pillarbox what you are watching if you’d rather not have the notch cut into your content.

Here’s how it looks both ways:

The Professor depicting the difference between pillarboxed and fullscreen video.
The Professor depicting the difference between pillarboxed and fullscreen video.

The notch isn’t a complete ‘red dot crown’ — a marketing tool used purely to distinguish, like the red dot crown on Apple Watch Series 3. No, the notch houses some of the most sophisticated camera and sensor technology ever in a consumer electronics device (let alone smartphone). The ‘ears’ to the left and right where the screen resides are mostly utilitarian, but serve practical purpose as well. For example, popular camera app Halide already uses the ears to display exposure and histogram data. Super clever!

Halide app updated for iPhone X. Check out how it uses the ‘ears’.
Halide app updated for iPhone X. Check out how it uses the ‘ears’.

When the technology matures, Apple will remove the notch. Until then, just embrace it.

Status Bar & Lock Screen

With iOS 11, Apple blurred the line between the Lock screen and what was previously called Notification Center (but now has no real name). This was originally a head-scratching decision, but it makes most sense on iPhone X with its swipe-up to go home gesture.

On the surface, the status bar has lost a large amount of real estate thanks to the TrueDepth camera, but Apple has made nice adjustments to account for the variety of different symbols that can appear in this area.

Top Left

On the lock screen, you’ll see your carrier’s name. No biggie, but if you’re on Wi-Fi calling, you might see the carrier name annoyingly spill over a little bit (e.g. Verizon Wi-Fi).

On the Home screen and elsewhere, you’ll mainly see the time and arrow when an app is using your location. You’ll also see various colored indicators behind the time (e.g. green for phone calls, red for recording, and blue for personal hotspot). On all other iPhone models, these status colors appear as large banners across the top of the screen, so this is a welcome change.

An example of the new green indicator that appears while on a phone call.
An example of the new green indicator that appears while on a phone call.

The Airplane Mode indicator will also take over this space when engaged. Check out how it lands and takes off:

Top Right

You’ll always see cellular signal bars, Wi-Fi bars, and the battery level indicator (without percentage).

When you perform different actions, such as connecting AirPods or plugging in to charge, playful animations appear temporarily to confirm your action.

Swipe down on this space to enter Control Center and you will be presented with all the usual status indicators (including the exact battery percentage).

Button Shortcuts

Apple has placed two really awesome buttons on the Lock screen/notification area for quick access to the flashlight and camera. What makes them so cool, you say? In order to use them, you have to 3D Touch on the buttons by pressing firmly. As you press, the button grows a little and haptic feedback is provided by the Taptic Engine, simulating the feel of a physical button. This is the first time Apple has implemented this kind of user experience design for buttons, and it feels really incredible. Kinda makes you wonder if there is more of this experience to come in the future.

You can still swipe left to access the camera, but pressing the button is more satisfying. I do find it intriguing, though, that Apple left the swipe in place. With iPhone X, they have started a paradigm shift for iOS UI and UX, so for it to remain seems a bit odd to me.

Here are the new buttons in action:

Face ID

Settle in. I have many thoughts on Face ID. It’s almost all good, but one of the most important things I’ve learned professionally as an IT Consultant is the importance of setting expectations (even for yourself). So that is what I will aim to do for you. Face ID isn’t the end-all, be-all of biometric security, but damn if it doesn’t impress.

The truth is Face ID is a revelation. Everything from the setup to added functionality is extremely well thought out. Anyone who truly thought Apple wouldn’t have put this holistic level of care into their first facial recognition system either doesn’t understand the company, or was understandably hesitant of giving up the tried and true Touch ID. I can understand the latter; Touch ID served us so well over the past years. 2

Setup

During setup, you rotate your head in a circular manner while the TrueDepth camera completes two scans of your face to form its initial data model.

Just like Touch ID, your facial data is locked away and encrypted in the Secure Enclave only accessible by your phone. Developers can update their apps to use the TrueDepth camera system, but they only get a representation of your face, not your secure facial data reserved for Face ID (important distinction).

Anyway, after setup, all you need to do to unlock the phone is look at it. 3 I don’t wear corrective lenses or reading glasses, so I performed the initial scans with my bare face.

Tip: perform the second scan at a larger angle than the first so Face ID learns more of your face right off the bat.

Require Attention for Face ID

By default, iPhone will make sure your eyes are open and you are looking at it before Face ID attempts recognition. In other words, no one can unlock your phone by pointing it at your face when you’re sleeping or otherwise not looking at the phone. You can turn this option off if you don’t want to stare at the phone every time you need to unlock. From there on, as long as the phone can see your face it will authenticate you. In my testing, turning off the feature doesn’t inherently make Face ID faster, so I have left it on.

This is a security trade off, but why not just leave it on?

Attention Awareness Features

Also by default and as described by Apple, TrueDepth camera will check for attention before dimming the display or lowering the volume of alerts. This can work independently of the above feature, and it is really fantastic.

For instance, if you’re reading something for more than 30 seconds without touching the screen (the new default for auto-lock), the display will no longer dim on you. Also, when your alarm goes off in the morning, iPhone will lower the volume of the alarm sound significantly once it notices your attention. It will do the same with your ringtone if a call comes in while you’re looking at the phone.

Apple is barely scratching the surface here with these attention features, but in a positive way that improves the user experience. I can’t wait to see where they take this next.

Experience and Learning

Face ID has worked wonderfully for me, and there are basically two preferred methods for using it:

  1. Raise to Wake. If the phone turns on from raising it, swipe up on the home indicator immediately. By the time it reaches the top, Face ID should have done its thing.
  2. Tap to Wake. Simply tap on the screen to wake, make sure your face is in view, and swipe up on the home indicator.

I have found raise to wake works even better than it did on my iPhone 7 Plus, but tap to wake has been incredibly handy as well (especially for a quick glance when the phone is on my desk).

It also has worked perfectly for me in any and all lighting conditions (read: no problems in the dark). It just works. ™

That said, there are some adjustments you will need to make. Time to set expectations:

  • Face ID only works while the phone is in portrait orientation.
  • It’s slower than Touch ID, but still fast.
  • If you use your phone on a desk a lot, get used to hovering over it or picking it up and bringing it close to you to unlock.
  • If you normally hold the phone really close to your face, you’ll need to extend it out a few more inches in order for Face ID to see all your features. This was a big adjustment for me when lying in bed in the morning and trying to unlock, but I’m already used to it.

Here is a list of times Face ID has worked for me while my face has been obscured in one way or another:

  • While having terrible bed head.
  • While wearing baseball hats.
  • While wearing polarized sunglasses (non-mirrored).
  • While holding objects close to my face such as cups, pens, microphone for podcasting, etc. Expect Face ID to fail the first few times you’re holding objects near your face, as this is a learned behavior I will go into next.

Face ID utilizes machine learning to adjust to your face day after day. This means that it will work even better a week after you set it up than it did on day one. In my experience, this has been the case, especially when trying to unlock the phone from new angles. You can help Face ID along by inputting your passcode after a failed attempt. As you do this, it will start to remember how your face looks from new angles and unlocking without fail.

Compared to Touch ID

On the surface, I think you could make the case that Face ID has more downsides than Touch ID. It may not be lighting-fast like Touch ID. It may not be able to be unlocked while the phone is in any orientation. It may not be as easy to glance at while on a desk. Trade offs, all of these, but there were also trade offs with Touch ID (namely: wet fingers and hitting the sensor with not enough surface area).

I think Apple is making the right trade offs with Face ID, because it will only get better with second generation sensors and beyond. As soon as iPhone “X2”, I foresee Face ID being able to recognize us at wider angles, utilize larger data points, and account for an even greater variance of conditions.

Apple also says Face ID is dramatically more secure than Touch ID. They put the chance of a random person being able to unlock your phone with Face ID at 1,000,000:1 versus Touch ID’s 50,000:1. There is a caveat, though. If you have a twin, or relatives with extremely similar features deliberately trying to subvert Face ID, the odds start to decrease. With iPhone X now out in the wild, Apple will undoubtedly adjust the algorithms for confirming a successful match as time goes on. In my experience, nobody else has been able to unlock my phone.

Is the age of Touch ID over? I think so, for completely new products. Rumors are already swirling about the TrueDepth Camera system (and Face ID) making its way into iPad next year. I would really be surprised to not see it in the Mac at some point as well. This technology is bound to be ubiquitous.

Gestures

A sizable amount of the iOS user experience changes with the gestural navigation Apple has introduced only for iPhone X (so far). This is the beginning of a transitional shift that will change the way we use our Apple devices. Let’s break down the gestures one by one.

Getting Home (Once There Was a Way)

The new Home button isn’t a button at all, but a rounded bar at the bottom of the screen, similar to the one in Notification Center. Apple refers to this as the home indicator, but only from a developer standpoint.

To go home from anywhere (lock screen included), you swipe the indicator up and release (or just swiftly flick it upwards). This is the most intuitive of all the gestures, and it animates like butter. It’s so satisfying to use. When used on the lock screen, it’s essentially the return of swipe to unlock from the original iPhone — yet another way we’ve come full circle.

Swiping the indicator also replaces other Home button functionality, such as:

  • Bringing you back to your main page of apps if you’re in another one.
  • Dismissing Siri.
  • Swiping down invokes Reachability, bringing the entirety of the screen downward (once enabled in Accessibility settings).

While it’s a great experience, I really think Apple needs to nix the indicator itself. I find it draws the eye even more so than the notch (especially in dark apps). I assume this may happen by iOS 12 once the gesture has been ingrained into our minds. If not, I would at least like an option to hide it.

App Switcher

To enter the App Switcher, Apple wants you to drag the home indicator up, pause, and wait for the switcher to pop into view. This works, but it’s so slow compared to double-clicking the old Home button. Fret not, though. There is a faster way. Simply drag the indicator up just a little bit, stop, and release. The App Switcher will pop into view immediately.

iOS 11.1 re-introduced the ability to 3D Touch the left edge of the screen to open the App Switcher or quickly switch to your last app, but this is not the case for iPhone X. 4 Instead, there’s a faster way to switch between open apps — simply swipe the home indicator left or right.

I have noticed that after you do this, the app you switch to will move all the way to the right in the App Switcher after about 5 seconds or after interacting with the app. This can get a little confusing at first, since you can’t always swipe left to immediately go back to the last app you used. You will most likely need to swipe right, which mimics a normal ‘back’ gesture, but butts up against the App Switcher ‘carousel’ model. On iPad, you can switch apps using a four-finger swipe without them losing their place until you open the App Switcher proper. I’m hoping Apple will address this and make it more consistent across iOS.

There’s another unique change for App Switcher on iPhone X, and it involves force quitting apps. Those of us in the know have long tried to communicate the unnecessary nature of regularly force quitting apps. 5 On iPhone X, Apple ups the ante in a way that will force us to re-train when it comes to this action. To force quit an app on iPhone X, you must touch and hold on its preview in the App Switcher until red ‘X’ buttons appear. Then, you can tap on the ‘X’ to quit as many apps as your heart desires.

Tip: once the red ‘X’ buttons appear, you can swipe up to force quit just like before. This is especially handy if you want to force quit the app you performed the tap-and-hold on — simply keep your finger down and swipe up when the buttons appear. Check out this video so you can see what I mean:

All things considered, I’m loving these gestures and do not necessarily miss their Home button equivalents.

Control Center

This is the one gesture I haven’t locked in to muscle memory yet. It’s also the one that is most uncomfortable. To access Control Center, you have to perform a short swipe down from the top-right ‘ear’, next to the notch, where the cellular, Wi-Fi, and battery indicators are. You don’t have to swipe all the way down to engage it, which is good foresight on Apple’s part, but it’s almost impossible to perform one-handed.

I think Apple needs to move this interaction from the top-right corner. The most popular suggestions would have Control Center relocated to the far-right of the App Switcher. Plausible, especially since Apple may have been thinking about this very implementation, as evidenced by this HomePod firmware leak:

Hot of the presses: iOS 11.2 beta 3 released this week has placed a permanent line under the signal indicators only on the lock screen to serve as a reminder of where Control Center has been relocated to. Seems like Apple is going all in on this.

I get what Apple was going for — making this area a functional component, rather than leaving it non-interactive. They missed the mark, though. The ergonomics of it are terrible. Interacting with Control Center should be really fast, but now it feels like work. At the same time, they won’t just change this on a whim. I wouldn’t expect it to be addressed until iOS 12. Until then, get used to using two hands whenever you need Control Center.

Notifications

Roughly the same. Swipe down from the top edge, except where the signal indicators are (right ear).

iOS Accommodations

Being the first rounded-corner, all-screen device to use iOS, there are quite a few accommodations that Apple needed to make in order to tailor the experience.

White Space

You know the large amount of white space and bold titles introduced for many of Apple’s apps in iOS 11? Yeah, well here’s the reason. This new design language looks much more at home on the narrow iPhone X screen.

Large headers look much more at home on iPhone X.
Large headers look much more at home on iPhone X.

There’s also unused space when the keyboard is present. Some have complained about the lack of utility, but I really don’t think Apple must use every inch of space. Knowing how to use white space is a huge part of good design. The only decent recommendation I’ve seen is to have this space present recently used Emojis like the Touch Bar on Mac, but even that is questionable when they are only one tap of the globe away in the first place.

Unoptimized Apps

Optimized apps have been a bit hit and miss, depending on the developer. I’d like to say most major developers have updated their apps to take advantage of the iPhone X display, but I could be wrong.

For instance, Google barely updated their main app and Spotify is still unoptimized. Spotify updated their app mere hours after my review went live, but my point still stands.

Unoptimized apps on iPhone X look hilarious to me. They are letterboxed and make the phone look exactly like an normal iPhone with huge bezels. The first time you see an unoptimized app, you’ll be appalled we lived with such large bezels for so long.

No, this isn’t an iPhone 8. It’s an iPhone X with an unoptimized app.
No, this isn’t an iPhone 8. It’s an iPhone X with an unoptimized app.

Hopefully developers are quicker to update their apps for iPhone X than they were for iPhone 6 Plus. There are still apps out there unoptimized for Plus-sized iPhones.

Landscape Implications

iPhone X’s tall screen is perfect for reading any kind of material in portrait orientation. Websites, texts, status updates, books, etc. look fantastic in this view, but I’m not sure I can say the same for landscape.

Because the screen is so narrow, content can sometimes feel stretched compared to other iPhone models. If you’re coming from a Plus model iPhone, this is probably the most jarring change. To say the loss of height when using the phone in landscape is noticeable would be an understatement.

In my opinion, iPhone X is best used when in portrait, especially for websites. Because of the TrueDepth camera notch and home indicator, websites in Safari are letterboxed by default when iPhone X is held in landscape. To aide in blending, the letterbox takes the background color of the page. This works well, but navigation bars and other full-width elements can look particularly out of place if developers haven’t implemented new CSS rules Apple introduced with WebKit via iOS 11. The new rules are fairly straightforward, allowing developers to make sure their content scales appropriately and spans the width of the screen while respecting ‘safe areas’ — the notch and home indicator. I was able to implement the rules for Gaddgict fairly easily, but didn’t need them after all due to a design change I made.

Battery Life

Apple engineered an amazing two-cell battery for iPhone X due to the insane fight for space inside the device.

Two-cell battery inside iPhone X. Credit: iFixIt.
Two-cell battery inside iPhone X. Credit: iFixit

This is a pretty remarkable engineering feat.

They tout a two hour improvement over iPhone 7 battery life. In my experience, this seems about right. My iPhone 7 Plus may have lasted longer, but it’s negligible. Here’s a comparison chart for certain battery metrics between iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, and iPhone X. Note: iPhones 8 have roughly the same battery life as iPhones 7.

iPhone Talk Time Standby Internet
iPhone 7 Up to 14 hours (3G) Up to 10 days Up to 14 hours (Wi-Fi)
iPhone 7 Plus Up to 21 hours (3G) Up to 16 days Up to 15 hours (Wi-Fi)
iPhone X Up to 21 hours (LTE) Not advertised Up to 12 hours

I find it curious Apple isn’t advertising standby time for iPhone X (or iPhone 8), nor are they distinguishing ‘Internet’ use as as Wi-Fi or Cellular.

Either way, I’ve had great battery life with iPhone X. You’ll need to charge it every day, but that’s still the reality of all smartphones. The convenience of wireless charging is nice, but I’m sticking with Lightning cables until Apple’s AirPower mat launches next year.

I really hope Apple will be the ones to make a breakthrough in battery innovation. They have already ventured into this area with terraced cells for the standard MacBook. We need new battery technology to keep decreasing the size of our devices. 6 Phones would only stand to benefit from this, too.

Cameras

Regarded as the leader for smartphone cameras, Apple is facing increased competition to up their game in this arena. The rear-facing cameras are an improvement over iPhone 7, but they have really outdone themselves with the new TrueDepth camera system.

Rear Camera

Let’s start with the camera bump in the room. It’s bigger than the one on any other model iPhone, but Apple has owned the design choice a bit more. Instead of protruding as part of the glass housing, the camera bump is its own piece of stainless steel and sapphire. It definitely is the classiest bump Apple has ever made, but it has never been something that has bothered me. 7 If it has bothered you, you won’t be happy about this one.

TrueDepth Camera

This camera array is insane. It’s basically a miniaturized Microsoft Kinect, made up of eight sensors integrated into an area millimeters in size. Fitting, since Apple purchased PrimeSense, the company behind the original Kinect back in 2013.

TrueDepth camera system inside iPhone X.
TrueDepth camera system inside iPhone X.

Together, the infrared camera, Flood Illuminator, and dot projector are the key components that allow Face ID to work. In a nutshell, the dot projector shoots out thousands of invisible dots on your face which are then read by the infrared camera and matched against your secured face data within the A11 Bionic’s Secure Enclave. In low light, the Flood Illuminator is said to further aid in the reading.

This night vision video of Face ID in action was taken by The Verge and really shows off what’s going on.

These components are also used for the insanely-impressive Animoji face tracking.

Portrait Selfies & Portrait Lighting

iPhone 7 Plus introduced a new Portrait shooting mode, allowing you to take pictures with a blurred background and focused foreground (an effect referred to as bokeh). This was made possible by the device’s two rear-facing cameras.

Taking it one step further, iPhones 8 and iPhone X can now shoot Portrait Selfies with the front-facing camera. You longer do you need another person to take a great headshot, but you still might want one (more on that in a sec).

Not stopping there, Apple has introduced another computational photography function called Portrait Lighting. The feature allows you to select between five lighting modes to define your shot before or after you take a Portrait photo (with either camera). 8 Note: this feature is in beta, and therefore does not work perfectly just yet. In fact, both Stage Light settings typically look like bad Photoshop cutout jobs.

Portrait Selfie with Stage Light Mono. Laughable, but again, it’s in beta.
Portrait Selfie with Stage Light Mono. Laughable, but again, it’s in beta.
iPhone X excellently capturing my Dad’s disdain for the DMV in Portrait Selfie mode.
“I hate this place.” iPhone X excellently capturing my Dad’s disdain for the DMV in Portrait Selfie mode.

In my Dad’s shot, you can see a bit of errant blurring around my Dad’s hair, so some work still needs to be done by Apple to fine tune the feature. As you will see below, it works much better when shot with the rear camera, thanks to the depth data taken from the two independent cameras.

Left: Portrait mode taken with the rear cameras. Right: Portrait mode taken with the TrueDepth camera.
Left: Portrait mode taken with the rear cameras. Right: Portrait mode taken with the TrueDepth camera.

Technology aside, portraits also look best when taken with the rear cameras due to framing and composition being performed by another person. Still, not a bad showing by any means for the TrueDepth camera. I really appreciate Portrait Selfie mode, and I’m surprised to see Apple be so open with beta features that are less than perfect. It’s refreshing as long as you don’t forget it’s a work in progress.

Side Button

With the Home button gone, the new Side button (previously known as Sleep/Wake) is now the jack-of-all-trades when it comes to administrative functionality.

Mainly, the ‘Side’ button handles Sleep/Wake, Apple Pay, Siri, on/off, and resetting the phone. It’s also longer than the old Sleep/Wake button, making for much easier engagement one-handed.

Apple Pay and Sleep/Wake

Simply double-click it and Face ID will authenticate you. Once done, you are free to wave the phone at the NFC credit card reader to complete your purchase (or change your card first).

You could still hold the phone to the reader first, as you would with Touch ID, but iPhone will still make you double click the Side button to register intent. Double click is also required when using Apple Pay inside apps and to confirm App Store purchases. I like it. Versus Touch ID, the speed seems negligible because the experience of using Face ID with Apple Pay feels better — cooler even.

One interesting realization is that if you single-click to lock the phone, there’s a half-second delay due to the device listening for a potential second click to invoke Apple Pay. The first time you do this, it may cause you to pause, but it’s not a big deal. If you really want the phone to lock instantly, you can turn off double-click for Apple Pay in Wallet & Apple Pay settings.

Siri

When it comes to Siri, the Side button behaves the same way as the old Home button. Just press and hold to engage Siri, or optionally keep the button held down until you’re done talking. It works well, especially since the button is bigger than its predecessor.

System Functions

Screenshots

To take a screenshot on iPhone X, press this new button combination: Volume Up + Side button.

I feel like Volume Down would be a better part of the combo feel-wise. Volume Up is a little odd since it’s not aligned with the Side button, but I think it’s on purpose. If Volume Down was involved instead, screenshots may be prone to be taken accidentally.

Powering Off

To manually turn off iPhone X, hold all three physical buttons: Volume Up + Volume Down + Side and slide to power off. A bit unintuitive, but necessary for the moment.

Hard Resetting

To hard reset iPhone X:

  1. Click and release Volume Up.
  2. Click and release Volume Down.
  3. Hold the Side button until the Apple logo appears.

Alright, this one is really out there, but that’s OK because you definitely don’t want to do this accidentally.

Animoji

Holy crap, are these fun. I’ve sent them to friends and family, and they are all blown away by how accurate the face tracking is (as am I). There are a total of twelve Animoji to choose from, and you can record yourself as one for up to ten seconds in the Messages app. Once recorded, you can change the Animoji character you initially picked if you’d like.

Tip: To record longer, you can use iOS 11’s Screen Recording feature via Control Center.

Here’s one of my two-year-old imitating her favorite chicken, Hei Hei from Moana.

Animoji Karaoke quickly became a thing on Twitter after journalist Harry McCracken unleashed this terror willed it into existence. Some of these have been pretty well done.

Apple will surely add more Animoji as time goes on (low-hanging fruit). What I’m really looking forward to is if we could one day use our own face as a personal Animoji (think Bitmoji, but more lifelike). This should be a real possibility, perhaps with a second generation TrueDepth camera.

Conclusion

iPhone X is extremely exciting. You really have to get one in your hands to truly appreciate everything this phone represents.

It’s a representation of technological marvels we have only begun to imagine. There’s this line of thought that ‘the next big thing’ hasn’t really come around yet. Tablets, smart watches, and other wearables are mainstays, so what’s next? Sure, there’s a lot of anticipation for Augmented Reality and possible eyewear that could be the epitome of said technology, but really impactful implementations of this are still years away.

Apple says iPhone X sets the bar for smartphones over the next decade, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we trace much of the technology for other devices back to this piece of magic glass in another ten years.

And to that I say: bring me that future. It can’t get here fast enough.


  1. Still don’t like ‘Bionic’. ↩︎

  2. Plus, it’s hard to say goodbye to old friends. ↩︎

  3. As I predicted in my ‘How Face ID could work’ post from early August. ↩︎

  4. I figured this would be the case, but I do miss it. ↩︎

  5. Notice I said ‘regularly’, as there are caveats such as known background-process abusers. ↩︎

  6. AR glasses, anyone? ↩︎

  7. Trade offs and expectations. ↩︎

  8. iPhones 8 can only do Portrait Lighting with their rear-facing cameras. ↩︎

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