Wednesday, November 1, 2017

iPhone X Review Strategy and Roundup

We’re only halfway through the week and Apple has been throwing nothing but curveballs — fitting since game seven of the World Series is tonight (go Dodgers!). Before we dive into a few of the reviews, here’s what I think could be happening.

Apple’s iPhone X Review Strategy

Typically, all major tech publications, independent publishers, etc. receive evaluation units for new Apple products about a week before pre-order of the product itself. Then, there’s an publishing embargo put in place until the week of on-sale. Once the embargo lifts, the proverbial floodgates open to a multitude of reviews. 1 This time, Apple has forgone the same old formula and opted to provide varying degrees of hands-on time with iPhone X.

Review Types

Three distinct types of reviews can be derived from Apple’s strategy.

  • First Impressions. Quite a few small-time YouTubers and non-technical publications were invited to an Apple-hosted event where they had hands-on time with iPhone X. This resulted in quite a few repetitive videos showcasing the design, Face ID, Animoji, and the TrueDepth camera’s portrait lighting mode. Less technical in content, these videos are sure to appeal mostly to the followers of said groups (read: millennials and the non-technical masses).
  • 24-Hour Reviews. A second group of technically-minded folks and publications received a mere 24 hours with iPhone X, resulting in madly-dashed quasi-reviews or first impressions.
  • Standard Reviews. The third and most privileged group received a week with iPhone X, the typical pre-embargo timeframe.

Why the change?

There has been much speculation (mostly negative) as to why Apple would change their standard formula for this important part of a new device’s launch. Not helped by questionable articles such as this, most theories center around the concept that the reasoning could be to temper expectations for Face ID not working as well as promised. My gut tells me this isn’t exactly right, but not far from the path. Most that have spent time with iPhone X have indicated Face ID works well, while a few have been more vocal about its misses.

There doesn’t seem to be an exact correlation as to which publishers received more or less time with iPhone X. For instance, John Gruber only received his within the last 48 hours, and he is generally regarded as the go-to for Apple coverage. On the other hand, Steven Levy spent a week with iPhone X — quite fitting, he being one of the three early-access reviewers for the original iPhone. Further adding to the confusion, David Pogue, another one of the early-access reviewers for the original iPhone, only received 24 hours. 2

My theory is this: Face ID meets Apple’s expectations, but after the hoopla that resulted from the Apple Watch Series 3 Wi-Fi bug which was largely a non-issue in practice, Apple may have wanted to better control the experience most reviewers would have with iPhone X by restricting their hands-on time. This is where the strategy starts to take shape.

  • First Impressions. Obvious opportunity for non-technical thoughts and opinions that increase overall hype, but should only be taken at face value. These should be seen as nothing more than a brilliant marketing move, even if technically-minded folks don’t care much for the content (e.g. yours truly).
  • 24-Hour Reviews. Given to publications either more critical of Apple than others or typically-positive Apple publishers as to not appear biased. For example, Nilay Patel from The Verge is a notoriously nit picky reviewer, especially when it comes to Apple. In his review, he was very vocal about issues he had with Face ID, and went on to wildly speculate as to the reason. I’ll quote him below to provide more context. As for not appearing biased, this could explain why Apple reviewer staples like Gruber, Pogue, and Rene Ritchie also fell into this category.
  • Standard Reviews. Steven Levy from Wired and Matthew Panzarino from TechCrunch were among the small number of folks to receive a week with iPhone X. This is Apple’s way of providing what is typically expected while taking into account the oddities described above.

This is a huge launch for Apple and a major change to the iPhone line unseen since its genesis. The message here has to be very controlled and this was their way of doing it. Before review units went out, a lot of people thought Apple would only seed a small amount of devices to reviewers. We now see they’ve done quite the opposite by offering varying degress of access while still retaining a semblance of control. I would be very surprised if this format becomes the new normal for typical product launches. HomePod and iMac Pro are expectedly up next, so we’ll see.

Review Roundup

Without further ado, on to the reviews.

Matthew Panzarino for TechCrunch:

At several points, the unlock procedure worked so well in pitch black or at weird angles that I laughed out loud. You get over the amazement pretty quickly, but it feels wild the first few dozen times you do it.

It works so quickly and seamlessly that after a while, you forget it’s unlocking the device — you just raise and swipe. Every once in a while you’ll catch the Face ID animation as it unlocks. Most of the time, though, it just goes. This, coupled with the new “all swipe” interface, makes using the phone and apps feel smooth and interconnected.

This has been my favorite review. Matt took his iPhone X to Disneyland, which is a real workout for any phone. As a result, you’re left with an extremely palatable sense of what it’s capable of.

Steven Levy for Wired:

Filling the phone surface with the screen has another effect: There’s no longer room for the home button, an integral part of the iPhone interface since the start. Its sudden removal is one of those jarring deletions that Apple is famous for, and it requires some relearning. But that’s not necessarily bad: Any upgrade which doesn’t require new behavior is almost by definition not terribly dramatic. Plus, Apple hates buttons. In any case, Apple now requires us to swipe upwards to get to the home screen. That was easy enough. A little trickier is the swipe-and-stop required to get to the carousel of open apps; it took me awhile to get the hang of pressing down on one of the little cards representing an app in order to evoke a minus sign that allowed me to close it.

I knew I’d mastered the gestures when I found myself trying to use them on my iPad. Oops. My finger no longer drifts to the home button, but pathetically swipes upwards, to no avail. And now there’s that awkward moment when I expect the iPad to unlock itself when the camera looks at my face.

Rene Ritchie for iMore:

Apple is also individually calibrating every iPhone X before it leaves the factory. That’s not something most vendors do. (Some barely sample at all, others only a few per batch.) It’s something Apple’s been calibrating that way since it moved to DCI-P3 cinematic color gamut a couple of years ago.

Combined with Apple’s system-level color management, it means the display won’t look oddly blue or green, and some iPhone X won’t look cooler or warmer than others. They won’t look washed out and dull like Pixel 2 XL or oversaturated like Samsung Galaxy S8. They’ll all, every single one of them, look exactly the way nature and Apple intended — like an iPhone.

Just as I would expect from Apple.

Nilay Patel for The Verge:

In my early tests, Face ID worked well indoors: sitting at my desk, standing in our video studio, and waiting in line to get coffee. You have to look at it head-on, though: if it’s sitting on your desk you have to pick up the phone and look at it, which is a little annoying if you’re used to just putting your finger on the Touch ID sensor to check a notification.

I took a walk outside our NYC office in bright sunlight, and Face ID definitely had issues recognizing my face consistently while I was moving until I went into shade or brought the phone much closer to my face than usual. I also went to the deli across the street, which has a wide variety of lights inside, including a bunch of overhead florescent strips, and Face ID also got significantly more inconsistent.

As I said earlier, Nilay has been the most vocal about his Face ID issues. I won’t discount his experience completely, because it seems warranted to a degree. However, he also does hold the phone at some odd angles, as seen in the video portion of his review. I doubt direct sunlight is the issue, as nobody else seemed to draw this conclusion. Neil Cybart from Above Avalon even made this video in light of Nilay’s claims:

To appreciate technology, you need to have an open mind. Nothing is perfect, but remaining optimistic is the key to not letting these things deter you. Nobody said living on the bleeding edge of tech doesn’t come without hiccups.

I can’t wait to get my iPhone X on Friday and look forward to publishing my own review after spending some quality time with it.

Updated on November 2 at 12:30pm with a slight correction regarding those who received iPhone X for more than 24 hours.

  1. See: iPhone 8. The amount of reviews was a little overwhelming. 
  2. Walt Mossberg is the third and final early-access reviewer for the original iPhone, but is now retired.