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iPhone X Hands-On Impressions

A top-notch phone

Yesterday I stopped by Apple Omotesando, Tokyo, to check out the iPhone X. As the store was quite busy and lots of people were trying to check out the small number of demo devices, I spent just ten minutes with a phone, so take these with a grain of salt.

(I should mention the mindset with which I entered the store: I’m not actually contemplating a purchase. I don’t use iOS exclusively and have in fact switched more and more of my usage to Android over recent years. Further, I’m actively trying to wean myself off the urge to upgrade to a new phone yearly. I love mobile computing, but I am also trying to live a more intentional life and be careful to buy only things that add true value. So this was a purely informational visit for me - keeping up with current events, geek-style, if you will.)

The Good

Build Quality: The fit and finish on this device is amazing. Manufacturing to tight tolerances is where Apple excels, and even the very best Android phones cannot quite match Apple in this regard. To be honest though, I care less about this than I used to - the industry average is higher now than was when the iPhone was young, and well-made Android phones have crossed a threshold I personally find acceptable and even pleasing.

Somewhat related: I’m no fan of glass-backed phones, for durability and aesthetic reasons, but this phone executes on the sandwich design very well. It feels solid in hand, and it’s the least slippery iPhone since the 4/4S (on par with the Jet Black iPhone 7). I still prefer metal - or well built polycarbonate phones - but I the iPhone X’s take on the glass back design is about as good as it gets.

No Home Button: I use multiple mobile devices on a daily basis - currently Android and Ubuntu Touch besides iOS. Most Android OEMs transitioned to on-screen buttons years ago, and Ubuntu Touch has always used edge-gestures in lieu of buttons. Both are a much more efficient use of screen real estate, and I’m happy to see Apple finally catching up here. Home-button-less navigation is amazingly well done - flick upward to close the current app, push further to enter the app switcher, do a semi-circular swipe across the bottom edge to switch between recent apps. All of these gestures work in portrait and landscape, and are extremely smooth (only concern: the semi-circular bottom swipe contorts your thumb and may not be very ergonomic particularly if you have smaller hands). Overall losing the home button is what I am most excited about.

The Screen: The screen is amazing, but did not feel superior to high-end Samsung devices. Both make it effectively impossibl to discern individual pixels, a both look like the screen is painted on top of the glass. But I feel people have been saying this since the iPhone 4. Surely next year there will be phone screens that look even better. They’ve all become more than amazing - I honestly no longer care about these improvements very much. What impressed me more was how seamless the OLED screen transitions into the frame when showing something with a black background. This has little practical advantage, but psychologically it reinforces the idea of the phone becoming whatever app you are using. I certainly hope many apps will opt for dark color schemes on the iPhone X (and I’m baffled that Apple does not offer a system-wide dark mode).

The Less Than Ideal

Aspect Ratio and the Notch: I’m not a big fan of the screen’s aspect ratio. This may or may not be a matter of getting used to it, but here’s the thing: I read PDFs and ebooks a lot on my phone. More so than on my iPad, because my phone is always with me. Having more width helps, while having less width hurts, especially with PDFs, since text does not reflow or resize, and is sized for display on larger screens (or, well, printing…). Of course I can (and do) read PDFs in landscape, but landscape support on the iPhone X comes with its own compromises, as I point out below. The notch bothers me in the same way antenna lines or camera bumps did, and still do. I’m sure I’d get used to it in daily use, but it very clearly is a design compromise: Apple’s ideal vision of the iPhone is a rectangle that is all screen - the hardware completely recides into the background, and the phone just becomes whatever app you are using. You can bet they are hard at work to get rid of the notch, until they can truly go all-screen. This phone will look like an ungainly prototype by then. By the way, I strongly object to Apple’s advertising here - this phone is not “all-screen”. Words have meaning, so let’s stop twisting them for the sake of marketing. It does disservice to this phone (or any product) to describe it untruthfully (and here’s a thought experiment: how will a notch-less future phone be marketed? “All screen - for real this time”?).

Control Center: While the bottom-edge navigation gestures are very nice, they do force a tradeoff: Control Center (iOS’s take on quick settings) has moved to the top right corner of the screen. Android (and Ubuntu Touch) has always had quick settings at the top, so I’m used to this - but it’s one area where I always unequivocally preferred iOS’s implementation - a bottom-up swipe is considerably easier on large phones.

Rounded Corners: I dislike screens with rounded corners on principle. Videos, books, photos - so much of the media we consume on our phones fills a full rectangle. Having a round-rect screen therefore means you have to add padding (thereby shrinking the actual content area), or cut off content at the corners. I would personally prefer hard corners, even if that made the phone more angular and slightly less pleasant to hold..

The Bummer

Landscape orientation: Landscape orientation on the iPhone X feels like a second-class citizen, especially when compared to the iPhones Plus. Some system apps do not support landscape at all even though they do on other iPhones. When they do, the notch and home indicators create wasted empty space (Android’s on-screen buttons pose a similar dilemma, but the system allows apps to enter ‘immersive mode’, which hides the buttons until the user swipes from the edge to reveal them or otherwise disables immersive mode). Apps cannot get the (iPad-like) landscape-optimized column layouts you can get on the iPhones Plus. I know many people rarely use landscape except for viewing video and taking photos, but I use it quite frequently, and might find this hard to adjust to. Apparently (I did not test this myself - not even sure I could have on the demo units), Face ID will not even work in landscape at all. If true, that is a major shortcoming compared to Touch ID.

My Takeaway

I was not planning to buy an iPhone this year (whether 8 or X), and playing with the X in person has not done anything to tempt me to change my mind, as much as I may love the home-button-less design. If I were to upgrade my iPhone at some point, the main reason would be to get a better camera (I consistently find the iPhone’s camera superior to Android phones). With the iPhone X having the same back camera as the iPhone 8 Plus (I hardly care about the front-facing camera), I would find it hard to justify the price difference. As a matter of fact, if my iPhone broke now and I wanted to replace it (which is not a given - I might go iOS-less for a while), I might just go with a used iPhone 7 Plus, as I prefer the all-metal body.