iPhone X - Initial Impressions

Apple's latest keynote event was held yesterday morning in the new Steve Jobs theatre; a fitting futuristic memorial to the controversial visionary that brought us the original iPhone 10 years ago. That invention ten years ago initiated a tectonic shift into the way humanity operates in the modern era, and ushered in a new age of business, unparalleled technological development and western consumerism. Understandably there was a bit of pressure, from consumers and pundits alike, to adequately recognise this feat when it came to the new iPhone X (pronounced iPhone Ten), Apple's new 'future of smartphones' smartphone. Let's discuss. 

Disclaimer: It should first be noted that I am writing this with merely a tonne of time spent watching the initial keynote and then a bunch of reviews of people who had face-time with the phone, but I have not felt, held or seen the iPhone X in person.

Moving on. Whilst the new iPhone boasts some impressive tech, and was certainly a shift in form factor that was sorely needed after 3 years of the same design, the whole presentation and unveiling of this product gave the vibe of the iPhone X being a little... unfinished. It felt, to me, that in the occasion of wanting to pay tribute to Steve Jobs, in the new Steve Jobs theatre, and the initial iPhone, they rushed to get the iPhone X as prepared as possible for release this year, ironically betraying the kind of polished quality that Steve Jobs was renown for. Given the "X" spelling out Ten was opportunistic, and all the other timelines worked out so nicely, it's perhaps forgivable that the iPhone X needed to be released this year to fit - but that's not how Steve Jobs would have wanted it. 

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This was evident from the first second of the demonstration on the iPhone X, when the master phone simply wouldn't allow Apple Vice President Craig Federighi without first entering a passcode (similar to how touch ID won't allow someone to use Touch ID until the passcode has been entered at least once after restart). Whilst this was not a FaceID issue, despite being widely touted and criticised as such, it did resemble the kind of messy presentation error that indicated, perhaps, that the whole iPhone X ensemble was slightly premature.

Face ID, Apple's new biometric facial scanning technique, is now the primary access method replacing Touch ID for everything from unlocking the phone to Apple Pay. Whilst this technology does seem valuable, and Apple did a masterful job at selling it as the future of security, I don't believe this was the initial intention of the iPhone X. Rumours for months were swirling around the technological difficulties of getting Touch ID to work within the display itself; indeed both Samsung and Apple have struggled with this for potentially years. When the technology was first demonstrated as being possible, there was then an influx of news articles about Apple facing difficulties in mass-producing the technology, particularly in time for a launch in 2017. 

So what do they do then? Why, get rid of the button, of course. It would appear weak, and sloppy, to follow in the footsteps of Huawei, Xiaomi, Samsung and many other manufacturers to take the 'cheap' way out and put the fingerprint reader on the back. That's not Apple's style. But is Face ID truly ready to be the primary security feature of the smartphone industry? I'm not so convinced. As forward thinking as I like to believe I am - I see some major design flaws that are actually a step backwards in convenience when compared to older models. For example, the requirement for 'attention', as Apple call it, for Face ID to function seems slightly annoying when compared to a simplistic and lazy thumbing of the home button that we're all so used to. In the middle of the night when lazily looking at a message with one eye half open I'm able to subconsciously unlock my phone by merely placing my thumb where it belongs and being able to use my phone without thinking. With Face ID, this won't work; both eyes need to be open, and your face needs to be looking at the screen. 

...it really all feels like it’s a uniquely un-Apple, Apple device.

The speed at which Face ID seemed to unlock during the demo was also a little troubling. Granted, the phone is still 6 weeks away, but that's not a lot of time to perfect this little tid-bit given most of the phones would already be in mass production and this can only be rectified by a software tweak at this stage. And as difficult as it must be for the phone to combine and interpret 30,000 microdots, infrared camera data and model that out to be a 3D map of the owners face, perhaps that should have been introduced on the 2018 model of the iPhone Xs, or iPhone Xs Plus. No, that won't be the same of them - but you get the point. 

The gesture control on the iPhone X, too, feels somewhat sloppy. Apple have always waited until a product feels perfect and intuitive before unveiling it to the world. I was all for the removal of the headphone jack (and still am). 3D Touch on the iPhone displays from the 6s and later is amazing and yet to be mirrored on any phone. Portrait mode has only just now been implemented, albeit very well, on the Samsung Note 8 - but this was undeniably Apple's innovation and it was remarkable upon release, and has been a major draw for the iPhone 7 Plus since last September. 

Yet in the face of all this, the gesture's on the display of the iPhone X seem complicated and overly specific, when compared to the ease of use of the beloved Home button. Swiping up from the bottom to half way, and pausing, will enter multi-tasking, but only when the screen is already unlocked. Side note: I hate anything that involves a 'pause' - it always feels like it's too easy to be impatient. To unlock, you lift the phone up, wait for Face ID to unlock the phone, then you swipe up from the bottom to get to the home screen. Oh and to get out of an app and go to the home screen? swipe up from the bottom. There's a lot of commands from the swipe-up-from-the-bottom gesture, including distance and pausing specifics, that I think aren't necessarily as intuitive as Apple is stating. There's also multiple slide-down from the top functions, and whether your thumb is in the centre, to the left or to the right will impact what function that calls - and that feels slightly too concentration-heavy for a good user interface.

 iOS 11 Control Centre on iPhone X

iOS 11 Control Centre on iPhone X

And then we have the power button. This, to me, is the worst part. I hate the bixby button on the S8, S8 plus and the Note 8, and I don't know many people who have a great love of love for it. For Apple to go this route A) after Samsung have just done it and B) for using Siri - well, again, it feels rushed. Granted Apple did implement it into the already existing power button rather than creating a whole new button, but then that brings its own set of challenges as well. I am certain there will be no shortage of complaints of people wanting to power the phone down and instead accessing Siri accidentally, or vice versa. Not to mention accidental bumps in bags, or putting on cases, or one of millions of other scenarios where that button will lead to accidental Siri activation. This is a poor design decision and as someone who does use Siri (to type to, mostly, not talk) I am incredibly disappointed at the design choice of activation of Siri. On top of this, the Apple Pay function requires a distinct double tap of the same button. Really?

Add to this the removal of reachability (Apple's double-tap on home button method to get to the top half of the screen), yet the shift of control center to the absolute top right of the phone as a swipe down gesture, and it really all feels like it's a uniquely un-Apple, Apple device. It's the same kind of ill-thought out design flaw that made the engineers of the Pixel put the headphone jack up the top of the phone, yet designed the rest of the phone to complement the pixel going into your pocket top-first. It constantly feels like a give and take, but where the take is too much. They introduce a useful and customisable control centre with iOS 11, but make it difficult to get to with one hand. They introduce an awesome edge to edge display, yet couple it with annoying software removals to combat the reduction in ratios. They have a little Face ID 'sensor section' that impedes on the display, but then jam half the notification bar icons to the right of it, and remove the ability to have the battery percentage shown, which is a core necessity and one of the first features I enable whenever I get a new iPhone. 

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So that's my initial negative impression aspects of the new iPhone. I had to get it off my chest. But on the positive side, all the reviewers on the day who have YouTube video's up unanimously agree it looks gorgeous, and the keynote and pictures don't do the phone justice. Why the **** Apple chose the single most disgusting looking wallpaper, ever, to use as it's primary display image I will never know.

The new screen is awesome, albeit an OLED display that was and is supplied by Samsung. The brightness of the display of 625 nits is found wanting, given Samsung's Note 8 display has been recorded at over 1,200 nits (and also 1:1,000,000 contrast OLED ratio). But in my experience, Samsung's maximum brightness is actually a little too bright in most settings, and unless you're in direct sunlight trying to watch something that is dark on the screen, this is not going to be an issue. 

The Face ID could very well prove to be next level awesome, for all I know. It's a little too early to tell, and I am forever sceptical, but Apple have proved me wrong before - and we all tend to get used to new innovations quickly anyway. One of the features I'm most excited about is the fact that the screen is 5.8" large and yet is almost the same size as the tiny iPhone 7 (yes, the Samsung S8 did this first), and still has a dual-optically stabilised Telephoto lens and Wide-angle lens with better sensors than the iPhone 7 and, indeed, the iPhone 8 Plus.

One of the main features that is present on the latest iPhones' that is conspicuously absent on the Samsung S8 or Note 8 series is the awesome inclusion of 4k video at 60fps. This is massively beneficial, and is so rarely found even on professional cameras, much less a phone. Add to that 240fps at 1080p and you have a quasi-professional imagery powerhouse. That feature alone is well worth me getting this upgrade, as I personally shoot all my drone footage at 4k 60fps and having the ability to seamlessly mesh both version of footage together in a sequence without having to downscale frame rates is unbelievably convenient, and having the ability to slow-mo 4k is revolutionary for any smartphone. 

The other understated and often misunderstood feature that is unique to this phone is the ability to map a users face, in real time, constantly. This was demonstrated during the keynote with the use of Animoji's - a gimmicky little feature that allows you to take one of 9 characters that will fully animate, as a 3D model, to your particular facial features. It doesn't take a huge stretch of imagination to see what companies like Bitmoji or Snapchat can do (and have already done) with that kind of technology moving forward. 

Augmented Reality is unparalleled with this new a11 bionic chip too, having had a neural engine built in with an Apple-designed and built GPU for the first time ever. Again, the benefits and opportunities this represents is too vast to delve into here, but a quick google search of AR is enough to give people a quick understanding of what may be at stake here. Some of these features are, perhaps, as important and game-changing as that first iPhone 10 years ago. And certainly the camera, the 3D user face modelling and the Augmented Reality capabilities are worthy of the title 'Smartphone of the Future'. 

I just think the future needed to wait to be ready, maybe one more year.

- Tom