The iPhone X (yes, it’s pronounced “10”, not “ex”) was announced to much fanfare, and fans immediately began salivating over it. Critics argued that it was merely copying what was already out there–phones like the Galaxy S8, the LG G6, and others. And while those criticisms are somewhat valid, after using the iPhone X for a few days, it’s clear that they’re not exactly true. This really is a next-generation smart-phone, and in many ways has arrived ahead of time.

The iPhone X was supposed to be next-year’s model, the 2018 iPhone, not the 2nd new iPhone of 2017. But with the competitive landscape out there, Apple knew that it needed the iPhone X now, or face even worse (and vocal) feedback. So they worked hard, and maybe rushed, to make the iPhone X a reality this year, rather than next.

I stay very plugged in to Apple rumors, so nothing about the iPhone X was a surprise to me when it was announced. Not the screen, not the notch, not even the price. However, the rumor mill indicated this phone was going to be very hard to get one’s hands on.

I debated whether to get the iPhone 8 Plus, or wait for the X. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have been a terribly difficult decision: I would wait for the X. However, with us taking a trip to Ireland, and wanting to record lots of video, I was excited about being able to record in 4K at 60 frames-per-second with the new iPhones. Unfortunately, we would leave for our trip before the X came out, so after much consternation, I decided to get the iPhone 8 Plus in time for our trip. I didn’t think I would be able to get an iPhone X until a couple months into 2018 at the earliest (based on those rumors I talked about).

The debate about FaceID and all it’s will-it or won’t-it be any good also made me want to wait a little bit. But then the reviews started coming out. And then the phone was out in stores. And I wanted it.

Imagine my surprise when one day after the iPhone X was released, just for grins, I checked Apple’s website, and was able to order one and pick it up that very same day! I pulled the trigger immediately, sight-unseen. Ironically, I had planned to go into the store that day anyway, just to take a look at the new phone. The fact that I had one ready to be picked up amazed me. No previous iPhone launch seemed to have that kind of availability. I’m not sure what Apple did, but somehow, they managed a miracle.

So, now I have an iPhone X and have been using it for a few days. What do I think of it? Is it as good as Apple claims? Is FaceID any good? Is it fun to play with a talking Poop emoji? Let’s dive in and I’ll answer those questions, and hopefully many more.

Display

First off, let’s get this out of the way: this is NOT a bezel-less phone. I will give Apple the benefit of the doubt and say that it is–in fact–“all display”, but not without an asterisk there. There is a large notch at the top of the display, where the cameras and sensors needed for FaceID are housed. It’s pretty much a non-issue, and it almost immediately becomes something you don’t notice anymore.

There is also a thin bezel all the way around the phone that’s actually bigger than the bezels on the previous-generation iPhones, but because the display takes up nearly the entire front, it’s not really a big deal. Sure, it would have been nice if they curved off the edges the way Samsung’s do, but they’re fine the way they are.

The AMOLED display used in the iPhone X is gorgeous–it’s immediately clearer than previous iPhones, though it’s not as big of an improvement as Apple would want you to believe. Unless you’re looking for it, you may not notice a slight color-shift when you view the screen from other angles, but it’s not really problematic. Colors look good, the brightness is bright, and overall it’s sharper, but it’s not something you immediately say “wow” about. What DOES make a difference is how close the pixels are to the surface of the display. Every time I see this display, it really feels like I’m looking at a rendering of the phone, rather than an actual working screen. It’s really impressive overall.

Screen size is larger than an iPhone 8 Plus, but it definitely feels a tad smaller. That’s mainly due to the longer aspect ratio, and the way apps handle the display on this. However, it’s not really a problem. Yes, some apps haven’t adapted themselves to the new screen size yet (including my favorite news-reader) so those apps appear like they would on an iPhone 8 with a smaller screen, but it’s not the end of the world.

Overall, the display on this phone is really very nice. Certainly the best that has ever shipped on an iPhone, but not something that immediately screams improvement. If this display were in a traditional iPhone, like the 8 and 8 Plus, it probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

But because that display takes up (almost) the entire front of the phone, it IS a big deal.

Form Factor

iPhone X on left; iPhone 8 Plus on right.

Since the display encompasses the front of the phone, there are no longer chins and thick borders at the top and bottom of the iPhone. It’s a new approach, and one that immediately sets this phone apart from all previous iPhones. The home button is gone, replaced by swiping up from the bottom to return to the home screen. I’ll talk more about the gestures later in this review though.

This phone feels small in the hand, but big at the same time. The screen feels good; not too big, not too small. Comparing  the iPhone 8 Plus to this, it’s clear that the phone itself is smaller, but I don’t feel like I’ve lost out on display. It’s difficult to describe, but the regular-size iPhones feel small, and the Plus-sized iPhones just feel gargantuan, but the X feels just right. It’s kind of a Goldilocks size, really.

That just right feel extends to the on-screen keyboard as well. The Plus phones always gave me trouble when I would type to hit the space bar, and I would inevitably end up with a character there, rather than what I wanted. But that hasn’t happened on the X. The keyboard seems to be the perfect size, which makes typing on this thing enjoyable.

Of course, there’s also no headphone jack, since the removal of that piece of hardware with the launch of the iPhone 7-series last year. Though many people complain about it, I could care less–I’ve been using the AirPods since I got a pair, and I hate the idea of going back to wired headphones.

FaceID

So next, let’s talk about the most controversial, divisive aspect of the iPhone X: FaceID. This is the new authentication method that replaces the existing TouchID used on most other Apple devices. TouchID is fast, works really well, and provides some nice security features.

Let’s just get to the punch: FaceID not only works well, it’s truly the killer feature of the iPhone X. Let me explain.

If you’ve ever used an app that also uses TouchID, like online banking, or a password manager, or really just about anything that wants a password or PIN to enter the app, you may have used TouchID for that. Touching your finger to the phone wasn’t exactly a hassle, but it was one extra step to using that app. Now, with FaceID, those apps just launch. If you’re already staring at your phone (which you must be, since you just opened the app), you’re authenticated almost immediately; no finger necessary. It’s a small thing, but makes a huge difference.

As for speed, FaceID is speedy enough to work well. It’s faster than 1st-generation TouchID, but not as fast as the current generation of TouchID. It really kind of depends on how you use your phone, but I’ve never found it annoying or had to wait on FaceID to work.

It DOES have it’s drawbacks, however. For starters, it seems to have a pretty low threshold for failure. So for instance, if it fails to recognize me on the first attempt, it prompts me to enter my PIN. An example is if I have my hand over part of my face when I go to unlock the phone, and it fails that first FaceID scan, it doesn’t continue trying. I then have to enter my PIN. With TouchID, you could place your finger on the scanner multiple times to try authenticating before the phone would give up and ask for your PIN. Hopefully Apple tweaks this with software updates, and improves on FaceID’s responsiveness. Still, it’s a little bit annoying, but not a deal-breaker. If you have long PINs or intricate passwords for unlocking your phone though, this could get frustrating quickly.

Notifications also change by default for FaceID. Now, when you receive a notification, you only get a generic notice on the lock screen until FaceID recognizes you’re the one looking at the phone. Once it does, not only does it unlock the phone, but it also changes those notifications to show the details. So your text messages, emails, and content is secure, so long as you’re not looking at the phone. I ended up changing this setting, and reverting back to showing all, regardless if the phone was locked or not, mainly, so that if the phone is on my desk, or not directly in front of me, I can still see the content of those notifications. Having to bring the phone close enough to my face each time to let FaceID see me was kind of a hassle. My guess is that a lot of people will do the same, which is unfortunate.

Overall though, FaceID works surprisingly well, and those same rumor mills I alluded to earlier indicate that Apple actually lowered the FaceID requirements to ship phones out on time. Hopefully that means that later software updates and the next hardware revision of FaceID will make the feature faster, and better.

Animoji

This is perhaps the most amusing, fun, and obvious feature to show what the iPhone X is capable of. While their usefulness is debatable, there’s no doubt that some of these little avatars are fun to play with. Whether their novelty will wear off is hard to determine, but everyone that’s seen them have found them pretty impressive, and cute.

Gestures

Without a home button, there are a few new gestures to learn. The primary one is swiping up to go home, which takes about 10 seconds to get used to. I’d already started using this a bit with the iPad, since you can swipe up for the dock, so the learning curve here was small.

Another new gesture is the ability to switch apps by swiping on the ‘home bar’. This is a quick and easy way to switch back and forth between apps, and is immediately useful. This is the type of gesture that Apple has needed for some time.

One gesture that I’m still trying to get used to is multi-tasking. Before, a double-press of the home button would bring up the multi-tasking view. This would allow you to switch between running apps, and also to ‘kill’ an app. Now, you must swipe up and hold, and after a slight delay, the multi-tasking view comes on-screen. Once in this view, you can swipe between and select apps, as you would have on previous iPhones. Where it differs though, is that you must now press and hold to bring up the ‘kill’ mode, which puts little minus signs at the top of the apps. You can then either swipe the app away, as before, or tap the little minus sign to kill the app. This allows for very quickly closing of lots of apps, once you’re in the right mode, but it’s also annoying. Having to do this to kill an app is counter-intuitive. Apple could easily have just included a ‘kill all’ option, or left it the way it was. This is probably the most annoying gesture so far.

I’ve also seen multiple ways of conjuring up the multi-tasking mode. A swipe up and right, like an inverted “L” seems to work, but often results in me just switching to another app, rather than bringing up the mode consistently. Again, hopefully Apple will tweak some of these gestures with further software updates, to improve upon what could otherwise be a great new user experience.

There are a couple of other gestures that take a little getting used to: to get to the Control Center, you must swipe down from the upper-right of the screen. Notifications come by swiping from the top and upper-left. Lastly, Reachability, the mode that brings the entire screen down so you can easily reach the upper-corners single-handed, is accomplished by a small swipe down at the bottom of the screen. All of these take some getting used to, and the Control Center by far is the hardest one to adjust to. Still, none of these are overtly difficult to get used to, and the fact that something is actually different help to subconsciously reinforce that this is, in fact, a new type of iPhone.

 

Build Quality

Every iPhone improves in some way on the previous iterations. The off-year “S” models tend to keep roughly the same design, and introduce some new features, but the body remains the same. The iPhone X begins an entirely new series of phones, and the build quality improves upon the previous versions in nearly every way.

Aluminum is nowhere to be found on the iPhone X. Instead, there’s a glass-back, which allows for wireless charging (which is fantastic, by the way). The borders are a stainless steel that so far are holding up against scratches very nicely, and add a nice, shiny touch to the phone. It harkens back to the chrome borders on the iPhone 3G and 3GS.

The fit-and-finish of this phone is second to none, and it has some hard-to-describe quality about it. The phone almost feels ‘silky’ in the hand.

Unfortunately, that glass back is also very expensive to replace, if it gets broken. But that’s the price we pay for the wireless charging technology; you can’t send wireless power through metal backs. That means most people will put a case on the phone, and lose out on some of the special feel of the ‘naked’ iPhone X, but that’s been happening with iPhones for a very long time.

Gripes

With every iPhone, there are gripes about what it does and doesn’t do, and the X is no exception. In fact, it may have slightly more than previous models of the iPhone. But those gripes are almost entirely software-based.

FaceID timeouts could be a little bit better, but hopefully those will improve with software. Killing an app is annoying and requires too many tap-and-holds. Slide to Home doesn’t always do exactly what you expect, which can be a little jarring. Again, it’s not a deal-breaker, just something to get used to.

Summary

The iPhone X is most definitely the next-generation iPhone. With the introduction of FaceID, Apple has leapfrogged its competition in actually secure, facial-based authentication. The ‘all-display’ design shows that an iPhone in 2017 can provide a large display in body that’s not overly large. And iOS 11 does a decent job of ushering in this new paradigm of gesture-based navigation. It would have been nice to see some type of visual refresh for iOS 11, but perhaps that’s what next year’s iOS 12 will do. After all, we’ve had essentially the same design for the past 5 years now, which means we’re about due for an overhaul.

But really, the iPhone X is an introduction to what the iPhone will be like going forward. It’s difficult to describe exactly what makes this phone so special. There is some Apple ‘magic-ness’ going on that the company is excellent at pulling off. I can’t describe why I love my iPhone so much, just that I do. That’s perhaps the best compliment that Apple could wish for.