The iPhone X feels like a concept car, or a secret project. That’s because of the X name, probably, and the legacy of 10 years of iPhones. It’s also the fact that this is an optional step-up model — like an 8 Plus Plus, but smaller. It’s a bold new design, different after three years of each iPhone looking very much the same.
I love new technology and the wild ideas that come with it. I love to be immersed in new concepts. But I’m also practical when it comes to tools. Will I use a fully rethought phone? Will it work for me when I need it to? My phone is my mission critical everything. It’s my Indiana Jones hat. Will Face ID work as well as the trusty Touch ID home button? Will I feel safe?
Ultimately the all important question is simple: Is this the must-have upgrade? Should my mom get it? Should my sister? My brother-in-law? My best friend? You?
I’ve spent 18 hours with the device to begin to answer this question. Consider this a living review that we’ll be updating throughout the week — and beyond — as we test, retest and experience the iPhone X.
Face ID works pretty well…
You’ve been able to unlock an iPhone with Touch ID using your fingerprint since 2013. The original iPhone shipped with a home button a decade ago. Apple’s making a big leap by getting rid of both in one fell swoop and replacing them with Face ID. Your face — or a passcode — is the only way to unlock the iPhone X.
Face ID worked well in early tests. Setup is quick: Two circular head twists and the iPhone adds your face to its secure internal database.
Unlocking isn’t automatic. Instead, the phone “readies for unlock” when it recognizes my face. So I look at the iPhone, and then a lock icon at the top unlocks. But the iPhone still needs my finger-swipe to finish the unlock. It’s fast, but that extra step means it’s not instantaneous. Face ID did recognize me most of the time but sometimes, every once in a while, it didn’t.
I tried the phone with at least five of my coworkers. None of their faces unlocked it — although none of them look remotely like me. I also attempted to unlock it with a big color photo of my face on a 24-inch monitor, but that didn’t register as a face to the iPhone X either. The TrueDepth camera recognizes face contours to identify you.
Face ID worked perfectly in almost completely dark room, too, lit only by the iPhone’s screen. (It uses infrared). We’ll still need to do a lot more testing to see what Face ID’s limits are. By default, it requires “attention” at the display, but that requirement for direct attention can be turned off for those who need it, or those who prefer to speed up the process.
… but it’s not perfect
By design, the iPhone X doesn’t unlock with just a glance. Once you’ve identified yourself with your face, you need to swipe up with your finger to get to your apps. Not only does the swipe remove the immediacy of Face ID, it means you need your hand to do anything. Quick access to the phone wasn’t quite as quick as I expected.
I pushed my face testing hard. I got a haircut, shaved my beard into several shapes, then off completely. I tried on sunglasses and other frames. I wore hats and scarves. Then I went to more absurd levels, including some that wouldn’t happen in most real-world scenarios, trying on wigs, fake mustaches and steampunk goggles.
The preliminary results are in my video. This is by no means a final test, but the bottom line is that most of the “real world” tests worked and showed me that Face ID is more resilient than I expected. Face ID didn’t mind my sunglasses. Scarves presented some challenges, but that makes sense if they’re pulled up over your mouth since they’re hiding essential aspects of your face. All the tests worked far better than Samsung’s face unlock feature on the Note 8 — though Samsung kept its fingerprint reader on, as an easy backup.
The iPhone X occasionally asked me to re-enter the passcode after a failed Face ID attempt, then locked out further Face ID efforts until I entered the passcode again. If you’ve used Touch ID, this will remind you of trying to use an iPhone with wet fingers.
The big OLED screen is a welcome addition
The 5.8-inch screen is the biggest on an iPhone to date, and the first Apple handset to use OLED (organic light-emitting display) technology versus the LED/LCD in all previous iPhones. In addition to better energy efficiency, OLED screens offer much better contrast and true, inky blacks — not the grayish blacks of LCD screens.
At first use, the bigger screen feels great. I’ve wanted more screen real estate on the iPhone, and the X comes closest to all-screen. Picture quality improvement isn’t immediately noticeable over previous iPhones, but that’s a testament to how good Apple’s previous TrueTone displays are. The larger screen gives the iPhone a more current and immersive feel.
I’ll need more time to compare the screen to other iPhones — and to other OLED phones, such as Samsung Galaxy models.
But the X’s screen feels different from an iPhone Plus
That said, I grappled with a few X display quirks. Sure, there’s a notch cut out of the top of the screen where the front-facing camera array sits. But this isn’t just the Plus display crammed into the body of a 4.7-inch iPhone. The X’s display is taller than recent iPhones — or, when you put it in landscape mode, narrower. For some videos, that means they get letterboxed (black bars at the top and bottom) or pillarboxed (black bars on the left and right) to fit properly and the effective display area ends up a bit smaller than on the 8 Plus.
The rounded edges of the display mean that even if you expand a picture to fill the screen, parts of the image or movie end up cut off.
The notch didn’t bother me — much
Hear me out. The notch and the two extra bits on either side end up feeling like bonus space: most apps don’t use that area, and it ends up relegated to carrier, Wi-Fi and battery notifications, which saves that info from cluttering the display below.
But your favorite apps might not make the most of that screen
Many current apps aren’t yet optimized for the iPhone X. These outdated apps end up filling the same space as on an iPhone 8, leaving a lot of unused area. That’ll certainly get fixed for some apps over time, but it’s a reminder that the extra screen room here might not end up meeting your needs, until or unless the apps are optimized.
Living without the home button takes some adjustment
A number of new gestures take the place of the old home button. I kept reaching for the phantom button over the first few hours, feeling like I’d lost a thumb.
Unlike phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, which adds a virtual home button to create a “press for home” experience, the X remaps familiar gestures completely.
- Swiping down from the corner now gives you Control Center, instead of swiping up.
- Swiping up is the new “home button.”
- Swiping up and holding brings up all open apps.
- And another new trick: swiping left or right on the opaque bar below all apps, flips between apps for quick multitasking.
Meanwhile, there’s a new, large side button that brings up Siri and Apple Pay. I instinctively pressed and held it to shut down my phone, then I realized that is not what that button does. (To turn off the phone, you now hold that same side button *and* the lower volume button at the same time, which feels far from intuitive.)
Those gestures added up to some difficult maneuvers as I walked Manhattan streets in the Flatiron between my office and a local barber shop. At the end of the first day, I admit: sometimes I missed the simple home button.
You’ll need to adjust your Apple Pay routine
Double-clicking the side button brings up Apple Pay, but an additional face-glance is needed to authorize a payment. I tried it on our vending machine at the office and sometimes it worked great. Sometimes Face ID didn’t seem to recognize me. Maybe my timing was off.
I’m definitely going to need to check this out at more places in the days ahead. The bottom line: you don’t want to be the guy holding up the line at the drugstore because your double-click-to-Face-ID-to-NFC-reader flow was off.
The rear cameras are similar, not identical, to an iPhone 8 Plus
Like the iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone X has a dual rear camera with both wide-angle and telephoto lenses. But X has two changes: A larger aperture (f/2.4 vs. f/2.8) on the telephoto lens, and optical image stabilization on both lenses (rather than just one on the 8 Plus), which should make for better-lit, less blurry zoomed-in shots at night or in lower lighting.
My colleague, CNET senior photographer James Martin, has done a, experimenting with portraits and shots around San Francisco.
The front camera is great with Portrait Mode…
In addition to handling Face ID duties, the TrueDepth front camera brings most of the magic of Apple’s rear cameras to the selfie world.
Portrait Mode, where the subject is in the foreground in focus with a blurred background, and Portrait Lighting, which applies various lighting effects to a photo after the fact, both now work on your selfies. Vanity, thy name is Portrait Mode.
…but not great with Portrait Lighting and my face
Portrait Lighting is officially in beta on both the iPhone’s rear and front cameras, and my experiences with it confirmed Apple isn’t finished perfecting the software that makes it work. My face ended up looking oddly cut-out and poorly lit. Unlike the rear cameras, which seemed to produce hit-or-miss Portrait Lighting shots, I haven’t had luck with my own selfies.
Get ready to be bombarded with Animojis, and other TrueDepth AR and face-mapping apps
Animojsi are exactly what they sound like: animated emojis. They’re cute. They’re also Apple’s showcase for the fancy TrueDepth camera, which maps your facial expressions onto monkeys, aliens, foxes and even a pile of poop. (If nothing else, the 10-second clips made my kids laugh when I sent them a few.)
Third-party apps also use the TrueDepth camera for real-time 3D effects. Snapchat created new face filters I got to play with, and some did an amazing job staying on my face. I’m curious to see how future apps use this tech for even more advanced face-aware AR.
Apple’s Instagram-like video app Clips has an update coming that also uses the camera to green-screen my face into different scenes, like an 8-bit gaming experience or a Star Wars filter where it looks like my face is a blue-tinged hologram. Again, it’s fun. For many people, the filters Snapchat already provides are probably enough.
Apple nailed the size and feel: Did it nail the entire experience?
I think the X is in the sweet spot that the older iPhone sizes could never perfectly be. It’s a good-feeling phone with a nice, large screen. The shift to Face ID and the removal of the home button feel like changes that some might be fine with, and others will find unnecessary. I’m still learning the X’s design language.
We’re just getting started!
Want to know more? So do we. This is the beginning of our iPhone X journey, not the final word. We’ve got plenty more on deck, including battery tests, benchmarks and in-depth comparisons to rival phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Google PIxel 2 XL.
We’ll continue to update our experiences throughout the week as we count down to the iPhone X global launch on Friday, Nov. 3.
For now, our CNET review of the iPhone X will be ongoing with a lot more tests. Stay tuned!