About an hour after taking my iPhone X out of its box, I’m bouncing up and down as high as I can on a trampoline, trying to see how FaceID works under, let’s say, less than ideal circumstances. I’m eight feet in the air, sweating and grimacing, only half-paying attention to the phone as I try not to break my legs on impact. I grab the phone, hold it up to my face, and try to focus.
The first time, FaceID works great. It unlocks virtually instantly, as soon as I fix my eyes upon the TrueDepth camera in the notch around the iPhone X’s screen. The second time, same deal. The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh, nothing happens at all. When FaceID fails, it usually vibrates impatiently in your hand to tell you to try something else. But this time, nothing. So there I am in mid-air trying to thumb my passcode so I can take a selfie.
OK, so this isn’t the most representative test. And so far, in the one day I’ve been using the phone, FaceID works far more often than not. But it definitely fails sometimes, and it’s not always obvious why. Even setting it up came with a few false starts. When it works, the process only takes about 30 seconds, and all you have to do is move your head in a circle like you’re stretching your neck before a good yoga session. But one time, the phone kept telling me to move it lower, even when my head was already in the frame on the screen; I’d go a bit lower, and it would say, no, higher! I restarted the whole process, and it worked perfectly.
Trampolines offered a perfect way to stress-test a lot of the iPhone X’s most notable features, nearly all of which involve the camera. I took selfies and portraits while jumping, then filmed a far more talented trampolinist in slow-motion and in 4K. I also shot stills all over the place. I came away unsurprised but impressed. All three of the iPhone’s cameras (two in the back, one in the front) capture excellent, crisp footage. The rear cameras both offer optical image stabilization, and I noticed the steadiness in my shots. Of course, some things still move too fast for a smartphone camera, but the iPhone X, which arrives in stores this Friday, seems to hold up with the best of its kind.
Notes on a Handheld
I’ve only had the phone a day, so I can’t say much about things like battery life, durability, or whether I’ll grow to hate the notch. (I’ve already gone back and forth on the notch 20 times.) In no particular order, here are some notes from my first day with the iPhone X:
It’s going to take a while to get used to all the new gestures. Swiping up from the bottom to go home feels so much less natural than just mashing a button. I haven’t figured out how far to swipe, and then how far to hold, to bring up the multitasking. I keep looking for Control Center at the bottom of the screen, not at its new home in the top right corner. Everything’s just slightly different now, and it’s breaking my brain.
The most annoying gesture by far comes right after you unlock the phone, when you have to still swipe up from the bottom to get to the homescreen. It makes turning on your phone a three-step process, when with TouchID all you had to do was stick your finger on the reader.
I love that Apple added a flashlight shortcut to the lockscreen. It’s small, but it’s one of those things I use all the time that’s now subtly easier.
FaceID works when I’m wearing headphones and through one pair of sunglasses I tried, but doesn’t work with my Ray-ban Wayfarers. And to get it to work at all, you really have to try to make it work: my phone’s about an arm’s length away on my desk, and I have to lean in and stare every time I want to turn it on.
One neat Face ID thing: when you first pick up your phone, it hides the content of your notifications until it’s verified you’re the one looking. Once it senses your face, it expands to show you the full text inside the notification.
This feels like the Goldilocks iPhone size. It’s not quite as comfy to type on as the 8 Plus, since it’s a narrower device, but this 5.8-inch screen is both big enough to feel immersive and small enough to handle comfortably.
I like the OLED screen a lot. It doesn’t have the discoloration problems plaguing some Google Pixel displays, though Apple did acknowledge the possibility of screen burn-in over time. For now, it looks terrific.
Apps that haven’t been optimized for the new design look like crap. Big black space on top and bottom, kind of like when you used to try to run iPhone apps on an iPad. Lots of apps shove their navigation icons to the very bottom of the screen, which can cause them to overlap with the swipe-y-bar-home-button-thing. I suspect developers will update soon, but until they do, prepare for pain.
Most of what’s great about the iPhone 8 holds here too. I was worried that all this new tech would bring messy bugs and complications, but for the most part, everything runs as smoothly and speedily as ever. You notice the A11 Bionic processor particularly in games, which are just so much smoother than on any Android device.
Animoji are hilarious and fun, but I do wonder how long I’ll use them. I think maybe forever?
So far, the iPhone X is about what I expected. Which is to say, it’s an iPhone. It has a terrific camera, a lovely design, and a beautiful screen. FaceID seems better than I expected, honestly, but still far from perfect. (I recommend choosing an easy-to-type passcode, because you’ll need it a lot.) So far, other than the looks, there isn’t much in the way of wildly compelling reasons to upgrade over the iPhone 8, or even the 7. But I can feel the potential here. In the front-facing camera, which clearly has power to spare and lots to offer developers. In the augmented reality apps, which don’t really exist yet. Someday, this won’t be a smartphone with a great camera. It’ll be a camera with a keyboard, just in case you have to type things like our ancestors did. The camera is the future, and there’s a lot of camera in the iPhone X.
I’ll have much more to say about the iPhone X in a couple of days, so stay tuned. In the meantime, check out Steven Levy’s first impressions.