Now that iPhone X is in our hands, how does Apple’s engineering match up to its marketing? Can it really justify a £1K starting price tag? Read on to find out!
The original iPhone remade the world by making the Internet pocketable and above all accessible. Its design partnered a then huge 3.5-inch multi-touch screen with a single iconic home button.
iPhone X ditches the home button in favour of an all-screen design marked with a distinctive sensor notch. The physical button gives way to sensors that look for you and enable X to react to your attention.
If the first ten years transformed the world within the bounds of the mobile screens we all walk around staring into, the next ten years will be about smartphones getting smarter and more responsive to us.
Face ID in operation
It’s faster and simpler to set-up than Touch ID is for a single finger print. Simply move your face within the target circle twice and that’s it. Touching the screen anywhere brings it to life and, by default, attention awareness is on which means seeing your face isn’t enough, it also needs to detect you looking at it.
Typically, you pick up the phone swiping upwards to open it with the expectation Face ID will do its thing without you even being aware of it.
The infra-red cameras means this works at night as well as day. I set it up while wearing my glasses, but it didn’t matter when I removed them or if was brushing my teeth. It’s like not having any security at all, mostly.
If the iPhone is flat on a table, then the acute angle can defeat it. So you either lift it up or tap in your passcode.
Since the experience of using X begins with the upward swipe, you soon get into the habit of picking it up or leaning closer.
Occasionally it’ll ask for a passcode if uncertain, but the overall experience is so new and magical it’s easy to forgive occasional foibles.
It’s cool to see your notifications expand simply because the X recognises you looking at them. Visit a website that requires your password and there’s no need press your finger onto TouchID. iPhone X knows it’s you, calls up your password and enters it with a slick little FaceID glyph animation. Put on your Apple Watch and it unlocks from your glance into FaceID.
It’s unclear whether Animoji actually require the full FaceID sensor suite, but the way in which various cartoon characters mirror your facial expressions with zero lag is both entertaining and fascinating.
How long before an iPhone is scanning your face and reading your emotions? We so easily anthropomorphise online chat bots, what if they could soon respond to your smile or frown?
Prior to iPhone X’s launch, skepticism abounded about its speed and accuracy. A few weeks later, rumours abound of all next year’s iPhone’s being all-screen designs with sensor notch. The 2018 iPads will also have notches, even some future iteration of the delayed HomePod speaker system. Perhaps.
TouchID was the gold standard for biometric authentication, but that’s all it ever was going to be, whereas FaceID is potentially much more.
AI & A11
The near instantaneous reading of your 3D face is dependent not just on multiple sensors, but also Apple’s fifth generation SOC - the A11 Bionic processor. Design work began over three years ago and included the neural engine that FaceID relies upon.
Neural networks or Deep Learning software excels at tasks such as visual recognition, speech recognition and speech synthesis. It’s at the heart of FaceID, but is also well suited to Siri and AR applications. Neural network code isn’t written by humans, but is instead machine driven based on programmed constraints or weighting's intended to drive the code to the desired goal.
Deep Learning code first appeared in iOS 10 for face detection in the Photos app and to match what Google was doing with cloud-based services demanded cutting edge on-device processing. Face ID for the first time shows Apple moving ahead of Google in this area.
Other than the all-new Neural Engine, the A11 builds upon the A10 Fusion by adding two more cores, for a total of six with support for asymmetric processing. The A11’s two high performance cores, four high efficiency cores, can be called on whatever permutations suit the application at hand.
On some benchmarks, the A11 can now outperform a 13-inch MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i5-7267U. Benchmarks are not real life, but iPhone X feels blazingly fast. Swiping through a deck of typical apps can take you from watching HDR video in Netflix to advanced image editing in Pixelmator to editing 4K video in H.265 using Lumia Fusion.
Year after year, Apple has set new benchmarks for class-leading LCD screens. But for its first all-screen design it had to switch to OLED. The supplier is Samsung, the world-leader in this market, but the specific implementation is Apple’s and has won acclaim from DisplayMate’s rigorous analysis to be the best in the business.
The iPhone X has the largest screen of any iPhone to date, 5.85-inches diagonally. This 2436x1125 Super Retina screen has a 458 dpi - this is less than phones with 4K display, but at normal viewing distances the X is sharper than a person with 20/20 vision can detect.
iOS has automatic colour management and each iPhone is individually calibrated at the factory. The X has the most accurate display ever measured by Displaymate and supports Mobile HDR. Which is has real world benefits with Netflix and iTunes is moving aggressively to offer HDR movies. (YouTube, for now, uses its own system.)
The best display ever in an all-screen design, what’s not to love?
Firstly, if you’re used to the Plus-size screen the X is in many scenarios a step down. While the screen has the largest surface area, it achieves this by stretching to cover what would be the bezel area on a standard iPhone. The 19.5:9 aspect ratio provides a lot of vertical space, but the width is about the same as an 8. Many websites flow text edge-to-edge, but Apple’s own iBooks app maintains distinct margins which mean less words per line. It’s a trade-up from an 8, at best a cross-grade from an 8 Plus.
Secondly, there’s a certain irony in all this vast engineering for world-class accuracy and then promoting True Tone as part of the set-up. It’s hard to be too cynical here, since True Tone is optional and the way it dynamically adjusts screen brightness and hue to suit ambient lighting conditions makes for a much more pleasant and less harsh viewing experience.
Thirdly, OLEDs are still OLEDs. Tilt the iPhone off-angle and you’ll see a subtle blue shift. You might not notice it if you weren’t looking for it, but it’s there. There’s also the question of burn-in. On the day of iPhone X’s shipping, Apple published a technical note explaining how it used the best technologies to limit the risk of burn-in, but it’s there as a potential risk. Google’s Pixel 2 had issues within days. We hope Apple does better, but it’s too early to say.
So there are some things to be aware of, even if this is overall a stunning achievement for Apple. One way to see the benefit of OLED is to select the true black wallpaper - the blackness of the display and (slim) bezels is indistinguishable. With OLED, a black pixel is powered down and it seems inevitable that iOS 12 might finally provide a system wide black mode setting to extend battery life.
Finally, there’s the divisive notch. I soon found myself embracing the notch. The simplest way to see if an app is optimised for the X is when it reaches up to embrace the notch. An unoptimised app sits in the middle of the screen with soft black borders to mimic the old physical bezels. In this way seeing the notch is usually a good thing. Video playback might be an obvious exception, but the stretched aspect ratio is way beyond any standard aspect ratio. It only comes into view if you choose to zoom in, which is distorting the picture itself. So far, even in this scenario, I haven’t found the notch annoying. In fact, if you’ve spent such an insane amount on a phone, all signifiers that you’re not just using a standard iPhone are welcomed…
Removing the home button is no small thing. Microsoft’s travails with Windows perfectly illustrate the dangers in even the smallest UI iterations.
Apple have aced it though.
iPhone X can’t compare with the sophistication of interaction on iOS 11 for iPad. But what it can and does offer is the smoothest and most refined iOS experience to date. Swipe up opens the iPhone and takes you back to home wherever you are. Pause on the upward swipe to enter multi-tasking with a horizontal stack of app cards. To close an app, a gentle touch brings up red ‘close’ icons and swipe up to dismiss any app.
There’s a subtle line at the bottom of the screen which indicates where to swipe upward to dismiss an app, while also enabling you to directly swipe left to scroll through open apps. The speed and fluidity of these interactions reflect the power of the A11 chip. And while the screen refresh is just 60Hz, unlike the new IPad Pro’s 120Hz ProMotion, user input is sampled at 120Hz.
Some gestures, such as the upward swipe and pause for multi-tasking take a little time to click, but when they do the feel of iOS is enhanced with these subtle, quick gestures that are easier than stretching down for the home button all the time.
There are some drawbacks.
Control centre has moved to be a downward swipe from the far right corner. Given the verticality of the X’s display, this is a stretch. Two popular control centre features, camera and torch, are on the lock screen and activated with Force Touch. Another ameliorating factor is that reachability ability is still there, activate it and a small downward swipe brings the top of the screen into reach.
So losing the home button opens the door to a smoother interface for the most part. One example of this is that when viewing a video in portrait mode, invoking multi-tasking is a simple upward gesture from the middle of the screen - no need to reach for the fixed home button.
iOS has always had a soft, physicality to it - the bounce-back on reaching the end of a list being one litigated example - and on X it feels at its most fluid and complete. The haptic cues introduced with the solid state TouchID are retained, but feel softened so as to serve an enjoyable, flowing experience. Your actions may be no more interesting than scrolling a list, clicking an item - but everything feels tactile and pleasing. This matters with a Face ID anchored UI that prefers you to look and hold this device.
The back of the iPhone has a similar dual camera system to the Plus model, but the layout is stacked vertically rather than horizontally.
One indicator of the importance Apple give to the cameras on X is their housing within the biggest camera bump we’ve seen to date, something which the design accentuates rather than tries to hide. As Apple has talked about individually calibrating the cameras for AR at the factory, the housing may provide useful protection. The X won’t lie flat without a case and will rock slightly if on a table if you’re using it like this.
The 8 and X share the same 12Mp main camera, a wide-angle f/1.8 lens with optical image stabilisation (OIS). However the X’s telephoto lens is superior with a f2.4 brighter aperture, which is about half a stop more light. This benefit is further enhanced with the addition of OIS to the X’s telephoto lens. It really helps with low light performance, making the telephoto significantly more usable.
In low-light situations, there’s quad LED true-tone flash with a new slow sync mode that provides more natural results.
The front facing camera is a 7Mb camera with f/2.2 lens.
Both rear and front facing cameras support the portrait mode introduced in beta last year. The idea is to blur the background to simulate DSLR bokeh. It was initially quite slow to work and needed careful positioning with lots of light. Over time, it got better.
This year’s beta feature is Portrait Lighting which simulates visiting a photographer’s studio with professional lighting for a variety of effects such as contour lighting and dramatic stage lighting which plunges the background into darkness. Let’s hope this improves as quickly as last year’s beta. At its worst, stage lighting can look like a trainee’s first encounter with PhotoShop. People with long hair and a bright background aren’t going to get good results. To get the best out of it, you need to figure out its limitations and adapt. Fortunately, the effects can be switched between after a shot rather than being baked in when the photo is shot.
The disappointment of Portrait Lighting is compensated for by video performance. Incredibly, we now have smartphones capable of shooting 4K video at up 60fps or 1080p at up to 240fps. Video benefits from both OIS and digital processing from Apple’s new ISP chip.
In good lighting conditions, the results of shooting with X can be quite stunning. It’s not going to match a professional camera or DSLR, but the gap is closer than you expect as many YouTube videos shot in brightly lit conditions reveal.
Updated in November Clips 2.0 makes use of the X’s True Depth camera to place people within ‘selfie scenes’ including as holograms on a Star Destroyer or Millennium Falcon
Wireless Charging & Fast Charging
Qi is almost as old as the iPhone itself being introduced in 2008. At home, Qi is a mild convenience that comes with the not insignificant downside of robust aluminium backs being swapped out for glass prone to shattering. The hope is for a rapid expansion of cheap Qi chargers appearing in airport lounges, restaurants etc.
The first Qi chargers in the Apple Store are flat drinks coaster designs that emphasise the convenience of simply putting the iPhone down without fiddling with cabling. They don’t do Face ID any favours however, so it’s as well Amazon and Alibaba have more upright designs that work much better with the X.
For Samsung phones, a further benefit of Qi can be high-speed charging but this is much more conservatively implemented on the iPhone. Using a Qi wireless charger with a standard 5W power brick is about the same as wired charging or slower. iOS 11.2 will provide support for 7.5W ‘fast-charging’, which is half the 15W maximum Qi can support and offers only a modest speed increase.
Possibly Apple’s AirPower mat for multi-device charging in 2018 will change things, but for now true fast-charging for X requires a cable. Specifically a pricey USB-C to Lightning cable together with a USB-C PD (Power Delivery) charger such as the 29W one included with Apple’s 12-inch MacBook or a third-party one such as Anker’s PowerPort range. This set-up can take an X or 8 Series iPhone to around 50% charge in 30 minutes, compared to just 20% using the standard 5W charger.
AR / VR & T288
After an impressive demonstration of AR / VR development tools at WWDC, speculation immediately grew about the degree to which the then still mythological 2017 iPhone might redefine the AR/VR market.
The lightning speed of Face ID and Animoji demonstrate the potential of X, but for now the App Store’s AR offerings are limited. Apps such as those by IKEA and Carrot’s weather app work off the rear-facing cameras and take time to set-up while plane detection is better for horizontal than vertical surfaces. Bloomberg have reported that Apple are looking at rear-facing 3D sensors, potentially based on lasers rather than the infra-red used in FaceID, which could address this issue in 2019 iPhones.
Apple assembly partner Quanta is on the record suggesting an AR headset will be on the market by 2019, while other rumours point to an Apple team codenamed T288 targeting 2020 for a mass market Apple AR headset running rOS or reality OS.
Just as with the first generation Apple Watch, the need to keep an AR headset as lightweight as possible will likely offload as much processing as possible to the iPhone.
While 2020 might seem a long way away, it’s worth noting the gap between Microsoft’s first tablet shipping and iPad was eight years. Google Glass shipped in 2013...
For VR, it’s worth noting that while OLEDs offer many advantages over LCD for typical smartphone usage, for VR they’re almost essential due to the fast switching necessary to avoid nausea inducing lag. An Apple version of the Samsung Gear VR headset could appear before the AR headset. If not, there’s already plenty of third-party options all the way from Google Cardboard to the Carl Zeiss One Plus VR.
If the original iPhone was a Model T that offered unbounded potential with limited real world performance, the iPhone X is a hyper car refined to the nth degree to provide best in class performance. Alongside the iPhone 8, it’s unquestionably the most powerful smartphone to date with the addition of class-leading display and superb design from UI through to its steel-and-class chassis.
The potential of its sensors and neural processor is fascinating, but may not be realised until next year’s models appear with hopefully less of a premium price tag. For most people, right now, the enhancements over an iPhone 8, or even 7, are limited. iPhone X has been called the best product ever made by Apple, which it may well be, but it’s not the most essential. Not yet.