This is what the future feels like, the iPhone X is finally here. Apple may have been accused of coasting by some in recent years. However, in what turned out to be a major event, even by Apple's standards, its latest keynote showed that the company is surging forward, with many of the innovations potentially game changing.
iPhone X unlocks with a glance. Look away or have your eyes closed and it locks. Open your eyes, even in pitch dark, and it unlocks. Emoji are now Animoji which animate to reflect your expression. Why not send a voice message with a unicorn’s 3D animated face? Or have an Eyes Wide Shut-style Snapchat mask seamlessly animated across your face in a spookily realistic video selfie.
Tim Cook introduced iPhone X as setting out a vision for the next ten years just as the original iPhone did back in 2007. A new premium model above this year’s 8 and 8 Plus.
Technically speaking, that’s a hard sell from what we know so far. iPhone X is basically the latest iteration of the iPhone line - with the exact same six-core A11 chip as in the iPhone 8 - wrapped in a stylish new chassis with some advanced front facing sensors and a slightly more advanced camera system (most notably with optical image stabilisation on both rear cameras.)
Its defining feature today is the edge-to-edge HDR OLED screen. A 5.8-inch screen that’s bigger than the iPhone 8’s 5.5-inch screen in a form factor only marginally taller, wider and deeper than a standard iPhone 8.
Just as with the Galaxy 8’s Infinity Display, it’s a stunning design element and Apple went through an unexpectedly prosaic demo of how cool the Internet and photos, videos etc. looked on a near edge-less display. In terms of specs, the screen has a resolution of 2,436x1,125 with 458ppi (Super Retina HD) compared 1,334x750 (326ppi) and 1,920x1080 (401ppi) for 8 and 8 Plus. Galaxy is higher still with 2960 x1440 at 571 ppi, but as Sony argued with VENICE - pixels are no longer the key metric. The HDR implementation on iPhone X is stunning and it’ll be interesting to see comparative lab reports.
Another point of comparison with Samsung is that while the Galaxy uses black bezels to minimise the visual impact, the iPhone X’s polished metal consciously evokes the chrome edges of the original iPhone. (iOS 11 itself provides another callback with new high res Planet Earth wallpapers reminiscent of the first iPhone.) After years of rather same-y undistinguished iPhones, X is distinctly different from other iPhones and the competition.
While Samsung were first with the Infinity Display approach, they failed to integrate fingerprint sensing into the touchscreen and made do with an awkwardly placed sensor on the back, plus unimpressive face detection that was quickly spoofed with a photograph.
Facial recognition has been tried before. Has Apple finally nailed it?
Face ID and revised interface
Apple have been bolder in removing the TouchID sensor entirely and instead rely upon Face ID. This facial recognition system uses a sophisticated cluster of sensors at the top of iPhone which includes an IR camera.
A thousand people or so worked on the system world-wide, ensuring it should cope whether you put on glasses, change your hairstyle or grow a beard. The system tracks 30,000 3D data points on your face and while Touch ID has a 1 in 50,000 chance of a false match, Face ID is 1 in a million. And if you’ve got an Evil Twin… rely on passcode.
The removal of the home button also requires a tweaked UI - swipe up will now take you home and pause the gesture half-way through to get into multi-tasking. Swipe down from the top on the right to get to Control Centre, on the left for notifications. It will take getting used to, but looks slick and yes, more futuristic than the old home button routine. The lock button by contrast has got bigger, as it now does double duty - double click for Apple Pay.
A big screen in a smaller body and all the advanced sensors would suggest a sharply abbreviated battery life, but Apple insists X will have two more hours battery life per day than a standard iPhone 8. Quite how this wizardry has been achieved wasn’t explained, other than a reference to clever tuning of the hardware/software stack.
Starting at £999 for the 64GB model and cruelly bypassing 128GB for a top tier £1149 256GB, iPhone X sets a new benchmark for premium pricing. Part of this is Brexit currency exchange, but the reality is that OLED screens are in short supply with only one manufacturer - Samsung - able to provide the necessary quality in limited quantity. Pre-orders don’t start until October 27 - over a month after the 8 - and undoubtedly constrained shipments on November 3rd.
The meaning of X
Apple have worked miracles with iPS LCD technology, regularly gaining stellar marks for colour accuracy. So why make the switch?
With deeper blacks, OLEDs undoubtedly provide vivid images and Apple has a clever new software system to hopefully prevent the burn-in effect which can be one of the drawbacks.
OLED has also become the favoured technology for VR due to its fast-switching, so less blurriness, less motion sickness. This and the prominence given to ARKit at WWDC led many to believe AR would be a centrepiece of this year’s iPhone sales pitch.
In fact, AR time was limited - a new game or two during the iPhone 8 reveal, some clever super-imposition of player stats layered upon real world sports footage. A promo video featured an obligatory rampaging T-Rex in a real world setting, but there was no hint of an Apple equivalent to Samsung’s Gear VR headset.
Apple has leveraged its integrated hardware/software stack to pole-vault into a leadership role with ARKit, perhaps a year ahead of Google despite their longer public experimentation and new ARCore rival system.
With iPhone X, it’s built a premium platform for AR but part of that 10-year vision is the patience to wait for the apps and perhaps additional hardware to best exploit it.