Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May 7th, 2018

What Happened to Apple’s Whimsy?

Peter Cohen, reflecting on the first iMac on its twentieth birthday:

I hope that Apple finds an opportunity to go full circle with the Mac yet again. It probably won’t be the iMac, but I hope that some future Apple device, whether it’s a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop machine, or some hitherto unimagined gadget, regains that sense of whimsy and wonder we’ve seen before. Something to help us emotionally connect with it and that essential Apple user experience in a way that’s different, and less invisible, than how we do today.

I’ve been thinking about the original iMac and iBook a lot recently, on occasion of the iMac’s birthday and the cancellation of the AirPort, the first generation of which was introduced alongside the iBook. The vibrant colours and translucent plastics — and the handles, of course — made these computers feel approachable and human.

I’m not sure that I would like to see too more of that goofiness, though. It’s not that I hate fun; rather, I think that Apple’s increasingly austere take on industrial design has made them better at shipping products that feel almost invisible. I appreciate that. It reduces the hardware to a tool, but not an appliance, yet I think Apple’s products feel even more approachable than they used to because so much of what they make is entirely straightforward. They don’t need to mask the complexity of the software with a layer of gumdrop plastic; in many ways, the software has become simple enough that the hardware can reflect that.

Then again, now that the iPhone has a gorgeous glass back, why can’t it be sold in a range of highly-saturated colours?

VI Months With the iPhone X

The way that tech product reviews work is pretty simple: most companies give select members of the tech press a review unit before the product is available to the general public. Reviewers typically can’t talk about it until a later date, usually around the time that the product will be on sale. The time between when reviewers receive the product and when they’re allowed to publish a review is usually extremely short — often, about a week. That’s enough time to get a general feel but, in my opinion, not enough time to adequately review it. For various reasons — many of them good! — reviewers typically feel like they have to publish something as soon as they’re able to, and most don’t do a followup because they’re not using nineteen smartphones on a daily basis.

Anyhow.

I’m not a member of the tech press and, therefore, do not get review units. I did publish some initial thoughts on the iPhone X about a week after I bought mine, but I wanted to write some more about what it has felt like after several months of using it. I’m keenly aware that many of you probably have owned and used an iPhone X for as long as I have, and so you might not find anything here particularly newsworthy. Apple has sold tens of millions of them, too, so it’s not like these thoughts are particularly exclusive. They are, however, mine.

Hardware

Let’s start with the easiest thing about the iPhone X: its hardware is damn nice to look at and to use. It is still the most beautiful product Apple has ever shipped; it still feels impossibly good, like a prototype, like a fine watch, et cetera, et cetera. The body combined with the display’s extremely high resolution and True Tone — which has been so accurate in most environments that the white on screen is practically identical to the white surfaces my iPhone has rested upon — and it looks like a concept render brought to life without sacrifice.

I’ve kept my iPhone in a case for most of its first five months because a) it’s been a long-ass winter, which necessitates gloves, thick jackets, and other things that make for clumsy handling; b) I’ve been travelling; and c) I paid a lot of money for this thing, so you bet I’m keeping it as pristine as I can. I’ve been using Apple’s cases the entire time — a purple leather one, and an orange silicone one — so three sides and the back glass are all perfect. Of the exposed parts, the bottom of the stainless steel band looks great to my eye. It doesn’t appear to be scratched, even around the Lightning port.

However, the display has not remained blemish-free. There are a few small but noticeable hairline scratches, especially in the area where my right thumb swipes upwards to unlock or scroll. I haven’t treated this iPhone any differently, nor is the skin on my thumb any different than it used to be, as far as I know. However, after comparing the screen of my iPhone X against my old iPhone 6S, it seems to be scratched more obviously. I’ve been hesitant to write about this because there seems to be complaints about this every year though I don’t know how much actually changes year-to-year, and I also think that the first scratches that appear tend to be the most noticeable. But based on what I’ve heard from others, my perception of it being more scratch-prone does not appear to be isolated. Apple says that the glass in the iPhone X is the “most durable” in any smartphone, but they don’t elaborate on what “durable” means.

The screen itself continues to be amazing. Colours are rich without being inaccurate, and pixels appear to be closer to the glass than in any previous model. I maintain that there is no reason to treat this OLED display any differently than its LCD predecessors: you don’t need to use the dark mode in apps or have an all-black wallpaper if you don’t want to. You don’t need to worry about burn-in. It’s just a damn good screen, exactly as you would expect from any iPhone.

Cameras

The one component of the iPhone’s body that I’m torn on is the camera bump. Instead of being sloped like it is on the iPhones 7 and 8, it’s a giant sharp-edged jutting-out rounded box. Because my phone has been in a case for most of the time I’ve used it, I haven’t been bothered by how the bump sits on a table or another hard surface, but every time I pop the case off, I’m struck — in both very positive and quite negative ways — by all of these attributes.

On the one hand, it almost looks like there’s a piece of the phone that wasn’t assembled quite right. Its construction is clearly quite refined, but there’s not a lot to resolve the transition between the lens cover, the bezel, and the back glass. It doesn’t look bad; it just looks odd.

But, I must say, its crisp edges do look precise. The bump on my old 6S looks sheepish by comparison, as though Apple was embarrassed to have it. This one looks like they’re very comfortable with the cameras not fitting flush, and they’re making the most of that.

The cameras themselves, though, do not confound me: they’re amazing. I want to separate my assessment of them into software and hardware because there are two stories to tell.

I usually shoot in RAW, which means that the sensor data is saved directly, bypassing Apple’s imaging processing algorithms. Those algorithms remove noise, sharpen the image, and adjust the colours to a palatable palette that’s saturated, but not cartoonishly so. My iPhone 6S captured generally smooth and good-looking images, but a closer inspection of scenes with a lot of foliage or fine detail tended to look painterly. It was one of my chief complaints with that phone’s camera. Apple clearly spent some time working on the image processor in the iPhone X to perform better at these kinds of scenes, and every photo I’ve shot with it has been noticeably far better in its details than the 6S.

Yet, no matter how much better the new noise reduction algorithms are, they’re still no match for the detail you can see in a RAW photo. That’s part of the hardware story: both of these cameras are truly sublime. And I do mean “both” — I’ve been using the 56mm “zoom” camera about as often as I have the 28mm standard camera, and its performance has been just as solid.

The combination of the hardware and software stories merge with Portrait mode. Introduced with the iPhone 7 Plus, it uses the two rear cameras to assess the relative distance of objects in the frame and create a pseudo shallow depth-of-field image. It’s really fun and, now that Darkroom allows manual adjustment of the foreground and background parts of the image, a feature that I like playing around with. But its depth maps aren’t usually accurate — hair and glasses frequently seem to confuse it — and the default blur is often too exaggerated for my taste.

On the front side, the highlight feature is clearly Animoji and they are so much fun. I’ve sent a few videos, but I usually use them as stickers. In fact, they’re so good, its a real shame they’re included solely as a Messages feature. I’ve spent quite a lot of time around toddlers recently, and it’s hilariously good fun to sit with them and play around with Snapchat lenses, language barriers be damned. There’s no equivalent standalone app for Animoji, and I think there ought to be; using it within Messages feels clumsier than simply opening Snapchat. Animoji is, hands-down, the feature that my friends want to play around with most after I got this iPhone.

Face ID

One of the benefits of writing about a product months after it was released is that initial controversies and *–gates tend to be resolved in the interim. Case in point: Face ID.

Apparent Controversy Number One: switching from the accurate and much-liked Touch ID home button to the usually flawed world of facial recognition was sure to be a flop. After all, facial recognition requires a clear and mostly direct line-of-sight to your face, so you can’t use it while the device in your pocket or while it’s on a table beside you. It is also impeded by some facial coverings, like scarves and sunglasses.

In practice, Face ID has turned out to be astonishingly good — it is, dare I say, so good that it feels magical. (I know.) In virtually every common circumstance, Face ID has performed at least as well as Touch ID had, or even better. For example, on cold days, I don’t cover my face in a way that renders me unrecognizable to Face ID, but I do wear gloves, which would need to be removed for Touch ID to work correctly. After a swim or when I finish washing dishes, Touch ID would sometimes get confused, but Face ID works just fine.

The best thing about Face ID is that it feels like it gets rid of the authentication step entirely. Instead of having to place your thumb on a fingerprint reader, wait for authentication, and then move it to the display, you just swipe on the display while looking at it, which you were probably doing anyway. I decreasingly see the graphic indicating that it’s unlocking; my phone just unlocks, and it’s ready to use. And that’s something that the initial batch of reviews published around the iPhone X’s launch couldn’t capture: it really does seem to be learning the characteristics of my face and getting more accurate over time.

So, as far as I’m concerned, Apparent Controversy Number One is a non-issue for me. You may, quite reasonably, feel differently — perhaps you wear a full face covering, or your sunglasses block Face ID’s scanner, or maybe you typically hold your iPhone at a distance from your face that isn’t ideal for Face ID. I think these are all things that can be sorted out with future iterations; however, this version has worked consistently brilliantly for me. I entirely prefer it over Touch ID and would not want to switch back.

Which brings me to Apparent Controversy Number Two: Face ID’s hardware requirements have spoiled an otherwise-perfect near-bezel-free display with the addition of a gigantic notch at its top.

I didn’t mention this in my first look because, quite honestly, I barely noticed the notch after using the phone for a few minutes. Ever since, my experience has been more of the same. In day-to-day use, the notch sort of disappears along with everything else in the status bar area from what I consciously see on the display. Would the iPhone X be better, in some way, if it had a completely uninterrupted display? I think that would be nice, yes, especially in landscape. But is the notch a fair trade-off for having an authentication system that works better than Touch ID — again, in my use? Absolutely.

Battery, Charging, and Wireless Musings

I have no formal way to test battery life but it has been excellent so far. Even after using beta releases constantly since I got mine, which tend to be less refined and harder on the battery, I still easily get a full day’s use without needing to “top up”.

Like an ape, I still plug a Lightning cable into my phone to charge it. Inductive charging is clever, but because the chargers are expensive and they stop charging as soon as you move your cellphone a couple of millimetres — at least, according to the reviews I’ve read — I haven’t felt compelled enough to buy one yet.

Of course, plugging in a Lightning cable means that I can’t simultaneously charge and use the slightly higher-tech version of two cans and some string that I call “my headphones”. Apple has clearly been moving in a wireless and wearable direction, but I haven’t been able to keep up: EarPods don’t fit my apparently alien ears, and I’m still using a Series 1 Apple Watch. Therefore, the AirPower that they’re apparently going to release soon doesn’t have the same appeal to me as it might someone with Apple’s latest and greatest.

Apple has promised that they’re going to contribute the refinements they’ve developed for the AirPower to the Qi wireless charging standard, so I look forward to more reliable inductive charging in the future.

Software

The hardware-specific attributes of the iPhone X are pretty damn good. What about iOS? Well, upgrading to the X from a 4.7-inch iPhone feels a lot like the transition from the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 5: everything gets taller but, as there’s no increase in width, a lot of things remain similar. In the case of the X, however, the hardware has reduced the display’s bezels so much, it feels almost like the device disappears and you’re just holding the software. That’s the major difference. Even without that refined approach to hardware, though, the extra display height is totally great for basically everything I do: reading long articles, skimming my email inbox, and so forth. I’ve rarely used any iPhone in landscape mode, so anything Apple can do to make the portrait orientation better, I’m all for it.

Of course, the exaggerated height also highlights the foibles of an operating system that still retains some conventions from when it first shipped with a 3.5-inch display. The home screen still follows a pattern of starting in the upper-left corner. Tapping the back button that appears after one app launches another now requires a warmup of finger callisthenics, and an active AppleCare agreement, just in case. And bringing down Control Centre by dragging from the upper-right “ear” still feels bizarre and unfinished. I sincerely hope these aspects, in particular, are rethought with iOS 12.

The gestural navigation that replaces the home button is, frankly, ingenious. Jumping between apps and the home screen feels fun, and switching between apps by swiping across the home indicator is second nature. But, now that I’m used to the way the iPhone X works, the home indicator feels redundant. While it’s not particularly visually noisy, I also wish there were a way to hide it, simply because I don’t need to see it any more.

I also feel like the flashlight and camera buttons on the lock screen are peculiar. Unlike any other button on the system that I’m aware of, they have no action when they’re tapped, instead requiring a firm press into the display. They’re not customizable, either, and the camera button is redundant — swiping right-to-left across the lock screen also launches the camera. I don’t get them. I don’t mind these buttons, really, but after six months with this phone, I still don’t get them.

There are also some curious bugs I’ve seen on my iPhone X that I’ve never seen elsewhere. If you set a very light wallpaper, for example, the clock on the lock screen and the Springboard icon labels will be a dark grey instead of white; however, when you wake the iPhone, it flashes through white before arriving at the dark grey colour. It’s very strange. Also, the clock and dock occasionally disappear.

Other than that, the iPhone X might be the best iOS 11 experience, as you would probably hope. With it in hand, a bunch of the software design decisions Apple has made for years shine even brighter. I have problems with the notification system in iOS, but the floating bubbles that slide from the top help the display feel effectively limitless, as do the chrome-less home screen and 3D Touch menus. The iPhone X is the ultimate showcase for Apple’s increasingly refined post-iOS 7 visual approach. I’m excited to see where it leads.

The Best iPhone

What more can I say? The iPhone X is the most elegant iPhone Apple has made since the iPhone 5S married to the best iOS experience they’ve ever shipped. It feels like it sets the standard of the platform for the next ten years. It feels futuristic but not alien. It is refined but not precious. It is the hundred-and-ninety-proof distillation of what an iPhone is.