Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The iPhone X

I’ve been using my iPhone X for nearly a week now and, while I have some thoughts about it, by no means am I interested in writing a full review. There seem to be more reviews of the iPhone X on the web than actual iPhone X models sold. Instead, here are some general observations about the features and functionality that I think are noteworthy.

The Hardware

The iPhone X is a product that feels like it shouldn’t really exist — at least, not in consumers’ hands. I know that there are millions of them in existence now, but mine feels like an incredibly well-made, one-off prototype, as I’m sure all of them do individually. It’s not just that the display feels futuristic — I’ll get to that in a bit — nor is it the speed of using it, or Face ID, or anything else that you might expect. It is all of those things, combined with how nice this product is.

I’ve written before that the magic of Apple’s products and their suppliers’ efforts is that they are mass-producing niceness at an unprecedented scale. This is something they’ve become better at with every single product they ship, and nothing demonstrates that progress better than the iPhone X.

It’s such a shame, then, that the out-of-warranty repair costs are appropriately high, to the point where not buying AppleCare+ and a case seems downright irresponsible. Using the iPhone X without a case is a supreme experience, but I don’t trust myself enough to do so. And that’s a real pity, because it’s one of those rare mass-produced items that feels truly special.

The Display

This is the first iPhone to include an OLED display. It’s made by Samsung and uses a diamond subpixel arrangement, but Apple says that it’s entirely custom-designed. Samsung’s display division is being treated here like their chip foundry was for making Apple’s Ax SoCs.

And it’s one hell of a display. It’s running at a true @3x resolution of 458 pixels per inch. During normal use, I can’t tell much of a difference between it and the 326 pixel-per-inch iPhone 6S that I upgraded from. But when I’m looking at smaller or denser text — in the status bar, for example, or in a long document — this iPhone’s display looks nothing less than perfect.

One of the reasons this display looks so good is because of Apple’s “True Tone” feature, which matches the white balance of the display to the environment. In a lot of indoor lighting conditions, that’s likely to mean that the display is yellower than you’re probably used to. Unlike Night Shift, though, which I dislike for being too heavy-handed, True Tone is much subtler. Combine all of this — the brightness of the display, its pixel density, its nearly edge-to-edge size, and True Tone — with many of iOS’ near-white interface components and it really is like a live sheet of paper in your hand.

Because it’s an OLED display that has the capability of switching on and off individual pixels, it’s only normal to consider using battery-saving techniques like choosing a black wallpaper or using Smart Invert Colours. I think this is nonsense. You probably will get better battery life by doing both of those things, but I’ve been using my iPhone X exactly the same as I have every previous phone I’ve owned and it gets terrific battery life. Unless you’re absolutely paranoid about your battery, I see no reason in day-to-day use to treat the iPhone X differently than you would any other phone.

I’m a total sucker for smaller devices. I’d love to see what an iPhone SE-sized device with an X-style display would be like.

Face ID

Face ID is, for my money, one of the best things Apple has done in years. It has worked nearly flawlessly for me, and I say that with no exaggeration or hyperbole. Compared to Touch ID, it almost always requires less effort and is of similar perceptual speed. This is particularly true for login forms on the web: where previously I’d see the Touch ID prompt and have to shuffle my thumb down to the home button, I now just continue staring at the screen and my username and password are just there.

I’m going to great pains to avoid the most obvious and clichéd expression for a feature like this, but it’s apt here: it feels like magic.

The only time Face ID seems to have trouble recognizing me is when I wake up, before I’ve put on my glasses. It could be because my eyes are still squinty at the time and it can’t detect that I’m looking at the screen, or maybe it’s just because I look like a deranged animal first thing in the morning. Note, though, that it has no trouble recognizing me without my glasses at any other time; however, I first set up Face ID while wearing my glasses and that’s almost always how I use it to unlock my phone. That’s how it recognizes me most accurately.

UI Differences

Last week, I wrote that I found that there was virtually no learning curve for me to feel comfortable using the home indicator, and I completely stand by that. If you’ve used an iPad running iOS 11, you’re probably going to feel right at home on an iPhone X. My favourite trick with the home indicator is that you can swipe left and right across it to slide between recently-used apps.

Arguably, the additional space offered by the taller display is not being radically reconsidered, since nearly everything is simply taller than it used to be. But this happens to work well for me because nearly everything I do on my iPhone is made better with a taller screen: reading, scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, or writing something.

The typing experience is, surprisingly, greatly improved through a simple change. The keyboard on an iPhone X is in a very similar place to where it is on a 4.7-inch iPhone, which means that there’s about half an inch of space below it. Apple has chosen to move the keyboard switching button and dictation control into that empty space from beside the spacebar, and this simple change has noticeably improved my typing accuracy.

In a welcome surprise, nearly all of the third-party apps I use on a regular basis were quickly updated to support the iPhone X’s display. The sole holdouts are Weather Line, NY Times, and Spotify.

I have two complaints with how the user interfaces in iOS work on the iPhone X. The first is that the system still seems like it is adapting its conventions to fit bigger displays. Yes, you can usually swipe right from the lefthand edge of the display to go back to a previous screen, but toolbars are still typically placed at the top and bottom of the screen. With a taller display, that means that there can be a little more shuffling of the device in your hand to hit buttons on opposite sides of the screen.

My other complaint is just how out of place Control Centre feels. Notification Centre retains its sheet-like appearance if it’s invoked from the left “ear” of the display, but Control Centre opens as a sort of panelled overlay with the status bar in the middle of the screen when it is invoked from the right “ear”. The lack of consistency between the two Centres doesn’t make sense to me, nor does the awkward splitting of functionality between the two upper corners of the phone. It’s almost as though it was an adjustment made late in the development cycle.

Update: One more weird Control Centre behaviour is that it displays the status bar but in a different layout than the system usually does. The status bar systemwide shows the time and location indicator on the left, and the cellular signal, WiFi indicator, and battery level on the right. The status bar within Control Centre is, left to right: cellular signal, carrier, WiFi indicator, various status icons for alarm and rotation lock, location services indicator, Bluetooth status, battery percentage, and battery icon. The location indicator, cellular strength, and WiFi signal all switch sides; I think they should stay consistent.

I don’t know what the ideal solution is for the iPhone X. Control Centre on the iPad is a part of the multitasking app switcher, and that seems like a reasonable way to display it on the iPhone, too. I’m curious as to why that wasn’t shipped.

Cameras and Animoji

This is the first dual-camera iPhone I’ve owned so, not only do I get to take advantage of technological progress in hardware, I also get to use features like Portrait Mode on a regular basis. Portrait Mode is very fun, and does a pretty alright job in many environments of separating a subject from its background. Portrait Lighting, new in the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, takes this one step further and tries to replicate different lighting conditions on the subject. I found this to be much less reliable, with the two spotlight-style “stage lighting” modes to be inconsistent in their subject detection abilities.

The two cameras in this phone are both excellent, and the sensor captures remarkable amounts of data, especially if you’re shooting RAW. Noise is well-controlled for such a small sensor and, in some lighting conditions, even has a somewhat filmic quality.

I really like having the secondary lens. Calling it a “telephoto” lens is, I think, a stretch, but its focal length creates some nice framing options. I used it to take a photo of my new shoes without having to get too close to the mirror in a department store.

Animoji are absurdly fun. The face tracking feels perfect — it’s better than motion capture work in some feature films I’ve seen. I’ve used Animoji more often as stickers than as video messages, and it’s almost like being able to create your own emoji that, more or less, reflects your actual face. I only have two reservations about Animoji: they’re only available as an iMessage app, and I worry that it won’t be updated regularly. The latter is something I think Apple needs to get way better at; imagine how cool it would be if new iMessage bubble effects were pushed to devices remotely every week or two, for example. It’s the same thing for Animoji: the available options are cute and wonderful, but when Snapchat and Instagram are pushing new effects constantly, it isn’t viable to have no updates by, say, this time next year.

AppleCare+

I mentioned above that I bought AppleCare+ for this iPhone. It’s the first time I’ve ever purchased AppleCare on a phone, and only the second time I’ve purchased it for any Apple product — the first was my MacBook Air because AppleCare also covered the Thunderbolt Display purchased around the same time. This time, it was not a good buying experience.

I started by opening up the Apple Store app, which quoted $249 for AppleCare+ for the iPhone X. I tapped on the “Buy Now” button in the app but received an error:

Some products in your bag require another product to be purchased. The required product was not found so the other products were removed.

As far as I can figure out, this means that I need to buy an iPhone X at the same time, which doesn’t make any sense as the Store page explicitly says that AppleCare+ can be bought within sixty days.

I somehow wound up on the check coverage page where I would actually be able to buy extended coverage. After entering my serial number and fumbling with the CAPTCHA, I clicked the link to buy AppleCare. At that point, I was quoted $299 — $50 more than the store listing. I couldn’t find any explanation for this discrepancy, so I phoned Apple’s customer service line. The representative told me that the $249 price was just an estimate, and the $299 price was the actual quote for my device, which seems absurd — there’s simply no mention that the advertised price is anything other than the absolute price for AppleCare coverage. I went ahead with my purchase, filling in all my information before arriving at a final confirmation page where the price had returned to $249, and that was what I was ultimately charged.

It’s not the $50 that troubles me in this circumstance, but the fact that there was a difference in pricing at all between pages on Apple’s website. I don’t know why I was ever shown a $299 price, nor do I understand why I’m unable to use the Apple Store app to purchase AppleCare+ for my iPhone X using my iPhone X.