April 28, 2018

iPhone X: Five Months In

Better in every way but one.

Sometimes, I read other people’s reviews of devices I own and wonder if we’re actually using the same thing. The iPhone X is one such device.

Since launch, a strange narrative has emerged that Face ID—the new biometric authentication system replacing Touch ID—is decent, but definitely not as good as Touch ID yet. Some people are having quite a lot of trouble getting it to work well, it seems.

I believe them, of course, but my own experience has been dramatically different. So much so that it’s forced me to be patient about putting thoughts down about the iPhone X in case I was too blinded by the initial honeymoon glow to see its flaws.

Five months in, I’m confident that any rosey tint has been eradicated from my vision and I can give you an honest account of what it’s been like to live with Apple’s next-gen flagship.

Face ID

Let’s just get this out of the way first since it’s my main point of disagreement with the prevailing opinion: Face ID has provided a transformative improvement in my iPhone experience.

I liked Touch ID a lot, but I found it to be a frustratingly inconsistent authentication method. Technically, it’s supposed to improve over time, but in my usage I would have to re-register my fingerprints every few months to get back some semblance of reliable recognition.

Even at its best, I had multiple Touch ID failures each week, and the act of trying, failing, wiping the sensor on my shirt, then trying again became second nature.

I don’t have particularly sweaty hands, nor (to the best of my knowledge) am I a shape-shifting chameleonic lizard person whose fingerprints are in a constant state of flux. Yet Touch ID was always a bit of a gamble.

Face ID, on the other hand, has been almost literally 100% reliable. I’ve been keeping track, in fact, having been burned in the past by Touch ID working great for the first few weeks and then getting worse. In the five months that I’ve owned this phone, I don’t think I’ve had more than 10 recognition failures, and certainly none in normal usage. Granted, it isn’t as fast as Touch ID was, but it’s plenty fast enough for me.

Face ID recognizes me lying down, sitting, standing, moving, squinting, blinking, yawning, wearing hats, drinking coffee, with or without facial hair, at night or in the day, indoors and out. In five months of daily use, unlocking via Face ID has been consistently flawless.

Home Buttonless

The writing was on the wall as soon as Apple switched from an actual button to the haptic Houdini buttons of the iPhone 7 generation, but the first iPhone without a home button showed up sooner than I thought it would.

More than any other change, this one fundamentally rewrites the interaction model. I’m pleased to say that it does so in an entirely satisfying way.

I really like the gesture-based interactions that replaced the button. And I do understand that there’s something reassuring about having a physical button to perform an action, but for a device like the iPhone (and hopefully the iPad soon), this feels more natural.

Swiping up to go home is effortless, but the real star of the show is swiping back and forth across the home bar to switch between recent apps. This feels amazing and is so much faster than any previous app switching method, including the 3D Touch edge shortcut from previous generations.

The only problematic aspect is the placement of Control Centre, which has already been discussed to death. I use Control Centre infrequently enough that it’s not a huge bother, but it does feel weird in its current form.

I would much prefer having it to the right of the multi-tasking view like it is on the iPad.

The Screen

No buttons, no bezels, and no more LCD. This is the first time in a long time that an iPhone screen has felt new to me.

Samsung really perfected OLED technology in the past few years, and I’m delighted to finally have access to it on my iPhone. The screen is tall, bright, bezel-less, and beautiful. There is more colour shift than the old panels, but it’s subtle enough that I’m not bothered by it in use and basically don’t notice it unless I’m actively looking for it.

Speaking of not being bothered, the iPhone X has a notch. It barely registers at all to me, and certainly not as some hideous imperfection. It’s there, it’ll probably get smaller in the the future, but I really don’t care either way.

A much more significant aspect of the screen is its ability to do true black”, which is to say turn black pixels off entirely rather than just light them in dark grey like an LCD panel does. The difference is striking, especially for reading at night, where it looks very much like you’re just pushing around lines of text etched into the fabric of night itself. I’m not generally a fan of dark modes in text-heavy interfaces since I find light-on-dark text harder to read, but when it’s done well and uses a true black theme, the effect is impressive.


Zooming out to the whole, I’m mostly pleased with the iPhone X hardware.

It’s one of the most beautiful objects I own. For the first time since my very first iPhone—the 3GS—I got the white one. I’ve always avoided them because I think the white face looks worse, but now that the iPhone X has a dark face regardless of back colour, I went with white. It looks like an ice sculpture.

It’s about as slippery as one too.

I’ve written before about the three stages of phone case usage. I started out with the Apple Leather case (in Cosmos Blue), but have since gone back to going caseless because the phone feels dramatically better in terms of size and hand-feel without one.

However, it is extremely slippery. Not so much in the hand as on a surface like a table, where vibrations from notifications or even from listening to something through the speakers is enough to start it skating around slowly.

In fact, it nearly dropped into my sink one morning while I was brushing my teeth. I had placed it on the ledge above the sink, playing a podcast, and luckily had my eye on it so I noticed when it began to creep toward the edge.

To avoid mishaps, I’ve opted for a new approach to protection this time by buying a Gelaskins wrap for the back. They’re cheap, easy to apply and remove, and add some grip and basic scratch protection. Plus, they’re decorative!

The Downside

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one real downside to the iPhone X, and it’s something that’s fairly specific to my usage.

I’m less accurate at typing on it.

After years of being spoiled by the vast Plus-size iPhone and its generous keyboard size, the narrower iPhone X was a bit of an adjustment. I got used to the difference in screen real estate pretty quickly—no issues there—but I still find that I make more mistakes typing on this iPhone than I have on my previous ones.

I suspect that users coming from the normal iPhone or iPhone 5 body style will find themselves right at home.

Odds & Ends

There are a few more thoughts I wanted to share about how the iPhone X fits into my daily life.

A big concern coming from the Plus phones was battery life. Once you’ve experienced that kind of battery longevity, it’s hard to imagine giving it up. To my great relief, battery life on the iPhone X has been marvellous. I can almost always go a day and a half or more without charging, and charge times are nice and brief. I don’t do anything special to accomplish this either—everything is enabled, I just tend to keep brightness below the halfway mark.

Another notable change from the Plus size is the ability to comfortably fit it into my pockets again, even while sitting or kneeling to tie my shoes. The iPhone X hits a real sweet spot for smartphone size: big enough to not feel cramped, but compact enough to be comfortable to hold and carry.

After I got my Apple Watch (still rocking a Series 0!), my iPhone usage declined significantly. Or, to be more specific, my idle, unproductive, impulsive iPhone usage declined. No more falling into the trap of looking at one notification and having it lead me down the rabbit hole to five other apps and an hour of mindless feed scrolling.

However, the iPhone X has pushed me back toward using my iPhone more. This is largely because it’s such a magical and futuristic device that I really enjoy doing things on it. Playing Alto’s Odyssey, managing email, and organizing my tasks in Things all feel like delightful aesthetic experiences. I still avoid the unproductive usage as that’s just become a lifestyle change, but it feels nice to be getting more active use out of the phone.

I’m deliberately avoiding camera talk, by the way, because that deserves its own article.

Parting Thoughts

Looking to the future, I intend to keep this phone for another generation. It’s just too expensive to replace yearly, and I honestly don’t think I’d be tempted to even if Apple does release a plus” size.

Despite my typing complaint, I’m really happy with the iPhone X, and I’m glad I opted for the X over the 8 Plus. It improves upon previous iPhones in more meaningful ways than just spec bumps, and it’s one of those products that just makes me happy to own and use. I wish I felt this degree of satisfaction with all the products in my life.

Now if we could just get some of these benefits in the iPad line…

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