Note: This article was first published on 9th November 2017.
The iPhone X is the most exciting iPhone since... well, the first iPhone. Maybe its the mysterious 'X' name (pronounced "ten"), or the fact that it's the first new iPhone design we've seen in three years, but when Tim Cook unveiled it back in September, I remember saying to myself, "I need this phone" and I haven't said that in a long time.
The iPhone X boasts a lot of firsts: it's the first iPhone with an OLED display, it's the first iPhone without a Home button, it's the first iPhone with Face ID, and it's the first iPhone with a bezel-less all-screen design. Is that enough firsts to convince you this is a phone you should be okay with spending S$1,648 on (or S$1,888 for the 256GB model)? Let's find out.
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I've used an iPhone as my primary phone since the 3GS. Back then, there was only one screen size and I was happy, but for the past few years, I've gone back and forth between the 4.7-inch and the 5.5-inch Plus model, and I've never really been satisfied with either. While small displays were fine back when I got my first iPhone, I now find the normal iPhone screen a little small, but I also find the Plus a bit too big to hold comfortably with one hand, and I'm always worried I'll drop it while I'm trying to stretch my finger across the screen (even with Reachability).
The iPhone X, however, sits in between them, and like Baby Bear's porridge, is just right. The bezel-less display is a little wider and taller than the iPhone 8, but it's narrower and shorter than the 8 Plus, making it a lot more comfortable to use and hold.
While the bezel-less display is the focal point of the new iPhone, it's not the only shiny new thing on the X - quite literally.
Replacing the aluminum frame Apple has used since the iPhone 6 is a new stainless-steel band that runs around the sides of the phone. On our Silver review unit is a gleaming chrome finish that you can't help but notice, while the Space Gray X gets a DLC (Diamond Like Carbon) coating that is equally reflective, but in a more subdued dark metallic gray. The only downside to such a shiny finish is that it will undoubtedly get scratched and scuffed over time (think of the backs of those early iPods).
Like the 8 and 8 Plus, the back of the X is glass, which enables wireless charging. The X also boasts a dual-rear camera setup like the 8 Plus, only this time the cameras are aligned vertically rather than side-by-side. According to Apple, the only reason for the change in orientation is due to internal space constraints - apparently the TrueDepth camera on the front takes up a lot of space.
The power button (officially it's been re-named the "Side button") is a bit longer on the X than it is on the 8 or 8 Plus. It looks a bit like a volume rocker, but the whole thing is still one button. With the removal of the home button, some of its features have relocated here. For example, you now double press the Side button to activate Apple Pay, while long pressing it activates Siri. To take screenshots you press the Side button and the volume up button at the same time.
Once again, there's no headphone jack, but with a lot of other phone manufacturers also doing away with it, it's starting to look like Apple was right all along.
The iPhone X is the first iPhone with an OLED display. Generally speaking, OLED displays are lighter, thinner, more power efficient and have better contrast ratios than LCD displays - although they're not all great, the Google Pixel 2 XL's OLED display being one obvious example. The display on the iPhone X is made by Samsung, who make some of the best mobile OLED displays out there, and the X's 'Super Retina HD' OLED is just as good as the Super AMOLED displays found on Samsung's own smartphones. It's bright and sharp, with great contrast and none of the off angle problems plaguing the Pixel 2 XL. Furthermore, Apple has custom designed the display for the iPhone X, so colors look a lot more natural and aren't as saturated as the ones on Samsung's smartphones.
The display itself is listed as 5.8-inches with a 2,436 x 1,125 pixels resolution (~458ppi) but because of its tall 19.5:9 aspect ratio, it's not actually that big. The X is closer in size to the iPhone 8 than it is to the 8 Plus, and if you watch regular 16:9 aspect ratio content on it, there'll be big black bezels on either side, so it will appear about the same size as a phone with a 5-inch display. The tall display takes a bit of getting used to, but you'll appreciate the extra screen real estate when browsing the internet, or when using apps optimized for the X. It reminds me a lot of when Apple went from the 3.5-inch 3:2 aspect ratio iPhone 4, to the 4-inch 16:9 aspect ratio iPhone 5 - the display is a little taller, but it doesn't feel like a huge increase in screen size.
Like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the X has Apple’s True Tone system to automatically adjust the display's color temperature to the ambient light. Furthermore, the X has a 10-channel light sensor compared to the 4-channel unit in the 8, which makes it even more precise at reading the ambient light. The X's display is also Dolby Vision and HDR10-certified, which means you'll be able to watch HDR content on it. Conveniently enough, Apple has just rolled out a bunch of HDR content on iTunes.
Okay, let's talk about the one bad thing about the X's display: the notch. I've been using the iPhone X for a week now, and while I've heard other people say it doesn't bother them, I just can't ignore it. My home and lock screen, and most of the apps I use all have white backgrounds so it's impossible for me not to notice a big notch at the top of the display. I'm also annoyed that the battery percentage is no longer displayed in the top right corner of the screen because the notch robs you of valuable notification space so there's not enough room for it - you have to open the Control Center to check your exact battery percentage.
Apps that aren't optimized for the X's display, but use iOS's auto-layout system and fill the entire screen, will often have content disappearing behind the notch (Instagram's volume bar just so happens to be right where the notch is) or will be cut off at the sides due to the unusual aspect ratio. Other apps that don't fill the screen instead have huge black borders at the top and bottom (effectively running in 16:9 aspect ratio) - this includes Google Maps, Uber and Spotify.
The problem gets even worse when you're using apps that are meant to be run in landscape mode, like content apps like Netflix and YouTube and most games. With the notch at the top you can still sort of ignore it, but in landscape mode, you now have a huge obstruction on the left side of the screen. Watching fullscreen content on YouTube, you either get a small video window with black bars all around the display (refer to image immediately below), or an entirely fullscreen view with a notch obscuring content on the left side of the screen - neither is great. A lot of games operate the same way, you either have a notch obscuring content, or you get a windowed mode.
Now I understand that eventually these problems will go away as more app developers update their apps specifically for the X (although I imagine a lot of developers won't be too happy about having to code a specific version of their app just for the one phone on the market with a huge notch at the top), but for now it's an annoyance and it spoils my enjoyment of an otherwise amazing display.
The iPhone X has the same stereo speaker setup as the 8 and 8 Plus, utilizing one bottom firing speaker and a second speaker located at the top of the phone under the ear piece. Like the 8 and 8 Plus, audio quality on the X is surprisingly good, with decent stereo separation and a healthy amount of bass. Like the 8 and 8 Plus, the X also lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, you get a pair of Lightning EarPods and a Lightning-to-3.5mm jack dongle in the box.
Face ID and the TrueDepth camera
Along with the OLED display, the biggest new feature on the iPhone X is Face ID and the TrueDepth camera. Everything on the iPhone X revolves around Face ID: it's how you unlock your phone, it's how you use Apple Pay, it's what enables the Animoji (animated emojis), it's the whole reason the notch in the display exists. Apple is so confident in Face ID, it removed its proven and fantastic Touch ID fingerprint scanner entirely, rather than opt for the safer option of moving it to the rear of the phone à la Samsung. That's a bold move, and you know what they say about putting all of your eggs in one basket.
So does Face ID work? Yes... for the most part.
The technology behind Face ID uses an IR light, a dot projector, and a IR camera, collectively called the "TrueDepth camera" all tucked into the notch at the top of screen. When you turn the display on - either by pressing the side button, raising it to wake or double tapping the display - the IR light turns on (you won't see anything because its infrared obviously), and if the IR camera detects a face, the dot projector flashes a pattern of 30,000 dots. The camera then takes a 2D photo, which gets turned into mathematical depth model, sent to the secure authentication chip, and matched against the stored value. This all happens in under a second, and in theory, it's just as fast as Touch ID. Because it uses an IR camera, you don't even need ambient light to activate Face ID - you can do everything in pitch black darkness if you like. You can even wear sunglasses, as long your sunnies allow for infrared light to pass through them.
Setting up Face ID is actually faster and simpler than setting up Touch ID. The phone displays a circular border around your face, and you simply move around until a series of lines around that circle turn green. Do that twice, and you’re done.
For the most part Face ID works great. Raise the phone, look at it, and your screen unlocks - indicated by a little padlock unlocking animation. A minor annoyance is that unlocking the display doesn't send you straight to the home screen like Touch ID - instead you have to swipe up from the white line at the bottom of the display.
Having said that, it's not perfect and over the past week I've run into a bunch of scenarios where I was longing for Touch ID. I normally have my phone sitting on my table at work, but with the iPhone X I need to pick it up or move my face over it to unlock it. With Touch ID, I would just leave it on the table and unlock it with my finger. I've gotten used to pulling my iPhone out of my pocket with my thumb already on Touch ID too, so it's unlocked by the time I'm looking at it. However with the X I need to pull it out, then look at it, then swipe up to get to the home screen, which takes a little longer than usual.
I've got a bad habit of checking my phone throughout the night, but I generally sleep on my side, and unlike Touch ID, Face ID doesn't work in landscape mode (or upside down). Additionally, according to Apple, Face ID works best at a distance of 25 to 50 centimeters, so if I'm in bed and I want to unlock the X I have to roll onto my back, then hold the phone up in the air above my face to get it to unlock. Unsurprisingly, after the first few nights of this, I've started just letting Face ID fail and then inputting my pincode.
Speaking of unlocking the X at night, contrary to what you might think, (other than when I'm lying in bed) I've actually found Face ID to be more accurate in the dark. This actually makes sense because that IR projector can easily light up your face in the dark, but if you're standing under bright florescent lights or even under direct sunlight (which contains its own infrared light beams), this light can interfere with the X's IR camera. The few times Face ID has failed to unlock for me has been under bright sunlight and when I was standing next to a neon signboard display.
All things considered, Face ID is good enough to replace Touch ID (and according to Apple it's actually a lot more secure too - unless you have an identical twin), but it's not perfect yet. It also takes a bit of getting used to, and you'll definitely have to change certain habits.
I've shown Apple's Animoji feature to over a dozen people in the past week and when asked what they thought of it, the response has been polarizing: either "I love it!" or "That's really dumb". Personally speaking, I can appreciate the technology powering Animoji (it's basically like having a tiny Xbox Kinect in your phone, which is amazing when you look at how big the original Kinect is) but the novelty didn't hold my attention for very long.
The most impressive thing about Animoji is just how well the TrueDepth camera tracks your eyes and facial expressions. It's perfectly in sync with the animation and captures even small nuances really well. If you do like Animojis, it's worth pointing out that while Animojis are only available natively in iMessage, you can actually send them over other messaging platforms by saving them as MOV files and sending them as videos.
The X runs on iOS 11 just like the 8 and 8 Plus, but there have been a few tweaks - mainly to navigation - to accommodate the lack of a home button.
At the bottom of every app you'll see a white line. Swipe up from this line to go back to the home page, or swipe left or right along the line to switch between apps. To open the Control Center, you'll need to swipe down from the top right of the display. To open the Notifications pane you swipe down from the top left. To launch the app switcher you swipe up from the bottom of the screen and then do a 3D Touch hard press.
To activate Reachability mode, which pulls the top of the screen down to make one-handed usage easier, you have to swipe down on the bottom edge of the display. I found this a little inconsistent as it seems like the area you can swipe down from is quite small.
Other than these changes, the X's UI is basically exactly the same as what you get from the 8 and 8 Plus.
For a more in-depth look at iOS 11 check out our iPhone 8 review and these articles:
- Apple announces iOS 11 with better iPad productivity and loads of new features
- IOS 11 tidbits that didn't make it to the keynote (but that you should know)
Like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the iPhone X uses Apple's new A11 Bionic processor, a hexa-core chip with two performance cores that are 25 percent faster than the A10, and four high-efficiency cores that the company says are 70 percent faster than the old model. There’s also a new Apple-designed GPU that’s 30 percent faster, with the same performance as the A10, but only consumes half the power.
Like the 8 Plus, the iPhone X has 3GB RAM. While that doesn't sound like much compared to the 6GB or even 8GB RAM we've started seeing on Android phones, smartphones really don't need that much RAM.
I mentioned this in my iPhone 8 review but it's worth repeating here: unlike a PC where opening a ton of browser tabs can severely slow down your computer, iOS and Android have automatic memory management that offloads inactive tabs from active RAM usage. While you can split-screen multitask on most smartphones, you're still generally limited to just two side-by-side windows, which limits the amount of RAM you require. Mobile games also tend to be optimized to only require 1 or 2GB of RAM, which is why we didn't see much performance improvement from phones with huge amounts of RAM like the 8GB OnePlus 5.
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Apple has always performed really well on this benchmark due to how well optimized Safari is for Apple's processors and that trend continues with the X. Apple remains the only manufacturer to record sub-150 ms results in this benchmark! In terms of actual user experience, the web browsing experience on the X is lightning fast, smooth and lag-free.
AnTuTu is an all-in-one benchmark that tests CPU, GPU, memory, and storage. The CPU benchmark evaluates both integer and floating-point performance, the GPU tests assess 2D and 3D performance, the memory test measures available memory bandwidth and latency, and the storage tests gauge the read and write speeds of a device's flash memory.
Surprisingly, the X scored a little higher than the 8 Plus, despite running on essentially identical specs. It's possible that the A11 was actually built with the X in mind, and is therefore slightly better optimized for it, or iOS 11.1 (which the X is running on) gives a slight performance boost over iOS 11 (which the 8 Plus is currently running on). When the iOS 11.1 update is available for the 8 Plus we'll re-test it to see if its score changes.
Both the 8 Plus and X were way ahead of all of our Android devices.
Basemark OS II
Basemark OS II is an all-in-one benchmarking tool that measures overall performance through a comprehensive suite of tests including system, internal and external memory, graphics, web browsing, and CPU consumption.
We saw the X pull even further ahead of the 8 Plus here. Once again no Android device even came close to Apple's scores.
3DMark Sling Shot
3DMark Sling Shot is an advanced 3D graphics benchmark that tests the full range of OpenGL ES 3.0 API features including multiple render targets, instanced rendering, uniform buffers and transform feedback. The test also includes impressive volumetric lighting and post-processing effects. We're running this benchmark in Unlimited mode, which ignores screen resolutions.
The X was once again dominant in this benchmark, and again posted a slightly better score than the 8 Plus.
GFXBench Manhattan is a complex OpenGL ES 3.0-based test that uses a deferred shading graphics pipeline. The benchmark employs multiple render targets (MRTS) and diffuse and specular lighting calculated for more than 60 lights. The test also features cube map reflection and emission, triplanar mapping, instanced mesh rendering, and a Theora-based video playback system that leverages asynchronous texture streaming. We're running this test in Offscreen mode at 1080p to eliminate differences in screen resolution.
As we saw in Basemark OS II, the X once again scored significantly higher than the 8 Plus, making me wonder if Apple really did build the A11 with the X's architecture in mind. As usual, no Android device even came close to the X.
Like the 8 Plus, the iPhone X has a dual rear camera system, only this time, both 12-megapixel cameras have OIS. The wide-angle lens is the same f/1.8 lens you'll find on the 8 Plus, but the telephoto lens is an upgraded f/2.4 shooter (the 8 Plus has an f/2.8 telephoto lens). The benefit of both lenses being optically stabilized is that there's now no downside to shooting in zoom mode.
Like the 8 Plus, you get Portrait Mode, as well as Portrait Lighting. Another nice benefit of the TrueDepth camera on the iPhone X is that the front camera now also supports Portrait Mode and Portrait Lighting.
Image quality from the X is excellent with natural colors, good contrast and sharp details across the image. Both the wide-angle and telephoto lens produce excellent results, although I personally can't see much difference between it and the 8 Plus.
Stay tuned for a full in-depth camera review of the iPhone X and how it compares to the competition - coming soon!
Our standard battery test for mobile phones has the following parameters:
- Looping a 720p video with screen brightness and volume at 100%
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on
- Constant data streaming through email and Twitter
The iPhone X actually has the largest capacity battery out of the three 2017 iPhones, with a 2,716mAh capacity unit. It also has a more power efficient, albeit larger and higher resolution, OLED display. Despite this, the X didn't last as long as the 8 Plus in our battery life benchmark, although it was still very good, running for twelve and a half hours. That's nearly two hours longer than the iPhone 8.
So given its larger battery and more power efficient display, why didn't the X last longer than the 8 Plus? Apple's batteries are actually relatively small compared to its Android competition, but even with a smaller battery, they've fared really well. This is a testament to how power efficient Apple's processors are and how well optimized the iPhones run. It's possible that the A11 and iOS are so well optimized that even the addition of an OLED screen can't squeeze extra battery life out of the iPhone X.
The other likely culprit is the TrueDepth camera. While Face ID isn't on all the time, it does appear to be always on while the screen is in use - even when you're just watching a video like in our battery benchmark. I suspect this is the main reason the iPhone X doesn't last as long as the 8 Plus.
Like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the iPhone X supports wireless charging. Apple has also informed me that wireless fast charging will soon be enabled for all three phones in an upcoming software update.
The iPhone X is the iPhone we've been waiting for. After three years of basically the same design, the X finally delivers an ambitious and forward-facing take on what an iPhone can be. But like a lot of first-generation hardware, it's not without its flaws. Face ID works, but it's not the finely-tuned perfection that is Touch ID; the new Super Retina HD display looks amazing, but it's spoiled by that notch.
If you've been holding onto an iPhone 6 this whole time, waiting for 'the next big thing', this is it, but for everyone else, I don't think you should be worried about missing out. Compared to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the only features you're really missing out on is Animoji and a taller display that often ends up being much shorter thanks to unoptimized apps.
New things come at a price too: the iPhone X is extremely expensive. For a lot of people, that price won't matter - it'll be worth it to have the latest and greatest iPhone. For others, that price will just seem ridiculous. If you're on the fence and you're not sure you want to fork out that much money for the X, you probably shouldn't. Stick with whatever iPhone you already have or go for an 8 or 8 Plus instead, they basically have most of the same features, for a more reasonable price. And in the meantime, you can wait for Apple to fine-tune Face ID and work out how to cram all of those TrueDepth camera sensors into a smaller package.
Remember the first iPhone, the first iPad, the first MacBook Air and the first Apple Watch? They all had a lot of promise, but those first products weren't perfect. Fortunately, Apple is one of the best around when it comes to improving its designs and refining its products, and today those product lines are all class leaders.
The iPhone X is the first-generation of a new line of iPhones. It isn't a one off; eventually all iPhones will look like this. Unless Animoji is a feature you absolutely have to have right now, it's worth waiting for Apple to perfect it.