Yesterday’s keynote was not without its challenges for Apple. First, thanks to our digging into the leaked code, there were few surprises.
Second, there was the fact that Apple had to kick-off with the understudy. The iPhone 8 – for all the features it borrowed from the iPhone X – looked very much like the iPhone 7, which itself looked very much like the iPhone 6. It was hard to make an iPhone 6sss seem too exciting – especially when everyone was waiting for the main act.
And then there was the failed Face ID demo. The flagship iPhone X feature falling over the first time it was demonstrated. Update: This was because other people were handling it prior to the demo, and the phone was trying to match their face and treating it as a login attempt. After several failed attempts, it fell back to requiring the passcode, as it’s designed to to.
But for my part, the keynote didn’t have much of a job to do …
Update: Before I go any further, it’s clear from some of the comments that I haven’t been sufficiently explicit in my language. Some are interpreting my statement that I haven’t been wowed by the phone to mean that I wasn’t surprised by anything that was announced. So let me try to clarify here.
By ‘wowed,’ I mean something that hits a 10 on how good I think it is – versus say the 7 something has to hit to impress me. To me, being wowed by something doesn’t require me to be surprised by it. I was wowed by my B&O hifi system when I bought it, despite researching it to death and saving for months for it. There was zero surprise when it arrived, but it wowed me just the same. Other things have done the same, also without any surprises: a Brompton bicycle, ICE recumbent trike, Concorde flight, visit to the Grand Canyon, view from the Empire State Building each and every time I visit it … and – closer to home – my MacBook Pro.
One final note: I use a diary format because my views can and do change as I get more exposure to a device. I may or may not be wowed by the iPhone X at a later stage. I’m just not based on the keynote. That clarified, I now return you to my regularly scheduled diary piece … !
In my first iPhone X Diary, I ran through the four arguments against buying one – and the four reasons I knew I was going to anyway. So the bar Apple had to clear where I was concerned was a rather low one. It didn’t need to wow me. It didn’t even have to impress me. It just had to leave me satisfied that it would deliver on what we were, by then, already expecting.
The iPhone X did clear that bar with some margin to spare. It didn’t wow me, but it did impress me.
So, let’s talk specifics, beginning with design …
“It’s all screen,” claims the large banner on the Apple website. Jony Ive also said that had been his aim for the iPhone all along, and finally they had achieved it.
Well, no it’s not, and no they haven’t. There is still a significant bezel, it’s just that – like the Apple Watch – it’s very well disguised. With the phone switched off, you can’t see where the screen ends and the casing begins.
Powered-on, the bezels look pretty obvious in photos and videos, but Jordan said that hands-on it’s less obtrusive thanks to the way it curves away from you, and I can believe that.
So Apple’s hyperbole aside, to me it’s a great-looking phone. It also makes sense of the design direction Apple has been taking since the iPhone 6. I always preferred the slab-sided look to the iPhone 6/6s/7/8, but with the iPhone X design goal in mind, the curved edges now make sense as interim steps.
Interestingly, while some had speculated that Apple would disguise the notch in software, by always using a black status bar to blend in with the hardware, it hasn’t chosen to do. Apple has instead embraced the notch, featuring it prominently in its promotional materials.
Indeed, this even extends to video views, where the notch is still present when the iPhone X is used in landscape mode. That, frankly, looks terrible, so I was pleased to learn that you can choose to display video only in the full screen area.
I suspect Apple may have deliberately chosen to make a feature of the notch so that the device is instantly recognisable. With so many phones now having much the same bezel-free screens, the notch immediately identifies it as an iPhone.
Personally, I’d have been happy with either approach when used in portrait orientation – disguising it or making a feature of it. My only quibble is photos: if I’ve carefully framed a shot, I don’t want some of it cut out of the frame. I’m hoping there will be a way to have photos default to displaying without the ears.
As expected, Face ID was the other headline feature of the iPhone X. While some had expressed skepticism about this given the laughable nature of some implementations, I was confident there would be nothing to worry about. As I wrote beforehand, about photos unlocking Samsung devices:
There is not the slightest possibility that Apple would ever release a face-recognition system that could be so easily defeated, even if it were only used to unlock the phone. With all the signs pointing to it being used for Apple Pay too, we can be extremely confident that the version used in the iPhone 8 (read: X) will be extremely secure.
Apple noted that not only can its system not be fooled by a photo, it can’t even be fooled by a lifelike cinematic mask. The company noted that Face ID is far more secure than Touch ID, which is already used for payments. The chances of anyone else’s fingerprint unlocking your phone, said Apple, is 50,000 to 1; the chances of someone else’s face doing so are a million to one – though it did caveat that there’s significantly more chance of this with a close family member.
Like my colleague Benjamin, I was disappointed to see that Face ID unlock requires a swipe-up.
It would seem to be far more seamless to simply have the phone unlock when you look at it. However, the Apple employee in Jordan’s hands-on said that testing had actually found it was better to have to explicitly unlock the device, and I’m perfectly content to reserve judgement on this until I get mine.
From the demos, Face ID appears to more than live up to the promise of being easier to use than Touch ID, but let’s be honest here: it’s also cool tech.
I readily admit that I’m not immune to the gadget factor when it comes to choosing a device, and the fact that there’s so much hi-tech kit squeezed into that notch in order to facilitate Face ID is a bonus.
More practically, the camera improvements – especially for those of us not currently using the iPhone 7 Plus – are a big deal. We now get Portrait Mode, with its artificial depth of field effect, in a much more compact device.
More than that, we also get the new portrait lighting effects. The combination of the two things means that the iPhone X gets closer to emulating a standalone camera than any iPhone before it.
Now, as a keen photographer with a DSLR and pro lenses in my armoury, I have to admit to having mixed feelings about these kind of artificial effects. My instinctive reaction is that they can’t possibly be as good as the real thing, and this view was certainly reinforced by the iPhone 7 Plus when it first launched: the artificial bokeh frequently had a visible halo when examined closely.
I also have to confess to feeling that using software tricks to emulate optical and lighting effects is just a bit lame. But really, I think I need to get over myself on that one, and judge it by its results. After all, I did that when I stopped carrying my DSLR when travelling and switched instead to using a Sony a6300.
Just as I really appreciated that a much more portable compact camera allowed me to get virtually indistinguishable results from my DSLR, I ought to be equally appreciative if it turns out my iPhone X can do the same for a greater percentage of my photos.
To me, though, the two photographic specs that really caught my attention were a larger sensor, and hardware noise-reduction. Sensor size is one of the two biggest factors in determining the quality of a photo (the lens being the other), especially in low-light. A larger sensor alone would improve low-light photography, and combining that with hardware-based noise-reduction sounds incredibly exciting.
I’m very much looking forward to testing the camera with sunset and blue-hour shots – two situations where existing iPhones struggle. If it copes well with those, it will bring me one step closer to an iPhone being the only camera I need 99% of the time.
Regular readers will know two things about me: I hate wires, but I’m distinctly unimpressed by today’s wireless charging systems. As I wrote back in 2015:
Today’s wireless charging systems don’t get rid of wires. They replace a power cable running directly to a device with a power cable running to a charging mat. Either way, we get the cable.
There is of course one advantage to wireless charging: we don’t have to plug in the device, we can just put it down on the pad. I’ll admit that’s slightly more convenient. But only slightly.
My view remains the same. A wireless charging mat is somewhat more convenient than plugging in a cable some of the time (it’s useless when you need to charge your phone while using it), but I’m generally pretty ‘meh’ about it.
I am, though, delighted that Apple has chosen to fully support the Qi standard, so we’ll be able to choose our charging mat from the wide variety out there. Mostly I like to be able to see my phone’s screen while it’s charging, to see notifications and the state of HomeKit devices, so I’m more likely to go for a stand version than a flat one.
That said, I do think Apple’s upcoming combined mat for iPhone, Watch and AirPods will be appealing for a lot of people, and I may end up throwing one of those into the mix.
I’ve said before that augmented reality excites me way more than virtual reality. I think it will be huge, so I was extremely disappointed by the fact that Apple only showed games in the keynote. The whole AR angle seemed to me to have been very badly underplayed.
We noted before that Apple isn’t using the dual camera setup in the iPhone 7 to enhance its AR capabilities, perhaps because it wants AR to be accessible to as many people as possible. But it still seemed to me strange that it was launching a new iPhone with 3D cameras as a key feature yet said little about how the iPhone X might enable the best possible AR experience.
I’m sure it will, if for no other reason than the increased performance and display quality, but it’s odd that Apple didn’t make more of it.
Animoji. I’m sure lots of people will love this feature. Me, I’ll probably use it once and then never again.
Which brings us to price.
I’m firmly convinced that Apple leaked the $999 figure in advance, just to give us all time to get used to the idea. It’s not that big a jump if you’re coming from an iPhone 7 Plus, but for most of us that’s quite a hike.
But if you look at that line-up, it doesn’t look out of place. While still steering clear of the budget end of things, Apple now has a very good spread of prices from mid-market to top-end.
Personally, when you consider the fact that the iPhone 8 is really just an iPhone 6sss, I’d say the $300 jump from that to the iPhone X is, well, if not reasonable, then at least understandable.
I can see one reason some might opt for the iPhone 8 Plus: if you’re coming from the 7 Plus and are used to the iPad-like split-screen view in landscape mode. But for everyone else, I think buying an iPhone 8 makes little sense if your budget could stretch to the X.
Sure, a $300 difference sounds a lot – and it is, as a lump sum. But if you keep an iPhone for two years, the difference is down to a little over ten bucks a month. Factor in the increased resale value and it’ll be significantly less than that.
To me, 64GB feels a little tight in these days of 4K video. It’s what I have on my iPhone SE, and I can’t keep much video on it, so I’ll be opting for the 256GB model. Apple’s UK pricing is pound-for-dollar, so that’s going to cost me £1149. To put that in perspective, just £100 more would get me a 12-inch MacBook.
So yes, paying that much for a phone does make me cringe. But, of course, it’s not just a phone: it’s an extremely capable pocket computer, a very able compact camera, an iPod, a pocket videophone and so on. It helps to think of it as a very small MacBook.
Availability, too, is a shock. Clearly all those reports of production difficulties were right. I don’t mind waiting, but I sure as heck hope Apple will hype the iPhone X in-store, otherwise a lot of normals – who know little about the upcoming flagship – are going to buy the iPhone 8 this month and be extremely annoyed two months later.
It’s honestly getting pretty hard to wow people with a phone these days. I think the iPhone X gets as close to that as is possible just now.
But accepting that it doesn’t wow me because no phone does, I’m left with the fact that it does impress me. It looks great. The screen quality seems like it will be fantastic. The camera improvements likewise. Face ID is convenient and a nice gadget feature. Given my conversion to wearing jackets, I can trade-off the pocketability of the iPhone SE for these benefits.
As I often say to friends who umm and aah over expensive toys, life is short: if you want it, and you can afford it, then buy it. I shall be taking my own advice.