iPhone X first impressions round-up: ‘good but not perfect’ the view so far [U]

Updated with TechCrunch review, at the bottom.

We talked yesterday about how Apple is this year taking a different approach to pre-sale reviews of its flagship iPhone. Instead of giving all publications and sites the same embargo date, so that all the reviews hit the net at once, it’s layering them, with different people allowed to post different pieces at different times.

We saw some written pieces and several hands-on videos by YouTubers, and we’re today seeing some more first impressions pieces by writers who were apparently given their iPhone X models just one day ahead of their embargo time …

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Business Insider‘s Steve Kovach opens his piece by stating that he’s been testing it for a little less than a day. That was, he says, enough to sell him on the device.

High points for him were the new design, the OLED screen and the performance of Face ID.

The iPhone X is a refreshing redesign. After over three years of essentially the same look, it’s nice to see Apple make something radically different again.

The best part is the screen. At 5.8 inches, it’s slightly larger than the iPhone 8 Plus screen, but on a body that’s only a little larger than the iPhone 8. For everyone avoiding the plus-sized iPhones because of their surfboard-like construction, the X will strike the perfect balance […] The X’s screen is stunning, almost as if it’s painted onto the phone […]

In my short time with the iPhone X, Face ID has worked well. It unlocks the phone quickly in low light, bright light, the dim light of Business Insider’s video studio, and even in a pitch-black closet.

Kovach doesn’t mind the notch, but says that not all app developers have yet adapted to the new aspect ratio – including, bizarrely, Apple!

Many of my apps haven’t been redesigned for the new screen size, so they show up with thick black bars on the top and bottom to mimic the same aspect ratio you’d get on a regular iPhone screen. It looks like a lot of wasted space.

Other apps have been refitted for the iPhone X screen, but have made a bunch of funky design choices. For example, some have large chunks of unused space at the bottom near the home bar. And I saw at least one app that showed the home bar bleeding into the menu icons at the bottom of the screen.

Apple’s not totally innocent either. There were a few cases where I saw large chunks of unused space at the bottom of the screen in some of Apple’s own in-house apps, such as the iPhone’s built-in Mail app, especially when the keyboard popped up.

Nilay Patel at The Verge says he was also given less than 24 hours, and is similarly impressed with the display.

The screen is bright and colorful and appears to be laminated tighter than previous iPhones, so it looks like the pixels are right on top. Honestly, it does kind of look like a live 3D render instead of an actual working phone.

He also loves the design, describing it as ‘gorgeous’ but not flawless.

There’s a tiny sharp ridge between the glass back and the chrome frame that I feel every time I pick up the phone. That chrome frame seems destined to get scratched and dinged, as every chrome Apple product tends to do. The camera bump on the back is huge; a larger housing than the iPhone 8 Plus fitted onto a much smaller body and designed to draw attention to itself, especially on my white review unit. There are definitely going to be people who think it’s ugly. But it’s growing on me.

He’s not a fan of the notch, and thinks the bezels are thicker than Apple’s marketing would have us believe.

[The notch is] ugly, but it tends to fade away after a while in portrait mode. It’s definitely intrusive in landscape, though — it makes landscape in general pretty messy. Less ignorable are the bezels around the sides and bottom of the screen, which are actually quite large.

He had bigger issues with non-optimized apps.

Apps that haven’t been specifically updated for the iPhone X but use Apple’s iOS autolayout system will fill the screen, but wacky things happen: Dark Sky blocks out half the status bar with a hardcoded black bar of its own, Uber puts your account icon over the battery indicator, and the settings in the Halide camera app get obscured by the notch and partially tucked into the display’s bunny ears. It almost looks right, but then you realize it’s actually just broken.

Patel also found that Face ID isn’t always reliable.

I had a lot of problems pulling the iPhone X out of my pocket and having it fail to unlock until Apple clarified that FaceID works best at a distance of 25 to 50 centimeters away from your face, or about 10 to 20 inches. That’s closer than I usually hold my phone when I pull it out of my pocket to check something, which means I had to actively think about holding the iPhone X closer to my face than every other phone I’ve ever used. “You’re holding it wrong” is a joke until it isn’t, and you can definitely hold the iPhone X wrong […]

FaceID works great in the dark, because the IR projector is basically a flashlight, and flashlights are easy to see in the dark. But go outside in bright sunlight, which contains a lot of infrared light, or under crappy florescent lights, which interfere with IR, and FaceID starts to get a little inconsistent.

Engadget‘s Chris Velazco said he had the phone for ‘about a day’ and ‘sort of loves’ the design, also mentioning those bezels.

It’s the most radical visual change the iPhone line has ever seen, and I sort of love it. Aesthetics aside, the iPhone X feels fantastic, with a level of fit and finish that’s highly impressive even by Apple’s standards. I particularly like the phone’s stainless steel frame — it adds just the right amount of heft, and the glass covering the X’s front and back melts into it seamlessly. Just look at the screen: the 5.8-inch OLED panel stretches almost completely over the phone’s face, ensuring iOS dominates your interaction with the iPhone X […]

Yes, a fine but noticeable bezel runs around the display, and yes, the notch above the screen that contains the elaborate camera cluster is a little strange.

He too likes the display quality – though he thinks not everyone will.

That screen, by the way, is easily among the most impressive I’ve ever seen in a phone. Apple says it tuned for accuracy over sheer punchiness, and the effect is unmistakable. While the Galaxy Note 8 delivers much more vivid colors, the iPhone X is more subdued and natural. The question of which one is “better” is ultimately a subjective one. I’ve grown used to Samsung’s lurid screens, but the iPhone X definitely punches in the same weight class, even if it seems a little dimmer.

He also echoes complaints about non-optimized apps.

Jumping into a non-optimized, letterboxed app was more jarring than I expected. When you fire up, say, Gmail, it’s bounded on the top and bottom by empty expanses that frankly make the X look a little silly.

Velazco does, though, think the new gestures work well.

Thankfully, navigating through the iPhone X’s interface is generally a breeze. Since there’s no home button, cruising through iOS happens with a series of swiping gestures. Slide a finger across a bar at the bottom to switch between running apps, swipe up from the bottom of the screen and hold for a moment (you’ll feel a haptic pulse) to display all of your currently running apps, or simply swipe up to go back to the home screen. Despite hitting the reset button on almost a decade of iPhone behavior, Apple has built a version of iOS that handily proves home buttons aren’t necessary anymore.

CNET got 18 hours (I’m guessing these guys didn’t get much sleep). Like The Verge, Scott Stein found that Face ID wasn’t 100% reliable.

Unlocking isn’t automatic. Instead, the phone “readies for unlock” when it recognizes my face. So I look at the iPhone, and then a lock icon at the top unlocks. But the iPhone still needs my finger-swipe to finish the unlock. It’s fast, but that extra step means it’s not instantaneous. Face ID did recognize me most of the time but sometimes, every once in a while, it didn’t […]

Double-clicking the side button brings up Apple Pay, but an additional face-glance is needed to authorize a payment. I tried it on our vending machine at the office and sometimes it worked great. Sometimes Face ID didn’t seem to recognize me.

Interestingly, while Apple says you need to be actively looking at your iPhone X for Face ID to work, Stein says you can switch off this protection if you want to.

By default, it requires “attention” at the display, but that requirement for direct attention can be turned off for those who need it, or those who prefer to speed up the process.

He was less impressed by the display, however, seeing it as good but not dramatically so.

Picture quality improvement isn’t immediately noticeable over previous iPhones, but that’s a testament to how good Apple’s previous TrueTone displays are. The larger screen gives the iPhone a more current and immersive feel.

He raised the same issue of apps that haven’t been adapted for the aspect ratio, and says that he found it harder to adjust to the lack of Home button.

I kept reaching for the phantom button over the first few hours, feeling like I’d lost a thumb […]

Those gestures added up to some difficult maneuvers as I walked Manhattan streets in the Flatiron between my office and a local barber shop. At the end of the first day, I admit: sometimes I missed the simple home button.

He also found Portrait Lighting was hit-and-miss.

My face ended up looking oddly cut-out and poorly lit. Unlike the rear cameras, which seemed to produce hit-or-miss Portrait Lighting shots, I haven’t had luck with my own selfies.

CNET’s senior photographer James Martin spent 10 hours playing with the front-facing camera, and was generally impressed – though did note that it had problems in bright sunlight.

TechCrunch‘s Matthew Panzarino got several days with it, and took it to Disneyland to review it in what he described as a more real-life test. Nice work if you can get it!

His review has a major focus on Face ID, which he reports worked reliably but not perfectly.

When Face ID did fail for me, it was almost always a function of one of two things: I wasn’t looking at the phone when it made the attempt (I have attention detection toggled on) or it was at too steep an angle and couldn’t see my whole face. If it was pointed at me and I was looking, it opened.

Speed of recognition is, he says, midway between the first and second generations of Touch ID.

On the camera, optical image stabilization makes a big difference at night and for close-ups, he says.

These shots of the Guardians of the Galaxy tower really highlight the difference in sharpness that you see with a stabilized lens […]

If you’re taking macro images of flowers or details or, say, bacon, the stabilized lens will help immensely with fine detail and preventing motion blur. Similarly to a telephoto situation, any motion of your hands can be greatly amplified because of the distance and detail levels of what you’re shooting.

Portrait Mode worked well with one person, but struggled with two or more.

Unless you’re perfectly parallel (unlikely) someone is going to be out of focus in Portrait Mode. In single-person shots, Portrait Mode works just fine […] Until the algorithm gets better at figuring out that there are two people in frame and understanding how to keep them both sharp, though, I’d recommend keeping it in regular mode for group shots.

Screen quality is described as ‘much, much better than the iPhone 8 LCD,’ but still suffers from dimming and colour shifts when viewed at an angle.

The one area where this display falls prey to standard OLED gripes is in off-axis viewing. Apple tells me that it has done work to counter the drop-in saturation and shift to blue that affects OLED screens traditionally. I can tell you that, compared to other OLED screens, you have to get further “off of center” to see a real shift in color, holding the phone 30 degrees or more off of dead on. But it is still there. For people who share their phone’s screen or use it at odd angles a lot, it will be noticeable. On some phones, OLEDs go super blue. On the iPhone X it’s more of a slight blue shift with a reduction in saturation and dynamic range. It’s not terrible, but it definitely exists.

Panzarino found that he struggled with the lack of Home button on day one, found it easier on day two and was completely used to it by day six.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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