Review: iPhone X - Pretty as a picture, but not perfect
By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent
It is possibly the most hyped smartphone in history.
The iPhone X (pronounced 10) is Apple’s 10th anniversary edition of the device that many credit with revolutionising whole industries.
The Apple marketers say the X will set the tone for the next decade.
That’s a pretty lofty statement and claim for a device that’s so central to the revenue stream of the world’s largest technology company.
But nonetheless you can see in the iPhone X glimpses of the what Apple thinks the future of technology will be.
Is it the perfect smartphone, as some overly excited journalists have claimed?
It is probably the best iPhone ever made.
But with a price tag starting at €1,179 SIM free, rising to an eye-watering €1,349, it would want to be exceptional.
And yet as I’ve been finding out during testing it fails to excel in some areas, meaning the perfection label may have to wait.
From the moment you unbox the iPhone X you will find it hard not to be struck by its good looks.
It comes in two colour options, silver and space grey, and is covered with glass not only on the front but also on the back.
Apart from aesthetics, that’s to facilitate wireless charging - more on that later.
Apple says its the strongest glass ever used in a smartphone, but when you are talking about a device that costs upwards of four figures, it would need to be.
So most people will probably put a cover on the device for protection - no harm too because while the glassy back is attractive, it is a finger mark magnet.
A stainless steel band that Apple says is super strong wraps around the entire edge of the device.
On the rear, the dual camera unit does protrude quite significantly, meaning the phone will never lie truly flat.
But that’s a necessary technical feature on most phones these days.
On the right side is what Apple calls the "side button", now used for activating Siri, and in conjunction with the volume rocker on the left side, to power the handset off and to take a screenshot.
The buttons are all nicely integrated into the band, making the X comfortable and easy to hold.
The 3.5mm audio jack remains consigned to history, with the lightning socket playing the charging and audio roles.
Certainly from a design perspective, the X reaches the high bar demanded by its price and it is one of the standout features of the new handset.
Perhaps the most eye catching new feature from both a design and a functionality point of view though is the 5.8" screen.
The physical home button is gone, replaced instead by a display that covers almost the entire front of the phone, leaving the thinnest of bezel around the edge.
Apple is certainly not the first manufacturer to do this - Samsung and others have adopted this approach on their high end phones for some time.
But Apple has certainly done it well.
The only downside is the already much talked about "notch" at the top of the screen, which houses the facial recognition and selfie camera unit.
The notch does detract a little from the otherwise excellent experience of watching video or viewing photos full screen.
It also means that it is no longer possible to see the remaining battery percentage directly from the home screen - you now must open the control centre to do that which I find a bit irritating.
The quality of the display though is sublime.
For the first time Apple has used OLED technology in the Super Retina HD display.
The company says that while others have been using it for a while, until now it wasn’t happy that the technology was good enough.
But the addition of that feature, combined with a high pixel per inch count of 458, High Dynamic Range and the iOS Advanced Colour Management System, all adds up to a superb viewing experience.
Colour accuracy is sharp, brightness is brilliant and blacks are deep, all enhanced by turning on the True Tone feature that automatically adapts the iPhone display to the ambient lighting conditions.
And the experience is the same no matter what angle you view the screen from.
The aspect ratio is an unusually long 19.5:9 and this combined with the all-screen display means not all apps fill the full screen space, and are instead cropped down to a more regular rectangular shape which is a bit disappointing.
But that is likely to change over time as developers update their apps to take account of the X’s display specifications.
The changes to the display have knock on effects, not only on viewing, but also on how the user interacts with the iPhone X.
No home button means a new set of gestures need to be learned.
Instead of pressing the button to get back to the home screen, you now have to swipe up from the bottom of the display.
The control centre has also moved as a result, and is now accessed via a swipe down from the top corner to the right of the notch.
Swiping from the left corner opens the notification screen, while to switch between open apps and shut them down there’s also a new gesture.
It all takes a little getting used to and is arguably not as handy as it was with the button, but it is easily learned and executed.
The disappearance of the home button also means there is no longer any TouchID fingerprint sensor on the handset.
Instead Apple has replaced it with facial recognition known as Face ID.
This operates using the TrueDepth facial mapping camera that is situated in the notch.
It is very simple to set up and apparently learns about the way you look the more you use it.
As a result, it can cope with cosmetic changes to how your face appears, including the wearing of hats, glasses, shades and contact lenses, and growth of facial hair.
If it is not sure it is you or cannot get a clean reading it prompts you to enter a passcode.
On the whole so far, I’ve found the system works pretty well and is extremely quick, even in low light conditions and darkness.
There are times when it seems to struggle a little if your face is at an unusual angle to the phone - but these are rare.
One bug bear though is that when the phone unlocks it doesn’t automatically bring you to the home screen.
You still must do the swipe up gesture to bring you home, which adds an extra layer of effort and slight delay compared to TouchID.
Apple says FaceID is even more secure than TouchID - there’s a one in a million chance someone else will be able to use it to unlock your phone apparently.
And although it can be used to activate and access third party apps and other features including Apple Pay, the actual biometric information always remains on the phone and is never transmitted.
Like with the full-screen display, facial recognition is a feature that is not unique to Apple.
But it is probably the best implementation of it that I have seen so far.
The main rear facing camera has two 12MP sensors - one with a wide angle lens and the other with telephoto giving up to 2x optical zoom.
Both had optical image stabilisation, setting the camera on the X ever so slightly apart from the iPhone 8 Plus.
The result is great quality sharp images, in a range of lighting conditions.
The front facing camera has a 7MP sensor which when allied with its TrueDepth system produces super selfies.
Like on the iPhone 8 Plus it is possible using Portrait mode on the front and main camera to artificially adjust the lighting conditions, producing different effects.
For example you can have studio, contour, stage or mono stage lighting.
They don’t all work all the time and stage light is particularly tricky to pull off well.
But when you do, the effect makes the image stand out.
The use of iOS 11 on the X also introduces the new features added to Live Photos including looping and bounce.
In terms of video the device can capture up to 4K quality at 60 frames per second, with optical image stabilisation.
iPhones have rarely led the smartphone market when it comes to imaging - that’s usually the preserve of Samsung, Sony and more recently Huawei.
But the camera set up on the X is the best Apple has ever produced, and even though it arguably still lags behind one or two other premium handsets, it is still among the best out there.
An all new device requires an all new engine and so Apple developed a fresh chip, the A11 Bionic.
It is a powerful beast that runs alongside 3GB of RAM.
The result is steadily smooth performance on all apps and tasks that doesn’t seem to slow down, regardless of what’s thrown at it.
The device comes with either 64 or 256GB of memory on board - but as always with iPhone that can’t be expanded.
The X’s battery, Apple claims, lasts up to two hours longer than the iPhone 7.
That may be true in controlled lab testing, but of course it is a bit of a meaningless statement in the real world, where people’s smartphone use varies hour to hour and day to day.
Nevertheless, in the few days we’ve been testing it, the X comfortably makes it to the end of the day with a little left in the tank without having to top up the power.
And that was with some heavy duty testing going on.
One very welcome new feature on the X (it is also on the 8 and 8 Plus) is the arrival of wireless charging using devices that meet the Qi standards.
It is also capable of fast-charging, reaching 50% in just 30 minutes.
If you’ve noticed talking and singing animated poo, animals, robots and other creatures populating your social media timeline in the last week you will probably have come across the other new feature on the X - Animoji.
This uses the TrueDepth camera to track your facial movements, which are then applied to a choice of animated faces.
It also records your voice at the same time, enabling you to record rather ridiculous messages through the visage of an animated creature, that can then be sent to someone or posted on social media.
It is a gimmick and all pretty silly - but in a fun and quite addictive way, which is why it has proven such a marketing hit for Apple as people go mad sharing Animoji.
More seriously though it does, alongside Apple’s Augmented Reality efforts, point towards what the company might be thinking in terms of more useful future applications for iPhone.
As well as packing a great display, iPhone X produces quality sound too through its two in-built speakers.
The device is IP67 rated, making it splash, water and dust resistant.
Apple has, like many phone manufacturers, been struggling to make meaningful and useful incremental improvements to iPhone in recent years.
As a result, the unique selling points of the device (apart from it being part of the Apple eco system) have been narrowing.
The company therefore needed to do something more radical and risky with its 10th anniversary edition of the handset.
And clearly in terms of engineering it threw the kitchen sink at it, the only limiters being time and the amount of money people would be prepared to pay for the device.
In large part the gamble paid off. iPhone X is a really attractive looking phone, packed with many features that are either unique, or designed better than any other smartphone maker has previously done before.
On the whole the display is superb.
The TrueDepth camera brings some generally well executed features like facial recognition, portrait lighting and Animoji.
Wireless charging will also be a great selling point.
It isn’t perfect though.
Aspects of the interface feel a little clunky, although that might ease with time.
The notch on the display detracts a little and has knock on effects for the interface.
The facial recognition system (while the best available) and the absence of a fingerprint sensor may not be to everyone’s liking.
The biggest quandary though remains price.
This is an exceptionally expensive smartphone - a huge amount to pay for a device which realistically will probably only last around two years, provided you don’t break or lose it before then.
Apple fan boys and girls won’t even think twice before shelling out.
But for others who like iPhones but aren’t too fussed about some of the unique features, an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus would suffice at a considerably lower cost.
And don’t forget that if you aren’t wedded to Apple, then many of these features are available on the Samsung Galaxy S8, Note 8, Huawei P10, HTC U11, LG V30, Sony Xperia XZ Premium and XZ1 - even though the execution may not always be as good.
So does Apple’s new flagship device have the X-factor to convince people to part with so much money?
We’ll know when the company reports its next quarterly results.
Comments welcome via Twitter to @willgoodbody