Testing the iPhone X for 48 hours ahead of its official launch on Friday reminded me of what really drew people to the Apple’s original iPhone when it launched in 2007. While it’s not perfect, there’s so much to admire about the new flagship. It seems to have cracked facial recognition in a way no one else has, its design has been overhauled, and its display and cameras are among the best available.
Above all though, the iPhone X is first and foremost a status symbol, just like the original iPhone was ten years ago. The hype surrounding its launch, the rapid sell out of pre-orders, and its eye-watering price (retailing from Dh4,099) have made the iPhone X, for better or for worse, an object of desire first and a smartphone second, just as it was in its first incarnation in 2007.
It’s worth recalling though that while many of those original iPhone customers were drawn in by its object-of-desire status, the product keeps on drawing customers in year after year thanks to the sheer quality of the devices. The iPhone X keeps that tradition alive in a big way, delivering a drastically improved product that, while not perfect, once again pushes the boundaries of the smartphone experience.
Design-wise, the iPhone X is the biggest leap forward for Apple since 2014’s iPhone 6 range, with a new chrome trim round the edges accompanying the glass back that debuted earlier this year with the iPhone 8 for wireless charging purposes. You can feel a faint edge around the joins, but it’s a beautifully crafted device that retains the premium feel that we’ve come to expect from Apple.
The design changes, while welcome, are nothing though compared with the iPhone X’s new Super Retina screen, the first iPhone display to use the OLED technology favoured for years by Samsung and others. In short, it’s astonishing, with the highest pixel density, strongest colours and deepest blacks ever seen on an iPhone screen. What’s more, Apple’s True Tone technology, first introduced on the iPad Pro, cleverly adjusts the colour palette depending on the ambient light conditions, meaning that colours don’t get too garish or bright.
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As with the LG V30 and the Samsung Galaxy S8 range, the iPhone X’s 5.8 inch display occupies virtually all of the iPhone X’s (relatively small) 143.6 by 70.9 mm frame, offering a surprisingly large viewing experience on a smartphone that still fits neatly in the hand. That experience is undermined somewhat though by what Apple calls “the sensor housing,” a black cut out section at the top of the display, which critics have already dubbed “the notch.” While easy to ignore when holding it upright, it’s undeniably noticeable when held in landscape mode.
As the name suggests, the “sensor housing” is home to the cameras and sensors that enable the iPhone X’s TrueDepth camera system, the technology Face ID, the device’s signature feature. TrueDepth creates a 3D scan of your face, enabling you to unlock your iPhone X just by looking at the screen and then swiping up from the bottom. FaceID also lets you approve Apple Pay and other purchases, and offers some other quirky functions as well.
Apple may be onto something with Face ID and TrueDepth; after a very straightforward initial set up, Face ID quickly unlocked my phone more than 99 per cent of the time. It’s far smoother than other facial-recognition systems I’ve used, to the extent I eventually forgot I was using it completely.
Face ID isn’t perfect though. While it works in all sorts of lighting conditions, it failed to recognise my morning face in the dark at 6am (even Apple’s sensors have their limits) and got confused a few times when people crowded around the screen. Also, it won’t work for those wearing face veils or children under the age of 13, who will have to enter a traditional passcode instead.
TrueDepth also powers one of the iPhone X’s other signature features, the new animated emojis (animojis) of Apple’s iMessage service. The feature lets you record a short video message as an array of cartoon characters that lip-sync perfectly to your voice and capture your facial expressions. A gimmick no doubt, but one that had jaws dropping among everyone I showed it to.
The novelty of Animojis is likely to wear off soon, but it’s going to be intriguing to see what developers do with the iPhone X’s facial mapping capabilities. Snapchat’s new beta app uses the technology to generate some incredible new facial filters, while the new version of Apple’s Clips app will let you record video selfies in a number of creative formats, including as a character in an 8-bit video game or as a hologram projection in the Millennium Falcon.
Beyond its TrueDepth capabilities, the iPhone X builds on the extremely impressive camera capabilities of the iPhone 8 Plus. The dual 12MP lenses of the rear camera are retained, but with optical image stabilisation on the telephoto as well as the wide angle lens. The impressive Portrait Lighting mode is now available via the 7MP front camera as well, lending extra polish to selfies.
All in all, the iPhone X is comfortably the best smartphone Apple has ever made, representing a huge leap forward from the significant update of the iPhone 8 range. Its display and cameras are right up there with the very best on the market, while the TrueDepth and Face ID offer a tantalising glimpse of what smartphones can become.
Of course, it's still an extremely expensive proposition, with plenty of other excellent flagship smartphones on the market for far cheaper. But at the end of the day, the iPhone X demonstrates that Apple can still make a compelling device a decade after its smartphone debut. With a smartphone this good, in spite of its high price, devotees are unlikely to turn their backs on the product any time soon.