CUPERTINO, Calif. – Apple needed to wow skeptics with its 10th-anniversary smartphone, the iPhone X. (That’s pronounced “iPhone 10,” for the curious.) As expected, Apple showed off a phone with an edge-to-edge screen, advanced facial recognition technology and no home button.
I got to try it out, spending some brief time with the phone at Apple’s launch event Tuesday.
This is a sleek, beautiful phone. It had all of the more credible features we were promised by a steady drip of leaks. And it is certainly the most futuristic iPhone that Apple’s ever produced.
But while the iPhone X looks like an evolution of the iPhone, it doesn’t feel like an evolution – more broadly – of the smartphone.
While the edge-to-edge screen on the iPhone X is crisp and beautiful, it still looks ever-so-slightly boxed in by its thin bezel, as compared to the Samsung S8 or Note 8. The iPhone X’s design doesn’t make an appreciable difference in screen size or even the number of pixels you see, but it does make those Samsung phones feel like an advancement over the standard smartphone as a general product category.
And it’s not immediately clear to me that losing the home button for an all-screen front, on balance, is worth it. Apple’s come up with a series of gestures to replace the home button functions. For example, getting to the home screen requires a swipe up the middle of the screen. Pause mid-swipe, and that gets you a view of all of your apps. The Control Center, which was formerly called up by swiping from the bottom, is now summoned by swiping down from the upper right-hand corner.
If those worked seamlessly, I’d consider that a win. But these are not super-intuitive gestures, particularly for people for whom the home button functions are second nature. They may get easier, but even the demonstrators I spoke to at Apple’s event – who at least get a little heads-up on how the interface works – had some issues getting them to work every time.
That said, looks aren’t everything. The iPhone X feels like it will improve on further acquaintance.
Its software features do feel ahead of the curve, though – particularly when it comes to facial recognition.
Facial recognition shows up in a couple of different ways on the iPhone X. One, of course, is for security. The phones Apple had on offer for hands-ons were associated with the two presenters with whom I spoke. In other words, neither phone would open when I looked at them. Unlocking, when the demonstrators did it, was very fast and worked on the first try – something Apple didn’t manage to pull off in its first onstage demo, perhaps because of bright stage lights.
In real-world conditions, even with light streaming in from behind, the face unlock did work. Still, it’s worth remembering that, just as with fingerprint scanners, facial recognition may not work in all cases – such as if you’re backlit by a spotlight.
Animoji, or animated emoji, is another way that Apple’s testing out the uses of facial recognition. Use this feature, and an emoji will map to your face, sensing the movement of at least 50 facial motions to match your every motion to a number of popular emoji, including a dog, pig or even, yes, the poop emoji. It was responsive, fun and impressive in its own way, even if did feel as if Apple put a lot of effort into such a goofy feature. Right now, this feature may feel like more of a gimmick than a necessity – though undoubtedly a gimmick that will play well with those who use similar features on Snapchat and other social networks.
And the privacy-conscious may not at all like a phone that can unlock when someone else holds it up to their face.
There is one feature I wish I’d had more time to see – augmented reality. This is also featured on the $699 iPhone 8 and $799 iPhone 8 Plus, but is more enhanced on the iPhone X thanks to its more sophisticated front-facing cameras.
Augmented reality allows the phone to overlay digital objects onto the real world. This has the clearest applications in gaming right now, but Apple showed off a couple of additional intriguing uses, including a baseball app that will overlay a player’s stats over him on the playing field.
Overall, the promise laid out by this phone – plus a promise of a couple of extra hours of battery life – balances out a less-than-striking visual first impression. It will need to show me much more to prove it’s worth the $1,000 price tag. But it has intrigued me enough to want to see more, and determine whether Apple has applied enough of its characteristic polish to features we’ve already seen on competitors’ phones to make the iPhone X a standout.