iPhone X Review: Eccentric, Expensive, Electric, Exquisite… even now!
The Batman or the Joker in the iPhone Pack?
All right, so this review is super late. When we got the iPhone X, it was pretty much one of the most divisive devices to have come out of the Apple stable – some were hailing it as revolutionary, some were calling it an overpriced, super breakable gizmo. A few months down the line, that has not changed – some insist the iPhone X is a super hit that will redefine phone-ry (that a word?) while others claim that sales have been poor and that the device itself will be out of production in a few months’ time. All that debate means that notwithstanding our tardiness, the iPhone X remains relevant even today, and surprisingly (partly thanks to its price tag, we suspect) relatively unchallenged. And the main question around it remains unanswered: just how good is it? Three months down the line after its release, this is what we think.
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Finally, an iPhone that looks and feels different
Love it or hate it – and in best iPhone tradition, the X too is deeply divisive (at the time of writing, there was already speculation that it would be discontinued in a few months) – there is no denying the fact that the iPhone X comes with the most distinct design that we have seen on an iPhone since, well, the slightly box-y iPhone 4. Just as there was no chance of mistaking that worthy for any of its contemporaries, so too there is no way in which you are going to think that the iPhone X looks similar to anything in the phone world out there.
We have seen our share of zero bezel devices in the market, but we have to admit that none of them has come as close to making a phone look like a slab of screen in your hands as the iPhone X has. No, it is not as if there are no bezels at all, but unlike other devices which have focused on removing them from the sides and left them on the top and the lower portions of the display, Apple has pretty much hacked them away from all sides, except for that tiny slot at the top, in which are lodged the front-facing camera and a number of sensors, which has resulted in the (in)famous notch. Does it look ugly? It depends on your perception. But whether you like it or not, there is no doubting that it gives the phone a very distinct look from the front – there are not too many devices about whom you can say that these days.
Of course, those chopped off bezels mean that there is no fingerprint scanner in front and no home button either (the first iPhone to come minus that spherical companion below the display). The sides are shiny stainless steel and curve-y, the edges rounded and the button placement remains largely similar to that on the Plus series of the iPhones – volume and silence mode buttons on the left, the power/display button on the right.
The back of the device has garnered as much attention as the front-enabled notch. And not because of any tech wizardry – it is a glass affair with the logo in the upper central area and dual cameras arranged one below the other and separated by a flash (a curious arrangement, we must confess). No, the attention has sprung from the material used on the back. Apple has insisted it is made of the “most durable glass ever in a smartphone,” but that has not made it immune to damage by drops. We have been lucky with our unit that fell and bounced on the road once but still came out without a mark, but others have different – and more disastrous – stories to tell. Our recommendation would be to put a case on that.
Mind you, it is a recommendation that we make with a heavy heart because make no mistake about it; the iPhone X is a very good looking and very distinct phone. At 7.7 mm, it is not the thinnest phone we have used, and at 174 grams, it is not lightweight either. But the bezel trimming means that a 5.8-inch display is squeezed into a frame that is much (MUCH) smaller than the behemoth that features the 5.5 inch one of the iPhone 8 Plus. So much so that many people on first glance thought that the iPhone 8 Plus had the bigger display (it is just a much bigger phone).
“It’s all screen” is Apple’s tagline for the X. And it is spot on – it is the closest thing we have seen to a slab of screen in our hands, notch be damned!
A hardware boost
And that slab of screen is hands down the best display we have seen on a phone, pretty much giving #goals to the rest of the smartphone brands out there. It is a 5.8 inch OLED display with a resolution of 2436 x 1125px, and a pixel density of 458 PPI. “OLED designed for iPhone X” claims Apple, and it certainly is not the sort of eye-popping color riot that Samsung’s flagships hit you with but still manages to stand out because of its brightness and the fact that its colors look so realistic. “It’s OLED blended with Apple’s retina displays,” one of our colleagues commented, and well, we tend to agree. Yes, we have seen the likes of the Pixel 2 and the OnePlus 5T also tone down their AMOLED displays, but no one has done it this effectively, without compromising on brightness or peppy colors (without getting unreal).
Housed above the display are Apple’s front-facing camera and an array of sensors (read more about them here) that facilitate selfies with Portrait Lighting and perhaps the most controversial aspect of the iPhone X – Face ID. The front-facing camera remains a 7.0-megapixel affair, though it now has support for Portrait Lighting. The cameras on the rear are dual 12.0-megapixel ones, and unlike on the iPhone 8 Plus, both have optical image stabilization – also one has a f/1.8 aperture and the other a f/2.4 aperture (the second on the 8 Plus has a f/2.8 aperture). In terms of processor, the X is on the same plain as the 8 and 8 Plus – an A11 Bionic Chip with a neural engine and an M11 motion coprocessor.
A whole new UI, and a headache too
However, what really makes the iPhone X stand out from the other iPhones, current, and past, is its interface. It is the first iPhone which ditches the round home button beneath the display, and that means that the UI becomes very gesture-based, unlike those on other iOS devices. Unlocking the iPhone is in most cases as simple as just picking up the device and swiping up as you look at it – Face ID works just fine most of the time (it does stutter once or twice though). And yes, it is not as fast as those on some Android devices (most notably the OnePlus 5T), but then on the flip side, it does claim to be far more secure and has a few tricks up its – it can be set to unlock the phone only when your eyes are open, and it works magnificently in pitch darkness too. Of course, it is supposed to be more secure than fingerprint scanning, which puts it in a different zone altogether. It can be defeated by an evil twin, but then the odds of most people having one are kind of remote.
Navigation too changes because of the missing home button – to return to the home screen now you need to swipe up from the base of the display. Similarly, viewing recently used apps now is a matter of swiping up from the base of the display and moving to the right. A quirk here is that while the recently used apps are visible in card format (as on other iOS devices), you cannot just flick them upwards to close them but have to keep a card pressed for a while to see a small minus (“-“) sign appear on the left corner – NOW you can close the app by either flicking the card up or just touching the minus sign. Long pressing the display button launches Siri now, and well, that also means that switching off the phone is different – you now have to hold down the display button AND the volume up button to get to the shutdown and restart options. Mind you, momentarily holding the same two buttons together will take a screenshot. And as swiping up now triggers recently used apps or takes you to the home screen, you now need to swipe down from the top right corner next to the notch to access Control Center.
You get the idea – it’s a whole new UI world. One which has had app developers in a tizzy, tweaking their apps to wrap about that notch, or face the alternative of appearing in a ‘boxed’ format (with black bands above and below the main UI).
And it is this that is actually the Achilles Heel of the iPhone. No, not the “notch” as some would have us believe, but the fact that it takes getting used to. This is perhaps the first iPhone we have used that has a relatively steep learning curve – we actually found ourselves struggling to remember how to switch it off, not least because its contemporaries (the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus) work very differently. It also means that anyone who has used an iPhone X will struggle for a while to get back to another iPhone and indeed even an iPad – we have lost count of the number of times we have swiped down from the top of our iPads in the hopes of accessing the Control Center, only to be confronted by the notifications and lock screen!
Scoring on display…get used to the notch!
The big question, of course, is how does the phone perform overall? And it is here, once you have tackled the initial headaches over the interface that the X scores and scores heavily. Yes, it does have the same chip as its eight-y siblings, but it just seems smoother and a tad nippier – not discernibly, though. Where it DOES seem massively different from not just the 8 and 8 Plus but just about every other phone out there is in terms of those two crucial parameters: display and camera. The 5.8-inch AMOLED display pretty much seems to have redefined people’s expectations of AMOLED displays – the stress is suddenly on realistic colors and brightness rather than the super poppy colors that have so far tended to define them. In fact, at first glance, many people could not tell the difference between the displays of the 8 Plus and the X. Look a little closer, however, and the X emerges as the superior. We have no qualms calling this one of the best displays we have seen on a mobile device. Does the notch get in the way? We would be blind to say it does not – and initially, we found video and images wrapping around it as downright peculiar, but in time, we got used to it. Games and videos do look stunning on that display.
Cameras that keep it real
And then there are the cameras. In best iPhone tradition, they do not blow you away with stunning results but simply keep snapping what you see, with minimum additions and fuss. At a time when an increasing number of phones are going the software route to make pictures look better, the X scores heavily for being realistic, and with optical image stabilization on both sensors at the back, scores in low light photography too. You are not going to get amazingly peppy colors but detail will be aplenty, and you are unlikely to be surprised by the pictures you take – because the pictures look very similar to what you actually saw. There is something to be said for that, really.
That said, however, we are not overly impressed by the Portrait Lighting feature on the front camera – it struggled with the edges and the Stage Light Mono mode, which is being much talked about, actually almost always chopped away my hair (which is not a bad thing, given that there is not too much of it, but still…). The existence of Portrait Mode is in some ways a bit of an aberration, as it tries to add an injection of artificiality in a camera set up whose biggest strength is its realism. Yes, when it does work, it can appear magical, but just be prepared to be really patient with it – we must confess we like Honor’s aperture fiddling method (seen in the View 10) more. But overall performance? The iPhone X scores over the iPhone 8 Plus in low light photography and thanks to its compact frame is simply easier to handle. And that places it among the top phone photo shooters out there. Comfortably so. The Pixel 2 and Note 8 might get better-looking shots, but if you want your pictures to reflect what you really saw, then the iPhone X is perhaps the best phone for you!
Ticking off the other boxes
In other departments, the iPhone X pretty much delivers flagship-level performance. Sound quality on speakers is stellar, and is very good on headphones too, although, given its slightly more generous proportions, we wonder if Apple could have squeezed a 3.5 mm audio jack into it. Battery life is a pleasant surprise. Although far more compact than the 8 Plus, which looks massive in comparison, and boasting a larger, higher resolution display, and more cameras and sensors, the iPhone X pretty much matches the iPhone 8 Plus in the battery department. You can see through a day of use without too much stress, which is pretty decent by modern standards and is very good by iPhone ones. And then there is the app treasury that is stacked into the iTunes App Store, which still has the edge over Android in that department. And while iOS aficionados will curse the new interface initially, one gets the hang of it sooner rather than later, simply because hey, it just works so smoothly.
Not super affordable, but super nevertheless!
It has a new UI which takes some getting used to, has a frame that is definitely on the fragile side, and comes with a price tag that is frightening (Rs 95,390). Given all of this, should you consider investing in an iPhone X? As in almost every case out there, the answer is not a straightforward one. If you have the bucks to spare and want the most distinct and powerful iPhone out there (the cameras and higher resolution display give it the edge over the superb 8 Plus, which shares most other specs), then the iPhone X is a no-brainer. That notch makes it super noticeable in the smartphone crowd, battery life is very good and those cameras live up to the iPhone tradition of being simple and realistic, and its performance is zippy once you have got the hang of the UI (it is a UI that you need to get the hang of, but does not hang!).
But if budgets are tighter, and you are a fan of the 7 and 7 Plus type of iPhones and are in no mood to get used to a slightly different interface, then the X perhaps not for you and you would be better off with an 8 or 8 Plus. And if you are looking for a premium device irrespective of budget then honestly the only one that can stand against it is ye olde enemy, the Galaxy Note 8 (sorry, Google, the Pixel 2 duo does not quite cut it).
No, it ain’t perfect, but the iPhone X is pretty much a diamond, with rough edges. And bloody well costs as much. Love it or hate it, you ignore it at your peril because we have a sneaky feeling (witness the sudden interest in Face ID and notches in spite of all the criticism aimed at them) that to paraphrase a slogan from one of its great early rivals:
This is what all iPhones will – and all other phones will try to – become.