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iPhone X review roundup: Face ID works well but notch irritates some

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The first iPhone X reviews are in, and they’re pretty good – with some caveats. Photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Apple’s most expensive smartphone, the £999 iPhone X, is almost ready to land in stores and a few publications specially selected by Apple have been given early access to the phone. So what do they think? Is the iPhone X really the “future of smartphones”?

The iPhone X has an all-screen front design with a 5.8in OLED screen, no home button and an odd looking notch at the top for front-facing camera and sensors. The rest of the device resembles the the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, with a dual camera on the glass back. When it was made available for pre-order it sold out in minutes.

This year Apple took a different approach to its distribution of iPhone X review units, giving one of the original iPhone reviewers, Steven Levy at Wired, a phone for a week before anyone else. Then Apple followed up with a slow drip of fashion videos and lifestyle magazine reviews, before selected technology sites were allowed to publish their thoughts.

The Guardian’s review of the iPhone X will be available in the next two weeks, once it has been bought and thoroughly tested. In the meantime, here’s the consensus from those who have had early access.

It’s worth noting, as the Verge’s Nilay Patel says in his review, “Apple gave most reviewers less than 24 hours with the iPhone X before allowing us to talk about it”, so the opinions below might be slightly less considered than you might expect.

Levy’s first impression of the big new feature of Face ID?

Does it work? Pretty much. It seems reliable at fending off intruders. I have thrust my phone into several people’s faces – though considerably fewer than the million punims that Apple says I’d have to try before a false positive – and it has not fallen for any of them. I even offered up my own head shot to the camera: no go.

How it has dealt with my own real-life face is another matter. There have been times when, despite a clear view of my face, the iPhone X has ghosted me. (Apple tells me that perhaps I wasn’t making what the iPhone X considers eye contact. I wouldn’t want it to turn on every time my face was within camera range, would I?)

Eventually I devised a strategy. When waking my iPhone I think of it as De Niro’s mirror in Taxi Driver. You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here! I then see if the little lock icon on the screen has released its latch.

Rhiannon Williams from iNews only had a limited time with the iPhone X, but was able to conclude:

Size-wise, the iPhone X is smaller than you’d probably expect. Now Apple’s decided to cleave away the unnecessary body around the display, it appears slightly smaller than the iPhone 8 Plus but slightly larger than the iPhone 8, and looks more modern for it. It feels more compact in the hand than the Plus models, but that glass front and back lends it a certain heft – making it feel sturdy rather than slippery.

And she was fairly positive about Face ID too:

Face ID’s accuracy is truly impressive. While you need to look at it squarely (it wouldn’t unlock when I held it up at an angle to the sides of my face), it’s swift and reliable, and I couldn’t trick it with a photograph of me. It had no problem recognising me with and without contact lenses and while wearing glasses, but struggled to recognise me wearing polarised sunglasses.

Apple’s Craig Federighi has previously said Face ID should work with most sunglasses, but that some may sport coatings which block infrared light. It was able to unlock it while wearing two less opaque pairs of sunglasses, but it refused point-blank to unlock when I was wearing the polarised pair.

Is this a big deal? Not really. Living in the UK, I wear sunglasses far less often than my actual glasses, and it’s not exactly a hardship to take them off or simply to tap in my PIN. It would be a far larger issue if it failed to register my contact lenses, for example, because the fact I wear them daily would effectively rule out Face ID as an option for me. Face ID is not perfect, but it’s very, very good.

Associated Press reporter Nick Jesdanun demonstrates Face ID, Apple’s name for its facial-recognition technology, on an iPhone X in New York. A

Associated Press reporter Nick Jesdanun demonstrates Face ID, Apple’s name for its facial-recognition technology, on an iPhone X in New York. A Photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP

Likewise David Phelan, writing for the Independent, says:

It works in low light, and even in pitch darkness (although, to be fair, the screen lights up when you lift the phone or tap it, so this casts some light on you). It works with glasses on, glasses off, contact lenses, even with some sunglasses, though not mine, it turns out.

Is it 100% reliable? No, but it’s pretty close. The only times it didn’t recognise me were when it was lying flat on the table and I was leaning in too close. It needs to see your eyes, nose and mouth to work.

Interestingly, having spent nine days with the iPhone X Phelan notes that:

Each day the iPhone X got me through to nighttime ready for its nightly recharge. It’s not that it was breakthrough battery life compared to, say, the iPhone 8 Plus, mind.

Apple said there was considerable work on off-axis colour, that is, how the colours look while you’re viewing the screen from an extreme angle. I’d say there is a bluish cast evident as you angle the phone away from you, though this is a characteristic of OLED.

Scott Stein from Cet said after 18 hours with the iPhone X:

At first use, the bigger screen feels great. I’ve wanted more screen real estate on the iPhone, and the X comes closest to all-screen. 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.

Nilay Patel for the Verge thinks:

It’s clear it was just as challenging to actually build as all the rumors suggested. It’s gorgeous, but it’s 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 on to 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.

And, of course, there’s the notch in the display – what Apple calls the “sensor housing.” It’s 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. Getting rid of almost everything tends to draw attention to what remains, and what remains here is basically a thick black border all the way around the screen, with that notch set into the top.

Apps that haven’t been updated for the iPhone X run in what you might call “software bezel” mode: huge black borders at the top and bottom that basically mimic the iPhone 8. And a lot of apps aren’t updated yet: Google Maps and Calendar, Slack, the Delta app, Spotify, and more all run with software bezels. Games like CSR Racing and Sonic The Hedgehog looked particularly silly. It’s fine, but it’s ugly, especially since the home bar at the bottom of the screen glows white in this mode.

Gareth Beavis writing for TechRadar found similar:

Let’s not be too unfair right now – the iPhone X isn’t out yet, so you wouldn’t expect a lot of developers to have re-coded their apps to work on the longer screen.

But they sorely need to, and quickly. When you’re looking at an app that’s coded for a ‘normal’ iPhone screen, the black bars above and below the display make it look like you’re just using an older device … just one shorn of the home button.

Of the mainstream apps I use, only Twitter has been optimized to actually fill the whole screen, and with something like Netflix a movie will sit quietly in the middle of the screen, with black bars all around.

Some reviews bemoaned the iPhone X’s lack of a true, full-screen experience.

Some reviews bemoaned the iPhone X’s lack of a true, full-screen experience. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff said:

I’d be lying if I said I never noticed the notch. It cuts into full-screen apps, movies, and photos, but, after a little while, I stopped fixating on it. I guarantee that some people will hate the notch and rail against it, and it’s fun to imagine how the stoic Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, might’ve lost his cool when he first saw the notch. The complaints will, I suspect, mostly be from people who do not own or use an iPhone X.

Ulanoff found Face ID accurate and fast, but interestingly notes:

There is one way to fool Face ID, though, and Apple has already acknowledged this: identical twins. I tried it, so I know. It’s one reminder that, while facial recognition is super convenient, it’s not perfect.

If your favorite pair of glasses happens to block this part of the spectrum [that Face ID uses to read your face], you can turn attention detection off and Face ID still works fine. I like it on, but if you’re a “no-look unlock” kind of person or want to have it work while you keep your eyes on the road then the toggle is there for you.

It’s worth noting now that toggling attention detection off for Face ID is also going to be good for accessibility reasons. Vision-impaired folks, especially, will benefit.

In fact, I believe strongly that Face ID is going to be an incredible boon to accessibility. Touch ID is difficult to operate for many with motor skills or mobility issues, forcing them to rely on a simple passcode or none at all. Face ID’s ability to passively know who you are and allow you to begin taking action right from the home screen with VoiceOver is going to be killer. Apple has had a massive lead in building accessibility into its products for some time now, and this is only going to widen the gap.

Nicole Nguyen writing for Buzzfeed News noted:

The rear camera is really good (but you already knew that).

The iPhone X’s rear camera is mostly the same as the iPhone 8 Plus’… the difference in the X is that its telephoto lens has a better f/2.4 aperture (vs. f/2.8 in the 8 Plus) to let in more light. It also has optical image stabilization, which reduces blur from hand shakiness, on its telephoto lens (the 8 Plus only has stabilization on the wide angle, and the X has it on both).

All of this means that stills — especially night time photos — look bright and clear using no zoom and 2x zoom.

Interestingly Nguyen also found:

There were … more software bugs than usual in a review unit.

Most of the bugs were fairly minor, so I’m not too concerned. But something to keep an eye out for.

Overall early reviews of the iPhone X seem to indicate that the new design is a step in the right direction for Apple, but that it isn’t perfect, and that Face ID generally works better than expected. Whether facial recognition is a solid replacement for the tried and trusted fingerprint scanner remains to be seen.

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