New iPhones and major changes usually command a ton of hype, and Apple’s pushing the hype level around the iPhone X even higher than usual, especially given the new thousand-dollar starting price point. For the last few years, we’ve said some variation of “it’s a new iPhone” when we’ve reviewed these devices. But Apple wants this to be the beginning of the next 10 years. It wants the iPhone X to be more than just the new iPhone. It wants it to be the beginning of a new generation of iPhones. That’s a lot to live up to.
I got a lot of questions about the iPhone X as I wrote this review, and I did my best to answer as many of them as I could. Apple’s asking users to change a decade’s worth of habits, which is a big change. And with big changes come big risks.
At a glance, the iPhone X looks so good one of our video editors kept saying it looked fake. It’s polished and tight and clean — my new favorite Apple thing is that the company managed to move all the regulatory text to software, leaving just the word “iPhone” on the back. The screen is bright and colorful and appears to be laminated tighter than previous iPhones, so it looks like the pixels are right on top. Honestly, it does kind of look like a 3D model instead of an actual working phone.
But it is a real phone, and 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 onto a much smaller body and designed to draw attention to itself, especially on my silver review unit. There are definitely going to be people who think it’s ugly. But it’s growing on me.
There’s no headphone jack, which continues to suck on every phone that omits it, but that’s the price you pay for a bezel-less screen with a notch at the top. Around the sides, you’ll find the volume buttons, the mute switch, and the sleep / wake button. The removal of the home button means there are a few new button combinations to remember: pressing the top volume button and the sleep / wake button together takes a screenshot. Holding the sleep button opens Siri. And you turn the phone off by holding either of the volume buttons and the sleep button for several seconds.
Apple gave us the white and silver model to review, and although Apple says the band on the outside is better than surgical-grade stainless steel, mine already has scratches and dings. So I wouldn’t expect it to remain flawless if you don’t have a case.
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. A lot of people I showed the phone to hated them, but I think they make the bright colors of the display pop. It’s a very different design decision than curving the screen to eliminate the bezel entirely, like Samsung does. Instead, Apple’s highlighting what little bezel remains. That amounts to a thick black border all the way around the screen, with that notch set into the top.
I personally think the iPhone 4 is the most beautiful phone of all time, and I’d say the iPhone X is in third place in the iPhone rankings after that phone and the original model. It’s a huge step up from the surfboard design we’ve been living with since the iPhone 6, but it definitely lacks the character of Apple’s finest work. And… it has that notch.
The iPhone X is Apple’s first phone to use an OLED display, after years of Apple LCDs setting the standard for the industry. OLED displays allow for thinner phones, but getting them to be accurate is a challenge: Samsung phones tend to be oversaturated to the point of neon, Google’s Pixel XL 2 has a raft of issues with viewing angles and muted colors, and LG’s new V30 has problems with uneven backlighting.
Apple’s using a 5.8-inch Samsung-manufactured OLED display, which it says it custom designed for the iPhone X. It’s a bigger number than the iPhone 8 Plus’ 5.5-inch display, but it’s a taller, thinner aspect ratio, so it’s actually not as big. Overall, the iPhone X is definitely more of a slightly bigger iPhone 8 than a smaller 8 Plus, and that’s what it feels like in your hand. It’s like when Apple moved from the iPhone 4 to the 5 — the display grew a bit taller. In fact, when you run apps that aren’t optimized for the X, they run with huge software bezels and the whole thing looks exactly like an iPhone 8.
In any event, the screen is excellent. The iPhone X OLED is bright, sharp, vibrant without verging into parody, and generally a constant pleasure to look at. Side by side with the iPhone 8, the X is noticeably cooler, and a bit softer — which I think makes it slightly easier to look at for long periods. The iPhone X has Apple’s True Tone system to automatically adjust color temperature to the ambient light, but strangely the X was a very different color than the iPhone 8 with True Tone on. I asked Apple about this, and they suggested that the iPhone X’s 10-channel light sensor was more precisely reading the ambient light than the 4-channel unit in the 8. Whatever the case, they were very different.
Apple is very proud that the iPhone X display offers Dolby Vision HDR support, so iTunes movies mastered in HDR play with higher brightness and dynamic range, but honestly, I found it very hard to see the difference when I watched Wonder Woman from iTunes and regular videos on other services. It’s a nice spec line, but I don’t think you’ll notice day-to-day.
The screen isn’t perfect, though: every OLED screen shifts colors off-axis, and the iPhone X is no exception. It definitely gets bluer if you tilt the phone back and forth along either axis, but it’s nothing like, say, the Pixel 2 XL, which tints blue if you just shift the phone in your hand. It’s one of those things that doesn’t leap out at you, but you’ll notice it if you’re looking for it.
A lot of you asked us about burn-in, and I haven’t seen any yet. But it’s early, so I asked Apple about it, and they told me that they’ve also done a ton of work with the screen and in the OS to limit burn-in. Every OLED screen eventually suffers some burn-in though, so we’ll just have to wait and see if the iPhone X really is better than the competition.
Unfortunately, the top of the display is marred by that notch, and until a lot of developers do a lot of work to design around it, it’s going to be hard to get the most out of this screen. I mean that literally: a lot of apps don’t use most of the screen right now.
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 make the phone look just like an iPhone 8. And a lot of apps aren’t updated yet: Google Maps and Calendar, HBO Go, 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.
Apps that haven’t been specifically updated for the iPhone X but use Apple’s iOS autolayout system will fill the screen, but wacky things happen: Dark Sky blocks out half the status bar with a hardcoded black bar of its own, Uber puts your account icon over the battery indicator, and Instagram’s volume bar disappears behind the notch entirely. It almost looks right, but then you realize it’s actually just broken.
Apps that have been updated for the iPhone X all have different ways of dealing with the notch that sometimes lead to strange results, especially in apps that play video. YouTube only has two fullscreen zoom options, so playing the Last Jedi trailer resulted in either a small video window surrounded by both letter- and pillar-boxing or a fullscreen view with the notch obscuring the left side of the video. Netflix is slightly better because it mostly plays 16:9 video but you’re still stuck choosing between giant black borders around your video or the notch.
Landscape mode on the iPhone X is generally pretty messy: the notch goes from being a somewhat forgettable element in the top status bar to a giant interruption on the side of the screen, and I haven’t seen any apps really solve for it yet. And the home bar at the bottom of the screen often sits over the top of content, forever reminding you that you can swipe to go home and exit the chaos of landscape mode forever.
I’m sure all of this will get solved over time, but recent history suggests it might take longer than Apple or anyone would like; I still encounter apps that aren’t updated for the larger iPhone 6 screen sizes. 3D Touch has been around for years, but I can’t think of any app that makes particularly good use of it. Apple told me that it’s holding workshops for developers and that the auto layout tools in iOS should make things go much faster than the transition to the iPhone 6 size, but we’ll just have to see how it goes.