The $999, eyebrow-raising iPhone X: David Pogue’s hands-on review

Ten years ago, the world got its hands on the very first iPhone.

On Tuesday, we got our hands on the 10th annual upgrade to that historic machine: the hotly awaited, gorgeous, shockingly expensive iPhone X. (You pronounce it “iPhone 10”—that’s a Roman numeral.)

The iPhone X is all screen; there’s no more empty slab of black or white above and below the screen. Better yet, it’s all OLED screen—the stunning colors and deep blacks (million-to-one contrast ratio!) of organic LED technology. You can charge this phone by setting it down on a charging pad instead of plugging in a cable. You can unlock it just by showing it your face.

And it will cost you $999.

The iPhone X packs more screen into less phone than any iPhone before it.

That’s so Apple (AAPL), right!? Charging a grand for a 64-gigabyte phone? Or $1,150 for a 256-gig one? (Actually, Samsung started it—with its $960 Galaxy Note S8.)

Fortunately, if you’ve been thinking it’s time for a new iPhone, the iPhone X is not your only option. Apple also released two other models Tuesday, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. They offer better cameras and faster chips (than last year’s phones), and also permit pad charging. But they lack the OLED technology and the edge-to-edge screen—and cost $700 and up.

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s grand unveiling took place at the new Apple campus in Cupertino—the enormous, still unfinished “spaceship” ring. It was the first event Apple has held in the mind-blowingly beautiful Steve Jobs theater.

The Steve Jobs Theater is a gigantic carbon-fiber disc (the roof), supported entirely by curved glass panes. The actual theater is underground.

Afterwards, Apple permitted the throngs of tech reporters into the annual “petting zoo”—a carefully monitored set of tables where we could try out the new models and ask questions about them. Here’s what I discovered.

The body

Apple’s iPhone X presentation kind of buried the headline: This phone gives you the jumbo screen size of a Plus model into the compact body size of the non-Plus iPhones. That’s a big, big deal for anyone who loves the features of the Plus models (a zoom camera lens, longer battery life, huge screen) but isn’t crazy about wielding a phone the size of a VHS cassette.

The band around the edges of the phone is mirror-finish stainless steel. The front and back are made of hardened glass—50% tougher than before, Apple says—in silver or black. It looks gorgeous.

The notch

The front isn’t entirely screen. At the top, there’s what Apple calls the Notch, which houses the front camera, the earpiece, and a depth camera (read on).

The status bar no longer reveals your carrier’s name.

The Notch interrupts what’s usually the status bar. You still see the time (to the left of the notch) and the battery, WiFi, and signal indicators (to the right). But your cell carrier’s name no longer appears, except on the Lock screen and on the Control Center screen.

The Home button

On an all-screen phone, where do you put the Home button?

You don’t. On the iPhone X, there is no Home button.

But that’s like saying, “On the new Toyota, there is no brake pedal.” We use the Home button for everything! One press to wake the phone. Touch to unlock. Long touch for Apple Pay. Two presses to switch apps. Press and hold for Siri. How can we get along without a Home button?

Lots of these functions have been assigned to the Sleep/Wake switch on the right side. You now hold it down to trigger Siri, for example, or triple-click it to fire up the Magnifier.

To return to the Home screen, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen. To open the app switcher, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen and pause with your finger in the center.

OK, fine. But what about the fingerprint reader? It’s gone. Instead, Apple says it’s come up with something better: Face ID.

Face ID

When you get your phone, you train it to recognize your face in Settings. It asks you to look into the camera and turn your head each way—twice.

After that, just looking at the phone unlocks it—so fast, you may not even realize what’s happened. You can’t fool Apple’s facial recognition with a photo, or a mask, or even a 3-D model of your head, says chief marketing officer Phil Schiller. (You also have to be looking at the phone—your spouse can’t make you unlock it while you’re asleep.) Whereas the fingerprint reader had an accuracy-fail rate of 1 in 50,000, Face ID’s stat is 1 in a million.

You’ll use Face ID wherever you used to use your fingerprint: Triggering Apple Pay, for example, or logging into apps like Mint, OnePassword, and eTrade, which Apple says have already been updated to work with Face ID.

True Depth

So how does the front-facing camera recognize your face? Using a mass of sensors Apple calls True Depth.

When you lift the phone to wake it, an infrared lamp blasts invisible light forward to see if a face is in range. If so, a tiny projector blasts 30,000 pinpoints of infrared light onto your face, and a camera reads the distortion of their spacing and shape to find the contours of your face. (It even works in the dark, since it’s infrared.)

The iPhone X’s notch packs a sizeable array of gadgets, much of which constitutes the TrueDepth depth camera.

The status of your hairstyle, beard or mustache, makeup, and glasses doesn’t affect Face ID’s accuracy. Better yet, the software continues to fine-tune its mathematical model of your face every time you use it.

Of course, Samsung’s phones have offered facial recognition for some time. But after trying Face ID a couple of dozen times, I realized that it’s much faster and more reliable. In fact, it took a few tries for me even to notice that it was doing anything. Only the tiny opening of a padlock on the Lock screen signified that facial recognition had done its thing.

Apple plans to get a lot of mileage out of its depth-sensing front camera. For example, the iPhone X can take front-facing Portrait-mode photos. (On recent iPhone Plus models, two lenses on the back can tell the difference between the subject and the background—and to softly blur the background, as in professional photos. See my story here.)

This camera also permits the creation of Animoji—animated cartoon faces whose expressions follow and mimic your expressions in real time. (Apple says that it tracks 50 different muscles in your face.) Happy, sad, wink, frown, laugh, whatever—your little cartoon-animal avatar does the same. You can record yourself saying something and then send the resulting animation via the Messages app. Suddenly, you’re Warner Brothers.

Software companies are invited to write apps that exploit the depth camera, too. Apple even demoed an upcoming version of one of its own apps, a fun movie-making app called Clips, with a new feature that replaces your background, greenscreen style. You can shoot yourself with a new background of your choosing, like an enchanted forest or an artsy linescape, or side-by-side with a Pixar character.

Wireless charging

I hate when companies say “wireless charging,” when what they mean is “laying your phone on special charging pad.” Yes, OK, you’re no longer plugging in a power cord; it’s a little more convenient than a cable. But the phone isn’t charging through the air, in your pocket. You can’t really do much with the phone when it’s lying there.

Props to Apple, at least, for adopting the same charging standard that Samsung and other companies use, called Qi (pronounced “chee”). You don’t have to buy Apple’s charging pad; you can use any company’s. They’re about $12 each on Amazon. (The standard Lightning charging jack is still there, too, so you can still plug in a cable if you want to. Still no headphone jack, though.)

In fact, Apple’s charging pad, called AirPower, won’t even be available until next year. Although when it does come out, it’ll offer a sweet perk: You can lay your iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPod charging case (a special new one) on this pad simultaneously, and charge them all at once.

In 2018, Apple will offers its AirPower charging pad, capable of charging multiple Apple gadgets at once.

In the meantime, Apple intends to throw its weight behind the Qi charging standard. It’s talking to hotels, airports, and car makers, in hopes of both improving the Qi standard and making charging surfaces available everywhere you want to be.

The guts

Apple says that the iPhone X’s camera has a bigger, faster sensor, and that both of its lenses (wide-angle and zoom) now have optical image stabilization. (On the 7 Plus, only the wide-angle lens was stabilized.) That’ll make a big difference in videos and low-light stills, although couldn’t do much testing in the Steve Jobs Theater.

The processor is apparently better, too—“the most powerful and smartest chip ever in a smartphone, with a neural engine,” if that means anything. And “four efficiency cores.” (Don’t you hate when your phone doesn’t have enough efficiency cores?)

The battery lasts two hours longer than the iPhone 7.

And all of this runs on iOS 11, the software that’s coming September 19. You can read about it here.

The deal

You can probably predict what some people won’t like about the iPhone X. That it’s too expensive, and that it borrows a lot of ideas from Samsung and other Android phone makers. And, yes. That’s the game these days, folks: Apple and its rivals shamefully steal from each other year after year.

Even so, if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, the iPhone X is the most exciting leap in years. The cameras, the depth sensor, and the OLED screen are all executed with typical Apple polish—but the big one is getting that vast, stunning screen into a phone body whose far reaches don’t exceed your hand.

The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus will be available on September 22. The iPhone X, though, won’t be available to review until October, and won’t be shipping until November 3. Even then, it’ll be in short supply.

Those who are lucky and rich enough to get one, though, are likely to have some very merry holidays indeed.

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