iPhone X Review: The Verdict
The iPhone X is a bleeding edge piece of tech that lays the foundation for the next decade of smartphones. If you can stomach the cost - and don’t mind relearning how to use your phone - it's easily the best iPhone you can buy, but it's not for everyone.
What we love
- Genuinely feels new
- Facial recognition actually works
- Fantastic cameras
- Solid battery life
What could be improved
- Very expensive
- No bundled fast charger or wireless headphones
- No headphone jack
What's the iPhone X?
Part sci-fi pipe dream, part gratuitous status symbol, the iPhone X lays down a blueprint we're sure to see replicated by phone manufacturers for years to come. Much like its 2007 namesake, the iPhone X is a radical redesign, ditching tried and true conventions for something that truly feels new.
The home button is gone, so is the fingerprint reader. The device is almost all screen. Apple isn't the first manufacturer to toy with these ideas, but they genuinely change the way you interact with your phone. For the best, for the most part.
Other than a small notch for a speaker and front-facing camera, the front of the iPhone X is all screen. This has allowed Apple to plonk a 5.8-inch display - the largest in any iPhone yet - into a body that's only a little bit bigger than the 4.7-inch iPhone 8.
In moving to this all screen design, the home button had to go. And rather than move the fingerprint reader to the back, or embed it under glass or in the power button, Apple has bet it all on facial recognition. Fortunately, it's some of the coolest tech we've seen in a phone in yonks.
Of course, the new hotness doesn't come cheap; starting at £999, the iPhone X is the priciest iPhone to date. So is it worth your hard-earned cash?
What's good about the iPhone X?
Cutting the fingerprint reader was a controversial decision, but facial recognition is an admirable replacement for Apple's longstanding Touch ID. Using your face to unlock your phone is fast and reliable; I didn't have any issues about 95% of the time. The process is easy: tap the iPhone X's screen to wake it up, swipe up, and voila, you're in. You might not even notice it looking for your face.
Dubbed Face ID, the iPhone X uses a "TrueDepth camera system" for its facial recognition. It's a selfie camera on steroids that uses a bunch of newfangled tech (including a dot projector, infrared camera, and a flood illuminator) to map your face, measure your proximity from the phone, and check if you're paying attention. Because Face ID has all this data to work with, it's incredibly difficult to fool - you can't just print out a picture of someone's face.
All this tech also makes Face ID quite flexible; it's not just looking for one "look". I've got long hair, I wear reading glasses. Face ID worked with my hair up, with my hair out, with my glasses on, with my glasses off, in bright sunlight, in complete darkness.
Face ID should work with sunglasses too, provided they don't block infrared. My Ray Bans do, which is a bit of a bummer, but I'm not going to change sunglasses for my phone. If you're in the same boat, you're able to lift up your sunglasses for a second, or just bang in your PIN. Alternatively, you can tell Face ID not to "look for attention", which means you don't have to make explicit eye contact with the TrueDepth camera to unlock the iPhone X.
Even if you've got "look for attention" switched off, you do still need to look at your iPhone X at the right angle to unlock it. It's one of the main trade-offs when compared to the fingerprint readers of old; you can't just unlock your iPhone when it's sitting on a desk, for example. In most cases, you'll need to either pick up the phone, or move your face. Just being in proximity of the iPhone X isn't enough to let you in.
Face ID is now used to authenticate Apple Pay in lieu of a fingerprint reader. You double tap the iPhone X's side button to bring up your card, look at the phone to authorise, then tap the terminal to pay. It's maybe a touch slower than simply tapping your phone on the terminal, but not egregiously so.
I've missed having a fingerprint reader once or twice, but for the most part Face ID just works. You trade off a little versatility (wet hands were one of the only things that could break Touch ID) for a little less friction. When you open an app or website that requires extra authentication - a password manager or a banking app, for example - the iPhone X just checks your face and unlocks, there’s no need to put in a fingerprint or a PIN.
Face ID also let’s you read your notifications, which by default are obscured until the iPhone X recognises your face. These are small changes, but they're very welcome.
Facial recognition isn't all business though; there's a few genuinely fun uses for it. Animojis - Apple's animated emojis - are actually wonderful. They map your face and voice to one of 12 emojis with a staggering amount of accuracy. There's part of them that's plain dumb fun, but there's a certain appeal from a communication perspective. They're more expressive than just voice, but a step removed from sending video of your actual face (which is kinda weird, right?). An animoji feels like the right balance between personal but not too personal, with a good pinch of cute thrown in. And since Animojis can be saved as movie files, you can even use them to bug your iPhone-less friends.
Clips - Apple's reasonably new photo and video editor app - can replace the background behind you in real time to create a stylised image. The results aren't free from imperfections, but the fact the images have a look - such as illustrated, pixelated, or airbrushed, for example - helps cover these up. Considering you'd normally use a green screen to get the same effect, Clips is kind of incredible.
Animojis and Clips aren't the kind of features you’d explicitly buy the iPhone X for, but it doesn’t stop them from being a lot of fun, and a hell of a technical showcase.
The iPhone X's big new screen is one of the iPhone X's big new features. It stretches across almost the entire phone; top-to-bottom, side-to-side. There's still a slight black frame between the display and the stainless body, but it's a very welcome departure from the bezel heavy iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. The iPhone X also stands out from the crop full-screen Android phones, which tend to only go side-to-side, while leaving larger bezels on the top and bottom. I'm a sucker for symmetry, so I'm quite partial to Apple's approach.
The iPhone X's slim bezels mean that its 5.8-inch display fits into a body that's only a little larger than a 4.7-inch iPhone. This makes one-handed used quite comfortable for the most part, but pulling down the notifications pane or the control centre gets a bit tricky without a second hand or completely readjusting your grip.
While the display itself is striking, there's also new tech powering the screen. The iPhone X can now show deeper blacks than past iPhones, to the point where dark colours almost blend into the phone's slim bezels. This is thanks to the use of an OLED display, a first for Apple. OLED works by lighting up individual pixels as they’re needed rather than the whole screen. The result of this is a screen with higher contrast that gives photos and videos a bit of extra pop.
True Tone technology, first introduced with the iPad Pro, is also present in the iPhone X. The feature automatically adjusts the colour temperature of the iPhone's display to match the ambient lighting of your environment, which in turn makes colours appear natural, and can make the screen easier on your eyes.
The move to an all screen display means the iPhone X no longer has any kind of home button. Closing apps (and returning to your home screen) is now done with a swipe up from the bottom of the iPhone X's display. Swiping up half way will open the multitasking menu, and you can swipe left and right along the bottom of the phone to jump through active apps. These gestures are all remarkably fluid, and give the iPhone X a sort of frictionless "magic space glass" vibe. It's different enough to be more than just a bigger iPhone.
One of the more contentious parts of Apple's move to an all screen display is the notch that houses TrueDepth camera and speaker. It can look a bit awkward, but I found I forgot about it in daily use, at least when in portrait mode. The notch isn't part of "active area" of most apps, so it's never right up in your face.
Since the iPhone X is still quite new, not all apps have been properly optimised for the new display. In some cases, part of an app got stuck behind the notch, making it impossible to interact with. In other cases, apps that haven't been updated at all will just display with "software bezels" on the top and bottom of the app, making the iPhone X look more like an iPhone 8. Both of these issues will get better over time, but it can be a bit inconvenient in the short term.
Despite the large screen and small body, the iPhone X still has a reliable battery life. It's not quite as hearty as the iPhone 8 Plus, but you'll still get through a day with a decent buffer. I found I typically had somewhere around 30% left at the end of the day.
While the iPhone X's cameras might play second fiddle to the redesign, the primary camera - identical to the to that found in the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus - offers meaningful improvements over last year's devices. The iPhone X takes better photos across the board thanks to richer colours and increased sharpness, and these improvements are especially welcome when it comes to challenging situations.
Lowlight photography is the biggest winner, with the iPhone X snapping significantly brighter photos. This hasn't come at the expense of clarity or sharpness (brighter lowlight photography is often the result of a slower shutter speed, which means a photo takes longer to take, which in turn increases the chance of motion blur); lowlight images are sharper, more detailed, and exhibit less camera noise and artifacts.
During the day, the iPhone X is far better at handling harsh or direct sunlight. Photos are far less prone to blowout, and capture better contrast. If you're shooting towards the sun, you'll get a rich blue sky rather than a washed out bluish white. In short, the iPhone X is far more likely to get you a good photo, regardless of lighting conditions. It's easily one of the best smartphone cameras on the market.
The iPhone X's camera configuration stands out from Apple's other 2017 models thanks to a souped up zoom lens. While the iPhone 8 Plus also has a secondary camera, the iPhone X improves on it thanks to optical image stabilisation and a wider aperture. This gets you sharper, brighter photos, and improved low-light imaging. The quality doesn't quite match the primary lens, but the zoom lens is a godsend at times you can't actually get close to your subject; sneaky doggo snaps, mosh pit pics, or showy street shots. It's not essential, but I always find myself missing a dedicated zoom lens when testing phones without one.
Zoom is neat, but the iPhone X's dual camera configuration can also be used for a couple of cool tricks. Apple's improved portrait mode - a camera option that simulates DSLR-like bokeh - with a feature called "portrait lighting". On top of blurring the background behind your subject, you're able to rework the lighting in the shot; essentially, image fakery that allows you to recreate shadows and highlights you'd typically achieve with dedicated lights.
If you're shooting in reasonably well-lit environments (and as a the name suggest, a portrait), you can get stunning results. The "studio lighting" preset that strips out the background behind your subject is amazing when it lands. The effects - especially studio lighting - can be inconsistent however; dimmer environments, wild hair, and complicated backgrounds can all adversely affect the final image. Portrait lighting is still in beta, so hopefully Apple is able to address some of these challenges in the future. Either way, it's a fun time.
Thanks to the iPhone X's TrueDepth camera, you're able to use the same portrait lighting effects when taking selfies. These are especially dependent on good lighting, but look great when they land.
The iPhone X is just as water-resistant as the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, with a rating of IP67. This means it can safely survive depths of a metre for up to half an hour. Water-resistance is more about peace of mind rather than an invitation to use a device under water (especially because water damage isn't covered under your warranty), but it's nice to know that your £999 smartphone will survive any aquatic misadventures.
It's worth noting that IP ratings technically only apply to fresh water. The iPhone X should still handle encounters with salt water, chlorinated water, or beverages, you'll just need to rinse it off with fresh water as soon as possible. You'll also need to make sure you give the iPhone X a couple of hours to dry out before charging it after underwater activity.
What's not so good about the iPhone X?
The iPhone X is the first smartphone I've used where I've felt compelled to keep a case on it. The front and back are all glass, joined by stainless steel. While Apple says the iPhone X is made from the strongest glass ever used on a smartphone, glass is still glass. It can and will break if dropped hard enough. It's a shame to hideaway the iPhone X, but it's almost a necessity when it costs as much as computer. I'm a little terrified of breaking a £999 phone.
£999 is a lot to spend on a phone, and you're looking at £1,149 if you want the 256GB model. It might be more palatable on a contract, but paying off either model on a 24-months will still result in a fairly hefty bill.
It's not like the iPhone X is the only smartphone in this ballpark - the Pixel 2 XL and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 both retail for around £869 - but it's hard not to be shocked by the price. Especially when the standard iPhone 8 starts at a more palatable £699.
The iPhone X's radical redesign can make it feel alien at first; there's a bit of a learning curve. Swiping up to close an app in lieu of pressing a home button is easy to get the hang of (although it's a touch fidgety in apps that run in landscape), but it took me a while to remember that you have to swipe down from the notch to access the Control Centre.
While the notch doesn't really get in the way of using your phone for the most part, it does mean you lose some information that was glanceable on past iPhones. If you want to see your battery life percentage, whether you've got headphones paired, or if Bluetooth is on (to name a few examples), you'll need to swipe down into the Control Centre, which can be a bit tricky one-handed. It's only a slight inconvenience, but it would be nice if you could customise the data shown on either side of the notch.
The notch can also be obstructive when watching video, since it actually cuts out part of the image. This only happens if you "zoom in" on your video so that it takes up the entire display, but not doing so can make it feel like you're wasting screen.
Much like every other recent iPhone, the iPhone X doesn't have a headphone jack. The Lighting port is your only option for wired audio, you'll need to use wireless, use your old headphones with a dongle, or plug in a pair of Lighting headphones.
You get a Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle in the box, as well as a pair of Lighting EarPods. Both options will prevent you from charging your phone and listening to music at the same, unless you pick up another dongle or a wireless charger.
If you decide to use the Lighting headphones you get in the box, there's a chance you might need to carry around two pairs of headphones: one for your iPhone, and another for your computer. You'll only find a Lightning port on iPhones and iPads, so the in-the-box earbuds are unusable with almost any other device.
While the included dongle and Lightning headphones work well enough, Bluetooth is easily the best option. I've really enjoyed using AirPods, but it's a shame that you don't get a pair of wireless buds in the box. Especially when you consider the iPhone X's premium price.
If you want to make use of the iPhone X's newly added fast charging or wireless charging, you'll need to fork out extra on accessories. While not including a wireless charging pad in the box is somewhat understandable - no manufacturer does so at present - not bundling a fast charger is far less forgivable. Many phones at half this price include a fast charging adapter and many consider this an essential component given the battery life of modern handsets.
To give your iPhone X the fastest charge possible, you'll need one of Apple's USB Type-C power adapters. A 29W model is the cheapest official option available, and it starts at £49. You'll also need a Lightning to USB Type-C cable, which start at £25 for one metre. That's an extra £74 for a speedier recharge. If you've got a USB Type-C MacBook or MacBook Pro, the include charger will work, but you'll still need a Lightning to USB Type-C cable. It's not a great look for a £1,149 phone.
It's probably not worth forking out extra for a wireless charging pad either. While wireless charging is a welcome addition - I love the simplicity of plopping the iPhone X on a charging pad - it only really saves you a second or two.
Apple adopting wireless charging should however ensure wireless chargers will start popping up in cafes, hotels, airports, malls, and more. Since Qi - the wireless charging standard used by the iPhone X - is platform agnostic, you'll be able to use public chargers without having to worry about if you have the right cable with you. Well, you won't have to worry about cables at all.
iPhone X camera samples
Who is the iPhone X for?
The iPhone X is a phone I've very quickly come to love, but it's not a phone for everyone. It's a bleeding edge piece of tech that drags you into the future, kicking and screaming. It doesn't adapt to you, it forces you to adapt to it, and it takes all of your money for the privilege of doing so. But it genuinely feels new, and that's exciting.
While the iPhone X ostensibly jettisons ten years of history, Apple's changes scrape away friction from the smartphone experience. Face ID is almost seamless, gesture based navigation is fast and fluid, and the all screen display is stunning.
Apple is far from the first to embrace these ideas, but it's perhaps the only manufacturer to truly consider how these physical changes impact the way you interact with your phone. And for the most part, it has gotten it right. There's a learning curve, and there's definitely teething pains, but the end result is a phone that wouldn't be out of place in the latest sci-fi blockbuster. It's just a shame you have to keep a case on it.
And of course, there's no way to avoid the £1,149 price. Even if you can justify it, the iPhone X is the most expensive iPhone around. If you just want an iPhone, you're probably better off with a different model. If you want the best iPhone, the iPhone X is it.
What else can I buy?
The iPhone 8 might not have the iPhone X's glitz and glam, but it's a safe and sensible choice. It has the same great primary camera, the same underlying processor, a gorgeous True Tone display, but the iPhone 8 is cheaper. If you're looking to save money on a 2017 iPhone, the iPhone 8 is a safe bet.
Google Pixel 2 XL
The Pixel 2 XL is essentially the Android iPhone, with the hardware and software both coming from Google. It's got a 6-inch almost all screen display, and packs some impressive looking camera tech. If you're looking at turning coat, a Pixel phone is the way to go.
Huawei Mate 10
If you're looking for a large phone that's a little more affordable, the Mate 10 is a great option. Retailing for £529, Huawei's latest is considerably cheaper than an iPhone X outright and doesn't make too many trade-offs. It has a slick design, an amazing camera, and it's superfast. The Mate 10 isn't water-resistant and it runs Huawei's customised version of Android, but it has expandable storage and a headphone jack.