iPhone X review: Embrace the new normal

The iPhone X runs iOS 11, but not the version you’ve come to appreciate (or loathe) for months. Because Apple killed the home button, it had to drastically rewrite the rules for how we interact with iPhones. It, uh, takes a little getting used to.

Let’s start with the basics. In lieu of tapping a home button, swiping up from the bottom of an app bounces you back to the home screen. To view all of your running apps in the app switcher, you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen and hold for a split second — you’ll get a haptic bzzzt as the row of app cards slides into place. Closing those apps takes an extra step now, though. You’ll have to press and hold one of the windows, then either tap a tiny x in the corner or swipe it away. It’s a necessary change, since swiping up brings you to the home screen, but it was definitely annoying at first. Swiping down from the notch (or just to its left) reveals your notifications. And see that little bar at the bottom of the screen? Swiping left and right on it cycles you through all of your currently running apps. It’s a small touch, but an elegant one.

While most of this stuff became second nature quickly, some old habits still throw me for a loop. I never reach for a home button that isn’t there, but I often swipe up from the bottom of the screen hoping the control center shows up. It never does, because you now have to swipe down from the space to the right of the notch. My muscle memory will eventually rewrite itself, but in the meantime, I look like a doofus every time I try.

Now, if you’re really concerned about not having a home button, a quick trip to the phone’s settings might help. Pop into SettingsGeneralAccessibility and turn on Assistive Touch. Now you’ll have a virtual key that brings up various controls when pressed. If you set the single-tap action to “Home,” you’re left with what amounts to an onscreen home button. It’s far from a perfect solution, though, since every time you fire up a non-full-screen app, the home button flies to the top-right corner of the screen.

While we’re talking about accessibility settings, there’s one more you really should know about. Reachability is handy for folks with smaller hands, since it brings what’s displayed at the top of the iPhone’s screen down so it’s easier to reach. The lack of a home button makes things more finicky, though — you’ll have to swipe down on the very bottom of the screen to use it, and it’s a little too easy to mess up.

Of course, iPhone X comes with two features that people haven’t been able to stop talking about: Face ID and Animoji. The former replaces the Touch ID fingerprint sensor with an infrared camera system that turns the contours of your face into a password. The latter uses the same camera system to map your face’s movements onto 12 emoji so you can make a cute yellow kitty say terrible, terrible things.

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting much, but Face ID turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Enrolling a face (you can only have one) was painless, if a little awkward, since you have to roll your head around so the camera fully captures your face’s nuances. After that, unlocking the phone with a glance worked nearly every time. Recognition generally takes about one second, but since you still have to swipe up to view your home screen after unlocking the phone, the whole process seems just a hair slower than using Touch ID.

If you’re mulling an iPhone X purchase, you’d better be OK with using Face ID for everything. Scanning your face doesn’t just unlock the phone; it also verifies login credentials in your keychain, so every app that used Touch ID now uses your face. For the most part, this is fantastic. Need to check your balance? Just launch your banking app and by the time you’re prompted to sign in, Face ID will have recognized you and filled in your password. Authenticating apps and Apple Pay payments with just a glance works too. When everything works the way it’s supposed to, Face ID feels like a frictionless bit of the future.

I’ve noticed Face ID faltering in only a few situations. For some reason, it doesn’t always work immediately when I’ve just woken up — maybe it’s because my eyes aren’t fully open, or perhaps my face is puffier than usual. Either way, checking my email before I get out of bed takes more effort than I prefer. That could change, though. Your Face ID model isn’t static and adapts over time. So if you keep trying to unlock the X while bleary-eyed, it should figure it out. Ditto if I lose weight or manage to grow a decent beard.

But what about security? In day-to-day use, it’s a non-issue. For one, the iPhone X checks to see that you’re alert and paying attention. That means that it won’t unlock if your eyes aren’t open, or if you aren’t looking directly at the screen. I’ve heard from other reviewers that this doesn’t always work as intended, but I never had any problems. That’s generally good news for people afraid that someone else (say, a jealous significant other) would try to unlock the iPhone X with the owner’s face while he or she is sleeping.

Beyond that, Face ID is just good at knowing what you look like. Most of the time I wear glasses and go clean-shaven. This week, I ditched my glasses for contacts and tried (mostly in vain) to grow some facial hair, and Face ID kept up just fine. It also refused to unlock when I held up photos of myself, or put the X in front of people I’m occasionally mistaken for (‘sup, Edgar). I haven’t been able to test this myself, but identical twins can indeed unlock each other’s iPhone X — this is an unfortunate side effect of the Face ID concept, and there’s no apparent fix aside from hoping your doppelgänger isn’t a total jerk. Thankfully, as the Wall Street Journal confirmed, a theater-quality mask of your face won’t do the trick.

And then there are the Animoji. I’ve already accepted that the age of talking poo is here. The iPhone X’s front-facing camera cluster does a good job at mapping facial gestures onto one of 12 cutesy emoji avatars, and I was a little shocked to hear how long and crisp the accompanying 10-second audio recordings were. I can’t imagine these things won’t get obnoxious, but I can’t help but appreciate the technical achievement. There’s one thing you should know, though: The longer you spend trying on all those adorkable avatar faces, the warmer the phone gets.


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