The iPhone X is the biggest reinvention of the iPhone since... well, the iPhone. Apple is hardly shy when it comes to boasting about a new handset – every year Tim Cook takes to the stage and breathily exalts whatever happens to be in his hand as “the best phone we’ve ever made” – but when he described the iPhone X (“ten”) as the most important handset since the 2007 original, he really meant it.
It’s called the X (previous naming conventions should have made this the iPhone 9) because it’s supposed to represent the firm’s ambitions over the next 10 years, drawing a line under what has come before (especially, one assumes, the last few years, in which progress has been slow and steady).
Creating something as groundbreaking and game-changing as the original iPhone is, however, impossible. You could make a train that travels at 500 miles an hour, but it will never be quite as mind blowing as Stephenson’s Rocket. The first iPhone changed the way we live our lives, pushed the boundaries of what a pocket computer could achieve, and made Apple the richest company in the world. This phone, on the other hand, riffs on an existing formula, but it also proves there’s plenty of creative juice left in Apple’s tank.
The first thing you notice is the screen – all 5.8 inches of it, squeezed onto a handset that’s barely bigger than the iPhone 8 (screen size: 4.7-inches). The display closely tracks the curve of the chassis, algorithmically generating the smooth edge rather than just cropping the corners off. Samsung has been making phones with virtually no bevel for years, but Apple’s first attempt really is beautiful.
The screen is now an OLED Super Retina HD, which to you and I means it looks fabulous, sharp as a pin, with incredible colour reproduction even when viewed from an acute angle (unlike a certain new phone from Google, which goes all blue if you tilt it too far).
To make space for all that screen, the home button has gone the way of the click wheel, replaced by a series of gesture controls. The most important is the “swipe up”, which takes you to the home screen; swipe up and hold takes you to your list of apps, and you can then swipe left or right to multi-task. Pulling down from the top right corner opens the control centre.
It’s all relatively fluid and intuitive, although there are elements that take a little getting used to – “wait, how do you change the brightness while you’re watching a movie without closing it and returning to the home screen?” – and in a strange way, this extra mental effort is welcome. It’s a little reminder that you’re using something very different to the hardware Apple has been releasing since 2014. This phone feels properly new, something that has to be mastered all over again, and working out the short-cut you know must be there somewhere tickles my dopamine receptors.
The other headline feature is Face ID, which scans your face in three dimensions to unlock your phone. This works perfectly in all but three conditions: very low, uneven lighting; when you’re lying in bed with your face smushed against a pillow; and when you’re trying to show someone how reliable it is.
You can be strolling purposefully down the street and it’ll instantly unlock as soon as you point it in the general direction of your face. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s usually worked its magic before my brain registers it’s happening. On the occasions it doesn’t work, however, entering your passcode feels like a real chore, especially as this basically never happened in the latter days of Touch ID.
Finally, Face ID also allows you to be a total shit. Or a chicken. Or a pig. The facial recognition technology – more like faecal recognition, amirite? – allows you to control emoji just by looking at them. You can become the poop emoji, your words spewing from its unnatural mouth-hole, the whippy-tip where it’s been crimped from a sphincter jiggling back and forth as you shake your head, presumably in disbelief. What a brave new world that has such creatures in it.
The Face ID hardware – and a bunch of other stuff – lurks behind a blacked-out section at the top of the screen, which has been branded “the notch”. Some design people took great umbrage at the notch when the iPhone X was revealed, accusing it of spoiling the design purity of the device. When used in portrait mode, you won’t notice it at all – the battery, wi-fi and reception icons simply huddle beside it, increasing the space for everything else. In landscape mode – playing games and watching films – it is a little distracting to have a section cut off one side of the screen. But honestly, I don’t find it a huge deal.
Most of the other features are close enough to those on the iPhone 8, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. The battery-life is just over a day; it has wireless charging; the camera is best-in-class, with a slightly improved sensor over the iPhone 8 Plus and better low-light performance on the telephoto lens (the camera “bump” on the back is also slightly bigger, and now vertically orientated).
All of this will set you back £1,000 – another first for a base-model Apple handset (if you opt for 256GB of storage instead of 64GB, this rises to £1,149). That’s a lot, and Apple knows it, so it’s offering customers 20 months interest-free credit to pay it off (£46.50 a month, not including whatever you pay your service provider). Is it worth it? Yes. For what you get, it really is. The question is whether you can afford it.
Rising to the top is a very different challenge to staying there; Apple has proven adept at both. The iPhone X, the best phone you can buy today, shows that it’s unlikely to fall from grace any time soon.