iPhone X review: Apple’s finest smartphone ever

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iPhone X
Apple is catching up with iPhone X demand.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Smartphones are changing, and every manufacturer possesses its own take on what the future should look like. Apple’s vision is the iPhone X, which arrives 10 years after the original with big changes and an even bigger price tag.

For iPhone X, Apple did away with aluminum unibodies, chunky bezels, Touch ID and the beloved Home button. In their place, iPhone X sports polished stainless steel and smooth glass, an edge-to-edge Super Retina HD display, and Face ID.

The result proves stunning. Apple just made the iPhone exciting again. But is iPhone X worth $999?

iPhone fans dealt with plenty of disappointment in recent years. Apple’s best-selling product became boring and in need of major changes. It looked the same for three whole years, and lacked the game-changing innovation Apple fans craved.

That wasn’t supposed to change this year. Apple initially planned the iPhone X for 2018, but moved its launch forward to celebrate the iPhone’s 10th anniversary. There’s no sign this handset was rushed to market, however.

iPhone X review

iPhone X looks right at home alongside the best products Apple ever made. We won’t forget this stunning smartphone for a long time.

iPhone X space gray
iPhone X is beautiful.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Dazzling design

iPhone design became lazy in recent years. The aluminum unibody of the iPhone 6 series never felt quite as special as the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4 that came before — and we had to endure that for too long before Apple made a change.

But what a change it is. With iPhone X, Apple pulled out all the stops to make its finest smartphone yet. The curved glass panels combine beautifully with the shiny stainless steel frame to create a premium package that looks and feels fantastic.

iPhone X is a little heavier than its predecessors, which only adds to its premium feel. It’s also slightly thicker at 7.7mm, but not too thick or too heavy to be uncomfortable to hold for long periods. But you’ll need a tight grip, because iPhone X is slippery.

This is the downside to all that glass. The white glass back of the silver iPhone X is a fingerprint magnet, and it always feels like you’re about to drop it. Clumsy hands will definitely need a case. Apple says its glass has been reinforced with steel this year, but it is still glass. It will break if you drop it.

Some concerns about fragility

iPhone X
iPhone X is shiny and slippery.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

I found iPhone X to be particularly difficult to hold onto when playing games or taking pictures in landscape orientation. When your thumbs need to reach controls in the bottom corners of the display, it feels like the device could slip out of your hands at any moment.

The camera hump is larger on iPhone X than it was on previous iPhones, despite the new handset’s thicker body. I’m still not a fan of that, but it’s a sacrifice worth making for the iPhone X’s stellar camera. More on this later.

One thing that does concern me is how easily the polished stainless steel frame might scuff. I already picked up a slight scratch on the corner of my silver iPhone X. (Note: The photos that accompany this article show a space gray model, which comes with vapor-coated stainless steel surrounding its black glass back.) I have no idea how it got there: I suspect it happened while applying and removing a case.

iPhone X is a little wider and a little taller than iPhone 7, and you certainly feel it. But it shouldn’t feel too big, even to those who prefer smaller smartphones. It’s nowhere near as large as an iPhone 8 Plus, despite an even bigger screen.

That’s all thanks to the incredible edge-to-edge display.

iPhone X’s jaw-dropping Super Retina HD display

The Super Retina HD display is the biggest reason to buy iPhone X. Words cannot do it justice. The prettiest and sharpest iPhone display ever, it boasts bright and vibrant colors, darker blacks and support for Dolby Vision HDR video.

iPhone X
iPhone X’s Super Retina HD display is spectacular.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Bold text and app icons pop out like stickers attached to the glass screen. The slim bezels around it mean you get lost in your content like never before. The latest movies and TV shows look jaw-dropping, as do games.

The Super Retina display is color-accurate, as you’d expect from an iPhone display. It’s not oversaturated like Samsung’s screens, or washed out like Google’s. It’s bright enough to use outdoors in bright sunlight, and it gets dim enough that it’s comfortable to use in bed in a dark room.

The viewing angles are great. A slight blue tint creeps in at an extreme tilt, but you’ll never see it during normal use. This is common with OLED displays, but the iPhone X does a great job of eliminating it as much as possible.

iPhone X boasts True Tone, just like iPad Pro, and it works wonders. The temperature of the display automatically adjusts to match ambient light, making iPhone X much more comfortable to look at.

The dreaded iPhone X notch

Yes, iPhone X has a “notch” in its display. And yes, you’ll notice it at first. But don’t let it put you off. It really is a nonissue. After using the phone for a short time, you’ll forget the notch even exists. You still get lost in your content and ignore what’s surrounding it.

The notch proves a little more noticeable in landscape orientation, depending on what you’re doing. It can get in the way when you’re scrolling through a webpage, for example — but who really browses the web in landscape?

iPhone X notch
The “notch” is not a problem.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Some say the iPhone X notch gets in the way when watching video, but I disagree. Again, you get lost in the content so quickly that you forget it’s even there. You rarely focus your eyes on the edges of the screen when watching a movie or TV show.

Many apps and games already accommodate the notch well, and take full advantage of the iPhone X’s larger display. But plenty don’t just yet, so you’ll learn to live with big black borders in some of your favorite titles for now.

That’s a shame, but we just have to accept it. It’s not a massive issue, and if you’re avoiding iPhone X just because of the notch, you’re really missing out.

Clever control gestures

One thing that won’t get in your way is a Home button, because iPhone X doesn’t have one. There’s simply no room for it with that edge-to-edge display. Instead, Apple implemented some sweet iPhone X control gestures.

You swipe up to unlock and go Home, swipe left and right to switch between apps, and swipe up and hold to get to the app switcher. These incredibly intuitive gestures prove easy to master, and they work well. They feel much more natural than clicking a button.

iPhone X
iPhone X’s control gestures feel natural.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple could make some improvements, however. It takes too long for the app switcher to appear when you swipe up and hold; this could happen much more quickly. I also miss the ability to swipe apps away to close them.

Swiping down from the top right for Control Center takes a little while to get used to after years of swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Apple obviously had no choice but to change it for iPhone X, so we can’t complain too much.

You might find yourself closing apps when you meant to open the Control Center at first, and you might open Control Center when you meant to check your notifications. But you should adjust relatively quickly.

I think Reachability, which brings the top part of the screen closer to the bottom, should come enabled by default. You need it with a display this big, but Apple makes you turn it on in Settings. (Go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Reachability to toggle it on.) Once you enable Reachability, you activate it by swiping down on the bottom of the iPhone X display.

Fantastic Face ID

No Home button also means no Touch ID, but iPhone X delivers something even better. It’s called Face ID, and this advanced facial recognition tech will knock your socks off.

Face ID is wonderfully simple to set up and it works surprisingly well. Rumors indicated Apple’s technology is years ahead of its rivals, and it really shows. Face ID proves remarkably reliable for unlocking iPhone X in a variety of conditions. And it’s so fast that you forget you even have protection enabled.

iPhone X Face ID
Face ID is the future.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

When Face ID is used properly, and it can identify you in an instant, you don’t even know it’s working. You pick up your iPhone and by the time you’ve swiped up to access the Home screen, the unlocking process is already complete.

Occasionally it takes a little longer, and you see the Face ID animation, but it’s never slow. And it rarely fails to work at all when you’re looking at your iPhone properly. I’m delighted with how well it worked for me over the past three days.

Face ID is significantly more secure than Touch ID, Apple says, and it has other advantages. It works perfectly well in the dark, or when you’re wearing glasses or a hat. And unlike Touch ID, it works even when you’re wearing gloves or your hands are wet.

I’ve used Face ID a lot, both indoors and outdoors, and it has been terrific. I’ve been trying to think of something negative to say about it, but I’m coming up short.

Funny Animoji

The technology behind Face ID also allows for Animoji, the animated emoji characters that mimic your facial expressions. They’re really fun to make, and I’ve sent more than I care to admit to over the past weekend. My friends and family are sick of seeing them.

iPhone X Animoji
Animoji is fun for now.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

You can choose from 12 characters right now — the fox is my favorite — and Apple will likely add more to keep Animoji fresh. But I suspect the novelty will wear off eventually. I think we’ll quickly get bored of them in the same way we got bored of Live Photos.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Perfect performance

iPhone X packs Apple’s brand new A11 Bionic chip, which made its debut in the iPhone 8 back in September. Apple says its quad-core processor is up to 70 percent faster than last year’s A10 Fusion, while its graphics are up to 30 percent faster.

This isn’t immediately obvious because iPhone X feels just like my iPhone 7 did in everyday use. That’s not a bad thing — iPhone 7 still performs excellently — but it will take time to notice the performance improvements.

iPhone X
iPhone X is blazing fast.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

When developers create new games that take advantage of the additional power, that’s when we’ll really notice it. iOS 11 itself is just as smooth and as snappy as you would hope, and it feels a little less buggy on iPhone X — though that could be the result of Apple’s latest update.

Multitasking, taking pictures, recording 4K video, and just about everything else you might throw at this phone are all effortlessly carried out.

All-day battery life

It’s still too early for me to decide how good battery life is on iPhone X, so I’ll describe how it’s been over the past three days. Apple says the device should run two hours longer than iPhone 7 in between charges, and I’ve found it’s definitely better. But not by much.

I charged my iPhone X to 100 percent when I received it around lunchtime on launch day. I used it heavily after that, testing performance and just being in awe of its display. In the evening, I topped it up again when the battery dropped below 20 percent.

I unplugged it around 8 a.m. the second day and used it a little less because I had other things to do. However, I used it to stream Apple Music quite a bit throughout the day. The battery lasted all day, but fell to less than 20 percent by the time I went to bed around 11 p.m.

On the third day, I unplugged iPhone X around 9 a.m., used it as I would normally use my smartphone throughout the day, and still had less than 20 percent battery when I went to bed around midnight.

iPhone X Animoji
Get ready for all-day Animoji fests.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

No battery case required

You’re going to get a full day’s use out of this phone if you’re not on a Netflix binge or gaming for hours on end. But you won’t get a great deal more than that.

Fortunately, iPhone X supports fast charging, so when you do need to top up, it’s much faster than before (assuming you’re using the proper charger). Apple says you can get around 50 percent of power in just 30 minutes. It’s ideal if you’re topping up after work in preparation for a long night out.

iPhone X also supports wireless charging, and it’s about time. It’s not as fast as charging by cable, but it’s far more convenient. When you don’t need power quickly, placing your iPhone down on a charging mat is the simplest way to charge it.

Cracking cameras

Apple never lets us down when it comes to camera performance.

iPhone X sports dual cameras like iPhone 8 Plus, but they’re slightly better here. One is a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens with f/1.8 aperture, and the other is a 12-megapixel telephoto lens with f/2.4 aperture. Both utilize optical image stabilization.

The result is beautiful photos and videos in almost all lighting conditions. You can expect great detail, contrast and color — and some of the best zoom photos you can take on a smartphone. Optical image stabilization for that telephoto lens makes a real difference here.

iPhone X photo
An untouched photo taken with iPhone X.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

It also helps improve photos taken in low light. Images taken in darker settings without flash come out brighter and include less noise. Apple improved its LED flash for iPhone X, so you should expect better results. However, it’s still best to avoid using the flash if possible.

4K video captured by iPhone X looks spectacularly good. Slo-mo videos can now be recorded at 240 frames-per-second.

iPhone X Portrait mode and lighting effects

iPhone X low light photo
An untouched photo in low light.
Photo: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Portrait mode, which uses the iPhone X’s dual cameras to create depth-of-field effects similar to a DSLR camera, can produce impressive pictures. However, I’ve experienced mixed results so far.

Some of the photos I’ve taken look spectacular, while others make the subject so fuzzy around the edges that they’re not worth keeping. Apple can improve this with software, and I’ll continue to use it, but I expected better results.

I’ve seen much better images from the Pixel 2, which delivers Portrait Mode-like effects with just one camera lens. It seems better at blurring out the background while keeping your subject sharp, though some photographers may not appreciate the harsher details.

iPhone X’s stage lighting effect also disappointed me. It’s great when it works, but it often leaves parts of the background exposed, or blacks out bits of your subject. It is still in beta, however, so Apple will be working to improve it.

iPhone X portrait selfie
Portrait Mode selfies are impressive.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Portrait photos taken with the front-facing camera can also turn out great, despite just one lens. Standard stills and videos also look better, thanks to an improved 7-megapixel TrueDepth camera with f/2.2 aperture.

Overall, the iPhone remains an incredible camera. Some areas could use improvement, but the images and videos you take will blow you away.

iPhone X review: The verdict

iPhone X is the upgrade we’ve waited years for. It combines the breathtaking design Apple is famous for with new technologies that make using a smartphone a much more enjoyable experience. It makes iPhone exciting all over again.

iPhone X
iPhone X is well worth $999.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

iPhone X is by far the best smartphone Apple ever made, and perhaps the best smartphone money can buy today. Sure, it costs a lot (starting at $999 for the 64GB model). But its Super Retina HD display, improved cameras, Face ID and features like wireless charging make it worth every penny.

If you can’t afford one right now, don’t buy a cheaper phone; stick with what you have until you can. iPhone X is well worth the wait.

  • “This is the downside to all that glass. The white glass back of the silver iPhone X is a fingerprint magnet, and it always feels like you’re about to drop it. Clumsy hands will definitely need a case. Apple says its glass has been reinforced with steel this year, but it is still glass. It will break if you drop it.”

    Meh. I call that form over function, and it’s the reason almost everyone I know with a 6 or 7 has a knackered screen.

    My “upgrade” for this cycle was an iPhone SE and I’ll hang onto it until it occurs to Apple (and other manufacturers) that there’s perhaps a market for a phone that’s phone-sized.

    • Those people have “kackered screens” because they don’t understand how to properly protect the device. I have had iPhones since the first one shipped, and all of them have been pristine from the day I first took them out of the product box until the last day that I used them. The same is true of my Apple laptops. With some effort and proper care, you can make it through owning an Apple device without shattering the screen, or scratching or denting the case. An iPhone case, and a laptop bag can go a long way!

  • Bespin

    Lumias get dropped from space and survive
    X gets dropped from 3 feet and breaks

    Progress?

    • Cult of Mac responder

      O…….k….. Astro’nut’ exaggerate much?

      • Bespin

        no

        Upwardly mobile! Finnish store sends a Nokia phone to the edge of space to see what happens when it falls back to earth
        Handset plummets 100,000 feet to the ground – and survives unscathed

      • KillianBell

        Let’s all buy Nokia Lumias, then! We’ll just ignore that Windows Mobile is dead and has no apps.

      • Bespin

        Good call rather than wasting 1400

      • Duncan Hill

        It was in a special case and it did land on soft earth though. If you drop an iPhone X on grass from 6 feet it will be fine. There is far less shock from that sort of impact than hitting concrete, which is completely unforgiving. That said, the Nokia is a tougher phone, but your comparison is not fair.

  • I’m loving mine! I got up at 1:50am Central time to order it. The moment I took it out of the box, I knew it was worth the lost sleep and the money. I went for the 256GB Space Grey model. It’s awesome.