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iPhone X delights and gripes

On Friday afternoon, UPS dropped off some new toys: a 64GB space gray iPhone X and an equivalent silver model for my wife. After setup and a weekend of normal use, I wanted to jot down some thoughts:

iPhone X delights

Camera quality

Ever since Apple announced the dual-camera iPhone 7 Plus, I’ve lusted after its telephoto lens and Portrait photography feature. But I had no interest in carrying around a phone that bulky.

In the iPhone X, Apple has added dual lenses to a more svelte frame; for me, that was enough to justify paying such a high price premium (over the “normal” iPhone 7/8).

So far, I’m fairly impressed by the iPhone X’s camera performance. Low light photos are much-improved over the iPhone 7. Portrait mode (new to me) is amazing when it works well. On a hike yesterday, I was reluctant to switch out of that mode for a single shot. However, when I had the opportunity to view the results on a larger display, it was clear that Portrait mode’s blur masking is hit-and-miss on complex subjects.

Keyboard switching

Apple’s framework for third-party keyboards has some major limitations, but one in particular has always stood out: you can’t jump from a third-party keyboard straight to another third-party keyboard. Instead, you’re left pecking at the switcher icon to cycle through keyboards until you stumble across the one you want. To make matters worse, some keyboards style this switch button differently or even place it in odd locations.

Happily, keyboard-switching works better on the iPhone X. On apps optimized for the taller screen size, you’ll find a dedicated system switcher in the empty space beneath the keyboard itself. This feature offers two advantages: first, the switcher is always easy to find. Second, you can tap and hold the button to see quick shortcuts directly to each keyboard. For me, this simple change means that third-party keyboards are usable for the first time.

Alas, these keyboards are still less stable and responsive than the native UI. And third-party keyboard setup is still frustratingly unintuitive. Baby steps, right?

iPhone X gripes

Awkward edges

The X is easier to handle than the 5.5-inch Plus. But for one-handed use, it’s clumsier than the 4.7-inch non-Plus phones. My fingers have to stretch just a bit too far to hold the phone securely. And because the screen now stretches from top to bottom (notch notwithstanding), I’m forced to reach for the device’s extreme edges more often. When I do, the phone threatens to topple out of my grip.

Speaking of edges, the iPhone X’s swipe gestures are a mixed bag. The new ‘go home’ gesture (swipe up from the bottom edge) works okay (although the phone can feel like it’s perched precariously while you do it). Worse is the new gesture for Control Center (swipe down from the top right corner); this is a disaster for one-handed use. I can’t execute it without invoking Reachability, which slides the entire UI down. Plus, Reachability itself is tricky to invoke, too, thanks to its tiny, often-hidden touch target. Maybe that’s why Reachability is no longer enabled by default.

Activation nightmares

While my wife’s AT&T activation went through almost immediately, my phone couldn’t join the network for hours on Friday afternoon, thanks to overwhelmed carrier servers. I mashed the ‘Try again’ button hundreds of times, with mounting frustration. Even after the process went through, my problems weren’t resolved. My old phone (and SIM) hadn’t surrendered the connection, and my iPhone X couldn’t make calls or download data. I was eventually forced to open a support ticket to resolve the issue. Needless to say, if AT&T tries to stick me with an activation fee, I’ll be giving them a call.

As far as the phone setup itself, both my wife and I started from scratch this time around. Yes, it’s a pain to reinstall all apps, authenticate dozens of services, and re-tweak system settings. But our iPhone 7 battery life had gotten so poor by last week that we each wanted a fresh config on the new phones.

Setup went smoothly, with one exception: my wife had some trouble stepping through the FaceID registration process. Apparently, that “rotate your face” gesture isn’t particularly intuitive if you haven’t been watching iPhone X preview videos for the past two months.

Notch watch

Despite the months-long hand-wringing about the sensor housing, I never even think about the notch when using the phone in portrait orientation. Non-issue.

Landscape mode? Not so much. While you can zoom in and take videos full screen, I’d recommend against it. That mode lets the notch and rounded screen corners eat your content. If (like me) you abhor “overscan” mode on TVs, you won’t want to watch videos in fullscreen mode on the iPhone X.

Random observations (and niggles)

  • FaceID works well; I’ve had very few issues with authentication, and I’ve almost stopped thinking about logging in at all—except when I’m lying in bed. Based on some experimentation, FaceID fails in that context because I’m holding the phone too close. (At night, I often use my phone sans glasses, and I can’t read the screen if I hold it more than a few inches from my eyes.)
  • With the Home button gone, Apple moved the Siri invocation gesture to the side button. That, in turn, displaced the ‘power off’ gesture, which now requires that you hold down the side button and ‘volume up’ simultaneously. Unfortunately, that’s also how you trigger Emergency SOS. Early on Saturday morning, while trying to reboot my phone, I invoked SOS and jumped when my phone produced an ear-ringing alarm klaxon. How did this clear usability testing? 911 dispatchers will be receiving a lot of unintentional calls from iPhone X users.
  • Animoji are fun, and the face-tracking API holds a lot of promise. I can’t wait to see what developers come up with here. I was a little disappointed to discover that a full beard can throw off the tracking.
  • I refuse to carry around a $1,000 phone without any protection. So, immediately after opening the boxes, I applied tempered glass screen protectors to our iPhones. My advice: do this when the screen is on and white; otherwise, you’ll have a hard time getting the sheet aligned with the OLED screen edges, particularly near the notch. ■
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The problem with the rumored 4-inch iPhone

Mark Gurman, writing for 9to5Mac about the rumored 4-inch iPhone Apple may release in 2016:

Some Apple users have explained that they prefer the smaller size to the 4.7-inch iPhone 6s and 5.5 [inch] iPhone 6s Plus displays as it is easier to use with one hand. The device’s technical specifications will fall somewhere between the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6s.

Count me among the “some Apple users” who prefer a smaller phone. After nearly 18 months of use, my iPhone 6 still feels awkward. When I’m holding the handset with one hand, I can’t reach software buttons placed in the screen’s upper corners. My wife (who has smaller hands) finds the 6 even more frustrating. Not only can’t she navigate one-handed, but the phone won’t fit into the miniature pockets sewn into most women’s clothing. We both pine for a more pocketable, more “thumbable” phone.

So I’m glad Apple plans to release an updated 4-inch unit. But I’m disappointed that this “iPhone 6c” won’t match the “big boy” phones, spec for spec. The feature differences put small-phone aficionados in a difficult place: caught between performance and pocketability.[1]

In my ideal world, the three phones would cycle in lockstep. Every year, Apple would release three iPhone models: the 4-inch, the 4.7inch, and the 5.5 inch. All three phones would boast identical specifications (other than screen size). You can’t call the smallest phone the “Minus” (that sounds pejorative), so maybe you’d brand it the “iPhone Mini.”

Alas, this dream scenario won’t come to pass. Based on the rumors, the 4-inch phone in Apple’s pipeline will lag behind its bigger brethren. And, considered practically, this makes sense. A larger phone chassis provides extra volume. Extra volume means a larger battery. A larger battery can run more power-hungry hardware—things like extra RAM and faster-clocked processors.


  1. Customers face a similar conundrum when choosing between the standard iPhone size and the “Plus” size. If the iPhone 7 Plus retains its hardware advantages over the standard 7 (i.e. hardware OIS, battery life, and/or the rumored RAM bump), it’ll be impossible to pick a phone based on size preference alone.  ↩