Apple iPhone X review – a top- notch phone spoiled by top notch

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From the moment Apple chief executive Tim Cook introduced the iPhone X in September, until my testing of the device, I, like many others, was certain that the most cutting edge feature on the most anticipated tech product of the past few years was its edge-to-edge OLED display.

But after a week of use, I’ve realised that is not the case – in fact, the display is a bit overrated; the single most impressive thing about the iPhone X is that it turns me into an animated piece of poop.

Design and hardware

That ability to transform users into a pile of faeces is possible due to the row of sensors at the top of the iPhone X, which include an infrared depth camera and a projector that shines 30,000 invisible dots onto your face.

Together they form a 3D map of your face, which gives the smartphone the ability to project your facial expressions onto emojis (now known as animojis), one of which is the poop. (You can also, of course become a talking horse or cat, but where’s the fun in that?)

This tech is part of what Apple calls “TrueDepth” camera, and it’s the true innovation of the iPhone X. It’s what allowed Apple to remove its trusty fingerprint sensor in favour of facial recognition; and let an iPhone shoot selfies in “Portrait” (aka bokeh) mode for the first time.

In fact, the TrueDepth system is also what makes the iPhone X’s display slightly disappointing and overrated: it takes up a chunk of space at the top of the display, stopping Apple from achieving an all-screen design. (Western media calls it “the notch”, while Hong Kong Chinese media refers to it as “M-head”, Cantonese slang for a receding hairline.)

The notch didn’t bother me during my initial hands-on period, because I mostly used the phone in standard portrait orientation.

Apple has designed its apps around the dead space at the top of the display quite elegantly, and many other popular apps such as Facebook have followed suit. But during further testing, I realised that the notch is really an eyesore when viewing videos in landscape orientation.

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You have the option to either watch a video that cuts off right before the notch starts, or watch in true full screen mode with part of the video cut off. Neither option is ideal, and makes consuming media on the iPhone X less immersive than on top Android devices. The notch is such a compromise – sometimes it looks like someone took a bite out of a video – that one wonders if notorious perfectionist Steve Jobs would have approved this design.

The rest of the phone’s hardware is up to the usual Apple standard. The stainless steel ring that wraps around the device and holds the glass front and back together feels stronger and sturdier than aluminium frames on other handsets. The OLED panel has a subtle curve, giving the device a rounded, elegant feel all around with no sharp corners or edges.

Software and features

Because the iPhone X doesn’t have a home button – a staple of every iOS device since day one – and is missing a chunk of its display, Apple had to completely rethink navigation within iOS, and for the most part, it’s handled the radical change gracefully.

The new “swipe up from the bottom of screen” gesture that replaces the physical press of the home button is intuitive and quickly became second nature. Little software touches, such as an app flying off the screen at a speed and angle the same as I swiped up is a reminder of Apple’s attention to detail.

As an Android user, however, I still find iOS a restricting. For example, I prefer all my apps to sit at the bottom of the home screen for easy one-handed access, but Apple insists on forcing apps from a top-down grid. It’s impossible for most people to reach any of the apps or buttons at the top with one hand unless they activate iOS’s “Reachability”, which on the iPhone X is an ergonomic unfriendly “swipe down from the bottom of the screen” gesture.

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The other change iOS has to work around is that missing chunk of screen. As mentioned, almost all of Apple’s native apps and many popular apps have been optimised to accommodate the cut-out and fill the whole display, but apps that have not – currently this includes some crucial apps such as Google Maps and Gmail – are displayed in a smaller size, sandwiched by black space that makes the iPhone X look like an older iPhone with huge bezels.

Google will almost certainly fix all its apps to fit the new screen within the next few weeks, but what about apps from less tech savvy Hong Kong companies? I’m not sure if my Bank of China or Hong Kong Citybus app will ever be optimised.

Performance and battery life

Looking at the specs sheet, the iPhone X’s 3GB of RAM, 2,715mAh battery and 12-megapixel camera with f/1.8 aperture are noticeably inferior to the best Android handsets’ offerings, but with Apple the numbers don’t matter. Because it designs hardware, software, and chip set in unison, Apple can optimise performance in a way that Android phones cannot.

Performance on the iPhone X is nearly flawless all-round. Face ID, the phone’s face unlocking system, works so well that after a week I’m still impressed.

Its battery should last an entire day for most users, and the dual-camera system on the back remains one of the best shooters in the business.

Apple approaches image processing the same way it does display colour calibration – it’s all about balance and accuracy. That means shots captured by the X are not going to be overexposed when shooting bright lights, the way LG phones tend to be, nor will colours appear unrealistically lush and vibrant.

This, of course, has its own pros and cons. Photos of, say, a bed of flowers captured by the X are more down-to-earth and realistic, but they don’t pop off the screen the way the same shot would on a Samsung Galaxy Note 8. The X almost always finds the right balance of light information, but shots in a completely dark space show noticeably less detail than photos taken by the LG V30 or Huawei Mate 10 Pro.

It’s all a matter of preference, and I still prefer the camera on Samsung and Huawei’s phones for general photography.

When it comes to selfies, however, I’m totally on the side of Apple. Korean and Chinese phones have a tendency to “beautify” photos captured by the front-facing camera – whitening of skin, removal of blemishes and wrinkles – that results in unnatural selfies that make me look like a plastic-surgery- ridden wannabe K-pop star.

Apple seems to believe that selfies should be a realistic portrait of the person, warts and all. This is magnified by a new “portrait lighting” feature that mimics the look and feel of a studio portrait shot. There are various lighting modes to choose from, but my favourite is “stage lighting”, which produces a gritty, Esquire magazine-style headshot. Sure, the selfies (above) captured my acne scars and eye bags while shots from Samsung phones don’t, but I think they have more character.

Conclusion

The big question is “is the iPhone X worth the high price tag?” To me the question is moot. Annual smartphone updates stopped being a necessity years ago. A four-year-old iPhone 6 or budget Chinese device can do the same daily smartphone tasks as the iPhone X or latest Samsung phone. People who buy these devices want the latest and best, and the iPhone X is it.

Besides, the question has already been answered – the iPhone X sold out in seconds.

Key specs

Dimensions: 143.6mm x 70.9mm x 7.7mm

Weight: 174g

Display: 5.8-in OLED panel

Battery: 2,716 mAh

OS version reviewed: iOS 11.1

Processor: Apple A11

Cameras: dual 12-megapixel lens with f/1.8 and f/2.4 aperture (back); 7-megapixel with f/2.2 aperture (front)

Memory: 64GB/256GB ROM; 3GB RAM

Colours: grey, white

Prices: HK$8,588 (64GB); HK$9,588 (256GB)

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