Review: iPhone X

With the exception of the SE and the 8/8 Plus, I’ve reviewed every new iPhone since the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus debuted three years ago. I’ve concluded every review by saying that, in one way or another, that year’s model is the best, most accessible iPhone to date. However trite, I’ve stood by that assertion because it’s true. Each model is an iteration on the last, bringing about many improvements. Accordingly, each successive model is more accessible than the last.

The iPhone X is more than iterative—it’s a massive leap forward.

In a month using iPhone X—a review unit provided to me by Apple—I’ve found the device to be everything Apple proclaims it to be. It truly is the best, most accessible iPhone yet. It’s delightful to hold and use. It feels like the future, today.

That iPhone X is the “most accessible iPhone yet” holds new meaning. As I’ve lived with the phone, a thought that’s persisted in my mind is how much iPhone X is not merely the “future of the smartphone,” as Apple boasts, but how it represents a more accessible smartphone of the future. Between the new form factor, Face ID, and wireless charging, using iPhone X is a whole new experience for a disabled user such as myself. These technologies are bleeding-edge, but they’re so compelling that they make iPhone X the most accessible iPhone Apple’s ever made.

Face ID

I published a piece a few weeks ago in which I delve into the accessibility implications of Face ID, Apple’s new facial recognition system. Without rehashing the entire article here, the Cliff’s Notes version is Face ID became most useful to me when I realized I had to turn off the Require Attention option.

The reason Require Attention doesn’t work for me is the strabismus in my left eye. Strabismus is a condition where one or both of the eyes aren’t set straight, and it seems to wreak havoc on the iPhone X’s TrueDepth camera system. After I restored my phone from an iCloud backup, the Face ID setup process would go smoothly, but then I wasn’t able to log into my phone (getting into 1Password and using Apple Pay was also hard). The problem was the phone couldn’t tell whether I was looking at it, even if I knew I was, due to the strabismus. It was highly frustrating initially, but I learned something: I’m an edge case. For the first time using an Apple product, I felt I had to adapt to the technology rather than have the technology adapt to me.

Since turning off Require Attention, Face ID has worked like a charm. It has even started to recognize me at extreme angles, such as when I lean over the phone as it sits on my kitchen table. The only issue I continue to have is I’m still not totally accustomed to holding the phone far enough away such that it can see me. This is because I instinctively hold the phone close to my face in order to see comfortably. I have yet to develop consistent muscle memory to move my arm farther away, and have to consciously remind myself to do so whenever I get the haptic, can’t-log-you-in buzz on the Lock screen.

Overall, Face ID is terrific, particularly given how it’s a “1.0” version of the feature. For as much as I praised Touch ID on its merit as an accessibility tool, Face ID is markedly better. It’s very liberating going from tactilely authenticating with my thumb to simply looking at my phone. Face ID removes another point of friction, effectively making accessing iPhone X a “hands-free” endeavor. If you’re someone with certain fine-motor limitations, the advent of Face ID is a true revelation.

The side effect here is Face ID instantly makes Touch ID on my 10.5-inch iPad Pro feel downright anachronistic. For things like unlocking my phone or paying for a Lyft ride, Face ID is like performing a magic trick. To me, this is the utmost compliment; for as wonderful as Touch ID was (and still is), Face ID bests it in every meaningful way. And, again, this is a 1.0 take.

Size & Weight

In early 2016, I wrote about switching to the iPhone 6s Plus, saying “the ‘monster’ iPhone is the iPhone I've always wanted.” To this day, I maintain moving to the Plus was one of the best technological decisions I’ve ever made. If the iPhone X didn’t exist this year, I certainly would have upgraded to the 8 Plus.

I freely admit, however, loving the Plus for its screen didn’t come without a cost. There’s no getting around the fact it’s a beast physically, and as such, it’s not easily pocketable. Of course I acclimated to the size in hand and in my pocket, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a pain in the ass. As I said in my 6s Plus story, the benefits my low vision reaped from the big screen trumped any concerns over ergonomics and portability.

For its part, the iPhone X strikes me as a blend of both traits: it has the ergonomics and pocketability of an iPhone 6/7/8 and it has the (slightly) bigger screen of the Plus models. In practice, using iPhone X feels like using a “regular” iPhone; I’m able to use it one-handed and pocket it with no problems. It’s so great to have the best of both worlds, because I feel I’m not making a compromise to use the device. It’s all good.

Which is important considering the rumor Apple is planning to release a Plus variant of iPhone X in 2018. In all honesty, I don’t know if I’d be willing to make the switch to an iPhone X Plus. I’d surely like to check it out for journalism’s sake, but I really believe the iPhone X as it is right now is ideal. Like the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, I feel like I’m getting the best of both attributes: Small enough to be portable yet big enough to see.

Wireless Charging

Aside from Tap to Wake, wireless charging is actually my favorite aspect of iPhone X. Like with Face ID, it’s felt incredibly freeing not having to plug in a cable to charge. All I need to do is literally put my phone down, and it charges.

My review kit from Apple included the Belkin charging pad, which has worked wonderfully for me. I’ve seen other reviewers on Twitter say the Mophie one is better, but Belkin’s has been fine in my usage. Maybe it’s just dumb luck, but I’ve never had an issue with finding the right “spot” to charge my phone.

In terms of accessibility, what makes wireless charging so great is, again, it removes a point of friction. In this case, wireless charging means I needn’t have to contend with plugging in a cable. Mundane as it is, this is a big deal. Given my low vision and cerebral palsy, plugging in my devices has always been somewhat of an adventure. I have to not only find the port with my eyes, but I have to use my fingers to plug in the cable. It’s not an easy task if your vision and fine-motor skills are lacking, as mine are. Thus, wireless charging is a lifesaver.

There are people who poo-poo wireless charging as not being any better than using Lightning, which is their prerogative, but it overlooks the accessibility benefits. The bull case for wireless charging is exactly the same case for ditching the headphone jack. Losing the headphone jack on iPhone 7 meant I gained AirPods, which has revolutionized the way I listen to audio on iOS. Wireless headphones absolutely beats plugging in EarPods. Likewise, using a wireless charging mat like Belkin’s (or Apple’s forthcoming AirPower accessory) beats plugging in a Lightning cable. Put another way, a wireless charging mat makes charging my phone more accessible in the same way AirPods makes listening to music and podcasts more accessible. I can plug in a cable, but I’d rather not. With iPhone X, I don’t have to.

New Home Gestures

The absence of a Home button on iPhone X means unlocking the phone, opening multitasking, and exiting apps is done via a swipe-up gesture. I’ve had no problems performing the swipe; it became second nature to me after a matter of hours. The only bad thing is my brain goes wonky when I try to swipe on my iPad. It feels “broken” for a second before it dawns on me it’s different. iPhone X is magical not only technologically, but also in the way it makes newish devices feel old and decrepit.

One amusing aspect of iPhone X lacking a Home button is the popularity of using AssistiveTouch to “put back” the button. It’s a hack—a hack that works!—but it’s funny nonetheless. People are spending $1000 on Apple’s flagship, cutting-edge smartphone only to “hack it” by giving it a pseudo Home button. On the bright side, though, it’s heartening to see more people discovering iOS’s accessibility features. I’ve long championed the idea that accessibility features are not exclusively the domain of users with disabilities. They’re equally beneficial to anyone, regardless of ability. The use of AssistiveTouch (and Dynamic Type) are two examples of this, and I’m happy people are noticing. Accessibility helps everyone, not only the disabled.

Things I Don’t Like

I have only two complaints about iPhone X, both minor.

First, I dislike how I can’t see the headphone icon (🎧) in the status bar at a glance, as it’s helpful in confirming that audio is piping through my AirPods. Because the sensor housing (aka “the notch”) is in the way, there’s less room up there for information. I find I have to swipe down to invoke Control Center in order to see the icon, and it’s annoying. (The same goes for the battery percentage, which I like a lot. Visually, it’s a far more concrete measure for me than the abstract battery icon alone.) I would rather see the headphone icon instead of, say, the cellular bars or “AT&T” whenever I’m listening to something.

Secondly, the home indicator (the horizontal line at the bottom of the screen) gets in the way of content. I understand why it’s there, but I don’t believe it needs to be persistent. I know how to get back to Springboard; I don’t need to see the home indicator all the time. It gets in the way of stuff down at the bottom. I’d like to see Apple add an option to get rid of it.

Bottom Line

The iPhone X is superb. It gives me the same feeling of delightfulness as my AirPods and Apple Pencil do. The phone oozes luxury with its all glass and stainless steel design, and its OLED screen is the best screen I’ve ever seen on any device. I cannot wait to see how Apple will refine iPhone X next fall.

I’ll say it once more: iPhone X is the best, most accessible iPhone yet.