Part of iPhone season is review season. That period starts the moment Apple lifts the embargoes, usually 3 or four days before it officially goes on sale. We have come to expect the usual suspects such as USA Today, WSJ, NYT, The Verge, Daring Fireball, and a handful of others. The publications kick off review week with elaborate in-depth videos and 10,000 write-ups. This year, we didn’t get any of that from those outlets. Already, we get the sense that something new is afoot.
While most of the early review crew got review units, they only had a 24hr embargo. What that really means is that they didn’t have time to do a full review before industry pressure forced them to post something like a review online. I read someplace that there were only 9 people worldwide who got a review unit for a week. Only two or three were from US outlets.
The rest were broken up into two categories as near as I could determine. The first category were YouTubers who were brought in to a controlled Apple environment to get some hands-on time with the phone and to make videos. The second group was made up of actual journalists who got a briefing and units to take with them. And many of those journalists were not typical Apple or even tech reporters.
The result of this really bizarre review season is some really bizarre reviews. Even so, there is much to be gleaned from reading reviews for the last two days. Here is a good list of the best crop of reviews in one place:
I will be writing my own review over the next few days. There are a lot of things I don’t want to spend a lot of time on, and I want to get them out of the way right now. Most of these things have to do with questions that people have had about the phone, and misinformation that needs to be cleared up. Most of the bad information is surrounding Face ID. That seems to be a good place to begin:
Face ID: Yes, it’s safe
I’m not sure I have ever seen so much handwringing about one feature of an unreleased smartphone. Half the people are worried that it won’t work. And the other half are afraid that it will work. They worry that it might steal their soul, or some such nonsense.
Others are worried about security. Some believe that their face will be owned by Apple, or some other corporation. One pundit on a major podcast raised concerns about who owns your face. There is an awful lot of obscurity surrounding this feature. Most of it has to do with if, and how easily it can be fooled.
Before going further, I want to offer some perspective on what it means for a security measure to fail. We should not be overly concerned about a handful of false negatives. That is not really a failure in the way that most people mean. A real failure is a false positive. That would be if someone other than you was able to trick the system into unlocking for them. That would be a failure.
When Apple says that the chances of a failure are 1 in a million, they are saying that it would take a million people in the population to find one that could unlock your phone using Face ID. It can be fooled by 1 in a million people. To supply even more perspective, it was 1, in 50,000 for Touch ID. Face ID is orders of magnitude more secure.
Even now, there are false reports about developers getting access to Face ID data for their apps. This is incorrect, maliciously incorrect! Some of it is sloppy journalism. But I am convinced that at the core of it is ill-intent. Those writing these pieces have the same access to Apple’s official statements and documentation as I do.
At no point, in no way has or will Apple give developers any access to the secure data that makes up Face ID. Just like Touch ID, it is locked away in a secure enclave on the device. It cannot leave the device. Even Apple cannot retrieve it. What developers can get is generic data from the TrueDepth camera system. That is a very different thing.
Remember those AR masks in Snapchat Apple showed off on stage? Those types of masks were out there before the iPhone X. Apple’s TrueDepth system just makes them more accurate. It is a bit like how Animoji works. This is just camera data, not secure Face ID data. The secure data cannot be reconstructed by the camera tricks Apple allows. Camera app makers will be able to use the front-facing camera for Portrait Mode selfies. That does not mean they can get secure Face ID data.
If you need more help thinking about it, consider the Touch ID system. Apple allows developers to use parts of that to authenticate their apps. But developers never get to the secure fingerprint algorithm. They have an API that moves the authentication process to the Apple-controlled system. No one got access to Touch ID. And no one is getting access to Face ID.
Face ID: Yes, it works
While fearing that Face ID works too well, they are also suggesting that it may not work very well at all. Some reporters do all their tech reporting via stunts that border on comedy. To test the Apple Watch with LTE, some swam out to the middle of the Bay and tried to make a call while surfing. That’s just stupid! Their goal is to try to break a feature, not to use it. They are about at the same level as the “Will it blend” guy.
As you can imagine, this is exactly what they did with the iPhone X. I’m not going to link to them. But you can easily find them online. They had Hollywood masks made of their face to try and fool it. Hint: no one who steals your phone is going to go through that. They brought in twins, and even triplets that were also children. This last is significant because Apple said on stage that the system would not work for twins and children under 13.
You have not hacked Face ID if you are twins under 13. But one of the videos showed off such a grouping jumping and shouting with glee about how they hacked the iPhone. This is what tech journalism has devolved to.
There were also fake mustaches (on women no less), goofy fake eyes, brows, noses, lips. Let’s not forget the scarves pulled up to cover the mouth and nose, and the hats slung low to cover the eyes. The outrageous stupidity never stopped. And these were from the respectable journalists desperate to drive traffic to their sites.
Bottom line, Face ID worked every time it was supposed to work, and much of the time when it wasn’t. Here’s a shocker: something called Face ID needs to have some minimal access to your face to ID you. Got it? That means if you want to use the feature, don’t cover your mouth, nose, and eyes. It worked flawlessly in almost every other configuration people threw at it. And remember, they weren’t trying to use it. They were trying to break it.
At least one reporter had trouble using it outside in a poorly lit diner. It may have had something to do with how far away and at the angle he was holding his phone. It was sort of a full arm extension and to the side and down. I would facepalm. But then Face ID wouldn’t be able to catch my true expression.
There is also the matter of attention. An optional part of the system is to make sure you are paying attention to the phone before it registers your face. It recognizes you. But it also requires your attention. That means you have to look at the phone. When this option is engaged, your phone will not unlock if you do not give it at least a second’s worth of eye contact.
This is not a problem for most people because when you are trying to use your phone and not break a feature, you are looking at it for some piece of information. For those with disabilities related to their eyes, it still may work. But it doesn’t matter, the feature can be disabled.
That means the iPhone X will recognize your face at even more extreme angles and will not require eye contact. Reviewers failed to mention this important bit of information. It is useful if you want to use the phone rather than showing how you can break a feature.
Most of the reporters doing responsible journalism not only said that it works, but that it works even better than Touch ID. So yes, it works.
Notch? What notch?
That area at the top of the screen housing the TrueDepth camera system is what people are calling the notch. There has been almost as much hysteria over the presence of the notch as there has been for Face ID. The notch has been likened to a splinter in the eye. And that is by one of Apple’s biggest proponents. Design wonks are practically offended by its mere existence.
But almost every review dismissed the notch as a bother. It is something they just forgot about after a few hours using the device. In some cases, the notch even enhanced the experience as it gave them a bezel to hold while watching movies in landscape.
The area to the left and right of the notch is referred to as the ears or horns. That is where system information such as the time can be displayed. Every reviewer who had the phone for more than a day dismissed the notch as an issue. It is distinctive, and definitely there. But it is not a negative.
My take on the notch is more practical than design oriented. Today, I am using an iPhone with a half-inch bezel on the top and the bottom. Tomorrow, I will be using a phone with only an eighth-inch notch on top and nothing at all at the bottom. I rate that a win on all counts. But if you prefer a giant forehead to a thin unibrow, that’s your prerogative.
I have tried to clear the deck of the silly things so that I can talk about the important things in the full review. When I talk about Face ID, it will be in the context of how it works and how to use it, not how to break it. That said, I have been growing a beard that I can’t wait to shave off. So I will tell you what happens when you go from grizzly face to baby face.
When I talk about design, I will focus on the aspects of design that relate to usability, not those that relate to nerd battles. And expect a heavy dose of information about how this new iPhone handles accessibility challenges. There is a lot that is new for the blind and low-vision user. I will be covering that fully. Stay tuned…