A couple of posts ago, I posed the following questions of the iPhone X: Is the iPhone X worth the hype, the money, the wait, and the effort? Before reviewing the phone, I want to tackle these questions first:
The iPhone X hype is out of control. It has been ramped up by both supporters and detractors. Nothing short of transporter technology could possibly live up to this level of hype. The iPhone X is still a smartphone, an iPhone to be precise. It still runs iOS 11. So if you didn’t like iOS 11 on previous iPhones, you probably won’t like it more on this one.
What I am trying to say is that it’s an iPhone. Set your expectations accordingly. That said, it is a better iPhone in most every way. It is more of what you love about the iPhone and less of what you don’t. But there are trade-offs and compromises just like with any new product. This is not the flying car for which some were hoping. But it is the next step in the iPhone line, and possibly the smartphone as a whole.
The iPhone X is $1,000. I believe a good computer is worth $1,000. And the iPhone X is a good computer. But if you consider your phone a mere utility for getting basic things done, then your use will never justify the price. You should probably never pay more than $200 for a smartphone. If you insist on an iPhone as a basic tool, the iPhone SE starts at $349. Enjoy.
The value proposition is a little different when comparing the iPhone X to other premium smartphones. $700 - $1,000 is the new normal for the high-end. Switching to Android doesn’t help. If you want the same class of smartphone as the iPhone X, or even the 8, you are going to be paying about the same amount of money.
If you consider an iPhone 8 worth $700, it is fair to say that the iPhone X has $300 more value. If you are comparing it to the 8 plus, it only needs to account for an additional $200 worth of value. I believe that extra value is easy to find. I will point out some of that value as the review progresses.
I skipped the iPhone 8 and waited for the iPhone X. Fortunately, the wait was only a bit more than a month. Some will be waiting much longer. Those who didn’t get a day one unit might be waiting to mid December or later. They could have had an iPhone 8 in September. And they can walk into any Apple Store and buy one without hassle today. I contend that it is still worth the wait to get the phone you really want.
For most people getting a new iPhone this year, the X is the one they really want. And there is no reason to set a particular timeline for it. If there is nothing wrong with your current phone, it will still provide for your needs until the new one is available. If you settle for the 8 when the X was just a few weeks away, you might regret it. But you will not regret waiting for the X. Nothing bad happens to you by waiting another month and a half for what you want.
Is the iPhone X worth the effort? This is the tougher question to answer. It will be different for everyone. There is definitely a learning curve. People who have grown accustomed to the way things work on the iPhone from ten years of conditioning might find it challenging to move on to something so new. They might prefer another year or two with the familiar.
For others, the learning curve will be fun, and only a matter of a couple of days. It will take at least that long before you know how you feel about the new way of using an iPhone. At any rate, I’m not sure we have a choice if we are going to stay with the iPhone. Apple has defined its new direction with the iPhone X. If your next smartphone will be an iPhone, you just as well get used to tomorrow’s iPhone today. If only for that, it is definitely worth the effort.
But whether or not a product meats its value proposition is only one part of the equation. Premium olives may be worth it. But if you don’t like olives, it is not worth it to you. The least of the iPhones is a premium device. And the iPhone X is the most premium of them all. Here is a brief exploration of what makes it so premium. This is the iPhone X in review:
The iPhone X is the first iPhone that doesn’t look like an iPhone when the screen is off. The original iPhone was distinctive. It changed the face of every other smartphone to follow. You can see the dramatic shift in Samsung designs. And that is just one manufacturer. It happened all over the industry.
In the first Apple v. Samsung trial, the representative from Samsung couldn’t tell the difference between his company’s phone and the iPhone. That was embarrassing, and damning. Today, we can know that we are looking at an Android phone by the ways it doesn’t look like an iPhone. That is how distinctive the iPhone is.
If you don’t notice the Apple logo and the word iPhone printed on the back, you would not know the iPhone X was an iPhone. You would think it was an Android phone because it does not bear enough signs of the classical iPhone. The expansive forehead has been replaced with a trim unibrow. And the Jay Leno chin has been eliminated altogether.
Also failing to make an appearance is the home button. Apple didn’t hide it around the back or even under the screen. They dismissed it like a naughty headphone jack. As if that were not enough change, they took the horizontally aligned dual camera on the back and rotated it to a vertical orientation.
It is as if Apple went out of their way to show other phone makers that Yes, there are other ways to make smartphones look. From the glass sandwich and the stainless steal band, to the trim bezels and embrace of that glorious notch, the iPhone X looks striking, new, and yes, premium.
There is also the feel of the phone in hand. My hands aren’t huge. But they are hand-sized. This phone fits well in my hand. It also fits well in my wife’s hand which is much smaller than mine. The glass back has a somewhat tacky feel which means it is not slippery when in the hand. Though it may slide off the arm of a chair.
Were it not for astronomical repair costs, I would not put a case on it. But because I am not a crazy person, it is going in a case. So for most people, hand-feel comes down to size. Even in a case, the phone should be more comfortable to handle than the plus sized iPhones. Apple’s legendary attention to detail shows up in the design of the iPhone X.
The disastrous launch of the Google Pixel 2 XL has got us all peeping at the pixels on the iPhone X display. It is the first phone Apple has fitted with an OLED display. It is a technology with many advantages. But it also has some inherent disadvantages that even Apple can’t wish away.
Google sourced their panels from a company that is not very good at making them. While Apple went with the best OLED provider on the planet. Beyond sourcing the hardware, Apple has done a lot of work to make the display better. The screen on the iPhone X is not an off the shelf part. It is uniquely Apple. They do the same with camera lenses. They source the parts, then make those parts uniquely theirs.
If you have never used a phone with a quality OLED panel, you are going to be pleasantly surprised by how good the iPhone X display looks. Chances are, you have never seen a smartphone screen look this good. But you shouldn’t be too blown away. After all, the LCD on previous iPhones have been the best smartphone displays before now. The OLED panel of the iPhone X is a little better than the LCD on the iPhone 8.
Apple has a trick up their sleeve that makes the display look even better. Their marketing term is TrueTone. It senses the light in the room and adjusts the screen’s white balance accordingly. That way, the screen always looks like a piece of paper would look in the same light. You can turn off the feature if you don’t like it. But it is worth trying for a few days to see what you think.
Images on the screen appear sharp and crisp without being overblown. Your photos will look better on this screen than any other screen you are likely to own. Movies will blow you away when they are in 4K HDR. You will want to find excuses to use the iPhone X if only to get another look at that gorgeous display.
This is such a small consideration that I almost didn’t include it. But audio quality is for more than party tunes on the weekend. Users with visual impairments who use the VoiceOver screen reader and other audio reading enhancements rely on the sound for basic tasks all day, every day.
There are also those iPhone users who are hard of hearing. They need the sound to be louder and more full than the average person. Better sound is also useful if you listen to music and podcasts while doing household chores such as dishes and laundry. The good news is that the speakers on the iPhone X are improved for all the things smartphone speakers are good for.
I personally use bluetooth speakers quite a bit. I even have one for the shower. But I listen to a lot of podcasts throughout the day when I am not writing. Everything sounds more clear, full, and loud on the iPhone X. It is the best sound ever on an iPhone for what that’s worth.
The iPhone X is noticeably fast. And that’s after you load it down with all your stuff from your previous phone. It’s faster than any smartphone you’ve ever used. I know this because there is no other smartphone this performant. I’m going to skip all the gushing about the A11 processor, and the fact that it outpaces some laptops.
The iPhone X has another trick up it’s sleeve, and it is one you can feel. The touch sample rate has been doubled from 60 hz to 120 hz. Jason Cross has a good writeup on this at Macworld. Here’s an excerpt:
What it means is that the iPhone X grabs info about where and how you're touching the screen twice as often as any other iPhone, and just as fast as the new ProMotion iPad Pros. So the iPhone X should react to your interactions just a little bit faster.
It's one of those under-the-hood technological changes that makes users say "this really feels good, but I can't put my finger on exactly why."
Screen response to touch is buttery smooth. It is hard to imagine that it can get any better. But my understanding of the tech is that it can. What you need to know about the performance of this phone is not the specs or the benchmarks. You want to know if this $1,000 smartphone works like a $1,000 smartphone. Does the performance justify the price? In a word, yes.
And with that out of the way, it is time to take a closer look at some of those premium features and the overall experience.
TrueDepth: The face of the future
TrueDepth is a marketing term that refers to the imaging array at the top of the display that constitutes the notch: the iPhone X’s most visually distinctive feature. It gives payoff to the Russian joke - In Russia, iPhone watches you. It happens to be true in Russia, Japan, Australia, and everywhere else the iPhone X is sold.
The iPhone X is literally watching you. It has eyes more sophisticated than our own. It has neural hardware better at facial recognition than our brain. And by default, it will not unlock its secrets even to the rightful owner of those secrets unless it is sure the rightful owner is paying attention. And you thought the age of our silicon overlords was far off in the distant future. If that is the book our children are destined to read, we are living the prequel. This is how it begins.
There is nothing to say the future has to be a dystopia. The future is what we make it. And apple is setting up a future where security and convenience finally meet. Right now, it is axiomatic that the more convenient a thing is, the less secure it is. Convenience features make a smartphone that much less secure.
Face ID is one of the most convenient features ever attached to a smartphone. And it is also among the most secure. When done right, Face ID makes it feel as if you don’t have a password at all. You just pick up your phone and swipe up from the bottom. It is the premiere feature of the TrueDepth system, and deserves a deeper dive:
The iPhone X dispenses with the Home button where Touch ID used to live. Despite early rumors you might have heard, they never gave a moment’s thought to putting it on the back of the phone. The moment Apple knew they had something better, Touch ID was dead to them, at least on the iPhone X. Expect this to spread throughout the range.
That something better was Face ID. From a security perspective, it works the same as Touch ID, with all the secure bits in a Secure Enclave. Developers can’t touch it. And the data never leaves the phone. Any app that works with Touch ID should also work with Face ID.
From a usage perspective, Face ID is better. It is orders of magnitude more difficult for a stranger to fool it. It will be harder, though maybe not impossible for it to be spoofed synthetically. In my experience, failure to unlock the first time due to the inability to recognize the user happens at about the same rate as it did with Touch ID. Turning off Attention Detection for Face ID will reduce those times to almost zero.
Enrolling your face takes about 20 seconds. It’s very fast. The system continues to learn over time. So if you have a situation where the phone simply can’t recognize you when you think it should, just enter your password and the system will integrate the new data into its matrix. Just as people do with one another, Face ID recognizes you better with each use.
The times when recognition fails are mostly when people fail to respect the tech they are trying to use. It’s in the name. Face ID has to be able to see your face to work. Hide part of your face from the sensors, and it cannot recognize you. Nor should it. If you like to use your phone in a way that your face is hidden from the phone, then Face ID is not for you.
Hats that hide your eyes will cause the system problems. A scarf that covers your nose and mouth will hinder results. And holding the phone too close will have the same effect. Too close, and the sensor array can’t see all of your face. Too far away, and the IR dots are ineffective.
Holding your phone down near your thigh with your arm fully extended will not work. If you do have it in range, but look away from the phone, it won’t work unless you turn off attention detection. The fundamental assumption of Face ID is that you are looking at the phone from a normal viewing distance with the intent to use it to see some piece of information. Do that, and Face ID works every time. Try hard to make it fail, and you can.
If there is a scenario where Face ID fails two recognize you the first time, it will put up the passcode screen. You don’t have to enter your passcode when this happens. Just readjust the phone to give it a better look at your face and it will open most of the time.
Pull your phone out of your pocket and swipe up from the bottom without looking. The phone will unlock when you start looking at it. It doesn’t matter if it has the passcode screen up at the time. Just swipe up to unlock. And when you are ready to take in the information you want, it will unlock.
Face ID also recognizes the changes that happen with your face over time. Facial hair is a good example because it changes moment by moment. You may not can see the changes. But the camera can. And it is not fooled in the least by those changes. If you have a full 5 o’clock shadow, Face ID is fine with that. If you had a full beard and mustache when you enrolled your face, shaving down to a baby face is just fine.
I had a scraggly beard and mustache when I enrolled Face ID. I went to the barber shop and had it all shaved off, including the hair on top of my head. Face ID unlocked without drama. I put on my favorite hat and a biopic device that looks like a box at the top of a thick-framed pair of glasses. Face ID didn’t even blink. Know that none of these things were stunts. I actually wear these things, and shave everything after a few weeks all the time. I can’t imagine any normal thing you might do that would give Face ID a problem.
Face ID adds the convenience of not having a passcode, to the security of a million to one chance of a stranger being able to break into your phone. When it is working perfectly, the feature is invisible. You just do what you normally do. And it does all its work behind the scenes.
One of the neat little tricks afforded by Face ID is that your auto-fill passwords and credit cards will only fill in after a Face ID verification. You don’t have to do anything differently. The phone just does a quick scan of your face before unlocking the app or website. That is security and convenience done right.
The TrueDepth array unlocks a few other features. The one drawing the most attention is Animoji.
Emoji is the word for those little yellow heads with various facial expressions that help you insert the right emotion into what would otherwise be dry text. It goes way beyond faces. But you probably already know what an emoji is. Apple has created a new type of emoji just for the iPhone X called Animoji. The conflation is animated emoji.
I want to digress for a moment to tell you about an early prediction/wish I made before the iPhone X was introduced. I envisioned an emoji that you could control with your facial expressions. I was thinking along the lines of the yellow heads that are the heart and soul of emoji. I thought that it would be nice if you could make a face, any face, and the on-screen avatar would assume that expression, allowing you to send it in a message.
I’m giving myself a full 3 points for that wish/prediction. Apple did not use the yellow heads. Instead, they made all new characters. And they didn’t stop at stills. A little known fact about Animoji is that you can do stills, and even make message stickers out of them. The more popular thing to do with them is make short video clips and send them to friends.
My wife discovered another fun use for Animoji: wallpaper. We make a lot of custom lock screens. She looked at one that I sent her and said it would make a great lock screen. I immediately saw how to do it. And now we are both rocking Animoji lock screens. Here’s the trick:
- Take the Animoji full-screen.
- Choose the character you want to use and make a face.
- Tap once on the character.
- Take a screen shot.
- Crop the screen shot to your liking. Save a little room at the top for the time if you want the entire character in view.
- Save as a photo.
- Select the photo from the Photos app and save as wallpaper from the share sheet.
It would not surprise me if Apple didn’t have this use in mind when making Animoji. When you tap the character and make a still of your Animoji, you can tap the screen again and it toggles from a white background to a black background. Dark backgrounds are better for lock screens and wallpapers.
If you want to do something less practical and more fun than making lock screens, you can do Animoji karaoke. You can do this by lip syncing to your favorite beats. Or you can do your own singing, even multitrack-multi-channel recording. It is a lot of work for very little payoff. But it must be tons of fun as the internet is exploding with them.
There is one more camera trick worth noting. The TrueDepth system brings Portrait Mode to the front side of the iPhone X. While the megapixel count is smaller than that of the rear-facing shooter, the depth mapping is produced in a completely different way, so much so that the portraits from the front camera will look better than the ones from the back camera in some situations.
Low light is no problem for selfie portraits because the depth is supplied by the infrared sensors. This Portrait Mode selfie is one of the best pictures of me on the planet. And it was taken in extremely low light. The Portrait Lighting feature had no problem separating me from the background. Speaking of cameras…
There are three cameras on the iPhone X: the selfie camera, the wide-angle camera, and the 2X zoom. Technically, they are all different lenses in the same camera. But they have different behaviors. Together, they constitute a great camera system worthy of a premium smartphone.
It is important to set your expectations accordingly. The iPhone X will not be mistaken for a DSLR. But most people don’t have a high-end camera with which to compare their smartphone photos. Such a comparison also wouldn’t matter to them one bit. Average people are not taking photos so that they will be published in glossy magazines. They are posting them on social media.
Most smartphone photos don’t even have it that good. They are view one the smartphone. I suspect the vast majority of digital photos are never looked at by anyone after they are taken and forgotten.
I’m probably not the best person to talk about the cameras. That is because I just don’t give a rat’s behind about which smartphone has the best camera. There is no such thing as the best camera. There is only the best camera for you. And even that is somewhat illusory. There are many smartphone cameras that will take the perfect shot.
If you line up photos from every high-end smartphone camera from the previous four years, you will be hard pressed to say which is the best. For you, the best would be the one that evoked the most memories, or the one shot in the best light, or the one from the most interesting location or perspective. Seldom does technology dictate the best picture.
A great photographer with an iPhone 6 can take a better picture than a bad photographer with an iPhone X. That said the same photographer with an iPhone X will end up with marginally better photos than the same photographer with last year’s smartphone.
Night shooting with zoom is better because the zoom lens has optical image stabilization. And the zoom lens is slightly faster than on the iPhone 7. Slow Sync flash means that flash photos won’t be disastrous. Many will actually be keepers. That may be the biggest improvement if your flash is frequently firing. For a very different take on the camera, read the review from photographer, Austin Mann.
What you need to know is that the cameras on the iPhone X will likely be the best smartphone camera you have owned, and possibly the best camera you have owned. But smartphone cameras are still waiting on their big breakthrough. And this isn’t it. That doesn’t change the fact that it produces better pictures than you likely need.
Since the initial release, nothing has defined the iconic shape and operation of an iPhone more than the Home button at the bottom of the screen. Prior to the iPhone X, one might have said that an iPhone without a Home button is not an iPhone at all. Yet here it stands: The iPhone X has no Home button. Yet Apple claims it is the form factor they have been wanting to achieve for 10 years. When the call for the real iPhone to please stand up is heard, the iPhone X is the one standing.
The Home button was never the goal. It is what Apple had to do before reaching their goal. The notch is not the goal. The Dock connector, and now Lighting connector is not the goal. The Side button is not the goal. When technology allows, these will all suffer the same fate as the headphone jack. What Apple wants is a featureless slab of glass and metal. I suspect that the Lightning connector is next to go.
While the Home button has been removed, the functionality still remains. Apple still believes that users need a simple get out of jail free card via a simple and intuitive affordance. So they have replace pressing a button at the bottom of the screen with swiping up from the bottom of the screen. It is reminiscent of the act of swiping away all the junk on your desk and getting back to a manageable workspace. Swiping away the app you are in will always bring you home.
One of the things I love about this gesture is that it can be as inelegant and imprecise as you like. You can do it quickly with reckless abandon. You can start the gesture from anyplace along the bottom of the screen including the corners. And you just sling it away. Apple has even made it so that the animation follows your movement. It always looks as if you did it right.
I’m not sure you can do it wrong. Every time I have tried to go home, I have done so successfully. And I have yet to go home by accident. With the Home button, press too long and you bring up Siri. Double-clutch it and you bring up app switching. But swiping the app away offers fewer ways to go wrong. I am convinced that the new gesture is a better way to go home.
How do you move between apps on the iPhone? You are reading your messages and decide that you need to look something up in Safari for your reply. How do you go from Messages to Safari and back again? The original way to do that was to hit the Home button, choose Safari, hit the Home button, then return to Messages. When Apple added fast app-switching to the OS, you only needed to double-press the Home button and select one of the app cards.
The iPhone X takes it a step further. You can still get to the app cards with a new gesture. Swipe up from the bottom and hold for a beat before releasing. This is not the exaggerated action that we have seen reviewers do on video. When Apple shows it off, they also use an exaggerated pause. But they are trying to teach us a new thing. It is like speaking very slowly and with much emphasis when teaching someone a new word. That is not how you say it in normal speech. But it is how you teach it.
Some people were initially having trouble with this gesture because they were trying too hard and making it more difficult than it really is. The app-switching gesture is the same as the Home gesture with the exception that to go into app-switching mode, there is a slight pause before letting go.
You do not have to swipe up to the middle of the screen. It can be just a small swipe. And the hold can be a fraction of a second. It is just a hint of a delay before letting go. And it works every time. You also don’t need to hold and wait for the app-switching screen to animate. You can release after a brief hold and the animation will come afterward. If you are holding until you see the animation, you are holding too long. Just swipe, pause, let go. It’s really quite fast and easy.
But that is not my favorite new app-switching gesture. One of the best new features exclusive to the iPhone X is the ability to just move directly from one app to another without bothering with the app-switching interface. So if you are in Messages and want to get back to Safari, the last app you were in, just slide from left to right along the bottom of the screen and you pull the previous app into place.
Imagine your apps in space floating side by side, all connected to each other. Pull to the right, and they all move over one space. You can just keep sliding your way through the apps. If you are switching between two apps, the motion couldn’t be simpler and more intuitive. It works the way it seems it always should have worked. I just hate these new interactions are limited to the iPhone X.
While it probably belongs in a separate section, I will take a moment to mention the new Control Center gesture is a swipe down from the top-right of the screen. Notification Center is summoned by swiping down from any other part of the top of the screen. These changes are non-events to me. There was nothing for me to get used to. It works as advertised. No drama to report.
There are a few notable changes to the Lock screen. Allow me to digress a little: The lock screen was originally nothing but a pretty affordance that kept us from butt dialing on touchscreens. It was an intentional barrier that served as a layer between our data and accidental triggers. Before the iPhone, butt dialing was a real problem.
Today, the Lock screen has become a combination of utility and art. The Lock screen is now a legitimate destination, not just a roadblock on the way to our destination. It has also become a security risk because we are using it to show sensitive information before we even get into the main interface of the phone.
The iPhone X Lock screen now features an image of a lock above the time. When Face ID recognizes the user, the lock swings open. If you have notifications on your screen, it used to be that anyone could pick up your phone and read those notifications. With the iPhone X, the notifications are there, but closed. As soon as you are recognized, the notifications open to reveal their contents.
The only other distinctive feature of the iPhone X is the Side button. Other functions from the Home button can be found in the Side button, and for the most part, working the same way. Press once to lock the screen. Press and hold to invoke Siri. Double-press to bring up Apple Pay. Triple press to bring up Accessibility shortcuts.
Pressing and holding does not bring up the dialog to turn off the phone. You have to combine that with one of the volume buttons. Either one will do. This combination will allow you to disable Face ID or call emergency services. You can even set off an alarm if you need to.
The iPhone X is a premium-priced device with a premium design, premium build, premium performance and premium features. It is the best of breed in the majority of these areas. And that would be reason enough to purchase one for most people. But other companies have many of the same premium elements as the iPhone. What they don’t boast is an advantage the industry seems happy to concede to Apple:
Accessibility: A brighter future for more people
Note that when I refer to accessibility features, I am only speaking of those affordances for people with low vision and blindness. You should be aware that Apple casts a much broader net than that. I focus on disabilities related to vision because that is the disability I have. These features enable me to use my devices. I reserve the right to talk about the other accessibility features in the OS to those who need and use them.
I want to start with low-vision usage because that is where I live. There are challenges. I come from the plus club. Screen size is a sizable advantage for a person with low-vision. All else being equal, the bigger the screen, the bigger the elements on the screen. The plus phones have the option to display more elements on the screen, or display the same amount as the smaller phones, only bigger.
The difference in size is not dramatic. But it is noticeable. Every little bit helps. That little bit does not exist in the iPhone X. It is like using an iPhone 8. The biggest difference is that the screen is taller. Compared to the Plus size, the iPhone X is thinner across. Being small in that dimension constrains the size of what is on the screen.
There are two things that mitigate the situation. First, there is Dynamic Type which allows the user to crank up the font size for almost everything. Associated with large fonts is the ability to touch a system element like the time or battery percentage and it will display it in a large font in the middle of the screen. You will not be able to use this feature unless your font is large enough. The large font slider has to be about 60%.
The other thing that makes the smaller screen usable is the quality and brightness of the display. It is so crisp and clear, even the smaller text is readable. For a person with low-vision, brightness equals readability. The display is so good on the iPhone X, it should be listed as an accessibility feature.
Another phone feature that should be in the accessibility column is the speaker system. It is much louder and clearer than any previous iPhone. If you used the Speak Screen option, the voices get a quality boost simply because the speakers get a quality boost. It is accidental accessibility
That said, the best thing Apple could do for low-vision users like myself is to offer an iPhone X Plus next year. According to the rumor mill (and I believe it), such a phone is already in the works.
Finally, something new for VoiceOver users
For users of the VoiceOver interface, there is finally something new. There have been a number of OS changes for the iPhone over the past several years. But for the most part, those changes have had no effect on blind users operating the iPhone with the builtin screen reader.
Blind users operate the iPhone by voice and gesture. The voice commands and gestures typically do not change from one version to another. 3D Touch offered something new. But it does not seem to have been embraced by the blind community despite some advantages it brings.
While I am only partially dependent on VoiceOver, my father is totally dependent on the screen reader. So I judge the severity of the change by how challenging it is for him to pick up. I also tend to rate the qualitative value of the changes by how much closer they bring VoiceOver usage to mainstream usage.
If you are unfamiliar with how VoiceOver works, what you need to know is that it is an entirely different gestural language from the one used by everyone else. Imagine an interface that allows you to use the iPhone without a screen. That is VoiceOver. It is nothing like the way you use your phone with touch and vision.
As a result, there are features in VO that are not available in the standard interface that I wish would carry over. And there are features in the standard interface that are not available in VO. Some VO gestures are more difficult and cumbersome. So I am always excited to see changes that simplify difficult gestures, and bring the gestural language closer together. The iPhone X does that in the following ways:
Giving notice and taking control
With all other iPhones, the way to enable Control Center and Notification Center using VO is awkward to put it kindly. You have to touch the status area at the top of the screen that displays the time and other indicators. Once selected, you have to swipe either up or down with three fingers depending on whether you are trying to get to Control Center or Notification Center. Pressing the Home button will return you to the previous screen you were on. Non-VO users only had to swipe up from the bottom or down from the top of the screen with one finger to get to the same function.
With the iPhone X, VO users can now use a single finger. And because of the changes unique to the iPhone X, both centers are accessed from the top of the screen. But that is where the similarities end. There is no differentiation between the right of the notch and the center/left of the notch. For blind users, there is no notch. Besides the speaker hole, there is nothing tactile to feel. The TrueDepth camera system is under the glass.
Before going further, it is important to explain the difference between a swipe and a slide. A swipe is a quick gesture sometimes called a flick in the VO community. It is a gesture similar to tossing something away with the flat of your fingertip. You flick it and let it go very quickly, letting inertia carry it away at speed. A slide is a gesture requiring your fingertip to stay engaged with the object until the action is complete.
Think of it in terms of marbles and checkers. You flick marbles away so that they end up some distance away. You slide checkers so that they are moved from one position to another specific position. In the standard interface, most moves are swipes/flicks. In VO, both flicks and slides are used quite a bit. So if you flick when you should have slid, you are activating a completely different action than what you wanted.
Here is an example: Swipe down from the top of the screen and you toggle Edit mode provided you are on the Home screen. Slide down from the top of the Home screen and you activate Control Center. This can get even more confusing because there is a difference between a fast slide and a slow slide. Slow slide down the screen and you are just scanning.
Some make a distinction between Swipe and flick. For them, a swipe is a fast slide. The reason that doesn’t work is outside of VO, a swipe is exactly what the VO community calls a flick. I am not trying to teach you the ins and outs of VO use. I am just trying to explain the added complexity. This is why it is such a win when Apple can reduce some of that complexity and bring the two worlds together.
What Apple has done is create two levels of fast slide activation. These levels are separated by different haptics and sounds. Slide from the top until you feel one bump and you activate Control Center when you release. Keep sliding past the first bump till you get to a double bump, and you activate Notification Center. Doing the Home gesture dismisses them.
That same mechanism is operative from the bottom of the screen. Slide up to the first haptic bump and you go home. On the lock screen, that same gesture unlocks the phone when the screen is active. When the phone is unlocked, sliding up till you get to the double bump takes you to the app switcher.
There is a nice little feature for VO users that non-VO users might like to have. It involves reachability. It also works for VO users. The way to activate it is to slide up from the bottom to the first bump, then immediately slide back down. Reachability is activated. And it works even more reliably than the non-VO method. It is more gesture. But you can also do it more confidently.
Accompanying every VO gesture and activation is a corresponding series of bleeps and bloops and swishes and other noises that are hard to spell. So the blind user is not relying on haptics alone. Between gestures, haptics, and sounds, there is a mesh of information informing the user of what is happening on screen. It takes a while to become attuned to the mesh. But after a while, the cacophony becomes a symphony. The iPhone X provides the first truly new piece of music for that symphony.
All other functions once housed in the Home button have been moved to the Side button, and work the same as they did before. This is the first iPhone update where blind users have a greater cognitive load than everyone else with regard to new features. The iPhone X is new for everyone. But it is even more new for blind users.
The iPhone X is a forward facing phone. But for the blind user, that can be more of a challenge than you might suspect. Blind users don’t generally interact with the world with eye contact and facial indicators. They often wear dark shades over their eyes. And they do not have to look at things that they use.
The iPhone X changes all that, forcing the blind user to face forward and face-off with their technology. It is unnatural. And believe it or not, there is a real learning curve for using Face ID. Consider the setup process.
I can do the setup in about 20 seconds, as can most everyone. It is a casual process that requires almost no cognitive load. All you have to do is look at the guide and do likewise. But there is no guide for a blind user. This is a visual process with few truly descriptive cues.
The first thing you have to do is line up your face in a small circle on the screen. Let that sink in. You can’t just be in view of the camera. It wants you in a particular position without much room for error. A blind person has no idea where they need to hold the phone to get their face lined up in the right position.
To help with the alignment challenge, the iPhone provides verbal cues such as Hold the phone a little higher and Tilt the phone forward and Move a little to the left. But there are not enough of those prompts to make the process smooth and simple. There is a lot of guesswork, trial and error before the phone indicates that you have it in an acceptable position.
From there, the user is told to move her head in a circular pattern. Have you considered that from the perspective of someone who has never seen a circle? You might also have some difficulty describing the color red. There are a surprising number of wrong ways to move one’s head in a circle. The motion is assumed and not really described.
I watched one blind user never be able to fully grasp what was being asked, and another pick it up right away. The first was blind from birth while the other lost her vision at 16. In the blind community, there is a big difference between those who have never had vision, and those who have had vision during their formative years. Having a visual map of the world you can refer to in your mind gives you a distinct advantage when you can no longer see it with your eyes. One who has never had that map tends to need more description.
I did eventually get the phone set up to his face. But I had to move the phone around his stationary face. Blind people can get past this initial hurdle. But it is not as easy as setting up Touch ID: a process that is completely tactile. It is also worth mentioning that there is another mode for setup if the user can’t manage the head in a circle routine. Apple recognized that this could be a problem for some, and offered a way to set up Face ID with a still image.
Face ID is smart enough to realize that a blind user will likely not want the attention awareness feature on. So when VO is being used to set up Face ID, attention awareness is off by default. The iPhone X still has to have a good look at the user’s face. But eye contact is not required.
From there, the blind user has to learn how to hold the phone to trigger Face ID. Remember, they are not used to looking at the phone. They operate the phone closer to hip level with the phone pointing straight up, their face pointing, wherever. Now, they have to hold the phone more intentionally facing them, and look in the phone’s general direction.
They are more likely to hit that passcode field a bit more often. They don’t have to enter the passcode. They can just hold the phone a little higher or look it it a little more directly. But that is a part of the increased learning curve. Once they get the hang of it, there are advantages to doing it this way. The information on the Lock screen becomes more available to them. But it will take the blind user a little longer for Face ID to become as natural to them as it is to most everyone else.
The camera is slightly more fiddly to use with the addition of Portrait Lighting. If you select stage lighting, you get the same small circle that you have when setting up Face ID. There are verbal guides that try to help. But in my experience, they are insufficient. Other lighting effects are easier to use.
For the past two weeks, I have been using the iPhone X with and without VoiceOver. I Use it with large fonts and speech features enabled. When I use VoiceOver, I sometimes use it with the screen off so that I can get the full experience of a totally blind person using the device. I have plenty of experience doing this with previous iPhones. This is not a stunt for me. It is how I live.
As much as I love the iPhone X, I feel like Face ID is a small step backward for blind users. That is not to say that it is a bad experience. But it is certainly different. And for blind users, tactile is almost always better.
It is easier for a blind person to use a feature phone with buttons over a touch screen. But that does not mean their lives are better with feature phones. And in the same way, Touch ID is easier to use for a blind person than Face ID. But that does not mean that Face ID offers no advantages.
As for low vision, the brightness, contrast, and clarity of the screen is a win. But the bigger wins are in iOS 11 available to any modern iPhone. At the end of the day, the screen is smaller than the plus sized phones in all the ways that matter to a person with low vision.
I am frankly torn in my conclusion. There are irritations blind and low-vision users will have with this phone. I have no doubt that those frustrations will be solved by second-generation Face ID tech and a plus-sized phone. In other words, next year’s iPhone X will be perfect for people with vision challenges.
But we live right here and now. And I think the recommendation has to be based on your tolerance for new things. Life is hard enough being blind. Being blind and not being able to use your technology reliably is a bit too much. That said, the iPhone X is a fantastic device. And if you are up for a bit of a learning curve, your can-do spirit will be rewarded. You should go for it. For everyone else, the iPhone 8 is a comfortable choice.
For everyone else, the iPhone X is demonstrably better than whatever you happen to be using regardless of platform. It is a perfect size for most people. It is faster by far. The screen is the best in a smartphone by a wide margin. The cameras are better than you need.
Regardless of what is coming next year, you can comfortably rely on the iPhone X for the next 2 to 4 years. Under no circumstances should you be looking at the iPhone 8. Yes, the iPhone 8 is the comfortable choice because it is familiar. But outside of very specific accessibility needs, you should either keep your 7 another year or go straight for the X.
After almost 3 weeks, I know where all the pain points are. I know what needs to be improved, and what will be all new next year. I get it: The iPhone X is not perfect. But it is as close to perfect as major consumer electronics get these days. If you are having any FoMo about the iPhoneX, it is for good reason. You are missing out if you don’t get one.
Head to an Apple Store and punch your ticket to the future. It is most definitely worth it.