Practical Mac

I hear this every autumn: “Should I buy the new iPhone?” This year, that’s a more complicated question, because Apple released not only the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, but also the iPhone X (pronounced “ten,” because Apple likes to make writers explain the company’s naming quirks).

The simple answer — as always — is: “It depends.” It depends on how old your current phone is, whether it’s still working well, where you are in your cellular provider’s contract and if there are features in the new model that are particularly appealing.

With the iPhone X, it’s also a loaded question. What people are really asking is, “Is the iPhone X worth the extra cost?” Starting at $ 999 for a 64 GB model or $ 1,149 for the 256 GB model (if you pay outright, or around $ 50 per month for plans such as the Apple iPhone Upgrade Program), it’s not a budget device.

My answer has unfortunately been frustrating to some: You probably don’t need an iPhone X right now. Buying an iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus gets you the same A11 Bionic processor and improved camera system, plus 99 percent of the features in the iPhone X.

That said, you may really, really want one. I like the iPhone X a lot. Enough to purchase my own Space Gray 256 GB configuration.

A peek ahead. One of the things that’s always attracted me to technology is the connection with the future. In labs and offices everywhere, people are looking ahead and trying to figure out what the future holds. Although Apple sells many literal metric tons of technology, what they’re creating is the future.

We see a new iPhone every year, but keep in mind that technology like the iPhone X’s Face ID security, high-quality OLED screen and advancements in processor design (especially) require years of research and development. It’s not like Apple shipped the iPhone 7, wiped the whiteboard clean and said, “OK, what’s next?” Face ID alone is something the company has no doubt been working on for at least three to five years. Designing smaller, powerful and energy-efficient processors and graphics processors also requires years of work.

Now take into account the unprecedented, truly enormous scale that Apple needs to manufacture and assemble these components into a consumer device that has to operate well nearly 100 percent of the time. I’ve seen estimates that Apple’s manufacturing partners produce between 250,000 and 400,000 phones each week. Even at the low end of that scale, that’s about 25 iPhones made every minute.

Apple isn’t the only company working to invent the future, of course. People rightly point out that Samsung had a facial recognition unlocking feature in its Galaxy S5 phone, for example.

The difference is that Apple has spent the time to do it right. Even on Samsung’s latest Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones, the facial recognition can be fooled by a photo. Some researchers managed to fool Face ID on an iPhone X recently, but to do that, they needed to create a mask of a person’s face, separate reproductions of the eye areas, and a silicon nose replica. If someone is doing all of that to you, Face ID is the least of your worries. Security consultant Rich Mogull goes into more detail about Face ID’s security implications in an article at TidBITS .

Everyday experience

I could go on about specs and features, but here’s what it comes down to. So far, using the iPhone X has been a joy. Since phones are devices we use dozens of times a day (or more), the experience is important. Seeing the lock icon open to indicate that it’s viewed and recognized my face is a tiny thrill every time it happens. Even better, often I just swipe to open the phone, and the unlocking happens so fast that I don’t notice it.

Even better is Face ID with apps that use security to open, such as 1Password and my bank’s app, BECU. If I’m on my Mac and need to pay a bill or transfer money, I now reach for the iPhone X first instead of going to the BECU website, because I can get to my accounts in about 15 seconds or less. Any app that is set up to use Touch ID can incorporate Face ID, too.

Having the screen extend to the outer edges without a “chin” or “forehead” is also a neat thrill whenever I use it. I’m entirely unconcerned with the “notch,” the space carved out at the top edge of the screen to contain the front-facing camera and sensors. Again, Apple isn’t the first to push to the edges; I’ve used a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with a screen that wraps down the curve on the left and right edges; it’s visually stunning, but I’d often inadvertently tap things just by holding it.

I’ve watched some HDR movies on the iPhone X’s OLED screen (well, parts of movies; I’ve been on a deadline and I’m a dad), and they look fantastic. The hyper-saturated “Mad Max: Fury Road” is gorgeous, for instance. Even when the video is expanded to fill all edges, the notch doesn’t bother me.

And, as a camera guy, I love having the dual camera system in a physical enclosure that’s smaller than the 8 Plus, which has always felt too large. (The iPhone X screen is actually taller and slightly narrower than the iPhone Plus screen, so even though the iPhone X is physically smaller, you’re getting pretty much the same screen real estate.)

I’ve also noticed that the iPhone X battery life is much improved over my old iPhone 7.

Does someone need an iPhone X right now? No. But if you like being able to hold the future in your hand, and can appreciate that this particular future was envisioned years ago, then you’ll love the iPhone X.

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