Apple’s new iPhone X was released just this past Friday and you can read any number of reviews of it right now—my favorite are from The Verge, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Six Colors. I was lucky enough to get an iPhone X too and you can read some of my thoughts on the device a little further down.
However I’ve come to believe that there’s at least one thing wrong with this whole notion of product reviews—and with smartphone reviews in particular—and that’s that by and large they’re only ever interested in these phones when they’re brand new.
When an iPhone debuts it’s literally at the very peak of its powers. All the software that it runs has been optimized for that particular model, and as a result everything seems to run incredibly smoothly.
As time goes on though, as newer versions of the operating system roll out, as there are more and more demands put on the phone, it inevitably gets slower and less performant. A case in point: I’m upgrading to this iPhone X from a three-year old iPhone 6 Plus and for at least the last year, and especially over the last three months, it has struggled mightily to perform simple tasks like launching the camera, fetching email, even basic typing. People who have recently had the misfortune of having to use my phone tell me almost instantly, “Your phone sucks.”
You could argue that three years is an unrealistically long time to expect a smartphone to be able to keep up with the rapidly changing—and almost exponentially increasing—demands that we as users put on these devices. Personally, I would argue the opposite, that these things should be built to last at least three years, if for no other reason than as a society we shouldn’t be throwing these devices away so quickly.
But even if you disagree with me, even if you’re the kind of person who upgrades to a new phone every year, I think you’d still agree that it would be useful to know how well these devices hold up after one or even two years.
Now, I know it sounds kind of counter-intuitive to read a review of a product a year or more after everyone who would consider buying it has already bought it. But imagine if the sites and publications that review these products did make it a habit to revisit them down the road. Imagine if twelve months from now you could read about how well today’s iPhone X holds up with iOS 12, and also with whatever slate of third-party apps that can reasonably be understood as essential—the 2018 versions of Instagram, Spotify, Twitter or whatever. Imagine that at regular intervals we could see benchmarks on a freshly restored iPhone X running the latest software and getting a quantified and qualified idea of how well that piece of hardware has aged over time.
If reviewers revisited these products in this way, it would give us a whole new dimension of understanding. It would tell us how well-designed these phones really are, whether the manufacturers really understand how technology—and the world—changes within a two or three year time frame. And it would help us judge for ourselves how much effort the companies are investing into ensuring the quality of their products over the lifetime in which they’re used. Basically, it would give us, as customers, a richer track record for these companies, so that we can hold them accountable in a way that tends to go unnoticed today. These devices are maybe the most important pieces of technology that we own and every time we’re enticed to buy new ones we are promised world-changing features and performance. It strikes me that it’s reasonable to examine how well those claims hold up over time.
All that said, here are my thoughts on this new iPhone.
- It’s a triumph, and I don’t think that I’m saying that just because the three-year old state of my iPhone 6 Plus has been so painful to bear lately. Overall, the iPhone X feels better conceived, designed, and executed than any previous model since the iPhone 5.
- The standout feature is of course Face ID which I’ve found to be very slick and very well done. Unlike some other Apple innovations Touch ID, which had its problems early on, and Siri, which continues to be problematic, Face ID feels mature and fully baked. It’s not one of those new technologies that mostly works but sometimes struggles; it works virtually all the time, and it’s super fast (though check back in a year or two). On the rare occasions Face ID doesn’t work, it’s understandable, e.g., it doesn’t seem to recognize me when I’m in bed, with all the other lights out and with my glasses off. Anyway, I’m very, very impressed with Face ID.
- Being able to set up the iPhone X by merely placing it near my old phone was pretty cool. I’d done it before with my Android devices, but I really appreciated the way Apple uses this to help me set up my Apple ID on my new device.
- However, I did hit a roadbump in replacing my previous device with this new one: my iPhone 6 Plus was already updated to a iOS 11.0.3, so the backup was too new for the iPhone X, which was only on iOS 11.0.1. That resulted in a misleadingly alarming error message that suggested my backup might be corrupt. To get around this, I had to set up the X as a new device then upgrade to iOS 11.1. Not too difficult but time consuming and higher friction than I think Apple should be okay with. After consulting Twitter, I found that lots of people had that same problem.
- Apple’s design team did a very nice job making tweaks to the UI to make iOS 11 more consonant with the unique details of the X’s hardware. One example is that on the iPhone X, iOS 11’s “cards” are rounder to be more harmonious with the rounded corners of the X’s screen. Lots of nice touches like this throughout.
- I think I miss the Home button a little, but I do like the new Home affordance which shows up at the bottom of the screen as a little bar to encourage you to pull on it. However, it tends to look like a progress bar that’s just not showing any progress. I think this needs to be redesigned.
- The notch is a nuisance for sure. It’s not elegant. It also forces some downstream usability problems. An example: when I connect to my office’s VPN, the indicator that I’m on the VPN is hidden in the top right area “behind” the wireless, Wi-Fi and battery indicators. After using the VPN for a while, I forgot that I was still connected because the indicator was not visible. That’s not good.
- The physical size of this model is a major improvement over the Plus size of Apple’s previous models. I had really come to dislike how large and unwieldy my iPhone 6 Plus was, and I’m incredibly happy that this new model gives me basically the same screen real estate in a much more easily held physical frame.