iPhone X is the beginning of the second iPhone decade.
It’s easy to divide iPhone’s eras up by technical criteria. Screen size, pixel density, camera megapixel count, cellular radio technology. The fault line between iOS 6 and 7 is also very enticing, as is counting home screen icon rows. But the reason most people who use iPhones use iPhones is that we like the way it feels to use. In this, the iPhone X brings something new.
You can often sniff out details of upcoming iPhones by noticing small changes in iOS. iOS 10 put time and energy into refining the audio source selection - because that’s much more important when you rely on wireless methods, as in the iPhone 7 and forward. And most changes in iOS 11 seem to make much more sense in iPhone X.
To a much larger degree than before, you can “flick” out out things like viewing photos. You tap to view it, then grab it and throw it a little bit, and it zooms back to its place on the previous screen. It’s hard to come up with a physical analogue to it, but it just feels right. Apps moving to and from their “cards” and being flung back to their icons both naturally limits unexpected motion and is motion you’re personally in control of, and the potential for motion sickness goes down by putting you in the figurative (but metaphorically appropriate) driver’s seat.
When the physical home button was made into a fake button in iPhone 7 I was skeptical. The force touch trackpad on newer MacBooks works because the Taptic Engine (linear actuator) is directly below the trackpad and smaller than it, and because of the phenomenon where that feedback to your finger feels like the button is being depressed. But the Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7 is not underneath the home button. It feels like the entire phone, more or less, is giving nondescript feedback - much like the clumsy attempt at haptic feedback for some early software keyboards on BlackBerry phones. It’s not an unpleasant experience, but it’s also not a button press. You can’t fake a button press like that.
The home button strip owns this problem - it doesn’t try to. When Bret Victor describes the limits of touch screens, he is correct in observing that all you can basically do is tap and swipe. As it turns out, swiping is great for app management. Swiping left/right to speedily switch apps, or pull up to get the carousel is easy. The combination of the OLED display’s color, contrast and fast updates with a CPU that they will really have to work to feel bogged down in three years’ time with the iOS 14 update means that everything is really fast, really fluid, really responsive and never drops any frames. This can only get even better when iPhones get “ProMotion displays” with variable and higher frame rates, but everyone responsible for this part of the experience can confidently ask for a bonus this year.
(A side note on the aforementioned Bret Victor: he’s also one of the guys behind the much-maligned Touch Bar. The reason the Touch Bar is a bad idea is that it ruins the expectations while it doesn’t play to the strength of the replacement. Sure, you get a dynamic repertoire of commands, but most people are used to be able to use muscle memory to achieve the same dynamism, and the lack of key-like haptic feedback all but destroys it. And since it’s so small, although swiping can be used to provide finely-grained input, halfway down the palmrest is a trackpad, which also now is pressure-sensitive. As long as the Touch Bar has to live in that environment, the people who it doesn’t completely charm, it can’t help but disappoint.)
The iPhone X feels like a new kind of iPhone in a way that iOS 11 on an iPhone 8 doesn’t. I’m not sold on iOS 11’s visuals or typography as a whole, but it is a cohesive package, where motion, interaction and “cards” cross the entire operating system and repeat across apps. iOS 7’s introduction of physics is reaching full bloom and things react predictably and consistently. Face ID so far works so well as to assume transparency, which is what you would wish the camera/sensor notch would also assume, but which is not a noticeable problem in use in portrait. If the role of iPhone X was to set up the second decade of the iPhone as a new generation: mission accomplished.
It’s also easy to come off or be painted as a curmudgeon if you say anything about a certain 3.5 mm headphone jack.
There is great utility in being able to listen to something just by plugging in a cable. There is great freedom in being able to listen to something without worrying about battery life. There is great convenience in being able to push a button and hang up or go to the next song or adjust volume.
When Apple pulled away the jack from under our feet and said “it’s okay, we’ve got the AirPods”, they may well have introduced the smoothest functioning pair of wireless headphones ever, but they do nothing to solve those problems. A true advancement makes the previous limits irrelevant, and what Apple did is pull the Apple Maps gambit, saying “we’re close enough, this is gonna fly”, out-and-out dropping whole swaths of functionality while painting it as an improvement.
I hate the fundamental interaction model of wireless headphones, but I would maybe tolerate it if the battery lasted for a week. It doesn’t. Not even for the ones that actually do have remote control buttons. There are now wireless interfaces, little things where you’d plug in your wired headphones and vend them as wireless headphones, and I’d get one if they made one that didn’t simply match the pathetic battery life on most wireless headphones.
The sad thing about Apple being Apple is that when they’re wrong, they’re likely to stay wrong. They go all out in total war against every opposite viewpoint and make it next to impossible for themselves to back up and rethink something. If their rallying cry for the AirPods had been “these are the nicest-to-use wireless headphones ever”, they could have gone back on this decision, or offered a model with a headphone jack and a lower IP rating and let customers decide which is more important.
By letting all of us swallow the good with the bad, they can claim victory in any argument simply by taking advantage of most customers not fleeing to Android. Between this and the insistence of all USB-C, all the time in the MacBooks, I think many of us are looking for a more pragmatic Apple, the sort that already rears its head every now and then, deciding to take the Mac Pro back from the brink, to put more ports in the second generation MacBook Air, to drop the original iMac puck mouse or to start making the Mac mini. Instead we get the Apple that proclaims its stores are now “town squares”. Barf.
So why’d I get one then? Because with inductive charging, at least I can still perform the mind-blowing, high tech maneuver of both charging the damn thing and listening to music on it at the same time.
And so far, it seems to work just fine. There are small alignment issues - put it significantly off-center and the coils won’t align. I’m using the Mophie charger because of the promise that it will be updated to support faster charging. It is simple and unobtrusive enough, and the combined form factors also make it easy to tell with a glance whether there will be alignment. The phone hasn’t slipped off of the base, but the cord is also laughably short.
None of which is to say that this is impressive. Adequacy is the name of the game, and I’m to understand that the charge speed is slightly crippled compared to an ordinary charger, which may be a real impairment. How the upcoming AirPower charging mat will change this is anyone’s guess. Unless it ups charging capacity and eliminates alignment issues, it will likely not be worth the… I’m guessing $99–$169 it will go for. The wider format is a plus, but I own nothing else that will be charged by it.
It is more expensive than it should be. A lot. And the decision to skip a size and demand more for a 256 GB model is a nickel-and-dime move - one that may also be explainable by wanting to limit demand in the face of poor production capacity, but a nickel-and-dime move nonetheless.
Just like the original iPhone’s initial hefty price tag, it is hard to justify. Like the original iPhone, it will go down fast if you’re willing to wait. But also like the original iPhone, it is a place where the future of the smartphone, incomplete and still fledging as it may be, is showcased first. And, far from any sort of desire to “show off”, I guess that more than anything else tickles me: finding the new not in the application of facial scanning, world-class processor design and high quality screens bleeding almost as far as they ever could, but in ostensibly small tweaks to a user experience ten years in the making breathing new life into it and establishing an interaction model and vocabulary that can go so many places over the next few years. Notches, dongles and misplaced priorities aside, how can I resist that?