I recently bought an iPhone X, an upgrade from my 6S, which I bought shortly after it launched in 2015.
The transition hasn’t felt wholly positive, so I felt compelled to write my thoughts after a couple fo weeks of use. And with some encouragement thought I’d post them here, in case they are of interest or use to anyone. Or at least spark some discussion about how we use our phones and how we feel about the iPhone’s current trajectory.
This post is long, but hopefully of interest to some people. I know people’s opinions on the iPhone X and X-style phones are strong and varied, so please take this as just one person’s opinion
I loved my 6S. As recently as a few months ago I couldn’t envision the need to upgrade. But eventually there were two persistent problems:
- Like a gullible fool, I updated to iOS 13. iOS 13 is a bit of a pig on the 6S. Animations snag, keypresses get duplicated and dropped in the first couple of seconds after switching apps, the battery life is not good (even with nearly 90% health via the repair programme).
- The cameras are not that great. A small child who I want to constantly take photos of recently appeared in my life, and while I have a “big camera”, I obviously end up taking lots of photos on my phone.
Then finally I dropped it and cracked the screen right over the front-facing camera. So the previously academic question of a replacement became rather concrete (heh).
A new iPhone would be several months’ disposable income for me, so after reading a lot of reviews and comparisons I saw my replacement options as: a used iPhone 6S, 8 or X, or a new Fairphone 3.
Why not another 6s: As above, it’s a great phone on iOS 12, but slightly sucks on iOS 13. And now I’ve updated, I won’t be able to transfer my data to an older iOS. It will probably get iOS 14, but experience now says updating will be a mistake. Plus, it’s hard to find used 6Ss with a decent battery.
Why not an 8: I very nearly did. I tried one out in a store, and I don’t quite like that solid-state home button. Also the lure of the X’s big screen was strong, and having tested on in store, the 8 felt a bit “dated”. (Did I mention I’m a gullible fool?) Plus, the X seems to be retaining its value (refurb price minus used price on eBay) better than the 8.
Why not an XR, XS, 11, etc.: Simply, I can’t afford it. The only one potentially within reach is a refurb/used XR, and that doesn’t have 3D touch, which is a dealbreaker for me.
Why not a Fairphone: This is getting off-topic, but essentially, I just don’t want to futz around with learning, tweaking and de-Googling Android — fun as that may be — while I have so little free time (see: small child). (If iOS doesn’t pull its socks up, this may tempt me in future… but that’s a rant for another time.)
So I opted for a refurbished iPhone X. A grade-A 256GB model is currently on sale for £430 at The iOutlet. (£30 over my budget, but only £40 more than the 64GB model.) It arrived almost immaculate, with a tiny scratch on the screen, and a battery at 85% health. Not bad for literally 1/2 the price of Apple’s refurbs.
Impressions after nearly 2 weeks
Face ID vs Touch ID
This was the big one for me. Face ID is magic. It also kinda sucks.
When it works, it’s brilliant. When I’m already holding the phone, looking right at it, indoors, it’s perfect. If I have to tab back and forth between Safari and 1Password a couple of times, having it just work is sweet. Attention-aware features are spooky good… when they happen.
The problems come under anything other than ideal circumstances.
I live in northern England, which is quite cold and very wet for a lot of the year. Face ID doesn’t work when I’m wearing a scarf which obscures my chin, or when a hood obscures my ears.
Even indoors, you have to get your face pretty much directly in front of the screen. So if it’s on a table in a meeting and you get a notification, you’ll either have to pick up the phone to look at it, or loom over it until it sees your face. Also, I have long hair, and when I lean over the phone it tends to fall in front of my face, causing Face ID to fail.
It doesn’t work when I’m lying in bed, if any part of a pillow or blanket obscures any part of my face. So that means shifting my position if the display times out while I’m reading something.
Even when it works, it’s noticeably slower than Touch ID. With Touch ID, it was unlocked by the time I got it out my pocket. With Face ID, I end up staring at a locked screen for long enough that I wonder if it’s going to work at all.
The one place where Face ID is superior is when I’ve just got out the shower, or when I’m wearing gloves.
It’s not hands-free, because you have to carefully position the phone to face it, so it doesn’t help while cooking or wrangling a baby, as I hoped it might. In fact, it’s actually less easy, because it must be picked up, not just touched.
I thought the thing that would perturb me about Face ID would be the fact that I didn’t have a choice when to unlock the phone, it would just unlock itself when I happened to be near it. Turns out I needn’t have worried!
In real use, it fails for me multiple times a day. When this means I wait 4 seconds to reveal a notification, it’s frustrating. When it means I have to hurriedly fumble to type in my passcode to get Apple Pay to finally work while I hold up a queue of people behind me, it’s upsetting and makes me want to return the phone. In under 2 weeks of use, this has happened more than once. I’m sure I’ll eventually learn to hold it right, but I can’t imagine how it will ever be as reliable as Touch ID, which maybe failed once a day under regular use, and had the decency to fail quickly.
Finally, the side-button double-tap to confirm Apple Pay online seems a hacky patch over an interface which worked pretty well before. And Apple Pay NFC is a bit more cumbersome than the auto-trigger when using Touch ID.
The screen and the notch
The screen is gorgeous. This is what everyone says, but it feels like there’s nothing at all between the image and my finger. And it’s huge compared to my 6S. Don’t know whether it’s the lack of bezels, the size, or the “HDR” colour, but it really sucks me in.
Everyone’s commented on the narrow viewing angle, outside of which the screen becomes quickly blue. But Face ID won’t unlock it from that angle anyway, so it’s nbd.
But I noticed something else really weird: when I use my phone at night, or when settling the aforementioned child, I turn on the “low light” Accessibility filter, and also reduce the brightness almost all the way. On the 6S, this resulted almost no light coming off the screen, but just enough to read text. On the X, for the last section of the brightness control when on Low Light, the screen suddenly goes a washed-out green–grey. I assume that, given OLED is meant to be HDR and have black blacks, this is a software issue. But it does mean I have to keep the screen a bit lighter than I’d like to in these scenarios to avoid a strong green tint.
True Tone is also new to me, but it should really be called Sepia Tone. Luckily I quite like it.
People made a big deal of the notch, but it was invisible to me inside about 5 minutes. With the OLED blacks, it’s often literally invisible. I still look in the wrong place for the clock, and it’s slightly annoying that the icon-bar space is so limited that some useful iconography (VPN status, bluetooth pairing, cell network, battery percentage) is now relegated to control centre. Not quite worth the bezel, but it doesn’t feel like the best design endpoint in the push for big screens.
Speed and responsiveness
It’s FAST compared to my 6S! Like I mentioned, iOS 13 is sluggish and has noticeable lag issues when typing, including dropped keystrokes. These are gone on the X, which feels snappy and responsive — at least as much as iOS’s many swoopy, eased animations allow. And the swype-style keyboard is actually usable now!
Size and form
Throughout my time with the 6S, the one thing I consistently wished was for the screen to be a shade bigger. When it came time to replace, I briefly tried an 8+ in store, but it felt ludicrously big. The X felt like a perfect compromise. Bigger screen than the 8+ (!), in a case only marginally bigger than the 6S’s.
Now I have it, I can say: it’s a truly great size to read on, but it’s too large to use one-handed. Holding it in my right hand, I can’t quite invoke Control Centre (now a swipe down from top-right corner) without awkwardly shuffling the phone in my hand. And I’m nowhere near able to reach Notification Centre (top left). But unlike some of the compromises (headphone jack), I can’t think of an obvious way to improve this. It’s just not that easy to manipulate something big enough to read on with one hand.
Two-handed, it’s perfect.
And moving the keyboard up with the emoji and mic buttons below was a good, smart Idea. Apple! Being ergonomic!
The lack of home button
The lack of home button is a mixed bag. Obviously it gives more screen, and this is good. It also loses Touch ID and this is bad. The gesture replacements are on the whole easy to learn and do, and seem thoughtfully designed. The one exception is the Reachability gesture, which I can’t reliably do one-handed yet.
For the first day I was infuriated that I couldn’t wake the phone from the front, or if it was resting on its right side. But later discovered you can: just tap-tap the screen to wake it. Neat!
The app-switching card-stack logic has changed. With the app switcher on the 6S, the current app was always at the top of the stack, and the previous-used app was always second. Now your current app can sometimes be part way down the stack, so you swipe right and left to toggle between recent apps. I still haven’t quite internalised when the stack decides to reshuffle itself behind the scenes. Not a big deal, but occasionally trips me up. I slightly miss the press-the-left-edge 3d touch app switcher, which has been removed. But I think in general this is a fine, mostly intuitive replacement.
A couple of times I’ve tried to lock the phone as I pocket it, only to later fine I’d accidentally invoked Apple Pay and had it sitting, screen on, for minutes in my pocket. I’ll probably get used to this.
The headphone jack
Yep, this is my first phone without a headphone jack, and… it actually sucks.
I have 2 or 3 sets of decent wired headphones that I own and like and don’t want to replace. When I do replace them, it’ll be with decent wired headphones I can also use with my laptop, stereo, Switch, electric drum set, and the TV at my parents’ house. So I live in dongle town, and I’ll be living here until I get that Fairphone. And I’ve now paid £440 for the X; more as I lose the dongles.
The battery life is just good enough that I’ve not needed to charge while listening yet, but I’ve had to eBay a used wireless charger, just in case… and the phone has now cost £460.
My 6S was on about 90% health when I replaced it, and was the third battery I’d had in there, thanks to a repair programme. When I got the X, it was on 85% heath. Screen Time tells me I’ve used it with the screen on for an average of 3.5 hours/day over the last week, plus I listen to probably about an hour of podcast at 70% speaker volume, which is a fair battery drain, and listen to music and podcasts on headphones throughout the day. I’ve not played many games this week. It’s been under 20% by bedtime every day, but I’ve not had to charge it during the day, which wouldn’t have been true of my 6S. So not breathtaking, but a solid step up.
One of the main reasons I upgraded was the camera. It’s a lot better than the 6S. I thought I wouldn’t care about the dual lenses, that it was a bit gimmicky, and that I’d just use the wide one. But I actually love them. I love how fast and obvious it is to switch. I love that you can toggle between them while shooting video. Really impressed with how they’re handled.
Given this is the camera I always have with me, I’m pretty pleased with the upgrade, but it by no means replaces my “big camera”. I wasn’t expecting it to, so this isn’t a disappointment. Apple’s computational photography is an interesting development, but still seems quite immature. With the X, I miss shots I would have got with a shutter-release camera, because the phone was still thinking about what I maybe wanted to capture, and it decided wrong. It doesn’t feel like a responsive camera. If I picked up a camera in a shop which felt this mushy to use, I’d put it right back down. But, it certainly is no worse than the 6S in this regard — quite the opposite.
Overall I’m very pleased. In most controlled scenarios (parties, posed shots) it takes GREAT photos, and only struggles with fast-moving kids and reliably capturing the decisive moment. I’m just slightly confused hearing people saying it replaces their DSLR. Maybe the iPhone 11 is huge leaps and bounds better?
The 6S gave a little haptic blip to indicate a successful 3D touch interaction, but the X has a whole new haptic vocabulary. It seems a bit overdone, but also it feels like the kind of thing I’ll get used to, stop noticing and then miss on other phones — which is exactly what it should be.
There’s one lone piece of weird skeuomorphism with the click-clack of haptic feedback on the camera/torch buttons on the lock screen, as if you’re pressing a physical button that pops out again. I kinda like it!
The phone is heavy! I don’t mind this!
It’s far too expensive to use without a case and screen protector (that cost just climbed to £475). Glass on the back? Maybe it enables wireless charging. But there must be a better way, it’s such a liability.
I got space grey, but if it’d come in a different colour, I’d have got that. I guess since I’m using a case, this doesn’t really matter.
Why oh why does everything in Control Centre float to the top of the screen and not the bottom? I had to add two extra rows of useless icons just so my bottom two rows are where I expect them to be. (It’s just as mental that Springboard icons float top-left, but the X has the same number of icons as the 6S, so this isn’t a change.)
I’m SO GLAD still has 3D touch. I use this probably hundreds of times a day. I’m not kidding when I say the XR’s lack of 3D touch was fully a dealbreaker (even if I could have afforded it). How do people select text and look up dictionary words without it?
I wish I could turn off the long-press gesture which Apple is trying to replace 3d touch with. I continually invoke it accidentally when letting my thumb lightly rest on the screen. The only alternative is to hover my thumb over the screen, which is uncomfortable. This is the same reason the Magic Mouse is bad for RSI. Whereas 3D touch is fast, always intentional (for me — I know others hate it), and comfortable.
Re-downloading previously offloaded apps now I have more storage is nice. But a couple of games weren’t on the app store any more and just deleted themselves. (Remember: if the data is not on your device, you don’t have the data!)
I’m not fully sold. I love the size and the cameras. The lack of headphone jack, the weird green tint at low brightness, and empty wallet I will reluctantly get used to. But it’s been nearly 2 weeks now, and slow, unreliable Face ID trips me up a dozen times a day, and it’s not seeming to improve, at least on this time scale.
I will probably keep this phone for another 4 or 5 years. But I’m very conscious that I’ve got 2 weeks left on my returns window.
The one thought I kept coming back to: The 6S felt like a local maximum in design when I got it — transformative new features, superior in every way to all predecessors, and hard to see any iterative change that would improve it (ok, maybe a bigger battery). The X does not feel that way: it has some great new features, but each (except the cameras) come with a compromise or loss compared to older phones, some of them (True Tone, new Apple Pay interface) seem half-baked, and some of them (Face ID) are perhaps too compromised to live with.