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iPhone X Hands on

There have been three specific eras of iPhone. The first kicked off with the original. It took an interface that was not just easy to use but delightful to use and, within a few years, successfully mainstreamed multitouch and the modern smartphone.

The second era began with iPhone 4. It had a killer new layered design, Apple's first system-on-a-chip, a high-density Retina display, and a much better camera system. It leapfrogged everything else in the industry and showed that smartphones would eventually become primary computing devices.

Now, the third era of iPhone has begun. And it's begun with iPhone X (pronounced TEN.)

iPhone X brings back the layered design — hardened glass wrapped in stainless steel — but it's curved now and seamlessly so. On the front is a Super Retina display that goes edge-to-edge, top-to-bottom, corner-to-corner. On both sides are new camera systems that take both computational photography and augmented reality to the next level.

By all rights, it should be next year's iPhone. But Apple is taking a page from its MacBook playbook: The company is bringing next year's technology to market today. For a price.

iPhone X: Super Retina Display

Holding iPhone X is a trip. It's about the size of an iPhone 7 or iPhone 8, but it has a screen bigger than iPhone 7 Plus or iPhone 8 Plus. That fixed a real problem for people who wanted the larger display but couldn't or wouldn't use the larger case that previously came with it. Now you can have your bigger-than-Plus screen and hold it too.

And that screen really does go all the way to the edge. So much so that it messes with your mind at first. You think twice about how to hold it. But the minute you lift it up or tap the screen, and it fills with life, you forget all that.

iPhone has always been about tabula rasa: a blank canvas meant to fade away and give you the biggest, clearest view of apps and the internet possible. iPhone X does that more than any iPhone — or any iPad — to date.

Apple is using OLED on an iPhone for the first time. After publicly criticizing older generation displays, Apple is claiming the company finally has a panel that'll meet its standards. That includes calibration, color accuracy, and a system that automatically recognizes and adjusts to the type of media you're showing. Yes, unlike the competition, no one will have to manually manage color profiles on iPhone X just to get proper OLED white — like an animal.

What's more, Apple has brought over the True Tone system from iPad Pro. It measures ambient lighting temperature and then adjusts the display to match, which makes whites look paper white regardless of how warm/yellow or cool/blue the world is around you.

There's also support for both HDR 10 and Dolby Vision. Never mind 4K, HDR is the next big thing in video, and iPhone X does it well. I got to watch Wonder Woman on iPhone X and it was eye-popping. Seeing all the details in the shadows and highlights for the first time was just like seeing HD for the first time: Like a layer of obfuscation was pulled away and the realer world revealed.

As incredible as the new Super Retina Display is though, there's one drawback: A notch that drops down over on the top of iPhone X. And yes, I can't unsee it.

iPhone X: True Depth Camera and Face ID

What that notch on the top of iPhone X houses the new True Depth camera and Face ID system, including the infrared cam, flood illuminator, dot projector, speaker, front camera, and proximity sensor.

None of that can (yet) be buried beneath the display. So, for now. it's like a rear-view-mirror at the top of your windshield, and a slight obstruction on true, full, edge-to-edge glory.

What that True Depth camera system allows, though, is Face ID. Touch ID couldn't reliably be buried under the display either so it's gone for iPhone X and in its place is a facial identity sensor.

When you lift iPhone X it triggers the flood illuminator, which allows it to work in bright or no light. Next, the projector beams 30,000 invisible dots onto your face and the neural network processes it all. If it recognizes you, you're in. If not, you're sent back to Passcode.

Like Touch ID, it learns as you use it. Makeup, hair, glasses, hats, etc. don't matter to it. And as your face or facial hair changes, Face ID learns and changes with it.

Apple even used Hollywood special effects companies to try and fool the system with makeup and masks, and even with video of the face, and trained it to learn real from spoof.

Compared to Touch ID, which had a 1/50,000 chance of a random person matching the fingerprint, Face ID only has a 1/100,000,000 chance. So, while convenience might have taken a hit, security is better than ever.

At least for a single face. Face ID doesn't (yet?) support multiple faces. That'll be a pain to anyone used to registering partners, kids, or others through Touch ID.

There are accessibility features built into Face ID, so even if you have no or low vision, you can use it.

I didn't have a chance to try all this, only see it demonstrated by the Apple folks whose faces were registered. It worked fast and well, but I want to see how it performs in the real world and over time before I decide if it's a diagonal step forward… or back.

I did get a chance to try the new Portrait Mode selfies, which are also enabled by the True Depth Camera. They're exactly what you'd expect: Your portrait with a computationally rendered blur and Bokeh effect applied to it. And since iOS 11 brings a depth API, it's non-destructive. So, you can turn Portrait Mode on or off on any photo you took with it, at any time. You can even use the "depthy" data for other effects, including Portrait Lightning.

iPhone X: Portrait Lighting

Apple's Camera and Photos team is hitting so hard these days. After last year's Portrait Mode made me leave my DSLR at home, this year's Portrait Lighting is going to make me start forgetting I even own it.

The gist is this: It takes the depth data, pulls out facial features, and applies photo studio-style lighting to them. That includes Natural, Studio, Contour, Stage, and Stage Mono.

It's in beta, like Portrait Mode last year, but it shows just what you can start doing when the sensor system is only the beginning of the photography process, and the silicon is free to take all that data and start working visual magic.

Especially with iPhone X, where both the wide angle and "telephoto" lens both now have optical image stabilization.

That'll make for even better low-light. Apple is also applying machine learning to its camera system so, for example, it continuously analyzes video in a million discreet sections to identify things like grass, sky, and motion, and then optimize compression to make sure artifacts don't destroy textures or edges.

Whether it will blow me away in practice the way iPhone 7 Plus did or not, I'll have to wait and see. My guess is it's not as night-and-day better over the previous generation but is the next step forward. 

iPhone X: Exit Home, enter Side

iPhone X has no Home button. The escape hatch that identified and humanized every iPhone since the original is gone. Not even the virtual Home button from iPhone 7 remains. Whether that's a sign of us having spent a decade becoming gesture-native or simply a concession to the limitations of technology, we'll have to wait and see.

It does mean the traditional Home button functions have been reassigned.

Return to Home screen: Swipe up. Multitask: Swipe up and pause. Take a screenshot: Press Volume Up and Side button. Invoke Siri: Press and hold Side button. Invoke Apple Pay: Double-click Side button. Invoke Accessibility: Triple-click Side button (if enabled.)

You get the drift. (And yes, you can still 3D Touch for all your shortcuts, peaks, pops, and other features.)

In practice, it feels incredibly natural. I've wanted a lot of these gestures, including the new swipe-bottom-left-to-go-back-an-app, for years. I'll miss the Home button the same way I missed training wheels at first. But a few hours or days in, I'm betting I won't even think about it any more.

iPhone X: Wireless Charging

Apple has been slow to embrace wireless charging — which is really wireless to the device as it still requires a plug into the wall socket on the other end. The company even went so far as to dismiss it in the past. Now, though, Apple is going all-in. iPhone X supports Q1 wireless charging, the most popular standard. That means it'll work with a variety of 3rd party Qi charging pads, and with Apple's upcoming AirPower pad, which will charge up to three devices, including up to two iPhones and/or Apple Watch and Air Pods (with a new wireless charging case, available separately.)

I've used wireless charging on phones for years and it's a mixed bag for me. I've knocked my share of phones off pads over night only to wake and find them uncharged. I've also not had pads everywhere I've wanted or needed them. There's still a Lightning Port on iPhone X, so you can still go old-school and plug-to-charge, but Apple is hoping the company's support for Qi helps propel the standard forward — including ubiquitous charging areas in coffee shops, airports, cars and more.

We'll see. For right now, for me, it's a nice to have more than a must have, and a step towards what I hope is a more robust distance-charging future.

After I live with it for a few weeks, though, I'll have a better-informed opinion.

iPhone X: A11 Bionic

The heart of iPhone X is Apple's new A11 Bionic system-on-a-chip (SoC). It builds on last year's A10 Fusion (don't call it big.LITTLE!) by including not only 2 high0performance cores but 4 efficiency cores, a custom Apple GPU, a new Image Signal Processor, and Neural Networking, built in. Unlike A10, A11 will let the system use all cores at once as well, for a big increase in parallel processing.

All that, plus an extra 2-hours of battery life. Not bad.

iPhone X: Pricing and availability

You can have next year's iPhone this year, but you'll have to pay for it. All the components are more expensive, including and especially that new OLED display. That all adds up to a starting price of US$999 for the 64 GB model and more for the 256 GB model. That's right, there are only two capacity tiers this year, and only two colors: silver and space gray.

I'll miss the gold, rose gold, and Product (RED) something fierce.

If the price doesn't matter to you — and for people on installment plans, it likely won't be a big difference on a month-to-month basis — you can pre-order on October 27 and start buying on November 3.

iPhone X: The beginning

So far, I've only been able to spend about 30 to 45 minutes with iPhone X. I'm eager for more. I'm totally sold on the Super Retina Display. Face ID was impressive, especially the lengths Apple went to secure it, but I have to use it before forming a complete opinion.

The new camera systems, front and back, are pure fire. Intelligent, neural-net fueled fire. I can't wait to take them out and shoot with them. Especially with the new Portrait Lighting.

Overall, this is the most excited I've been for an iPhone since iPhone 6 Plus. Maybe since iPhone 4.


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