Thoughts on the iPhone X

Thu Nov 16, 2017

My iPhone 6S shows no signs of aging, so I’m not looking to upgrade any time soon. But even if I was, the iPhone X is not a phone I would buy.

Not because it is a terrible product - the reviews have been borderline sycophantic. Nor because it is too radical - I would almost certainly pass over the iPhone 8 as being too similar to the 6S to justify an upgrade. Not even the high price phases me, which most reviewers cite as the main drawback of the X. After paying $1200 for my last iPhone (to upgrade the piss-poor entry-level memory from 16GB to 64GB), an extra $200 doesn’t seem that hard to swallow.

And no, I have no compelling reason to switch back to Android at this point.

The reason I wouldn’t buy this phone is that it may be “the future of the smartphone”, but it is not “the smartphone of the future.” It is a precursor to perfection. A signpost pointing to greatness a few years from now. And I thank all those who bought it for alpha testing my future phone.

Here are my thoughts. Let’s start with the hardware design, which is most important because, unlike software, it cannot change in this iteration of the device.

First, a caveat. Although the imperfections in industrial design are hard to ignore on paper, I admit that they are probably easily overlooked in day-to-day use.

However, this is a phone that is painfully reaching for perfection, but is obviously not quite there yet, no matter how forgiving you feel.

To my eyes there are two major flaws with the design.

Sure, we could talk about how making a phone entirely out of glass isn’t a smashing idea. A ceramic back would be so much more durable without sacrificing aesthetics. But I’ll let that one go, because the two major eyesores here have to be the bump on the back, and the notch on the front.

A pronounced camera bump protrudes from the back of the X. It is even larger than in years previous. A flush surface is the ideal - it looks cleaner and would allow the phone to sit flat on a table without rocking back and forth when tapping on it. But the bump is the price to pay for better picture quality in a thin body. Until camera components are sufficiently miniaturized or compensated by machine learning in software, that bump isn’t going anywhere.

But someday it will go. Because it is not a feature - it is a design compromise.

Okay, let’s talk about that infamous notch on the front of the X. Even before the iPhone X was released, there were some strong reactions over this little cut-out on the top of the display.

Some downright hated it and saw the notch as another harbinger of Apple’s demise in the design arena. Others believed the notch was a deliberate branding ploy, in an effort to distinguish themselves from other bezel-free flagships hitting the market.

Also, I wasn’t the only one who took umbrage with Apple’s marketing narrative, which seems to pretend the notch doesn’t exist.

Here is Apple’s introductory preamble to the iPhone X:

Our vision has always been to create an iPhone that is entirely screen. One so immersive the device itself disappears into the experience. And so intelligent it can respond to a tap, your voice, and even a glance. With iPhone X, that vision is now a reality. Say hello to the future.

Clearly, the X is not “entirely screen”, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Once the iPhone X landed in people’s hands, most alpha testers claimed to stop noticing the notch after a few days - especially in portrait orientation.

Perhaps, then, Apple was not talking about physical reality, but rather about the perception of immersion - the intangible user experience that transcends physical constraint.

I’m being generous, I know.

Perception is not the same as reality, however, and the reality is that the notch is also a design compromise. A compromise that will disappear as soon as it is technically feasible. And trust me when I say that nobody will mourn its absence even if it was once posited as the new defining shape of the iPhone.

As a case in point, look at the Moto 360 smartwatch. The Moto 360 was the first round smartwatch - the ideal form factor for a timepiece. However, it came with that awful “flat tire” - a black cutout at the bottom (to house the sensors) marring an otherwise perfect circle. Others have since released round watches with no flat tire (albeit with slightly thicker bezels). Wearables are not exactly selling like hot cakes, but it is telling that Motorola has completely ceased development on the 360.

The iPhone X is a premium, beautifully machined device. But without the camera bump and the notch, it will become nothing less than the pinnacle of smartphone design.

That is the phone that I’m going to get.

And now, software. Taking away a physical key (the Home button) introduces a number of UI headaches in the iPhone X that have to be solved with software.

One of the more egregious issues seems to be the displacement of the Control Center, which you could previously access by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Now that there is no Home button, swiping up goes home instead. Great! But the UI designers couldn’t find a place for the Control Center. So they decided to access it by swiping down to the right of the notch. Not only is the top-right corner hard to reach one-handed, but splitting a touch target (swiping down on the top-left corner pulls down a notification shade instead) is such an awkward UI paradigm. It feels awkward just to write all of that out, so I can imagine how it is to actually use it. Android handles their Quick Settings just as horribly by the way, so there is no easy solution.

Perhaps the Control Center buttons could be integrated into the “Today View” (swipe right) with all the other widgets shown there. Or maybe they can be integrated into the Siri screen, which is pretty much a blank screen until you start conversing with the assistant. And why can’t Siri just turn on the flashlight for you anyway?

At this point, Apple should stop pouring resources into Siri and any other data-intensive services, such as Maps, because they will always be a step behind Google. Why would you use a service that is even slightly worse than another? Assuming such blind brand loyalty is insulting. If Apple’s foray into “opening up” ends at allowing third-party keyboards, then they should just stop the pretence.

Imagine if Siri was powered by a Google neural engine that is learning from every AI interaction everywhere, instead of being sandboxed. Siri is a capable device manager and has a beautiful voice, but Google should be the brains behind the beauty. And enough with that “image results from Bing” nonsense.

Heck, imagine if you could replace Apple’s default Mail app with the Gmail app! Even that small concession would be welcome.

On the other hand, should we trust Google as much as we do? What would happen, for example, if Google started building a database filled with Face ID data? Would this frightening scene of aggressive biometric personalized advertising from Minority Report become a reality? Unlike a fingerprint sensor, facial recognition is passive and doesn’t require any action from the user beyond giving the device your “attention”. The potential for abuse makes me kind of glad that Apple is such a privacy bulldog.

I’m looking forward to the next couple of years and am hoping my 6S will survive until we get that unbroken pane of glass with a flush white ceramic back to house an intelligent AI. That’s the dream anyway. And with September, 2019 just around the corner, we won’t have long to find out if the dream becomes reality.

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