Thoughts on the iPhone X

I haven’t written a pre-Apple-event post in a long while now (partly due to lack of time, but largely because I just don’t have the patience for it anymore), but this time I decided to make an exception, for a number of reasons – the first being that the recent leaks have pretty much laid bare the actual names and a lot of the specs and features, so there’s much less clueless guessing going on.

The second is that a long time ago, on a industry far far away, I kept track of the early years of the iPhone almost obssessively, because it not completely upended not only the mobile industry (at least in what regarded the relationship between carriers and manufacturers) but also (to a large extent) redefined the personal computer (emphasis mine). Having lived through those years, it’s nice to consider the possibility of Apple naming the iPhone X in homage to the original iPhone.

The third is that, to a large degree, my attitude towards Apple events has become one of bemused detachment. Having grown accustomed to year after year of iterative polishing, I look forward to the event for its showmanship and demos. There are some nice surprises now and then (like this year’s WWDC), but above all I like watching a well-oiled marketing machine at work.

But, most importantly, I have other priorities. If I were to rank the top five pieces of Apple hardware I would be most likely to buy and why, the list wouldn’t be very exciting, and quite outside Apple‘s current priorities:

  1. A new Mac mini, because I really, really want a quiet, unobtrusive desktop with a 2017-era CPU that I can plug my monitors into.
  2. A 10” iPad Pro, because Apple has apparently dead-ended the iPad mini as well and I use my iPad mini so much it is the second machine in most need of an upgrade.
  3. A new Airport Extreme, so I can have 802.11ac on the rest of the house (and because one of my Airports died recently, likely due to overheating).
  4. A new Apple TV, so I can simultaneously get rid of the Apple TV 3 I seldom use anymore and the Chromecast I’ve been using for Plex (this one is contingent on their shipping a remote that is actually ergonomic and not a designfest).
  5. A new, faster, longer-lived Watch (I have the early series, and have been musing about how well it will work with the updated OS).

Yep, no phone. My iPhone 6 has recently gotten a new lease on life after a battery swap, and there are few things I need improved on it that have a higher priority than the above, but none of them seem to be iPhone X exclusives, so an 8 is likely to be a sensible purchase when I actually need a new phone.

And there is actually one thing that seems lacking on the iPhone X: Touch ID, which I vastly prefer to the idea of Face ID and my experiences with similar tech.

The case both For and Against Face ID

Face ID seems to be a polarizing feature, but mostly because people either don’t understand how the tech behind it works, or how “revolutionary” it actually is (spoiler: it is not).

This is not a newly minted view, since I’ve been reading (and listening) to the Apple blogosphere (via the usual suspects) for months, and am still fascinated by some of the viewpoints and lack of awareness regarding the state of affairs of currrent tech – you’d expect them to actually go out and investigate what is the state of the art.

As it happens, I’ve been using something very similar to Face ID (Windows Hello) on my Surface and a Lumia 950 for around nine months or so all told, and I have no doubt the tech is more than ready – my Surface reliably recognizes me instantly, dozens of times a day (when at home, I often work on my desktop and leave it to the side, only logging in when an actionable notification comes in, which means I log in a lot), and the Lumia had no significant trouble recognizing me using the same tech (a variant on the Kinect IR grid projection for depth sensing), so it is possible to have face recognition working reliably (and securely) on a phone – especially a brand new one that is shipping with AR capabilities and with an OS that knows about depth maps.

But thinking about it for a bit, having face recognition as the main (only?) biometric function on a phone seems… dumb.

Not only I don’t think it is practical enough to scan your face (even from extreme angles) for unlocking/authentication, I have a very clearly defined, almost hourly use case where Touch ID is better – I log in to various tools and sites throughout the day, the vast majority of which rely on two-factor authentication through Microsoft Authenticator, using Touch ID.

Right now, all I need to do is swipe a notification and hold a finger to the Touch ID sensor – which I can do by placing one finger on my phone off to the side and without even glancing at it. Having to pick it up and look at it for logging in every time would be a hassle I can certainly live without (not to mention being… dumb).

And, of course, there are all the other typical scenarios – when you wear contacts instead of your glasses (the depth map changes, and with a strong prescription like mine the face mapping algorithm can’t figure out where my eyes actually are and compensate for the absence of glasses), when you’re holding the phone at a steep angle, when you’re on the move, etc.

I went through all of those with the Lumia 950, and having to “stage” unlocking the phone by pausing and looking at it became really old after a while. So after a factory reset I just never set up face unlock again. The same goes for my Motorola G3, although that was quite different:

The Moto G3 (along with most Android phones) does not have any real depth sensing (the Lumia 950 does, with a dedicated forward-facing assembly) and yes, most of them can be easily fooled – but, what is worse, they do not accurately depict the current state of the art.

Windows Hello’s face recognition is amazing on laptops, and, again, works flawlessly on the Surface – but that is also because the angles (and any environmental variations like sunlight) are a lot less challenging. I’m positive it can still be further improved, but the bottom line is that I just don’t think face unlocking is practical on a phone (at least for people like me).

Then there’s the matter of intentional unlocking, which is going to be a hot topic for quite a few people once they figure out the difference. Using a finger to intentionally unlock your phone is much different than having it unlock when you look at it, and I certainly prefer the degree of control afforded by the intentional gesture.

Form Factor, Screen, Handling, etc.

I like the iPhone 6 form factor and don’t mind the bezels even when compared to devices like the Samsung Galaxy 8, because I tend to grip my devices and not having to admire them on the palm of my hand so that I don’t cover the edges.

I get the quest for bigger screens in a smaller form factor, and having used the Lumia 950’s AMOLED screen I am completely on board with Apple shipping a better screen, but at the end of the day the iPhone X is just a phone, and new first-generation Apple tech to boot, with all the good (and bad) that comes with it1.

So I’m really looking forward to seeing what the iPhone 8 is going to be like, and hoping it won’t have a glass back (because that is a major turn-off for me).

But, to be honest, although there won’t likely be an iPhone SE refresh, given my preference for smaller phones I would actually be more excited by the possibility of that happening. It would be amazing to have the chunkier SE form factor with a larger screen (we have a recent SE in the house, and it is so much nicer to handle than my 6…).

Watch Upgrades

I can’t say I care much (if anything) for the Watch getting LTE, since I don’t think paying the premium (in both hardware and carrier plans) is worth it and I don’t see the physics of it working out favorably (from power drain and battery life to radio efficiency). Regardless of SAR ratings, having a radiant antenna on my wrist is not something I’m looking forward to, either (Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are in the 1-100 mW range, but LTE kicks in at around 2W…).

But something faster than mine (which isn’t hard) and with longer battery life would be great – plus mine isn’t rated as waterproof, something I would find useful.

Apple TV

Another popular device in pre-event discussions is the Apple TV, partly because everyone seems to agree the remote is comically bad and needs to be replaced and partly due to the mess the US content market is right now, with multiple over-the-top offerings and every player doing its best to have enough original content in their catalogue to justify charging for premium subscriptions.

I have two takes on that from an overall business perspective: Apple is (still) not going to be able to “pull an iTunes” and act as aggregator for video content (at least not for a few more years until the madness wears off), and they need a content strategy. Not “a better one”, but rather “something that doesn’t make people cringe” (yes, I’m thinking about Planet of the Apps).

In a perfect world, all they’d need to sort out is what they intend to do about Disney/Pixar and Netflix, and broker that content in a sane way across international borders – and that would be a service I’d subscribe to.

In real life, though, I think they will remain utterly irrelevant (especially outside the US), but hope they sort out the remote, 4K/HDR support (which I don’t need now but would consider good future-proofing) and pricing – I’ve been meaning to play around with HomeKit, and being able to do that, run a decent Plex client and tossing out a full third of the stuff I have plugged into my TV would be enough selling points for me to get one.

Other Stuff

Getting iOS 11 this week would be nice. I studiously avoided all the betas, but have a few beta apps that I would like to fully test under the new OS without having to deal with too many bugs.

But there’s no hurry. There is never a need to hurry regarding the iPhone, because next year’s will always be better.

Even this time around.

  1. Serendipitously, my Touch Bar just had a little fit for some reason. ↩︎