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November 2 2017 2:30 AM
By some distance, the iPhone X is biggest tech launch of the year, if not in the last five years. With a new all-screen design, Apple has thrown caution to the wind, jettisoning the home button and introducing facial recognition technology as a security and screen-unlocking feature.
It is also testing the market's pockets as never before, with a steep starting price of €1,179.
This is the handset that the world has been talking about since it was unveiled in September. Because of the complexity of its design and construction, it's only being released for sale now.
We've been trying out its facial recognition, its cameras, its new app-switcher mechanism and its new messaging animoji.
So is this the greatest phone ever made? And can it justify the unprecedentedly high starting price?
1 Apple's new 'premium' build
I'll start with a factor I don't usually pay much attention to: the unboxing. Perhaps it's because the unit I got has sparkling stainless steel on its rims, but this is the first time since the iPhone 4 - and, before that, the original iPhone - that I've genuinely been taken aback by the construction quality of a new iPhone. This is ultra-premium stuff.
Mind you, for this kind of price it would want to be. Indeed, for €1,179 (or €1,349 for the 256GB version I'm testing), the iPhone X really could do with some sort of killer feature to make it worth it.
As it happens, it has two features that contend for this, along with a number of other supporting assets (such as extra camera power and physical materials).
Those are Face ID and a new edge-to-edge display that increases the size of the screen without making the handset bigger.
2 The new edge- to-edge screen
The obvious first feature is that "super retina" screen. The way that it stretches almost totally from corner to corner is a first for Apple and an ergonomic game changer for those who like big screens but dislike having extra big phones to accommodate those screens.
The deal here is that the display is 5.8 inches, making the screen longer (but slimmer) than the iPhone 8 Plus's 5.5-inch display. (Although watch out if you crack or smash this iPhone's screen - Apple is saying it will cost considerably more to replace it, because of its new design.)
Because it's edge-to-edge with no appreciable bezel, the overall device is significantly smaller than an iPhone 8 Plus. In fact, it's much closer in size to a regular iPhone, despite its screen being longer. This is obviously a great advantage for pockets, as well as overstretched thumbs.
As an ergonomic upgrade, it works.
Having already begun to get used to the smaller device size, it's already hard to see me going back to a larger form factor.
It's not a perfect coverage area, however. The screen has had to take into account all of the front-facing cameras and sensors for Face ID. These are clustered together in , which are gatherers together in its 'notch'. This interrupts the flow of the screen more than a little, although the time and battery symbols sit on each side of the notch.
I've only had the phone for a short time, so I'm not sure whether the 'notch' will bug me after a while, but I'm definitely conscious of it at the moment. This is especially so as some apps (like Facebook and Twitter) integrate it naturally while other major apps (like Gmail and Google Maps) kind of ignore it and shorten the active screen area.
Aesthetically, this is something of a compromise. But it's there to facilitate the other big feature that of the iPhone X: Face ID.
3 Face ID
By now, most people have heard about what this is - a bunch of high-powered sensors and camera technology that, combined, can accurately capture and recognise your face no matter how bright or dark it is. So far - and I reiterate that I've had the iPhone X only a short time - it's been fairly flawless. It's certainly much quicker than the equivalent technology on rival devices such as Samsung's Note 8, which isn't as accurate or as consistent. Face ID can recognise your mug from lots of different angles, too, although not from under your chin or above your forehead. (When setting it up, you're asked to roll your face around clockwise so that its sensors can gather every angle of your mush.)
For it to work, it has to see your eyes and mouth. So if you shut your eyes or cover your mouth, you'll have to revert to the pin code.
One nice little additional feature attached to Face ID is that notifications on your lock screen expand to reveal the full message if the iPhone X spots that you're looking at it.
4 Is having no home button awkward?
One other facet of having an all-screen surface is that there's no physical home button any more. This is a big, big move; for 10 years, smartphones have been anchored by that button, which acts as sort of a safety valve, a short cut in a variety of scenarios. .
Thus, this is the biggest single user experience difference on the iPhone X. So what do you do when there's no home button to act as a shortcut back to the home screen?
Actually, it's a fairly seamless replacement - you just swipe up.
I've only had the iPhone X for a short time, but even in that period my muscle memory has become somewhat habituated to the new phone action.
Of course, the home button was used for more than just returning to base.
Switching between apps is now done by swiping up, holding the app for a second and then swiping sideways between apps. (This is the only action I've found myself having to get used to with a few teething errors along the way.)
As for other functions previously controlled with the home button, Siri is now launched by holding down the side power button for over a second, while taking a screenshot is done pressing the power button (right hand side) and the volume up button simultaneously.
As far as these functions go, the only thing I really miss about the home button is switching between apps. But I wouldn't have it back for the sake of giving up some screen real estate. So the loss of the button is worth it for what the iPhone X gains.
Of course, those are not the only things that the home button was used for.
There is the small matter of the fingerprint sensor, crucial for unlocking the phone, and tasks such as paying for things with Apple Pay.
For the latter, Face ID now seamlessly replaces your fingerprint authentication. In other words, to pay for something using Apple Pay, just look at your phone and tap the terminal.
5 The camera
While most of the focus here is on the iPhone X's physical design, screen, Face ID and absence of a home button, you can't review a new iPhone without testing its camera prowess.
In a review a few weeks ago, I wrote that the iPhone 8 Plus has the best camera of any phone on the market, especially based on its low light performance.
I haven't fully had time to test the iPhone X camera as thoroughly as it needs. But what I have found so far is the same stellar low light performance.
Like the iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone X has two lenses, one with a wide-angle 28mm perspective and the other with a telephoto 50mm view. Like the iPhone 8 Plus (and 7 Plus), these combine to give you way more flexibility and quality than a single-lens phone camera.
But unlike the iPhone 8 Plus, the telephoto 50mm lens here is also stabilised, meaning clearer, better photos, especially in low light. That's a notable upgrade.
I'll do a separate review on the iPhone X's camera prowess when I've had more time to properly test it.
However, there is one noticeable difference in the camera layout to either the iPhone 8 Plus or 7 Plus. The lenses are vertically aligned rather than horizontally places. This is partially due to the iPhone X's aspirations for augmented reality apps, such as Ikea and various games.
6 Battery life, animoji and other features
One recurring challenge and something that is new. Battery life on the iPhone X seems fine, which is to say that I can't yet tell whether it's significantly poorer or better than the iPhone 8 (which typically lasts around a day, depending on your usage).
But the animoji feature is fun. There are 12 animated animals to choose from, each of which mimics your facial expressions (eyebrows, mouth, head) as you talk or gesture. They're mainly designed to be used in messaging. You don't need an iPhone X to receive an animoji, although creating one appears to be limited to the iPhone X for now. As entertaining as this is, it's a slightly awkward feature set in the sense that these will clearly appeal more to younger people, especially teens. But such a demographic are least likely to get an iPhone X because of its pricing point.
Nevertheless, it's good fun and worth trying out.
The iPhone X supports wireless charging just like the iPhone 8. It's also more or less waterproof.
7 Verdict: is this worth the money?
Is an Audi worth the extra money over a Volkswagen? Is the Volkswagen worth the extra money over a Skoda? All are made by the same company and largely use the same engines. But each marque scales up on features to make the car more useful and enjoyable on an everyday basis. Even this comparison feels strained for the iPhone X, though, because a high-spec Skoda beats an entry-level Volkswagen every time. But nothing else that Apple has really matches the iPhone X. It simply is the top gun.
But can the extra €350 in cost be justified over, say, an iPhone 8? This can only be a subjective answer. But here's a guide: if you want the absolute best, newest, highest-performing iPhone out there, this is unquestionably it. If you're genuinely happy with a high-end smartphone in a more traditional form factor, then save your money and go for an iPhone 8 or an equivalent rival device.
On the latter choice, I've written before and still maintain that the iPhone 8 has a lot to say for it, especially with its bumped up cameras, extra power and terrific screen.
But ultimately, it has an aging physical form factor with a body that is bigger than it ultimately needs to be to fit its screen. Samsung knows this and moved to edge-to-edge devices over a year ago. LG and others are currently doing the same.
So when Tim Cook says that the iPhone X is the future of smartphones, he's not wrong - the all-screen smartphone is now the clear roadmap for handsets. It's just that to get Apple's version, you'll have to pay a premium over other manufacturers.
Existing iPhone customers know that Apple builds all its future products around its most current technology, meaning the iPhone X will be relevant for years to come.
Head-to-head with rivals such as Samsung's Note 8 or Apple's own iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone X is probably ahead.
So it simply comes down to how flush you're feeling.