It’s been almost a year since the Google Pixel made me put down my iPhone and transformed me from a Google apps user on Apple hardware to a pure Google acolyte. In the grand tug of war between mobile religions, I’m now pulled in the direction of Android, and I can’t express much regret about it. But Apple has just made official its biggest redesign and rethink of the iPhone ever, and so I was definitely curious about the iPhone X and the future it paints for the Apple ecosystem. As it turns out, though, the iPhone X really isn’t a phone designed to draw me back in; it’s more customer service to existing iPhone users than an appeal to new ones.
The Android user hat isn’t the only one I wear, but here are my main iPhone X takeaways from the perspective of someone deeply immersed in the Android realm:
A radical iPhone redesign is a good thing for everyone, no matter what it looks like or who buys it. I think this is an important point that’s all too often disregarded: any sufficiently ambitious company should dread the stagnation of its competitors, which is liable to lead to complacency and a slowdown in progress. When the United States put people on the moon in the 1960s, those efforts were spurred by the threat of the Soviet Union making it there first. Having a strong rival is essential to keeping up the pace of innovation. Google and its myriad Android hardware partners have always had that in Apple’s iPhone, and this major redesign will give them a fresh and different antagonist to measure up against.
The new iPhone X hardware design doesn’t thrill me at all. I know this part is subjective, but having seen the Galaxy S8 and Note 8, the Essential Phone and the LG V30, I am no longer wowed by (almost) bezel-less screens. I’ve now used multiple devices like that and, in all honesty, the absentee bezels are something I forget about very quickly. I don’t feel like I’m using a radically new and different design, and though it’s a little awkward to return to a phone with old-school bezels like the HTC U11, I’ve recently done it and survived the supposed regression. What I don’t fancy about the iPhone’s new look is the extra glossy glass back, punctuated by a chunky, protruding dual-camera module: it’s supposed to be ultra minimalist, yet it has this big eyesore on it. And the same is true of the front, where the top notch makes for a good brand identifier but a questionable design choice.
The under-the-hood upgrades that Apple announced are likely to be significant, including the first GPU designed by Apple itself and a battery life that’s supposedly two hours longer than that of the iPhone 7.
The cameras are said to have physically larger sensors too, which may help the iPhone catch up to the rapidly advancing Android competition in the cameraphone race. But does any of that excite my gadget lust or make me wonder whether Apple’s Photos could be as good as Google Photos? No, not yet. The iPhone 7 of last year had one of the most powerful processors ever put inside a mobile device, but I can’t think of a single occasion where I was using an Android phone and wishing I had the extra power of the iPhone.
Apple’s embrace of Qi wireless charging on both the iPhone 8 and iPhone X will not only be significant, it might be the final piece required to make wireless charging a truly mainstream feature. Even if you never buy an iPhone, you should be glad that Apple and Samsung — the two most prolific smartphone makers — have both chosen the same standard. At present, I get a kick out of charging the LG V30 on Samsung’s wireless charging dock, but in the future this sort of cross-compatibility and universality will stretch across both iOS and Android. That’s great news for all, and it lays the foundation for one day having a smartphone that has no ports at all, eschewing cables in favor of wireless data, audio, and power transfer.
Face ID will probably work well, but I don’t see the value in it. Something peculiar has happened in 2017, a year that’s seen both Samsung and Apple abandon their perfectly functional fingerprint sensors embedded in the home button at the front of their flagship phones and replacing it with arcane alternatives. Obviously, the underlying driver is the move to strip away display bezels, but couldn’t both companies have placed a fingerprint sensor in the middle of the back of their devices? Google, LG, Huawei, and countless others have been doing it for years and left no unhappy customers. Instead, Samsung tucked its fingerprint reader in an awkward off-center position and gave us iris scanning to unlock our phones, while Apple’s iPhone X has the world’s most sophisticated (or is that over-engineered?) face authentication system. The best-case scenario for Face ID that I can see is that it matches Touch ID, which already worked very nicely; I can’t get excited for such a sidestep. More worryingly, I expect Android OEMs will go crazy copying Apple’s Face ID, and I expect many of them to do it sloppily, creating the threat of much less secure phones.
Using the same depth-sensing tech and hardware as Face ID, Apple’s animoji system has charmed quite a few people with its ability to motion-capture the user’s face and turn it into animated emoji. I guess I’m too old and / or jaded to find that appealing. Do I get frustrated when silly augmented-reality apps don’t perfectly map their silliness onto my face? Sure, I do, for about 0.5 seconds. Then I move on to doing something more important like watching cat GIFs on the internet. My point is that I don’t think Apple is solving an especially major problem with its animoji, and it’d take some ingenious application of the tech to convince me that I should care about or want it.
The swipe-based iPhone X interface is nothing we haven’t seen before. Whether you want to go as far back as the Palm Pre, or more recently the Nokia N9 or BlackBerry Z10, there have been plenty of attempts at making gesture interfaces work. For various reasons, they’ve all failed to find traction among users, but, like socialism, many people still think that the idea is sound and just hasn’t been properly implemented yet. I remain skeptical. What I’ve seen of the new iPhone UI suggests it’s difficult to intuit and, without the safety valve of a home button, many neophytes might find it bewildering to get around. Until further notice, I’m filing away the iPhone X interface on my list of big questions to be answered about this enigmatic new device.
A major point of distinction I’ve noticed between myself, a person outside the iOS bubble, and my friends and colleagues inside the Apple ecosystem is that we basically can’t think of a new iPhone the same way. I consider it in clinical terms, assessing its specs, value for money, likely durability of the design, and relative advantages to Android alternatives. People who are already entrenched iOS users regard the iPhone X in a more emotional fashion; it’s like they’re about to have a new child rather than a new phone. “I don’t care, I’ve waited three years to upgrade, I’m buying an iPhone X” is one refrain I’ve heard, and it’s thoroughly understandable. If your entire life is tied up in iMessage and other Apple services, your only option for a new phone is another iPhone, and so the iPhone X is a hugely exciting device just by virtue of finally being meaningfully different.
The level of commitment and loyalty that Apple has engendered among its users is exactly what Google is trying to establish with its Pixel line among Android users. I see nothing fanatical or excessive about it, as I think both companies are “locking down” users through the strength of the services and conveniences they provide. But the further we go into the iPhone X and Google Pixel future, the more dividing lines I’m seeing between the two paths.
Apple’s new features are intrinsically tied to its new hardware — such as the multi-sensor array required for Face ID and animoji face mapping — while Google is providing free Google Photos storage and the best camera algorithms in the business with its Pixel line. It’s probably because I value the latter company’s offering so highly that I can’t truly get excited about the novelties from the former.
In summary, I’m glad the iPhone X exists, and I’m optimistic about it making positive waves in the wider smartphone market, but I am not myself attracted by it. That’s in part because of the pace of innovation among Android rivals, and in part because Apple is serving a demographic that I’m no longer squarely in the middle of. I have no problem with any of that, I think it’s the sign of a vibrant market that there’s choice and variety. But for now at least, I think I’ll skip the $999 glass iPhone and look forward instead to October 4th and Google’s next Pixels. The difference for me, as a yearlong Android devotee, is that an Apple event is fun and exciting just out of sheer tech enthusiasm, but a new Google product launch is thrilling because it has a high chance of being my next phone purchase.