iPhone X Review Part I

iPhone X

TLDR: This is the most transformative iPhone I’ve seen since the original, and it has the most market potential since the 4/4S. The re-mapping of crucial gestures will keep some people hesitant to upgrade, but there was real thought put into these changes, with only a few questionable decisions. FaceID is a brilliant result of years of product direction, and creates an ease to security that makes it just disappear. Apple still has some improvements to make, especially with their upgrade flow, but the iPhone X is on an exciting path forward.

I’ve been an iPhone user for over a decade now. That’s pretty crazy to think about, but it really goes to show just how much time I’ve had to dissolve the various functions of the device and iOS. Because I’m an enthusiast and a developer I’ve been even deeper in the weeds, intimately aware of new hardware and software functionality even when I didn’t have the newest phone.

Not counting replacement units I’ve had seven iPhone models over the last ten years. The eighth is the iPhone X (roman numerals are still silly), released a week ago which I was lucky enough to get my hands on within the first hour. This device attempts to transform the experience of using the hardware that has become so familiar to not only iPhone users, but users of the hundreds of Android devices that have directly copied the iPhone’s form and function since 2007. It’s a big job, but using the device has made me sure that Apple has been playing it’s hands just right for the last four years to finally lay the iPhone X on the table and start cashing in some long bets. Now, a week into owning the iPhone X, I wanted to lay out my thoughts and reactions to this incredible device.

Pre-order & Line

Much was made about the availability of the iPhone X, starting back in the summer. Rumors and supposed production line leaks constantly warned the market that the device would be shipping in (relatively, in terms of iPhone sales) very low quantities until production ramped up in early 2018. In the mean time those of us who were interested in this device would have to fight almost ourselves and our network providers for a low number of pre-order slots that would quickly slip into December and then January. ATP had an interesting discussion last week about the level of veracity that the Apple rumor chain has developed in the past five years and the mistrust they’ve now introduced with these claims, which have turned out to be mostly bogus.

The pre-order process for most, myself included, was mostly like every year. No absurd waits, no quick slip into the next year. The only difference for me was that I was actually able to place my pre-order within a minute of midnight PDT, rather than furiously refreshing every ten seconds for up to fifteen minutes. I know that my experience here wasn’t universal, and many people still couldn’t get the pre-order page up for a while, and when they did were greeted with 1-2 or even 2-4 week delays, but the narrative I had heard was that anyone who wasn’t able to place an order within sixty seconds of midnight would maybe get their phone in December, if not early next year. Anecdotally, about ten friends of mine were up at Midnight PDT (3 AM on the East Coast) to attempt an iPhone X order. Eight got their confirmation for launch day delivery. One was a week delayed, but was bumped up to launch day delivery a few days later. And one was never able to place an order because of bad hotel wifi and no cellular connection in Amsterdam.

A week later launch day arrived. I always opt for in store pickup, partially because line culture is still a fun thing for me to experience, but also so I don’t have to sit around refreshing the UPS tracking system waiting for my delivery sometime during the day. Apple had said that stores would have limited quantity iPhone X devices for walk in orders, and to line up early if you want a chance to get one. When I arrived at the Boylston Street location in Boston it looked like hundreds of people had taken that advice to heart. The lines were dozens long by 8 PM the night before, and had grown to wrap around the block by 7:30 AM when I arrived. And when I left the store an hour later it seemed that people in the walk-in line were still getting their hands on iPhone X, even though at least a few dozen walk-ins had been processed by then. And my one friend who didn’t get a pre-order unit? He went to a different Apple location, showed up around 4 AM roughly 50th in line and walked out with two devices. It seems that Apple was able to make a lot of people happy last Friday.

Unboxing & Upgrade

Last year it took me about an hour and a half to set up my new iPhone 7 in-store from my iCloud backup. The location had wifi that was struggling to keep up with the demand of hundreds of devices trying to activate and restore and it left many people, myself included, waiting around playing with demo units unable to use their new phones.

This year I decided to get ahead of that and try activating at a friend’s apartment down the street, so after I got my boxed iPhone activated with T-Mobile’s network I walked over there to unbox and setup my new phone. Unboxing wasn’t anything surprising, all the same accessories came, including the USB-A - Lightning adapter I can only imagine is still included for compatibility with the many USB outlets around the world that haven’t been updated yet.

The device itself had a very impressive density to it. The glass on my Silver model had a great color a shine to it, and the chrome frame around the edge reminded me so much of unboxing that very first iPhone in 2007.

Unfortunately I quickly ran into some snags. While the network speeds were much better than the year before (sorry about your bandwidth Steve!) and the iPhone setup process had been much improved in iOS 11 if you had another iOS device around for setup, I had neglected to bring my iPad so I had to go through manual setup. Not only that, but the device shipped with iOS 11.0.3, so before I could finish setup it had to download and install iOS 11.1. There was no option to skip this step and come back later, I couldn’t move forward without waiting ~15 minutes for this install to take place. The iCloud backup restore itself took about 10 minutes, and all in all there was a lot of waiting around during the setup process.

Once it finally restored, updated, and activated (I didn’t have any trouble activating my phone that day like many others did) I went to re-pair my Apple Watch and hit the other real inconvenience of that day. While my Watch was showing the ‘Pair an iPhone to begin’ screen, my phone was reporting that my watch was already paired! Some weirdness in the restore process I guess. I tried three times to un-pair and re-pair my Watch at Steve’s before I gave up and headed out to work to finish the process there.

Before I left though I realized two things that really upset me. First, while my iPhone was updating to iOS 11.1 it made a backup to iCloud. I had done a backup outside Apple at 7:50 AM, but when I went to restore my Watch from a backup during the pairing process it showed the latest backup at 9:05 AM when my Watch was in the weird paired/but-not state. Restoring from that backup would put my watch in a weird state that it couldn’t recover from without a hard reset and starting the pairing process over. Setting it up as a new Watch would mean losing some activity data. Restoring from my backup at 7:50 AM was no longer an option. On a whim I checked my activity data and realized I had lost the last week, including the end of October when I had completed an activity challenge I had put in a lot of work to earn and was really proud of. I had also lost most of my holiday activity challenge badges and many others. So I was not in a great mood when I left my friend’s apartment for work.

That was made worse during the walk when I realized that my cellular connection wasn’t working at all. No internet connection and no texts were coming through, even though my iPhone was showing a T-Mobile connection with full bars of LTE. So now I had lots to fix when I got into work.

I struggled with T-Mobile support most of that morning and skipped a team lunch event so I could go to a T-Mobile store to get the issue fixed. Apparently there was just some issue with Apple automating my upgrade that they had to fix manually by having T-Mobile register it a second time. Still not sure what the root cause of the issue was, but I’ll make sure to be more careful next time I upgrade and get my existing SIM out of my current phone before I trade it in.

I was really frustrated by these, and it sounds like I wasn’t alone. Many people have spoken about difficulties upgrading Apple Watches along with their iPhones, and AT&T seems to have had a network problem that left many of my friends unable to activate their phone for hours after it had arrived. Apple did a lot of work to improve the upgrade process in iOS 11, but it looks like this is one place where software alone can’t fix the problem. They need to ensure protections against cellular network outages, or at least allow the phone to continue with asynchronous tasks like downloading iOS 11.1 or registering the device with Apple while it continues to try the cellular activation in the background. And apparently Apple Watch upgrades went fine if you didn’t try to outsmart the process, which I did by unpairing my Watch from my iPhone 7 before trading it in. Apple needs to be more clear about how exactly that process should work, because ever since I got my Apple Watch two years ago upgrading has always been a pain.

By lunch time I had fixed my T-Mobile issue, had finally paired my Watch and got it’s cellular connection working again, and most of my activity data had magically re-appeared. I was finally able to enjoy my iPhone X, exasperated by ready for the fun part.

That’s all for now, the rest of my review is coming soon.