November 10, 2017
In addition to the changes to reduce OLED burn in, the new Home Indicator and associated gestures, and support for other new hardware features there are also a handful of little changes to the iOS builds that run on the iPhone X. Some of these, like moving Control Center to the top right of the screen instead of the bottom and the lack of a battery percentage label in the status bar are concessions to the new restrictions of the device and the placement of the sensor housing.
The device’s Lock Status Indicator is also much more prominent now than it is on other iOS devices, no longer replacing the time in the status bar on the lock screen but rather living above the time under the sensor housing as a prominent icon to indicate lock status. This has the effect of placing much more importance on the device’s current lock state on the lock screen, which is helpful when dealing with private notifications and enabling access to certain control center functions (I have HomeKit locked down when the device is locked for instance.) Because the core experience of unlocking your phone has become much less familiar to many users this seems like a reasonable concession, but there are other choices throughout iOS that make less sense.
There are now two icons near the bottom of the Lock Screen to give you quick access to the Flashlight and the Camera functions. They are small and fade away when you start scrolling through notifications, so they’re mostly harmless, and they click with a satisfying taptic response that reminds me of the static Home Button on the iPhone 7. These buttons still live in Control Center, so I’m not sure what the messaging Apple is trying to convey with them is. Is this an admission that Control Center is far less convenient living in it’s new position in the top right of the screen? If so, why not make these buttons customizable, like Control Center is? And why give a third lock screen short cut to the Camera app, in addition to Control Center and swiping to the right of the Lock Screen, rather than giving that position to other Control Center functionality. It seems like one of these shortcuts should have sufficed. That being said I am loving having access to the Flashlight right from the lock screen and I find myself using it far more often. I just don’t particularly see a reason for these software changes to only come to the iPhone X and not to all iOS 11 devices.
Ditto for a few other tweaks around the platform, such as the ‘Done’ button that appears when rearranging apps. Users have been trained since iPhone OS 1.1.3 and the January ’08 Update to click the Home Button to end ‘Wiggle Mode.’ The Home Button may be gone now, but in most places the Home Indicator’s swipe up gesture still works in the same way, getting you out of various states in the system the same way the Home Button used to. So on the Home screen in ‘Wiggle Mode’ a quick swipe up from the bottom of the screen performs the same action as the new ‘Done’ button, making it a curious decision to train users away from the traditional Home Button actions.
The other curious difference between iOS 11 running on an iPhone X and an iPhone 8 is the new action to force quit apps from the multi-tasking view, which typically you should not do but remains a helpful tool when dealing with a problematic app. Since iOS 8 this has been done by entering the app-switcher and swiping up on an app card to dismiss it, and this is still the case on most iPhone models, but on iPhone X the new gesture requires a two step process, tapping and holding on an app card until you see a red dismiss indicator. From there the app can be quit by swiping up like usual or tapping the dismiss indicator. If you try quitting an app the old way without performing this first step you will find yourself returning home as if you never made a stop to the app switcher on the way to dismissing an app.
These changes are certainly minor, but they mark an new chapter in the history of iOS. Even when new features were limited to new hardware, such as when the iPhone 3GS gained video functionality in the camera app but other phones did not, or when actions became more weird on existing devices only to make sense when new devices came out, such as when the App Switcher behavior changed in iOS 9 only to make sense with the iPhone 6S’s 3D Touch App Switching, users have always been rewarded for their training on iOS gestures and actions. No matter what iPhone you picked up as long as it was running the latest iOS gestures would work the same way as on your existing phone, augmented perhaps but not replaced. These new changes seems like a distinctive fork in the road however, an indication that not only are core iOS functions changing their shape, but that the experience of using an iPhone X should be not only about learning new gestures and actions, but changing behaviors even compared to those who bought the other flagship iPhone this year. How long this will last and what it means for the future of the platform will be interesting questions to keep up with in the future.
Speaking of the future, the iPhone 8 and iPhone X come with support for inductive charging (not wireless) through the Qi standard now, enabled by the return of the glass back on the devices. This has been a long time coming, Android phones and even the Palm Pre had this functionality years ago, but like many features Apple tends to hold back until they can make a solid implementation, and in 2017 they’re finally ready. It seems that this decision was made mostly for the AirPower, the new charging device they will be shipping sometime in early 2018 that can charge up to three Apple devices at a time with a single Lightning cable. So how well does it work?
Not all that well really, at least if speed is your concern. After placing the phone down on a Qi charging pad the phone gives the familiar charging sound and the battery indicator lights up (with a cool new animation on the iPhone X), but charge comes in at a trickle. Most of the time I find it charging my phone at a rate of a few percent an hour if I’m still using it on and off. If I leave it charging overnight it’s at 100% by the next morning, but I do sometimes have to fumble to get the device to lay down correctly on the charging pad in the dark. Honestly the struggle is no worse than I used to deal with to get the phone into it’s charging dock in the middle of the night though. Apple says there are some software limitations restricting the rate the iPhone can charge from an inductive pad that they will be lifting in a future version of iOS 11 which should help matters slightly, but you still won’t be able to do any fast charging without plugging in a Lightning cable.
However, for me the Qi charging has hit that ‘good enough’ threshold even if it’s not fast. I’ve gotten two cheap charging pads from Amazon, since I really don’t want to drop $60 on the Belkin or Mophie models Apple is selling only to turn around and buy an AirPower next year. I keep one on my nightstand where the phone lays flat for overnight charging, and one at my desk at work where the phone is raised and pointing to my face so I can still use it throughout the day. Waking up with 100% charge, by the time I get to work and put my phone down on the charging pad it’s still at ~80-90%, and throughout the day it will typically hover around there until I leave work. It’s certainly really nice to be able to just pick up my phone and walk away rather than having to remove a cable from the Lightning connector, and with wireless debugging in Xcode 9 I’ve really enjoyed this next step towards the fully wireless lifestyle. I still need to use the Lightning connector for CarPlay (although now the wireless CarPlay dash unit is much more tempting) and I’m sure every now and then I will be out and about and need to charge up my battery quickly and use my MacBook Escape power brick and a fast charging USB-C to Lightning cable, but otherwise this is a great addition to the wireless iPhone experience.
I’m particularly excited about the AirPower, and really can’t wait to get my hands on it. Ever since getting my MacBook Escape in 2015 I’ve been able to tailor my travel cable box with only USB-C to USB-C and USB-C to Lightning cables. I charge my Apple Watch with Apple’s Magnetic Charging Dock which uses Lightning for power, and now that even my Switch charges with USB-C a handful of those cables pretty much charge everything I need to charge while I’m traveling. Adding in AirPower will remove a few redundant lightning cables and the Apple Watch Charging Dock, which will save a good deal of space.
One other change I’ll be making when I’m traveling is to actually put a case on this device. The glass back is much grippier than previous iPhone designs, although very similar to my Jet Black iPhone 7, and Apple claims that this is the most durable glass on both sides that has ever shipped on iPhone, but anecdotally my wife was able to crack the back glass on her iPhone 8 within three days of getting the device, so I’m not sure how much confidence that gives me. I do have AppleCare Plus through the iPhone Upgrade Program, so even if something happens it’ll just mean a $99 replacement fee rather than the very expensive fees Stephen Hackett laid out recently, so that’s enough peace of mind to prevent me from always using a case. I’m still a bit nervous handling the device though, especially in circumstance where I’m distracted, or when I’m wearing gloves during my morning walk, so I’ll be keeping my phone safe(er) in its leather case during those times and I should be fine.
So there we are, a week in to life with the iPhone X (exactly a week since I entered the store as I write this) those are my first impressions. It’s a fantastic device, with a much more luxurious feeling than many previous iPhones, perhaps since the first one. The usability is fantastic and FaceID is a huge improvement to the experience of maintaining security on the platform, and I’m really excited to see it expand beyond the iPhone X line (I’m hoping for a surprise FaceID module in the iMac Pro.) I’ve traditionally kept up with every iPhone since the 6, which the iPhone Upgrade Program has really helped with, but this time I think I’ll probably hold onto the iPhone X next year and avoid the temptation of whatever comes out next. I think this is a phone I’ll want to keep for a long time rather than trading in.