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Apple's iPhone X finally brings a much needed makeover

The company reveals the super premium iPhone X -- which costs as much as $1,149 -- along with the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus.

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Apple shows off the iPhone X on Tuesday at the Steve Jobs Theater.

CNET

Say hello to the iPhone X. Now get ready to enter the scrum to actually buy one.

Apple on Tuesday unveiled the iPhone X (which Apple execs pronounced "10," not "ex"), its pricey, super premium phone that's expected to be in limited supply. That's a recipe for a phone that's going to be hard to get -- even if you can afford it.

"This is a phone we've been dreaming about for a long time," Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering, told the audience at Apple's launch event Tuesday.

Ending months of intense speculation, Apple also showed off the new iPhone 8 and larger iPhone 8 Plus. But for those devices, you may have to squint to see the differences from past years' models.

The iPhone X has a new look, with a nearly frameless structure that houses a 5.8-inch display. That screen is new, too, called a Super Retina display, which brings sharper OLED technology to the iPhone. 

Longtime Samsung fans may not be so impressed with these changes, since OLED screens have existed in those phones for years and Samsung already introduced the nearly frameless Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones earlier this year.

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The iPhone X also has Face ID, a new facial recognition platform to unlock the phone and use Apple Pay. The new system, which projects 30,000 invisible infrared dots on a person's face to map it, takes the place of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor since the home button was tossed out to make room for more screen. The new device also has wireless charging thanks to a glass back, a new A11 Bionic processor and an improved 12-megapixel camera.

The device uses Face ID to let users puppet animated emojis, called "animoji," of foxes and chickens.

The iPhone X will start at $999 for the 64-gigabyte version. The 256GB is $1,149, over twice the price of last year's iPhone 7 base model, now costing $549. Preorders start on Oct. 27 and the phones ship on Nov. 3.

The event ushering in the phones' arrival is chock-full of significance, both symbolic and material. Apple unveiled its latest phones for the first time in the Steve Jobs Theater at its new Apple Park campus in Cupertino, California. The choice in location gives a nod to the company's co-founder and former CEO who died in 2011 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the first iPhone (hence the iPhone X name). When Jobs introduced the device in January 2007, he called it "a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone." It changed the way we live, communicate and shop, and turned Apple into the highest-valued and most profitable company in the world.

The dollars-and-cents realities behind this production are even more important for Apple. More than two-thirds of the tech giant's sales come from its popular phone, but iPhone sales dropped for the first time last year. Companies, Apple included, haven't been making dramatic changes to their devices, and people haven't been upgrading as often as before and the overall smartphone market has been slowing down.

Last year marked the slowest growth rate for the smartphone industry since it began, and Apple's iPhone sales dropped for four straight quarters. Total industry shipments rose just 2.5 percent to 1.47 billion, according to IDC, and they should increase only 1.7 percent this year. The researcher expects smartphone shipments to keep growing through 2021, but the real boom days are over. 

Despite the weaker trends, the new phones come amid sky-high expectations for Apple to blow us away with radical new devices after a few years of conservative changes. For Apple, the iPhone is the most critical product in its lineup, and the key to getting you to buy its other products, including Macs, Apple Watch or upcoming HomePod speakers. 

"No other device in our lifetimes has had the impact on the world that the iPhone has," Apple CEO Tim Cook said onstage Tuesday. "It's truly amazing how much the iPhone impacts the world each and every day."

He later added that the iPhone X served as a "product that will set the path for technology for the next decade."

The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, Apple's most direct follow-up devices to the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, add some new bells and whistles, but the phones look nearly identical to last year's models. And the year before that. And the year before that.

Despite the limited cosmetic changes to the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, they could be the more popular option for people who are keen to upgrade to a new phone.

Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, highlighted the new phones' improved 12-megapixel camera (the same number of megapixels as the 7 and 7 Plus) and video capabilities, as well as its stronger A11 Bionic processor. He also touted the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus' new augmented reality power. The new glass back will also allow for wireless charging, like with the iPhone X.

The size and displays are the same as last year's versions, at 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays.

The less-impressive upgrades on the 8 and 8 Plus could put Apple in a pickle with consumers, since most iPhone buyers will likely buy those phones and not the iPhone X.

"What Apple doesn't want is for people to want the best but not be able to afford it," Jan Dawson, chief analyst for Jackdaw Research, said, "and therefore hold onto their existing phones rather than buying what they consider second best."

The new iPhone 8 will be available in 64GB and 256GB versions, starting at $699. The iPhone 8 Plus will also be sold at the same storage levels, starting at $799. Preorders for both start Friday and they will be available for sale on Sept. 22.

First published at 10:57 a.m. PT.

Updated, 11:27 a.m. PT: Adds reveal of the iPhone X.

iPhone X, iPhone 8: Everything we know about Apple's new iPhones.

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