Apple iPhone X review: This iPhone XS predecessor is still a contender

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The Good The iPhone X delivers a great blend of handheld comfort and a big, gorgeous 5.8-inch OLED screen. The rear-facing telephoto camera outshoots the iPhone 8 Plus in low light, and the front-facing camera snaps impressive portrait mode selfies. Face ID generally works fine.

The Bad The iPhone X is harder to get following the release of the iPhone XS. The all-glass body means a case and an insurance plan are musts. Shorter battery life than iPhone 8 Plus.

The Bottom Line iPhone X remains a winning evolution of the iPhone, and is worth a look -- if you can still find it on sale.

8.9 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 10
  • Camera 9
  • Battery 7

Editors' note, April 22, 2020: Read our iPhone SE 2020 review. Original story follows.  

Editors' note, Sept. 12, 2018: The iPhone X reviewed here is no longer being sold by Apple, but the iPhone 8 is now available in its place at a reduced price of $599. See all of the new iPhones and new products that Apple just announced. 

Update: Spring/summer 2018

The iPhone X was unveiled in September 2017 and released on November 3. And since then, it's remained at the top of the smartphone hill. The Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and the Huawei P20 Pro made some interesting advancements in photography, but nothing else has come close to matching the iPhone X's revolutionary Face ID unlocking system. Instead, an increasingly large number of Android phones have taken to straight-up copying the iPhone X's distinctive notch -- the thing that was arguably its most controversial and divisive design decision.

So while the iPhone X remains an excellent, industry-leading smartphone, it's probably not one you should run out and buy. That's because its successor -- or, possibly, a trio of successors -- is expected to arrive in September. The 2018 version of iPhone X will certainly be better and faster, and it may be released alongside larger and more affordable X-style iPhones, too. And they'll all be running iOS 12 as well. 

To be sure, those new 2018 iPhones will have plenty of high-end competition in the form of the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (rumored to be coming in August) and the Google Pixel 3 (probably October), to name just a few. But it all means that anyone in the market for a top of the line smartphone is better off waiting until at least mid-September to see what Apple and its competitors have on the drawing board. 

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The full review of the iPhone X, originally posted November 3, 2017 and last updated December 22, 2017, follows. You should also read iPhone X: 6 months later.

I came home late from my first day of testing the iPhone X. My wife sent me audio clips over iMessage from the kids after I sent them pictures of myself, now beardless. "O-M-G. I can't even recognize Daddy!"

I couldn't recognize myself either. In the mirror, I looked smooth, like another version of me. I felt vulnerable. I had shaved my beard to test Face ID, Apple's new method for unlocking your iPhone by simply looking at it. But, what would it be like in public, on TV, when I hug my kids? At first, big personal changes feel uncomfortable but appealing. Everything seems different but also potentially refreshing.

My smooth face was the perfect metaphor for my experience with the iPhone X, which -- starting at $999, £999 or AU$1,579 -- is Apple's most expensive iPhone ever. The 10-year anniversary iPhone feels the same, but different. Weird, but good. I've been alternating between both feelings over the last couple of weeks. And you, future iPhone X owner, might feel the same. But tough it out -- because after a few days, you're probably going to like where you end up.

Editors' note, Dec. 22: This review has been updated with detailed battery testing information. The addition of the battery rating has slightly adjusted the overall rating from 9.0 to 8.9 (still 4.5 stars). The review also includes November 14 updates that added more additional information on durability and waterproofing tests, camera testing and general usage. You can also check out our earlier impressions of the iPhone X.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Weeks later: It feels great to hold, but Face ID can feel slow

After another week of living with the iPhone X as my main everyday phone, its size and design have won me over in lots of ways. But the Face ID phone unlock process still feels labor-intensive compared to Touch ID iPhones. Sometimes it doesn't unlock quickly, and sometimes it just doesn't work. And, as I expected, the new gestures are taking a while to gel. Getting to Control Center is now a two-handed operation that's flat-out annoying. But I'm fine with the flick-up home gesture and have gotten so used to it that I've started to try it on other iPhones and iPads ($350 at eBay), where it doesn't work.

Nic Henry/CNET

I haven't been so happy with the size and shape of an iPhone since the iPhone 5. The nearly all-screen feel, when used properly by optimized apps, is fantastic. It feels new, and some elements of the interface, like an improved way to swipe and swap apps, are a big step forward.

But I'd still like the new gestural language to be smoothed out a bit. Now that the home button is gone, its core functions have been spread around. The iPhone X feels like an open door to possibilities that iOS has barely begun to explore.

Get a case. Seriously.

CNET drop-tested the iPhone X, and it didn't fare well. In fact, it cracked at a single three-foot drop. That's worse than previous iPhones. Gadget warranty company SquareTrade had a similar experience in its tests, dubbing the X "most breakable iPhone we've ever tested." 

Now playing: Watch this: It didn't take much to break the iPhone X

With the notable exceptions of the Moto Z2 Force and Droid Turbo 2 -- which, in everyday usage, really do live up to their "shatterproof" reputation -- the possibility of a broken screen is an occupational hazard for any phone owner. But the relative fragility of the iPhone X is made worse by the fact that repair costs for the device's screen are Apple's highest ever: $279, £286 or AU$419. If you need something other than the screen fixed -- including the equally breakable glass back -- that will cost you a whopping $549, £556 or AU$819. Yikes.

It all means that you should absolutely be using a case (check out our list of best iPhone X cases). You should also strongly consider investing in an insurance or third-party warranty plan, such as AppleCare Plus or a wireless carrier policy.

The iPhone X is also water resistant, just like the 7, 7 Plus, 8 and 8 Plus. The X fared fine in our bucket immersion test for a hair under 30 minutes, which is the technical limit of its water-resistance rating. But the water resistance is really designed to survive quick accidental dunks, splashes, rain and snow. The standard warranty doesn't cover water damage (though the above-mentioned insurance plans often do so), and the phone is not designed to be immersed in salt water or chlorinated swimming pools. 

The iPhone's biggest ever design change

The basic pitch for the iPhone X is this: Take the iPhone 8 Plus ($549 at Amazon) and cram all of its features into a body that's closer to the size of the iPhone 8 ($600 at Boost Mobile). Add Face ID but subtract the Touch ID home button, a casualty of the new, nearly all-screen design. That's the iPhone X.

To be clear, except for that home button -- and Touch ID -- all of the other iPhone 8 Plus features are here, including a blazing fast six-core A11 Bionic processor, water-resistance and -- unfortunately -- no headphone jack. The iPhone X also boasts dual rear cameras which are even a bit better than the already superb ones on the Plus. (More on that later.) Wireless charging is on board too, as is the glass-backed design needed to enable it. Yes, you'll need a good case. And you should strongly consider Apple Care Plus, because repair costs for smashed front or rear glass on the iPhone X are exorbitant.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Of course, Apple is charging a hefty premium for its most sophisticated-ever iPhone, too: $999, £999 or AU$1,579 for 64GB. Or step up to $1,149; £1,149 or AU$1,829 for the 256GB version.

Yes, the iPhone X changes the look and function of the iPhone. Before the X, the iPhone design was frozen for years: Home button at the bottom, thick bezels above and below the screen. iOS made some subtle changes over the years, but losing the home button completely shifts the definition of an iPhone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But while the 5.8-inch display on the iPhone X dwarfs the 4.7-inch screen on the iPhone 8, it doesn't mean the X's display is "bigger" than the iPhone 8 Plus' 5.5-inch screen. That's because they're shaped differently: The 8 and 8 Plus have the same 16:9 aspect ratio as your TV, while the X is more like 19:9 -- it's taller and wider than the 8, 7, 6S and 6.

In the end, the Plus may still work better bet for larger documents and stand as the best canvas for Apple's giant iOS game collection compared to the narrower X -- but returning to the 8 Plus feels like going back to a (smaller) iPad Mini ($389 at eBay) by comparison. The X acknowledges that the Plus iPhones were a bit too big, that this new design is just right. It splits the difference, saying, "here's the bigger-screened phone, but it still feels nice in your hand." At long last, it's a Goldilocks design that fits right in the middle.

A closer look at that screen

The infamous notch above the X's display, which cuts out a small chunk of the upper screen to make room for the phone's front-facing camera and sensors, doesn't impact many apps or videos. In fact most I've tried put any critical info below that notch by default. But that does mean the effective display area is even smaller, with black bars on the top and bottom (in portrait mode) or on the sides (in landscape mode). 


The 8 Plus (above) and iPhone X (below) playing the same video.

Sarah Tew/CNET

At 458 pixels per inch, the Super Retina display resolution on the iPhone X is technically more crisp than that of the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone 8 (401 and 326 ppi, respectively). The new OLED display -- the first in an Apple iPhone -- has beautiful perfect black levels and excellent color. It feels brighter than both previous iPhones and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 ($298 at eBay), and it's demonstrably better than the muted colors you'll find on the Pixel 2 XL ($360 at Amazon).

It's a fantastic viewing experience overall. But there's one big reason to temper your expectations: Apple's LCD screens on previous phones are already so great that you actually may not notice much of a difference. 

Face ID and that depth-sensing front camera

Back to that notch. In addition to the a microphone (for ambient noise), speaker and ambient light sensor you'd find on other phones, it houses an infrared camera, "flood illuminator" and a dot projector and the 7-megapixel selfie camera. Collectively, Apple calls these imaging portions the "TrueDepth camera system."

TrueDepth enables the iPhone X's signature feature: Face ID. It's like a mini Microsoft Kinect -- yes, Apple bought the company that developed that Xbox accessory back in 2013 -- using your face as the authenticator to unlock the phone and for any transactions or passwords. It totally replaces Touch ID -- Apple's fingerprint nowhere to be found on iPhone X. Logging into the iPhone X  with your face feels weird at first, but I've come to love how automatically it fills in username and password data on apps and Web pages. It's starting to feel like a far more automatic future. 

Face ID was the biggest "what if" for the iPhone X, but the good news is that it performs very well. It recognized me with my beard and without, with glasses and without, with sunglasses and even in total darkness. (The infrared camera is doing the heavy lifting, not the selfie camera.) It didn't unlock for anyone else I tried it with, either.

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