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

iPhone X Face ID yes
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Face ID worked in all of these instances, and more.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There were some failures, but most of them occurred as I ratcheted up my Face ID tests from the mundane to the ridiculous -- giant hats, scarves wrapped over half of my face, welding goggles and so forth. And whenever it did fail, I could still just punch in my 6-digit passcode.

Face ID requires a certain angle to work: slightly elevated off a table, tilted a bit to catch your face. Eye contact is required by default, but that "attention" mode can be deactivated. 

And as for the other tricks such as animojis. My kids loved them. The camera maps your mouth and facial movements to a variety of cartoon characters -- a fox, a chicken, an alien and the inevitable pile of poop -- to send as 10-second animated messages. I think they're fun and not terribly different from what Snapchat already does. But those deceptively adorable face puppets point to a far more pervasive future of true facial controls, emotion-aware apps or camera tools that transform faces even further.

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Nic Henry/CNET

To that end, I think this camera tech is part of a major shift to superpowered cameras in phones. It's a doorway to augmented reality, hinting at the ways in which our faces might let us control our phones and our apps. Microsoft blazed the trail here with Windows Hello, but the TrueDepth camera and Face ID bring best-in-class facial recognition to mobile, and are probably destined to be the big milestone we remember from the iPhone X, years down the road. But, where else will this tech lead? MacBooks? iPads ($249 at Walmart)? The Apple Watch ($330 at Amazon)? And how long will that take? For now, TrueDepth is starting with small but impressive steps.

Better-than-Plus dual cameras, finally in a pocketable iPhone

Another only-in-the-X feature from the TrueDepth camera is Portrait Mode selfies -- ones that focus the foreground subject while blurring the background. My front-facing Portrait Mode shots turned out well every time I used it with a ton of subjects, but it favors one subject at a time. That's because the depth-sensing abilities of TrueDepth are limited to about a few feet away--basically, face-distance. 

Portrait selfie shots using the tech blur backgrounds to great effect, but backgrounds can't be too far off, or the effect doesn't work. But don't worry if you like your selfies in deep-focus (no blur) mode, though: Like the rear camera array, Portrait Mode is an option you can choose not to use.

Portrait Mode also adds Portrait Lighting to the front camera, too, allowing you to experiment with different lighting effects after the fact. I just wasn't happy with the way those turned out, especially compared to the Portrait Lighting photos I'd shot on the iPhone 8 Plus rear camera, some of which turned out pretty well. But my colleague James Martin, who's a pro photographer, had better luck. The feature is in beta, though, so it may yet improve. 

From the front camera to the rear: The best reason for going X might be the chance to add extra features to a small iPhone. The iPhone 8 lacks dual cameras, but the X has them, and they're even better than the 8 Plus.  

Both rear cameras include optical image stabilization, versus just the one for the Plus, which generally means both finally perform similarly. A close-up 2x shot of a skeleton on my porch at night looked as good as a wide-angle shot. It changes the way I shoot photos. The photo below, of my colleague Lexy Savvides, further illustrates the X's advantage in low light versus the 8 Plus:

That photo is one of several from the deep dive into the iPhone X camera from Lexy and fellow CNETer Vanessa Hand Orellana.

In addition to testing the selfie camera, meanwhile, James Martin put the dual rear camera through its paces around the Bay Area as well:  

He even used the iPhone X to document the aftermath of the devastating wildfires in Santa Rosa and the surrounding area. The images are somber and sobering, but it shows that the iPhone X can hold its own with the sort of real-world hard news photography that was previously to exclusive realm of mirrorless cameras.

Same blazing-fast performance as iPhone 8 and 8 Plus

The X is packing the same new-for-2017 six-core A11 Bionic processor as the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. The X has 3GB of RAM like the 8 Plus, too. This phone feels as fast as all the others, and benchmarks bear that out: performance is identical, for all intents and purposes. 

iPhone 2017 benchmarks

Benchmark iPhone X iPhone 8 Plus iPhone 8
Geekbench 4 single-core 4,232 4,259 4,196
Geekbench 4 multi-core 10,329 10,394 10,325
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited 63,446 63,229 61,998

In other words, you could pick an 8 or 8 Plus and get all of the under-the-hood power of the X. You just wouldn't have that nice new design.

Battery life: 8, 8 Plus or X?

You probably already know the drill with new iPhones and battery life: for the most part, year after year, they don't tend to make massive gains. In fact, the 2017 iPhones (8 Plus, 8) actually have smaller batteries than their 2016 counterparts (7 Plus, 7), albeit the exact same battery life expectations (per Apple) because of the newer models' more efficient chips.

Indeed, Apple never claimed marathon battery life for the iPhone X, either. Its published battery specifications are equal to that of the iPhone 8 on Internet use (12 hours) and wireless video playback (13 hours), while the 8 Plus is rated for an hour more on each task. Meanwhile, the X and 8 Plus rank considerably higher than the 8 on talk time and wireless audio playback (21 and 60 hours on the larger iPhones versus 14 and 40 on the iPhone 8, respectively).

In our video playback test, which loops a video while in airplane mode, the iPhone X actually fared the worst. The iPhone 8 Plus is a bit better on battery life from the 8, but it's really a subtle bump up. In all cases, the iPhones fared notably lower than other top-tier Android phones on similar tests.

Note that tests by Tom's Guide and the Wall Street Journal found the X battery landed squarely in between the 8 and and the Plus. We're continuing to test battery life on these iPhones as part of a longer analysis of wireless charging, and will update our scores if we see notable changes.

iPhone battery life (video playback test)

iPhone 8 13.5 hours
iPhone 8 Plus 13.75 hours
iPhone X 11.45 hours

(Each number above is an average of three runs on iOS 11.1)   

In real life, we're not continuously offline watching a nonstop video. Anecdotal everyday use tells a bit of a different story. I found the iPhone X battery to be fine for a solid day's use, and at least as good as the iPhone 8. But, I also found I needed to charge it up by midday to be safe. The same is true to some extent even with the 8 and 8 Plus. I still don't feel like iPhones can last me more than a day, or even just a full day without a bit of a charging top-off. Bottom line: I'd love for future iPhones to fare better.

Note, too, it doesn't charge quickly with the included 5-watt charger: It took about 90 minutes to charge from 20 percent to 75 percent. If you want faster, invest in a beefier charger.

Read our full take on the battery life of the 2017 iPhones for more information. 

The iPhone to get -- if you're ready to embrace change

I think about the iPhone 5 ($336 at Walmart) a lot lately. That was my first iPhone review for CNET five years ago. Back then, the 5 was for everyone. There was One New iPhone. And it was good! The improvements were all for the positive. You could upgrade or stay the course.

The X isn't that way. It's one of three -- three! -- new-for-2017 iPhones, and it's not the choice everyone who wants an iPhone should pick. It's an expensive top-end pick that aggressively moves design forward, but abandons some comfort zones ahead of the curve. And it makes some basic everyday tasks, such as unlocking the phone and reaching for quick settings, harder to do. It introduces fascinating new tech, but I'm not sure I'm completely ready for it yet. And I'm not sure iOS and the iPhone are either. It's a bold leap.

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For some, the moment to upgrade will be now. For others, it might be farther down the line, when Apple has perfected the new features and design X offers. Until then, taking the safe path of an 8 or 8 Plus is fine (and saves you some money). It's not an easy decision. And it's getting more difficult now that Apple has even more iPhones. I'm not thrilled with all the design decisions the X made. It some ways, it still feels like an experiment. But it's growing on me. 

Just like my newly shaved-off beard. 

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