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

Since the release of the iPhone XS, the 2017 iPhone X is hard to get. But it's still worth a look if you can get a good deal.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
14 min read

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


Apple iPhone X

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.

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.

Here are the biggest iOS 12 features Apple announced at WWDC 2018

See all photos

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. 

The best smartphones you can buy right now

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 , 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." 

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 best iPhone X cases

See all photos

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 and cram all of its features into a body that's closer to the size of the iPhone 8 . 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 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 , and it's demonstrably better than the muted colors you'll find on the Pixel 2 XL .

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 reader.is 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.

iPhone X Face ID yes

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.

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 ? The Apple Watch ? 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.  

Portraits shot with the iPhone X

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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:  

Shot on iPhone X: Apple's latest camera hits the streets

See all photos

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 XiPhone 8 PlusiPhone 8
Geekbench 4 single-core 4,2324,2594,196
Geekbench 4 multi-core 10,32910,39410,325
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited 63,44663,22961,998

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 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.

Nic Henry/CNET

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. 


Apple iPhone X

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 10Camera 9Battery 7