iPhone X: First impressions from our first 3 days

Media tours, podcasts, taco lunches, trick-or-treating. Our first week with the iPhone X continues, with more real-world experience using the keyboard, screen, cameras and battery life.

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
13 min read

Editors' note (November 3, 5:15 a.m. PT): Check out our full iPhone X reviewfor the rating and our official evaluation of the device. This story will no longer be updated, but will remain available as a chronicle of our earliest impressions of the phone.

Welcome to my ongoing impressions of the iPhone X. 

I've entered my third full day with the phone. Day 2 was mostly a blur of media hits, after a nearly sleepless night. Everything you're reading here is new as of the afternoon of Wednesday, November 1. 

I'm a pretty quick adopter of weird, new tech. The iPhone X isn't even that weird: it's really an evolved iPhone, with a sharp design and some new ways to use it. But I found, sure enough, that my first day with Apple's top-end phone was a learning process. Face ID and its log-in process. All the new swipes and gestures and button-presses. Learning to accept The Notch In The Screen.

Watch this: iPhone X: Our first day with Apple's biggest phone ever

I kinda like the flicking now

The swipe up move to replace the home button is growing on me. Weird but true. I realized, it's a bit like flicking away apps after you're done with them. It's oddly satisfying. It's more like, "I'm done with that" than "get me back home." Even the animation has changed: it feels like you're flicking the app away to infinity.

I still don't like using it one-handed, but I'm enjoying the flow of it.


Reachability is back but hard to pull off

Getting to the top of the screen one-handed is possible with Reachability, a feature that drops the top half of the iPhone screen down for better thumb access (it can be toggled on in Accessibility in Settings). It used work via a double-tap on the home button. Now it requires a swipe down on the bottom of the iPhone, off the edge of the screen. In practice, I find it impossible to do, even with two hands. It could help me reach the hidden-away Control Center, which now lives in the top right of the iPhone X screen... but I can't learn its subtlety yet.

Most people like the design, are curious about the price

Day 2 was spent demoing the phone to people who hadn't seen it before: on CBS This Morning, with Charlie Rose and Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell. To Vlad Duthiers and Anne-Marie Green on CBSN. (Note that CNET is a division of CBS.) To Jon Fortt, Carl Quintanilla and Sara Eisen at CNBC. 

Lots of people gave me their thoughts, and took selfie photos. It seemed like the design didn't bother anyone, and most people liked it. The selfie camera Portrait Mode was a hit. Animoji charmed people. But the question I kept getting asked is, who's paying $1,000 for it?

A thousand dollars is a magic number, and really, iPhones have already gotten nearly there with the iPhone 8 Plus. I think the kicker here is that this nice-looking X sits as an extra upgrade option above the 8 Plus, which is already an upgrade option to the 8. By its price alone, it's not The Phone For Everybody.

Learning the new gestures confused others who tried it briefly. I was already used to how everything worked. Suddenly I became the expert. I realized I had the hang of it.

Great camera, when you learn the tricks

I went trick-or-treating with my kids, taking photos in the twilight with the iPhone X telephoto lens. Then I finally had a real night's sleep.

But I enjoyed the telephoto camera's new optical image stabilization. I still had moments of blur, but it seemed to me that, at last, 2X zoom photos looked as good as the wide-angle ones. Zoom feels more powerful as a result.

And I've gotten a kick out of the selfie shots. I learned that the Portrait Mode on the selfie camera tends to favor one person and keep them in focus, but if you stay close together, it'll help keep two people in focus at once. Or, you can choose to not have Portrait Mode on at all. Also, selfie portrait mode doesn't work with backgrounds that are too far in the distance: it needs something in middle distance, generally, in my experience. Otherwise it'll just default to a regular selfie photo.

Yeah, I know flash is better, but I still never use flash.

OLED is so much better in the dark

I woke up to the glow of the iPhone X next to me. I picked it up in the darkness and suddenly realized, oh, yeah, OLED.

I've used plenty of OLED phones before (Samsung's lineup in particular, including the Galaxy Note 8). I first thought the iPhone 8 Plus display, casually viewed, was sometimes similarly good-looking to the iPhone X, but in dimmer conditions X definitely edges it out for a more vivid experience.

The keyboard feels like a lost opportunity

I hadn't typed much on the iPhone X in my first hours with it. Then I started taking notes. I saw what others were commenting on: the keyboard has a lot of empty space underneath its virtual keys. What's going on?

The X keyboard pops up in a part of the phone similar to where it is on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. It fits my thumbs. The keys feel narrower than the 8 Plus', because the display isn't as wide. It feels fine. But the large amount of display area underneath -- easily enough for another set of keys or functions -- seems odd. An emoji and dictation button are put down there, but why not anything else? It feels like space was left for a phantom home button that's not there. But still, I typed quickly. It's not bad, certainly, but it feels like the space could be used a lot more efficiently. Something for iOS 12, maybe -- or could we see a change sooner?

Battery life isn't fantastic

We're doing full battery tests, but I found I needed recharging midday in my first few days. A morning commute on the train left me at about 70 percent by 10:30am after getting up at 7am. This is similar to what I get on the 8 and even the 8 Plus. (Yes, I'm spending a lot of time showing this phone off and running apps -- but I'm also splitting time in my day between the X and an iPhone 8 Plus.) The point is, the X isn't conquering new battery frontiers, at least in these early days.

Updated November 1, 4:29 p.m. PT. My earlier thoughts, first published Tuesday at 3 a.m. PT and updated thereafter, follow.

The iPhone X feels like a concept car, or a secret project. That's because of the X name, probably, and the legacy of 10 years of iPhones. It's also the fact that this is an optional step-up model -- like an 8 Plus , but smaller. It's a bold new design, different after three years of each iPhone looking very much the same.

I love new technology and the wild ideas that come with it. I love to be immersed in new concepts. But I'm also practical when it comes to tools. Will I use a fully rethought phone? Will it work for me when I need it to? My phone is my mission critical everything. It's my Indiana Jones hat. Will Face ID work as well as the trusty Touch ID home button? Will I feel safe?

Ultimately the all important question is simple: Is this *the* must-have upgrade? Should my mom get it? Should my sister? My brother-in-law? My best friend? You?

I've spent a day now with the device to begin to answer this question. Consider this a living review that we'll be updating throughout the week -- and beyond -- as we test, retest and experience the iPhone X.

Face ID works pretty well...

You've been able to unlock an iPhone with Touch ID using your fingerprint since 2013. The original iPhone shipped with a home button a decade ago. Apple 's making a big leap by getting rid of both in one fell swoop and replacing them with Face ID. Your face -- or a passcode -- is the only way to unlock the iPhone X.

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Face ID worked well in early tests. Setup is quick: Two circular head twists and the iPhone adds your face to its secure internal database.

Unlocking isn't automatic. Instead, the phone "readies for unlock" when it recognizes my face. So I look at the iPhone, and then a lock icon at the top unlocks. But the iPhone still needs my finger-swipe to finish the unlock. It's fast, but that extra step means it's not instantaneous. Face ID did recognize me most of the time but sometimes, every once in a while, it didn't.

I tried the phone with at least five of my coworkers. None of their faces unlocked it -- although none of them look remotely like me. I also attempted to unlock it with a big color photo of my face on a 24-inch monitor, but that didn't register as a face to the iPhone X either. The TrueDepth camera recognizes face contours to identify you.

iPhone X Face ID yes

Face ID worked perfectly in these instances.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Face ID worked perfectly in an almost completely dark room, too, lit only by the iPhone's screen. (It uses infrared). We'll still need to do a lot more testing to see what Face ID's limits are. By default, it requires "attention" at the display, but that requirement for direct attention can be turned off for those who need it, or those who prefer to speed up the process.

iPhone X: Up close and personal with Apple's new phone

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…But it's not perfect

By design, the iPhone X doesn't unlock with just a glance. Once you've identified yourself with your face, you need to swipe up with your finger to get to your apps. Not only does the swipe remove the immediacy of Face ID, it means you need your hand to do anything. Quick access to the phone wasn't quite as quick as I expected.

I pushed my face testing hard. I got a haircut, shaved my beard into several shapes, then off completely. I tried on sunglasses and other frames. I wore hats and scarves. Then I went to more absurd levels, including some that wouldn't happen in most real-world scenarios, trying on wigs, fake mustaches and steampunk goggles.

iPhone X Face ID no

Face ID failed here.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The preliminary results are in my video. This is by no means a final test, but the bottom line is that most of the "real world" tests worked and showed me that Face ID is more resilient than I expected. Face ID didn't mind my sunglasses. Scarves presented some challenges, but that makes sense if they're pulled up over your mouth since they're hiding essential aspects of your face. All the tests worked far better than Samsung's face unlock feature on the Galaxy Note 8 -- though Samsung kept its fingerprint reader on, as an easy backup.

The iPhone X occasionally asked me to re-enter the passcode after a failed Face ID attempt, then locked out further Face ID efforts until I entered the passcode again. If you've used Touch ID, this will remind you of trying to use an iPhone with wet fingers. 

The big OLED screen is a welcome addition...

The 5.8-inch screen is the biggest on an iPhone to date, and the first Apple handset to use OLED (organic light-emitting display) technology versus the LED/LCD in all previous iPhones. In addition to better energy efficiency, OLED screens offer much better contrast and true, inky blacks -- not the grayish blacks of LCD screens.


The iPhone 8 (left) has a 4.7-inch screen; the iPhone X (center) has a 5.8-inch screen; and the iPhone 8 Plus (right) is 5.5 inches.

Sarah Tew/CNET

At first use, the bigger screen feels great. I've wanted more screen real estate on the iPhone, and the X comes closest to all-screen. Picture quality improvement isn't immediately noticeable over previous iPhones, but that's a testament to how good Apple's previous TrueTone displays are. The larger screen gives the iPhone a more current and immersive feel.

I'll need more time to compare the screen to other iPhones -- and to other OLED phones, such as Samsung Galaxy models.

...But the X's screen feels different from an iPhone 8 Plus

That said, I grappled with a few X display quirks. Sure, there's a notch cut out of the top of the screen where the front-facing camera array sits. But this isn't just the Plus display crammed into the body of a 4.7-inch iPhone. The X's display is taller than recent iPhones -- or, when you put it in landscape mode, narrower. For some videos, that means they get letterboxed (black bars at the top and bottom) or pillarboxed (black bars on the left and right) to fit properly and the effective display area ends up a bit smaller than on the 8 Plus.

The rounded edges of the display mean that even if you expand a picture to fill the screen, parts of the image or movie end up cut off.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The notch didn't bother me -- much...

Hear me out. The notch and the two extra bits on either side end up feeling like bonus space: most apps don't use that area, and it ends up relegated to carrier, Wi-Fi and battery notifications, which saves that info from cluttering the display below.


The Witness isn't optimized for the iPhone X (yet), so it "pillarboxes" (places black bars to the left and right of the screen).

Sarah Tew/CNET

...But your favorite apps might not make the most of that screen

Many current apps aren't yet optimized for the iPhone X. These outdated apps end up filling the same space as on an iPhone 8, leaving a lot of unused area. That'll certainly get fixed for some apps over time, but it's a reminder that the extra screen room here might not end up meeting your needs, until or unless the apps are optimized.

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Living without the home button takes some adjustment

A number of new gestures take the place of the old home button. I kept reaching for the phantom button over the first few hours, feeling like I'd lost a thumb.

Unlike phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, which adds a virtual home button to create a "press for home" experience, the X remaps familiar gestures completely.

  • Swiping down from the corner now gives you Control Center, instead of swiping up.
  • Swiping up is the new "home button."
  • Swiping up and holding brings up all open apps.
  • And another new trick: swiping left or right on the opaque bar below all apps flips between apps for quick multitasking.

Meanwhile, there's a new, large side button that brings up Siri and Apple Pay. I instinctively pressed and held it to shut down my phone, then I realized that is not what that button does. (To turn off the phone, you now hold that same side button *and* the lower volume button at the same time, which feels far from intuitive.)

Those gestures added up to some difficult maneuvers as I walked Manhattan streets in the Flatiron between my office and a local barber shop. At the end of the first day, I admit: sometimes I missed the simple home button.

Watch this: iPhone X unboxing

You'll need to adjust your Apple Pay routine

Double-clicking the side button brings up Apple Pay, but an additional face-glance is needed to authorize a payment. I tried it on our vending machine at the office and sometimes it worked great. Sometimes Face ID didn't seem to recognize me. Maybe my timing was off.


We tested Apple Pay on our in-house vending machine.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm definitely going to need to check this out at more places in the days ahead. The bottom line: you don't want to be the guy holding up the line at the drugstore because your double-click-to-Face-ID-to-NFC-reader flow was off.

The rear cameras are similar, not identical, to the iPhone 8 Plus

Like the iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone X has a dual rear camera with both wide-angle and telephoto lenses. But X has two changes: A larger aperture (f/2.4 vs. f/2.8) on the telephoto lens, and optical image stabilization on both lenses (rather than just one on the 8 Plus), which should make for better-lit, less blurry zoomed-in shots at night or in lower lighting.

My colleague, CNET Senior Photographer James Martin, has done a deep dive on the new front-facing iPhone X camera, experimenting with portraits and shots around San Francisco.

Watch this: iPhone X camera pushes the art of selfies

The front camera is great with Portrait Mode…

In addition to handling Face ID duties, the TrueDepth front camera brings most of the magic of Apple's rear cameras to the selfie world.

Portrait Mode, where the subject is in the foreground in focus with a blurred background, and Portrait Lighting, which applies various lighting effects to a photo after the fact, both now work on your selfies. Vanity, thy name is Portrait Mode.

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

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...But not great with Portrait Lighting and my face

Portrait Lighting is officially in beta on both the iPhone's rear and front cameras, and my experiences with it confirmed Apple isn't finished perfecting the software that makes it work. My face ended up looking oddly cut-out and poorly lit. Unlike the rear cameras, which seemed to produce hit-or-miss Portrait Lighting shots, I haven't had luck with my own selfies.

iPhone X selfie portrait lighting

Portrait Lighting is still in beta, so temper your expectations.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Get ready to be bombarded with animojis, and other TrueDepth AR and face-mapping apps

Animojis are exactly what they sound like: animated emojis. They're cute. They're also Apple's showcase for the fancy TrueDepth camera, which maps your facial expressions onto monkeys, aliens, foxes and even a pile of poop. (If nothing else, the 10-second clips made my kids laugh when I sent them a few.)

Third-party apps also use the TrueDepth camera for real-time 3D effects. Snapchat created new face filters I got to play with, and some did an amazing job staying on my face. I'm curious to see how future apps use this tech for even more advanced face-aware AR.


Snapchat face filters just got a lot more realistic.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's Instagram-like video app Clips has an update coming that also uses the camera to green-screen my face into different scenes, like an 8-bit gaming experience or a Star Wars filter where it looks like my face is a blue-tinged hologram. Again, it's fun. For many people, the filters Snapchat already provides are probably enough. 


Apple's Clips app is now TrueDepth-enabled, too.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple nailed the size and feel: Did it nail the entire experience?

I think the X is in the sweet spot that the older iPhone sizes could never perfectly be. It's a good-feeling phone with a nice, large screen. The shift to Face ID and the removal of the home button feel like changes that some might be fine with, and others will find unnecessary. I'm still learning the X's design language.

We're just getting started!

Want to know more? So do we. This is the beginning of our iPhone X journey, not the final word. We've got plenty more on deck, including battery tests, benchmarks and in-depth comparisons to rival phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Google PIxel 2 XL.

We'll continue to update our experiences throughout the week as we count down to the iPhone X global launch on Friday, Nov. 3.

For now, our CNET review of the iPhone X will be ongoing with a lot more tests. 

Stay tuned and reach out to @jetscott with your questions on Twitter