8 & X

Tech Life

Next things first

It’s like standing on a train station platform: the iPhone 8 is the last train coming in from the past. The iPhone X is the first train going out to the future. Or, if you prefer another image, it’s a relay race: the iPhone 8 arrives to the designated point, then passes the baton to the iPhone X. We’re witnessing the transition, the rite of passage. It’s a feeling I’ve been having since the Apple event keynote ended the other day, and I started thinking about next year and the iPhone naming scheme. What are they going to do? Introduce an iPhone 9 when they’ve already introduced the iPhone Ten? Introduce an iPhone 11? ‘Nine’ feels out of place — and sequence — while ’11’ just feels weird to me, I can’t exactly say why. Even when there’s a tag line — “Turning iPhone to 11” — that practically writes itself, though it sounds trite after iOS 11.

In presenting the iPhone X, Apple has insisted on the concept that this iPhone is the future, so my cautious prediction for next year is that we’ll see a new iPhone, that it will have the same design as the iPhone X, and come in two sizes: big and smaller; the two models will be called just “iPhone” and “iPhone Plus”. And, just like this year, if people prefer to stick with the older design for some more time, the 8 and 8 Plus will still be available at slightly reduced prices. If Apple solves the notch problem (more on this in a moment), these two iPhones won’t have it. Otherwise they’ll still feature the notch, and it will go away the year after.

This is just a ‘gut prediction’ and I may end up being horribly wrong, but this is the scenario that has been playing in my head these days, and it makes some sense to me.

The notch

Let’s talk about that notch right away. First from a hardware standpoint, then from a software standpoint. In case you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, what’s been called the ‘notch’ in the ongoing debate is this part of the iPhone X:

The notch

It’s the section at the top of the device containing all the array of front-facing cameras and sensors. The part that prevents the iPhone X from being ‘all screen’, despite what Apple writes at the beginning of the iPhone X page as you scroll down to have the usual feature overview.

The tech in the notch

From a hardware perspective, the cameras and sensors in that part of the iPhone couldn’t have realistically been placed anywhere else, so what do you do if you want an edge-to-edge display? You either have the display reach them, surround them; or you maintain a minimum of bezel on the ‘front’ and ‘chin’ of the phone, and leave them out of the display area.

Here are two different approaches from the competition. In the Essential Phone, the display reaches and surrounds the front camera:

Essential phone
Image: Android Central

While Samsung, in their Galaxy S8 line, prefer to have an edge-to-edge display wrapping the sides of the phone, while leaving bezels on the top and bottom that are thin enough to maintain an overall sleek design, but thick enough to leave the array of front camera, sensors, microphone, etc., outside the display:

Samsung Galaxy S8
Image: Phone Arena

Well, I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I actually prefer these two design choices over what Apple has done with the iPhone X. Like with the notch on the iPhone X, my eye is immediately attracted by the Essential Phone’s front camera, ‘breaking’ the display’s continuity there in the middle. Yet I think that it’s small enough to get enough out of the way aesthetically, and not be a hindrance to the phone’s user interface. More information can be displayed both to the left and right of the camera. To be fair, Apple had too much technology to cram there to achieve a similar, less visually annoying result. Then why not opt for a Samsung-inspired approach? I have to agree with Mike Rundle here: The S8 family of phones with the Infinity edge screen simply look more futuristic than the iPhone X.

Reshuffling the gestures

The lack of Home button has triggered a general reshuffling of a series of common gestures iPhone users were familiar with since iOS 6 and iOS 7.

  • Now you ‘go Home’ by swiping up from the bottom of the screen.
  • Which is exactly like the gesture that was used to trigger Control Centre up to now.
  • So how do you invoke Control Centre on the iPhone X? By swiping down from the top. 
  • But not from anywhere on the top: from the top right corner.
  • Because if you swipe down from the top left corner you pull down Notification Centre.

Note that these revised gestures apply only to the iPhone X. Since the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus still sport a Home button, on these models (I assume) the gestures are the same we’ve been familiar with so far.

Two things, mostly, puzzle me:

1. The primary function of Control Centre has always been to act as a quick shortcut to some of the most used controls. Invoking it by swiping up from the bottom of the display is a very intuitive, fast, and handy gesture. Moreover, it can be easily carried out with one hand no matter how big the iPhone is. It works as well and as reliably on the 4-inch display of the iPhone SE as it does on the 5.5-inch display of the ‘Plus’ iPhones. By changing it to a swipe down from the top right corner of the display, it has become a gesture that can comfortably be accomplished only with two hands (unless you have very big hands or you have enough dexterity to slide the iPhone down a bit and then swipe down with your thumb, but I contend it’s still slower than just swiping up from the bottom). Just look at the Design and Display subsection of the iPhone X page on Apple’s website; scroll down a bit until you reach the heading Intuitive gestures make it easy to get around and select the Control Center animation; you’ll see the gesture is carried out with two hands.

2. If the iPhone X marks Apple’s next direction, and the future iPhones won’t have a Home button, and the new gesture to enter the springboard once Face ID gives access is essentially Swipe up to open, then I don’t get why deprecate the Slide to unlock gesture, present since the beginning and removed in iOS 10 in favour of Press Home to open. I know that Press Home to open is going to stay a while longer given that all the other iPhone models in production (SE, 6s/6s+, 7/7+, 8/8+) still have a Home button, but this doesn’t look like having a clear, forward-thinking plan, gesture-wise. More like a mixture of arbitrariness (the change from iOS 9 to iOS 10 with regard to Slide to unlock and the gestures to navigate Today View, Notification Centre, bringing up the camera from the lock screen, etc.), and compromise (the reshuffling of said gestures on iOS 11 on the iPhone X is a direct consequence of changes and compromises in the hardware design).

Owning’ the notch, and design challenges for developers

In the Human Interface Guidelines for the iPhone X, Apple explicitly recommends developers to avoid trying to hide the notch. It’s curious, yes? Because the effect when you mask it with a black background makes for a beautiful detail, and the iPhone X gains a lot in elegance. Since the OLED screen returns true blacks, the notch positively disappears.
Invisible notch

I don’t really subscribe to Vlad Savov’s theory that “Apple is turning a design quirk into the iPhone X’s defining feature”: 

Instead of trying to design its way around the notch — which could have been done by distributing the iPhone X sensors more widely in a slimmer, full-width top bezel — Apple chose to have it there.

And:

Apple took a design limitation and decided to lean into it: as with the Essential Phone’s signature camera cutout, the iPhone X sensor array is cut out from the screen deliberately and purposefully.

And:

Jony Ive, the longtime chief of Apple design, introduced the iPhone X by saying Apple’s goal has always been to have a phone that’s all screen and nothing else. If you peruse the company’s patent applications, you’ll find a litany of technological explorations of “hidden” sensor tech (such as a camera) that sits behind the screen. Apple is even reported to have pushed back iPhone X production by a month in its desperate efforts to integrate Touch ID under the device’s display. Ive is perfectly sincere when expressing Apple’s ultimate design goal, however technical limitations are clearly forcing his team to make a compromise. So what Apple chose to do was lean into that compromise and turn it into a branding asset.

Well, of course Apple has to present a confident attitude towards the notch and the design statement it represents. Jonathan Ive would perhaps use the term ‘unapologetic’ to describe the presence of that notch. Embracing compromises can be bold all you want, but doesn’t change the fact that they’re compromises. All UI examples I’ve seen so far of apps in landscape mode on the iPhone X keep emphasising one thing: the notch is a quirk, and an annoying one at that. It is a design stopgap I believe Apple can’t wait to get rid of. I still think that in two iterations — maybe as soon as one — this class of iPhone will truly be ‘all screen’. 

The iPhone X also brings new challenges to iOS developers, and not just because of the notch. Check what Marco Arment, among others, has been saying on Twitter: 

  • iPhone X breaks most of Overcast’s UI. I’m going to have to significantly redesign major portions of the app. [Source]
  • The X’s biggest UI-design problem for me isn’t the notch — it’s the home indicator and the rounded screen corners. [Source]
  • iPhone UIs basically can’t use the four corners anymore. That’s not a small deal. We’re going to have to add a lot of margins everywhere. [Source]
  • Will be challenging to have the same UI scale between the iPhone SE, 6/7/8, Plus, and X. SE owners will get the worst UIs forced on them. [Source]
  • It was already a big pain to support landscape on iPhones — now it’s even worse. I bet most apps just drop iPhone landscape support. [Source]
  • Adopting UIs for the X isn’t an unreasonable technical burden. The API gives us the layout metrics. It’s a major design challenge. [Source]

At this point I’m really hoping, for the sake of everybody involved, that Apple’s plan for the next years is to settle on iPhones with the design aesthetic of the iPhone X, but without the notch, and available at different sizes. A sort of hardware design uniformity we’re now seeing with the iPad line. This would in turn bring more uniformity on the software front, both with regard to user interaction/gestures, and with regard to designing iOS app interfaces that work consistently for all iPhones. (This is entering the realm of daydreaming, but can you imagine an iPhone line of truly ‘all screen’ notch-less models, offered in 4-inch, 4.7-inch and 5.5/5.8-inch variants? Boring, perhaps, but quite elegant and consistent if you ask me.) 

What about the iPhone 8?

IPhone 8

Design-wise, the iPhone 8 is the culmination of what Apple introduced with the iPhone 6. I for one loved the glass back of the iPhone 4 — which I still consider the best design in ten years of iPhone history — and seeing it coming back with the iPhone 8 is just great. This glass is certainly more robust than what Apple could offer back in 2010: the Design subsection of the iPhone 8 page on Apple’s website states that: The front and back feature custom glass with a 50 percent deeper strengthening layer. A new steel substructure and a stronger, aerospace‑grade 7000 Series aluminum band provide additional reinforcement. And an oleophobic coating lets you easily wipe off smudges and fingerprints.

Another detail I personally like a lot is the progressive disappearance of those ungainly ‘antenna lines’ on the back of the iPhone that first appeared with the iPhone 6:

Antenna lines iPhone6s 7 8
From top to bottom: iPhone 6s, iPhone 7, iPhone 8

It’s a pity that returning to a glass back design means there isn’t a colour choice as cool as what I consider iPhone 7’s matte black (I do look forward to a Product RED iPhone 8, though), but — and this is a first for me — I find the gold option in the iPhone 8 unusually attractive. It is certainly due to the glass on the back, but I find it to have a really beautiful shine and to look more refined and less ostentatious than the gold of previous iPhones.

Overall, I have fewer things to say about the iPhone 8, and not because it’s less interesting to me. As I said at the beginning, the iPhone 8 represents tradition, the ‘up to now’, while the iPhone X represents the next step, the ‘from now on’ — and it’s obvious that the X is getting more attention than the 8. Its design is polarising, and Face ID is a new authentication technology that has started another lively debate among the most privacy-conscious.

I don’t have much to say about the iPhone 8 because I think it’s simply a great phone. There’s nothing I don’t like about it. While I love the iPhone 5 / 5S / SE form factor and design, and was looking into upgrading from my current iPhone 5 to an iPhone SE, what the iPhone 8 offers today performance-wise seems a more future-proof choice. Especially for someone like me who doesn’t change his iPhone every two years. Chances are my next iPhone has to last me at least 3 to 4 years, and getting an iPhone SE now means purchasing a phone with a CPU that is already two generations behind. I’m not a fan of big phones, but at this point I’m willing to compromise on size to acquire a more powerful iPhone. 

So why the iPhone 8 and not the X?

For starters, the iPhone X’s design has left me more underwhelmed than I expected. And this has nothing to do with the rumours and leaks that correctly anticipated most of the design and features. The notch, and what it does to the upper part of the display, bothers me. It’s simply something I cannot ignore. For me it’s more or less a deal-breaker detail as the keyboard in the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

Then there’s the size. Physically it’s not as big as an iPhone 6/6s/7/8 Plus, but it’s bigger than a 4.7-inch iPhone, which is my limit size for handling a phone somewhat comfortably.

I’m not particularly interested in the dual-camera system and related features either. When it comes to photography, I’m pretty much a traditionalist, and still enjoy using film cameras plus an older Nikon DSLR which gives me pretty satisfactory results (including, you know, real bokeh). The camera in the regular iPhone 8 is more than enough for what I need in a phone.

You may think that I’m choosing the iPhone 8 over the iPhone X because of Face ID, but I’m actually okay with it. In my head, a fingerprint and a face are just biometrics, and the way the iPhone stores them is practically equivalent. I may have been criticising Apple more in recent times, but I do trust the company on this front, and I do believe they wouldn’t have debuted Face ID and had it replace Touch ID in the iPhone X if they hadn’t considered the technology ready to ship. Also, Apple’s famous stance on customer privacy is such that I really wouldn’t mind using and trusting Face ID.

Last but not least, price is the ultimate deal-breaker for me. Here in Spain, the 64 GB iPhone X will cost €1,159, while the 256 GB model will cost €1,329. I’m about to invest roughly €1,600 on a new Mac. I just can’t justify prices in the €1,100–1,300 range for a phone, not even an iPhone. I would think about such an investment if iPhones had similar upgrade cycles as Macs, but they don’t. Furthermore, since I believe the iPhone X is a transitional model, design-wise, I’m not going to spend that much money on what feels like a temporary design (I was about to use the term ‘beta’, but maybe it’s too harsh.)

In choosing the iPhone 8, what I’d miss most of the X are probably the OLED display and Face ID, but those aren’t must-have features for me, either; certainly not worth spending €350 more to have them (I think those €350 would be better spent on an Apple Watch, for example; by adding €50 you could even get a base iPad 5). Overall, I consider the iPhone X an interesting, but transitional and expensive device. I would rather invest on it later on, when the design settles, the UI quirks are ironed out, and it can really be an ‘all screen’ iPhone.

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