The iPhone X still underwhelms me

Tech Life

There is something that just keeps not clicking about the iPhone X for me.

I could easily insert a joke here: “It’s the Home button”. But I wouldn’t be joking, actually. And it’s not (just) the Home button, or lack thereof.

I have read many reviews and impressions, and a lot of people seem to agree on one particular aspect of the iPhone X — it’s the first Apple product in ages that really excites them. It seems to exude that intangible Apple essence that just makes you love it. Something that Apple hadn’t seemed to manage to pull off since Steve Jobs’s passing. I’m a long-time Apple user, and I know exactly what they mean. I felt it with the introduction of various Apple products over the years: the first Mac, the first LaserWriter, the PowerBook 100, the PowerBook Duo system, the Newton, the iMac G3 and G4, the first iPod, the first iPhone, the iPhone 4, the colourful iBooks, the G4 Cube, the 12-inch PowerBook G4, the MacBook Air… You get the idea.

If you go through that list of Apple hardware, you’ll see that none of those computers or devices was perfect. Some of those were underpowered. Others, like the Cube or the MacBook Air, were limited by the very design choices that made them iconic. Yet, soon after being unveiled, I simply wanted to acquire them. Even with their flaws and limits, there was that je ne sais quoi that made them special. I realise this is how many iPhone X owners feel about their device. I can sympathise, of course, but I cannot feel it.

What I keep feeling when I handle an iPhone X is disappointment. I’ll try to articulate such disappointment through a series of observations more than a general analysis.

Reducing the bezel and going ‘all screen’

The only way I understand this recent trend of extreme bezel reduction in smartphones is that manufacturers are running out of design ideas to make their products stand out and entice people to purchase them. You could argue that a phone that is ‘all screen’ is not just form, but offers functional advantages as well. Like, more screen real estate without having to also increase the physical size of the device. But a bezel isn’t just wasted space. It helps you handle the device better, it gives more stability when you hold the device and interact with the user interface. When I’m reading something on my iPhone 5, my thumb rests comfortably on the lower bezel; that is, on the space between the Home button and the bottom right corner of the phone.

In my extended handling of an iPhone X, since that space is missing and it’s all screen there, while reading long-form articles on the Web, my thumb either stayed raised and out of the screen’s way, or rested on the right side of the phone. Sure, I could hold the iPhone X nonetheless, but it didn’t feel as comfortable or secure. This was mitigated when holding an iPhone X with a leather case. The case added grip and, ironically, increased the size of the iPhone’s side bezels.

Gesticulating in the absence of a Home button

I hold the rather unpopular opinion that removing the Home button has been a mistake and a step back on Apple’s part. In theory, I get this kind of design iteration move. I get the general plan (to reach a point where the interaction with a touchscreen is all touch), but not the execution — it feels poor, hastily thought and hastily carried out.

In his recent piece on the iPhone X, John Gruber writes:

In short, with the iPhone X Apple took a platform with two primary means of interacting with the apps — a touchscreen and a home button — removed one of them, and created a better, more integrated, more organic experience.

But let’s just step back a couple of paragraphs in his article, where he summarises the functions of the Home button versus the gestures and actions that have been put in place on the iPhone X after removing the Home button:

Over time, the home button’s responsibilities grew to encompass these essential roles:

  1. Single-click with display off: wakes the device.
  2. Single-click with display on: takes you to home screen.
  3. Double-click: takes you to multitasking switcher.
  4. Triple-click: configurable accessibility shortcut.
  5. Rest finger: authenticate with Touch ID.
  6. Double-tap (without clicking): invoke Reachability.
  7. Press-and-hold: invoke Siri.

I took the liberty to convert his bulleted list into a numbered list, for the sake of discussion. We can agree that, of all these seven main roles of the Home button, №4 and 6 aren’t as universally or frequently used like the other five. Not everybody needs to have an accessibility shortcut (I wonder how many of you knew about this triple-clicking, by the way. I confess I didn’t remember such shortcut), and not everybody has a Plus-sized iPhone.

Here are the gestures replacing the above-mentioned functions on the iPhone X:

In iOS 11 X, almost every role of the home button has been subsumed by the display, with the remainder reassigned to the side button:

  1. Wake the device: tap the display.
  2. Go to the home screen: short swipe up from the bottom of display.
  3. Go to the multitasking switcher: longer swipe up from the bottom.
  4. Even better way to multitask: just swipe sideways on the home indicator.
  5. Accessibility shortcut: triple-click the side button.
  6. Authenticate: just look at the display.
  7. Reachability: swipe down on the bottom edge of display.
  8. Siri: press-and-hold side button.

It’s a (literal) mixed bag. First of all, not all these gestures are touch-only. Two of them still involve a physical button (Apple Pay also involves the use of the side button, if I remember correctly). Face ID makes for a truly useful hands-free authentication, but there are still instances where Touch ID can be a faster option. The rest of the gestures — especially returning to the Home screen and handling multitasking — I still find confusing and harder to execute with consistent results. The remapping of the gestures to invoke Notification Centre (swipe down from the top left) and Control Centre (swipe down from the top right) doesn’t help, either. Oh, and before we forget: force-quitting apps from the multitasking view is easier/faster on an iPhone with a Home button: double-click the Home button, then just swipe up the ‘card’ representing the app, just like it was on webOS. In what Gruber calls ‘iOS 11 X’ the procedure involves tapping and holding, then removing the ‘card’. Perhaps it was made on purpose to discourage people from being trigger-happy when it comes to force-quitting apps. The gesture feels clunkier nonetheless.

(Oh, and as for №1, tapping the display to wake the phone: nothing new under the sun. I don’t know Android devices enough, but on Windows Phone devices the feature has been present for years.)

My impression here differs significantly from Gruber’s: this, to me, doesn’t feel like a “better, more integrated, more organic experience”. It feels like a renovation project that started with an idea — Let’s get rid of this wall [the Home button] — but didn’t fully take account of a series of consequences that quickly created a sort of snowball effect (if you remove that element, these other two need to be moved, another has to be replaced, etc. etc.). I agree that some of the resulting gestures may make a lot of sense on paper, or even after a certain period of acclimatisation with the device; but the whole picture, from a usability standpoint, feels arbitrary and forced by a self-imposed design constraint.

There was nothing wrong with how the Home button worked. There is nothing strange or weird in the fact that a Multi-touch device also relies on a button outside the display to interact with the interface. In fact, it is done to get out of the UI’s way. The removal of the Home button isn’t a bold move like removing the floppy drive from the first iMac, or getting rid of a particular connection (SCSI) to make room for a better one (USB, FireWire). It’s more like the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack. That it was made ‘for the better’, is debatable, and not as clear-cut as removing a specific technology to push another that is provably, unquestionably better. Like with the removal of the headphone jack, Apple seems more interested in removing what they perceive as obstacles on their own design path, rather than solving particular problems users may face, or taking steps to demonstrably improve the user experience.

The progressive fragmentation of iOS

John Gruber:

Apple hasn’t called attention to this, but effectively there are two versions of iOS 11 — I’ll call them “iOS 11 X”, which runs only on iPhone X, and “iOS 11 Classic”, which runs on everything else.

I like this nomenclature, but it’s slightly more complicated than that:

  • There’s ‘iOS 11 X’, which runs on the iPhone X.
  • There’s ‘iOS 11 Classic’, which runs on the other iPhones, from the 5s to the 8 Plus.
  • And there’s ‘iOS 11 for iPad’, which runs on all supported iPads.

I make this distinction because there are a series of gestures that are unique to the iPad, that tie to specific iPad features not present on current iPhones.

I keep quoting Gruber’s piece because it is insightful. Like me, like others, Gruber too perceives this ‘fragmentation’, but if I understood his point of view, he thinks it’s essentially a temporary bump, a necessary transitional step in the constant, iterative evolution of iOS:

What we’re left with, though, is truly a unique situation. Apple is attempting to move away from iOS’s historical interface one device at a time. Just the iPhone X this year. Maybe a few iPhone models next year. iPad Pros soon, too? But next thing you know, all new iOS devices will be using this, and within a few years after that, most iPhones in active use will be using it — without ever once having a single dramatic (or if you prefer, traumatic) platform-wide change.

This is true, but my impression is that the picture Gruber is painting here is a bit too optimistic. Sure, if you upgrade to an iPhone X or to another future device running ‘iOS 11 X’, you’ll have to retrain and adapt to the new gestures and whatever this flavour of iOS brings and will bring with it. That won’t be too ‘traumatic’ because you will leave your old iPhone behind, along with its Home button and ‘iOS 11 Classic’ paradigms. But if you also have an iPad, with its Home button and ‘iOS 11 for iPad’ paradigms, the differences between the two flavours of iOS will remain apparent every time you go from a device to another.

I’m sure the next step for Apple is to introduce Face ID in other iOS devices. Probably in the very next iPad. But the upgrade cycle for iPads is notoriously slow — if I’m still finding an old third-generation iPad useful today, imagine those people who just purchased a 10.5-inch iPad Pro. It’s quite probable that there will be people using ‘iOS 11 X’ and ‘iOS 11 for iPad’ devices for a long while.

The current fragmentation of the iOS platform, in my opinion, can’t be resolved in software. As Gruber himself pointed out:

And some aspects of the iPhone X experience wouldn’t work on older devices. You could in theory swipe up from the bottom to go home on a non-X iPhone, but you couldn’t swipe-up-from-the-bottom to unlock the lock screen, because that requires Face ID. Conversely, there is no room in the iPhone X experience for Touch ID. There is no “rest your finger here” in the experience. It wouldn’t matter if the fingerprint scanner were at the bottom of the display or on the back of the device — it would be incongruous.

Only by progressively introducing new hardware that works like the iPhone X can the process of reunification, of ‘defragmentation’ of the platform begin. But at the software level, things are bound to remain different, at least between iPads and iPhones.

For example, Apple may introduce a new iPad (Pro) X, with a thin bezel and without a Home button, accentuating the ‘all screen’ feel, looking like a big iPhone X. I don’t even want to start thinking of the handling issues of a bezel-less tablet, let’s just focus on the UI gestures. One quickly realises that not all iPhone X gestures can be scaled and ported ‘as is’ on this theoretical iPad X. Certainly Notification Centre and Control Centre won’t retain the same specific gestures we now find on the iPhone X (swiping down from the top left or top right on a device as big as an iPad, which is also often used in landscape orientation, makes no sense). But it will be interesting to see how the gestures tightly related to navigating Home and to multitasking will be implemented, considering the current gestures revolving around the Dock.

The transition will be over when all Home-button, Touch ID-based iOS devices are phased out, and this may not take long at Apple’s end; but again, when you look at how frequently most non-geek users upgrade their iPhones and iPads, this transition will effectively take years.

Mind you, I’m not finding all of this problematic, strictly speaking. I realise a lot of issues here concern me mostly at a theoretical UI/UX level. But I’m finding a lot of this, well, largely unnecessary.

Back to the iPhone X

And so I return to the iPhone X. I understand how Face ID may be the next step, the ‘future’ of authentication. I understand how innovative it is compared to Touch ID. But what kind of problem does removing the Home button really solve? For now, what I see is just that its removal has triggered a series of new user interface and user interaction problems, popping up in a sort of ‘falling dominoes’ effect. The new gestures that had to be designed as a replacement feel like a hastily executed workaround.

Gruber writes: The iPhone X, however, creates a schism, akin to a reboot of the franchise. And later, after asking, Why not bring more of what’s different on iPhone X to the other iPhones running iOS 11?, he concludes I think they didn’t because they wanted a clean break, a clear division between the old and the new, the familiar and the novel.

It’s my understanding as well. But I guess that my fundamental question is, Why creating this schism in the first place? I don’t believe it was necessary. This could have been a smoother transition if Apple hadn’t removed the Home button and had introduced a transitional iPhone with Face ID and with the Home button. But it all stems from the need to introduce something ‘fresh’, from the ‘fear of missing out’ — since the competition’s new thing is reducing smartphone bezels as much as possible, let’s jump on the bezel-less wagon too. And if that implies making design compromises and remapping the UI in awkward ways, well, we’ll deal with it later.

I have resisted bringing up Jobs’s Apple until now, but my impression is that, under Jobs, Apple was more daring in its general attitude and less prone to peer pressure. There was more action and less reaction. Apple (Jobs) seemed more focused on doing its thing and the ‘fear of missing out’ was not really a concern. How others designed and manufactured their computers and devices was not really a concern. Apple’s concerns were to develop its own designs, aimed at providing customers with the best products possible. That encompassed the design of the hardware and the software. Apple, following Jobs’s philosophy, was clearly selective when it came to saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a design solution, to an idea for a product or feature. That’s what Think Different was all about.

On the surface, today’s Apple hasn’t really changed. The principles are essentially the same, but I also notice a sort of ‘me too’ attitude which, if I were talking about a person, I would ascribe to insecurity and even performance anxiety. I’ve noticed a shift where, instead of focusing on a selected range of products and markets, Apple seems more interested in ‘being everywhere’ first, and ‘let’s figure out how’ later. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just how you stay on top today in this frenetic technological landscape, but again, this ‘fear of missing out’, pushing Apple to develop products like the HomePod, to invest lots of resources in car-related projects, to dabble in the production of original television content, etc. — this ‘fear of missing out’ is forcing Apple to create and maintain several software platforms, to neglect products for years (even relatively successful ones like the Mac mini), to spread their resources thin.

Say hello to the future” — I will when I see it

With the iPod, there was never a defining slogan, but when talking about it Steve Jobs was certain it would revolutionise the way people listen to music, and that’s exactly what happened. When now I read that the iPhone X is ‘the future of the smartphone’ or that ‘the future is here’, it just rings hollow. Why is it the future of the smartphone? The only feature that feels mildly futuristic is Face ID. As for the rest, what about it? It has very good specifications, very good cameras, a very good display… But I don’t understand what the big deal is, essentially. iPhone X users will probably say that the device is more than just the sum of its parts; that it’s the overall experience that ultimately makes the difference. But I still don’t see what makes the experience on this device truly stand out compared with, say, an iPhone 8. Face ID and ARKit allow for cool effects and implementations, I definitely agree. But the processor in the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus is the same, so you can enjoy ARKit-based applications on those iPhones, too. The iPhone X’s cameras are a bit better, but not fantastically better.

It must be how it looks, then. The immersive AMOLED screen; the shifting between active apps like with a deck of cards; the seamless, (almost) friction-less Face ID authentication; Animoji; the industrial design (which I wouldn’t call radical[ly] new, as Rene Ritchie does), and how you feel the iPhone X in the hand.

Is that it? Have I missed something? I don’t think it’s enough future to have in my pocket for 1,200–1,300 euros.

To me, the future of the smartphone is a device with unique applications enabling me to do things I’d never thought I’d be doing with a smartphone — or any other device, for that matter. I can’t make examples, it’s the classic case of I’ll know it when I see it, but I can recall having felt this way with my first iPhone, the 3G, back in 2008. The idea of using just one pocketable device to browse the Web decently while out and about; writing emails with ease on the fly; being able to find my way in places I’d never been before thanks to Google Maps; having an abundance of information, in real time, any place I was with cellular reception — that whole experience felt really revolutionary to me. Ten years ago I felt I was ‘living in the future’. Now I feel I’m living in pretty much the same future, only with retina displays, better cameras, and faster processors.

After handling the iPhone X for a while, I returned to my old iPhone 5 with iOS 10, and oddly I didn’t feel I was missing out that much, apart from the superficial differences. I didn’t feel the thrill of having the future of the smartphone in my hands slip away. The overall experience was like having been handed a cool, aimed-to-please, but overpriced product with a slightly awkward UI and an unapologetically compromised design.

I’m fully aware that my opinion reflects the fact that I don’t own an iPhone X, that I only had a reduced exposure to it compared to those who own it, use it every day, and enjoy the hell out of it, joie de vivre and everything. But that’s kind of the point — in the examples I made at the beginning, all the Apple products I listed truly wowed me from afar. I didn’t have to ‘spend some time’ or ‘get accustomed’ with a MacBook Air, with an iMac G4, a Newton MessagePad, or with an iPhone 4 to know I wanted one right away. That kind of magic, of thrill, has yet to return for me.

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