Brian Hough
Multimedia Developer for HC Media, writer, founder of Haverzine. Afflicted with technology addiction disorder. Do what you like, like what you do.

24 hours with the iPhone X and its notch

The new iPhone X

Like most people who received an iPhone X this week, it’s too early to really give a proper iPhone X review, and it’s certainly next to impossible to really determine how this year’s new flagship phone will impact the way the world interacts with smartphones. Instead, I can offer up a few preliminary thoughts - just some quick impressions after using the iPhone X for a hair over 24 hours, from the perspective of somebody who has owned the “Plus” size iPhone since the release of the iPhone 6 a few years back.

There are a lot - and I mean, a lot - of things to like here. The iPhone X feels like its specifically engineered to be as tight a package of the most impressive smartphone technology you can possibly purchase in 2017. The real star of the show is, of course, that all-new edge-to-edge industrial design. The entire frame of the device, barring the infamous “notch” area that houses the new front facing camera system that powers the phone’s facial recognition functionality, is flanked right up against the edges by what has to me the single most beautiful display I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

That’s not an exaggeration. The iPhone X’s 5.8-inch display, reportedly manufactured by Samsung and engineered by Apple’s display team, is exceptional. It’s bright, but not eye-burning bright. It’s as vivid as you can get before colors begin to look overblown and oversaturated. It’s contrasty - oh, goodness, is it contrasty. Like the best of previous OLEDs, blacks are absolutely black. When up against a black wallpaper or titlebar, the notch becomes perfectly invisible. This is the best display Apple has ever released, and I can’t wait to see a larger version hit the iPad Pro line in the future.

The new iPhone X's screen is beautiful

Because the front of the phone is taken up completely by the OLED display, Apple has forsaken the home button - and, in turn, its Touch ID fingerprint reader technology - with what it calls Face ID, facial recognition powered by a radically enhanced front facing camera system. Next to the display, Face ID is clearly the real focus of Apple’s marketing this year, and understandably so: when it works, Face ID feels like complete magic. Some early reviews have noted that using Face ID feels like having no biometric protection at all; pick up your phone, swipe up from the bottom, and you’re in.

Unfortunately, my experience with Face ID hasn’t been perfect. Under the somewhat dim indoor lighting I’ve spent the most time using iPhone X in so far, I’ve experienced a failure rate slightly higher than that of Touch ID - and it can occasionally, and randomly, get pretty slow, too. There have been more than a couple of instances where the iPhone will seemingly randomly decide it doesn’t recognize my face and won’t authenticate me, no matter how I adjust my phone or my head, until I relock the phone and unlock it.

Worse, I have yet to be able to determine why Face ID is failing in these instances - there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for its failures. There has been no consistency in lighting, my position relative to the phone, or where I’m looking while unlocking. It’s the sort of issue that can make using the iPhone X an occasionally worse experience than using my iPhone 7 Plus, though I may re-set up Face ID to see if that improves my experience.

Once you’re authenticated, the experience of actually using the iPhone X is another huge change, but one that I’m significantly more positive about. In all previous iPhones, the home button was a safe haven; wanted to go home? Press the home button. Want to ask Siri a question? Home button. Multitask? Home button. Reachability, to reach to the top row of icons that can’t easily be reached? Home button. Given the iPhone X has no home button, Apple has implemented an entire new system of gestures to replace most of these interactions (and moved Siri to the side button), and the vast majority of these feel instantly natural. Swipe up from the bottom to go home, swipe up and hold to multitask; swipe down from the top right to access Control Center, swipe down from the top middle or top left to enter Notification Center.

There is no home button on the iPhone X

While these gestures truly began to feel great after just a few short minutes of using the phone, there is one big miss for me. Reachability - which is, tellingly, now disabled by default - has been relegated to a quite tricky to pull of “swipe down from below where the dock is on the home screen, to the very bottom of the screen” gesture. Because there’s a tiny few rows of pixels to manipulate below the dock, actually using Reachability is now difficult whereas it used to be easy. It’s a shame, too, given how tall the iPhone X’s display is, in my eyes Reachability is actually more important than it ever was in the iPhone 6, 7, or 8 Plus models. I’m not entirely sure what a better solution than this would look like, but it does make reaching the top row of icons on the home screen much, much more difficult.

It’s ironic then that my singular biggest issue adjusting to the iPhone X is that, coming off of years of the Plus sized iPhone, the iPhone X just feels incredibly small. It’s true that the iPhone X technically has a larger, 5.8 inch display than the iPhone Plus’s 5.5 inch one, but it’s much, much more narrow than the Plus creating a display that’s significantly smaller when it comes to usable space. This has caused significant issues for me in day to day, average use. Typing on the iPhone X feels… well, honestly, bad. I’m making all sorts of typos and I can feel my fingers gripping the phone in strange ways. I’m absolutely positive that this is something I can force myself to get used to in time, but the adjustment period here has been pretty significant for me, and I haven’t quite gotten over that hump yet.

What I’m less sure I’ll get over, however, is just how small media is on this display. I’m what you could call an Instagram completist - scrolling through my Instagram feed and appreciating over processed, filtered photos is one of my favorite things to do on an iPhone. Unfortunately, Instagram photos look like stamps on this narrow screen. Watching videos seems not insignificantly downgraded, too, partly because the only non-insane way to watch videos is to scale it down out of the way of the notch, which makes the already smaller display significantly smaller, creating unsightly software bezels.

Using the iPhone X in landscape mode in any way, shape, or form is significantly worse than using any previous iPhone. I know, I know, I can hear you from here - but Brian, no one uses landscape mode! Well, to be honest, I do, and the iPhone X’s narrow display is wrecking havoc on my usage. Before, landscape mode was the way I used Safari, Twitter, Outlook, and (I know, I’m a monster) occasionally, even the home screen. Landscape mode home screen curiously isn’t even an option on the iPhone X, and the others feel far too tight to make them really usable. It’s a bit of a bummer.

I'm excited to give the iPhone X's cameras a closer look

There’s still plenty I have yet to do on my iPhone X, and I’m planning on making use of every single day of its 14-day return policy before I decide whether or not I’m keeping it, or waiting another year. I have yet to put its vastly upgraded cameras through their paces, and I have yet to really push the best-in-class A11 Bionic SoC - though, if benchmarks are any indication, it’ll blow everything in the smartphone space away.

The iPhone X is quintessential 2017 Apple. It’s fresh, interesting, and occasionally infuriating. It feels like magic, until it doesn’t, and then it feels a little bit like too far of a step backwards then I’m totally comfortable with.

But oh my goodness, guys. That screen. Holy shnickies, a screen this beautiful might make it all worth it.

The iPhone Turns Ten 📱

My original iPhone

I’m not the first person to be writing an iPhone 10-year introspective today - a day later, and a dollar short. I absolutely won’t be the last, but I can’t stand to miss this chance to say a few words.

I wasn’t planning on buying an iPhone. Far from it - I wasn’t even sold on the benefit of smartphones yet. In January of 2007 I was dead set on getting what I viewed as the successor to my Motorola RAZR V3, the RAZR V3x. But by the time Steve Jobs ordered a thousand lattés with the prototype iPhone onstage (in what has to be my absolute favorite Stevenote moment), I was convinced.

I bought an original iPhone exactly a year from today, one day after its release. A friend of mine at the time bought it on day one, and to say I was excited to get my hands on one was an understatement of epic proportions. You have to understand, those days the simple thought of manipulating objects with multitouch on a touchscreen as gorgeous as Apple’s was unheard of. Pinch-to-zoom. Dragging your finger across the screen to scroll. Typing with your fingers. Swiping to advance to the next photo. All of these simple, natural gestures that we take for granted, these gestures that an entire generation are growing up with, seeing them as natural as the English language. These literally did not exist on June 28th, 2007, and then one day later, on June 29th, they did. Now virtually every smartphone in the world has these features.

The original iPhone was a lot of things. It was beautiful - one of the finest industrial designs to ever come out of Cupertino, period. It was comfortable in the hand, far more so than the big-screen smartphones we use today. It was also frustrating at times, with its limited feature set, and weak battery life.

I remember the day after buying mine I headed up to Maine for a family vacation, only to be gobsmacked to be nearly out of battery by 4PM or so, a far cry from my RAZR’s excellent battery. There was no video camera, there was poor lowlight performance on the camera, garbage web applications, no games, and slow 2G data. Absolutely none of that did a damn thing to hinder my excitement for the iPhone as a device, and as a platform. I was not only in love with the device I held in my hands that day, but especially with the thought of what it would be able to do a year from then, two years, three years.

Here we are, ten years later. I’ve sold every iPhone I’ve ever owned to pay for my next upgrade, except for that original iPhone. I’m sure it’s worth a ton now, and I’m sure it’ll be worth a ton more ten years from now. It hardly matters. I’ve kept this iPhone to remember how far we’ve come, and as a testament to the revolution it ushered. The original iPhone is one of the most important pieces of technology ever built.

Happy birthday, iPhone! Here’s to the next ten years.

⌚️: One Year Later

Casey Liss on Liss is More, in respect to the one year anniversary of the Apple Watch:

Increasingly, I feel like I’m the only one.

I still really like my Apple Watch.

Many of my friends and peers seem to be getting rid of their Apple Watches. They’re either no longer wearing watches at all, or are switching to mechanical watches instead. I can’t help but feel like it’s trendy to be smug about the Apple Watch.

I’ve been an Apple Watch owner since day one, almost exactly one year ago. I couldn’t agree more with what Casey Liss is saying. I was going to write essentially the same on the Apple Watch, but instead I’ll advise you to read his full piece. I agree with every word of it.

The Apple Watch is not perfect. But it’s imperfect in extraordinarily similar ways that the original iPhone was imperfect. The battery life is only so and so for a device of this category, true – that will get a little better, and we will adjust the rest of the way. The app situation is not good, and apps on the original iPhone were limited to Safari pages circa 2007. Sales are not massive, with impressive Watch sales unable to compensate for the decline in many of Apple’s other product lines. It’s slow, in the same way that the original iPhone was slow. And yet, the Apple Watch has not only sold more in its first year than the original iPhone, but it’s sold more than any other smartwatch, and still more than Rolex in the last year.

I still wear my Apple Watch every single day. It’s effortless – I don’t even think about it. The way that the Watch handles notifications alone makes the device completely worth it, and the convenience of using it to quickly accomplish small tasks that I would have otherwise had to delegate to the phone buried in my pocket seals the deal. I’ve even amassed a small army of Watch bands, and changing them out depending on my mood and apparel is a blast.

The Apple Watch may not be the best product that Apple has ever made, but that was never the point. Today’s Watch is a foundation that will be built upon, improved, and tweaked over time. I can’t wait to see what watchOS 3 and the Apple Watch 2 brings to the table later this year.

What to realistically expect at Apple’s iPhone SE & iPad Pro event

I’ve published my annual list of what to reasonably expect at this Monday’s Apple Media Event over at Haverzine.

Apple is a company of cycles. Traditionally, Apple has been bound to the calendar like Christmas to December; WWDC in June, new iPhones in September, and new iPads in October.

But Tim Cook’s Apple has been considerably more open to switching things up, forgoing expected events or making announcements at unexpected times. Today we find ourselves on the verge of one such aberrations with the announcement of Apple’s “Let Us Loop you In” Media Event scheduled for next Monday, March 21.

Apple hasn’t ever held an event quite like this, and that means no one is one-hundred percent sure of what to expect. Even so, there are a few smart bets to make. Let’s loop you in – here’s what you can realistically expect.

CES 2016 thoughts from afar

One of the most fun I’ve had blogging in previous years was during CES week. Getting off the “holiday high” and landing face first into the tech-gadget-heaven that was Los Angeles during the first week of the new year has always been something I’ve looked forward to. But for whatever reason, this year has been different. When CES began earlier this month, it took me a little by surprise. Something that I’ve always actively looked forward to suddenly snuck up on me, instead.

Still, I put my nose to my browser and consumed what felt like hundreds of articles, read dozens of hands ons, and watched a few amazingly produced videos from the showroom floor put together by the ever excellent video team from The Verge. It was only once I was in the middle of my deep dive of the glamorous world of consumer technologies, it began to hit me why my interest in CES had waned to this point.

CES may well home a few snippets from the future; ultra high-definition “4K” televisions that were hundred of thousands of dollars of prototype machinery just a few years ago, nearly reaching impulse territory for many at Sam’s Club today. But for every 4K television that’s managed to transcend their prototype tag, there are seemingly a thousand more instances of nothing more than a cool tech demo, mere vaporware that’s all but gone by the next year’s CES rolls around. At its worst, CES can be like looking through a window into a future that could be, but probably won’t be.

Truly groundbreaking technology isn’t something that can be scheduled and showcased. Not every CES is going to have “killer tech”, and perhaps it’s okay that CES is ultimately just a show full of some very cool, but largely impractical ideas. Occasionally, however, the problem becomes evident when a product transitions away from mere prototype to the retail. Take the darling of nearly ever CES of the early 2010s – the Oculus Rift. The Oculus Rift became famous in 2012 for presenting what many thought would remain science fiction for the foreseeable future: honest to goodness, working, affordable virtual reality for the home. Every gamer’s dream. For years we’ve tuned into the Oculus booth at CES, and for years we’ve been woo’d by the ever improving technology.

Oculus did everything right: they even proved they were more than mere a one or two shot prototype by providing developers with early, but functional development kits at an affordable price. For the most part, to this point, Oculus Rift has been the success story that CES so desperately needs. But all of that came crashing down earlier this month when the company opened up pre-orders for the initial retail version.

Oculus had been saying and doing all the right things when it came to price, but the company has nearly destroyed all of that good will by releasing the first version with an astronomical price tag of $599. Not only significantly more than what was expected by the press and fans alike, but also significantly more than the two prior Oculus Rift Development Kits. At best, this was a gross miscalculation in the otherwise impressive launch of a potentially revolutionary technology product. At worst, this was a bait and switch: a choice by Oculus to cash in as much as possible with little regard to the loyal fans they’ve justly earned. Perhaps things would have been different if Oculus hadn’t been purchased in 2014 by Facebook. But perhaps the Facebook deal was a necessary evil to even get the Rift out the door.

It may sound like I’m poo-poo’ing on CES, but really, I’m not. I still spent countless hours this week visiting the fantasy land in my mind that all of the press releases and tech demos have helped create. I love the idea of CES – a trade show about the future, today. I’ve merely just grown to wish that companies would be more truthful about what sort of technology is tangible in the relatively near term. I wish that this industry was better at expectation setting, that I could expect to implement some of these amazing advances into my own daily workflow.

Maybe next year.