iPhone X First Look: About-Face

By Geoffrey A. Fowler Features Dow Jones Newswires

CUPERTINO, Calif. -- Soon, all the cool kids will be smiling into their phones.

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When you pick up Apple Inc.'s new iPhone X, instead of unlocking with your thumb, you stop and grin at the phone's front unibrow as a bank of cameras and sensors check to see if it is really you. At a demo after Tuesday's launch event, I timed the process at about a second.

People unlock their phones hundreds of times a day, so this selfie ritual will turn iPhone X owners into the most-photographed population ever. And showing off the move to others is probably the best iPhone sales pitch in years -- even if this one costs $1,000 or more.

I saw little evidence in Apple's demo that the iPhone X can kick-start a new decadelong tech revolution. Its most practically useful features may be a bigger screen and (Apple claims) two additional hours of battery life. Yet the X moves the ball forward for our most-used gadgets, making cameras and visual tech central to the future of the smartphone.

A New Relationship

As usual, Apple giveth and Apple taketh away. Let this sink in: The iPhone X has no home button or fingerprint reader. Not even buried behind the screen. The culprit, Apple says, is the nearly all-screen front, which leaves no space for a button. It is a design tweak that changes how we relate to our phones.

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The new screen gives you even more usable screen area than the iPhone 7 Plus in a form that is only slightly larger than the iPhone 7. The new OLED tech used in the screen makes images look rich, and contributes to the significant improvement in battery life.

In my hand, it feels like a big little phone -- perhaps a tad weighty.

It is also a screen style we've seen in rival phones from Samsung Electronics Co., which managed to actually curve its Galaxy S8 screen to the edge on the left and right side. The iPhone X still has a metal rim all the way around that looks like a car bumper. Samsung has (temperamental) face and iris unlocking features, but it kept the fingerprint reader on the rear of the phone as a surefire backup.

How well does the face unlock thing work? That will require some serious testing. In my brief postevent demo, Apple wouldn't let me register my own face. At least once, it missed the face of the Apple product rep. (In dark situations, the phone sends out a beam of light as well as an array of invisible dots to read your face.) And the whole process was slowed by a clunky design: After the phone recognizes your face, you have to swipe up from the bottom of the phone to get to your home screen.

In fact, there's a whole bunch of new finger yoga you'll need to learn. In lieu of the home button, you swipe up from the bottom to get back to your home screen. To get to the control center, instead of swiping up from the bottom you now have to drag a finger from the top right corner. It reminded me of Snapchat -- and like it, I could see some people just wanting to opt out of the confusion.

Special Cameras, Special Effects

The reward for changing your muscle memory is, beyond the face-unlocking trick, a new way to think about what you can do with a camera. Apple is now putting a lot of energy (and money) into opening up the world of augmented reality, which I agree has huge potential -- even if its current applications are more goofy than serious.

The front-facing cameras, buried in the screen's funny notch, get the biggest boost. They include infrared sensors to map your face. You can take selfies with artfully blurred-out backgrounds. A new effect that Apple calls Portrait Lighting lets you create dramatic lighting on and around your subjects. One of the most compelling demos I saw placed my head, live, in fun contexts, including the Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars."

In the feature that may best sum up 2017, you can turn your head into an animated singing and dancing emoji, called animoji. Yep, you can send your boo a personalized poo face.

The two back cameras are also improved over the iPhone 7 Plus, though less dramatically. The second lens, used for 2X telephoto shots, now has optical image stabilization that should make portraits and zoomed-in shots less blurry. The cameras are also now oriented vertically, which Apple says will help with future augmented reality apps.

New... and Improved?

I won't have all the answers until I review the phone, but here's my initial takeaway: With the iPhone X, Apple's best no longer looks like a three-year-old phone. (Apple's other new phone, the iPhone 8, still does.)

The face-unlocking trick is a strategy to make you feel like you are missing out if you don't have an iPhone X. The jury's still out on its security and effectiveness, let alone those fancy new camera tricks and the vast future of augmented reality that has hit 11 on the buzz-o-meter.

Nevertheless, the larger screen and improved battery life may be reason enough to satisfy even the more practically minded to contemplate an iPhone X.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 12, 2017 20:07 ET (00:07 GMT)