Who cares if every detail about the new iPhone X was leaked ahead of time? Long ago, Steve Jobs injected enough showmanship and stagecraft into events like today’s — held in a new theater in Cupertino bearing his name — that even the mental ticking off one anticipated box after another still holds a residual power. Would Apple confirm the new phone’s edge-to-edge glass screen? You bet they did. Would the iPhone X have true facial recognition, letting you unlock the device with your facial features (as opposed to your eyeballs), and create Snapchat-like animated emojis to send to friends? Yep! The rumors were all spot on, and the latest, and arguably greatest, iPhone arrived exactly as promised.
This is great news for fans of conspicuous consumption, and aggravating, possibly depressing news for the rest of us. The iPhone X, you see, isn’t merely an upgrade to last year’s iPhones. It’s intended as a luxury product, a premium purchase that starts at $300 more than the also new iPhone 8.
Granted, there’s nothing new about dragging Apple for selling overpriced electronics. Android and PC partisans have beat that argument into the ground for years, but Apple’s attention to quality and durability—both in its hardware and its software—has usually made those complaints ring hollow. A $1000 MacBook performed as well as a $1000 PC, with the added benefit of (largely) never worrying about malware. Likewise, once smartphones stopped being subsidized by most carriers, it was clear that iPhones were priced on par with the latest Samsung Galaxy devices. They were pricey, sure, but not ludicrously so.
Now comes the iPhone X, and the haters are finally right. It marks the birth of the luxury segment for phones, which really is too bad.
What’s New About the iPhone X
There are legitimately new and even jaw-dropping features in the iPhone X. Unfortunately, many of those bright spots are dimmed by what’s likely to be a confusing multi-iPhone product launch.
For example, the X has a promising dual-camera with new sensors that perform better in low light than those of the iPhone 7s. In fact, its paired camera is an improvement over the iPhone 8. But wait, the iPhone 8 Plus also has a new dual-camera, which also boasts better color accuracy and image detail.
Similarly, the iPhone X has wireless charging, with Qi-certified components in its glass back that let you drop it on a pad to recharge. But the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus also have glass fronts and backs, and can charge wirelessly.
So what sets the X apart? The $999 iPhone X has two features that no other iPhone model has, and both are problematic.
The first is an edge-to-edge 5-inch OLED screen. We can’t verify its image quality until we can test the phone, but OLED displays are a noticeable improvement over LEDs — particularly for contrast, with realistic shadows and colors that sizzle against a true-black screen — and screens that aren’t bounded by bezels are always impressive. In fact, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 proves both those points with its own edge-to-edge OLED display. But Apple made a questionable design decision, breaking up its edge-to-edge screen with what’s being referred to as a camera notch, a kind of divet in the upper middle of the display where the front-facing sensor suite lives. This is odd stuff. The screen flows around this notch on either side, creating the awkward visual impression of an object intruding on what should be the OLED equivalent of an infinity pool. Why is this notch there? Why didn’t Apple leave a miniscule strip of black along the top of the X’s screen, as Samsung did with the Note 9? What possible purpose does this weird bit of bonus on-screen real estate serve? Imagine if your laptop monitor extended edge-to-edge, except for an inverted hump where your webcam lives. That’s what’s happening on the Apple X, and it’s shaping up to be one of Apple’s few design misfires.
The other standout feature in this phone is its TrueDepth camera, an array of sensors — including one that projects unseen infrared dots onto your face—that uses your face as a security credential to access the phone, log into services, and other stuff that your fingerprint used to do. This looks like a genuine advance over other companies’ iris-based access, which forces you to play the not-fun minigame of lining up your eyes with on-screen circles whenever you unlock the phone. Face ID seems intuitive and effortless, and everyone will be copying it within a year. This face-mapping functionality also allows for what seems like a blast: creating animated emojis, or animojis, whose cartoon features map to yours. Apple is finishing what Snapchat’s filters started, letting you record and send animojis as stickers, and everyone with a phone is going to want to do this right now.
And that, in a locally sourced and artisanally gilded nutshell, is the problem with the iPhone X. When it debuts in early November, X-owners will put it to work, cranking out animojis nonstop, and the majority of people receiving them won’t be able to respond in kind. For now, animojis will signal, loud and cute and clear, that the sender can afford a phone that costs as much as an Apple laptop. Now why can’t you?
The iPhone 8 Is a Consolation Prize
In fairness to Apple, it could be following the lead of companies in other industries. Toyota sells Corollas and Highlanders on the same lot. Old Navy, the Gap and Banana Republic share the same corporate owners. And entire brands exist solely to appeal to the rich, with product lines that are intentionally beyond the means of most people.
But smartphones are different. They're already vastly overpriced gadgets. New baseline iPhones — or Samsung's or LG's top-tier phones — always debut at a higher price than new iPads, and higher indeed than many laptops. But after Apple debuted its original iPhone at a stratospheric price point, and quickly dropped it to merely silly heights, the upper limit for the wider category had since stabilized.
The iPhone X is a return to stratospheric smartphones, and manages to rub its high cost not only in the faces of non-iPhone-owners, but also anyone who stoops to buying an iPhone 8. The 8 and the 8 Plus arrive as consolation prizes for those willing only to spend a lot of money on a phone, rather than a truly obscene amount. There's no way to interpret the iPhone X as anything other than the legitimate new iPhone, while the 8 is a budget-sensitive downgrade for people itching to get something new.
This is an ugly situation that Apple's created. Buy an iPhone 8, and you almost got the "one more thing," but not quite. Better luck next year! Buy the iPhone X, and you're a caricature of a status-obsessed early adopter, lording your finances over everyone else, including other Apple fans. Plus you get a gorgeous edge-to-edge screen with a bite inexplicably gouged out of it.
The only real solution may be to hold onto your current hardware. By next year Apple will hopefully stop pitting its users against everyone else, and each other, and price-drop the X (or whatever it will be confusingly called) into traditional iPhone territory. If Apple continues to segment its customers into the monied and the extremely monied, it could mean a whole new tradition like we see in the world of high-tech TVs, where we acknowledge product innovations and then wait a year or two to buy them.