Apple’s New iPhone X Points Smartphone Technology in a New Direction

This month’s iPhone X launch comes a full decade after the iPhone’s original debut and harkens back to its first release in 2007. Like the original, the X is priced much higher ($999 for 64GB and $1,149 for the 256 GB model) than the average phone available today; the first iPhone was originally priced at $399, while most phones at the time were $199. The release of X is also similar to the original, with its limited availability due to manufacturing constraints and its certain role as a status symbol.

When the first iPhone was launched, it was distinctly different from other devices on the market. While Nokia and Blackberry were battling user interface dominance with their T9 keypads and QWERTY keyboards, the iPhone 1’s silky smooth touchscreen control completely trumped them. That’s what the Silicon Valley company is attempting to do again with the X. The company still pays credence to its existing line with incremental updates in the release of iPhone 8 and 8 Plus models, but the X signifies where Apple wants smartphone technology to go.

Pricing for iPhone 8 and 8 Plus start at $699 and $799 – a $300 difference between the 8 and the X. Apple justifies this jump in price by pointing to the abundance of new features in the X. Most physically apparent is the absence of a home button. In its place, Apple uses gesture control, facial recognition, and the previously termed “power button” (now coined “side button”) to execute the same functions. To reset to the home screen, users must swipe up from the bottom of the screen. Opening up the multitasking menu requires a pause mid-swipe from the bottom. Swiping down from the top of the screen will bring up the phone’s Control Center or notifications, dependent on which side of the top the swipe originates from.

Instead of touch recognition, the X now uses Face ID to unlock the phone; it’s also the same system that powers Apple’s new Animojis and other functions that require a 3D model of the user’s face. To unlock the phone, users must hold the phone up to their face where users are given two chances to succeed before being asked to enter a code. If the phone is lying flat on a table, the phone will not unlock due to the “attention” feature; attention mode can be turned off but at the risk of lower security. Face ID is made possible by Apple’s new TrueDepth front-facing camera system. TrueDepth uses a 7 MP front-facing camera, an infrared (IR) emitter that projects a 30,000 dot pattern on the user’s face, an infrared camera emitter to capture the overlayed 30,000 dots, a proximity sensor to know when a face is next to the device, and an ambient light sensor to help set output light levels. In low-light situations, the phone will employ a “flood illuminator” (an IR light projected onto the face but invisible to the naked eye) to ensure the face is still scannable to infrared. Using IR light is also advantageous as it can illuminate sub-surface features from the skin, which will make spoofing the technology much harder. Early reviews of this features say Face ID unlocking either works or doesn’t work at all – perhaps a sign that most will shift back to just typing in a code.

Apple calls on the side button to fill the role of the home button. The newly lengthened (for easier access) side button will be used for a number of shortcuts: to access Apple Pay (double click the side button as previously done with the home button), to invoke Siri (hold the side button down), to contact emergency SOS (press the side button and power button simultaneously), and to access shortcuts (click the side button three times in quick succession). The side button can also be assigned to call Face ID to check if the user is looking at the phone before dimming the display, unlocking the phone, or lowering alert volumes. To temporarily disable Face ID, users can hold buttons on both sides of the phone. Since the side button calls Siri, actually shutting down the phone is relegated to the Settings menu under General.

In other hardware changes, the X’s 5.8-inch display is starkly different from previous iPhones, with the move to bezel-free and the use of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). The shift from liquid crystal display (LCD) to OLED is intended for a richer color gamut and to provide flexibility so the screen can fold over the phone’s edge. The display is also at the company’s highest resolution offering at 2436 x 1125 pixels or a density of 458 pixels per inch (ppi); Apple calls this resolution “Super Retina.” The use of OLED in Apple’s devices is a drastic change for its line of iPhones (previously, the Apple Watch was its only OLED display device). Despite the momentous shift for Apple, the use of OLED displays is already a few years in the making for Samsung’s displays and their Galaxy S8. In addition, the S8 has a screen brightness of over 1,000 nits and 570 ppi, whereas the iPhone is only at 625 nits. The implications of this being Samsung’s displays can provide more precise details and sharper images. However, more pixels also means more battery power required. Apple does have the advantage, though, in its True Tone technology being rolled over from the iPad Pro, which ensures the white and color balances will better suit ambient light to optimize the content presented on the display.

The other biggest hardware advances are in iPhone X’s new cameras. The rear camera is a dual-lens 12 MP resolution with dual optical image stabilization, a wide-angle f/1.8 aperture lens, and a telephoto f/2.4 aperture lens. The X’s front-facing camera is 7 MP with image stabilization and also features portrait mode. The cameras work in conjunction with its new image signal processor for better color filtering; both cameras use their newly developed natural lighting effect (also introduced on the iPhone 8). Other upgrades are also in the video portion of the camera with an improved 4K resolution at 60 fps (slow-motion video at 240 fps). These features are made possible by Apple’s first internally developed graphics processing unit (GPU), the A11 Bionic chip; all hardware development was moved in-house, where it was previously developed by Imagination.

Just as in the release of the original iPhone, readers should view the X’s release as a sign of where smartphone technology is headed. Look for the advancement of smartphone interfaces and its accompanying accessories and applications in facial recognition, gesture control, and OLED and flexible displays. Readers should also recognize that these radical changes in Apple’s user interface are proof of where the battle for the dominant smartphone lies – in the technology that creates and enhances device interaction. This is a challenge in which Apple and Google aren’t doing it alone. Both are adding augmented reality (AR)-compatible functions into their devices and both have released AR developer platforms.

Beyond the X’s announcement, readers should watch for advances in form factor and sensing as the next big development for the smartphone. In the flexible phone, many companies have announced a concept phone, but none have gone to market: Lenovo debuted a foldable smartphone and tablet last year, and Samsung showed its stretchable display, with mixed results. The mainstreaming of OLED displays by Samsung and now Apple makes flexible displays and backplanes a much closer reality. Also, look for fingerprint sensors to physically shift in placement on the phone: LG showed a new fingerprint sensor under the screen last year, Synaptics unveiled an optical fingerprint scanner that was rumored to appear on the Galaxy S8 but failed to make the cut, and Qualcomm revealed its in-display fingerprint sensor will arrive in phones by summer 2018.

By: Tracy Woo