Thoughts and Observations on the Products Announced at This Week’s iPhone X Introductory Event

Face ID as the Replacement for Touch ID

Apple made this decision well over a year ago. Perhaps the fundamental goal of iPhone X was to get as close as they could to an edge-to-edge display. No chin whatsoever. There were, of course, early attempts to embed a Touch ID sensor under the display as a Plan B. But Apple became convinced that Face ID was the way to go over a year ago. I heard this yesterday from multiple people at Apple, including engineers who’ve been working on the iPhone X project for a very long time. They stopped pursuing Touch ID under the display not because they couldn’t do it, but because they decided they didn’t need it. I do believe it’s true that they never got Touch ID working, but that’s because they abandoned it in favor of Face ID early.

I don’t know why recent supply chain rumors suggest Apple was scrambling to get Touch ID working on iPhone X as late as this summer, and no one at Apple seems to know either. Disinformation campaign from competitors?

There is clearly skepticism out there about Face ID. Some people think Face ID is going to suck, and a lot of people are flat-out assuming that they’re going to miss Touch ID. We saw the same thing with Touch ID when it was announced, and the skeptics were very wrong. I haven’t used it personally, but I am pretty sure already that the skeptics are going to be wrong about Face ID too. This piece at Ars Technica by Ron Amadeo is going to age poorly, I suspect.

The only time I’ve spent playing with an iPhone X was about 10-15 minutes in the hands-on area after the event, and I did not get a chance to try Face ID. But I spent time — both officially, as a member of the media, and unofficially, as a friend — with several Apple employees who are already carrying an iPhone X as their daily-use phone, and from what I observed and from what they told me — and again, several of these employees are engineers, not PR or product marketing folks — it just works. You don’t have to think about it. According to them, you get used to not thinking about it very quickly, and when you go back to a Touch ID device, it feels broken that you have to touch the button to unlock the device.

One of the places where I saw it working — instantly and effortlessly — was a really dark room. It just works.

iPhone X

The name: I was wrong about what Apple would call it, but I still say every single point I made arguing that they would and should pronounce it “ex” was correct.

The notch: It offends me. It’s ungainly and unnatural. Clearly, the ideal of an “all-screen” design — to use Apple’s own words — has no notch at all. This is not that. But what I dislike more than the notch isn’t the notch itself but that Apple is fully embracing the notch in software. I really wish their software design rendered the “ears” with black backgrounds while using apps. I’d be fine with embracing the notch on the home screen and lock screen.

It’s the front-facing equivalent of the camera bump. It offends me because it’s not just imperfect but glaringly, deliberately imperfect. But — again, exactly as with the bump — I understand why it’s there. I don’t like it but it wouldn’t keep me from buying the phone.

When using an iPhone X (again, based on a severely limited amount of time) the notch seems less noticeable than when looking at promotional photos of it. But that’s in portrait orientation. In landscape, the notch looks like a joke. I think Jony Ive either lost a bet or lost his mind. It looks silly, and to pretend otherwise is nonsense. I’m OK with this because I never use my phone in landscape other than when using the camera, watching videos, looking at photos, or playing games — and iOS 11 hides the notch with black bars by default in those use cases. But this looks just awful — and that screenshot was taken from Apple’s own video advising developers on how to handle the notch in their UIs.1

But just like the camera bumps we’ve been living with since the iPhone 6, it’ll be fine. Notch be damned, I know already that I would rather own an iPhone X than an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus.

The design: The iPhones 8 look and feel every bit as nice, if not better, than the iPhones 7. But the iPhone X, in my brief hands-on time with it, feels like a step up. I think stainless steel just feels nicer in hand than aluminum. It doesn’t feel too heavy, but it is noticeably heavier than an iPhone 7 or 8. It’s hot.

iPhone 8

Of course it’s not what everyone is talking about, but iPhones 8 are a sweet fucking upgrade over the iPhones 7. True Tone displays make a huge, instantly noticeable difference. The regular iPhone 8 has significantly improved image stabilization. Both models have significantly improved camera sensors. HDR photography has been improved so much that on iPhone 8 it no longer saves two versions of the photo (with and without HDR) — you just get the HDR version because it’s always better. Sure, they look just like the iPhones 7 from the front (and are even case compatible with their corresponding iPhone 7 models), but the glass backs look new and very cool.

I don’t know how the iPhone X/iPhone 8 split is going to play out sales-wise, but it is very clear that Apple did not (no pun intended) phone the iPhones 8 in. I think a surprising amount of the new technology in the iPhone X is also in the iPhone 8.

Apple Watch Series 3

This is a very easily understood update: it’s about optional cellular networking and increased performance. Apple’s watch strap game is on point — I saw several new straps that I liked a lot, and (shocker) I’m pretty picky about watch straps. The most popular new color is that sort of deep purple — I noticed a lot of Apple employees sporting it.

Best Joke of the Keynote

Craig Federighi, demonstrating the new animoji feature by turning his face into an animated pile of poo: “If you were wondering what humanity would do when given access to the most advanced facial animation, now you know.”

A11 “Bionic” Chip

This chip apparently benchmarks faster than some MacBook Pros, both in single and multi-core. Not recent MacBook Pros — today’s MacBook Pros.

Apple’s A-series chips achieved desktop-like performance in single-core a few years ago. But this level of multi-core performance is new to the A11. The difference is the new Apple-designed “second-generation performance controller”. The A10 chips have two high-power cores and two low-power cores. When the A10 needs high CPU performance, it uses the two high-power cores; when it doesn’t, it switches to the two low-power cores. So with A10 chips, you’re always getting dual-core performance.

Thanks to the new performance controller, on the A11 all six cores are available at the same time. When you need the highest performance, it uses all six cores. The A11’s two high-power cores are 25 percent faster than the A10’s. That would be an impressive year-over-year boost in and of itself. But the low-power cores are each 70 percent faster than the A10’s — and there are twice as many of them, and they’re always available.

Apple barely spent any keynote time on the new performance controller because “speeds and feeds” aren’t what the iPhone is all about. But from a chip design and performance perspective, this is astounding. Apple is pulling ahead of other chipmakers — both Intel and Qualcomm — like Secretariat pulling away from the pack in the Belmont Stakes.

You can’t bring this up in public without a certain segment of Android fans losing their goddamn minds over it. “I thought specs don’t matter?” they say, and point to articles I (or whoever else brings this up) wrote in the past arguing that specs aren’t the only thing that matters. Here’s the thing. I would still want to use an iPhone if Apple were using off-the-shelf Snapdragon processors and Samsung were the company producing these proprietary A-series systems-on-a-chip. It’s the same reason I remained a Mac user even during the years when Mac CPUs were hopelessly behind Intel’s in performance. For me, it’s the overall experience that matters, and that’s largely defined by the software platform.

But Samsung isn’t the company with the proprietary chips that blow away the industry commodity chips, Apple is. So iPhone users get the best in both regards: they get the iOS experience and Apple-designed hardware, and they get the vastly superior CPU and GPU. And Android users who want industry-leading performance are shit out of luck. This is unprecedented in computing history. Windows users who want the best CPUs have always had that option. Android users don’t, because the best chips, by far, are Apple’s, and they’re proprietary.

The specs aren’t what matters — the effects are what matters. But the specs are what we can measure, and the faster the chips are, the better the effects are in the user experience.

AirPower and Qi

First, inductive charging is not “wireless”. Here’s what I wrote back in June:

Wi-Fi is wireless. No one would accept wireless as a description for an internet connection that required the device to be in physical contact with a charger, even if it were magnetic rather than a port you plug a cable into.

So Apple Watch, for example, does not use wireless charging. Apple describes it perfectly as “magnetic charging”. It sounds like this is what might be in store for the next iPhone. That’d be cool — but it wouldn’t be as cool as being able to charge over the air.

If we call inductive charging “wireless” now, what are we going to call it when it really is wireless in a few years?

That off my chest, I am looking forward to having this feature. This is one area where the iPhone was indisputably behind the competition.

One aspect of Apple’s announcement that I don’t think was clear is the relationship between the upcoming AirPower (slated for early next year) and Qi. The best way to think of it is that AirPower is to Qi what AirPods are to Bluetooth.

Qi is an industry standard defined and managed by a consortium, just like Bluetooth. The only products Apple announced this week that support Qi for charging are the new iPhones.

AirPower is going to be a superset of Qi with a layer of non-standard Apple technology on top of it to make it better, just like how AirPods are a superset of Bluetooth with non-standard Apple technology on top. So iPhone 8 and iPhone X can charge on any Qi charging pad, like the Belkin and Mophie ones that Apple promoted on stage. Likewise, AirPods can be used as a regular Bluetooth headset connected to any Bluetooth device.

But AirPower can do things Qi cannot — it can charge Apple Watch and the upcoming new AirPod case. Apple Watch and the AirPod case are not Qi devices — you cannot charge them on a Qi charging pad. That’s similar to the way AirPods (and the Beats headphones also equipped with Apple’s W1 chip) can do things regular Bluetooth headsets cannot — in particular, the seamless pairing process, and the lower audio playback latency enabled by the W1.

The main difference between the non-standard aspects of AirPower compared to AirPods is that Apple is pledging to offer their improvements to the Qi consortium. If the consortium accepts them, third-party companies will be able to make AirPower-like charging pads that do work with Apple Watch, the new AirPod case, and more.2 Apple has never hinted that they might offer their W1 chip technology to the Bluetooth consortium.

The difference makes strategic sense. It’s a competitive advantage for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac that they can offer a superior wireless headphone experience because W1 is proprietary. It’s not just about keeping other headphone makers from offering it, but also about keeping Android devices from taking advantage of it. Apple benefits from the fact that standard Bluetooth is inferior. But Apple wants to see inductive charging pads go mainstream, with public installations in restaurants, airports, etc. Apple would rather see those ubiquitous charging pads support all Apple devices, not just iPhones.

AirPower doesn’t seem to be better than standard Qi in the way that Apple’s W1 chip is better than standard Bluetooth. Instead, AirPower seems to just enable inductive charging for more devices.

  1. The last perfect iPhone was the iPhone SE. I’m not saying the iPhone SE is the best iPhone. I’m just saying it’s the last one that is perfect in design. No camera bump, no notch, perfect back, perfect front, perfect sides, every button feels nice and is well located. ↩︎

  2. I’m not doing so well on predictions lately, but I feel like it’s a safe bet that the next generation Apple Pencil will be able to charge via AirPower. Maybe the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad too, since your desktop is a perfect place to put an AirPower. This could even explain the ungainly location of the Magic Mouse’s Lightning port↩︎︎