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iPhone X delights and gripes

On Friday afternoon, UPS dropped off some new toys: a 64GB space gray iPhone X and an equivalent silver model for my wife. After setup and a weekend of normal use, I wanted to jot down some thoughts:

iPhone X delights

Camera quality

Ever since Apple announced the dual-camera iPhone 7 Plus, I’ve lusted after its telephoto lens and Portrait photography feature. But I had no interest in carrying around a phone that bulky.

In the iPhone X, Apple has added dual lenses to a more svelte frame; for me, that was enough to justify paying such a high price premium (over the “normal” iPhone 7/8).

So far, I’m fairly impressed by the iPhone X’s camera performance. Low light photos are much-improved over the iPhone 7. Portrait mode (new to me) is amazing when it works well. On a hike yesterday, I was reluctant to switch out of that mode for a single shot. However, when I had the opportunity to view the results on a larger display, it was clear that Portrait mode’s blur masking is hit-and-miss on complex subjects.

Keyboard switching

Apple’s framework for third-party keyboards has some major limitations, but one in particular has always stood out: you can’t jump from a third-party keyboard straight to another third-party keyboard. Instead, you’re left pecking at the switcher icon to cycle through keyboards until you stumble across the one you want. To make matters worse, some keyboards style this switch button differently or even place it in odd locations.

Happily, keyboard-switching works better on the iPhone X. On apps optimized for the taller screen size, you’ll find a dedicated system switcher in the empty space beneath the keyboard itself. This feature offers two advantages: first, the switcher is always easy to find. Second, you can tap and hold the button to see quick shortcuts directly to each keyboard. For me, this simple change means that third-party keyboards are usable for the first time.

Alas, these keyboards are still less stable and responsive than the native UI. And third-party keyboard setup is still frustratingly unintuitive. Baby steps, right?

iPhone X gripes

Awkward edges

The X is easier to handle than the 5.5-inch Plus. But for one-handed use, it’s clumsier than the 4.7-inch non-Plus phones. My fingers have to stretch just a bit too far to hold the phone securely. And because the screen now stretches from top to bottom (notch notwithstanding), I’m forced to reach for the device’s extreme edges more often. When I do, the phone threatens to topple out of my grip.

Speaking of edges, the iPhone X’s swipe gestures are a mixed bag. The new ‘go home’ gesture (swipe up from the bottom edge) works okay (although the phone can feel like it’s perched precariously while you do it). Worse is the new gesture for Control Center (swipe down from the top right corner); this is a disaster for one-handed use. I can’t execute it without invoking Reachability, which slides the entire UI down. Plus, Reachability itself is tricky to invoke, too, thanks to its tiny, often-hidden touch target. Maybe that’s why Reachability is no longer enabled by default.

Activation nightmares

While my wife’s AT&T activation went through almost immediately, my phone couldn’t join the network for hours on Friday afternoon, thanks to overwhelmed carrier servers. I mashed the ‘Try again’ button hundreds of times, with mounting frustration. Even after the process went through, my problems weren’t resolved. My old phone (and SIM) hadn’t surrendered the connection, and my iPhone X couldn’t make calls or download data. I was eventually forced to open a support ticket to resolve the issue. Needless to say, if AT&T tries to stick me with an activation fee, I’ll be giving them a call.

As far as the phone setup itself, both my wife and I started from scratch this time around. Yes, it’s a pain to reinstall all apps, authenticate dozens of services, and re-tweak system settings. But our iPhone 7 battery life had gotten so poor by last week that we each wanted a fresh config on the new phones.

Setup went smoothly, with one exception: my wife had some trouble stepping through the FaceID registration process. Apparently, that “rotate your face” gesture isn’t particularly intuitive if you haven’t been watching iPhone X preview videos for the past two months.

Notch watch

Despite the months-long hand-wringing about the sensor housing, I never even think about the notch when using the phone in portrait orientation. Non-issue.

Landscape mode? Not so much. While you can zoom in and take videos full screen, I’d recommend against it. That mode lets the notch and rounded screen corners eat your content. If (like me) you abhor “overscan” mode on TVs, you won’t want to watch videos in fullscreen mode on the iPhone X.

Random observations (and niggles)

  • FaceID works well; I’ve had very few issues with authentication, and I’ve almost stopped thinking about logging in at all—except when I’m lying in bed. Based on some experimentation, FaceID fails in that context because I’m holding the phone too close. (At night, I often use my phone sans glasses, and I can’t read the screen if I hold it more than a few inches from my eyes.)
  • With the Home button gone, Apple moved the Siri invocation gesture to the side button. That, in turn, displaced the ‘power off’ gesture, which now requires that you hold down the side button and ‘volume up’ simultaneously. Unfortunately, that’s also how you trigger Emergency SOS. Early on Saturday morning, while trying to reboot my phone, I invoked SOS and jumped when my phone produced an ear-ringing alarm klaxon. How did this clear usability testing? 911 dispatchers will be receiving a lot of unintentional calls from iPhone X users.
  • Animoji are fun, and the face-tracking API holds a lot of promise. I can’t wait to see what developers come up with here. I was a little disappointed to discover that a full beard can throw off the tracking.
  • I refuse to carry around a $1,000 phone without any protection. So, immediately after opening the boxes, I applied tempered glass screen protectors to our iPhones. My advice: do this when the screen is on and white; otherwise, you’ll have a hard time getting the sheet aligned with the OLED screen edges, particularly near the notch. ■

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Apple Watch Series 3 review: podcast problems undermine the marquee features

Selling my old Watch

Over a week ago, I reluctantly listed my old Apple Watch for sale online. My Series 3 wouldn’t arrive till Friday, and I dreaded going watchless for the better part of a week, but I also hoped to eke out the best return I could, so I posted my space gray Series 1 to Swappa.

Selling it proved harder than I expected. Days passed, and no serious buyer even nibbled. I dropped my price: $180. $170. $160. Still, no takers. Finally, at $150, a Swappa user bit; I netted about $128 after subtracting the listing fee and my shipping costs. That’s about $100 less than I spent when I bought the device last December. I’m not thrilled with its steep depreciation, but $0.37 per day seems pretty reasonable to lease a device with the Watch’s feature set.

The Series 3 arrives

I didn’t buy the LTE model (see my earlier post. Even if I had wanted that feature, I didn’t have enough cash set aside to afford its $80 price premium. (I save for these purchases very intentionally!)[1]

My 42mm, space gray, non-cellular model arrived via UPS on Friday. As a quick aside, I’m amazed at the logistics required to deliver a state-of-the-art gadget to my rural doorstep on the first day of its worldwide availability. We live in a little log cabin in the remote mountains of West Virginia, an hour from the nearest big box retailer and nearly three hours from the closest Apple retail store. Yet when I finished work on Friday and stepped out onto my porch, there it was: a long cardboard box, fresh off the plane from China.

First impressions

Over the course of my nine months with the Series 1, I grew bored with my black sport band. It looked okay, but it didn’t have a lot of character. This time around, I opted for gray. I know, I know; that’s not very flashy, either, but it was the only other option.

In short, I like the new band; its shade includes a hint of brown, and it’s a bit brighter than the Watch’s aluminum case, but the two pair well. Hopefully, this sport band wears better than the last, which had started to flake by the time I sold it last week.

Based on my earlier comparison, I had worried that the Series 3 would feel significantly thicker than my old Series 1. But I’m happy to report that I haven’t noticed a major difference—it feels identical on my wrist, and I don’t notice its added bulk when I glance down. Now, that doesn’t mean that this Watch’s thickness is “ideal”; it’s a little chunky, and I hope Apple can break the 10mm barrier in the not-too-distant future.

New (to me) features

Compared to the Series 1, watchOS 4 feels snappier on the newer device. Apple claims 70% better performance; for me, the gains are just enough to make third-party apps feel consistently responsive. Dumping the honeycomb (a new option in watchOS 4) helps tremendously. Whereas finding and launching an app could take thirty seconds or more before, now it takes just a few seconds.

I’ve been enjoying the Series 3’s improved water resistance (versus the Series 1, which was splash-proof but couldn’t be immersed). I don’t really want to wear my smartwatch in the shower, but I love being able to rinse off the Watch every time I wash my hands. A clean device is a happy device, right?

Another improvement: the Series 3 screen apparently gets far brighter than that of the Series 1. But I never found the Series 1 to be too dim, and I keep my brightness level too low for this to matter much to me.

Then there are the location-based features; the Series 3, like the Series 2, includes standalone GPS. In addition, it boasts a barometric altimeter for tracking elevation. As a runner, these features appeal to me. But there’s a problem.

Podcasts: the Apple Watch’s Achilles heel

Stated succinctly: the inability to play podcasts from the Watch severely limits its utility. For whatever reason, Apple has declined to build an official Apple Watch podcasts app, and the dearth of audio-related, developer-facing APIs in WatchKit means that third party apps can’t fill the gap. Even the workaround that some podcast apps leveraged in watchOS 3 has been deprecated.

When I run, I listen to podcasts. I don’t have a commute, so that half-hour of exercise is often my only chance to catch up on my favorite shows. A great episode of ATP or Upgrade transforms my workout from a boring slog to a tolerable jaunt. Yes, if I listened to music on my runs instead of podcasts, the Watch could work as a playback device. But that’s not my thing. Podcasts are my thing.

So I’m forced to bring the iPhone, slung into its fanny pack, along for the ride. I feel the its dense heft with every stride, and the running belt somewhat restricts my breathing. Together, these irritating sensations serve as a constant reminder that I’ve got a $700 computer jostling around at my waist.

This podcast drawback effectively means that I’ll never go anywhere with my Watch without bringing my iPhone, too. The Watch’s GPS and altimeter are superfluous, since I’ll always have a phone that includes the same features. And buying the LTE version wouldn’t have made sense (why pay for another cellular connection, when my phone is always in my pocket?).


If Apple ever fixes the podcast problem, everything would change. I could leave the phone at home, and the Watch would suddenly be the perfect running companion. It’s maddening that that Apple is so close here and yet has gone another year without closing the gap. ■


  1. Saving for a potential Apple Watch Series 4 starts now.  ↩

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A watch watcher reviews the Apple Watch Series 3

Benjamin Clymer of Hodinkee reviews the Apple Watch Series 3.

As he writes,

One of the most amusing things about doing what I do for a living – writing about and working with mechanical watches – is the reaction that other watch guys expect me, or really any other reasonable watch person, to have about the Apple Watch. They think we should hate it. I don’t hate the Apple Watch, nor should anyone else. If anything, the build quality versus price ratio on the Apple Watch is so embarrassing for the Swiss that I genuinely think it will push mechanical watchmakers to be better.

Even this small insight, this peek into the world of Swiss manufacturing and watch aficionados, is worth the click.


Clymer’s review adds something unique to the online conversation about the Series 3 Watch. Tech blog reviews too often follow the same boring pattern; I can only read about watchOS 4’s new workout app so many times before my eyes glaze over. As a mechanical watch expert, however, Clymer deftly surfaces a new, thought-provoking set of expectations, delights, and complaints.

For example, the reviewer discusses the “incredible tolerances and smooth corners” on the packaging for the Apple Watch Edition, then compares it to boxes from the luxury watchmakers. He also weighs the Watch Edition’s ceramic case against similar materials on far more expensive mechanical watches. Clymer’s able to provide context that the average tech expert just can’t.

Even his less esoteric thoughts prove fascinating; he lists his daily carry items in the wake of acquiring the Series 3: the Watch, a wallet, house keys, and a single AirPod (!). That last detail took me by surprise, as a gadget nerd (“What about stereo music?!”). But it’s a great example of how different priorities (e.g. valuing fashion over technological utility) lead to a different way of using a digital device.

We need more tech reviews like this! Give me a iPhone X review from a doctor doing her rounds. A HomePod review from a concert violinist. An Apple Watch review from a professional athlete in off-season training. An Amazon Echo review from an elderly retiree. As Clymer’s article proves, getting outside the tech bubble could help us view our gadgets in an entirely new light. ■


  1. One quibble: Clymer confuses the first-generation Watch (the “Series 0”) with the 2016 Series 1. It’s a mistake that an expert in smart wearables probably wouldn’t make. But why be pedantic? Clymer’s review is fascinating not because of what he doesn’t know, but because of what he does.