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The iPhone X: What’s Different and Why is it Important?

This week Apple launched the iPhone X (pronounced iPhone 10) with the usual Apple hoo-ha and, as usual, the faithful lined up and brought millions. So what’s so important about this phone? Well, two things – the elimination of the Home button and the introduction of a new security login system – FaceID.

The iPhone X is a pretty radical departure from the tested iPhone recipe of the past – in some ways every iPhone up till now could be considered an iterative improvement. Every model offered ‘better’ of everything – camera, screen, performance, battery… but the X is different. It removes a key part of the iPhone experience.

The HOME button with its great (and in recent versions – very responsive) fingerprint reader is now gone!

“So what?” you say.  Well.. removing a key element of any user interface is a big move – users have grown accustomed to it and now have to relearn – it requires change and we know there are lots of people who simply cannot accept change in any form. It doesn’t matter if it’s better, they just don’t like it and generally it’s not until they are surrounded by a lot of peer pressure or cannot run needed programs that they are eventually forced to change. Just ask Microsoft about moving the START button!

The new Apple iPhone X

By eliminating the Home button, the iPhone X now has a display occupying the full front of the device. Thus allowing a bigger screen on a physically smaller device. To remove the home button, Apple could have just moved it to the back or sides, but then this would have its own set of disadvantages (who uses their phone lying on the desk?) and wouldn’t really improve the security in any way. So they developed something new – FaceID.

What is FaceID?

This introduces what I think the really significant change with this phone – the introduction of the new Face recognition technology as a means of logging on.  Apple has, in recent times, always had two methods of logging in – the fingerprint reader on the front under the home button and the humble passcode.  With this phone the primary login is now face recognition with the secondary passcode login remaining as a backup.

With so much of our lives now held in this one device, security is (or it should be) paramount. Other devices have had facial recognition built in, however till now these have been superficial at best using mostly image manipulation tech. This wasn’t good enough for Apple and didn’t offer any improvement to the fingerprint in terms of security and operation.

With the iPhone X, Apple have introduced a whole new technology (at least in a mobile form).  This isn’t a simple camera. The hardware actually projects a pattern of 30,000 invisible snared dots onto your face  and then maps this using a trueDepth camera to process an representation of the important features of your face. The system will work in the dark or in sunlight. It adapts to change such as growing a beard, using makeup of wearing glasses or a hat. Very clever. If it fails, then it will stop using it and revert to the passcode – exactly like the TouchID fingerprint system does if you didn’t get a successful scan.

For Touch ID, the false unlock rate was pretty good with a one in 50,000 chance of unlocking for the wrong fingerprint. With Face ID it’s now even better: it reportable has a one in 1,000,000 error rate. A significant security improvement.

For those that see a conspiracy with every new technology,  Apple advise that – just like Touch ID – biometric data is never shipped back to Apple and remains securely stored on their device.

How does this change the iPhone X physically?

Of course all this hardware has to go somewhere and this bring us to the controversial ‘notch’ on the top of the display. The hardware needed to perform faceID is remarkably small but this does change the look of the phone.

FaceID hardware

With the past iPhones this hardware is at the top of the display. So Apple had a choice, make it occupy the whole of the top width making the phone taller (or chop the display shorter) or alternately use the area to either side of the hardware as screen to hold minor items like status, battery level etc. Apple chose the latter and thus maximised the screen real-estate.  You might have chosen a different route, but hey it’s their design and that’s what they chose.  Personally, I think this allows the use of otherwise wasted areas of screen for minor symbology and you quickly get used to it.

The iPhone X ‘Notch’

What people are saying

Early users of the iPhone X are finding the new FaceID system works surprisingly well.  Early reviews all seem favourable with a lot of effort being spent on trying to fool the system without much success so far.

I find the new system to be excellent and has advantages in a lot of scenarios over the old TouchID system. for example, just this weekend I was working in the garage restoring my old motorcycle. I wear latex gloves and/or mechanics gloves when doing this and on my iPhone 7 had to strip these off to have a look at my phone – with the new one I just glance at it and I’m logged in!

I’m sure there are a dozen other scenarios where it’s going to prove to be a more convenient method of logging in as well.  Within the next few years I expect this will be on all new iPhones, Macs and Apple hardware. When it becomes the new norm, we will wonder why we ever had to press wet or sticky fingers on our nice shiny phone to log in.

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