Popular Tech Website’s iPhone XS Review

We’ll start with a pointless introduction. The first paragraph will be a history lesson on previous products, to make our article feel more grandiose.

Right from the start, we’ll set a precedent that our writing style must be obnoxiously wordy and hard to parse. For example, instead of simply stating, “iPhone XS has a 5.8" screen, iPhone XR has a 6.1" screen, and iPhone XS Max has a 6.5" screen,” we’ll shove in a bunch of flowery words, like, “at the extremes of the screen real estate spectrum lie the iPhone XS and XS Max, with a 5.8" screen and a larger newcomer 6.5" screen respectively, and the iPhone XR sits in between them at 6.1".” Writing in a confusing way like this makes us feel smart.

The pointless introduction, which you’re about to finish reading, will always be three paragraphs long. You will never get any useful information from these because they’re all boilerplate filler that we old-fashioned writers think we need to include to make the article as a whole “feel right”. What we don’t understand is that readers just want to get to the fucking point.

Design

Actually, we don’t even know what design means. Of course, design isn’t just about hardware, but software too, and it’s not just about how hardware and software look, but how they function too. So a “design” section should really include analyses of the user interfaces for the new features. But no one ever told us that, so what we actually mean by “design” is we’re just going to show you a bunch of photos of the device.

On the rare occasion that we actually have an interesting observation, we’ll constantly do this annoying thing where we describe something in detail, like “there are now 6 antenna lines, compared to 4 on the X and XR. Lines have been added to the top edge’s right side, and the bottom edge’s left side. This means the bottom edge is no longer symmetrical, which it had been since the iPhone 7 removed the headphone jack; on the right, there are still 6 holes for the speaker, but on the left, there are now only 3 or 4 holes for the microphone, on the XS and XS Max respectively.” But for some incomprehensible reason, instead of immediately inserting photos of what we just described, we’ll just move right along to the next point. This makes our writing disjointed and hard to follow. We have such low standards for our work that we don’t care about the flow of reading the review—which is our entire product.

But most of our “observations” won’t even be worth your time. Throughout this section, we’ll make a bunch of blatantly obvious statements, like “it’s similar to the iPhone X” or “the back is made of glass.” It’s like we’re so degrading to our own readers that we think they can’t notice these things with their own eyes.

And in between all the blatantly obvious statements, we’ll sprinkle in equally pointless comments, like “it’s similar to the iPhone X, but the new gold color keeps it looking fresh,” or “the bezels are really thin, which looks very futuristic,” or even things as useless as “the battery life is better, which is nice.” Of course, this is irrelevant to you because if you already saw something and felt some way about it, then you already had that thought and you don’t need someone else to tell it to you. These interjections just lower the information density of our writing even more, while also giving you the illusion that we actually have anything meaningful to say. Seriously, we have no insightful observations whatsoever. Why are you still reading this?

Screen

Our reviews always follow the same pointless structure: fixed sections for “design”, “screen”, “camera”, and “battery life” or whatever. This way, even if there’s nothing worth talking about for one of these sections, we’ll still crap out a bunch of filler because we feel like we need to have all of them. Also, this encourages us to always think in fill-in-the-blank structure, as if all phones were the same to begin with, instead of thinking about what’s actually worth talking about for each new device and organizing our thoughts into sections accordingly.

For example, for the iPhone X last year, a section called “ergonomics” would have made a lot of sense, because even though the device was about the same size as the iPhone 7, expanding the screen vertically made the top and bottom harder to reach, making it harder to go Home or swipe down for the Lock screen. Watching videos became less ergonomic too, because the glass back and steel sides were more slippery than aluminum, and you couldn’t clamp your thumb on the front where the bezels used to be, because now you would activate something on the screen. Also, iPhone X brought a new button combo for taking screenshots, which was notable because now you could take screenshots more quickly and with just one hand, but this also meant lots of accidental screenshots whenever you tried to press the side button or the volume-up button. All three of these points would have fit well under a section titled “ergonomics”. But none of us wrote an “ergonomics” section in our reviews because we were thinking in form-field structure.

Anyway, this section will be a pain in the ass to read, because we tend to just spit out an assload of numbers without giving you context. If we were good writers, we would say something understandable, like “the XS Max has the same 458 pixels per inch as the XS and X, just adding more pixels to get 6.5" instead of 5.8".” But instead, we’ll just dump a ton of information, like “the 6.5", 1,000,000-to-1 contrast ratio, 1242x2688 px–at-a–2.1642512:1 aspect ratio P3 OLED screen looks pretty good.” That’s how we talk in real life.

Some of us will mention screen area, measured in square inches or centimeters. We have no idea why we even do this. It’s not like anyone’s trying to see how many tiny objects they can fit onscreen at once in an arbitrary arrangement. If someone made a phone 0.5" wide by 200" long, it would have the most screen area of any phone on the market guaranteed, but it wouldn’t matter because videos on that screen would be about 0.5" tall by 1.5" wide. The size and amount of a screen’s contents are determined by the screen’s width and height, and the content’s aspect ratio, not the screen’s literal area.

We won’t mention any information that might actually be interesting, like how the XR actually shows the same amount of content and controls as the XS Max, just a little smaller and less clearly. This is because they have the exact same point resolution:

  • XR: 828×1792 px at 2× pixels per point = 414×896 pt
  • XS Max: 1242×2688 px at 3× pixels per point = 414×896 pt

Points are the measurement units that lay out the controls and content on the screen. You get pixels by rendering each point into a square of either 2×2 or 3×3 pixels. The XR and XS Max have the same point resolution, so they show the same amount of content, and the XR just renders it in less detail. And because the XS Max stretches that same number of points over 6.5" instead of 6.1", the content appears larger. The XS Max also shows controls slightly larger, because they’re laid out at 153 points per inch, like the XS, X, and all the Plusses; whereas iPhone XR and all the classic iPhones use 163 points per inch.

But like I said, we’re really uninformative writers who can’t explain things clearly, so we won’t mention any of what I just explained.

Battery Life

How do we manage to write multiple f*cking paragraphs about battery life? It’s one goddamn number. All we have to do is tell you how much battery life we got in our tests (if we even did them) and how it compares to Apple’s claims.

Camera

Wait a minute. We aren’t photography experts, because we started out writing about tech. It was only because phone cameras started getting pretty good that we all went, “oh, we suddenly need to start talking about photography too.” And instead of realizing how little sense that makes, and hiring a photographer onto our team to test these cameras and see what an actual expert pays attention to, every “camera” section of every smartphone review is a bunch of tech people pretending to understand a field that they actually don’t. I mean, “we”.

But it gets worse. Because what’s the one thing you want to see in a camera review? Direct comparisons! We should be using this iPhone, the previous iPhone, and some competing phones to compare the same photos taken at the same angles. After all, having a whole bunch of phones to test is something that only big publications can really do, so it would make a ton of sense for us to take advantage of that to give you that useful information. But no. It’s literally the most obvious thing you could ask for, and a bunch of us don’t do it.

So what did we do instead? We just took some random photos with the one iPhone we’re reviewing and published those. Without other cameras to compare to, these photos are literally useless. You don’t know what the lighting or the colors looked like in real life, and you don’t know how other cameras would perform in the same conditions, so is the new iPhone camera… way better? Or only a little better? Or only better for certain kinds of photos? You won’t get any of that information here because we did not do the tests to produce that information. This is us at our best, not doing our obvious duties as “tech reviewers”.

Conclusion

alright, i’m just gonna break character now.

most “reviews” have disgustingly low information density. they just state one obvious fact after another, inserting shallow opinions in between, and not following up with any insightful analyses. if you want to tell people what’s noteworthy about a new phone, you can just list a bunch of bullet points with brief facts and comparisons instead of writing out lengthy paragraphs that make it harder to find the useful information. someone please do that. people would actually read it.

most of these popular tech websites simply have nothing insightful to say. that’s the polar opposite of what i try to be. for iPhone X, i wrote an excessively long design analysis solely about its new gestures because i thought there were insightful things that no one else was saying. i try to make things that are worthy of people’s time. and if you think my writing is worthy of your time, then i thank you for reading.

How to Successfully Eliminate a Home Button

this is a design analysis of how iPhone X successfully replaced the Home button, and why each new gesture does what it does.

i would like to tell you a story in three acts:

  1. why the Home button’s replacement is worse,

  2. why its replacement is better, and

  3. why an alternative solution would have sucked.

i hope this is insightful. please enjoy.


Act 1

in some ways, nothing will ever be as elegant as the Home button.

but first, why was Home even a physical button?

the first iPhone proved that a touchscreen could do anything. before iPhone, smartphones had Qwerty keyboards, green buttons, red buttons, multi-function buttons, menu buttons, back buttons. iPhone replaced all of those with a touchscreen.

but it added the Home button.

why a physical button? why not just have a persistent touchscreen button for closing apps, like a big red “X” in the corner?

physical buttons feel more trustworthy, because they can’t disappear.

a new user interface is confusing, and the last thing you need is to get lost and not know how to escape. software buttons disappear and change. even a persistent software “close” button wouldn’t feel as trustworthy as a physical button.

the Home button never disappeared, guaranteed. you could trust it to always there for you.

but also, the Home button had absolute power over the screen.

it didn’t matter what the screen was doing. it could have been playing a video, loading something, confusing you with a poorly designed user interface, or just frozen. pressing the Home button always killed it, and took you back to a familiar environment. the hardware had total control over the software, massively simplifying the user experience. this was one of the most important hardware-software relationships in all of history.

and it was a lie.

the Home button wasn’t actually all-powerful, like how pulling out a video game cartridge literally stops the game from running. closing apps isn’t a hardware process. the Home button just sent the software command for “close this app”, in a really fancy way. the Home button never was hardware in control of software. it was just an illusion.

but preserving that illusion made iPhone a design triumph.

first, the Home button always worked. no app could disable the Home button or change what it did. the mere fact that this wasn’t allowed was part of iPhone’s design.

unfortunately, there were exceptions. popup alerts disabled the Home button, and in iOS 10, you pressed the Home button to stop rearranging your iMessage apps. i despised these exceptions, because they broke The Illusion.

second, the Home button worked even if the screen froze. the Home button was just a software command, so it could have frozen too, but iOS was structured to make this happen almost never.

and third, just the fact that the Home button was physically separate from the screen. it suggested it was special and had total control.

the Home button never disappeared, and it felt all-powerful. these key traits made the physical Home button so elegant, and no touchscreen control can match it in these aspects.

so, its replacement… first of all, what do we call it? Apple is clearly avoiding giving this thing a name, constantly saying things like “the bottom edge of the screen”.

some people call it the “Home indicator”, citing Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. but the “Home indicator” does more than just take you Home, and that name limits your thinking about it. so what should we call it?

i’m calling it the Handlebar. that’s because it’s a multi-purpose tool that operates on physical movement, just like a real-life handle.

the Handlebar is less elegant for going Home, because it lacks the key traits of a physical button.

first, the Home button never disappeared; the Handlebar can.

no matter what, the Handlebar will always feel less trustworthy than the Home button. that’s just because it’s software and not hardware, and software controls merely have the ability to disappear.

i’m not even talking about the fact that it does disappear. even if the Handlebar appeared onscreen 100% of the time, it would still feel less trustworthy than the Home button.

it helps that the Handlebar is so persistent about appearing onscreen, even when it has to overlap screen content in an ugly way. but that’s how important it is. some people are arguing that the Handlebar is ugly and wishing it didn’t have to appear all the time. that’s a terrible idea. going Home is extremely common and it needs to be extremely obvious.

at least the Handlebar even exists. iPhone X could have had no Handlebar at all. that would have been a confusing disaster. Windows 8 was a confusing disaster because you had to swipe from all four edges of the screen, but nothing showed you you had to do that. thank god iPhone X shows the Handlebar, and so persistently, or the basic task of going Home would have been confusing as shit.

but alas, the Handlebar does disappear sometimes, like when you’re watching a video. thankfully, this only happens rarely and appropriately, and the Human Interface Guidelines discourage it: “Allow auto-hiding of the indicator for accessing the Home screen sparingly. […] This behavior should be enabled only for passive viewing experiences like playing videos or photo slideshows.”

second, the Home button felt all-powerful; the Handlebar doesn’t.

technically, The Illusion should be equally reliable with both, because they’re just delivering the same software command. they should also be equally reliable at killing frozen apps.

but the Handlebar necessarily feels less powerful, just because it isn’t physically separate from the screen. that element of The Illusion is just missing.

a third thing: the Handlebar requires learning.

it isn’t immediately obvious how to use the Handlebar, because it requires a swipe, not just a tap.

iOS gives you two hints about this.

first, if you stare at the Lock screen for long enough, the Handlebar animates upward. (this motion cue restores the glory of “slide to unlock” from the first iPhone, which you could understand without reading any text.)

second, if you tap the Handlebar in any app, it bounces a little. however, in my experience, this is so subtle that no one sees it. (oddly, if you tap the Handlebar on the Lock screen, nothing happens. it should bounce there too.)

the Home button obviously wins again in this aspect, because it doesn’t even require learning.

in these three aspects, the Handlebar is inevitably less elegant than the Home button. no touchscreen gesture can ever match a physical button in these three aspects. these elegancies will go away with the Home button, and the purist in me will always miss them, if just a bit.

Act 2

but the replacement for the Home button ought to be better somehow. if it were worse in every way, why not just have a Home button? why remove one of the best buttons in history?

more screen space is an advantage, but not advantage enough. an extra centimeter of content is worth nothing compared to the elegance of the Home button.

well, the Handlebar does do something better: it rearranges the multitasking actions into a physical space.

the first change is the App Switcher.

you used to open it by double-clicking the Home button, but there was never any sort of reason. the App Switcher wasn’t “further Home” beyond the Home screen; it was a separate place.

the Handlebar gesture does something brilliant.

first of all, people keep misunderstanding this gesture, including reviewers. to bring up the App Switcher, you do not swipe up halfway, or do a longer swipe. these are indisputably wrong. i can consistently demonstrate that a short swipe or a long swipe can bring up the App Switcher, and a short swipe or a long swipe can go Home.

you don’t swipe up slowly, either. a slow swipe can go Home, and a fast swipe can bring up the App Switcher. distance and speed are both irrelevant. if you write about technology, do your experimenting and test your own words before you preach them as fact!

to bring up the App Switcher, swipe up and stop.

if you swipe up and flick up, you’ll go Home. if you swipe up and stop, you’ll bring up the App Switcher. the difference is vertical speed when you let go. it’s like scrolling; whether the content keeps moving or stays put after you let go.

conceptually, if an app flies upward, it’ll close. if you hold it in place so it doesn’t fly upward, it’ll go into the App Switcher.

Apple itself says to swipe up and pause, which is actually misleading. you don’t need to wait. there’s a vibration when the App Switcher appears, but that’s deceptive—you can let go before that. as long as you stop before letting go, the phone will vibrate after you let go, and bring up the App Switcher.

some people think it’s faster to swipe up and then to the side. it isn’t. in fact, the app you want to switch to is usually in the center of the screen, so why bother moving your finger to the side and then back again? all you have to do to skip the waiting is swipe up, stop moving, and let go; no sideways movement required.

although, it does make sense that “up and to the side” works, because even though it leaves you with horizontal speed, it removes vertical speed, which is what matters.

so many people misunderstand this gesture. apparently some reviewers just have no ability to correctly identify patterns.

on the other hand, if this gesture has been so hard to figure out, then it’s bad design. the feedback isn’t being clear enough. in iOS 11.3, the further you swipe up, the shorter the pause before the vibration happens, which might help more people accurately understand this gesture.

but now that we know the gesture, something really interesting happens.

the App Switcher is now a partial version of going Home.

you swipe up like you’re going Home, but you stop partway. and from the App Switcher, you can continue Home by swiping up again.

the App Switcher is now in between apps being open and closed, which is genius because that’s what apps in the App Switcher are.

this turns iOS into a three-layer cake. you can be in an app, in the App Switcher, or Home. apps and Home are now at opposite extremes, and the App Switcher is in between.

this was possible because Home and the App Switcher both involve shrinking your current app. shrinking it all the way takes you Home. but shrinking it only partially, stopping while it’s in the form of a card, brings in other cards from the side, which is the App Switcher.

now that i see this, i can’t believe it was any other way before. remember, before iPhone X, the App Switcher was a completely separate place from Home. that makes no sense in comparison. in between is so clearly the right place for the App Switcher.

the second thing the Handlebar changes is direct app-switching.

on previous iPhones, you swiped from the left edge while using Force Touch. (yes, i know it’s called 3D Touch on iPhones, but i don’t care.) on iPhone X, you slide the Handlebar sideways instead.

the Handlebar gesture is better for two reasons.

first, it follows a design pattern. the Handlebar closes apps and brings up the App Switcher, so it also switches directly between apps; it’s a tool for manipulating apps.

second, it follows physical space. the App Switcher shows that recent apps are arranged horizontally, so swiping the Handlebar sideways is just going between them without visiting the App Switcher first.

“Force Swipe” was completely undiscoverable, because it didn’t follow any design pattern or mental model. nothing else in iOS required swiping while using Force Touch at the same time. and the established tool for switching apps was the Home button, so you wouldn’t even expect to do that with the touchscreen.

i’ve seen multiple people discover the Handlebar gesture all on their own. it’s more discoverable and understandable because of its coherent design.

the Handlebar’s advantage is that it unifies the app manipulation model.

apps, the App Switcher, and Home are now a three-layer hierarchy. Home is the bottom. the App Switcher is the middle, and you get there by stopping on your way to the bottom. apps are the top, and you can move within that layer by going sideways.

and, there are now continuous transitions between layers. you can transition between the App Switcher and direct app-switching, and from the App Switcher to the Home screen, by physically moving an app up or down to the layer you want. these transitions didn’t exist—and couldn’t exist—before.

these changes make app manipulation more coherent.

the problem with double-clicking the Home button and Force Swipe is that they were one-off ideas. one-off ideas are individual solutions to individual problems. one-off ideas aren’t discoverable, and more importantly, they have no paradigm to add deeper meaning to them. you can’t generalize any knowledge from them, or understand how they work. you can only memorize them.

the Handlebar gestures can be not just memorized, but understood. the Handlebar shares common principles between multiple actions, establishing a paradigm. and each gesture has a reason why it does what it does, and an explanation how it relates to the others.

look, it’s inevitable that Android phones are going to rip off iPhone X’s gestures this year. but for fuck’s sake, copy them correctly. one Android phone has already done it wrong. you can’t just imitate the motions. you need to understand how and why the gestures work, and copy the entire physical space.

the biggest consequence of iPhone X is not the extra screen space. it is the rethinking of app manipulation in iOS.

Act 3

if you just want to make a phone with smaller bezels, you don’t need to bother inventing new gestures or redesigning the app manipulation model. all you have to do is put a virtual Home button on the screen.

all the rumors and concepts for iPhone X just assumed it would have a virtual Home button. and i mean all of them. everyone just assumed the same thing because it was the most obvious solution.

a virtual Home button would narrow the bezels because the button could be smaller than a physical button, and it could overlap the content and disappear sometimes. in fact, the Handlebar could have looked exactly as it does now, except rather than using swipes, it could have used tap, double-tap, and tap-and-hold instead. that would have been a virtual Home button.

of course Apple considered that. but instead, they created a design that unified all the app manipulation actions, taking full advantage of touch. a virtual Home button could never have done that. people who are still wishing iPhone X had a virtual Home button are completely missing the point.

and yet, a virtual Home button is exactly what Android did years ago.

credit to Android phones for shrinking their bezels way before iPhones did. but when they took out their physical Home, Back, and Recents buttons, they just replaced them with virtual buttons that do the exact same things. you still tap, double-tap, and tap-and-hold them just like physical buttons.

and while this may work fine, what it totally lacks is rethinking.

replacing physical buttons with a touchscreen gives you a huge opportunity to completely reimagine all your basic interactions. Android didn’t do that.

and so, on Android, there is no relationship between the Home screen and the Recents screen, and there is no coherent model for switching directly between apps, and there is nothing else that goes beyond physical buttons.

as for direct app-switching, Android Nougat added the ability to switch to your previous app by tapping the Recents button twice. that’s crappy. it makes no sense because it doesn’t operate on any coherent model. and it isn’t discoverable. it’s a one-off idea, like Force Swipe on previous iPhones.

this is a perfect example of being limited by old thinking. Android wouldn’t even be thinking of features like this if they hadn’t gone with virtual buttons. virtual buttons carry over all the limitations of physical buttons, and now they’re stuck in that thinking as they try to add new features.

a lack of rethinking also builds up cruft.

earlier, i suggested a Home button that could overlap the content, and disappear sometimes. that is exactly what the Samsung Galaxy S8 does.

the spot where the Home button appears is pressure-sensitive. when the button appears, tapping or pressing hard on it goes Home. when the button disappears, tapping that spot taps whatever’s onscreen, whether it’s another button, or nothing at all; pressing hard in that same spot activates an invisible Home button.

that isn’t built for the future. it might work fine for now, but will it in ten years? people will wonder why you have to press hard on an invisible button in a specific spot for such a basic action.

virtual Home buttons are the result of past-anchored thinking. past-anchored thinking straps you to complexity, rather than freeing you from it.

the same goes for all the iPhone X concepts that added extra controls in the bezel area. if you were designing a smartphone from scratch today, you wouldn’t make a section of the screen that worked separately from the rest. it might be counterintuitive, but just extending the content without adding more abilities is a better design, because it stays free of carryovers from the past.

Apple didn’t give iPhone X a past-anchored design. they didn’t slap a virtual Home button on it and call it a day. the Handlebar and its new app manipulation model were born for the world of touch, without carryovers from physical buttons. this design unifies existing actions and prevents cruft. this design will make sense in the future, as if it were designed from the future.

this shows Apple’s values. they don’t just care superficially about checklist features like narrower bezels. they care about good design.


the Home button was extraordinarily elegant for going Home, and nothing will ever match it at that job. but the Handlebar’s advantage is that it unifies the app manipulation model around a consistent pattern and a coherent space. a virtual Home button couldn’t have done that, which is why iPhone X doesn’t have one.

what pleases me is that the replacement for the Home button isn’t anchored in the past. it’s setting the path for the future, so i would want it to do some great things a Home button could never do. luckily, the Handlebar is exactly that.