First Impressions of the iPhone X


iPhone X

Yes. I'm one of those annoying people who got their iPhone X the day it was released. I'm a geek - what can I say? cheeky To be honest, it kind of happened by accident when a coworker ordered an extra one to sell online and demand wasn't high enough to make serious extra $$$ on it. I was thinking of getting one anyway, next year and offered to buy this one instead. FYI, for all those people upset about the price for a "phone" - if you still only use your device as a phone, you certainly don't need today's modern smart devices, and should probably not waste your hard-earned money on them. For people like me who use their "phone" for mostly non-phone things such as, grocery lists, calendars, todo lists, note taking, trip reports, email, social media, photos, video, step counter, music, running, navigation, gaming, reading etc. I don't consider the cost too much for me. I consider it a pretty good deal, actually. I spend a lot more money on camera and computer gear and I don't use them nearly as much as my "phone" - which I call a Lifestyle Device.


I've written about using a phone for navigating the backcountry. This was for my iPhone 6s and is a bit outdated but the gist is still applicable and I still use ViewRanger with my new iPhone X as well. Obviously, with a bigger screen this works even better. But there are other aspects, besides navigation that make iPhone's and smart phones in general, extremely handy for the tech savvy outdoor enthusiast. In this article I'll focus on some of the features of the iPhone X, but most of them are applicable to the cheaper iPhone 8 (plus) and other modern lifestyle devices like Google's Pixel or Samsung's Note as well. Obviously the X has just been released and I've only used it on one outing to the Rockies, on my recent scramble up Kink and Fallen peaks. This is a first impression review.


(Note: With my whole family fully adopting the "Apple ethos" (i.e. iCloud, Music, MacBook etc.), it makes sense for me to purchase and use Apple products, but there are good arguments for using Android devices instead. It just doesn't work well for me.)


The Phone 

One of my main reasons for being interested in the iPhone X was its improved camera and better screen. Admittedly the iPhone 8 Plus has pretty much the same camera for much less money, but it's way too big and heavy for my liking. If I'm perfectly honest, I think the iPhone X is also too big and heavy. Every time I pick up the iPhone 7 that my wife now uses, I miss it's size and weight. It feels tiny and very lightweight compared to my X. It's hard to believe that they're only 26 grams apart (add another 26 grams for the Plus). Too bad Apple didn't make a phone without FaceID the size of the iPhone 7 with a bezel-free screen. Oh well. Definitely first world problems! The issue of weight and bulk is by far my biggest complaint with the X. It's heavy. It's big. Don't let the hype fool you. Unless you thought the iPhone 6/7/8 was way too small and loved the size of the Plus models, I think you'll find the X quite big too. It's heavy enough that I don't want to run with it in my pocket and I'm wondering if I want to hike with it there. It's making me think I also need an Apple Watch for activities like walking / running to music and even light and fast trips to the mountains. I'm not kidding - that's probably part of Apple's evil master plan. surprise


[A detailed specification comparison between the iPhone 8 and X models.]


Once I put the issue of size and weight in my rear-view mirror, I can honestly say that I love everything else about the X. The screen is obviously gorgeous. Easily viewable in bright daylight - very important for taking photos, reading route descriptions and of course, navigation. I've noticed some touch issues in cold wind, but nothing major. The FaceID is actually handier than TouchID outdoors. My thumbs / fingers usually stopped working for TouchID due to sweat or cold after about an hour of hiking or skiing. FaceID doesn't work with my particular sunglasses, which is a PITA, but other than that it works very well, including in very low light or even total darkness. It's much easier and quicker to lift my sunglasses than take my hands out of my gloves to authenticate. I admit that I usually turn off authentication for hiking / scrambling trips - that makes things even easier as long as I don't lose my phone.


The Camera

There is no doubt that the camera(s) on the X are a big improvement over the 6s/7 and even some improvements over the 8 models. If you're a Plus user, you're already used to a 2x (56mm) lens along with the standard 28mm lens. I was not used to it but I already love it and use it more than I thought I would. While shooting landscapes, having that 2x optical "zoom lens" (actually it's a second camera) is very, very handy. I do a lot of panoramic stitching and this extra lens works well for that, along with summit shots of more distant peaks. 56mm isn't exactly telephoto, but it's a heckuva lot tighter field of view than a 28mm lens! Having the portrait blur on both the front and rear-facing cameras is a pretty sweet touch. It really enhances the quality of casual family / friend photos for my year-end photo books. If you've ever spent over $1,000 to get an f/1.4 lens for nice bokeh, you might understand the value of software enhanced background blur. Put it this way - I'm a fan. wink


Low light photo quality is also improved on the X thanks to a faster telephoto lens - f/2.4 instead of the f/2.8 on the 8 Plus. That doesn't sound like much, but it's significant when light levels are low, especially on the iPhone's tiny camera sensor. The X also has OIS (optical stabilization) on both of it's lenses whereas the 8 Plus only has it on the wide-angle lens. This is a big difference, especially in low light. Think of hiking at sunrise or sunset, or taking portrait photos at a restaurant or wedding where the light levels are usually low. The combination of OIS and a faster lens should make the X camera(s) a clear winner in these situations.


On my recent trip up Kink and Fallen peaks I was still getting used to the camera / phone so I made some mistakes that I won't repeat. I was using the excellent camera app, ProCam 5 as my camera on this particular day. The main features that I like in this app are it's ability to take and store photos as RAW DNG files instead of JPEG. This allows much more freedom when developing them later in Lightroom. Significantly, the app stores its RAW photos as DNG instead of TIFF. The difference is about 18mb per file! The DNG's are about 12mb each and nicely show up in iPhoto at home from where I download and extract them into my Lightroom libraries for normal post processing work alongside all my other photos.


[ProCam 5 is an excellent camera app for the iPhone X. I especially love the "RAW" feature.]


To be honest, I think there's too many gimmicky options in most camera apps, including ProCam 5 nowadays. I get it - they need to stand out in a crowded field. I found myself inadvertently touching and turning on or off other options by accident which was a PITA. I wish they had an option to not show any other options. indecision Selfishly, all I need is the RAW option and the ability to adjust exposure and lock it (AEL). I encountered one issue on my descent of Kink Peak. When I took a RAW photo, the review shot on the screen looked horribly unfocused for some reason. Thinking that something was critically wrong, I started taking HDR (JPEG) shots for my Fallen Peak photos. This was a mistake. I should have just done normal JPEG shots, or continued with the RAW shooting as the issue was with the reviewing, not the RAW photos themselves. That's why some of the photos from the descent of Kink and ascent of Fallen look a bit off. Another issue with taking "HDR" as opposed to normal JPEG's is that HDR doesn't like movement. Many of my shots were blurred and unusable when I looked at them later.


[A stitched panorama from my Kink Peak ascent taken in RAW and stitched / edited in Lightroom. Note the range of lighting and lack of blown highlights / shadows? This is the big advantage of the RAW format. Another advantage of RAW is the ability to tweak the white balance, after-the-fact which is harder to do accurately with JPEG's.]

[This image looks "off" and was taken on the descent of Kink Peak. The colors are too vibrant and not natural. This is a series of JPEG's taking in HDR mode and stitched / edited in Lightroom. I much prefer the colors and tones of the previous photo to this one.]

[The telephoto lens lets me capture more dramatic images than always using a wide-angle, which tends to make everything look small and insignificant.]


Suffice it to say, I'm more than impressed with the camera(s) on the iPhone X and when used with the right app, they can be extremely versatile and produce photos that are more than "good enough" for the vast majority of people. Obviously, a decent DSLR or even compact camera with a larger sensor and a variety of lenses will produce better results, but often it's the gear you have with you that matters, and the iPhone is pretty easy to take just about everywhere. Using add-on lenses like the Moment setup, gives you the option of wide-angle and even macro. I love the fact that if my main camera breaks down, I always have a backup camera literally in my pocket which is certainly better than nothing!


[An old chart - but you get the idea! The sensor in a smart device isn't going to match a 1", 4/3 or Full Frame sensor. Not yet anyway. Click here for why you may or may not care.]


Navigating with the iPhone X

Navigation is something I've already written about and most of what I wrote is still applicable. The GPS unit in the X is upgraded from the one I had in the 6s and 7, but I'm not sure if it's better or the same in real world usage. It certainly didn't behave any worse for me on my trip but I'll need more time and more trips before I'll know if it's that much better. One aspect of the X that's undeniably better for navigation than the iPhone 7 is the screen. Visibility in bright conditions and the size of the screen combine to make a more effective navigation tool.


Miscellaneous iPhone (X) Perks

Something a lot of folks don't realize, or use effectively, is the ability with Safari on the iPhone - any model - to download and save most web sites as PDF's in their iBooks library. This is extremely handy! Instead of bringing paper and / or books in your pack, simply save the trip report that you want to follow into your iBooks library ahead of time and you're good to go! I have an entire list of trip reports saved by area that I can refer to at the last minute if plans change, something that happens more than you'd think thanks to the Rockies fickle weather. That gorgeous screen is sure nice for referring back to these reports on the trail too!


The waterproof rating on the X hasn't changed from the 7/8 but is the same, which is good. I've sweated and dropped my phone in enough snow drifts to know that this feature is very, very handy on a $1,000+ device! crying 


Another handy feature of the X is the supposedly longer battery life. I haven't seen this myself yet, but if true it would mean that I could use it for 2-3 full days in the backcountry without the need for a charge bar. This is very handy as charge bars are pretty heavy and inconvenient on short, fast trips.


I'm sure there's more perks that I'll discover over time as I continue to use the X. I'll update them here when I find them.

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