Over at Wirecutter, we think the iPhone X is the phone of the future. Between facial identification for authentication, fewer physical buttons, and a gesture-heavy interface, the X represents where flagship smartphones are heading.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the iPhone X is the best phone for everyone right now. In fact, it’s not even the best one for me. After five months of long-term testing an iPhone X, it was recently time to return my review unit, so I had to buy a new phone for myself. (I had handed my previous personal iPhone down to a family member.) After weeks of indecision, I bought an iPhone 8 Plus instead of an iPhone X.
You’ve likely read at least a handful of “iPhone X vs. 8” articles by now, and maybe dozens of iPhone X reviews. So rather than give you a rundown of the spec-sheet differences between the two models, I’m going to focus on the differences I actually noticed in the course of using both models extensively—the iPhone X for five months, and the 8 Plus for a couple months before that and for a few weeks since.
(Disclaimer: I’m a Plus-size phone enthusiast. Before the 8 Plus and X debuted, I used the 6 Plus, 6s Plus, and 7 Plus for a year each. So the comments below are based on comparisons of the X against the iPhone 8 Plus. If I had to choose between the standard 8 and the X, I’m pretty sure I’d take the X.)
Things that are real advantages for the iPhone X
It’s only fair to point out the areas where the iPhone X is a clear winner.
- App switching: It may sound crazy, but for me, this—not the screen, or Face ID, or the Animoji/Portrait Mode selfie camera—is the very best thing about the X compared to other iPhones. I switch apps many, many (many) times each day, and the “swipe across the bottom of the screen” gesture is so much simpler, easier, and faster than app switching on other iPhones that I almost bought the X just to get this gesture. There’s nothing hardware-dependent about it, so Apple could add it to the 8 Plus and every other iPhone with a software update…but I’m not holding my breath.
Swipe up for Home: Though not quite as addictive as the app-switching gesture, I also love being able to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get to the Home screen. My finger is usually already on the screen when I want to go Home, so this gesture is enough of an added convenience—and less of an awkward reach than the Home button—that I really miss it on the 8 Plus.
Physical size: I don’t know a single person, no matter how much they love their Plus-size phone, who says, “I love carrying this huge thing around; it feels so great in my hand.” The people who love the 6/6s/7/8 Plus love it in spite of its physical size—in other words, for the larger screen and battery that its physical size enables. The iPhone X, on the other hand, does feel great in the hand. (It feels pretty much like the iPhone 6/6s/7/8, because it’s essentially the same size as those models, just a little bit longer.)
Edge to edge screen: I love Touch ID (more on that below), but there’s no denying that an edge-to-edge screen is great. Whether or not you mind the notch, the iPhone X’s screen looks fantastic and maximizes the potential screen area. Once you’ve used the X, the traditional iPhone design, with the Home-button “chin” on the bottom and “forehead” at the top, looks a little clunky.
Face ID notifications peek: I’m a little disappointed in Face ID (see below), but one area where I absolutely love it is for lock-screen notifications. On most iPhones with notifications enabled on the lock screen, you see the entirety of each notification. On the X, the content of each notification is hidden until Face ID authenticates you, at which point all notifications expand to show you their contents. It strikes the perfect balance between convenience and security—and it doesn’t hurt that it feels a little like magic.
Tap screen to wake: To wake the screen on other iPhone models, you must either press the Home button or lift the phone. On the iPhone X, you can wake the screen by just tapping it at any time—for example, when the phone is sitting on your desk. It seems like a little thing, but, as with app switching, I miss this feature dozens of times per day now that I’m using an 8 Plus again.
Things about the X that impressed me less than they were supposed to
A few of the X’s signature features ended up being less compelling for me than expected. These aren’t bad, by any means, but they aren’t better enough than what you get with the 8 Plus to have made me buy the X.
- Face ID: Face ID is pretty impressive in real-world use: It’s fast, it works most of the time, and as I noted above, it feels a bit like magic. It’s especially great in situations where Touch ID can be problematic, such as when your fingers are wet.
That said, unless my fingers are wet, Touch ID almost always works on the first try; Face ID fails often enough, even after months of “training,” that when using the iPhone X, I often wished it had Touch ID. A 5% or 3% failure rate doesn’t seem like much, but it’s noticeably worse than essentially 0% or 1% over scores of unlocks every day.
Beyond that, there are more times in my daily life when Touch ID is better than Face ID than vice versa. For example, if I need to access my phone when it’s lying flat on my desk or the kitchen counter, or use it while it’s in a mount in my car (when I’m parked, natch), Face ID requires me to contort my body to get my face directly in front of the screen; with Touch ID, I just place my thumb or finger on the Home button, regardless of the relative position of the phone. And while Touch ID doesn’t work well with wet fingers, if there’s moisture on the screen itself, or if I’m wearing certain sunglasses, or if I’ve got something partially blocking my face, Face ID usually fails.
And in those situations where both Touch ID and Face ID work perfectly, Touch ID is noticeably faster.
Of course, Face ID is probably going to be on every iPhone going forward, so I’ll eventually have to embrace it. And I’m assuming that Face ID will gets better over time, much as Touch ID did with every new iPhone and iOS release. But right now, I prefer Touch ID.
The screen: Apple raves about the iPhone X’s OLED screen almost as much as Face ID, and it is indeed a Very Good Screen. It’s bright, with great contrast and blacks, and as I mentioned above, the edge-to-edge design is fantastic. But as with all OLED screens right now, the color shift when you look at the X’s screen from an angle is easily noticeable, and to reduce energy use and burn-in risk, it seems to dim more quickly than the screen on other iPhones (though I haven’t done any controlled tests to confirm this). I’m sure in a couple years we’ll wonder how we ever survived using these primitive LED screens, but right now, I don’t feel like I’m missing out by going back to the 8 Plus.
Zoom lens optical image stabilization (OIS): I thought I’d really notice the improvements in photo and video quality from having OIS on the iPhone X’s telephoto lens compared to the non-OIS telephoto lens on the iPhone 8 Plus. But while I’m sure a few of the photos and videos I’ve taken over the past five months have been better because of it, I really haven’t missed this feature—or even noticed the lack of it—since switching back to the 8 Plus.
Selfie portrait mode and Animoji: These features are both nifty, but after the first few weeks of trying them out and showing them to other people, I’ve rarely used either.
Things that are a wash
When you upgrade from a several-years-old phone to the latest model, the differences in performance and overall experience are immediately noticeable. Not so much when comparing these two.
- Performance: The X and 8 Plus use the same processors and almost the same cameras (the X’s zoom lens is an ƒ/2.4 with optical image stabilization, while the 8 Plus’s is an ƒ/2,8 without optical image stabilization). In day-to-day use, the two phones are effectively identical in performance.
The overall experience: These are both latest-and-greatest models running the same software, and the differences in everyday use are much smaller than the differences between an iPhone and a flagship smartphone from another company. They’re both iPhones, they both feel like iPhones, and you get used to the UI differences pretty quickly. If one had never existed, the world—tech pundits aside—would be fine.
Things I like better about the 8 Plus (i.e., Why I bought it)
Now we get to the good stuff—the reasons that convinced me to buy the 8 Plus instead of the X this year.
- Screen size: Apple’s iPhone-comparison page makes a big (literally—look at that font size!) deal about the iPhone X’s 5.8-inch screen compared to 5.5 for the 8 Plus and 4.7 for the iPhone 8. But here’s the thing: In real-world use, the 8 Plus often has noticeably more usable screen area than the X.
For example, because the 8 Plus’s screen is wider, it has a better aspect ratio for viewing photos and videos—they’re larger than on the X in both portrait and landscape orientation (landscape shown here):
You can zoom in on the X to get a slightly wider image, but then you end up seeing less of the image than on the 8 Plus:
This ends up being true for most landscape-orientation games, too: Few are designed to be better with a shorter, wider screen, so most look better on the 8 Plus.
I also prefer the 8 Plus for reading. While the 8 Plus and X show about the same amount of text, I find that the 8 Plus’s aspect ratio makes it easier to read: In portrait orientation, the 8 Plus is wider enough that it feels easier to read, especially if I increase text size; in landscape orientation (which I admittedly don’t use much when reading), the X feels more cramped top to bottom.
But where I notice the aspect-ratio difference the most is with the onscreen portrait-orientation keyboard. On the X, it’s the same size as on the iPhone 8; on the 8 Plus, it’s larger enough that I can type much faster and with fewer errors:
(If rumors are to be believed, Apple will wipe away the 8 Plus’s screen advantages this fall with an “iPhone X Plus,” so if you find the above reasons compelling, I recommend waiting to buy a new phone. I didn’t have that luxury ;-) )
Touch ID: As I mentioned above when talking about Face ID, Touch ID is faster, more reliable, and less inconvenient in general for me. One example I didn’t mention up there: Apple Pay and App Store purchases. I find it much easier to authenticate using Touch ID than to have to press the side button twice (without accidentally pressing the volume buttons—see below) and look directly at the screen for Face ID.
Battery life: The iPhone X has pretty good battery life, but as with other Plus-size iPhones, the 8 Plus’s battery life really stands out. Despite Apple’s claims that the two phones have similar use times, I’ve found that over the course of a normal day, the X needs a charge earlier than the 8 Plus.
Control Center: As I noted above, I love the X’s swipe-up gesture to go to the Home screen. Unfortunately, by stealing this gesture from Control Center, Apple had to find a different way to invoke Control Center on the X. And the result, swiping down from the top-right edge of the screen, stinks. I have pretty big hands—I can touch the upper-left corner of the 8 Plus’s screen when holding it in my right hand—but accessing Control Center is one of my least favorite things about the iPhone’s X’s interface. It’s actually worse for a righty than reaching the opposite top corner, because when reaching for the opposite corner, you have to tilt the phone’s body toward your thumb, so you get a better grip on the phone. Accessing Control Center with one hand (if you can even do it) is an awkward gesture for a righty that always makes me feel like I’m going to drop the phone.
I don’t expect Control Center to move back to the bottom of the screen, given the new Home gesture, but considering that the point of Control Center is convenient access to frequently used things, there has to be a better solution for Home-button-free iPhones.
The screenshot shortcut: I’ve never liked Apple’s decision to move the Sleep/Wake button from the top edge of the phone to the side. It’s too easy to accidentally press one of the volume buttons when trying to sleep the phone, or (the worst) to put the phone to sleep when you’re trying to use the Volume Up button to take a photo or start recording video. But without a Home button on the X, Apple had to come up with a new shortcut for taking screenshots (Sleep/Wake + Volume Up), and it makes the current location of the Sleep/Wake button even worse. I don’t think I’ve ever accidentally taken a screenshot on the 8 Plus. I did that on the X multiple times each week.
Look at it.
Just look at it.
(The red looks so good, and the decision between the X and 8 Plus was so close, that had Apple released a red iPhone X instead of a red 8 Plus, this article might have been titled “Why I bought an iPhone X even though I like using the 8 Plus a little better,” with just a picture of the phone and no text.)