Pop quiz: Which comes in more flavors, Baskin Robbins ice cream or the iPhone?
It’s the iPhone, by almost double. There’s a hype around the $1,000 iPhone X, but Apple actually makes eight iPhone models right now, each in multiple colors and storage capacities.
There’s never been a more confusing time to buy an iPhone. Still, 50 million of us are ready to get a new smartphone this fall—the largest upgrade season in years.
Perhaps I can help. I’ve reviewed, recharged, dropped and tested the camera on every iPhone model, as well as many of its Android rivals.
So let’s keep it real: The iPhone X is great, but you probably don’t need the most expensive iPhone ever. You don’t even need an iPhone X if you care about a great camera. And you might not get the battery life boost that Apple’s marketing suggests; the iPhone that lasts the longest is actually the cheapest, the $350 iPhone SE.
Here’s what you should know before you spend big on a phone you might not need—or even like.
Is the X the best iPhone?
Yes. But do you also always get a banana split because it’s fancy? The iPhone X (pronounced “ten,” according to the classicists at Apple) isn’t actually any more powerful than the $700 iPhone 8 that debuted in September and you could pick up without a wait. And it won’t take much better photos than the $800 iPhone 8 Plus.
What is different about the X, aside from its price, is its design. Apple killed the home button. What’s so bad about the home button? Nothing, but Apple has been waging a decades-long war on buttons. The X replaces the fingerprint reader and button with new tech that reads your face to unlock the phone — even in the dark. (In my tests, identical twin 12 year-olds fooled it. And it wouldn’t unlock anymore after a kind colleague shaved his beard.)
The best reason to get a X is that it has a big screen but feels small. Apple nipped and tucked the “forehead” and “chin,” so the screen fills out much more of the space. Apple didn’t invent this “edge-to-edge” design, and Samsung does it better on its Galaxy S8 phone. But iPhone owners who find a Plus model is hard to hold will be much happier with the X.
How annoying is life without a home button?
It’s very mildly annoying. After living with the X for a week, I’ve found the so-called FaceID system works 9 times out of 10. (When it fails, you can always re-angle your phone to geta better scan, or type in your PIN.) It also requires you to learn some new finger yoga to close apps and other things you used to do with the button. I adjusted after a few days, but it still causes a brain fart when I use my iPad (which has a button).
If you like living on the cutting edge, the FaceID tech will get more interesting as apps imagine new uses for reading your expressions. Apple includes one, called Animojis, which turns your face and voice into cartoons. Sure, we sent a man to the moon, but a half-century later we can turn your head into a dancing poop emoji.
Which iPhone is best for most people?
I most often recommend the iPhone 7. It starts at $550, and is the cheapest way to get a couple of things you want. First, it’s water-resistant, so you don’t have to fear taking it anywhere near a pool (or toilet). It has noticeably better battery life and low-light camera performance than the 6S. And the 7 Plus model comes with a second lens on the back for zoom shots and the cool blurry-background portrait shots.
The downside: This iPhone 7 was the first to leave out a traditional headphone jack. Apple’s not likely to reverse course on that decision. At least it throws in a new pair of headphones—and an adapter for regular ones.
Wait, what about the 8?
This phone is like the upsell on a used car lot. It’s a big price bump—$700 and up—and you’d have to look very closely to tell the difference from a 7. The big new feature is wireless charging, which requires a special pad (sold separately for $60) where you have to set the phone in just the right spot to get juice.
The iPhone 8 also has Apple’s latest processor (which it shares with the X). That makes it feel slightly snappier, and could help you “future-proof” your purchase. Shutterbugs will appreciate subtle camera improvements.
Is there a better iPhone battery?
I wish I had better news. I was very excited when Apple said the X would last “up to 2 hours longer” than the iPhone 7. But that doesn’t mean what you might think. The X’s battery savings are for activities such as playing music and taking phone calls—not watching video, playing games and repeatedly checking Facebook. In my battery stress test, which makes the phone browse the web for hours, I found little improvement at all over the 7 or the 8.
The longest lasting iPhone in my tests is the SE, which is designed to fit smaller hands. The top contributor to battery drain is the screen, and the SE has a smaller one.
I care a lot about having the best camera.
I’m obsessed with photos—my collection has over 100,000 shots. If you’re like me, you’re going to want at least an iPhone 8 Plus ($800 and up), if it isn’t too big for your hands or skinny jeans. It’s got the two back lenses that help you zoom and create portrait shots. The 8’s flash does a much better job at making subjects look balanced with their background. And compared to the 7 Plus, the photos have more dynamic range and better color.
Don’t think of the iPhone X as a significant camera upgrade over the 8 Plus. The back cameras are very, very similar; the X just adds extra stabilization and wider aperture on the telephoto lens. The X also adds portrait mode to the front selfie camera.
What happened to the iPhone 9?
It was banished to the same desert island as Windows 9, which was overlooked on the way to Windows 10. Officially, the X celebrates the iPhone’s tenth anniversary.
I’m over Apple. Is there an Android phone that’s as good?
Android phones have made big leaps. The closest to an iPhone-like experience with Google software and services is the $650 Pixel 2, made by Google directly. While it has an excellent camera, the phone’s design is clunky and some early buyers have reported problems with the screen. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and larger Note 8 phones have a sleek design, amazing screens and very good cameras. Samsung’s software and services aren’t as sleek as Apple, or even Google, but they’re getting better.
Here’s why I stick with Apple: It’s one of the few big tech companies to make a believable commitment to customer privacy and designing products to value our time — not just to steal our attention to show us ads.
Any other advice?
If you buy a phone, don’t be afraid to return it if you don’t like it.
And don’t buy AppleCare. Economists like Richard Thaler, who won this year’s Nobel Prize for economics, warn you should only buy insurance for the things in life that could be truly catastrophic, like your health. Getting a cracked phone screen fixed isn’t prohibitively expensive, and now that they’re water resistant, butterfingers are less of a danger.