Memoji hands-on: iPhone’s animated avatars are pretty darn adorable

The iPhone X’s front-facing, depth-sensing camera makes Face ID biometric security and sophisticated selfie portraits possible. But let’s be real: Animoji are the real star. The camera turns several of the best iOS emoji into animated characters that mimic your facial expressions. It’s been so popular that other phone makers (cough, Samsung) have added their own animated avatars.

But with the introduction of Memoji, animated avatars that you can customize to look just like you, Apple just pulled away from the pack. Again.

The reason: Apple doesn’t even attempt to create an emoji based on your facial features and skin tone, because we’ve all seen how that can go horribly awry. Instead, you start with a blank slate — a plain, non-gendered face with no hair. From there, you can tweak everything from the shape of your chin to the arch of your eyebrow and add varying amounts of freckles. (This one spoke to me on a personal level.) There were hairstyle options galore, plenty of headwear options, including scarves and hats, and a range of glasses to choose from.

Even Memoji hair color, which most avatar makers offer in basic brown, blonde, bright red and black, is totally customizable with a slider tool that lets you adjust the shade. My hair is what some people call strawberry blonde and others have called “reddish blondish,” and I was alllllmost able to nail the actual shade in my hands-on time creating my own avatar.

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Given another hour to perfect it, I think my Memoji would’ve been the ultimate cartoon representation of me — even better than the Bitmoji I created of myself for Snapchat.

The best part is you can create multiple Memojis with a new tool in the Messages app drawer. Want your avatar to look more like your favorite celebrity than like you? Go for it. Want different options for your office look versus your weekend one? Easy. I sometimes wear my hair up in a bun and I have two different pairs of glasses that I rotate out with contacts, so I plan to create one for each look to fully express myself.

The obvious competition for Memoji is Samsung’s AR Emoji, which debuted in the Galaxy S9. I found Samsung’s version to be, quite frankly, creepy as hell. You can customize your avatar’s hair, clothes, eye color and more in Samsung’s version, too, but the camera also attempts to recreate your facial features right off the bat. The result is something that looks vaguely like you but not really. Then when you move your mouth to animate the character, it goes completely off the rails. The facial expressions are bizarre, and instead of looking like a cute cartoon version of you, your AR Emoji looks like something you would use to terrify your loved ones as a prank.

But Memoji, along with FaceTime’s new group video chat, are designed to get you to spend more time on your iPhone. Those addictive new features are packaged in iOS 12 alongside new tools that help you become more aware of your iPhone usage and limit time spent mindlessly scrolling through apps when you could be doing something more productive.

Can Apple have it both ways? We’ll find out when iOS 12 rolls out to the public this fall.