X Evolved

Apple iPhone XS and XS Max

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Apple iPhone XS and XS Max

Last year’s iPhone X was a huge leap forward for Apple: a bold new stainless steel and glass design, a bezel-less OLED display, Face ID and the removal of the home button. This was without a doubt the future of iPhone. A year later and Apple is back with the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. If you’re familiar with how Apple does things, you know that means the ‘S’ models look almost the same as last year’s, with the real difference being what’s inside the phones. 

Like most ‘S’ years, there’s a new color, and this one is an old favorite: Gold. While Apple has had gold iPhones before, this is the first time we’ve seen the color done in stainless steel, and the result is absolutely gorgeous. The shiny stainless steel frame has a warm finish with just the right amount of yellow in it to keep it classy without veering into gaudy territory. 

There are a couple of other minor differences too. The front and back are still glass, but Apple says that it’s now the most durable glass ever used on an iPhone. The phone itself has also been given a boost in durability and is now IP68 rated, up from IP67. This lets it survive for up to 30 minutes submerged in 2 meters of water. 

On the bottom of the phone, there’s an extra antenna band on the left side, and the top of the phone also has an extra antenna band on the right side. There’s still no headphone jack and, surprisingly, Apple doesn’t even include a Lightning- to-3.5mm dongle in the box anymore; it’s now sold separately for $15. 

Everything else is exactly the same. Unsurprisingly, the XS feels identical in hand to last year’s X. Between the two phones, it’s the more manageable size, and it feels compact and easy to use one-handed. It’s now the smallest phone in Apple’s lineup, and while many people are lamenting the loss of the 4.7-inch iPhone, it’s actually not that much bigger. The jump from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6 was far more significant. 

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I expected the XS Max to feel a little unwieldy in hand but I actually found myself liking it quite a lot. On previous ‘Plus’ iPhones, I never felt that the size of the display really justified the extra size of the phone, but on the XS Max, its massive 6.5-inch display really does look huge. It’s still a big phone, but the extra size feels justified now. If you’re a fan of big displays, you’ll love the XS Max. 

As for the displays themselves, they’re now better than ever. The XS has a 5.8-inch 2,436 x 1,125 pixels display, while the XS Max has a 6.5-inch 2,688 x 1,242 pixels display, which gives them exactly the same pixel density (~458ppi). Both OLED displays are practically perfect, with rich colors, deep blacks, excellent contrast, and perfect viewing angles. Both displays are HDR10 and Dolby Vision certified, and Apple has actually increased the dynamic range by 60% so HDR content looks even better now. 

Audio on the iPhone XS and XS Max is once again provided by a stereo speaker setup comprising of one downward firing speaker, and the earpiece doubling up as the second speaker. Sound on the XS is impressively loud, and is noticeably louder than last year. 

Sound separation has improved with left-right stereo effect being more distinct now - it’s even more obvious with the XS Max. 

The iPhone XS and XS Max both run on iOS 12. iOS 12 isn’t a big departure from iOS 11, but does include some nice new features. The Photos app has been upgraded, and you can now search it for businesses and events, people, scenes and you can even use multiple search terms. There’s also a new tab called ‘For You’, which suggests memories to revisit, and you’ll also see suggestions for photos to share with key people. It will even suggest effects to spruce up your photos. 

There’s a new Screen Time feature that will tell you exactly how you’re using the phone, how much time you’re spending on apps, and what apps you use the most. You can view a report that should help you manage your screen time, and you can set restrictions that will let you limit the amount of time you can use an app per day. 

Finally, Face ID has also been upgraded and is now faster and safer than last year. It now unlocks the phone almost instantaneously and still works just as fast in the dark too. A nice new addition in iOS 12 is the ability to add a second person to Face ID. 

Both phones use the same dual camera setup, so for once you’re not penalized for opting for the smaller display. The new, bigger 12MP sensor in the wide-angle camera delivers cleaner images in low light with more detail. Smart HDR is a headline feature that captures multiple exposures for a single shot and combines them into one image. Smart HDR manages to preserve highlights, but not for extreme blowouts. It also doesn’t do much to boost the shadows. It could be that Apple is leaving the shadows to preserve contrast. But that’s what ordinary exposures are for. Lost shadows are exactly what you’d have expected a better HDR system not to do. 

Another headline feature is speed. The new 8-core Neural Engine is now strongly linked with the iPhone XS’ image signal processor and that extra power makes a difference. Once the Camera app is launched, it continuously captures a four-frame buffer in the background. This results in zero shutter lag when you hit the shutter and ensures you never miss your desired shot. 

The other benefit to having a faster processor is that Portrait Mode is now much faster. Portrait Mode locks on almost instantaneously and photos have cleaner outlines and are more accurate. And it’s a small detail, but the new cameras induces perfectly round highlights in their faux bokeh, which is something photographers will love. 

Both the XS and XS Max are powered by Apple’s new A12 Bionic chip, which is the first processor made on a 7nm process technology. The A12 Bionic packs a hexa-core CPU, a quad-core GPU, as well as a ‘next-generation’ octa-core neural engine that handles all the machine learning and AI tasks. 

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In our benchmark tests, the new iPhones absolutely dominated the competition, easily outscoring Samsung’s Exynos 9810 and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845. These are by far the most powerful smartphones available today. 

As for battery performance, the XS actually has a slightly smaller 2,658mAh battery than last year’s X, but it still managed to last an impressive 12 hours and 44 minutes in our video looping benchmark, 17 minutes longer than the X. The XS Max has the largest battery ever put in an iPhone with a 3,174mAh capacity, and it lasted 13 hours and 19 minutes on the same test, or 52 minutes longer than the X. 

All things considered, the iPhone XS isn’t the game changer its predecessor was. It’s the iPhone X, but ‘S’peedier, with a gorgeous new color and some notable but iterative upgrades - more storage, faster processor, louder speakers, better cameras, and a more colorful display. All of these are significant, but none of them are significant enough to make the XS a must buy, especially if you already own an iPhone X. 

The iPhone XS Max, on the other hand, is the phone a lot of people have been waiting for. The Super Retina AMOLED display already looked amazing on the iPhone X, but the sheer size of the XS Max’s 6.5-inch display really takes it to another level. HDR content on the XS Max looks absolutely gorgeous and it’s now my favorite device for watching Netflix - the quality of this display easily surpasses my 65-inch TV. Even if you’ve never liked Plus-size iPhones, give the XS Max a closer look. You might be surprised by how much you like it, I know I was. 

Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter which iPhone you pick, because for the first time ever, other than the screen size, there’s no difference between them. In past years, the Plus was always a little better: it had the better camera setup, it had the higher resolution display, it had more RAM. But this year, the XS and XS Max have exactly the same specs, so there are no compromises to consider when choosing the display size that fits you best. Apple didn’t mention this at all at the keynote, but it’s one of the best changes they’ve implemented. 

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Updated Photos app has a For You tab that curates people, memories and locations for you to revisit. 

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Gold is back, and it looks better than ever. 

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The XS offers significant but iterative upgrades over last year’s X, but the XS Max is a whole new beast.