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Apple’s New iPhones Are Simply Excellent

The iPhone Xs and Xs Max take performance and photography to the next level

Lance Ulanoff
Sep 18, 2018 · 16 min read
Photo: Lance Ulanoff

Close your eyes and feel the “S” year.

In one hand I held the innovative Apple iPhone X. Released a year ago, it’s the first Apple handset to jettison the home button. In the other, I held its brand-new successor, the iPhone Xs. My eyes squeezed shut, I passed them back and forth between my hands, rolling each phone over, feeling the curves, glass backs, dual lens camera bumps, and lightning ports. I realized I couldn’t tell the difference between the two phones.

This is not a criticism. It’s just a fact of S model years, where Apple locks in the iPhone design and focuses, instead, on updating key internal components.

As such, the biggest changes to the 5.8-inch iPhone Xs and its big brother, the 6.5-inch iPhone Xs Max, both of which I tested, can be found in performance (thanks to the new A12 Bionic CPU), photos and videos, (new cameras and a new ISP backed by the A12), and functionality (iOS12, the final version of which came pre-installed on my test units).

The result is a pair of fantastic, elegant, and high-performing handsets that will please iPhone aficionados and get more than a few glances from Android adherents.

Design and build

If, like me, you appreciate the original iPhone X design, which removed the home button and extended the spectacular OLED screen to virtually all the edges, the iPhone Xs will not disappoint you. The measurements, 5.65 inches x 2.79 inches x 0.30 inches, are unchanged, though the iPhone Xs is, at 177 grams, three grams heavier than the original iPhone X.

It still has the same rigid surgical steel frame wrapped in a new glass material that Apple said was formulated to be more scratch resistant and durable. I gave the phones a few half-hearted drops on a thin-pile carpet but wasn’t ready to let them slip away on concrete. So far I’ve discovered exactly one very fine scratch on the iPhone Xs Max. So let’s consider them scratch-resistant, but still not scratch-proof.

The larger iPhone Xs Max shares all of the iPhone X’s material and design attributes, but does so in a 6.2-inch x 3.05-inch x 0.30-inch body. At 208 grams, it’s considerably heavier than the iPhone Xs. The Xs Max is a hair shorter (0.04 inches) and narrower (0.02 inches), but it’s also a few grams heavier than the iPhone 8 Plus, the big-screen phone that from a distance the iPhone Xs Max most resembles.

Button placement — power/sleep, volume controls, ring/silent switch — are exactly the same. However, there is one minor chassis difference. On the bottom edge of both phones sits the lightning connector. It’s book-ended by a set of drilled holes that accommodate one half of the stereo speaker system and one of the phone’s microphones. There used to be six holes on either side. Now the right side has six holes, but the left, which only houses a microphone, has just three. This small change was done, in part, to accommodate the new internal antenna configuration that includes 4x4 MIMO and License Assisted Access, which uses unlicensed 5 GHz spectrum to deliver 1 Gbps broadband over LTE.

Apple upgraded the water and dust-resistance rating to IP 68, which translates to the handsets surviving in 2 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. I didn’t get to go swimming with the iPhone Xs or Xs Max, but did run the latter phone under water, milk, and juice. Then, as recommended, I rinsed and dried off the phone. I was careful not to plug it back into a lighting cable (that’s a no-no after a dowsing) but did place it on a wireless charging base where it had no trouble accepting a charge.

Apple, by the way, said it put some work into making the wireless charging system (basically the hidden coils inside the phone) more forgiving. This is good news, since I have, on more than one occasion, woken up to find that my iPhone X didn’t charge because I placed it a little off-axis on the charging base. I never ran into that problem with either the iPhone Xs or Xs Max.

The iPhone Xs and Xs Max bodies are rigid and solid-feeling, but torque-able, especially the larger phone, which actually makes a tiny clicking sound when I try to twist it. Obviously, I’ve only had these iPhones for a week, but based on a year’s experience with the original iPhone X (granted, mostly in a thin case), I consider this design framework tough and ready for the long haul.

Super screens

Both phones offer the same pixel density of 458 ppi. But while the iPhone Xs’s 5.8 OLED Super Retina display is 2436x1125 pixels, the iPhone Xs Max’s stunning 6.5-inch OLED affords more pixels (2688x1242) for more screen real estate. I love these screens.

Some apps, like Mail and Safari, take advantage of the Max’s extra real-estate by offering dual column layouts. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9’s slightly smaller 6.4-inch Super AMOLED display actually has a higher resolution (2960x1440 pixels). The iPhone X, Xs Max, and Note 9 are all superb screens, though I prefer the iPhone Xs Max, which not only has richer colors and deeper blacks, but, notch aside, extends closer to the top and bottom edge of the device for a slightly better full-screen experience on games like Fortnite.

Speaking of the notch. Even as Samsung trolls Apple for the dense black cutout at the top of the iPhone Xs and Xs Max, Apple shows no signs of stepping back from the multi-feature technology, which neither grew nor shrunk in the latest iPhones.

As with the original TrueDepth Module, this one is still packed with all the same components (none of which, as far as I can tell, have been updated). There’s a 7 MP camera, dot projector for depth sensing, infrared camera (depth sensing), flood illuminator (yes, also for depth-sensing), proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, the second half of the stereo speaker system, and a mic.

On the backs of both the iPhone Xs and Xs Max, there’s more of that custom glass, the Apple Logo, the word iPhone (but no “X” or “s”), and the 12 MP dual camera system. This vertically-oriented, pill-shaped camera module looks exactly the same as it did on the last iPhone X. It’s still a prominent bump, but at least it didn’t get any larger. Inside the module is all new hardware backed by new image technology, but more on that later.

I’ve always considered the 5.8-inch iPhone X an excellent tradeoff between a big-screen phone and hand-friendly ergonomics. The screen is large and immersive, but the body is comfortable to hold and pocket. The iPhone Xs Max by contrast can, especially if you’re used to holding a smaller phone, feel big. It’s not uncomfortable to hold, but those with smaller hands will struggle with one-handed use and will probably want to turn on Reachability, which with a swipe down on the horizontal bar moves everything halfway down the screen, making it more reachable.

Still, the trade-off may be worth it. I forgot how much I like the larger iPhone screen, and on the iPhone Xs Max, you get a lot more screen without contending with a larger phone (there’s only that 0.04-inch height difference between the iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone Xs Max).

More Bionic

Apple’s full-stack control of the iPhone design, development, and manufacturing process pays dividends throughout the gleaming handset. But it’s most noticeably in the silicon, which is designed and developed in tandem with the software and hardware components that will rely on it.

Last year, Apple introduced the A11 Bionic, a powerful mobile CPU with built in Artificial Intelligence Power. The new A12 Bionic builds on that brief legacy with a more powerful Neural Engine and even more impressive graphics performance.

Whenever I review a new iPhone, I start by using Geekbench 4 to test the raw CPU performance. To ensure that there are minimal background processes going, I usually run the test before I’ve installed a single app. I ran the Geekbench CPU benchmark and (along with learning that Apple stuffed an extra gig of memory inside the new Xs class iPhones) saw that the single core scores had predictably improved somewhat between the A11 Bionic and A12 Bionic. However, the multi-core score was inexplicably lower. Not by a lot, but I had never seen that happen. The numbers were still much higher than what I got from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845, but a lower result on the new iPhone didn’t make sense. However, when I reran the Geekbench CPU test a day or so later, the A12 multi-core numbers beat those of the A11. My guess is that, even though I set up the iPhone Xs and Xs Max as new iPhones, there may still have been some background setup process going on that dragged down the CPU numbers.

The bigger leap in performance is in the Geekbench Compute Metal Score, which leapt from 15,145 on the iPhone X to 22,245 on the iPhone Xs and Xs Max. Apple’s done a lot of work to beef up graphics performance, especially for the raft of ARKit 2 (and Metal 2) applications heading to the platform, some of which will support multiplayer gaming. While there aren’t a lot of ARKit 2 apps in the app store, I did get some hands-on time with an iPhone Xs running Galaga AR, the same demo Apple showed off during the iPhone Xs unveiling.

To play, me and a couple of other journalists stood around a table and pointed our phones at the virtual Galaga video arcade game console. Soon, alien attackers started streaming first from the video game screen and then from all around us. I swung the phone from side-to-side and up and down to see and then shoot at the incoming horde. It was fast-paced and fun. Similarly, I’ve seen how, with ARKit 2, the phone can place, say, an incredibly realistic virtual pressure cooker or sneaker on a real table or at my feet, the illusion broken only when I slid my hand into the frame and, on the iPhone Xs screen, it looked like my digits were stuck under the pot. You can’t support these types of real-virtual mixes without ample graphics horsepower, depth mapping, and the AI necessary to identify how surfaces, shadows, and even reflections will work on virtual objects in a real space.

That processing power also helped amp up more mundane operations like Face ID. While the process of registering my face was unchanged from the original iPhone X, opening either phone with my face, as well as using Face ID to access password-protected apps and services, is noticeably faster than it was on the iPhone X.

Overall, in real world applications, both iPhone Xs and Xs Max operate smoothly.

It’s the camera, stupid

Once again, Apple put tremendous effort into improving the photo and video experience on the iPhone Xs and Xs Max. In addition to new lenses and a larger sensor, the cameras (rear and selfie) are all backed by a new image signal processor.

The specs on the dual cameras are unchanged from the iPhone X (and are the same on both the iPhone Xs and Xs Max). There’s the f 1.8 wide angle lens and the f 2.4 2X telephoto. Both include optical image stabilization and can shoot up to 4K video at 60 fps. They still shoot slow-motion video at up to 240 frames per second. If you want insane 960 fps super-slo-mo, you’ll have to look to Samsung.

In the pure-play photography race, though, Apple takes the lead. Its Smart HDR uses sensor, ISP, and neural engine enhancements to capture some of the best high-dynamic range photos I’ve ever seen. The difference between what was possible on the original iPhone X and the Xs and Xs Max is stunning.

Apple built a system capable of capturing two frames every thirtieth of a second, and instantly analyzing and combining them into one image that maintains not only foreground and background detail, but that can freeze action without introducing tremendous grain. In multiple images, I saw the iPhone Xs and Xs Max find color and detail in dark spaces without blowing out the brighter areas. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is also an excellent low light shooter, but I think the Xs line is a little better.

I’m especially impressed with how Apple’s built upon its pole position in Portrait Mode photography. Apple introduced Portrait Mode back in 2016 with the iPhone 7 Plus (the software lagged behind the hardware). Since then, Apple’s refined the technology, adding things like Studio Light, Contour Light, Stage Light, and Stage Light Mono. These features remain, and have been somewhat improved. What I love and, as an amateur photographer who often plays with f-stops to get just the right depth of field effect, is the new Depth Control.

Depth Control lets you take a Portrait Mode photo and adjust the Bokeh, or depth of field focus, after you take the photos. This works with both the front and back cameras, which means that the image processor is using two different kinds of depth information. On the back, it has the benefit of two lenses to get stereoscopic information. The front camera relies on the depth-sensing hardware.

I know, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 offers the ability to adjust background focus while you’re taking the picture, as well as after. However, there is a crucial difference here that’s evident in the iPhone Xs and Xs Max Depth editor. It’s a slider that lets you adjust smoothly from a virtual f 1.4 aperture to a virtual f16. In a real camera with a mechanical aperture, higher numbers translate to sharper focus in the background and lower numbers mean the focus depth is much shallower. On the Galaxy Note 9, Live Focus essentially sees the images as two planes: the foreground and background. The slider effectively blurs the background plane. The iPhone Xs’s depth slider relies on all the depth information to reduce or enhance background focus through all the planes between the front of the subject and the background. Combined with the improved Portrait Mode stitching (handling how the subject and a blurred background fit together), the subtlety of the effect through the range of virtual f-stops is remarkable and, Apple’s told me, is modeled on how real lenses with hardware apertures would affect each image.

For most people the smartphone camera is their only camera. This puts a pro-level control in the hands of millions of people, who are about to start taking some truly awesome portrait images.

After shooting standard photos, video, and 4K, I remain impressed with the quality of photos and videos coming out of the iPhone Xs and Xs Max. Sure, it’s odd that the larger Xs Max doesn’t, as would be tradition, have some enhanced image capturing features, but I doubt anyone will be disappointed with the image quality produced by either new smartphone.

There are a couple of other hardware-related enhancements, like the promised dual-sim technology that allows for multiple phone numbers (think work and personal numbers of one phone) through the support of eSIM technology. Unlike regular SIMs, you don’t need a carrier card just for the carrier to support it and enable it on your phone. It’s a nice feature that, for obvious reasons, I couldn’t test.

For sound enthusiasts, there’s also the new stereo recording and wider-stereo playback. This is somewhat difficult to test, and I sometimes worry my ears aren’t good enough to notice what might be a more nuanced difference. However, I did find a way. I recorded, in landscape mode, some cars driving by. They start on the left side of the screen and drive to the right. In video I recorded with the iPhone Xs, the sound travels from one side of the phone to the other. Playback on the iPhone X is loud but lacks the same level of separation.

Obviously, movies with a lot of sound engineering are not only great showcases for the awesome screens, but highlight the new, wider stereo playback capabilities as well.

iOS 12 Arrives

As hardware/software marriages go, you can’t do better than the Apple iPhone Xs and iOS 12. I’ve been running betas of the new mobile OS for months on my iPhone X and found it impressively smooth and stable. On the iPhone Xs and Xs Max, it gets even better partners. In addition to butter-smooth and lighting quick operation (in games, video, and web browsing), the augmented reality skills first introduced in iOS 11, ARKit, and the iPhone X are more polished and customizable in iOS 12 and the iPhone Xs.

With the TrueDepth camera, I can create an Animoji that looks like me if I was 30 years younger and had the skin of a newborn cartoon baby. The camera, backed by the A12 Bionics’ neural engine, does appear a little more in sync with my movements and, yes, now I can stick out my tongue and watch as my Animoji does the same.

There are a ton of other new features in iOS 12, including but not limited to:

  • Screen Time control that aims to help us manage and maybe limit our own and family members’ time with these new devices.
  • The ability to FaceTime with up to 32 people.
  • A much more detailed and effective Do Not Disturb Control Center.
  • Stacked notifications on the lock screen.

And a raft of Siri updates. The intelligent assistant is a better listener than ever, and getting smarter. Her speech is more conversational and she’s asking follow-up questions. Siri is also more proactive, spotting connections between disparate items like locations and schedules and presenting them in advance. There are also a number of third-party apps tapping into Siri, letting you use just your voice to access app features and information without even opening the app.

There’s also the new app, Siri Shortcuts, which lets you combine steps to automate actions or record custom Siri phrases to launch shortcuts. It’s still in beta so the utility, at least for me, is somewhat limited.

You can install iOS 12 on your older iPhone (down to the iPhone 5s), but not all features, especially those involving AR, will work on the older devices. Still, I highly recommend the upgrade with at least anyone running an iPhone 7 and up. It’s simply a better, more polished, proactive, and intelligent user experience and, to be fair, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the updates and feature enhancements you’ll find.

Battery and the bottom line

Apple claims 30 minutes more battery life between the iPhone X and Xs and 90 minutes more with the iPhone Xs Max. In my experience, either new phone can get you through most of the day on a single charge. I spent one day using only the iPhone Xs Max. I kept the brightness high and ran all kinds of apps and processes. It lasted a solid 10 hours. Maybe a little bit less than I expected, but still enough to get me through most of the day.

Honestly, with less than a week under my belt, it’s difficult to offer a full assessment of battery performance. There are so many variables and, of course, battery life is going to be great on new phones. Talk to me in six months or a year, and we’ll see if I’m still happy with battery life.

It’s no surprise that Apple didn’t lower the price for the new $999 iPhone Xs (or even hold onto the original model and sell it at a lower price). I’m not even shocked that we now have an almost $1,100 model or that we can pay a whopping $1,449 for the 512 GB iPhone Xs Max (which happens to be the model I tested). Apple’s already proven that people will pay almost anything to get their hands on the latest iPhone. Is $1,000 or more too much to pay for a smartphone? Perhaps, but how many of us think of the full price as opposed to monthly payments? I am, though, a little annoyed that Apple discontinued the lightning -to-3.5 mm adapter. It’s as if, in the last 12 months, we’ve all gotten rid of our Beats and Bose headsets, like it’s a solved issue. Memo to Apple: It’s not.

What I can say is that these are still the iPhones you want. The iPhone Xs doesn’t mess with what I now consider a classic design, and the Xs Max simply takes all that’s wonderful about the iPhone X and enlarges it. As a pair, they are just as beautiful as the original home-button-free iPhone X. The design looks particularly elegant in a gold finish. Photographers will love the new camera, and gamers and content consumers will want the big-screen iPhone Xs Max.

If you already own the iPhone X, I wouldn’t upgrade unless you absolutely need more realistic augmented reality and full depth control on your portraits. For iPhone 6s, 7, 8, and even 8 Plus owners, the iPhone Xs and Xs Max will feel like a giant leap into the future.

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