iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max Review

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If you watched this year’s iPhone launch event, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking that the iPhone XS is the most underwhelming ‘S’ upgrade in the iPhone’s history. Apple spent surprisingly little time talking about the new features of the flagship iPhone models — a lot more information has come out since, which makes them seem like bigger upgrades than one had initially thought.

Not many realise that while the ‘S’ cycle of iPhone models represents no major changes in design language, historically, we’ve seen some significant features introduced. Siri, Touch ID, 3D Touch, and even the M-series of motion coprocessors all debuted in an iPhone ‘S’.

Of this year’s two new ‘S’ models, the iPhone XS Max can at least claim to be the biggest iPhone till date — packing a 6.5-inch display in a body that’s marginally smaller than that of the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus (Review) — but, on the face of it, the iPhone XS certainly seems to lack the kind of headline feature found in many of the previous ‘S’ models.

So is the iPhone XS really the most underwhelming S upgrade in the iPhone’s decade-long history, or does it pack improvements that Apple just didn’t talk about during the keynote? Is the iPhone XS Max too large for its own good, or does the most expensive iPhone till date also represent the most perfect form of the smartphone? Let’s answer these questions and more.

iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max design and display

The iPhone XS has exactly the same dimensions as last year’s iPhone X (Review), though it’s 3g heavier. We loved the iPhone X’s design, so we have no complaints with the fact that Apple has decided to stick to what’s clearly been a popular choice with consumers as well. However, the camera bump on the iPhone XS is a tiny bit bigger than the one on the iPhone X.

Physically, the iPhone XS Max is pretty much the same size as the iPhone 8 Plus, so if you are someone who’s used a Plus-sized iPhone before, you will be right at home with the size. With that said, at 208g, the iPhone XS Max is the heaviest phone Apple has ever made, and it certainly makes its presence felt.

While not that much heavier than the iPhone 8 Plus (202g), the iPhone XS Max is quite a jump if you are coming from any other model or generation. It’s safe to say that not everyone will be fan of this extra weight, but we got used to it pretty quickly.

What we struggle with even after using the phone for a couple of months is reaching the upper corners of the screen. By getting rid of the Home button and the bezel above the screen, Apple has managed to squeeze a 6.5-inch display on the iPhone XS Max, giving you an extra inch compared to previous Plus-sized phones.

033A4526 iPhone XS

 

While the extra real estate is great, it’s even more difficult to reach the upper corners of the screen — especially the upper right corner, which you need to do bring down Control Centre, a pretty common operation. You’ll need to perform a little juggle to move the phone in your hand, or as will likely be the case for many people, involve the other hand. The Reachability gesture to pull down the home screen that we mentioned in our iPhone X review is still there, but it requires the kind of precision that is almost impossible to achieve, especially if you are worried about balancing your phone.

Of course the iPhone XS Max is not alone in this regard, and this is a problem with large phones in the Android world as well. What’s disappointing is that Apple has done little to make use of the additional real estate by adding extra software features.

For example, we would’ve loved a picture-in-picture mode for videos or Apple Maps navigation — which sadly remains unavailable in India, but more on that later — or, for example, the ability to watch videos on the home screen, or on top of other apps, similar to what we have on the iPad.

You do get a multi-column layout in landscape mode in apps like Messages and Mail, but it’s utility is questionable at best, especially when you consider that just like the iPhone X, the iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max do not support landscape mode on the home screen.

Apple says the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max have “the most durable glass ever in a smartphone on the front and back”, but, as ever, the company is silent on what type of glass is being used. The all-glass front and back are held together by “surgical-grade” stainless steel bands in between, and the overall finish is everything you’d expect from an iPhone and more.

What we didn’t expect from an iPhone is the asymmetrical speaker grilles at the bottom. The left side has fewer holes than the right, and surely we can’t be the only ones who find this a little bit problematic. This is a strange move indeed for a company that’s often compromised usability for symmetry and perfect visual design.

iPhone XS Max bottom iPhone XSThis would have never happened under…

 

The iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are available in a new Gold finish, in addition to the Silver and Space Grey options we saw with the iPhone X. All three finishes look good in our opinion, and the Gold should be your pick if you want something that will stand out. Of course most people will end up putting a hideous case on their iPhone, so what colour they pick doesn’t really matter to begin with.

In our iPhone X review, we called its display “arguably the best we’ve ever come across on a smartphone”. The iPhone XS has the same panel with HDR10 and Dolby Vision support. Apple’s True Tone technology, which is designed to adjust white balance on screen to match ambient light conditions, is present as well. It also has a wide colour gamut and a million-to-one contrast ratio.

The display on the iPhone XS Max shares all these characteristics with its smaller sibling. That includes the 458ppi density, which means the bigger model has a higher resolution panel to compensate for the increased size.

A year after the launch of the iPhone X, we still have no complaints with its display in terms of brightness, viewing angles, or colour reproduction, and the displays on the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max continue to be up there with the best in the business.

Watching videos is a pretty immersive experience, especially on the bigger iPhone XS Max. Yes, the notch is still very much there, and unlike some Android smartphone makers, Apple doesn’t give you a way to disable it at the expense of losing some real estate. But, thankfully, third-party iOS apps seem to be in much better shape than their Android counterparts, and we haven’t really come across apps where the notch proved to be an issue.

iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max performance, battery life, and cameras

As we’ve said before, Apple’s SoC division perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the work it has done in a relatively small amount of time. Though the iPhone has packed some Apple-designed chips in one form or another since its debut in 2007, the iPhone 4 was the first to be powered by an A-series CPU that’s Apple best-known for.

While the first wave of A-series chips were certainly competitive, they now set the benchmark in terms of performance. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 has been the SoC of choice as far as most of 2018’s Android flagships were concerned, and its performance in certain benchmarks still falls short of last year’s A11 chip. This, despite the fact that the first Snapdragon 845-powered phones didn’t ship nearly six months after the A11-powered iPhone 8, which is a lifetime in the world of technology.

The A12 chip inside all three 2018 iPhone models further extends Apple’s lead in this department, with benchmark scores well above what Android flagships have delivered this year, and comfortably ahead of last year’s iPhone models as well. It will be interesting to see whether the Snapdragon 855, which is just on the horizon, manages to bridge this gap.

As you would expect, there are absolutely no performance issues when it comes to day-to-day tasks on the new iPhone models. Gaming is a breeze, and even demanding titles such as PUBG Mobile and Asphalt 9 are playable at their highest settings without any issues.

For the first time, you can get an iPhone with 512GB storage, though be prepared to pay through the roof for that privilege. Though Apple doesn’t officially disclose the amount of RAM in iOS devices, benchmarks reveal that the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max both pack 4GB of RAM, which is the most we’ve seen on an iPhone to date. The iPhone XR has to settle for 3GB of RAM.

iPhone XS XR All iPhone XSFrom left to right – iPhone X, iPhone XR, iPhone XS Max

 

Talking about the iPhone XR, the iPhone finally gets dual-SIM support via eSIM, and if you are wondering what experience is like, we encourage you to read our iPhone XR review where we cover that topic in depth. In short, the experience is not as simple and convenient as the ability to swap physical SIMs in and out of your device.

The iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are now IP68-rated for dust and water resistance, an improvement compared to the iPhone X and even iPhone XR. Also new is support for Gigabit-class LTE, even though we in India haven’t come close to maxing out the 4G speeds supported by much slower phones.

Both the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max will last you through a full workday without many troubles, though the latter is much more likely to survive heavier workloads without making you reach for a charger. On most regular days, the iPhone XS Max should easily have anywhere between 20 and 30 percent left in the tank at the end of the day.

In our HD video loop test, the iPhone XS Max lasted 11 hours and 15 minutes, while the iPhone XS ran out of juice 25 minutes sooner.

iPhone XS Max back camera iPhone XS

 

Though the new iPhone models do support fast charging — Apple claims the battery can be charged “up to 50 percent in 30 minutes” — you’ll need to buy a 18W charger separately, which is not something you’ll want to do when you’ve spent nearly a lakh on a phone — or more, in case of the iPhone XS Max. We’ve called this out in our earlier iPhone reviews as well, and it’s sad to see Apple still ship a 5W charger with a smartphone in 2018.

Just like last year’s iPhone models, all three 2018 iPhones support wireless charging as well.

The new iPhone models also support wider stereo playback, which makes watching videos or listening to music a better experience. The speakers on both iPhone models get sufficiently loud and the output isn’t distorted even at maximum volume.

Apple claims the newer iPhone models ship with a slightly faster Face ID implementation, but we didn’t really notice any difference compared to the iPhone X. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since we didn’t have any complaints with Face ID to begin with — not in terms of its speed, accuracy, or the security it offers.

The new iPhone models ship with iOS 12, and we’ve covered in-depth the new features that the latest version of iOS brings. As for the experience using these new features, since it’s pretty much identical on the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR, we’ve covered that separately in our iOS 12 review, which we encourage you to read before proceeding further.

Arguably the biggest jump that the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max bring is in terms of camera performance. The wide-angle sensor is 32 percent bigger than that of the iPhone X, but the biggest improvements come via software, specifically a feature that Apple is calling Smart HDR.

According to Apple, Smart HDR leverages multiple technologies like the bigger, faster sensors, an improved image signal processor (ISP), and advanced machine learning algorithms to bring “more highlight and shadow detail to your photos”. Colour us impressed, because the resulting images are greatly improved compared to the iPhone X. This finally puts the iPhone camera back in the same league as the big boys.

In our experience, Smart HDR worked best for landscape shots, and some of the photos that we managed to take with the iPhone XS Max were simply stunning, if we do say so ourselves. Shots featuring water bodies like the ocean or lakes came out looking especially good, with plenty of detail and great colour accuracy.

Tap to see full-sized iPhone XS Max camera samples

 

Smart HDR also makes it possible to capture shots that would otherwise be a bad idea. Time and again, we took pictures looking straight at the Sun or other light sources in the frame — defying conventional rules of photography — and still ended up with pretty good looking shorts.

Low-light performance, which had been a bit of a problem for Apple in recent years, is greatly improved as well, though the iPhone lacks a Night-Sight like party trick.

Portrait mode is excellent with both, the front and rear cameras. A recent software update has fixed the “beautygate” scandal that marred the iPhone XS’ selfie camera upon release, so a complaint that some might have had is gone. New depth controls let you adjust the depth-of-field of your portrait shots after they’ve been taken, which is a welcome touch.

When it comes to shooting videos, the iPhone has consistently been at the top of the charts in our camera comparison tests, and the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are no different. Like before, you can shoot 4K at up to 60fps, a feature still lacking in some popular Android flagships.

If you are shooting at 30fps or higher, a new setting — enabled by default — allows the iPhone to dynamically drop down the frame rate to 24fps to let in more light when shooting in poorly lit conditions, which should improve the quality of your videos. All three new iPhone models support now stereo recording as well.

We encourage you to read our in-depth comparison of the iPhone XS with other leading camera phones to see where it stands compared to some of the other top-rated camera phones out there (spoiler alert: we found it to be the best all-around camera phone out there).

Verdict
The biggest Apple related trend we saw in 2018 was increased prices across the entire line of products. Be it the iPad, MacBook Air, Mac mini, or indeed the iPhone, all Apple products and accessories cost a lot more today than their equivalents 12 months ago.

With unit sales plateauing, some analysts believe this is down to Apple’s focus on increasing the average selling price of each product. Granted, nearly all the products we mentioned above feature some significant upgrades compared to their predecessors, but that’s the nature of hardware products — they evolve over time — and these improvements don’t always need to be accompanied by a price increase. That’s especially the case for a company like Apple whose products aren’t priced at the bottom-end of the bargain bin to begin with.

The iPhone X apparently cost a premium because it gave us a glimpse of the future, allowing Apple to charge an “early-adopter” premium, if you will. But a year later, with a starting price of Rs. 99,900, the iPhone XS costs even more than the iPhone X did at its launch in India. The iPhone XS Max — Rs. 1,44,900 for the top-end variant — takes pricing to ridiculous territory.

It’s easy to say that least some of this is due to reasons beyond Apple’s control, like the rupee’s fate against the US dollar and the tariffs that the Indian government has placed on imported phones. But the truth is that all OEMs operate under the same market conditions, and everyone else seems to have adapted by moving majority of their manufacturing (read assembling) to India, while not being afraid to keep their margins low in order to keep their products accessible for the average Indian consumer.

Now no one’s suggesting Apple go down the Xiaomi route, but the company is in desperate need to rethink its entire India strategy. This includes, among other things, moving assembly of all iPhone models to India — which finally seems to be happening — and improving the experience of key Apple services like Maps and Siri.

iPhone XS Max back iPhone XS

 

It’s true that the iPhone holds its value better than any other phone, and Apple’s record in terms of pushing regular software updates even to older devices is unparalleled, which means your iPhone will continue to get new features over time. Theoretically, this means even if you spend a little extra today, you can use the iPhone for longer than you might want to with an Android phone, and still have a pretty good experience.

In practice though, there’s always something nice and shiny around the corner to tempt you to upgrade. The iPhone 7 (Review) from two years ago looks pretty dated compared to even the iPhone XR, leave alone the iPhone XS. So while you can pay a premium up front and continue to use your iPhone for several years, the truth is that towards the second half of its life, your device will be really behind the curve.

It’s no surprise then that “value flagships” such as the OnePlus 6T (Review) are becoming increasingly popular, offering people most of the bells and whistles of a flagship phone, while keeping the price tag low enough that people don’t mind upgrading to a new model every one or two years.

Apple seems confident that it can buck this trend, and as great as the new iPhone XS models are — the performance is best in class, cameras are finally as good as the competition, and despite iOS’ limitations, you are guaranteed software updates — it’s difficult to really recommend them to anyone who isn’t swimming in money.

If you identify yourself as someone who does just that, the only question for you is which one should you get — the iPhone XS or the iPhone XS Max? If you’ve ever used a Plus-sized iPhone before, or if you are already using a large screen Android smartphone, you will be right at home with the iPhone XS Max. For everyone else, though, it might be a step too far, and the iPhone XS is the way to go.

On the other hand, if you don’t have access to unlimited funds, you should seriously give the iPhone XR a look. Despite lacking a few features of its more expensive brethren, it isn’t a compromised device by any means. Read our iPhone XR review to decide if it should be your next smartphone.

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