Apple unveiled its annual updated iPhones yesterday, showing off three models that weren’t groundbreaking as far as developments in hardware or design considering they’re standard S upgrades, but they do shake up Apple’s lineup in significant ways. For one, the iPhone X is gone entirely, as are older iPhone models with headphone jacks. In its place is the new iPhone XS, a slightly superior version of the bezel-less smartphone Apple first released for $999 last year. And now, there’s an even larger version — the iPhone XS Max — that has an eye-popping 6.5-inch display, which is Apple’s largest ever.
Complicating the conversation is the third phone that was announced yesterday: the iPhone XR. That device comes in six bright colors, including a Project RED version and a canary yellow one. It also has all of the same internal components as its pricier variants and a bezel-less display. But from a price standpoint, it’s designed to replace last year’s iPhone 8. The two big trade-offs you make are in the display quality — the XR has an LCD display instead of an OLED one — and in the camera, which is a single-lens system instead of the iPhone XS’s dual-lens system that was carried over from last year’s model.
The choice isn’t an easy one. Both the XS and XR involve some trade-offs and compromises, and understanding which elements of Apple’s priciest devices you like or dislike will help you make a more informed decision on which model is for you. We’ve broken down some of the flagship XS model’s best features, as well as some of its biggest drawbacks, so you can decide if it’s time to jump in with the XS / XS Max or if it’s worth going for the more colorful and cheaper XR.
Let’s start with what the XS does best:
Best: Beautiful OLED display with a 6.5-inch option for die-hard phablet fans
The most important benefit of the iPhone XS and XS Max over the cheaper XR is its display, which is arguably the most impressive smartphone screen on the market. The XS has a 5.8-inch size, 2436 x 1125 resolution OLED display — the same as the original iPhone X — while the XS Max has a 6.5-inch, 2688 x 1242 resolution OLED display. Both devices feature a pixel density of 458 ppi.
This results in the brightest, sharpest, most color-accurate displays Apple has ever produced for its smartphone line. Apple also says the glass encasing the device is an improvement on last year’s model. If you’re a sucker for giant smartphone screens that truly look next-generation in quality, Apple’s XS and XS Max models are no-brainers.
Best: Computational photography tricks, thanks to the A12 Bionic chip
One of the best ways to justify buying one of Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone models is the advancements the company achieves in mobile photography. In the case of the iPhone XS and XS Max, you’re getting a couple new features that really take advantage of the interplay between Apple’s software and its new A12 Bionic chip, which helps with onboard processing for tasks that make use of machine learning and other artificial intelligence-powered software.
One of those new features is Smart HDR, which will take a number of photos with varying exposure settings and other manual tweaks and stitch them together similar to what Google does for its Pixel phones. The other is the ability to manually adjust the aperture of a photo, and thus the depth of field, after it’s already been captured. This is something that was pioneered years ago by camera maker Lytro, and it’s usually achieved through the use of light-field photography.
In this case, however, Apple is able to produce the same effect with software by using many of the same computational photography techniques that power its Portrait Mode. (Although, again, it’s worth mentioning that Android phones have been able to do this same technique for quite some time as well.)
Best: Rated IP68 water resistance
The new XS and XS Max have a number of subtle additions that aren’t notable enough to break out as “best” features, including dual SIM support, stereo sound, and a 512GB storage option, to name the most prominent. But one feature that separates the XS from last year’s X and from the new XR is the IP68 rated water, splash, and dust resistance.
It’s one step up from the IP67 rating of the original iPhone X, and it means that you can accidentally submerge your XS or XS Max in up to seven feet of water for as long as 30 minutes. That’s twice the depth that the IP67 rating allows. So if you’re prone to dropping your iPhone into, say, a swimming pool or lake instead of just a toilet or bathtub, the XS is a big improvement in the not-needing-a-replacement-device department.
Given that this year is Apple’s S upgrade year, meaning these phones are only incrementally better than last year’s models, there are quite a few drawbacks to plunking down more than $1,000 for a flagship device that will be outdated 12 months from now. Here’s where the XS and XS Max fall short, and why you might want to consider either holding off for a year or two for newer models or going with the XR instead.
Worst: Apple’s flagship iPhone gets even more expensive
When Apple launched the iPhone X last year, it was the very first time the company decided to price its smartphone in the unprecedented thousand-dollar range, with the $999 base model bleeding into four digits after tax or well into the $1,100–$1,250 range if you decided to get one with more storage.
The iPhone XS and XS Max push Apple even further into the luxury, exorbitant consumer electronics territory. Although the base model iPhone XS remains at $999 before tax, a storage upgrade from 64GB to 256GB — because there is no 128GB model — puts you at $1,150 before tax. The 512GB model is a staggering $1,350.
The XS Max’s price is a bit more understandable, considering its larger display. It starts at $1,099 and goes all the way up to $1,449 for a 512GB model. That’s the priciest iPhone that Apple has ever made. And the fact that it costs more than a base-model MacBook Pro is bound to push the XS Max far beyond the realm of possibility for your average smartphone buyer.
Worst: iPhone XS and XS Max aren’t that much better than the XR
The iPhone X was Apple’s biggest deviation from its fall smartphone refresh strategy in years, in that it gave people with the desire and cash to spare an obvious and visibly superior alternative to the standard iPhone design we became accustomed to. You got the first OLED display on an iPhone in addition to an edge-to-edge design and Face ID.
With the iPhone XS and XS Max, you’re not really getting devices that are all that much better than Apple’s cheaper XR variant. The XR has the same A12 Bionic processor, the same front-facing camera with Face ID and Animoji, and the same bezel-less design. The rear-facing camera doesn’t have the dual-lens system that the original X and the new XS and XS Max have. But it can still perform many of the same Portrait Mode shots and other computational photography tricks, like adjustable aperture to intensify or dampen artificial bokeh effects, thanks to camera software advancements.
Even the display on the XR, which is larger than the display XS, is being touted as an industry-leading version of LCD that Apple is calling Liquid LCD (meaning it uses a backlighting system to fill out the bezel-less screen). So it’s not very likely that most average consumers are going to notice a huge difference between the XR screen and the OLED display on the XS. Granted, the iPhone XS and XS Max have higher-resolution displays with HDR, so that’s worth taking into account if those are features that matter to you.
Worst: iPhone XS only comes in three standard colors
This may be the most benign complaint to have about the XS and XS Max, but its three standard colors — gold, silver, and space grey — really feel muted and uninspired compared to the XR’s black, blue, coral, red, yellow, and white options.
Apple has always reserved its flashier color options for its cheaper, more mass-market models, all the way back to its iPod line and more recently with the iPhone 5C. And the company routinely locks popular color options, even for accessories, behind specific screen sizes and upgrade tiers as a way to incentivize consumers to upgrade.
Still, it’s a big bummer that you can’t buy a more expressive smartphone from Apple while still enjoying the best specs and hardware its flagship line has to offer. That said, if you’re buying a $1,150 phone, you’re probably going to want to cover the back of it with a case anyway.