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Apple iPhone XS and XS Max review: smoothed out

Solid updates to a winning formula

Photography by James Bareham | Video by Phil Esposito, Alix Diaconis, and Becca Farsace

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Last year, Apple did something out of character: it introduced the usual update to the iPhone, the iPhone 8, while simultaneously introducing the iPhone X with a flurry of hype. The iPhone X was a total rethinking of the iPhone, with a new gesture system, Face ID unlocking, and an edge-to-edge screen that prompted a wave of app redesigns.

The iPhone X was meant to usher in the future of phones, and it succeeded; its influence (and its notch) are all over the industry now. Apple has gone from being an iPhone company to being an iPhone X company. This year, the iPhone X comes in one of two flavors: the updated, high-end iPhone XS and the midrange iPhone XR, which won’t arrive until next month.

Apple has gone from being an iPhone company to being an iPhone X company

There are two iPhone XS models: the 5.8-inch XS and the new iPhone XS Max, which has a much larger 6.5-inch display and a frankly ridiculous name.

Really, both iPhone XS models are fundamentally just spec-bumped updates to the iPhone X. They have a new main camera sensor, a new processor, and a bunch of small updates that add up to a much nicer device than the X. One year after the notch, the arrival of the iPhone XS means we can look back at all the changes introduced by the iPhone X and see how they’ve gone, while looking at where Apple’s pushing the high end of phones next.


Let’s start with the XS Max. Apart from the size, the XS and the XS Max are identical. They have the same A12 Bionic processor, same cameras, and the same OLED display tech with 458 pixels per inch. The XS Max also has a larger battery, which is nice. After a week of using it as my primary phone, the XS Max feels both bigger and smaller than I expected. Physically, it’s the same size as the iPhone 8 Plus and the Pixel 2 XL, and it definitely shares the same surfboard quality as Apple’s previous Plus-sized phones — at least when you look at it from the back.

But the edge-to-edge screen makes it seem much more reasonable from the front. The XS has the same OLED display as last year’s X, and the XS Max looks exactly like that display, just bigger. Because the screen fills the entire front of the phone, the XS Max doesn’t seem as huge as the Plus phones. It’s absolutely killer for watching videos or playing games on its huge, gorgeous display. I love it.

At the same time, the XS Max’s size gets away from it. The large bezels on the older Plus phones mean the top of the display is actually lower on the phone, making it easier to reach. To pull down notifications or Control Center on the XS Max, you have to reach the very top of the device. I have big hands, and I basically can’t do it without tipping the phone over in my hand; I ended up having to use two hands most of the time. You can use Apple’s reachability feature to pull down the UI and then swipe, but that’s two swipes for one thing, and it just makes me a little sad.

The XS Max also doesn’t really do a ton in software to take advantage of that big display: there’s no extra row of home screen icons or picture-in-picture for video. Some apps that haven’t been updated look a little broken right now, particularly Instagram. Everything else is mostly just bigger; apps like Slack, Gmail, and Twitter show you the exact same amount of information as the smaller XS. If you think big things are funny (they are) check out the size of the status bar when you pull Control Center down. AT&T WIFI, it bellows at you. THE TIME IS 4:12PM, AND YOU HAVE 68 PERCENT BATTERY. I giggle every time, just as I did with the original Plus phones.

Everything is mostly just bigger on the XS Max

There are some software changes for the bigger display that are familiar from the Plus: in landscape mode, certain apps can switch to a sidebar view, and you’ll see tabs (with favicons if you turn them on) in Safari. But that’s really it. Apple told me that it doesn’t want to overstuff the display because it doesn’t want the interface elements to be too small to tap on, and most people really do just want a bigger interface on a large phone, which makes sense. I just wish I had the option to up the information density on the XS Max just a little.

So yes, if you want a huge screen, get a XS Max. It’s a gigantic, beautiful screen, and I have enjoyed looking at it a lot. But nothing about it is easier to handle than the old Plus phones, and in some cases, it’s harder.

Display and Face ID

The iPhone XS has the same OLED display as the X, with curved corners and the notch. After a year of looking at this display, I’m confident in saying that it’s one of the best displays available, with excellent color reproduction and brightness. And Apple’s TrueTone and Night Shift features are terrific; it’s easy to look at this screen all the time. (I also think Apple’s claim that this display supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision is a little silly. Sure, it gets brighter, but it’s nothing like HDR on a real TV.)

One of the best displays available

Last year, we were wondering how Apple would handle burn-in on this new OLED display, and this year we know: there are basically no problems with burn-in on the iPhone X display. I would expect the XS to keep that up.

We’ve also learned that the iPhone X scratches way more easily than you’d expect. The glass on the front and back of the XS is supposed to be more durable, so we’ll see. My review units look pretty good so far, but that’s only after a week of use.

It’s also been a full year since Apple introduced Face ID, and we know that it works pretty well most of the time. Face ID on the XS is ever-so-slightly faster than the X. It’s noticeable side by side, but it’s not so much faster that you won’t find yourself pointedly staring at the phone to unlock it from time to time. iOS 12 lets you add a “secondary appearance,” which allows you to set up a second person if you want, which is nice.

A year later, and Face ID seems easier to set and forget than Touch ID

Other than the minor speed increase and secondary appearance support, Face ID is still Face ID: it doesn’t work in landscape or upside down or anything like that. If you wear glasses like me, you’ll still have to enter your passcode every morning when you wake up because you’re holding the phone too close to your face for it to work. And sunglasses that block IR light will still prevent it from working. Apple says it’s working with sunglass makers to ship new kinds of sunglasses that support Face ID. (Only Apple can get another entirely different industry to adapt to its phone, instead of the other way around.)

A year later, and it’s pretty clear that Face ID is easier for people to set up and forget about than Touch ID, which means more people are securing their phones. That’s a good thing.


The camera upgrades on the XS over the X are significant. The XS makes the X camera look terrible most of the time. But we’ve been saying the best smartphone camera on the market is Google’s Pixel 2 for a year now, so that’s the standard to beat. And… I think the Pixel 2 still has a better camera than the iPhone XS. Don’t get me wrong: most people are going to like the photos they get from the iPhone XS. It has a solid camera, and I prefer it to the Galaxy S9. But compared to the Pixel 2, the XS doesn’t really do it for me.

I think the Pixel 2 still has a better camera than the iPhone XS

The front camera on the iPhone XS is the same as the iPhone X: a 7-megapixel sensor with a f/2.2 lens that takes depth information from the TrueDepth system to support Portrait Mode. The rear telephoto camera is also the same as the iPhone X: an optically stabilized f/2.4 lens with the same 12-megapixel sensor.

But the rear wide angle camera (that you’ll use most often) has been updated: it’s still an optically stabilized f/1.8 lens with a 12-megapixel sensor, but each of those 12 megapixels is physically bigger now, which means they can collect more light. They are bigger, at 1.4µm pixels instead of 1.22µm, and deeper, at 3.5µm instead of 3.1µm. There’s also twice as many “focus pixels,” which is what Apple calls its phase-detect autofocus system.

Apple’s also revamped its image processing in a new system it’s calling Smart HDR, which runs photos through the A12 Bionic’s new integrated image signal processing subsystem and the Neural Engine. The basic idea is very similar to what Google’s doing on the Pixel 2: the iPhone XS takes a series of images at different exposures and combines them into a final photo. Like the Pixel 2, the iPhone XS starts a rolling buffer of four images the second you open the camera app, which allows for zero shutter lag. The image has already been captured the instant you push the shutter button.

The iPhone XS generally takes far better photos than the iPhone X, but it looks more like Samsung’s cameras than ever

But while the Pixel 2 combines several underexposed frames, the iPhone XS also captures an additional overexposed image for each shot in the buffer, which picks up additional detail in the shadows of your image. Then, it looks at the other frames in the buffer to see if they can add additional detail, before merging several images together to create the final photo. It also detects faces and motion, so it knows what it’s looking at and adjusts the processing accordingly.

This whole concept is called “computational photography,” and it takes a lot of computing power. No DSLR or mirrorless camera to date can pull stuff like this off, especially not in real-time. That A12 Bionic does all of this capture and layering work in the instant it takes you to snap a photo.

The new Smart HDR feature lets the iPhone XS generally take far better photos than the iPhone X. They’re brighter, they’re better in low light, they have more detail, you name it. Over the past year, I’ve become less and less impressed with the iPhone X camera, and the iPhone XS is a solid improvement.

iPhone XS.
iPhone XS.
iPhone X.
iPhone X.

But Smart HDR is extremely aggressive — overly so, to my eye. It flattens out contrast in images and consistently smooths detail out of photos. You can see it clearly when you zoom in to a 100 percent crop of the same photo taken on the Pixel 2 and the iPhone XS: the Pixel captures more detail, while the iPhone tends to smooth it out. This loss of detail is the thing that bothered me the most about the iPhone X camera, and while the iPhone XS is better, the smoothing still disappoints me every time I see it.

iPhone XS.
iPhone XS.
Pixel 2XL.
Pixel 2XL.
iPhone XS at 150% (left) | Pixel 2XL at 150% (right)

Apple used to talk a big game about having a more accurate camera than Samsung, which has done aggressive smoothing and saturation tricks for years, but images from the iPhone XS camera look more like Samsung’s cameras than ever. And that might be fine for most people — most of these photos will only ever be viewed on mobile displays, and XS photos look fine to great on smartphone screens — but I don’t think they hold up to scrutiny the way Pixel 2 photos do.

iPhone XS (left) | Samsung S9+ (right)

Loss of detail is one thing, but there are some subjective things I prefer about the Pixel 2 as well: the XS shoots extremely warm photos, while the Pixel is more true to life, if a little muddier in the reds. Pixel 2 photos are extremely contrasty and somewhat desaturated, which I like but some people find harsh. This is all part of an age-old battle between what’s accurate and what people like to look at, and there’s really no right answer.

I would never try to tell you what photos you should like better, but it seems obvious that Apple and Samsung are chasing a different overall look than Google. And I can definitely tell you that more detail in photos is better than less.

iPhone XS (left) | Pixel 2XL

Apple’s also updated Portrait Mode on the XS, which blurs out the background and adjusts the lighting on your face to make your phone photos look more like photos taken with big cameras and lenses. The iPhone XS has a big new trick: it lets you adjust the blur after you take the shot. Samsung’s phones have allowed you to change the blur like this for a while, but Apple’s portrait photos look a lot better to me because the phone is doing a lot more work. But that doesn’t mean they always look good.

The XS does a lot of things very quickly when you shoot a Portrait Mode photo: it identifies the faces in the scene and splits apart the background and foreground. Then it creates a depth map of the entire scene, particularly the subject in the foreground. Then it applies blur progressively to that depth map to model how a real lens on a real full-frame camera would smoothly transition the blur from foreground to background.

It’s pretty neat to adjust the blur after the fact and watch different parts of the image get blurrier at different rates. It’s definitely doing more than just cutting the background out and making it all blurry. It’s nicer than what phones like the Pixel 2 and S9 can do, although it still struggles around the edges and it has a tendency to cut off glasses.

Apple says it modeled the Portrait Mode blur against prime lenses on full-frame cameras, so we tested it against a 50mm lens on a Canon 5D Mark IV. As you’d expect, the Canon won running away. Apple’s software blur just isn’t there yet. But most people don’t have big cameras and expensive lenses, and Portrait Mode will do a lot for them. But it’s still a little gimmicky: I took close to 5,000 photos with my iPhone X over the past year, and just 207 of them were in Portrait Mode. I don’t think the new Portrait Mode on the XS is going to make me use it much more.

iPhone XS f2.2 (left) | Canon 5D Mark IV f2.2 (right)

On the video front, there are some new software stabilization algorithms on the rear cameras and entirely new stabilization for the front camera as well as the ability to record stereo audio. I didn’t take too many videos with the XS in my testing, but to me, it looks just as good as the X, which has been great over the past year.

Apple’s not wrong when it says the iPhone is the most popular camera in the world, and every improvement the company makes is welcome. It means more people are taking better photos. But I don’t think it’s the best smartphone camera out there anymore, and that’s even before the Pixel 3 comes out in just a few weeks.

Processor and battery life

Last year’s iPhone X had an A11 Bionic chip, and this year’s iPhone XS has an A12 Bionic. In terms of CPU performance, the A12 really isn’t that much faster: Apple only quotes a 15 percent performance improvement, and I didn’t really see a noticeable speedup over my iPhone X.

The A12’s GPU is 50 percent faster, but, as usual, that feels like headroom for the future since these devices tend to stick around for so long. Last year’s A11 GPU was 30 percent faster than the A10, and it’s not like developers are maxing that out after a year. Apple has a huge performance lead over the entire smartphone industry, and I think it’s great that it’s using that lead to make its devices last as long as possible, instead of running them at the bleeding edge of power and performance all the time.

I got a full 12 hours of battery life out of the XS Max without using low power mode

The big change to the A12 is the new Neural Engine, which accelerates machine learning. Apple claims the Neural Engine on the A11 could perform 600 billion operations per second, while the A12 can do 5 trillion. That’s a huge increase — especially since the system also uses much less power — but in real-world use, the apps just aren’t really there yet. You’re basically just looking at a bunch of AR demos and the new camera features.

The A12 is also the industry’s first 7nm chip to ship at scale, which is a big deal for a variety of reasons, particularly battery life. I mostly tested the XS Max, and it did great — better than even Apple’s claim of 90 minutes more than the X. In fact, I got a full 12 hours of battery life out of the XS Max without low power mode, and that’s even under my heavy daily use of constant Slack and email, video watching, photo taking, and browsing. The smaller XS is rated to get 30 minutes more than the X, which has run for about eight hours for me this past year. It’s solid.

Everything else

Apple made a big deal out of the “wide stereo” speakers on the XS during the keynote, which felt a little silly, but the speakers on the iPhone XS are definitely louder and clearer than the speakers on the X. Like the X, the XS boosts the volume of the earpiece speaker to serve as the other stereo channel. But this year, both the earpiece speaker and the bottom speaker are closely matched, which lets Apple do some processing on the audio for greater stereo separation. I don’t think it’s super noticeable, but any improvement to phone speakers is a good one, and this is a good one.

The internal wireless charging coil of the iPhone XS has also been improved, so it’s more forgiving of placement, and Apple says it’ll get to a full charge 30 minutes faster using the same charging pads as before. AirPower, the wireless charging system Apple announced last year, seems to be dead for now; Apple wouldn’t say anything about it when I asked.

Yes, the iPhone XS still has 3D Touch; press on that screen while you still can. And not having a headphone jack or USB-C is still very sad, especially because the entirely Apple-controlled Lightning ecosystem is extremely weak: there are very few Lightning headphones, zero third-party headphone dongles, and exactly one certified iPhone X battery case… that isn’t yet certified for the XS. Apple wants you to buy AirPods, so AirPods you will buy.

Dust and water resistance has been improved to IP68 from IP67 on the X and the XR. That means you can keep the XS at a depth of two meters of water for 30 minutes at a time, which seems like a lot. When you’re done splashing around, Apple recommends letting it dry for five hours before plugging it in to charge. (There’s still no warranty against water damage, though.)

The XS also has dual-SIM support, but we weren’t able to test it yet. It arrives with a software update this fall. We’ll report back when it gets here.

So that’s the iPhone XS. Should you get one?

Well, these are still expensive phones: the iPhone XS starts at $999, and the top-of-the-line iPhone XS Max with 512GB of storage will cost you $1,449. That’s a lot of money. I am sure some people will find it ridiculous, while others will have already happily preordered.

It’s worth waiting to check out the iPhone XR before rushing into the iPhone XS

I would not rush out to spend another $999 on the XS if you have a X, but if you’re already deep into a preorder, don’t worry: you will love the iPhone XS. It is, indeed, more iPhone, and it will probably hold up for years to come. I definitely prefer the Pixel 2’s camera, but the iPhone XS isn’t that far behind, and it’s still a significant improvement over previous iPhones.

For everyone else, I think it’s worth waiting to see how the iPhone XR turns out before rushing in. It has the same processor and the same main camera for $750. The only major question is how good its 6.1-inch LCD will look in comparison to the OLED on the XS. But for that, we’ll just have to wait and see next month.

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