Apple has new flagship smartphones. There’s not much difference on the outside, but all sorts of stuff is happening under the glass
Nobody looks forward to an ‘S’ year from Apple. These are the update years, the alternate periods between what some might call proper launches, where the company services the stock market and share holders and duly issues new handsets that will inevitably increase sales and profit margins. We’ve written before about the curse of constant innovation for technology manufacturers, but Apple seems to weather the usual apathy associated with refreshed models far better than most of its competitors.
This year we have the upgrade of the iPhone X in the forms of the XS and XS Max, a big-screen iteration taking the supersize flagship place of the 8 Plus. As you may recall, last year’s successful launch of the X (that’s pronounced “ten” for anyone who could have possibly missed this misleading moniker) included no Plus-size version. Well, it’s finally arrived. A cheaper X model, the XR, is coming in October – more of that later.
Much has already been made of the fact that most reviews online think X users should wait a bit longer to upgrade, but there are more than a few things with these new models to bring to your attention. So, let’s break it down and try and pay more attention to the places where things have actually changed.
Design & screens
The XS looks almost identical to the X (both are 143.6mm tall and 70.9mm wide with a 5.8-inch HDR OLED display). In fact, apart from a new Gold colour option (no more needs to be said about that, apart from “it’s gold”), one of the only ways to tell someone is sporting an XS over an X is to look at the holes on the base of the phone. Where Apple managed to achieve symmetry last year on the X with six holes either side of the Lightning port housing speakers and microphones, on the XS there merely three on the left and six on the right. The reason? An extra antenna band – a small vertical matt stripe – has been added to the bottom of the iPhone XS and XS Max for fewer drop-outs on calls and faster possible download speeds.
The Max model is a 20 per cent larger than the iPhone XS at 14mm taller and over 7mm wider. The 6.5-inch HDR OLED display is bar far the most obvious design change of all the new phones. The dynamic range of the display (the amount of colour spectrum emitted) has been upgraded, increasing it 60 per cent to make the HDR 10 and Dolby Vision effects more impressive. In reality, a good few users might not notice this, however, as the X screen was already good. You have to have an old X side by side with an XS to spot any difference, and then you have to really try to see it.
However, the increased screen size of the Max coupled with its smaller form factor than the unwieldy 8 Plus finally makes the supersize model make sense. The larger Plus models have never appealed with the handsets far too big to offset the modest increase in screen real estate you. But the Max packs in an inch more screen than the 5.5in 8 Plus, 458ppi over 401ppi, 2688×1242 versus 1920×1080 resolution, HDR etc, as well as, crucially, being slightly smaller in dimensions (157.5mm by 77.4mm compared to 158.4mm by 78.1mm).
It’s not too big to use, as some have complained about. It’s comfortable to hold and the only adjustment from the X is the admittedly added stretch to swipe your thumb down from the top left of the screen to reveal the control centre. You also get Split View for some apps including Calendar and Messages – something that has been very useful on certain versions of the iPad. But the downside is this makes the notch much more noticeable when you use the Max in this manner. After a few days, the X feels a touch on the small side – much as the SE now feels almost impossible to use without going blind. For the first time, the Max makes plus-sized iOS phones an attractive proposition.
Once again Apple claims its new phones have the best, toughest, most scratch-resistant glass (supplied by Corning of Gorilla Glass fame) on the market. But again the company won’t release any data to back this tantalising claim up. But rest assured, if you drop it hard, it will break.
There is one gripe, though. It would be much better for Apple to allow an option to let you really use the screen for peak productivity. Right now it automatically scales everything up so what you get on the Max home screen is just a larger version of the same number of apps you can see on the standard XS. By reducing the gaps between apps on the XS Max just a little, Apple could get more on screen.
Speakers and mics
The speakers are better. So are the mics. The iPhone XS has wider stereo sound for “an immersive cinematic experience” while watching movies or listening to music. Both the hardware and software have been tweaked on the speakers themselves, and you can tell. When watching back your own video recordings there is a genuine impressions of sound separation. This is done via the four built-in mics which can record stereo sound. The playback in wider stereo sound, too.
Mind you, while recording stereo is a boon for video freaks, the reasoning to improve sound reproduction on phone speakers is odd. Anyone listening to audio through phone speakers clearly doesn’t care what the music or dialogue sounds like. Yes, you will want to share video clips with people at a restaurant or down the pub, but who there will notice a slight uptick in sound quality over the noise of the house stereo system or other conversations?
If you care about performance you will be interested in the XS and XS Max. Thanks to the new A12 Bionic 7-nanometer chip, and a next-generation Neural Engine, the phones do offer appreciably faster performance. You can actually discern apps and functions being opened and executed with some added zip. It’s minimal, but it’s there, and if it was taken away you would notice and get grumpy about it.
The A12 Bionic that is in both the XS and XS Max, as well as the coming XR, has a six-core architecture with two performance cores that are supposedly up to 15 percent faster than the A11 chip. The four efficiency cores use up to half the power, while the chip dynamically divides work across these cores, bringing into play all six when a power boost is needed. The GPU is up to 50 per cent faster, too.
What Apple is driving towards, as well as faster general operation, is encapsulated by its new Neural Engine, bringing more than a touch of machine learning to photography and augmented reality. The new eight-core design means it can complete up to 5 trillion operations per second compared to 600 billion in A11. That is a huge increase, by anyone’s estimations. What do you actually get for this, though? Faster plane detection for ARKit, more expressive Memoji (if you must), as well as Stage Light in camera preview. Indeed, now the A12 Bionic has direct access to the Neural Engine, Core ML supposedly runs up to nine times faster at as little as one-tenth the energy. This has the added benefit of freeing up the GPU for more advanced graphics.
The increased power under the hood means that FaceID detection has supposedly been given a bump, too. But any noticeable improvement is difficult to discern. A good way to actually see these silicon upgrades in action? Try an AR game. Climax Studios’ ARise is certainly slicker on the XS Max than on the X. Another good way is to use the camera.
The now prime battleground in smartphones. You cannot launch a new handset without a bump in camera performance. But we are getting to the stage where the cameras on all flagships are now so good that we are having to espouse the virtues of incremental gains. But these incremental gain in the specs do add up to more than they should. The combination of deeper pixels and Smart HDR means better performance in conditions where there is high contrast, such as bright sun and plenty of shadow in the same shot. There is more detail in shots on the XS and Max compared to the X, and the dual cameras have dual optical image stabilisation, too, which works extremely well. Low-light photography has also been improved, but the XS and Max still aren’t as capable compared to some competitors in this regard.
Apple has made much of the ability of the new phones offer depth control on pictures, which lets you adjust the depth of field after you have taken a shot. This means you can adjust aperture without affecting exposure. After taking a portrait, you simply go to “edit” and adjust the depth control there. Now, this right now is not quite as good as if it was done on a professional DSLR with the correct equipment, but it’s still mighty impressive, and fun, and more than enough for all but true photo obsessives. However, we have seen this feature already on Google’s phones and the Pixel is perhaps still better on this particular effect, though it’s a close call.
All you really need to take away from all this tech speak and fancy photography terms is that while the new iPhone camera might not be the very best on the market, it is certainly in the premier tier and the vast majority of users will never be able to pick the leading candidates apart. If you get an XS of either flavour, you will not be disappointed with its snapping chops.
Usage time has been increased. Apple is claiming the XS battery lasts up to 30 minutes longer than iPhone X, which in reality is hard to notice in day-to-day use. However, the XS Max’s huge power plant lasts up to 1.5 hours longer than iPhone X. This is not an exaggeration on Apple’s part. It really does last considerably longer than the X, but then it should as thanks to that novel “L”-design it is carrying an 3,174mAh battery. This is not as large as the 4,000mAh battery in a Note 9, it should be noted. And heavy usage will still see you need to recharge power before the day is out – but with fast-charge you can get up to 50 per cent charge in 30 minutes. Leave the Max on standby and it lasts for days. Moderate usage will see you through a working day just fine.
There is much to applaud the XS and XS Max. Better performance, better machine learning, better speakers and microphones, a bigger screen on the Max, camera improvements, dual SIM (nano-SIM and eSIM) capability and a better IP68 water and dust resistance rating for the clumsy people. But it has to be said that all these improvements don’t matter a great deal if you are already on the iPhone X. Indeed, with regard to the IP68 rating, in WIRED’s briefing we were told that the X for all intents and purposes had it already but when it launched Apple had not then got, or deemed necessary to obtain, the official rating.
And as for price, don’t even go there. Apple products are expensive, if you didn’t know that by now, where have you been? In reality, it means little if you get one on a plan, anyway when choosing between a £850 phone or a £1,100 one. This is flagship phone territory, and like it or not this sort of price range is becoming the norm, with Apple always sitting at the top. If you want value, check out OnePlus.
Where the XS range excels is with the Max. This is the handset to convince people that there is finally an iOS option worth moving to if you are looking for that supersize screen experience. The 8 Plus didn’t cut it. This one does.