Wednesday, Nov 21, 2018 | Last Update : 05:40 PM IST

iPhone XS/XS Max review: The best iPhone just got better, bigger

THE ASIAN AGE. | AARON ALMEIDA
Published : Nov 3, 2018, 5:55 pm IST
Updated : Nov 5, 2018, 11:31 am IST

Apple went back to basics and refined the best iPhone and made it a lot better.

A small step in design leads to a great leap in innovation.
 A small step in design leads to a great leap in innovation.
Rating:

In 2007, Apple had set the benchmark of how a smartphone should actually be — where you can touch and experience the interface. The Cupertino-based tech giant introduced the iPhone that had pushed the envelope in terms of design and features, setting it completely apart from the conventional mobile phone in those days. A decade later, the iPhone X was one of the first handset to employ ground-breaking features such as Face ID and a nearly bezel-less display.

As with every Apple event, the launch of the new iPhones is akin to an international holiday. The event which took place on September 12 saw not just one new iPhone, but three totally new ones. And, after months of leaks and rumours, the iPhone XS/XS Max and the iPhone XR were revealed. Today, we will be looking at the new OLED handsets from Apple to see if it’s worth your money or if they should be given a pass in favour of the LCD-based iPhone XR or competitors from the Android camp such as the OnePlus 6T, the upcoming Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the Google Pixel 3 or Apple’s biggest rival, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.

iPhone XS review

The iPhone XS pronounced that the X (Ten) S is not just an upgrade over the X, but rather an evolutionary product in itself. It may feature an identical design and those owning the 2017 iPhone X may feel that it’s just a minor upgrade; but in all honesty, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

An Apple 'S' device has a whole lot of features that put it in a category of its own. Take the iPhone 3GS for example, the handset was the first to introduce autofocus on the camera, video recording and significantly more storage. The iPhone 4S saw the introduction of Siri, Apple’s voice assistant software that now is linked to practically everything in the iPhone. The iPhone 5S welcomed Touch ID, and with came biometric verification and a new way we unlock our handsets. The 6S saw the addition of 3D touch, a feature which is used widely across a variety of apps. And lastly, the iPhone 8, which could be stated as the S version for the iPhone 7, saw the introduction of wireless charging. So, don’t be tricked into believing that the Apple S handsets are just incremental updates — like the Android counterparts. They pave the way for features that are embedded into the very core of an iPhone.

iPhone XS review

The iPhone XS and XS Max come power packed with features that can blow away any Android smartphone till date. The handsets are beasts when it comes to sheer performance and it will take a long time for Android rivals to even come close to matching it. But for now, all they can do is ape it.

The iPhone XS Max is the biggest and most expensive iPhone to date and with the top-end model being priced at Rs 1,44,900, it’s sure to burn a massive hole into your pocket. The iPhone XS/XS Max feature a screen size that can rival any Android manufacturer, but it’s the quality of these displays that sets the iPhone apart from the gang.

iPhone XS review

Design

When Apple announced the iPhone X in 2017, the brand introduced a brand-new design trend with an all-screen bezel-less design and a notch that's home to the TrueDepth camera for Face ID and other sensors. Since then, this design has been aped by virtually all smartphone manufacturers across the world, but none of them are able to keep the design and technology as refined as Apple.

A year later, Apple has stuck to this design with the iPhone XS having the exact same look as its predecessor, as is the case with every S handset. The XS/XS Max feature surgical grade stainless steel bezels, a glass back and an OLED display all coming together to form the same iconic iPhone X design. The new design also features the notch, buttons, wireless charging, and camera placements as before. In short, the 5.8-inch iPhone XS is identical to the iPhone X as far as externals go. The iPhone XS on the hand features a larger 6.5-inch display that features a similar size as the iPhone 8 Plus but with an all-screen design. What may come as a surprise to most is that Apple managed to cram in a 6.5-inch display into a frame that’s slightly shorter and thinner than last year's larger iPhone 8 Plus that boasted a huge 5.5-inch display.

iPhone XS review

However, though the iPhone XS Max is thinner and a touch lighter, handling it is not the easiest. Having a flat back makes it a tad uncomfortable to grip single-handedly. And by adding a case, the handset becomes a bit larger overall and in the process even more uncomfortable. However, by paying the price for the iPhone XS Max, you definitely do want the protection in order not to ruin it if it accidentally takes off from your hand. If you happen to be upgrading from a handset such as the 6S, 7, 8 or iPhone X you will definitely notice how difficult it is to be handled. But if you are used to Apple’s Plus series of handsets, then the transition would be seamless.

Since it has now been established that the iPhone XS Max is a bit chunky, the upside is that you get a more expansive display that’s been crammed into a frame that makes it functional. For the renegades out there, using it without a case tends to be a bit easier because of the glossy surface of the surgical grade stainless steel bezels.

iPhone XS review

The iPhone XS/XS Max now feature a protection glass which is said to be the toughest on phone out there. The glass front and rear give it a tremendously exceptional look and feel, something that Android handsets have still a long way to go in achieving.

With these two new handsets, Apple has upped the ingress protection by rating it at IP68. This means that it can be submerged into water up to two metres for a maximum amount of 30 minutes. While most will not intentionally try to drown their expensive iPhones, it is helpful to know that rain or any other liquid, including juice or salt water or worse, that falls on it will not compromise the functionality of the handset. Simply wash it under running potable water, wipe dry, leave to dry for a few hours and carry on using it.

iPhone XS review

Like all iPhones from the iPhone 7, the XS and XS Max do not come with a headphone jack. It is worth noting that since Apple has slain the iPhone SE and iPhone 6S, no Apple iPhone comes with a headphone jack anymore. So, to use your personal headphones that feature a 3.5mm headphone jack, you will need to now purchase a Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle that’s worth Rs 699 in India — no it does not come bundled in the box as before. The base of the iPhone features a lightning port, a speaker and a microphone.

iPhone XS review

However, if you haven’t gone the way of the true-wireless Apple AirPods yet, then Apple has thrown in a pair of earpods that feature a lightning connector that can be plugged into the centralised lightning port at the base of the XS/XS Max. But this means that if the lightning earpods are in use, charging the handset is almost impossible, unless you add in a third-party splitter.

With the iPhone XS/XS Max, Apple has added wireless charging. This means that if you own a Qi wireless charging pad, you can simply rest the handset on it and it will automatically get juiced up — albeit a little slower than wired charging, but highly convenient against wires and plugging in.

iPhone XS review

The button placement on the XS/XS Max is identical to that on the iPhone X. The power/lock button is located on the right while the volume rockers, on the left, just below the mute toggle switch. Long pressing the power/lock button also activates Siri since there is no Home button here which acted as the default button in the past to prompt Siri to wake up.

iPhone XS review

The SIM tray continues to be located below the Power/lock button and now with this year’s iPhone XS/XS Max, Apple has added dual-SIM functionality. However, it’s not the same dual SIM features that are found on Android handsets but rather an e-SIM version that’s coupled with a regular physical nano-SIM. The e-SIM is implanted within the handset and you will need to contact your carrier to get this activated. It is worth noting that in India, just Reliance Jio and Airtel have e-SIM functionalities and carriers such as Vodafone are yet to introduce it. However, if you do happen to have a Vodafone SIM nano SIM card, it will work fine. Also do note that the handsets for China bear a dual physical SIM feature, unlike the rest of the international market. So if you buy an iPhone XS/Max from the Hong Kong or China market, you would be able to slip in two physical SIM cards.

iPhone XS review

Lastly, with the new iPhone XS/XS Max, Apple has introduced a new Gold colour option alongside the existing Space Grey and Silver models. And, though the design is identical to that of the iPhone X, it is good to keep in mind that this is the S generation of handsets and the overall design of the device rarely differs. But, the iPhone XS/XS Max is not about the looks, it's more about the features that come with it.

Display, Audio

The iPhone XS features a 5.8-inch display with a resolution of 2436 x 1125 pixels while the XS Max boasts a 6.5-inch screen with a marginally higher resolution at 2688 x 1242 pixels. Both phones come with an OLED display that and feature a pixel density of 458ppi. By using an OLED display over an LCD, one can achieve deeper blacks, increased brightness, above-average power efficiency and lastly a more vibrant dynamic range. Both handsets come with the same OLED technology that was also featured first on the iPhone X, and Apple named it as Super Retina HD. Additionally, the displays sport HDR too — so you get better contrast and a wider colour palette. This also helps your eyes in perceiving brighter whites and darker blacks. To put it simply, this is one excellent smartphone display found nowhere else.

iPhone XS review

With these phones, you get an ultra-sharp display with pictures and scripts rendering accurately. What we get with these new iPhones is a 60 per cent better dynamic range as compared to the iPhone X which allow images and videos to appear a whole lot vivid.

While the screen used on both handsets is identical, the larger screen size on the iPhone XS Max gives you more real estate. It can be said that the larger screen size can be a huge deciding factor as it tricks your brain into believing that so much more can be achieved with a larger screen.

iPhone XS review

The larger screen size fitted on a similar form factor as the iPhone 8 Plus is an absolute pleasure to view content as the colours really stand out with them being natural and not over saturated. Also, the viewing angles are really great, but with a little trace of colour shifting in warmer hues.

With the iPhone XS/XS Max, Apple has improved on the speakers with them now featuring a wider stereo playback. With the speakers fit in these new handsets, you get a far-reaching soundstage with separation very much noticeable between the right and left channels. To be absolutely honest, this is a bit difficult to gauge easily. But having trained ears, we managed to make out the quality improvements over the iPhone X. The audio is much louder then before (almost 35% louder as mentioned by Apple), and also features a better bass in comparison.

Software

At the heart of every iPhone is Apple's very own iOS, and with every new iPhone release, Apple ushers-in a new iOS version. So, when the iPhone XS and XS Max were announced, in came iOS 12.

iPhone XS review

With the stability improvements, Apple also threw in some handy features such as Screen Time and grouped notifications. Apart from this, with iOS 12 you get the new Memoji feature that compliments last year’s Animoji, redesigned Apple apps, improved privacy and security and Siri shortcuts.

screen time

Though each feature has its own list of benefits, Screen Time is a utility that can be the most useful in this day and age. With this new feature in tow, we can now analyse and set usage limits on individual apps to help us use our smartphones more efficiently and correctly. Though this is a useful tool, it all depends on you as a user and your determination alone if you do infact want to use your phone less.

iPhone XS review

This portion of the review is especially useful for those of you who are switching from an iOS device with a Home button. Since there is no physical button here, gesture navigation takes centre stage. It may take a bit getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, it will be embedded in your muscle memory. To exit an app on handsets with a Home button, the Home button needed to be pressed. However, since there is no physical button present, you will need to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to exit an app and go to the Home screen. By swiping your finger along the bottom of the screen, it will help you in easily switching between apps you have open. To quit an app, all you got to do is half swipe up and then swipe the app up. This may seem a bit confusing at first, but you will get used to it fairly quickly.

iPhone XS review

With Memoji, you now get to create an animated emoji of yourself. Then, the TrueDepth camera scans your facial movements and you can use this info to send video messages to your contacts on iMessage or save it for later use on social media platforms.

 

With this being said, the iPhone XS is the marquee handset for iOS 12 and this iOS version shouldn’t be compared to your experiences on any other iPhone. With iOS 12 in tow, the iPhone XS is a lot speedier than any other handset on this OS, even the iPhone X for that matter. In comparison to the iPhone X, the XS/XS Max feels a lot smoother and faster. Background apps do not need to reload when they are pulled up and overall apps launch a lot faster. But these improvements are also riding on Apple's new A12 processor, that is multiple times faster than the previous A11 Bionic processor.

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

What’s unique about the iPhone XS Max on iOS 12 is the inclusion of landscape mode for certain apps. This can be seen in apps such as Calendar, Messages and Weather. So, overall, these subtle enhancements help in the overall user experience.

Performance

With the iPhone XS/XS Max, Apple has added a new A12 Bionic chipset. Though the name is similar to the A11 Bionic, there are major improvements here as it was the first handsets to feature a chipset based on the new 7nm design making achievable to pack more power and efficiency in a chip that’s smaller. This 64-bit chipset features a hexa-core processor with two performance cores while the other four cores are used to handle power efficiency using up to 40 per cent lesser power than that found on the A11 Bionic chipset. The new GPU added here features four cores that are said to be 50 per cent faster for apps that are graphic intensive.

AR

The iPhones come with CPU and GPU improvements and these things can easily be noticed in games and augmented reality apps. With the iPhone XS handsets, we observed a huge improvement in graphical performance as well and Apple is at the forefront of blurring the lines between smartphone gaming performance and console gaming performance. While using the handset to navigate around the UI, to editing photos, and playing games such as Fortnite and Asphalt 9, we noticed that these handsets are just so much quicker. Games in general load faster and the figures on screen are very responsive to the touch interface. This is made possible by the 120Hz refresh rate found here, making it a gaming beast. This is mainly in part due to Apple’s integration of software and hardware and we expect it to be buttery smooth for at least a year or so more.

Games

Additionally, Apple has also added a Neural Engine here which helps in making the handset smarter as it comes with Core ML so you get on device AI and machine learning (ML). The iPhone XS/XS Max comes with 8 cores that are dedicated to the Neural Engine which help it in performing 9 times better than the previous generation’s 2 cores.

Games

With the Neural Engine, you will find improvements in Siri, the facial tracking and mapping while using Animojis and a real-time preview while the subject moves while using Stage Light shooting mode in the XS/XS Max’s camera. Not only this, but Augmented Reality apps are more reactive and render further detail in real time.

iPhone XS review

As is the case with the iPhone X, the XS/XS Max drop the Home button and Touch ID. Apple has replaced it with Face ID and this biometric sensor on the new iPhones are said to be faster and more secure. However, since we have used handsets such as the OnePlus 6 and 6T, the iPhones feel painstakingly slow in comparison. The delay is not that much, but the time it takes to unlock pales in comparison to the speedier options from OnePlus. While Touch ID workes like a breeze, especially in later generation iPhones, Face ID is not the most convenient as you need to place your head in a particular position for it to register your face and then unlock it. In the end, this is still only the second generation of iPhones which feature Face ID, we expect the overall performance to improve in years to come. However, for now, you’re stuck with a slightly slower biometric security option in comparison to certain Android handsets.

iPhone XS review

Camera

For years the iPhone had been known to feature the best camera there is on a smartphone. However, rival brands doubled down on this feature and slowly not only caught up but surpassed Apple when it came to image quality. With these new iPhones, Apple has once again staked its claim as the best smartphone camera in the world and to dumb it down, the dual 12MP shooters on the rear are by far the best cameras ever found on an iPhone. The rear cameras have been improved upon majorly and they now feature bigger pixels that are also deeper that are capable of letting up to 50 per cent more ambient light in without compromising on details.

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

The twin, optically stabilised cameras feature a wide-angle lens and a telephoto zoom snapper and the iPhone’s 7nm chipset play a part in getting not just good but great image quality. The Smart HDR feature, that’s turned on by default plays a part in this superb image quality. Apple claims that with Smart HDR helps in leveraging multiple technologies such as faster sensors, an enhanced ISP and advanced algorithms to bring in more highlights and shadow details in images.

While clicking photos, all of the technologies come together so seamlessly that it gives nothing to denote that the AI is operating and processing the images. When a photo is captured, the iPhone processes capture multiple images in the time before and after the image is snapped and also taking in long exposure to give the ISP enough of data to create an image. With this, we get a great, vibrant and detailed image even if the lighting is not the best with substantial contrast levels. The iPhone XS/ XS Max really does well with colour tones and is able to render richer colours in even challenging conditions. Overall, in outdoor/well-lit environments, there is a wider dynamic range and improvements in details in shadows and highlights in comparison to the iPhone X where the overall image would be underexposed or overexposed.

In low-lit environments, the iPhones do a decent job; however when the ambient light is very low, the iPhone tends to struggle. When even a little more light is introduced, the iPhones capture a fair amount of colour and detail. But in comparison with the iPhone X, the newer iPhone's cameras are so much better, especially in low light. It appears that Smart HDR is again at play and helps it giving it an advantage. To sum up low light photography, parts of the image which would normally be blown out have a lot more detail and have the accurate exposure making them usable where otherwise on the iPhone X, they would not be.

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

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iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

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iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS review

The iPhone XS and XS Max now feature Depth control which helps you to adjust the background blur of portrait shots. This feature has been prevalent on Android handsets and finally makes its way to iOS devices.

While shooting selfies with the 7MP TrueDepth front-facing camera, an issue we observed was that faces looked a tad bit retouched. Apple has confirmed this to be a problem and will be issuing a fix with the release of iOS 12.1. The camera up front also benefits from features such as Smart HDR and cutting-edge bokeh controls.

The cameras can also shoot 4K at 60fps and slo-mo 1080p videos at 240fps. So, while the snappers shoot great photos, the video quality is great as well which can rival or better any Android smartphone that’s currently available in the market.

Battery

Battery life of a smartphone has always been a hot topic and there are a lot of people out there who choose a handset based on how long the battery lasts. While there is no official information from Apple, the XS is said to feature a 2658mAh battery while the XS Max’s battery is rated at 3174mAh. The now-discontinued iPhone X had a bigger battery than the XS and was rated at 2716mAh. The battery life of the XS Max lasts about an hour more than the XS and a whole hour and a half more than the XS. With these new iPhones, you can expect it to typically last a whole workday with a moderate to high amount of usage before it dies out. This usage typically consists of gaming, streaming videos, shooting photos, making a few calls, browsing the web and accessing social media apps. Additionally, we had an Apple Watch Series 4 paired up during the entire testing process.  

It has to be said that if you plan on using the handsets to play graphic intensive games like Fortnite or Asphalt 9: Legends, the battery is going to take a hit. But will not drain out your battery completely.

iPhone XS review

Verdict

The iPhone XS comes with a starting price of Rs 99,900 for the 64GB variant, the price gets bumped up to 1,14,900 for the 256GB version and the top of the line XS is priced at Rs 1,34,900. The XS Max, on the other hand, starts at Rs 1,09,900 for the 64GB version then jumps to Rs 1,24,900 for the 256GB version and finally settles at Rs 1,44,900 for the highest end 512GB variant.

The XS and XS Max are truly special phones and with the larger iPhone, Apple has managed to push the margins by offering a 6.5-inch display in a form factor that’s similar to the iPhone 8 Plus. For those who have been putting off purchasing the iPhone X as it was considered a ‘small’ smartphone, the XS Max is the right phone you need to make the jump. As far as multimedia and gaming on these devices go, they are an absolute pleasure as the HDR feature on the screen now makes all the difference.

iPhone XS review

Many people may take a glance at the new iPhones and feel that it’s just the same old iPhone X, but boy it’s so much more than that. These phones possess all the internals that not only make it a great phone but push the all-around envelope of how a phone should be made. The addition of Smart HDR in the cameras, the Neural Engine, the 7nm chip design and all the features make the iPhone XS/XS Max the phones you didn’t know you need but want.

With that being said, if you do happen to own an iPhone X, and don’t really care about faster performance and improved battery life, then you should be fine for at least another year. If you do want to upgrade, but can’t get around the exorbitant prices of the XS and XS Max, then the iPhone XR could impress you. It doesn’feature an OLED display or dual cameras, but is an excellent phone that’s worth buying since it has the entire hardcore firepower of the expensive flagships.

iPhone XS review

With the introduction of the 2018 iPhones, one thing is crystal clear, Apple has yet again paved the way of how a smartphone should be, whether it be design or features. The future is going to certainly have all handsets with minimal bezels and possibly shrinking notches. But what will separate Apple from the rest is cutting-edge improvements that will all be internal.

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Tags: iphone xs, iphone xs max, review, smartphones