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iPhone XS & XS Max Review: Incrementally brilliant

Apple’s has a problem.  Innovation has gone from being a very visual thing based around the amazing designs from Jony Ive – to being something very nerdy, something at the “chipset” level which is driven by a team who will probably remain faceless for the longest time.

This is ever clear in the 2018 range of iPhones.  We’ll get to the colourful XR in a month or so.  For now, let’s look at the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max which go on sale this week.

I’ve been testing them for about 5 days – so what I can tell you is based just on that limited experience.

The long and the short of it?

Battery life is excellent on the Max.  The Camera is sensational.  Everything feels faster.

Just what Apple would hope to hear.

The Nitty Gritty

These phones are hard to fault.  For my test, I chose to use the iPhone XS Max as my daily driver.  Firstly because it’s really new, secondly because I dislike larger phones.

iPhone XS Max – Left, and iPhone 8 Plus – Right

In the hand, it really is the size of the older “plus” phones, but with an enormous edge to edge screen.  For those who loved the Plus sized phones, you’re going to be blown away by this screen.

iPhone XS Max – Left, and iPhone 8 Plus – Right

Under the hood, the XS and XS Max are identical devices, just a bigger battery, and bigger screen differentiates them.  There’s no difference in camera or processing power – so all my comments here on camera and performance stand for both XS models.

To be honest, yesterday was my most “normal” of days, with no flight time, or kids sport, it was a normal style day – and the battery – unspecified in size but “the biggest ever in an iPhone” – was on spec.

I didn’t have the slightest hint of battery anxiety. A real win for average users I think.

Apps do load faster, there’s a real performance boost – but I’m not sure any iPhone X user would notice it.  Coming from an iPhone 7 or back, you’ll be feeling the speed.

The real win for this device is the Camera.  Make no mistake, that’s the battleground for smartphones today.

Let’s look at some photos – comparing iPhone XS to iPhone X.

Here the XS finds a lot more detail in the darker parts of the tree – and while you weren’t there with me, trust me, it’s a WHOLE lot more “life like” than the iPhone X is.

In almost perfect conditions – great light, nothing direct on the camera – there’s very little improvement in the image here.

Here – on the larger scale images – perhaps not easily seen in a smaller version, there’s a lot more detail in the shadows, and while last year’s iPhone X does a good job of the sky, it’s in the darker areas that the improvements in the camera jump out.

Both of these images (above) were taken on the iPhone XS.  In fact, it’s just one image.  However, with the XS and XS Max you can now adjust the F Stop of an image after it’s been taken – adjusting the background blur to the way you want it, and it’s so dam sensational.

Not revolutionary however – something Huawei has had for years, and Samsung too.  But – an important leap forward for the camera software.

Portrait mode is enhances with that post shot adjustment, but is also spot on for its overall usage too – some of the shots you can get with that dual lens setup are excellent – though there’s no doubt we’ve still got much improvement to come with a better edge detection around foreground objects being critical.

Overall, without yet doing a comprehensive head to head – I’m pretty confident this is the best smartphone camera today – for the average user.

That processing jump under the hood is a hard one to overlook for more detailed explanation, but from what I’ve seen there’s some serious stuff coming from apps using the power now present in the iPhone XS that we probably can’t yet imagine.

Even Augmented Reality – while great today, is going to jump forward leaps and bounds.  I’ve been playing with an app called iScape which allows you to design your backyard landscaping.  Sure, I did it on government land around Sydney Harbour, but who wouldn’t want a gazebo and bar right there?

FaceID

While FaceID and the unlocking your phone with your face isn’t new – it was in the iPhone X – it’s still new to many – and given there’s no home button on any 2018 phone, there’s going to be lots of people “new” to this.  It takes a while to get used to, but the gestures to swipe between apps, and home are a breeze.

Is FaceID improved?  A bit.  In a bit of side by side click and unlock testing over and over again I found it to be faster 60% of the time, and almost 90% more reliable.  On the iPhone X many times it would just not unlock, or be a touch slower.   This is a good thing, because it’s the one thing people could most likely be frustrated by in the switch.

The downside?

Boy oh Boy are these things expensive. $1229 for the XR which isn’t on sale yet and we haven’t tested yet, $1,629 starting price for the XS up to a staggering $2,369. Perhaps we’re starting to find out that the work the boffins designing chipsets, neural engines and all that jazz are doing more expensive work than those who’ve for years created the stunning designs we’ve been drawn to?

Overall

These are sensational devices.  On overall value it will be much clearer once we’ve reviewed the XR – but, iPhone XS and XS Max alone – top notch, advanced, high performing smartphones with cameras that put most if not all others to shame.

I’ve described them as incrementally brilliant because I think most wouldn’t see the leaps forward.  The change from 2017 to 2018 is incremental, yet important given the whole lineup change.

I wouldn’t suggest an iPhone X user rushes out to trade up, but if you’re rocking an iPhone 7 or prior – time to make the leap.

Trev is a Technology Commentator, Dad, Speaker and Rev Head.

He produces and hosts two popular podcasts, EFTM and Two Blokes Talking Tech. He also appears on over 50 radio stations across Australia weekly, and is the resident Tech Expert on Channel 9’s Today Show each day and appears regularly on A Current Affair.

Father of three, he is often found down in his Man Cave.

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iPhone XS & XS Max Review: Incrementally brilliant
5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Gaz

    September 19, 2018 at 5:11 am

    Trevor, does the front facing camera capture in RAW and save as a DNG file?

  2. Deb

    September 19, 2018 at 7:11 am

    Thanks Trevor. After reading this, I think my mind is made up. Time to go Apple shopping

  3. Giovanni

    September 19, 2018 at 5:16 pm

    Great article Trevor.
    I’m currently using the iPhone X and won’t be updating although I must say the enhanced features in portrait mode and the speed increase is very tempting.
    Look forward to a review on the XR and the Apple Watch 4.
    Thanks.

  4. ashutosh

    October 16, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    Great
    I’m currently using the iPhone X .I must say the enhanced features in portrait mode and the speed increase is very tempting.
    Look forward for more reviews.
    Thanks.

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