New iPhones are here, and it’s not just Apple’s AAPL +2.39% names which will surprise you. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are both replaced by the ‘iPhone XR’ (guide coming soon), while the iPhone X has been cancelled completely. It is succeeded by two flagship models: the ‘iPhone XS’ and ‘iPhone XS Max’. The appropriately named XSes are the most expensive phones Apple has ever made, but how are they different and which – if any – should you buy?
Let’s break them down…
Displays – Size Up
The most obvious difference between these two phones are their displays:
- iPhone XS – 5.8-inch 19.5:9 aspect ratio True Tone OLED, 2436 x 1125 pixels (458 ppi), 82.9% screen-to-body ratio
- iPhone XS Max – 6.5-inch 19.5:9 aspect ratio True Tone OLED, 2688 x 1242 pixels (458 ppi), 84.4% screen-to-body ratio
Yes, the iPhone XS Max has a truly monstrous 6.5-inch panel and means it thoroughly lives up to the ‘Max’ branding. Whether this is too large for you (more in the next section) is likely to be a big factor in your buying decision.
That said, aside from size, the iPhone XS is virtually identical to its bigger brother. The pair have the same True Tone, OLED panels, pixel density, support for Dolby Vision and HDR10 (making them ideal for video consumption) and 3D Touch – something pulled from the cheaper iPhone XR.
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On the downside, both displays retain the iPhone X’s infamous notch when there are slicker alternatives. But at this point, you’re either on board with this polarising feature and the benefits of Face ID housed within it, or you’ve jumped ship. Apple changes for no-one.
Design – When Bigger Isn’t Bigger
If the size of the iPhone XS Max display concerns you, then you might be surprised by the following dimensions:
- iPhone XS – 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7 mm (5.65 x 2.79 x 0.30 in) and 177g (6.24 oz)
- iPhone XS Max – 157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7 mm (6.20 x 3.05 x 0.30 in) and 208g (7.34 oz)
Yes, the iPhone XS Max is a big phone, but it isn’t that much heavier than the iPhone XS. Moreover, it is almost identical in size and weight to the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus: 158.4 x 78.1 x 7.5 mm (6.28 x 3.07 x 0.32 in) and 202g (7.13 oz). So if you were even slightly tempted by an iPhone Plus in the past, the iPhone XS Max should be seriously considered.
Aside from this, both new models have improved IP68 water resistance (up from IP67 in the iPhone X) which allows the phones to be submerged in up to three metres of water instead of one.
Elsewhere you’ll find Apple has integrated support for two sims – one by the standard nano-SIM slot and a second via eSIM, a fully digital alternative. Best of all, both can work together so you can combine work and home numbers or add a local sim when travelling – all in a single device. In Asia, where dual sim technology is already popular but eSims are not, Apple will provide a variant of both new iPhones with two physical sim card slots.
A more subtle change is both the iPhone XS and XS Max have louder external speakers than the iPhone X (itself 25% louder than the iPhone 7) and stereo support. Stereo may seem pointless on a phone, but Apple has worked hard to deliver a genuine sense of separation between left and right channels.
Finally, those who liked the stainless steel frame of the iPhone X will be pleased to hear it carries over to the iPhone XS and XS Max. So too does the more polarising glass back, but this is essential for wireless charging – something which has also been boosted and I’ll discuss in the next section.
Both the iPhone XS and XS Max come in Silver and Space Grey, like their predecessor, while Gold has been carried over from the iPhone 8 range. Expect a (Product) Red limited edition to arrive in future, an option already available on the iPhone XR at launch.
Performance – New Class Leaders
For several years now Apple has only been in a battle with itself when it comes to smartphone performance, but that hasn’t slowed its ambitions.
- iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max – Apple A12 ‘Bionic’ chipset: Six-Core CPU, Six Core GPU, M12 motion coprocessor, 4GB RAM
The A12 Bionic (ignore the ‘Bionic’ part, Apple admits its just marketing) is worth getting excited about. The big news is graphics performance leaps 50% (the A11 was already 30% faster than the A10) while there’s a 50% saving in power efficiency when the phones are idle. A smaller 15% increase in peak performance is less exciting, but improvements to the 8-core neural engine and image signal processing (used when taking photos) should deliver tangible real-world benefits.
RAM has increased as well, and this is important. Despite the class-leading power of Apple’s A chipsets, a lack of RAM has seen them lose out to rivals in multitasking tests because they can’t hold as many apps in memory. While some Android phones have moved onto 6GB and even 8GB this year, the increase from 3GB to 4GB should prove sufficient to close the gap given iOS remains more efficient than Android, despite the latest improvements in Android 9 ‘Pie’.
There’s a lot more than raw grunt to the new iPhones as well.
Face ID will be faster in the iPhone XS and XS Max thanks to improved software algorithms enabled by the A12 chipset. This suggests the actual Face ID hardware remains unchanged from the iPhone X, but if it’s noticeably faster (and it was slower than the Touch ID fingerprint reader it replaced) then no-one will care.
In addition to this Apple is also promising faster wireless charging and faster 4G with improved reception.
While Apple didn’t quantify the wireless charging improvements (and its AirPower wireless charging technology was noticeably absent from the entire launch), 4G performance will catch up to rivals with support for Gigabit LTE and the lower 600MHz band.
No, you won’t get 1Gbit from your carrier right now, but it helps future proof the phone (especially in given the long-term absence of 5G support) while 600MHz has great range and is used by carriers to cover areas with little-to-no signal. Until now, iPhones couldn’t receive this potential lifesaver so this upgrade alone could be a deal maker for some in more remote locations.
Cameras – Software Smarts
There are two pieces of very good news with the iPhone XS and XS Max. Firstly, after years of reserving its best cameras for its flagship phone, now Apple given both XS models equal standing. Secondly, Apple is greatly upping its software game – something that was essential after iPhones fell far behind the image processing smarts of the Pixel 2.
Let’s look at the new phones’ shared hardware first:
- Primary rear camera – 12MP, f/1.8 aperture, 1.4µm pixel size, Optical Image stabilisation (OIS), Quad-LED True Tone flash, Portrait Lighting
- Secondary telephoto lens – 12MP, f/2.4 aperture, 1.0µm pixel size, OIS, 2x optical zoom
- Front ‘TrueDepth’ camera – 7MP, f/2.2 aperture
The standout here is the larger pixel size on both XS models’ primary camera, up from 1.22µm on the iPhone X. This now matches the Pixel 2 and larger pixels can take in more light, which should help the new iPhones when shooting in low light conditions – a weak spot of the range for several years.
But arguably more exciting, is the introduction of what Apple calls ‘Smart HDR’. This combines multiple photos taken at different exposures and combines their best elements into a single shot. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is how Google’s ‘HDR+’ works on the Pixel range. A final trick is the ability to adjust background bokeh (aka blur) on Portrait Mode shots, something Samsung’s Galaxy range provides.
As for the front camera, the specs remain the same as last year but Apple has upgraded the module so it should better in conjunction with Smart HDR. Apple’s front camera, in particular, was way behind the Pixel 2 last year, but I expect the gap to close significantly.
Whether the iPhone XS and XS Max can stay ahead of the upcoming Pixel 3 is the bigger question.
Battery Life And Charging – Incremental Improvements
iPhone battery life has been stagnant for several years and neither the iPhone XS nor the iPhone XS Max does much to improve this, despite the Max specifically receiving a notable bump on paper:
- iPhone XS – 2800 mAh
- iPhone XS Max – 3400 mAh
- iPhone X – 2716 mAh
Ultimately, however, what these increases amount to are just 30 minutes and 90 minutes “longer than iPhone X” according to Apple. An achievement which isn’t overly impressive given the iPhone X doesn’t have great battery life and the iPhone 8 Plus has better battery life than Apple’s former flagship. The official breakdown also looks almost identical to last year.
More encouraging is both the iPhone XS and XS Max have “faster wireless charging”, though Apple didn’t specify what this means, either in its presentation or on its official spec sheet. The iPhone X charges to 7.5W using the Qi-standard (which is capable of up to 15W) so hopefully, there will be a tangible increase given Apple’s AirPower wireless charging standard appears MIA.
Either way, here the new iPhones are seriously outgunned by the Galaxy Note 9.
As for wired charging, it remains perfectly decent with fast charging capable of delivering a 50% charge (from flat) in just 30 minutes. The problem is Apple still doesn’t include a fast charger in the box, a pathetic and penny-pinching omission given a) every rival has done so for years, and b) these phones are eye-wateringly expensive – I’m coming to that.
Furthermore, Apple’s fast chargers don’t come cheap. Expect to pay up to $75 for the charger and the necessary fast charge cable. It’s quite extraordinary Apple still gets away with this.
Storage And Price – Bigger And Higher
Let’s cut straight to the chase: the iPhone XS and XS Max are the most expensive iPhones ever made:
- iPhone XS – 64GB ($999), 256GB ($1,149), 512GB ($1,349)
- iPhone XS Max – 64GB ($1,099), 256GB ($1,249), 512GB ($1,449)
By comparison the iPhone X topped out at $1,149 for 256GB but the new 512GB option pushes the iPhone XS higher, while the iPhone XS Max is in a class of its own. Note: all these prices are before sales tax.
It gets worse for those living outside the US as well with Europeans paying up to $2,000 for a 512GB iPhone XS Max, while prices in India and South America (typically two of the most expensive areas) have yet to be announced.
Needless to say, for some users, 64GB of storage may have been enough, but I suspect the real sweet spot would have been 128GB. No doubt this is why Apple removed it.
My advice for anyone looking to buy the iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max would be the buy the iPhone XR instead. Despite several compromises, it delivers all the key features of the XS models for a fraction of the price.
That said, for those who can afford Apple’s flagship models, the iPhone XS Max is the more awe-inspiring of the two and seeing such a large display squeezed into a body no larger than the iPhone 8 Plus is a head-turner. That said, the huge display does impact battery life with disappointing numbers given its significantly enlarged battery capacity.
For iPhone X owners, there’s not enough here to suggest you upgrade. But if you’ve got an older model and you’ve been saving hard, I’d suggest the iPhone XS Max… though not before you’ve tried the iPhone XR.