But, as basically every sci-fi plot-twist ever has shown us, time travel is never without consequence. By releasing tomorrow's iPhone last year, what was Apple going to release now, today? The answer, of course, was and is — and maybe will be, temporal pardoxes are hard! — an S-type update. Because, as much as some people dislike the iterative in-betweens, nobody likes nothing.
As a result, I'm sure almost every review for the next long while is going to perseverate over a single, utterly predictable question: Whether iPhone X owners who picked up their little piece of the future last year should consider upgrading to an S-enhanced present this year.
Spoiler alert: The people who bought the iPhone X last year were either constant early adopters or eager to upgrade then so they wouldn't have to wait until now. They'll either automatically get an XS as part of one of those increasingly common annual upgrade programs or they'll just keep on keeping on until they need the next something new. They know that. Based on how iPhone XS was introduced as a new iPhone X, not an all-new iPhone, Apple knows that. It's just the rest of us nerds who have to get better at remembering it.
It's everyone else, the ones who are still undecided about this whole next-generation phone thing, who still own older iPhones or are Android curious, who maybe think the iterative in-between is really the new model done right, thanks to a year of early adopter beta tester fed fixes and improvements, who may still be undecided about upgrading. Wondering if now might finally be time to hand off or down their old iPhone or Android, and embrace not some notchy future, but the bezel-less present.
For them, the people who've spent the last year looking at that edge-to-edge display, HDR video, and fluid navigation, at Face ID, "depthy" selfies, and Animoji, and at almost every phone from almost every vendor that's tried, and largely failed, to copy it, the iPhone XS and the bigger iPhone XS Max could be compelling.
I think that's exactly the customer Apple is aiming for this year. And I've spent the last week trying to figure out if the starting-at-$999 iPhone XS and starting-at-$1099 iPhone XS Max really are the phones to do it.
If you didn't like the iPhone X and its notched face, there's very little about iPhone XS that'll change your mind. If you were interested in iPhone X but weren't ready to take the risk — or front the cost — on the first iteration, then the second generation has a lot to offer. It takes everything Apple set out to do with the original and makes it better. Face ID is faster. A12 Bionic makes everything fly. Like, FLY. The cameras have adjustable blur and, thanks to Smart HDR, can capture pictures the previous generation simply never could. There's stereo recording and playback offers wider separation and richer sound. And you can even get that edge-to-edge OLED display maxed out to 6.5-inches.
As total packages go, it's not something most current iPhone X owners should strongly consider, but if you're still running an older iPhone or Android, it is something you might seriously want to consider ditching your Home (or back) button for.
Rather than recapitulate old features on new phones, I generally point people back to my previous reviews. That's especially important for "S" years like this one, where so many of the features critical to the XS and XS Max, including the OLED display and the True Depth camera system, debuted with last year's model.
At this point it's just weird that Apple is still including a 5-watt USB-A charger in the box. Sure, technically wired and slow is the best way to charge your iPhone but, for most people, most of the time, the tiny fraction of battery life you lose charging fast and hot — especially in the age of aggressive charge management — simply isn't worth the loss of convenience.
It's also three years post UBC on MacBooks and Apple still isn't including a USB-C cable in the box, not even a USB-A to USB-C adaptor. In fact, the 3.5mm to Lightning adaptor, which Apple included in the iPhone 7, iPhone 8, and iPhone X boxes is gone now. So, we're expected to have switched completely over to Lightning for audio but not USB-C for data or charging? I know Apple has all the numbers to make the best choices for its existing customer base but over-serving that customer base is seldom the wrong decision and it's usually the type of decision we expect from Apple.
How much does it cost to chamfer an edge or get the precisely right depth and layering to a finish? Apple spends a fortune seeing to every conceivable design detail on the phones themselves but then don't continue that commitment through the to the accessory experience.
The biggest news about iPhone XS is literally the biggest news: A 6.5-inch version Apple is calling "Max". It looks like iPhone 8 Plus with a shave and a haircut. Seriously, you need to see it to believe it.
Now, confession time — I've been having some trouble easing into that name. Max. Seeing and hearing Apple use it isn't "your parents reading from Urban Dictionary" weird but it's close. Aside from sounding like Macs, it comes off as more than a little over-the-top. Like "MAX EXCITE!" (Which, Ironically, is a phrase I personally use far too often...)
But maybe that's exactly what Apple's going for here? Either way, but this time next year — hell, by this time next month — I doubt any of us will even think about it anymore. Not so sure? Just ask "iPad".
I get why Apple didn't stick with "Plus". In previous years, "Plus" versions weren't just bigger, they were better. Notably, they had higher screen densities, superior cameras including, for the last few years, dual camera systems, and more memory.
That's not the case with "Max". This year, aside from the physical size, both models are identical. Same 458 pixels-per-inch (ppi), same dual camera systems, and — sweet Christmas! — even the same 4GB of memory.
Because Max is bigger, Apple can squeeze in more pixels — 2688x1242 instead of 2436x1125. If my math is right, that's more than a standard Retina iPad like iPad mini or the 9.7-inch iPad. Also: A larger battery to help power all those extra pixels. But that's it. That's all.
Differentiating based solely on size is something Apple has done, off and on, with the iPad lineup as well. It started with iPad Air and iPad mini 4 and happened again most recently with the second-generation iPad Pro 12.9 and the debut iPad Pro 10.5. I'm not sure how it'll affect Apple's average sales price (ASP), which has been trending higher thanks to the enticingly exclusive features of the highest-end models. But, having the same features in both flagships is absolutely better for customers.
Of course, size itself can be seen as an exclusive feature. For some, the more expansive, more legible (now including the much-anticipated return of Display Zoom), more pixel-full 6.5-inch XS Max will be well worth the extra $100 Apple's asking for it. Others, though, will see the more compact, more pocketable, more one-hand-able 5.8-inch XS as the sweet spot, save themselves a hundred bucks, and smile so wide while doing it.
Personally, I've gravitated towards the bigger iPhone ever since Apple introduced it. Other than my Apple Watch, my iPhone is the one device I have with me everywhere and I can use anywhere, and I want to be able to do as much as I possibly can with it. That's including both the display size and the camera.
For the last year, though, I've been on the 5.8-inch iPhone X because it was so much screen in so little a package. Now that the cameras are no longer a distinguishing factor, will I stick with that size or will I escalate up to 6.5?
Big phone vs. tiny tablet is something I've joked about in my reviews for years. But this is no joke. At 6.5-inches, it's like iPhone X had a baby with iPad mini.
That's especially true in landscape, where, like Plus-sized iPhones before it, you get the iPad-style split view layout in apps… even though you still miss out on the functional difference in aspect ratio and on key features like side-by-side apps and Picture-in-Picture. (At this point along the phone maturity curve, those no longer feel like crammed-in complexities. They feel like missing functionality.)
Holding the XS Max, it feels about the same to me as the previous Plus models. It's just a tad slimmer, but not that I notice. That edge-to-edge screen, though… that you can't miss.
Most of us will need to swipe down for Reachablity to get to the top half and tap into the one-sided keyboard to type one-handed (or just give up and treat it as a two-handed device). But what you get for putting up with the bigger dimensions are those bigger dimensions. And it can be a hell of a reward.
I'm guessing I'll end up landing on Max. Still, I'm going to jump between both for a month and really make sure. Stay tuned.
Wait, what? A design section? For a phone that's almost visually indistinguishable from the previous years? Isn't that like having a design section in a Porsche 911, Leica M-series, or Rolex Submariner review? Whatever. While iPhone XS looks almost visually indistinguishable from iPhone X, there are some important distinctions both in how it looks and how it works.
The most obvious in the new gold finish. After sticking with it on iPhone 8 but not pushing it to iPhone X last year, this year's iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max both come not only in silver/white and space gray, but gold. It's not the Champagne or Rose of 6s or 7, and not even the blush of 8, it's something new. Like the new steel gold Apple Watch that it so perfectly, intentionally matches, it's deeper to my eye, still rich but not at all ostentatious. A splash of pink, a touch of brown. It's still bling, just not as fussy about it. I like it. A lot.
Since you can't anodize stainless steel, Apple brought the gold back using physical vapor deposition. Theoretically, it makes the surface tougher and more resistant to abrasions. Diamond-like carbon (DLC), which Apple famously uses to make the Black Steel Apple Watch into something akin to adamantium, is a form of PVD. We'll have to wait and see how this, different, gold version holds up.
The bands are still beyond surgical grade stainless steel and the front and back are still glass, but even stronger glass than the already even stronger glass Apple and Corning cooperated on last year.
Chemistry is typically demands a trade off: The better a glass formulation resists scratches the easier it is to crack. The better it resists cracks, the easier it is to scratch. My iPhone X survived many a drop but it did pick up more than its fair share of battle damage.
This year, Apple says it's found a way to improve both. Take that, Chemistry. Still, Apple and Corning worked miracles notwithstanding, I'm eager to see how the XS holds up over time.
The display is still edge-to-rounded-edge OLED, video still Dolby Vision and HDR 10 compatible. Photos, though, including the fancy new Smart HDR ones I'll get to in a bit, get an even higher dynamic range. 60% according to Apple.
A short but necessary rant about the display: A year later and a lot of people who really should know better still insist on calling the OLED iPhone a "Samsung display" and crediting pretty much everything about it to Samsung. That's as much bullshit now as it was then. (Maybe even more, if rumors of dual sourcing turn out to be true.) Sure, Samsung manufactured the OLED panels using its PenTile process, but it did so to Apple's order and specifications. Calling them Samsung displays, regardless of how clever that may make some feel, is like calling the A11 or A12 Bionic a "TSMC chipset or the iPhone itself a "Foxconn Phone".
Regardless of who makes it, Apple designed it and implemented it. Apple fit it to the curves of the new casing, engineered the silicon to drive it, developed the anti-aliasing and the color-shift and burn-in mitigations, and has each one individually color-calibrated at the factory. And Apple folded it back on itself so it could get rid of the chin on the bottom of the phone, something that, a year later, almost no other vendor has been able to afford or engineer.
Good sourcing is definitely a requirement but it's far from the only one. OLED on the iPhone is something everyone from the Platform Technology to Industrial Design to Display teams deserve a ton of credit for — or, if you hate the way it turned out, all the blame.
The speakers are better on iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max as well. No, they're not Dolby ATMOS, because physics. But they are wide stereo now. I'm the opposite of an audiophile so iPhone speakers have sounded fine to me for years now, but people with much better ears than mine tell me these sound even better. I do notice much better separation from both channels and, in movies, can clearly hear Monster Trucks and Quinjets zooming from one side to the other, even as dialog somehow manages to stay eerily centered.
Like iPad Pro, if you spin your iPhone 180º while watching, the audio will spin with it. That keeps left on the left, and right on the right. (If you spin the portrait orientation, all bets are off and everything just sounds kind of centered and judgy because portrait video still isn't a thing to everyone.)
The bottom of the phone is now asymmetrical across the x-axis. Z- is still fine, but Apple had to add an extra antenna to the top and bottom to enable 4x4 multi-in multi-out (MIMO) and that came at the cost of matching grills.
Yes, I can't unsee it. And I'm guessing it makes Jony Ive's eye twitch just thinking about it. But it doubles the effective ways iPhone XS can lock onto and keep a carrier signal, so I guess we'll just have to all put up with it for a while. Drowning our sorrows in Gigabit LTE, License Assisted Access (LAA — carrier aggregated unlicensed spectrum at 5 GHz), and Dual SIM support.
Dual-SIM support is shipping later this fall. In most places, it'll uses one nanoSIM and one built-in eSIM. In China, it'll use two nanoSIM. It basically means you can have two different numbers active on two different carriers at the same time and switch between them whenever you want or need to.
It works just fine with a paired Apple Watch, though if you go out running without your iPhone, you'll have to pre-select which carrier you're going to do out running with.
Particulate and liquid ingress protection — basically dust and water resistance — are even better now, rising to IP68, which, according to Apple's vendor set claims, means an iPhone XS that gets dropped in the drink can now survive at up to 2 meters for up to 30 min. Again, don't confuse this for swim or dive proofing, or for making it safe to use as an underwater camera. It's still so not. But, if you spill your favorite beverage on it, get caught in the rain, splashed on, or knock it into the bathtub or pool, chances are very good that, if you fish it out and clean it off quickly, it'll be just fine.
Inside, there's a new, tighter coil that makes the inductive charging system more efficient. It doesn't draw any additional power, it just uses the same power better. (And, like with processors, efficiency translates directly to speed.)
Apple also says the new design won't be as fussy about where exactly you place it on the inductive pad. That's great. Going wireless quickly loses appeal when you wake up next to a dead iPhone tipped just slightly off its sweet spot.
Battery chemistry still hasn't seen any significant technological improvements but Apple keeps improving all the technology around Lithium-Ion to eek out as much as it possibly can. iPhone XS is no exception. Apple says it gets slightly longer battery life than the X. I've been using both, side-by-side, for the last week and largely under the most brutal conditions imaginable: Roaming on AT&T.
Even though the battery on the XS is a year newer and far less abused, it still hung on impressively better. Enough that, despite the radios burning up in a desperate attempt to keep a signal, I could almost make it through a day. For the brief period of time that I was home, I aced the day no problem.
I'll have to do more tests, especially with the bigger battery on the bigger iPhone XS Max, but I'm hopeful that we've finally turned the corner from phones designed for light web browsing and mail reading to phones that can handle the constant screen, GPS, and data of our now social and gaming focused lives.
A funny thing happened when Apple shipped the first 64-bit chipset on mobile in the iPhone 5S: It instantly catapulted to the head of the silicon pack. And the platform technologies team hasn't slowed down since. Not with the fusion high efficiency/high performance cores in iPhone 7, not with the neural engine in iPhone 8 and iPhone X, and not with the second generation Bionic in iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max.
I've already explained a ton about why and how Apple is winning mobile silicon, but here's the TL;DR in pop-culture terms: If the old Bionic was the Six Million Dollar Man, the new Bionic is Iron Man (post-Extremis, of course.) And that keeps happening, in different but important ways, generation after generation.
It's 7nm now. Processes have become more marketing terms now than absolute measures, but this is the first commercial chip to ship at that tiny, tiny scale. Like forget Ant-Man shot in narrow depth of field tiny and think knocking on the door of the Quantum Realm tiny. That tiny.
Basically, it means is Apple can pack even more transistors into an even smaller die. Because performance is inextricably linked to efficiency, 7mn improves both.
The CPU is still 6-core fusion system, with two high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores that can all be used together to really rock your socks off if and when needed. Those performance cores are now up to 15% faster and 40% more energy efficient. Those efficiency cores are up to 50% more efficient. In an industry where the explosive growth of mobile processing power has seemed like a hockey stick for years, those numbers might seem more modest. Like drum sticks. But, year after year, the gains are still adding up. (Apple's custom performance controller is still the secret sauce here . It's what coordinates all the tasks across to and across the cores.)
For the GPU, Apple's second fully custom design, the number of cores have gone up from 3 to 4. Tessellation and multilayer rendering and lossless memory compression have been folded in to, along with Metal 2 support, give it a 50% bump over last year's. Oh, that's where the hockey stick went… Basically, games, video editing, photo filters, and all other graphically intensive tasks may be more intensive than ever, but they don't feel that way any more. At all.
The biggest news is the Neural Engine. It's sky-rocketed from 2 cores to 8 cores, with multiprecision support, capable of 5-trillion calculations a second, and that makes it able to accelerate Apple's Core ML machine learning frameworks up to 9x — nine times! — faster at up to 1/10th the power than last year. It's also got smart compute which lets it decide, on the fly, whether any given task is better off being run on the CPU, GPU, or Neural Engine.
Forget hockey stick, that's rocket launch. (I'd call it ridiculous but in the time it takes me to type that, Bionic would have performed 15 trillion calculations and come up with 616 better words for it — and a second plan to beat Thanos.)
The Neural Engine Core recognizes frequent patterns, tries to proactively predict behavior, and learns what you do so it can help you do it. Faster and more easily, like JARVIS. So much faster, this year's Bionic can do a lot of Machine Learning tasks in real time. That lets you spin up AR experiences and map out the staging surface in a way that feels positively snappy. It also helps with Photo searches, applying intelligent filtering in apps, and more.
Face ID biometric authentication benefits not only from the more advanced Neural Engines, but faster algorithms and a faster Secure Enclave as well. Previously, when it worked, Face ID was so seamless it felt almost as though it was passive. Now it feels almost like it's not even there. (Combined with iOS 12's swipe-up-to-retry, I can't even remember the last time it failed on me.)
The new Neural Network also works with the new Image Signal Processor to make taking and editing pictures and video better than ever. That includes not only moving Portrait Mode from a custom but consistent disc blur effect to what's basically a full-on computational lens model that ingests and understand what's in a scene, and then applies a dynamic effect that can distort as it get further from center, or layer as different light sources come together.
It's like moving from photo filter to 3D render, in real time, and it gives both iPhone cameras, front and back, a real character.
Because of that, you can even change the depth effect. Currently in post, later this year in the live view, you can literally step it from f/1.4 to f/16 and watch as the computational lens model steps with it. It's still not the same as shooting with a dedicated camera and big hunk of glass, but it's so good you'll be wanting to reach for that camera and glass even less often. And that seems to be the driving goal of Apple's ISP and Neural Engine teams.