WATCH: Is this the most powerful iPhone ever? A review of the Xs and Xs Max
Apple says that it’s the most powerful iPhone ever. But with its new 6.5-inch display, it looks like nothing can stop the iPhone Xs Max from becoming even more of a substitute for your television and your camera.
There are three main takeaways I’m left with after my first week with the iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max.
The first is raw power. The second is that transformative screen. And the third is a resurgent camera system.
The 6.5-inch iPhone Xs Max, in particular, is a landmark device. It feels that just about every other smartphone advance has been leading up to this iteration.
It is astonishingly powerful, has an unmatched camera system and now has a large Oled screen that genuinely threatens your television, laptop and tablet.
With its steel frame and glass rear, it also looks and feels beautiful.
So it has leapfrogged Huawei’s P20 Pro and Samsung’s S9 Plus into top spot of the smartphone pile.
It’s not completely perfect: while battery life is improved, I found that it’s not quite on par with some of its rivals. This is especially so given the extra attraction of using that gorgeous screen more for video, games and photography.
That niggle aside, if you’re due an upgrade and feel that this is within your budget, you won’t be disappointed.
Here are some of other findings from my review of the new iPhones so far.
2. THE CAMERA IS PRETTY AMAZING
The Xs and Xs Max have a couple of showstoppers in the upgraded ‘portrait’ mode and the application of high dynamic range (HDR) to illuminate low light photos better.
I’ll start with portrait mode, which is the feature I would choose to show off to friends. I’ve tested this at length and it is far superior to the version initially shipped with last year’s iPhone X.
In portrait mode, you can now edit the depth of field (or ‘bokeh’, as photographers call it) after the photo has been taken.
In plain English, ’bokeh’ is the pleasing blurriness behind the sharp main subject of a photo. It is a common, beloved feature of portrait photographers because it separates the subject from a background (or foreground) very sharply. But it can only usually be achieved with expensive, large lenses on thousand-euro camera bodies.
Normally, there’s no way that a sensor as small as the iPhone’s should be able to do this. But Apple’s application of ‘computational photography’, backed up by its powerhouse of a new A12 Bionic chip, gives it the ability to create a very decent bokeh effect in instantaneous post-processing.
In true Apple fashion, this is done with a user-friendly slider that goes from f1.4 (very shallow and blurry behind the subject) to f16 (a relatively sharp background). You simply move your finger along the screen to decide how much (or how little) bokeh blur you want.
Over the week, I found myself taking hundreds of bokehlicious photos. Pleasingly, it works not only with human subjects but with pets and inanimate objects, too (such as flowers). Crucially, it also works for the front-facing ‘selfie’ camera.
Make no mistake: this is a ‘wow’ feature.
I even went so far as to test it against a €2,300 professional camera system, Fujifilm’s X-Pro 2, with a 50mm equivalent f1.4 lens.
Unsurprisingly, the Fujifilm shots were mostly marginally sharper with the depth of field available at any level of light.
Indeed, the iPhone Xs requires certain conditions for this feature to work, such as a minimum level of light and a minimum distance of a couple of feet. And sometimes in low light you’ll see slight blurring where you may not think it’s right.
But for the iPhone to be even close -- which it usually was -- to a professional camera system on some of the shots is a sign of where photography is going. To have this level of photographic flexibility on a phone is groundbreaking.
The other huge advance to come from the new A12 Bionic chip is HDR. HDR allows the camera to take several frames at once, choosing the best features from each to present the clearest, most vivid picture of what the camera is aiming at. But to do it right takes a lot of horsepower. Huawei and Samsung have both had some success in boosting their low light photos in this way, thanks to their own chip advances. The iPhone Xs matches these standards, giving very clear, balanced photos where there are strong shades of light and dark.
It’s not just ‘computational’ photography updates under the Xs’s hood.
There are some physical improvements to the actual camera system. Both the Xs and Xs Max have two rear 12-megapixel cameras (at 28mm f1.8 and 52mm f2.4) and a 7-megapixel front ‘selfie’ camera. Apple has slightly increased the size of its sensor, leading to a 30pc increase in the its ‘microns’, from 1.22 to 1.4. Generally speaking, this makes it more capable in low light than iPhones of two or three years ago.
And Apple says that it now has “deeper” pixels of 3.5 microns, compared to 3.1 microns for the last model, leading to a better accommodation of light and dark shades in the same photo.
3. THAT BIG, BIG SCREEN
I found that both the 5.8-inch iPhone Xs and 6.5-inch iPhone Xs Max have compelling cases as the ‘right’ screen size. The regular Xs, as a direct successor in form factor to last year’s iPhone X, feels ergonomically perfect in my hand (which is medium to small for a man). I also found that it is big enough to be comfortable in viewing a Netflix episode while compact enough to fit in any pocket and to be used one-handed.
On the other hand, the larger iPhone Xs Max is the ultimate media consumption phone, with that gorgeous Oled screen shining when used for movies, television shows or YouTube. It’s utterly droolworthy. And yet there is a little extra effort in using it one-handed for messaging or navigation. So my guess is that it will come down to personal taste.
However, it’s worth dispelling one myth floating around: the iPhone Xs Max is not bulkier than the large iPhones of last year or the year before. Indeed, the 2017 iPhone 8 Plus is slightly bigger than the iPhone Xs Max in terms of its overall size.
Somehow, there is a narrative about the place that the iPhone Xs Max is a behemoth that can’t fit in your pocket or bag. This is blatantly untrue. I suspect that the confusion arose simply because the all-screen device’s display (6.5-inches) was mistaken as a metric against the older model’s 5.5-inch display without taking into account that one handset’s front end has bezels while the other has none.
The larger display does have one negative knock-on effect. It’s now harder than ever to reach for the control panel. The iPhone X introduced the concept of getting to this through swiping in from the top right corner. That was tricky enough. But the bigger screen makes it considerably harder to reach up there with one’s thumb.
4. BATTERY LIFE IS A BIT BETTER
The iPhone Xs’s battery is a tale of two metrics. On one hand, Apple says that it performs between 30 and 90 minutes longer than the iPhone X or iPhone 8 Plus. This felt about right during my testing of the two phones. So if you’re looking for longer battery life than your current iPhone, you’ll get it here.
On the other hand, we’re now in an era of 4,000mAh batteries in some of the iPhone Xs’s rivals. That equates to at least 20pc better battery in those phone systems.
And one ironic twist to putting in such an incredibly beautiful Oled screen is that you’ll want to use it more. That, certainly, was my experience. I often couldn’t take my eyes off it. The result was that I certainly didn’t feel I was making it to a longer point in the day before needing to seek some extra battery power: In a normal full day (starting at 7am), I usually required a top-up around 5pm to feel I would safely make it home with running dry.
5. IOS 12 BRINGS SOME INTERESTING IMPROVEMENTS
Baked into the new iPhone Xs (and which will be available for most current iPhones) is iOS 12. I’ve been using two of its new features regularly: Screen Time and the new Apple TV remote control feature from the control panel.
(Group FaceTime messaging is another anticipated iOS 12 feature but won’t now be rolled out until later in the Autumn.)
Screen Time is a fascinating concept and one that, I suspect, will be the central focus of iOS 12. This is because, as well as allowing us to moderate our own app usage with limits and downtime sessions, it provides new controls for parents to limit what their kids can do and see.
For example, its ‘content restrictions’ sub-setting allows a parent to control whether a child has unrestricted access to the internet or not. The content restrictions also allow the main user to limit content from the Apple Store, including podcasts, music, books and TV shows, according to measurements such as their national censor rating or whether they contain explicit language. Similar restrictions can now also be placed on Siri voice searches.
Another sub-setting allows a parent to control whether a child can engage in multiplayer games, add friends within games or engage in screen recording.
The new feature can be set up for family devices while there’s also a Screen Time passcode that stops others from turning the feature off, or modifying some of the rules set, if they get access to a parent’s phone.
A general ‘downtime’ setting with Screen Time limits availability on the phone only to pre-chosen apps (such as iMessage) and phone calls. A reminder appears five minutes before the downtime period begins. The setting can be applied across all of a user’s iCloud devices.
6. OTHER NOTABLE FEATURES
(i) Better water resistance: This year’s iPhone Xs has an upgraded water and dust resistance certification, reaching IP68. This means that it can now survive in most kinds of common liquids for up to 30 minutes at a depth of two metres. The only condition is that you need to let it dry off for a few hours before trying to get it to work again. I haven’t tested this element of it yet. (Though I did test the iPhone 7 in a pint of Guinness two years ago, the video for which you’ll find elsewhere on this website: it survived just fine at the lower water resistance grade.) However, I have had it out taking photos in the rain. As you’d expect, this was no problem whatsoever to it.
(ii) Loads and loads of storage: The new iPhone Xs goes all the way up to 512GB, the most on the market. This is good if you plan to hold on to the phone for a couple of years and use it a lot for photos and video. It’s also good if you use video services such as Netflix, Sky Go or YouTube Premium, all of which now allow you to download full movies or television episodes for offline viewing. This requires a lot of free storage, although maybe not quite as much as 512GB. The other storage options are 64GB and 256GB (which will probably be the sweet spot for most Xs Max users).
(iii) Louder speakers: Another hardware upgrade to compliment the TV-friendly nature of the new phones is more volume in the speakers. These are now genuinely quite loud, easily capable of holding a section of a room.
(iv) Dual sim / eSim: The iPhone Xs has incorporated a ‘dual sim’ status, meaning you can choose between two operators on one phone. But unlike other phones which have had this for years, Apple’s dual sim feature is an ‘eSim’. That means it’s built in to the phone — you can buy a monthly prepaid plan on the phone without ever having to get the small plastic sim card from the operator to stick into it. A number of operators are already on board, including T-Mobile in the US and EE in the UK.
It won’t be switched on until later in the Autumn, Apple says. But when it is, this could be a huge bonus for regular travellers, especially to countries such as the US.
When looking for a local US sim card, it’s very hard to get something adequate (of around 10GB) that’s much cheaper than $75.
The option I usually use is actually on my iPad Pro via its built-in Apple sim card. In ‘settings’, I can just switch this on and then choose an operator from the list of those offering to connect the iPad. My current choice is TMobile at $10 for 5GB, usable any time over six months. I’m sincerely hoping that the iPhone’s new Xs ‘eSim’ feature offers something similar.
7. CONCLUSION - IT'S A HIT
In some ways, the iPhone Xs is a classic ‘S’ upgrade to last year’s iPhone X.
In other ways, it’s utterly transformational. Apple has set out its stall to completely replace front-facing Touch ID buttons as a control mechanism. And it now goes toe to toe with the biggest screens on the market.
Physically, the two handsets are pretty gorgeous. They have beautiful steel frames and toughened glass rear casing.
They both come with a beast of an engine under the hood, one that’s strong enough to allow the new handsets perform some extraordinary things, especially in the all-important camera department.
Having also handled the iPhone Xr at the Cupertino launch, I think that there’s stiff competition coming to the Xs models when that cheaper device is launched in October.
But for now, the iPhone has done more than enough to earn its stripes. It is the top smartphone on the market.
8. PRICING & AVAILABILITY
The iPhone Xs costs from €1,179 for the 5.8-inch model (64GB) and from €1,279 for the 6.5-inch model (64GB). 256GB and 512GB storage versions are available for both models at increments of €170 and €230, respectively. They’re available in silver, space grey and gold.