It’s that time of the year, and iPhone users can get busy shopping after the new iPhone XS, and XS Max have been announced. We’re sorry if you’ve bought your iPhone X last month, and maybe we can suggest reading Ubergizmo more often to keep up with these launches. Let’s get to business and look at how the new iPhone XS and XS Max perform, including against some of the best Android handsets.
Using price and positioning as the main criteria, we are going to compare various features of the iPhone XS and XS Max, with popular competitors or near peers. Even if you don’t plan on switching to Android, this will give you an idea of the iPhone XS positioning on the market and its relative value. Samsung Galaxy S9 (~$615), Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (~$999 ), Google Pixel 2 XL (~$600), Huawei P20 Pro (~$740), LG G7 ThinQ (~$695) and the OnePlus 6 (~$529).
|iPhone XS||iPhone XS Max|
|Display||5.8” OLED Display (2436×1125)||6.5” OLED (2688×1242)|
|Camera||Dual 12 MP Rear Cameras||Dual 12 MP Rear Cameras|
|System||Apple A12 Bionic, 4GB RAM||Apple A12 Bionic, 4GB RAM|
|Battery||2659 mAh battery||3300 mAh battery|
iPhone XS and XS Max Design
This year’s iPhones XS are an evolution of the iPhone X design, which was a more radical departure from the aging iPhone 8 chassis. The 5.8” iPhone XS model (called Ten S, and not X S as in “excess”) for 2018 feature slightly improved battery capacity per volume, and higher performance.
Apple is finally giving large-screen buyers what they asked for: a 6.5” iPhone XS Max (that name…), comes in a large chassis, but of course, offers superior battery capacity compared to its smaller sibling.
Chassis aside, the capabilities of both 5.8” and 6.5” iPhone XS are identical, so it’s just a matter of size, including battery.
If you have looked at the iPhone X, then the design is pretty much the same. Inside the phone, the battery design has changed a bit with an L-shaped battery, but despite all the praises from certain media outlets, the battery capacities are not extraordinary… consider this:
The iPhone XS is comfortable to hold, while the XS Max (above photo) is starting to get a bit wide, slightly wider than the Galaxy Note 9, which is my personal limit. When you add a case, the XS Max can become a two-hands phone, especially if you have smaller hands ( we use Men’s U.S Medium size as a reference).
Apple has the classic Silver and Grey colors, but we opted for the Gold model because it is more convenient to take photos of. Apparently, it’s pretty popular as well. Both the front and back are covered of scratch-resistant glass. Also, the camera bump is a little more substantial as before, so some iPhone X cases may not fit – be mindful of that.
Dual-SIM support has made its way into these new iPhones, thanks to an eSIM (electronic SIM) and a dual-SIM metal tray (love the design). This eSIM is based on the ST33G1M2 micro-controller and can be found in other devices such as the Google Pixel 2 XL. Note that carriers may not allow eSIM to work with 3rd party networks. Perhaps the unlocked iPhone XS would be the safest option for Dual-SIM.
Dual SIM is excellent for having two numbers, whether it is for work/personal or maybe for a 4G LTE SIM rental when you travel. Global roaming options are much better these days, but there are cases where it may help.
There is no 3.5mm connector (since 2016), but this time the difference is that Apple will no longer provide a Lighting to 3.5mm adapter, so you’ll have to pay extra for it or buy one of the expensive cables from Belkin ($19.95 – $29.95).
Glass designs conveys a premium aura, both visually and upon hand contact. Money aside, the price to pay for such design is the risk of damage that can occur if the device lands on a hard surface. Regardless, people still prefer them because they look so good. Handsets can merely be protected by a case, although that negates the point of having a thin and beautiful design.
The Metal frame seems to be made of stainless steel, which feels pleasant to the touch and is less prone to scratches than aluminum because it is a harder material. Overall, the iPhone XS chassis is extraordinarily stiff and should not be prone to the “bendgate” issues.
Analyzing how the smartphone was designed, we estimate that the odds of breaking during a drop on a hard surface to be “quite probable.” You can refer to our detailed article about how phones could be built to avoid cracks upon drops: How the LG V20 Was Designed To Survive Drops
The most crack-prone phone design is the Galaxy S9/Note 9 since glass is present on the edges, thus increasing the probability of a crack. The iPhone XS stainless steel frame will protect it a little bit more but it still remains a double-sided glass design, at high risk of cracking.
The iPhone XS has an IP68 IP rating (up from IP67 last year), which means that it is protected to some degree from dust and/or water. Here’s what the IP68 rating means:
“Dust-tight, no dust can penetrate. Up to 3-meter immersion waterproofing. In some cases, waterproofing means that some water can penetrate, but without harming the device.”
Apple has optimized the front glass for replacement, so it is possible to replace it without removing the front camera modules. However, a crack in the back will be much more painful to repair as everything will need to be taken apart.
Don’t crack your iPhone XS, for the sake of your wallet
The front XS/XS Max screen repair costs $279 and $329 respectively, while the back glass repair can go as high as $549-$599, that’s extremely expensive. Compare that to $99 and $229 for repairing the back glass and screen of a Galaxy S9+.
To conclude on the durability, Apple said that the new glass was the most durable ever. However, independent tests show that it scratches at just about the same level as before, which is 6 Mohs. For now, we have not seen any evidence that it is any better. This kind of hardness is standard with high-end phones, while the cheaper plastic displays will scratch at 3 Mohs.
The iPhone XS “Sapphire camera lens cover” also scratches at 6 Mohs, according to independent tests, so it has no advantage over competitors who use hardened glass. Sapphire, as found in luxury watches, scratches typically at 8-9 Mohs. 10 Mohs is what it would take to scratch a diamond.
Audio Quality: powerful speakers
The iPhone XS output a very good and powerful sound through its speaker system. The audio is distortion-free, and one of the loudest in the industry, competing with the HTC U12, the XPERIA XZ2, the Galaxy S9+ and the LG G7 ThinQ.
However, the LG ThinQ remains the best speaker phone in our opinion because the bass are superior, giving it the edge against others, including the iPhone XS. The LG G7 sound has more “body” and that makes an audible difference that the average person can hear. LG has a unique internal speaker design that uses the whole chassis as a resonance chamber
Display: excellent OLED screen
All-display designs have really struck a cord in the past year and a half. The iPhone XS ~81.1% Display/Body ratio is just shy of the 84% of the S9/Note 9 and equivalent to the 82% and 83% of the P20 Pro and LG G7.
However, the display-to-body ratio of 85.1% of the iPhone XS Max is outstanding in both absolute terms and relative to its own category. The only caveat is that this ratio would be reduced if we took out the missing surface area of the notch, thus making the Galaxy S9/Note 9 win this round."EXCELLENT AND EXTRAORDINARILY BRIGHT"
Despite having a 0.1” longer diagonal, the iPhone XS Max has the exact same surface area as the Galaxy Note 9, that’s because both screens have slightly different proportions.
The general quality of the screen is excellent and extraordinarily bright. Despite having a brightness specification of 650 NITs, we have measured our iPhone XS Max display at 1016 NITs, which makes it nearly as bright as LG’s G7 ThinQ phone, which we measured at 1097 NITs (most high-end phones reach ~700 NITs). This is just a fantastic level of brightness. And of course, the screen is certified for Dolby Vision and HDR 10.
In terms of color reproduction, the iPhone XS can render around 120% of the sRGB color gamut, which is very good but we’ve seen better: 141% (S9), 224% (Note 9), 132% (P20 Pro), 135% (G7).
The iPhone XS Max is built with an OLED display, and it competes well with the best Samsung displays for a good reason: it is a Samsung OLED panel, but Apple is using a proprietary color control algorithm. OLED is a radically different display technology (vs. LCD) that has been widely adopted in smartphones. If you want to geek-out, Oled-Info has a short commentary about this, and displaymate has the overwhelming display review.
The fundamental difference between OLED and LCD displays is how light is emitted. With LCD, there is a small number of white light emitters (1-2 for handsets, 2-100 for TVs) and black pixels are created by “blocking” the white light with a filter. Unfortunately, using a filter leads to “light bleeding” and “black color” that is dark-gray.
With OLED, every pixel emits its own light. This also means that creating a black pixel means merely leaving it OFF. As a result, black color is really black, and other colors are more straightforward to control without using complex filters and color control technologies such as Quantum Dots and Nano Dots. You can read our complete LCD vs. OLED article which goes deeper into the details.
iPhone XS Photo Quality
The iPhone XS camera has evolved a bit when it comes to sensor size, but apart from that, the primary functionality remains largely comparable to iPhone X. Apple has introduced a “Smart HDR” which makes photos less prone to be overexposed in high-contrast situations.
This probably comes from an ability to shoot and process more photos in a process called multi-frame HDR, which was popularized by the Google Pixel phones, which camera was found to be superior to the iPhone XS’. From our tests, Smart HDR provides an excellent outcome, comparable to Galaxy Note 9 and P20 Pro.
There are small differences, and if you browse (and zoom) the gallery below, you will see that the iPhone XS HDR removes some of the volume because it tones down shadows in the trees. The Note 9 preserves those volumes but seem to apply more filters, making the image seem a bit artificially contrasted. Finally, the much cheaper Vivo V11 shows that in broad daylight, $480 handsets can output nice photos too.
HDR was introduced with two photos shot at different exposures but competing phones can shoot 16 photos in 4×4 bursts, so Apple has been catching up nicely on that front. Algorithmic progress has also been made in 2018, and we saw this clearly with the Galaxy Note vs S9+ comparisons. It’s true for Apple phones as well.
Low-light photo is the ultimate test for smartphone cameras, as it challenges every single parts of the photo pipeline, from lens, to sensor to software. Here is a challenging night shot of San Francisco, where the iPhone XS is struggling to capture the slightly yellow/orange tint of the street lights and the green colors of the trees. As you can see in the gallery below, last year’s Google Pixel 2 XL and the Galaxy Note 9 do a better job overall, with the Galaxy Note 9 capturing the most faithful scene.
However, it gets even more interesting if you zoom into these gallery images below and look at the cropped photos to see the level of details and noise. You will see divergent strategies and trade-offs for each camera. The iPhone XS preserves details well, but not the colors and has more noise. The Pixel 2 XL does well with the colors, but lags in details and noise. The Note 9 does best with colors and noise, but is slightly blurrier than the iPhone XS.
Bokeh and Zoom
For Bokeh lovers, Apple is now letting people tweak how blurry the “out of focus areas” can be, after taking the photo. This is a welcome change, and iOS users can now enjoy what Android folks had been able to do for a couple of years. Apple has excellent Bokeh quality, and we consider it to be a leader in Bokeh photography, although the differences between Apple, Samsung, Google and Huawei have gone down in the past 18 months. Almost all have similar edge cases (like the abnormal sharp areas in-between the legs).
Also, users don’t have to switch to a “zoom” mode since a pinch and zoom will transit automatically from the main camera to the secondary camera, depending on the zoom level and lighting conditions (low-light zoom photo often don’t use the zoom lens because of its poor low-light performance). A similar feature was introduced by LG with the LG G6 last year."THE P20-PRO ZOOM CAPABILITIES ARE BEYOND THE IPHONE XS"
The iPhone XS zoom performance is in-line with other 2X optical zoom cameras such as the Galaxy Series 9. The P20-Pro zoom capabilities are beyond the iPhone XS, thanks to their impressive 3X (80 mm, 35mm-equivalent) telephoto lens that reaches farther than the iPhone XS 51 mm lens.
iPhone XS Main Camera Technical Analysis
In the iPhone XS Max, the camera aperture of f/1.8 is very decent (but far from excellent) and the sensor size of 23.9 mm2 would be considered large (for a smartphone). The sensor size is comparable the latest Galaxy Series 9 and the Google Pixel 2. Only Huawei has a monster RGB sensor which is ~68% larger than the iPhone XS."GALAXY NOTE 9: BETTER IN LOW-LIGHT THAN THE IPHONE XS"
That said, Samsung has a much larger f/1.5 aperture, and that explains why their camera does better in low-light situations, besting even Huawei’s P20 Pro as we have revealed in our Galaxy Note 9 Review. The Galaxy S9 and Note 9 Camera are noticeably better in low-light situations than the iPhone XS.
Megapixel and light sensitivity
In very bright scenes, Megapixel could be a useful metric for photographic detail and sharpness. For example, on a sunny day, a landscape photo with a higher megapixel count could capture finer details. Between 12 MP, 16 MP and 21 MP differences in small details can be quite noticeable, if printed or viewed on a large and/or high-PPI display.
In low-light situations, the high Megapixel count (>12) does not matter much. Keep in mind that the physical size of each sensor pixel is also critical. With higher megapixel counts, sensing pixels (sensels) may have to be smaller.
Each obtains less light information, and in low-light situations, it is better for the overall image quality to gather more light with fewer (but bigger) sensels than the opposite. It is a balance that needs to be found. Today, 12 Megapixel seem to be the best sensor compromise between sharpness, low-light and auto-focus performance.
Huawei’s P20 Pro (read our full P20 Pro Review) makes a remarkable attempt at handling both by having a huge 40 MP sensor, which uses pixel binning in low-light, turning it into an excellent 10 MP low-light sensor — this trying to benefit in day and night.
Optical photo stabilization and digital video stabilization
OIS helps to improve image clarity and higher low-light performance by offsetting tiny hand-shaking motion. OIS makes it practical to leave the shutter open longer to capture more light (more extended exposure).
Optical and digital stabilization are utterly different, with digital stabilization suitable to improve video recording smoothness. This handset supports Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS), which is specifically designed to stabilize video recording from excess motion induced by hand-holding, walking, running. Road vibrations or drone flight turbulences could also be offset by this technique.
EIS does NOT help with still photography and is not meant to replace OIS. Specific video formats such as extreme resolutions or framerates may not be compatible with this device EIS capabilities.
The autofocus of the iPhone XS Max camera is based on Phase Detection technology. Phase-detection AF that was initially built into discrete AF sensor chips in the DSLR days. Then it got integrated into the camera image sensor. It works by having specialized AF pixels sensors that would tell if specific points in the image were in-focus.
This method is very advanced, and the AF capabilities work well in most cases. AF performance is somewhat proportional to the number of hardware AF sensels. Typically this number can go from dozens to hundreds of Phase-Detection AF points. Phase detection AF is an excellent system, which is only inferior to Dual-Pixel AF, which the high-end Galaxy phones use.
Zoom and video capabilities
The iPhone XS secondary rear camera is a 51 mm lens (35mm equivalent) 12 Megapixel camera with an aperture of f/2.4. It does not use the same camera module and has a sensor that is about ~50% smaller than the primary camera module. This is common for 2X zoom cameras because they are meant to be used in bright lighting. The Galaxy S9/Note 9 have a similar setup to the XS. When it comes to zoom, nothing can beat Huawei’s 3X optical zoom at the moment (80mm lens).
The video and slow-motion capabilities are identical to the iPhone X, with a maximum of 4K/60FPS and 1080/240FPS for slow-mo. Sony’s 1080p/960FPS is currently the best slow-mo on the market (read our XPERIA XZ2 review), followed by Samsung’s 720p/960FPS with a very convenient visual trigger (check our Galaxy S9 Review for more info).
The 7 MP Selfie camera hardware is not particularly impressive with its f/2.2 aperture. The 32mm (35mm-equ) focal length shows that Apple very much sees it as a portrait-only camera, and that explains why the software features are very much geared towards this.
Most of the competition uses a 26mm focal length for the selfie camera, with the exception of Huawei which opted for a wide 18mm for group selfies. Longer focal lengths can then be emulated with cropping and software.
In bright lighting conditions, the Apple selfie camera is very respectable, and you might enjoy the different software tricks that it is capable of. If you are an influencer or a selfie semi-pro you might want to look at specialty Chinese phones like Meitu or Honor/Huawei since selfies are extremely popular in Asia and often get much better hardware.
Apple does an excellent job with software updates, and their adoption rate is much higher than Android’s. You can read more about what’s new on iOS 12, but the important claim from Apple are these:
- The camera app launches 70% faster
- 50% faster and more responsive keyboard
- Group calls in Facetime
- Smart photo search
For users who have not had an iPhone X experience, Face ID is probably one of the most visible change. It consists in using a 3D scan of your face to unlock the phone.
With iPhone XS, it’s slightly faster, and I found it to work reasonably well. It may not be as fast as a fingerprint reader, so I understand why these are still very popular, but I don’t mind too much. That said, it’s not possible to set up your significant other’s fingerprint, or have individual accounts for kids that block specific apps and purchases.
Since FaceID works by projecting infrared light patterns onto your face, it can be overwhelmed if you have in a very bright place or have the sun in your face. In that case, it will revert to a 6-digit code that was created during the initial FaceID setup.
The main thing that I find annoying with Face ID is that you still have to swipe up to access the home page and that makes it slower than the Android fingerprint+unlock solutions. The purpose of the swipe is to give you a chance to look at notifications, but it turns out that I don’t care for these most of the time.
Having always-visible screen notifications would solve this problem, but Apple does not support it, even though LG, Samsung, and others have had it for a couple of years.
iPhone XS speed: world-class performance
Apple has consistently impressed the industry with its processors, and the A12 Bionic keeps this trend alive and well.
The A12 Bionic chip is built using a leading 7 nm (nanometers) semiconductor process. This is the state of the art of chip-making, and you can expect competitors to have their 7nm products within the next quarter, but Apple is the first to ship it, while Huawei has announced its 7nm Kirin 980 at IFA 2018, and believes that it will outperform Apple’s A12 chip when it comes out in October. We’ll know soon enough.
The A12 Bionic has world-class performance for both CPU and Graphics. Apple’s CPU cores have always been excellent, but in the previous generation, the iPhone X scores exceptionally well in synthetic CPU tests such as Geekbench 4, but that performance didn’t translate into graphics tests such as GFXBench.
For now, the A12 Bionic excel at both, and this bodes well for gamers + AR users since that’s the place where true graphics power can be seen and felt."SYSTEM PERFORMANCE IS THE ONE AREA WHERE APPLE LEADS WITHOUT QUESTION"
Since the price of 2018-Q1 phones such as the Galaxy S9 has come down, they now offer an excellent performance/price at the high-end. However, Apple’s leading speed makes it land in the top 5 performance/value even with prices that deliver a jolt to your wallet. System performance is the one area where Apple leads without question.
The Apple A12 offers excellent performance that will require the next generation of HiSilicon (Huawei) and Qualcomm chips in order to compete with. If The Kirin 980 chip delivers on its promise, Apple will lead for… a month. If not, we’ll have to possibly wait until March 2019 to see the first handsets with the next-gen Snapdragon chip.
Battery: most desired, yet most lacking
We mentioned it earlier: with battery capacities of 2659 mAh and 3300 mAh, there isn’t much to brag for at the high-end. All the competitors we mentioned in this review have a higher battery density than Apple (expressed in mAh/cubic-inches or CI), and it is surprising to read many articles praising the technical prowess of these new XS battery design.
The Huawei P20 Pro has ~30% more battery per CI and both the Galaxy Note and Pixel 2 XL have ~7.5% more. The Huawei P20 Pro undeniably crushes the iPhone XS when it comes to battery."THE HUAWEI P20 PRO CRUSHES THE IPHONE XS AND XS MAX WHEN IT COMES TO BATTERY CAPABILITIES"
That said, the iPhone XS Max is a welcome addition to the iPhone line because it brings extra absolute capacity to Apple users. Both the Galaxy Note 9 and the Huawei P20 Pro have a 4000 mAh battery which is 50% more capacity than the XS and 21% more than the XS Max.
We recognize that the iPhone XS is very compact, with about ~4.80 Cubic Inches in Volume vs. ~5.25 CI for the Galaxy S9. That’s a +10% volume difference, but the S9 has ~13% more battery capacity.
Battery life is one of the most sought-after features of a handset. A key metric is without a doubt its battery capacity — especially within the same ecosystem (Android, iOS or other). Battery life can be affected by many factors, but the main ones are the central processor aka SoC, display and wireless radios (LTE broadband, WiFi, the cell towers location and more). It is impossible to precisely estimate through synthetic tests how much energy drain YOUR unique needs will create. However, two things are without a doubt always good:
- A higher battery capacity
- Faster charging
It is generally impossible to predict realistic battery life by running synthetic tests. Factors such as display brightness, (LTE/WiFi) radio usage and distance to access points will change too much. Also, how many apps installed, and their activity cannot be estimated. Battery capacity is the best battery-life indicator for YOUR usage.
Wireless charging can be convenient, and the iPhone XS comes with an integrated wireless charging feature. This energy charging method is ideal for users who spend most of their time at a desk. It is also great for overnight charging, and it is even possible to install a wireless charger in your car.
This product does NOT have a swappable battery, which is the norm for handsets nowadays. Closed batteries can’t be taken out or conveniently repaired, but they do allow for smaller designs and a bit bigger battery size inside the same product design.
iPhone XS has a very high-resolution display (2436×1125). This is great to look at extremely crisp images, but handling 0.67M pixels more than a 1080p/FHD (2M pixels) screen will draw a bit more power from the battery."SLOW CHARGING, RE-INVENTED"
Our iPhone XS Max has a charging speed of 20 mAh/mn (using the default power adapter). In some ways, we could say that it is “slow charging, re-invented” because this is the slowest charging speed we have seen in a long time.
The Galaxy Note 9 hits 45 mAh/mn while the OnePlus 6 and Huawei P20 Pro get an astonishing 62+ mAh/mn. That is 3X faster charging than the iPhone XS. 20 mAh/mn is okay to charge overnight, but if you’re in a hurry, competitors can get 3X the charge in the same time-frame. That’s not OK for a ~$1000+ smartphone.
The battery charges so slowly because Apple did not include a fast-charging power adapter. If you want a faster one, you’ll have to buy it yourself. For example, if you had a more powerful USB-C power adapter, you could charge the iPhone at around 56 mAh/mn: pretty good, but still lagging the best competitors by a good margin.
To match the rest of the industry, you have to buy the Apple 29W fast charger, and a USB-C to lighting cable. That’s an additional ~$74. Alternatively, you can get the Aukey 29W or the Anker 30W USB-C chargers that cost about half the Apple one, for a similar functionality. You still need the expensive USB-C to Lightning cable which is certified by Apple. It doesn’t matter who makes it, there’s a little ID chip inside, which is made and sold by Apple (~$15 on Amazon).
Whether you are a die-hard Apple user or someone who’s on the fence, it is fair to say that the iPhone XS and XS Max do deliver a solid user experience that one expects from a high-end smartphone. There are undeniably many cool features, and the industrial design holds its own, although it is no longer leading the industry."A SOLID USER EXPERIENCE THAT ONE EXPECTS FROM A HIGH-END SMARTPHONE"
Not providing simple things like fast-charging or a 3.5mm dongle at this price point is annoying (tightfisted), but it is for the buyer to decide, as long as you factor this into the phone’s total price. The iPhone XS is very good at many tasks, but the only thing that it undeniably dominates today is the system and graphics performance, that is until competing chips come along as soon as next month.
Depending on your user profile, you may want to consider a potential purchase from different angles:
iOS-only users only have to worry about the budget. It is evident that the newest iPhone should always be “the best iPhone ever” so there is little point in comparing it to the iPhone X, especially since it can no longer be purchased. If switching to Android is off the table, just buy the iPhone you can afford, or the one you like (small/big). In fact, the minimal choice might even be liberating for some. You will be satisfied, but if you currently have an iPhone X, it’s hard to justify an upgrade. If the budget is tight, the cheaper iPhone XR will come out next month.
iPhone users not committed to iOS: if you’re on the fence because of the features and value-proposition of Android phones, it’s not surprising. It is possible to get design diversity, excellent performance, higher battery life and excellent display for nearly half the price. With a brand new Galaxy S9 now costing ~$615 and the Huawei P20 Pro’s seen at around ~$740, there’s real value out there, especially considering that extra storage via microSD could save you a lot of money.
Android users looking at the other side could be tempted by iOS 12 features and the A12 Bionic’s performance. However, the battery density, camera performance or even industrial design can easily be challenged and outperformed by some Android handsets today, and even more so in the coming months. People who are happy with Android have little (technical) reason to switch, and even less financial reasons to do so.