Conclusion & End Remarks

While the iPhone XS and XS Max in one sense are just another iteration on last year’s iPhone X, they’re also a big shift for Apple’s line-up. Rather than being actual successors to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus they're closer to next-generation replacements, but with some significant differences. In that respect I do regret missing out on the iPhone XR for this review, as I think it’s going to be an incredibly attractive alternative to the XS models.

Design wise, there’s not much to talk about the XS: the smaller variant is nigh identical to the iPhone X, with the only visual differences between the phones being the added antenna lines on the XS, virtue of the new 4x4 MIMO cellular capabilities of the phones.

The XS Max sports Apple’s biggest screen, and in a sense I do like the design more because it does have a bigger screen-to-body ratio. Apple’s bezel design is intentional, but I did hope they had shaved 1-2mm off the sides, as I’ve gotten used to other, more full-screen devices. One thing to consider about the XS Max, is that’s it’s really heavy for a phone, passing the 200g mark at 208g.

The screens of the XS and XS Max are the best displays among any devices on the market: While Samsung still has a density advantage, the Apple phones just outgun competing phones in terms of colour accuracy and picture quality. The 10-bit panel allows seamless colour management between sRGB and Display P3 modes depending on content, and Apple’s still the only vendor able to do this without having significant drawbacks.

The Apple A12 is a beast of a SoC. While the A11 already bested the competition in terms of performance and power efficiency, the A12 doubles down on it in this regard, thanks to Apple’s world-class design teams which were able to squeeze out even more out of their CPU microarchitectures. The Vortex CPU’s memory subsystem saw an enormous boost, which grants the A12 a significant performance boost in a lot of workloads. Apple’s marketing department was really underselling the improvements here by just quoting 15% - a lot of workloads will be seeing performance improvements I estimate to be around 40%, with even greater improvements in some corner-cases. Apple’s CPU have gotten so performant now, that we’re just margins off the best desktop CPUs; it will be interesting to see how the coming years evolve, and what this means for Apple’s non-mobile products.

On the GPU side, Apple’s measured performance gains are also within the promised figures, and even above that when it comes to sustained performance. The new GPU looks like an iteration on last year’s design, but an added fourth core as well as the important introduction of GPU memory compression are able to increase the performance to new levels. The negative thing here is I do think Apple’s throttling mechanism needs to be revised – and by that I mean not that it shouldn’t throttle less, but that it might be better if it throttled more or even outright capped the upper end of the performance curve, as it’s extremely power hungry and does heat up the phone a lot in the initial minutes of a gaming session.

On the camera side, Apple made some very solid improvement all-around. The new sensor’s increased pixel size allows for 50% more light sensitivity, but the improved DTI of the sensor also allows for significantly finer details in bright conditions, essentially increasing the effective spatial resolution of the camera. SmartHDR works as promised, and it’s able to produce images with improved dynamic range. The telephoto lens is the one use-case where the XS really stands out over the iPhone X as exposure and colour rendition are significantly improved, one of the weak points of many telephoto cameras nowadays. Overall in daylight, the new iPhone is easily among the best smartphone cameras on the market.

In low light the iPhone XS also sees a big improvement, however it’s not enough to quite match Samsung’s hardware and Huawei’s processing. I do hope Apple will make use of the newfangled computational photography in more use-cases, as we’re seeing some great innovation from the competition in this regard.

Video recording of the iPhone XS is also a major improvement of the phone. From better dynamic range, better stabilisation, to better and now stereo audio recording, Apple makes a significant leap in the video performance of the new iPhones.

In terms of battery life, it was surprising that the iPhone XS wasn’t much of an upgrade over the iPhone X in our test. I’m still not sure if this is something related to some sort of hidden inefficiency of the A12, or maybe something to do with the new WiFi or cellular modem. For the latter, we’ll be revisiting the topic shortly, and to also re-validate the battery life numbers of this review.

For the iPhone XS Max, I wasn’t surprised to see battery life be less than on the iPhone 8 Plus – the OLED screen is less efficient than the LCD display of last year’s phone – and the increased battery capacity is not enough to counter-act this. It’s just something to keep in mind for the big-phone users out there eyeing the iPhone XS Max in particular.

Overall, are the new iPhones worth it to upgrade to? If you’re an iPhone X user, I think my answer is no. If you’re coming from an older device, then my answer is… wait it out. When having a hands-on with the XR at the keynote event, my first thought was that this would be the model that would see the most success for Apple this generation. The problem here is that Apple is asking for a lot of money – if you’re entrenched in the iOS ecosystem, I think it’s best to evaluate the individual pros and upgrades that the new iPhone XS brings over your current device.

The value proposition aside, the new iPhone XS and XS Max are, as always, extremely polished devices, and the best phones that Apple has released to date.

Camera Video Recording & Speaker Evaluation
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  • willis936 - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    Great review. I loved the SoC analysis. There's definitely something spooky going on in an SoC with three caches that are scattered throughout the die. You do mention that there are two more fixed point ALUs but when analyzing a SPEC test result that relies on execution units you said that the A12 didn't have any execution improvements. Aren't the extra ALUs more execute?

    It's clearly a nice device and there are areas that saw massive improvements and other areas that are more of the same. I really appreciate that your conclusion isn't "it's a great device so buy it" but "it's a great device but really expensive".
    Reply
  • Andrei Frumusanu - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    The A11 had two more ALUs over the A10, the A12 doesn't improve in this regard. Reply
  • 3DoubleD - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    More than half the die shot was unlabeled. I found it strange that over 50% of the die wasn't worth discussing... what does it do? Are these fixed function units, modems, ISPs, ect.?

    It's really amazing how the CPU and GPU are taking less and less space on a SoC.
    Reply
  • shabby - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    It's not like Apple gives out these die shots with everything labeled, we're basically guessing what everything is. Reply
  • melgross - Saturday, October 6, 2018 - link

    Nobody knows what the entire chip does. Since Apple doesn’t sell their chips they’re not obligated to tell us all of the secret sauce that’s in there. Reply
  • Ironchef3500 - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    Thanks for the review! Reply
  • bull2760 - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    I returned my MAX because of antenna signal issues. I upgraded from the 8 plus and while it was super fast it definitely has issues. I drive the same route to work everyday and in the few days I had the phone I had 4 dropped calls in the middle of conversations and when I looked at the screen is said call failed. One call to my wife I had 2 calls failed within 5 minutes. From my research the dropped calls are related to the new antenna system that Apple is using. Unless you are in a strong signal area you will receive a lot of dropped calls. From what I'm reading this has nothing to do with switching to Intel from 3Com it is directly related to the choice of antennas. Had 3Com had a chip ready to go with the same specs it too who have similar signal issues because of the antennas. The other issue I was having was network connectivity. I would be connected to my wireless at home or at work and often get page cannot be displayed errors and I need to check my network. I was clearly connected to my wireless network. I would turn the wireless on and off and it would start working. Speeds were crazy too. One minute you'd get really fat throughput and the next it would be crazy slow. I'd hold off on purchasing the new phones until Apple sorts out the bugs. Reply
  • FunBunny2 - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    ehh?? everybody knows that if you want to use a telephone, you get a landline. mobile phones ceased being about phone calls at least a decade ago. what?? for a Grand$ you want to talk to someone??? how Neanderthal. Reply
  • PeachNCream - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    Hah! I love the sarcasm!

    On a serious note though, I do wonder how long we'll even have a phone network or carriers that treat voice, text, and data as individual entities. We can and have already been able to do VoIP for what feels like ever and calling over WiFi is a thing. It'd make sense to just buy data and wrap up voice and text inside 4G or whatever.
    Reply
  • FunBunny2 - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    "It'd make sense to just buy data and wrap up voice and text inside 4G or whatever."

    I suspect that some scientists/engineers have run the numbers to see what that does to data capacity. which may be why it hasn't happened. or, it could also be that the data scientists at the carriers (and phone vendors) have found that smartphone users really don't make enough phone calls to warrant supporting decent quality.
    Reply

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