It’s been a little over three weeks since Apple unveiled the new iPhone XS, XS Max and the XR. The new flagship line-up is one of Apple’s most important ones to date; this year we’re seeing the company expand last year’s new iPhone X design across all of its new models, meaning big changes for all users. 2018 has been an odd year for the smartphone market as more than ever before we saw the competition try to react and also mimic the iPhone X – the design language especially has been something that we saw replicated across a lot of various designs.

Instead of iterating on the design, Apple has stayed true to its “S” generation release tradition and doubled down on what we saw last year with the iPhone X, all the while expanding the design across new form-factor phones as well. Today we review the first two of this year’s three new models: the iPhone XS, and its bigger brother the iPhone XS Max. The iPhone XR unfortunately releases later on this month – so we'll be taking a look at it separately.

Today we’ll be going into the detail of all aspects of the phone, included a much awaited deep dive of the new A12 SoC. Given Apple's ever-growing focus on the camera capabilities of their phones, I have also prepared an extensive camera comparison for this review – comparing shots across different modes on 14 devices. Hang in tight, this is a long one.

Starting off, let’s go over the specifications of the new iPhone XS and XS Max:

Apple 2018 iPhone XS Specifications
  iPhone XS iPhone XS Max
SoC Apple A12 Bionic

2 × Vortex @ 2.5GHz
4 × Tempest @ 1.59GHz
GPU 4-core "G11P" @ >~1.1GHz
DRAM 4GB LPDDR4X
Display 5.8-inch OLED
2436×1125
DCI-P3/True Tone
625 cd/m² brightness
1M:1 contrast ratio
3D Touch
6.5-inch OLED
2688×1242
DCI-P3/True Tone
625 cd/m² brightness
1M:1 contrast ratio
3D Touch
Size Height 143.6 mm 157.5 mm
Width 70.9 mm 77.4 mm
Depth 7.7 mm 7.7 mm
Weight 177 grams 208 grams
Battery Capacity 2658mAh / 10.13Wh 3174mAh / 12.08Wh
Wireless Charging Qi
Rear Cameras 12 MP 1.4µm pixels, f/1.8, OIS
Wide Color Gamut
Quad LED True Tone Flash
Portrait Mode, Portrait Lighting, Depth Control
12 MP f/2.4 Telephoto, OIS
2x Optical Zoom
Portrait Mode, Portrait Lighting, Depth Control
Front Camera 7MP f/2.2
Wide Gamut, Retina Flash, Portrait Mode,
Portrait Lighting, Depth Control
Storage 64 GB
256 GB
512 GB
64 GB
256 GB
512 GB
I/O Apple Lightning
Wireless (local) 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO + Bluetooth 5.0 + NFC
Cellular Intel XMM7560 Modem
UE Category 16 LTE (1Gbps) with 4x4 MIMO and LAA
Splash, Water, Dust Resistance IP68
up to 2 meters, up to 30 minutes
Dual-SIM nano-SIM + eSIM
nano-SIM + nano-SIM (China model)
Launch Price 64 GB: $999
256 GB: $1149
512 GB: $1349
64 GB: $1099
256 GB: $1249
512 GB: $1449

At the heart of the new iPhones is the brand new Apple A12 SoC. The new chipset is the very first consumer piece of silicon that is being manufactured on TSMC’s new 7nm process. The new process promises greater transistor density and reduced die area of the chip, which gives Apple the ability to cram in more transistors in the same area, ultimately increasing the complexity and capabilities of the new SoC. We’ll go into more detail about the process node in a dedicated section, but least to say, in terms of sheer transistor counts it’s a healthy jump for Apple’s newest design.

The SoC’s CPU complex is now powered by two new “Vortex” CPU cores running at up to 2.5GHz, providing new levels of high performance. Apple claims the new CPUs perform around 15% better than last year’s A11 Monsoon cores – here it seems the company’s marketing was a tad conservative as the real performance figures of the new CPU are significantly higher. Alongside the performant Vortex cores, we see four new smaller efficiency cores named “Tempest”. The new small cores bring some performance improvements, but it’s mostly in terms on power and power efficiency where we see Tempest make some bigger leaps.

The A12’s GPU is the G11P – here Apple has made the biggest performance claims, advertising up to 50% higher figures. We’ll see how the new successor to last year’s A11 GPU in its dedicated section.

On the memory and storage side of things, we now finally see a significant boost in main memory capacity, as both the iPhone XS and XS Max sport 4GB of LPDDR4X RAM, up from 2GB and 3GB in the iPhone 8/X family. In terms of storage capacity, the new models come in 64, 256 and 512GB tiers. Here it’s a tad disappointing to see the base model come in at only 64GB, I think offering 128GB would have resulted in a much more even distribution in the models.

Front and centre of the new iPhones is the new “Super Retina” OLED display. Apple first introduced OLED displays in its lineup in the iPhone X – and the new iPhone XS and XS Max are a continuation of that panel, with an obviously bigger iteration for the Max. The displays are outright fantastic and among the best in the market, offering a fully colour managed wide "Display P3" gamut, very high brightness up to 650 cd/m², and excellent viewing angles. The iPhone XS has the same resolution as last year’s iPhone X, at 2436 x 1125 pixels, while the XS Max maintains the same pixel density by increasing the pixel count to 2688 x 1242.

On the back side, both phones are again a continuation of the iPhone X design. The glass back offers NFC and wireless charging capabilities. Wireless charging has seen an upgrade and claims to be able to charge faster, and also improve on the off-centre and off-axis charging performance.

Apple has worked with Corning to create a new formulation that is said to improve durability and scratch resistance. I’ll leave the testing of this to other people!

The sides of the phones come in highly glossy “surgical grade” steel. While I do appreciate Apple’s intent here, and I understand some people have personal preferences, I’m not a big fan of such finishes as I find them impractical and more slippery than the anodised aluminium of previous generation iPhones. It’s also a hell of a fingerprint magnet.

While the iPhone XS is more or less indistinguishable from the iPhone X – the one visual difference between the new and old is found in the lower left and upper right corners. The left microphone grill has halved its size and is only three holes wide now. Here Apple has introduced two new antenna cut-outs in the corners that serve the two new cellular antennas which enable the iPhone XS’ to achieve 4x4 MIMO.

Indeed in terms of cellular connectivity, the new iPhones boast a significant jump as we’ve seen an upgrade in download speeds to a gigabit for LTE networks. In terms of internals, this was achieved by now exclusively adopting Intel’s new XMM7560 baseband platform. This is Intel’s first chipset to support CDMA and also the first modem to be manufactured on Intel’s own 14nm process.

On the camera side of things we see the same dual 12MP camera module configuration as on the iPhone X – a normal wide angle and a zoom lens. The big difference with the XS is the upgrade in sensor size from an area of 32.8mm² to 40.6mm². Because the lens has remained the same and also offers the same f/1.8 aperture, the increase of the sensor size results in a slightly wider field of view than last year’s models. Light sensitivity has been increased thanks to the bigger sensor, and hence, the bigger pixels, increasing in size from 1.22µm to 1.4µm. The telephoto lens remains largely similar, with a 12MP 2x zoom module.

The iPhone XS Max in contrast to the iPhone XS is just a much bigger device. Apple noted that it’s calling it the “Max” instead of the “Plus” denomination, because it has no added features, and is just a bigger variant of the smaller XS. Here I applaud Apple for not making any feature discrepancies based on the model size – something I really hated in the past with the dual camera being found only on the Plus models.

The iPhone XS Max has a 3174mAh/12.08Wh battery while the smaller XS features a 2658mAh/10.13Wh battery. While Apple calls this the biggest battery ever in an iPhone, and that’s true, Apple is still a tad behind the battery densities that Android manufacturers have now come to commonly use in larger form factor phones.

 

Again, in a comparison between the iPhone X and the new iPhone XS – you’ll be hard pressed to see the difference and you’ll really have to focus to find the new antenna cut-outs to tell them apart.  

 

Meanwhile the iPhone XS Max is largely the same form-factor as the iPhone 8 Plus, although the Max is technically 0.7mm narrower and 0.9mm shorter. For users opting for the larger models, the biggest difference is of course the massive increase in screen size, and I have to say, the XS Max does look very good due to its sheer screen-to-body ratio, which is higher than the smaller XS.

Finally the last big mention before we go deep into our review the price of the new phones. These new models are not successors to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus – something I imagine the iPhone XR will have much more success in achieving – but rather continuation of the new high price points of the iPhone X. The higher storage capacity price points in particular are exceptional, coming in at $1349 for the XS and $1449 for the XS Max. If the price is worth it for you, is something you best decide along with us as we go deeper into the hardware of the new phones.

The Apple A12 - First Commercial 7nm Silicon
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  • melgross - Saturday, October 6, 2018 - link

    It’s both. The deep dive isolates the SoC to a great extent. It can be done with any phone. Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    Andrei, thanks for the review! Yes, these are outstanding phones at outrageous prices. I appreciate the in-depth testing and detailed background, especially on the A12's CPU and GPU. While I don't own an iPhone and don't like iOS, I also believe that, phone-wise, the XS and XS Max are the new kings of the hill. The A12's performance is certainly in PC laptop class, and I wonder if (or how) the recent Apple-Qualcomm spat that kept QC's modem tech out of the new iPhones has helped Intel to keep its status as CPU provider for Apple's laptops, at least for now.
    One final comment, and one question: Andrei, I agree with you 100% that Apple missed an opportunity when they decided on a rather middling battery capacity for the XS Max. If I buy a big phone, I expect a big battery. Give the XS Max a 5000 mAh or larger battery, and it really is "the Max", at least among iPhones. At that size, a few mm additional thickness are not as important as run time. Maybe Apple kept that upgrade for its mid-cycle refresh next year - look, bigger batteries.
    @Andrei. I remember reading somewhere that the iPhone X and 8 used 128 bit wide memory buses. Questions: Is that the case here, and how does the memory system and bus compare to Android phones? And, in your estimate, how much of the A12's speed advantages are due to Apple's memory speeds and bus width ?
    Reply
  • dudedud - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    I was sure that only the A$X were 128bit, but i would also want to know if this had changed. Reply
  • RSAUser - Saturday, October 6, 2018 - link

    A12 is definitely not in the laptop class unless you're looking at the extreme low power usage tier.

    Just because it is quite a but faster than the equivalent on mobile does Not mean it can compete at a different power envelope. If that were true, Intel would already have dominated the SoC market. It requires a completely different CPU design. It's wwhy they can use it for the touchbar on the macbook but not as a main processor.
    Reply
  • ws3 - Sunday, October 7, 2018 - link

    This review did not compare the A12 with “mobile” Intel chips but rather with server chips. The A12 is on par with Skylake server CPUs on a single threaded basis. Let that sink in.

    As to why Intel doesn’t dominate the SoC space, Intel’s designs haven’t been energy efficient enougj and also the x86 instruction set offers no advantage on mobile.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, October 18, 2018 - link

    It's already competing with laptop and desktop class chips, not just mobile fare. It's up there per core with Skylake server, and NOT normalized per clock, just core vs core.

    It's like people don't read these articles year over year and are still using lines from when A7 arrived...
    Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, October 18, 2018 - link

    Only the A10X and A8X were 128 bit, on mobile that's still power limited for memory bandwidth. Reply
  • juicytuna - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    Apple's big cores are like magic at this point. 2-3x the performance per watt of the nearest competitors is just ridiculous. Reply
  • sing_electric - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    I know this is almost a side point, but this really goes to show what a mess Android (Google/Qualcomm) is compared to iOS. At the rate Snapdragon is improving, it'll be 2020/2021 before Qualcomm sells a chip as fast as 2017's A11, and Google is shooting itself in the foot by not having APIs available that take advantage of Snapdragon's (relative) GPU strength.

    That's on top of other long-term Android issues (like how in 2018, Android phones still can't handle a 1:1 match of finger movement to scrolling, which the iPhone could in 2008). Honestly, if I wasn't so invested in Android at this point, I really consider switching now.
    Reply
  • EnzoFX - Friday, October 5, 2018 - link

    I switched. Long time nexus user and I feel Google letting the value orientated base behind. It took me saying screw it and paying more for sure, but it has been worth it. Hardware I found lacking and software too since they went t Pixel. Sure on paper it sounded great or fine, but issue after issue would creep up. I never had that many problems with iOS but I feel it's mature enough coming from someone that likes to change settings. The X sold it for me too hardware wise. It was where I saw things going years ago and glad that it's here. (waiting on the Max now however, as I want the real estate!) Reply

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