The iPhone XS & XS Max Review: Unveiling the Silicon Secretsby Andrei Frumusanu on October 5, 2018 8:00 AM EST
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.