By Jason Snell
October 15, 2018 2:40 PM PT
iPhone XS review: The future, as promised, is now
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a month since I took possession of an iPhone XS and XS Max. In the intervening four weeks I’ve taken photos and video, traveled on a business trip, gotten stuck in hideous commute traffic. That’s life. And throughout, the iPhone XS has proven itself as a phone that’s got all the benefits of the excellent iPhone X, with some subtle tech upgrades, a massively improved camera, and—perhaps most significantly—a bigger screen if you want it.
Same as it ever was
After a year with the iPhone X, switching the iPhone XS was not much of a disruption. (I’ve been using the same case as the one I used with the iPhone X.) Apple hasn’t perfected the process of migrating from one phone to another, but it’s coming ever closer. Back in 2015, Myke Hurley and I spent 90 minutes detailing all the annoyances in migrating to our new iPhone 6S models. On what should be one of the most fun moments on any tech enthusiast’s calendar—iPhone upgrade day!—we ended up getting frustrated with a long chain of annoyances that soured the entire experience.
Things are much better now, starting from the moment where your old iPhone senses that a new iPhone is in setup mode nearby. That kicks off a whole local information-exchange experience that gets you most of the way to upgraded with a minimum of password re-entry. I’d love for it to be even more frictionless, but it feels very much like Apple has done everything it can while also keeping its security model intact. Restoring Apple Pay only requires re-entering of CVV codes. Even restoring apps from the App Store seems faster than it used to!
Since biometric data is not transferrable between devices, of course you have to set up Face ID when you move to the iPhone XS. I’m still flabbergasted about how easy it is to set up Face ID—you tilt your head a couple of times and that’s it. Apple says Face ID is faster on the iPhone XS than on the iPhone X due to the faster A12 processor, and after a month I guess I can see it. It’s hardly a shout-from-the-rooftops improvement, but it’s faster—and it was already pretty great. Face ID all the things!1
So let’s deal with this up front: The iPhone XS is a better iPhone X. I’ll get into the details in the rest of this review, but if you spent $999 or more on an iPhone X last year, and you’re not on some sort of annual replacement plan (or don’t have a family member to roll your phone down to), you can probably hold off on upgrading this year.
That’s not a condemnation of the iPhone XS, but a compliment to just how far forward the iPhone X pushed the iPhone line. It was a truly great upgrade.
Staring into the sun
The defining feature of the iPhone XS upgrade is the camera. But these days when you talk about a camera, you’re really talking about the combination of an image sensor, a set of lenses, signal-processing hardware, and complicated (machine-learning assisted) software running on powerful processors. This is what smartphone cameras are now, and as long as the laws of physics require smartphones to only be a handful of millimeters thick, that’s not going to change.
(I assume that eventually, the back of every smartphone will either be one giant light-sensitive surface or an array of dozens of cameras, intelligently capturing the scene around you and using powerful algorithms to create a perfect representation of what you saw. Either that or the cameras will migrate into our smart glasses or smart hats or some other smart object not yet devised.)
For now, though, we’ve got a camera so good that you can shoot straight into the sun and it kind of doesn’t matter, other than the risks of J.J. Abrams-style lens flare. A lesson anyone using a camera learns early on is that you don’t want to shoot backlit subjects, because the light from behind them will wash out the rest of the picture, and you’ll be left with silhouettes or a completely useless, blown-out image.
Using the iPhone XS camera has required me to retrain myself. You’re always going to be better off not shooting directly into the sun, but it matters a lot less when every shot you take is actually a combination of multiple shots and exposures capturing different portions of the image at different light levels, and sticking them all together on the fly into a single image that can show the sun, the sky, and the faces of the people who are feeling that sun on their backs. This is a technique Apple calls Smart HDR, and it is a remarkable step toward making iPhone photos match what your eye actually sees.
(Our eyes—and the powerful neural engine that processes the image signals coming from them—can see simultaneously in bright light and dark shadow in a way that our cameras just can’t. But the cameras are getting better all the time.)
Is the ultimate goal to make every photo out of an iPhone camera exactly match what you see in your mind’s eye when you look at the scene? Not necessarily, no. Part of the power of an experienced photographer is using the technology at their disposal to capture a specific image, one that doesn’t necessarily copy reality but represents some aspect of it. Photography is the art of finding a still image with very specific bounds in a dynamic, 360-degree world.
That said… when it comes to snapshots? Yeah, the ultimate goal is to save what you saw with your own eyes so you can remember it later. There are lots of apps that will let advanced photographers take advantage of the power of the iPhone XS camera to take amazing pictures—but by default, in the Camera app, the goal is rightly to capture that scene you want to keep forever. And if it involves two kids playing in the sand at the beach with the sun inconveniently setting behind them, then it needs to do everything it can to represent that moment despite the less-than-ideal conditions. That moment won’t come again and can’t be restaged.
In the past month I have taken a huge number of photos pointing more or less straight at the sun. I’ve taken shots on the side of a mountain with bright sunlight in the foreground and deep, deep shadow in the background. The iPhone XS did a great job rendering those scenes—in fact, in one shot on the mountain, I was standing in the sun and couldn’t see anything in the shadows, but the iPhone managed to reveal some of it. Comparing a Smart HDR photo and its single-exposure equivalent, I found that Smart HDR exposed detail in sunlit spots that would’ve otherwise been blown out. In a shot up from within a dark forest canopy, Smart HDR images were able to render the sky through the trees as blue with puffy clouds, as opposed to just a bright white.
I’m similarly impressed with the video-capture ability that Apple’s calling “extended HDR.” In essence, if you’re taking video at 30 frames per second or less, the iPhone actually captures pairs of frames, one stepped up in exposure, one stepped down, and then combines them on the fly into a single frame that includes more image information from both the bright and dark spaces in an image. Think about that for a minute—it’s capturing 4K video at 60 frames per second, analyzing two 4K frames, and merging them into a single frame every thirtieth of a second. It’s a staggering amount of processing power, but in the end all that matters is that now your video shows the details of light and shadow better than it did before.
And that’s all that really should matter. It’s nice that when it rolls out new products, Apple shows some of its work—tech nerds like me want to know what’s going on behind the scenes. But for just about everyone else, the point is that photos and videos look better and more like what we saw with our own eyes.
Is there more to be done on this front? Always. Google continues to push its computational photography forward in the Pixel line, with the latest model offering its own tricks to improve image resolution, low-light photography, and finding just the right fraction of a second to take the perfect image even if you pressed the shutter button at a slightly less optimal time. Our cameras are getting smarter and smarter. Eventually all we’ll have to do is point them at a scene and let them work their magic.
Large and in charge
The other notable thing about the iPhone XS is, of course, that it comes in two sizes. The iPhone XS Max is a return to the big-and-small buddy iPhone movie Apple’s been running for the past few years, but this time rebooted for the iPhone X. The XS Max is, in fact, so much like the standard iPhone XS that it’s uncanny how your perspective shifts when you use one of the models for a while.
An hour with the iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XS and iPhone X suddenly look like little toy phones. A day with the XS, and suddenly the XS Max seems like a monster.
The fact is, the two models are identical other than their screen size (and a little bit of extra battery thanks to the extra volume of the device). So you don’t need to shop for an iPhone based on features, as some people did with the iPhone Plus models—namely buying a larger phone to get access to a better zoom lens.
I’ve never been a fan of larger phones, but since the iPhone X was itself larger than the iPhone 6/7/8 series that preceded it, that means that it’s less of a size jump from the iPhone XS to the XS Max. I’d argue that the iPhone XS’s screen is plenty large and fits better in my hand, so the extra pixels of the XS Max aren’t worth the awkwardness of holding a larger phone. If you have larger hands than I do, you might feel very differently. There’s a phone for both of us!
If you have hands that are smaller than mine, though, you may not be as pleased. Certainly, many people are lamenting the death of the iPhone SE and the lack of an update to the (larger, but not as large as the XS) iPhone 8. The iPhone XS is the smallest 2018-vintage iPhone, and it ain’t small.
I get it. One size does not fit all. And I’m hopeful that at some point—perhaps next spring, midway between this year’s revisions and next year’s—Apple will roll out another phone model or two that are a little bit smaller.
But these phones, as well as the forthcoming iPhone XR, are a reminder that in terms of the global smartphone market, bigger is better. It’s never any fun to be a fan of something that is a niche of a much larger market, but here we are. If you don’t like chocolate or vanilla ice cream, it’s good that there are more flavors. Right now there aren’t very many flavors of iPhone. I hope that changes in 2019.
Leaving aside the issue of smaller phones, there’s also the issue of a larger phone—the iPhone XR. I got a chance to try one out for a few minutes after the iPhone launch event in September, and I’ve got to be honest: It seemed pretty great. The screen’s not an OLED like the iPhone XS Max, and it only has the one rear camera—but it costs $350 less than the Max, and it comes in a bunch of bright, pretty colors that the XS models don’t.
It’s an interesting gambit on Apple’s part, to expect some percentage of users to opt for the more expensive, higher-end phone when the lower-end model is largely just as well equipped, comes in fun colors, and is a big cost saving. But then again, at $749, it’s not like the iPhone XR is a bargain-basement model. Apple wins either way. Isn’t that just like them?
Well, here we are in the future
In 2017, Apple said that the iPhone X was the future of smartphones.
Now it’s 2018, and… the iPhone X is still great. Story checks out. After a year with my iPhone X, I can’t imagine going back to Touch ID or a phone with big bezels on the face.
The iPhone XS, then, is today’s phone, today. Yes, it’s a small step forward for the iPhone X, but the iPhone X itself was a big step forward. If you haven’t joined the X family yet, this is a great time to jump on. If you want a larger phone, the XS Max will suffice—as will the XR, probably.
Is this an incremental update? Sure, but most of Apple’s updates are incremental. It’s only after a few years that you really notice all the major changes that have been happening, bit by bit. Last year’s jump to the iPhone X was unusually dramatic, but this year’s iterative step is not without its own kind of appeal. I’ll miss the iPhone X, which led a mere year-long existence, but the iPhone XS is the same phone—only better.
- I’m looking at you, iPad Pro. ↩
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