iPhone XS and XS Max review: Apple has made the most desirable phones ever – but something else is coming

They are the best. But they might not be for long, with the XR just around the corner

David Phelan
Wednesday 19 September 2018 11:00 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Is this the future of the smartphone? Apple would have you think so.

Last year, it described the iPhone X as the future because of its edge-to-edge display and ground-breaking Face ID that replaced the conventional fingerprint sensor: just glance at the screen and it'll unlock, but only when it recognises your unique, lovely face. This system replaced the conventional fingerprint sensor.

So, would it be a novelty one-off, with subsequent iPhones going back to fingerprints, or would Face ID be the way ahead?

Apple answered that question this week: all three iPhone X successors: iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR use Face ID. We've reached the future then.

And, please note, these are all iPhone X models, there's no iPhone 9 to follow on from last year's iPhone 8 here.

In other words, Apple has moved full-force to Face ID all-screeners, and phones with big bezels and fingerprint sensors, well, they're just old school, rivals please note.

What's new?

There's a lot new in these iPhones but one strong element, design, is more or less unchanged. Apart from the size of the iPhone screen and battery, there is no difference between the iPhone XS and XS Max.

This is new: for the last few years the larger-sized iPhone has had better camera capabilities. This year, you can choose between the two phones exclusively according to which size suits you best.

All this means that apart from screen size and battery size (oh, and price) anything mentioned here about one of the handsets applies to the other one, too.

The screen sizes, by the way, are 5.8 inches for the iPhone XS, like last year's iPhone X, and 6.5 inches for the iPhone XS Max.

The iPhone XS Max is about the same size as last year's iPhone 8 Plus, which may make it too big for some hands and it's worth trying it in your hand before you buy.

Actually, though it's big, many users report that after trying a phone this size for a week or so that they get used to it and find it hard to go back to a regular-size handsets with their suddenly-tiny screens.

The new bigger phone is called Max rather than the Plus used on previous larger-screened handsets to hammer home the point that this is different from the Plus which had areas at top and bottom of the phone's front which weren't screen - this one is screen all the way up and down.

This does mean that areas you didn't need to touch on the iPhone 8 Plus because they weren't part of the display are now touch-sensitive, so your thumbs need to reach further.

I don't have big hands, but I never found it an issue with the XS Max, though sometimes my thumbs were getting more exercise than I was used to.

Design

The iPhone XS looks identical to the iPhone X in every visible regard. It's the same exact size and weight (well, it's 3g heavier). If you liked the iPhone X, you'll like this.

If you never got around to upgrading to the iPhone X, then you can now buy a more powerful model and for the same price: it costs from £999.

The larger iPhone XS Max is virtually identical to the XS but for its size. In design terms the only differentiator is that the TrueDepth camera sensor, that non-screen element at the top of the display is the same size on both phones and since the XS Max is bigger, the camera sensor is proportionally smaller.

Apple didn't use this space to change what's displayed on the screen to maximise the extra space - I'd have liked it if the battery percentage was now displayed on the home screen again. Ah, well.

Actually, there's one other design update in this pair of iPhones, the case colour. Last year's models came in space grey and silver options. Added to that this year is a spiffy-looking gold finish which gleams opulently.

The space grey and gold models have specially coloured antenna bands, as well, using a delicate physical vapour deposition process which is time-consuming (it takes 10 hours per handset) and therefore expensive, but is an indication of Apple's forensic attention to detail.

The displays on the two phones are also identical in terms of screen resolution, 458 pixels per inch. Some rival phones have resolutions that are higher. But both are needle-sharp, brightly coloured OLED screens that look wonderful. There are screen improvements here but to my eyes they look like last time around, that is, tremendous.

Waterproofing is improved this year, too, so the phone can survive in 2 metres of water for half an hour – this is another invisible design change.

Improved Face ID

The benefits of Face ID include the fact that you don’t need to leave space for the fingerprint sensor which permits that display to cover the entire front of the phone.

This is harder to achieve than it sounds as most displays require the driver to sit at one end of the phone which is why that chin is still present on other phones where the fingerprint sensor has moved to the back.

Apple got around it by using a flexible OLED and bending it behind itself to hide this, so the display reaches all the way down.

The new iPhones use an enhanced version of Face ID, which is noticeably faster than last year's edition. Previously, Face ID was not as fast as the fingerprint sensor, Touch ID, but now it feels absolutely as quick - and even more intimate than using your fingerprint.

Face ID, Apple says, is the most secure way of unlocking your phone and is considered so safe that it can authorise Apple Pay and be used to unlock secure elements such as password vaults or banking apps.

The new camera

The camera unit looks the same from the outside with a pair of camera lenses and multi-tone flash. There is a wide-angle camera and a telephoto, and the wide-angle includes an enlarged sensor.

This sensor has bigger pixels, and Apple says these are deeper pixels, to boot, which helps with colour saturation, we can get out of the same amount of light. It has also increased the number of Focus Pixels for faster autofocus.

In many ways the camera is the same as before, but it has one new feature that's super-cool, an addition to the Portrait setting.

One advantage of two camera sensors is that it can give an effective optical zoom by having one camera that has twice the focal length of the other and switching seamlessly between the two.

But you can also shoot both cameras together and use software for a bokeh effect. That's when your subject is in perfect focus but the background is blurred.

Apple has had this for a couple of years but now takes it to a new level. After you’ve shot the photo you can adjust the depth of field to a granular level. This is not simply adding more blur, but rebuilding the shot each time you swipe a slide control.

While other phones do something similar, this is the most versatile and effective depth of field effect I've seen, and it looks sensational.

In other respects, the camera is largely as before - two 12-megapixel sensors on the rear and a 7-megapixel camera on the front. This front one also manages a bokeh effect because it has the TrueDepth camera used for Face ID to contribute to this.

That is also used for Memoji, the new cartoony versions of yourself which you can use for video messages on the iPhone X and these new phones. The Memoji smile, pout and even stick their tongue out in perfect sync with the faces you pull. It's a novelty, but a very enjoyable one.

Media playback

The latest displays are even better are playing video, Apple says, with greater colour fidelity. I couldn't see much difference, but the iPhone has always had great-looking video playback.

The speakers have been redesigned, too, so that they can offer more balanced and more powerful stereo sound than before. It's certainly loud and more nuanced than before, and it may be enough for you not to need headphones to watch a movie on the iPhone, if that's something you like to do.

With the iPhone XS Max, the screen feels like it might be just big enough to while away a commute watching a video (though in the case of a commute, well, you will need headphones).

Performance

The new processor in the iPhone XS and XS Max is blisteringly fast. Mind you, so was last year's iPhone X chip, so speedy performance has been standard for iPhone for a while now.

The new processor is there to make more advanced apps and games possible. These include Measure, a delightful augmented reality app which works as a virtual 3D tape measure (also available on last year's iPhone X with the newly available iOS 12 software).

It also means that video games can be more detailed than ever, with striking effects and butter-smooth gameplay even in speedy, complicated, character-rich scenes.

Apple also claims that the new chip is more efficient and is one of the elements which contributes to longer battery life in the new phones.

In the simplest terms, apps launch near-instantaneously, and the phone never keeps you waiting.

Apple has also introduced dual sim capabilities thanks to the provision of an electronic sim card (e-sim) alongside the physical nano-sim. Handy if you have two numbers or want a local data plan when you're abroad.

At launch, EE is the only supporter of this capability but expect other networks to follow.

Battery life

Both the new phones claim greater life than last year's models, and this is one of the few differences between the large and small phones. The iPhone XS lasts 30 minutes longer than the iPhone X, Apple claims, and I'd say that's about right.

The iPhone XS Max lasts 90 minutes longer than iPhone X but in my experience it seems much longer. It just goes on and on, through a full day with ease and even into the next day if you don't charge overnight (though that's still recommended for peace of mind).

Recharging is faster - from 0 to 50 per cent in under half an hour, though as with every battery, it takes longer to climb the other half of the phone's capacity. Wireless charging is also a little faster, thanks to an improved wireless coil and better algorithms, apparently.

Better still, it also works better with off-axis charging, that is, if you put the phone on a wireless charging pad carelessly, it will still charge, which hasn't always been the case. If you've ever done this because you were tired or, let's be honest, drunk, you'll know how annoying it is to wake to an uncharged phone.

The battery charges fastest using a wired connection and there are more powerful chargers that whizz this process along even faster, but these are sold separately.

This iPhone comes with the regular charger in the box, plus of course Lightning-connector EarPods though not, this time around, an adaptor so your regular headphones can connect to the iPhone. It's still sold separately, of course (£9).

Pricing

These are expensive handsets. The iPhone XS costs £999 for a 64GB model, £1,149 for 256GB and £1,349 for the new, super-capacity 512GB version. If you fancy the larger-display phone then prices are £100 more, that is, £1,099 for 64GB, £1,249 for 256GB and £1,449 for the 512GB size.

These are not cheap phones and are higher than pretty much every other flagship phone on the market.

Verdict

Here's the obvious bit: these are the best iPhones yet made. But are they good enough to justify the high price? Yes, I think so. The design is the most elegant and refined on any smartphone and the build quality is second to none. The display is highly attractive and since you'll be using it all day long, that's a good thing. The camera is tremendous, adding features that rivals have had already but doing them better than anyone else.

Extra features like dual SIM support won't matter to everyone but are neat enough.

And the processor means that performance is likely to be better than any other phone available now - and if it's like last year, the performance level will stay unbeaten.

The increases in battery life are welcome and in the case of the XS Max especially, are impressive. Though, please note, Apple, there's no such thing as enough battery life.

Overall, although these iPhones can seem incremental in some ways, they are building on a completely ground-breaking phone from last year, the iPhone X.

It's worth noting, though, that the iPhone XR, a more affordable iPhone with almost all the benefits of the XS and XS Max, is coming next month and for many it will be the most desirable phone of all.

Until then, these are the most exciting phones you'll find anywhere.

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