Apple iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max review

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This is a very fast phone. The processor, called A12 Bionic, is very powerful, arguably more capable than many people will ever need.

by David Phelan Sep 22, 2018 at 1:53 PM

  • SRP: £1,349.00

    What are the iPhone XS & XS Max?

    Apple iPhone XS What are the iPhone XS & XS Max?
    These are two of the three new Apple iPhones just released. They are identical in almost every way except for their size and the consequent size of the battery inside.

    The iPhone XS has a 5.8in display, the iPhone XS Max a 6.5in screen.

    This, however, is something very new. In recent years, when there have been two iPhones, the larger version usually has a much more powerful camera than on the smaller size. It's often been one of the defining reasons for people going for the bigger phone experience, to get the two-camera set-up.
    But this year, really for the first time, you can choose which iPhone you want purely in terms of size.
    For now, that is - a third iPhone is being released at the end of October, called the iPhone XR, which is a middle-sized phone (6.1in display) that comes in at a lower price point thanks to more affordable components. These include an LCD screen instead of the OLED on offer here, an aluminium antenna band (here it's stainless steel) and a single camera instead of the twin sensors on the iPhone XS and XS Max. Still, its price may make it the iPhone worth waiting for.
    Apple iPhone XS What are the iPhone XS & XS Max?

    A word on the naming: Apple usually alternates between a whole-number year and an S year. This time the number is a roman numeral and these phones follow the iPhone X which went on sale last year. Hence XS for this year's phone. The iPhone X pronounced ten, not X, and these are said Ten Ess, not Excess and definitely not Tennis!

    The iPhone XS is the same size as the iPhone 8, the XS Max almost exactly the dimensions of the iPhone 8 Plus. But this is a Max, not a Plus because of one element: the screen.
    Both phones continue the full-screen design of the iPhone X, that is, there's no screen-free space at the top and bottom of the phone's front, sometimes called the chin and forehead. No, these are nothing but screen and Max is there to set it apart from previous Plus sizes.
    Well, they are all screen apart from the True Depth camera unit at the top of the phone, commonly nicknamed the notch, which divided opinion sharply when it appeared on the iPhone X last November but quickly became rather ordinary: lots of phones released since sport a notch.

    Iphone XS & XS Max Design

    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Max Design
    The styling of iPhones in an S year is usually very similar to the whole number that preceded it. This time it's identical. You simply can't tell the iPhone X and iPhone XS apart. They measure the same and weigh the same but for 3 grams.

    There are differences, such as the speakers and the waterproofing level which has risen from IP67 to IP68 - which just means it can lie in water to a depth of 2 metres instead of the previous 1 metre for half an hour now.
    But looks-wise, the XS is the spitting image of the X and the XS Max is the same but bigger. If you see a photo of one of the phones, with no sense of scale, it's hard to tell whether it's the XS or XS Max.

    Fortunately, the design is stunning, so keeping it for a second year is hardly an issue.
    Incidentally, the camera unit on the back is fractionally bigger than last year's, a little more protuberant, which has a minuscule effect on the width of the unit, too. Which just means that there may be some iPhone X cases which won’t fit the XS. And the differently oriented camera unit means there's no chance you can use an iPhone 8 Plus case on the iPhone XS Max.

    The design is stunning
    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Max Design

    It's really a slab of glass, back and front, with a metallic rim. The front is practically all display and the rear is a sheet of coloured glass with an Apple logo and a camera unit in the top left. Which means there is a greater purity to the iPhone XS design than any other phone around.
    This is even carried through in terms of the bezel round the edge of the iPhone screen. It could, it's true, be narrower than it is, but Apple has designed it so it's even all the way round, rather than reaching the very edges on the long sides and bigger bezel at the bottom, say.

    And it pulled off a remarkable coup with the iPhone X display, replicated here: at one end of an OLED panel sits the driver technology. Now, you can put it top or bottom, but it has to go somewhere, which is why virtually every other phone with pretensions to being all-screen still has a bit of a chin.
    Apple used a flexible OLED panel, made by Samsung, and folded it round on itself, so the driver sits behind the display and is out of sight.
    By the way, the really remarkable thing about the lower-priced Apple iPhone XR is that Apple has also managed to make that an all-screen affair, and you can't bend LCD! Anyway, that's a topic for another review.

    Oh, there is one visual difference between the iPhone X and iPhone XS: the colour. As well as the silver and space grey options carried over from the iPhone X, Apple has introduced a gold-coloured version for this year's models.
    This has a pale, almost rose gold, colour on the glass back, interrupted by the metallic gold logo and camera surround. Then, the edge of the phone, the stainless-steel antenna band, is also coloured gold.
    This is achieved by a process called Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) and involves a long time: 10 hours per handset, I've been told. This is the same for the colour-matched space grey model.
    The gold finish is sumptuousness itself, glowing and attractive but not as in-your-face as some gold tech. In some lights it looks more bronze than gold.

    Iphone XS & XS Max Display

    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Max Display
    This is what Apple calls a Super Retina display. It's an OLED panel which Apple stresses is custom-built, that is, it doesn't just take the screen off the shelf but adjusts the way it looks.
    It's an HDR screen, too, and both sizes of phone offer decently high resolution: 458 pixels per inch. Some rival handsets have greater pixel density, but this is more than enough for all usage. Well, if Apple had opted to use its phone as a screen in a virtual reality headset you might see the difference but that's not on offer.
    In raw numbers, the XS has 2436 x 1125 pixels and the XS Max 2688 x 1242 pixels. Apple claims a wide colour display (P3) and uses its proprietary True Tone display, which uses a six-channel ambient light sensor to measures the colour of the light in the room and matches the colour temperature for greater colour fidelity. You can see the difference if you turn True Tone on and off.

    With Night Shift on, there's a noticeably bluer, colder look to the display when you look at it from an angle

    The only downside to this attractive feature comes when you look at the OLED screen off-axis, especially if you have Night Shift activated. Night Shift is the pleasing effect where at night the screen colour is made warmer. Not only does it look nice, but so do the faces of those looking at their screens because they're no longer bathed in bluish light.
    Anyway, with Night Shift on, there's a noticeably bluer, colder look to the display when you look at it from an angle.
    These phones have great displays, offering smooth video playback, rich, vibrant colours which stay on the right side of saturated and strong dynamic range. Apple claims the screen has the best colour accuracy in the industry.
    As for HDR, you can watch TV shows and movies on these screens in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision.
    I'm not suggesting you will want to watch an epic movie on a phone screen, but the 6.5in display on the Max does almost make video viewing a possibility - though the roughly 19.5:1 screen ratio means that to see the full picture there are black bands at either end of the screen.
    You can enlarge the video so it fills every inch of the screen, but it sure won't be as the director intended as you'll be cropping the top and bottom of the frame and of course there's the notch at one end.

    Iphone XS & XS Max Home button and Face ID

    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Max Home button and Face ID
    Face ID is the ground-breaking technology Apple introduced on the iPhone X and is one of the reasons the company was able to remove the fingerprint sensor and then forge ahead to an all-screen device.
    I was sceptical at first but it quickly proved reliable and efficient, working almost 100 per cent of the time, even in the dark.
    It's not as fast to unlock the screen as Touch ID was but this second-generation version of it is quicker than last year and is certainly fast enough to be enjoyable to use, and the way it unlocks when it recognises your face makes for an intimate experience.

    Touch ID isn't coming back

    If you're trading up from any iPhone other than the iPhone X, I'll mention the same advice I did last year: adjusting to the new operating interface, without a Home Button, takes time to become routine. Swiping up is the gesture that replaces it and it takes you to the home screen from the lock screen, or back to the first page of apps and so on, like Touch ID used to do. It also means that some elements have moved: the Control Centre where you can toggle wi-fi on or off, play music and so on, previously found by swiping up from the base of the display, is now hidden in the top right corner and a swipe down reveals it.
    Give it a day or two and it'll become familiar enough. Oh, and by the way, Touch ID isn't coming back, so you might as well take the plunge now as later.

    Iphone XS & XS Camera

    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Camera
    In recent years, to have the best-quality camera on an iPhone you needed to plump for the plus-size option. This didn't suit those with smaller hands. Everything changed with the arrival of the iPhone X and it continues here with both phones having identical dual-cameras on the phone's back.
    They are very similar to last year's iPhone X camera, two 12MP sensors with one having twice the focal length of the other, giving an effective 2x optical zoom.
    This year, the wide-angle sensor has been improved with bigger pixels to improve performance in low-light conditions. In practice, I found photos in dim light were pretty good already but this probably had a bit of an uptick this time round.
    But the big upgrade is the new portrait mode and it's fantastic.

    Twin cameras are great at creating a bokeh effect, where the subject is in pin-sharp focus and the background artfully blurred. They shoot together and then work out which is foreground and which is not.
    Some phones let you adjust the depth of field after you've taken the shot and that's what Apple has introduced here. It wasn't the first, then.

    But, as is common with Apple, the aim is not to do it first but to do it better, and that's the case here.
    When the depth of field is adjusted, it doesn't simply blur the background more or less, it rebuilds the image entirely with each adjustment. You can see this as you go, with blurred elements changing in size as well as sharpness.
    Of course, it's all software, but it's done in such a sophisticated way it seems to rival the effect an SLR with its superior glass would have.
    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Camera
    The images are strikingly good

    The iPhone's HDR capabilities are also improved with improved shadow and highlight details in images - though this was pretty good last time around.
    And Apple boasts that there are deeper pixels, designed to pull in more light for better low-light performance, and to help with the colour saturation that can be realized from the same amount of light.
    Apple has doubled up the number of Focus Pixels, those pixels which are used to focus quickly, to make faster autofocus possible. Some rivals, such as Samsung, already have way more pixels devoted to focus but Apple has always gone a different route, using fewer than 10 per cent of its pixels for this, but this is now increased.
    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Camera

    Whatever, the images are strikingly good. Apple has always taken control of its images - there's no professional mode with manual overrides as some phones have - and occasionally are accused of making photos which are over-processed.
    But the processing is done with superbly good taste. To the extent that images are almost always good and sometimes truly exceptional.

    The video quality has been improved to offer more dynamic range in 4K recording, in lower frame rates of up to 30 frames per second. And the audio, recorded in stereo on the iPhone's four microphones, is now played back with a wider effect on speakers at each end which are now better balanced to each other. This is a subtle improvement.

    Iphone XS & XS Performance

    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Performance
    This is a very fast phone. The processor, called A12 Bionic, is very powerful, arguably more capable than many people will ever need. Still, it means that everything is fast, from opening apps to shooting images to playing video smoothly, to... well, you get the picture.

    The new iOS 12 software includes cute extras like Memoji, building on last year's Animoji where you can send a message with an animated face which moves in perfect sync with the faces you pull. This has been expanded in two ways - both of which also work on the iPhone X. Now, there's tongue detection (I know, at last, right?) and the addition of a face you build according to your own hair colour, eye colour, spectacles and so on. Samsung has this already with AR Emoji but this is a much funnier, less creepy, experience.

    The processor also makes possible a new AR app called Measure, which works as a virtual tape to measure objects. It's fun to use and very simple. This works on the iPhone X, too with the latest iOS 12 software.

    Added features include dual-sim capabilities where you can add a separate line using the e-sim capability familiar to iPad Pro users. This is useful if you want a local sim when travelling or work and home numbers on the same handset.
    Overall, performance is great and is also related to battery life.

    Iphone XS & XS Battery

    Apple iPhone XS Iphone XS & XS Battery
    Apple promises improved battery life over last year's iPhone X. The XS has 30 minutes more than the iPhone X and the XS Max is an hour longer than that, 90 minutes more than iPhone X.
    In practice, I have found the XS is pretty good, but the XS Max is tremendous, going on and on. As always, nightly recharges are recommended for peace of mind but the XS Max lasts easily into the next day so if you plonk it badly on the wireless charging pad and find it didn't charge overnight, it'll still have some juice.

    Actually, that mis-placing on the charging pad, a real annoyance to greet you as you wake, has been reduced with improved off-axis performance and an improved wireless charging coil to speed recharges. Though a wired recharge is always faster.
    None the less, the battery is better here, which can only be a good thing.


    OUT OF

    The Good

    • Awesome cameras
    • Attractive display
    • Strong design (like last year)
    • Improved battery
    • Fast performer
    • Dual sim is a neat extra

    The Bad

    • Most expensive iPhones
    • Battery on XS better but not enough
    You own this Total 13
    You want this Total 6
    You had this Total 0

    Apple iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max review

    The iPhone XS is a decent, if identical-looking, upgrade to the iPhone X. If you like a larger-build phone, the XS Max is an amazing upgrade to the iPhone 8 Plus and a significant improvement on the iPhone X. None of these phones is cheap: the iPhone XS costs £999, the same as the iPhone X last year, and the Max version £100 more. Many people will prefer to wait for the iPhone XR, which may be the Goldilocks iPhone - middle-sized with its 6.1in LCD screen, aluminium antenna band and noticeably lower price (£749).

    If you have the iPhone X then you may feel it's too soon to buy another pricey handset so soon after the last one (it came out 10 months ago in November 2017).
    But if you have an earlier iPhone and fancy a change to Face ID and the joys of the full screen, this is a great time to buy. The camera on each is truly exceptional, the display looks great and the battery on the XS Max is tremendous and more than reasonable on the XS.

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,349.00

    The Rundown







    Call and Signal Quality


    Email, Browsing, Calandar, Contacts


    Operating System


    Media support




    App support and functionality


    Build Quality


    Value for Money




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