Last year's iPhone X was, in my opinion, the most significant year-to-year advance in iPhone technology. Apple found a way to almost defy physics, fitting a larger, beautiful OLED screen into a device that remained the same size in your hand. Apple also added a second camera lens — a telephoto lens — which Apple previously only found space for on the larger Plus models. Toss in the speed improvements and various other new features, and it was a major upgrade. The 2017 iPhone X seemed like it was a 2018 iPhone X that we were somehow seeing a year early. (And as if to emphasize that point, last year Apple introduced an iPhone 8, and then skipped number 9 to also introduce the iPhone X.)
How do you follow up on an act like that? Apple actually has some experience in this area. It adds nice but incremental improvements to the prior year model, and then to indicate that it is a less significant upgrade, Apple adds an "s" to the name. Hence, Apple has introduced the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5s, and iPhone 6s. An "s" year iPhone doesn't mean that there are no big new features. For example, the iPhone 4S added Siri and the iPhone 5S added a way to authenticate without typing a password (Touch ID), and both of those features remain critical parts of the iPhone. But in an "s" year, hardware changes are typically less noticeable.
That last sentence holds true this year in one way, but doesn't hold true in two other ways. The iPhone XS, which I purchased, fits the mold of prior "s" year upgrades. The hardware on the outside looks almost exactly the same, so the real improvements are under the hood. But in addition, Apple made the iPhone larger in the iPhone XS Max, and Apple made the iPhone less expensive with the iPhone XR. If you purchase either the iPhone XS Max or the iPhone XR, then you are getting a phone with obvious physical differences from the 2017 iPhone X. This review focuses on the iPhone XS, but I at the end I also have some comments about the other two new iPhones.
The iPhone X
Before talking about the iPhone XS, I want to say a few words about the iPhone X, because I am sure that most of you who are considering a new iPhone this year are upgrading from a model that is at least a few years old. Crossing over from an iPhone with a home button to an iPhone with an edge-to-edge screen is a major change. And at least initially, perhaps not a welcome change. Many attorneys (including my wife) have told me that they like having a home button; something that you can always press to exit from an app and go back to the main screen. Additionally, there are real advantages to using Touch ID over Face ID. For example, your face has to be in front of the camera, so you cannot just reach over to touch your iPhone to unlock it; you need to move the iPhone (or move your face) to the right position. And while you can discretely unlock an iPhone using Touch ID while you are talking to someone else, the other person will notice if you stop looking at them and start looking at your iPhone.
Nevertheless, I think that the advantage of a larger screen is more than worth it. I'm reminded of ten years ago, when I heard from countless attorneys who loved the small keyboards on their BlackBerries and Palm Treos, folks who said that they couldn't imagine typing on a flat glass screen. I would always say that the space used up by a physical keyboard is wasted when you are not typing, resulting in a tiny screen that could be twice as large, allowing you to see more emails and other information. The same is true today. When you give up the space dedicated to the home button and the bezels around the edges, you have so much more screen real estate without increasing the size of the device. I used this picture with my review of the iPhone X, and it sums up why I love, love the larger iPhone X, and now iPhone XS, screen — you get Line 8 and Line 9:
Learning to swipe up from the bottom of the screen instead of pressing a button involves a learning curve, and you do give up something when you move from Touch ID to Face ID. But I think it is worth it, and I encourage you to keep an open mind about the change. The large and beautiful screen on the iPhone X and now the iPhone XS is a delight to use, and my enthusiasm hasn't waned one bit even after almost a year of using it. You can use a device that feels the same size in your hand, but you can see so much more on the screen, and the screen technology itself is so much nicer to look at. The iPhone has always been about the touchscreen, and for the past year that touchscreen has been amazing.
If you skipped over the iPhone X and are now thinking about getting the iPhone XS, one of the big reasons to do so is that you can take much better pictures with the iPhone XS. Last year's iPhone X already did a great job of taking pictures, but there were circumstances in which it struggled, such as when you had lots of contrast in a picture with both bright and dark areas.
The iPhone XS is really impressive in these circumstances because of technology which Apple calls Smart HDR. When you are talking about photography, a picture really is worth a thousand words, so here are some examples. I took some pictures this weekend using both my iPhone X and my iPhone XS, and I think that the differences are pretty remarkable. If you are using an iPhone even older than the iPhone X, the differences will be even more noticeable. I did not do anything to correct the color, exposure, etc. in any of these pictures. I did crop them a little. In every picture below, the first picture was taken with the iPhone X, and the second picture was taken with the iPhone XS, in both cases using the normal 1x wide angle lens, not the telephoto lens. You can click on any picture to see a larger version.
In this first example, I'm taking a picture of brick walls with a bright sky in the background. The sky was bright enough that the contrast overwhelmed the iPhone X. It is not until you look at the second picture taken with the iPhone XS that you realize that you are supposed to be seeing a roof of a house just over the brick wall. And the color of the bricks in the iPhone XS picture better matches what my eyes actually saw.
Now let's go to St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans to look at a passing streetcar. On a bright day, many pictures taken with the iPhone X are hazy, which causes the colors to be more drab. The iPhone XS does a better job of showing the true colors of the green streetcar with its crimson accents. You also see more color, and more detail, in the shadow on the grass created by the streetcar. The text on the side of the streetcar is crisper. The skin tones on the people are more accurate. It is just a better picture.
As the streetcar passed me, I took another set of pictures. Once again, the iPhone X picture is far more hazy, so the colors look worse. I will admit that there is one small advantage to the haze in the iPhone X picture: You see rays of light, which is an interesting artistic effect. But the rest of the picture looks worse. One noticeable difference: the sky. Over and over again in my pictures, I noticed that on a bright day you are far more likely to see the blue in the sky with the iPhone XS. If you like a blue sky, get an iPhone XS. (Note to Apple: feel free to use that marketing line in your advertising.)
I even tried to save the iPhone X picture by using the edit feature in the Photos app to restore some of the green and crimson on the streetcar and the green of the grass that is washed out in the original iPhone X picture. That helped, but it still didn't look as good as the iPhone XS picture; for example, I still couldn't see the blue of the sky.
As the streetcar started to head away from me and towards the French Quarter, I took one last set of pictures. With the streetcar taking up less of the screen, I was finally able to see some of the blue sky even in the iPhone X picture. But the shadow on the side of the streetcar and on the ground next to the streetcar was too much of a challenge for the iPhone X, resulting in a darker picture with fewer details. But the iPhone XS handled this with aplomb.
I think that these streetcar picture examples are informative because they reflect many of the pictures that I take with an iPhone in real life. The times when I think to myself something like: "Oh cool, there is a streetcar, let me take a quick picture as it passes." Because your iPhone is with you so often, the convenience makes it the perfect camera for those quick, unplanned moments in life in which you want to quickly snap a picture of friends or family or the world around you.
Professional photographers use equipment and techniques to get the right amount of light for a photograph. But in real life, you don't have all that fancy stuff, and often you want to take a picture when the light isn't that great. As iPhone low light photography has improved every year, you are more likely to get a great picture to remember that special moment. It comes as no surprise that the iPhone XS also does a better job with low-light photography, and thanks to the advanced processor, it is a big leap forward. John Gruber of Daring Fireball has some excellent examples of both photos and videos in low light in this set on Flickr. The video examples near the bottom are particularly impressive.
One thing that you notice in low light photos in which there is a source of light is that the source of light itself looks much better. In the following pictures, notice how you can actually see the shape of the flame in the iPhone XS picture. It is all just a blob in the iPhone X picture:
The iPhone XS also does a great job with videos. I took some videos of my daughter playing soccer on Saturday, and they came out great. The grass is green, the sky is blue, and the images are crisp. Jason Snell of Six Colors may have figured out the reason that the video looked so good when he tweeted the following on Friday: "Maybe the most bananas thing I've learned about iPhone XS is that if you shoot 4K 30fps video, it actually shoots 60fps with every other frame stepped up/down, and then stitches the frame pairs together on the fly to create extended dynamic range." By the way, if you enjoy using your iPhone to take videos, I strongly encourage you to consider getting the Glif + Hand Grip by Studio Neat, which I reviewed last year.
Portrait mode photographs are pretty neat on the iPhone XS. You can adjust the amount of blur in the background, an effect called bokeh, commonly seen in pictures taken with high-end SLR cameras. I tried this with some pictures of my daughter, and it was nice to have this level of control. As you blur the background more, you place more emphasis on the subject of the photo, and then you get to decide how much blur is too much. Apple did a nice job with this.
Every year, there is new iPhone that takes better pictures, but this year Apple did an especially good job with the improvements. What is most fascinating to me is that while the iPhone XS does feature a slightly better wide angle lens (the zoom lens is the same as the iPhone X), the picture quality is often substantially better simply because the processor inside of the iPhone is so much faster and more sophisticated. The iPhone X was already a good camera, but the iPhone XS is much better. If you take pictures with your iPhone, this is the iPhone for you.
Speaking of the processor improvements, the new CPU is faster and more energy efficient, and it includes a neural engine which allows the iPhone to handle even more sophisticated tasks. Updating from an iPhone that is two or more years old to the iPhone XS result in a noticeable speed increase, with everything seeming much more responsive. And even as compared to last year's iPhone X, the iPhone XS does a much better with complicated operations. For example, the free augmented reality LightSpace app is much more fluid on an iPhone XS than on an iPhone X. I rarely play games with sophisticated 3D graphics, but I have no doubt that those perform even better on the iPhone XS.
I haven't yet been able to test Gigabit-class LTE, a faster version of 4G as 5G is still being developed, which the iPhone XS supports. My carrier, AT&T, is bringing this service to New Orleans this year, but apparently, it isn't live yet. In cities where it is available, Gigabit-class LTE should be about twice as fast as current LTE.
The iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XR
I stopped in my local Apple Store this weekend to see what the new Apple Watch Series 4 looks like. (It looks awesome, and the one I ordered should be delivered soon.). I also checked out the iPhone XS Max. It looks just like an iPhone XS, only bigger, which makes everything easier to see. However, it felt ridiculously large in my hand. For me, the advantage of a larger screen isn't worth the tradeoff of the device being so much harder to hold, not is it worth losing the ability to use the iPhone with just one hand. Having said that, soon after I tried out the iPhone XS Max, I ran into someone telling me how much he likes his iPhone 8 Plus, which is about the same size, so I know that there are people who like this form factor. If that describes you, then the iPhone XS Max is a major leap forward because you get a crazy large screen in a device size that you are already used to holding.
If you want to spend less money but get most of the features of the iPhone XS, then the iPhone XR might be perfect for you. In my September 13, 2018 post, I listed everything that you give up with the iPhone XR. The feature that I would most miss is the telephoto lens, but if that isn't important to you, the iPhone XR looks like a very compelling device. You can order an iPhone XR starting October 19, and devices ship and are available in stores a week later.
There are a few other things worth knowing about the iPhone XS and the iPhone XS Max. First, they come in a new color: gold. It is sort of a mocha/copper type of gold. It doesn't appeal to me, but I'm sure that it will appeal to many folks.
Second, Apple says that the screen is even more durable. Vanessa Hand Orellana of CNet did some drop tests, and the results were promising: "I've done my fair share of drop tests in my time at CNET, and I've never come out of one without a broken phone. Until now. The iPhone XS didn't crack." Hopefully none of us need to "test" this ourselves.
Third, the iPhone has dual-SIM support using a second eSIM. If you travel intentionally, this could be very useful.
Fourth, Face ID is a little better on the iPhone XS versus the iPhone X. In my side-by-side tests, sometimes it worked just as well, but other times Face ID worked better on the iPhone XS. Every little bit helps, but so far this has not been a major improvement. One important caveat — Face ID is a technology that is supposed to improve over time. Is it possible that I'm really comparing an iPhone X with a year of learning my face against an iPhone XS which has only had a weekend, and will get even better over time? I'm not sure, but perhaps.
Fifth, the sound is improved. The speakers are much better than the iPhone X, with wider sound, so much so that the first time I played a video I was actually startled that this sound was coming from my iPhone. And when you record video, the iPhone XS now records in stereo, so it sounds better. Check out those John Gruber videos I linked above to see what I mean.
Sixth, the iPhone XS is more water resistant. I didn't test this with my expensive new phone, but as I described in more detail in my September 13, 2018 post, Apple has increased the IP Code rating from IP67 to IP68. And that's better.
Unless you are an early adopter who loves using the latest and greatest technology, I don't recommend upgrading from an iPhone X to an iPhone XS unless you want the larger size of the Max or if photography is really important to you. But for everyone else, the iPhone XS is amazing, combining everything I loved about the iPhone X with even more nice features.
With the large and beautiful screen of the iPhone XS, you can see more information on the screen at one time. Whether you are reading emails, looking at a document, doing some quick legal research, or looking at a PDF file, you can be more productive than ever with the iPhone XS. Sure, there will still be times when you want to instead reach for an iPad or a computer, but I have been able to do more with my iPhone X for the last year and the same will be true with the iPhone XS. When you are done with your work, the iPhone XS is the perfect device for the rest of your life, especially if that involves taking pictures.
It is also nice that you get more choice this year. If you want a crazy large screen, get the iPhone XS Max. If you want to shave off some of the features that you can live without and save some money, get the iPhone XR next month. But for the best all-around phone, I think that the iPhone XS hits the sweet spot.
My past year of using an iPhone X was my favorite year ever of using an iPhone. I can already see that the iPhone XS is going to be even better. If you are ready for an upgrade, you are in for a treat.