Iphone XS and iphone XS Max re­view


Macworld (USA) - - Contents - By Ro­man Loy­ola

A faster pro­ces­sor, new Max size, and cam­era im­prove­ments make the iphone XS a com­pelling up­grade.

Long-time iphone users should be fa­mil­iar with the iphone prod­uct re­lease cy­cle by now. Usu­ally, it works like this: Ap­ple re­leases a ma­jor prod­uct, then the fol­low­ing year is the “S” gen­er­a­tion of iphones that of­fer in­cre­men­tal up­grades. In this case, the new iphone XS ( go. mac­world.com/apxs) and iphone XS Max ( go.mac­world.com/apma) are the in­cre­men­tal up­grades to last year’s iphone X ( go.mac­world.com/rvix).

The iphone X was an ex­cit­ing re­lease, so what can the iphone XS do to fol­low it up? It does plenty, but if you cur­rently own an iphone X, you’ll prob­a­bly be fine with sit­ting this model out and wait­ing to see what hap­pens next year. If you own an older iphone, now’s the time to up­grade. You’ll be glad you did.


You can never have too much speed in an iphone, and the XS is the fastest yet, thanks to the new A12 Bionic pro­ces­sor. It’s a 64-bit pro­ces­sor with six cores; two per­for­mance cores and four ef­fi­ciency cores, the same num­ber that the iphone X’s A11 Bionic had. But Ap­ple says ( go. mac­world.com/a12b) that the A12 Bionic’s two per­for­mance cores are up to 15 per­cent faster, and the four ef­fi­ciency cores use up to 50 per­cent less power.

CPU and graph­ics speed

To gauge the pro­cess­ing and graph­ics speed to com­pare against past iphones, we ran sev­eral bench­mark­ing tools on the iphone XS and iphone XS Max. You can read our com­plete bench­mark anal­y­sis of the iphone XS and iphone XS Max ( go.mac­world.com/xsbm), but we’ll sum them up here.

Re­sults with Geek­bench 4 ( go. mac­world.com/geek) showed about a 13 per­cent boost in sin­gle-threaded per­for­mance with the iphone XS and iphone XS Max over the iphone X, which is close to the 15 per­cent in­crease Ap­ple claims. The multi-core in­crease was a more mod­est 10 per­cent.

In graph­ics-based bench­marks, Geek­bench re­sults with its Metal-based com­pute test showed a 40 per­cent in­crease over the iphone X; Ap­ple states that the iphone XS is ca­pa­ble of up to a 50 per­cent graph­ics im­prove­ment. When we tested with the 3Dmark Sling Shot Ex­treme test ( go.mac­world. com/slng), we saw re­sults that were the same across the old and new phones, but we saw an im­prove­ment in the 3D Mark Ice Storm Un­lim­ited test ( go. mac­world.com/

icst). The Sling Shot Ex­treme test prob­a­bly hits a mem­ory and cache bot­tle­neck that af­fects per­for­mance.

Cel­lu­lar and Wi-fi speed

To test the con­nec­tiv­ity per­for­mance of the iphone XS and iphone XS Max, we used the Speedtest app ( go.mac­world.com/spdt). Granted, there are a great many vari­ables that af­fect wire­less con­nec­tiv­ity, so your ex­pe­ri­ence may dif­fer from ours. You can read our com­plete anal­y­sis of iphone XS and iphone XS Max net­work­ing per­for­mance ( go.mac­world.com/xsnt), but our sum­mary is as fol­lows.

In our Wi-fi tests, we saw an im­prove­ment in down­load speeds, some­times as high as a 45 per­cent in­crease. Our up­load speed saw much smaller boosts, if any.

With cel­lu­lar, we were able to test two car­ri­ers, Ver­i­zon and T-mo­bile. We saw a boost in down­load speed with T-mo­bile—as much as 77 per­cent from the Mac­world San Fran­cisco of­fice, but a less-dra­matic-but-stil­limpres­sive 26 per­cent in­crease in sub­ur­ban Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia. Com­pared to an iphone 7 Plus, Ver­i­zon’s down­load speed was 40 per­cent bet­ter on the iphone XS Max when we tested in a hilly, res­i­den­tial part of San Fran­cisco.

Not long af­ter the iphone XS re­lease came re­ports ( go.mac­world.com/cnvt) of Wi-fi and LTE con­nec­tiv­ity prob­lems. We haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced re­duced or dropped cov­er­age, but it’s a sit­u­a­tion worth watch­ing.

Anec­do­tal speed im­pres­sions

Be­sides all the bench­marks, there’s the feel­ing of per­for­mance while you’re us­ing the phone, the sub­jec­tive im­pres­sions that you can’t re­ally mea­sure with num­bers. For

ex­am­ple, the im­proved Neu­ral En­gine in the iphone XS

(de­signed for ma­chine learn­ing al­go­rithms) pro­vides a much faster and smoother ex­pe­ri­ence with Face ID, An­i­moji, and aug­mented re­al­ity apps. Turn­ing on the phone and launch­ing apps both seem as fast as with the iphone X.

Graph­ics per­for­mance felt the same, too, whether it was watch­ing videos saved to the phone, scrolling, switch­ing screens, etc.


The iphone XS and XS Max have the same back cam­eras, which have the same spec­i­fi­ca­tions as the iphone X: 12-megapixel res­o­lu­tion, dual lens sys­tem, 51mm tele­photo with an f/2.4 aper­ture, 2x op­ti­cal zoom, 10x dig­i­tal zoom, and op­ti­cal im­age sta­bi­liza­tion. There is a dif­fer­ence in the wide-an­gle lens: it’s 26mm with an f/1.8 aper­ture, while the iphone X had a 28mm lens with the same aper­ture. The re­sult is that you get wider shots with the iphone XS. It also has a larger sen­sor that cap­tures more light.

We have a deep dive into the iphone XS cam­era in the works, so these are my gen­eral im­pres­sions.

I was happy with the re­sults of the iphone X cam­era, and the iphone XS for­tu­nately is a good im­prove­ment. It pro­duces very pleas­ing re­sults with great color, and it seems to do a bet­ter job at fine de­tail. The iphone XS cam­era

also seems like it is more ca­pa­ble of han­dling dif­fer­ent light­ing sit­u­a­tions than the iphone X.

That seems es­pe­cially true with pic­tures in ex­treme low light. Pic­tures from the iphone XS had bet­ter sharp­ness and a lot less noise than those from the iphone X. In many pic­tures I took, the dif­fer­ences were dra­matic. The new Smart HDR fea­ture prob­a­bly has much to do with the bet­ter re­sults. Since Smart HDR re­lies on the A12 Bionic pro­ces­sor, it’s new to the iphone XS, and will be on the iphone XR.

Depth Con­trol

An­other new cam­era fea­ture is Depth Con­trol, which al­lows you to ad­just the depth of field in por­trait mode shots.

When you edit a por­trait mode shot, a Depth Con­trol ad­just­ment tool ap­pears

below the pic­ture. The tool pro­vides ranges from f/1.4 to f/16, and you can pre­view the re­sults as you ad­just the tool. This are sim­u­lated f-stop val­ues; the ac­tual lens aper­tures are al­ways fixed at f/1.8 and f/2.4.

Depth Con­trol is a great tool to have, and it can in­crease the im­pact of your fore­ground sub­ject. But the chal­lenge with tools like this one is to use it prop­erly. It’s quite pos­si­ble to overdo the ef­fect, re­sult­ing in a pic­ture that doesn’t quite seem right or even looks fake—of course, if that’s the look you’re go­ing for, then the power to do it is in your hands.

Truedepth cam­era and over re­touch­ing

The Truedepth cam­era (aka “the selfie cam”) on the iphone XS and iphone XS Max is sim­i­lar to that on the iphone X. It has a 7-megapixel res­o­lu­tion with an f/2.2 aper­ture, and it sup­ports Smart HDR, Por­trait Mode, Por­trait Light­ing, and 1080p HD video. There’s one sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence: it can record 1080p video at 60 fps, up from the 30 fps max­i­mum on the iphone X.

Sev­eral re­ports have ap­peared on the in­ter­net show­ing that the iphone XS is not only au­to­mat­i­cally re­touch­ing skin tones, but it’s go­ing to the ex­treme with soft­en­ing and smooth­ing out skin to a point where the re­sults can look ar­ti­fi­cial. Some Mac­world ed­i­tors were able to pro­duce iphone XS self­ies that dis­played some re­touch­ing when com­pared to older iphones; this ar­ti­cle shows

an ex­am­ple ( go.mac­world.com/btgt) where a selfie taken with an iphone XS Max dis­plays more skin smooth­ing than a selfie from the iphone X. As for me per­son­ally, I haven’t been able to pro­duce self­ies that ob­vi­ously looked re­touched, and I’m not sure why.

Ap­ple hasn’t com­mented on what’s go­ing on here, and since it’s been re­ported that the over-re­touch­ing hap­pens even if you turn off Smart HDR, one of the the­o­ries that at­tempts to ex­plain what’s hap­pen­ing is that Ap­ple is over­do­ing it with noise re­duc­tion. Se­bas­ti­aan de With, the de­signer of the Halide ( go.mac­world. com/hlde) IOS cam­era app, wrote in a blog post ( go.mac­world.com/ncam) that he be­lieves that the iphone XS’S “ag­gres­sive noise re­duc­tion” causes the ef­fect that peo­ple are see­ing. The good news is that this is the kind of prob­lem that can be ad­justed in soft­ware, so don’t be sur­prised if Ap­ple ad­justs this.


The iphone XS and iphone XS Max have the same video ca­pa­bil­i­ties as the iphone X. The rear cam­era can shoot 4K video at 24 frames per se­cond, 30 fps, or 60 fps. If you want to shoot at 4K at 60 fps, you should con­sider the 512GB stor­age ca­pac­ity, so you shoot with­out wor­ry­ing too much about space. You can also shoot at 1080p and 720p, or slow-mo­tion at 1080p res­o­lu­tion and ei­ther 120 or 240 fps.

Since the iphone XS has a slightly wider wide-an­gle lens, your videos will be recorded at a wider an­gle than with

pre­vi­ous iphones.

A ma­jor dif­fer­ence with video record­ing on the iphone XS is ac­tu­ally with au­dio. The XS now records sound in stereo, and au­dio played from the XS is over­all much im­proved over the iphone X, with bet­ter clar­ity and vol­ume. If you use your iphone to record a lot of videos and care about sound qual­ity as much as video qual­ity, this up­grade alone is worth se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion. (I’m the fam­ily doc­u­men­tar­ian, so qual­ity counts and this is an up­grade that’s ex­cit­ing.)


Mea­sur­ing 5.7 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches, the iphone XS has the same di­men­sions as the iphone X. At 6.2 ounces, the new phone is 0.1 ounce heav­ier. If you’re used to an iphone X, you’re not go­ing to feel a dif­fer­ence with the iphone XS.

The iphone XS Max mea­sures 6.2 x 3.1 x 0.3 inches, which is a tiny bit dif­fer­ent than the iphone 8 Plus, and at 7.3 ounces, the iphone XS Max is about .2 ounces heav­ier. But if you’ve used an iphone Plus in the past, the iphone XS Max is prac­ti­cally the same size.

If you like big phones, you have a cou­ple of choices here. But if you like small phones, you don’t have a choice any­more. Ap­ple has dis­con­tin­ued the iphone SE ( go.mac­world.com/rvse), and there’s no of­fi­cial word from Ap­ple if a fol­low-up to the phone with a 4-inch screen is in the works. The up­com­ing iphone XR ( go.mac­world.com/apxr), with its 6.1-inch dis­play, falls be­tween the iphone XS and XS Max in terms of size. If you want the small­est iphone avail­able, you might be able to find an iphone SE with your car­rier, but oth­er­wise, you’ll have to opt for the iphone XS, iphone 7, or iphone 8. (The iphone 7 and 8 have 4.7-inch dis­plays and their over­all size is only marginally smaller than the iphone XS.)


Tied to the size of the new iphones are the dis­plays, which are or­ganic lightemit­ting diode (OLED) dis­plays. The iphone XS’S mea­sures 5.8-inches on the di­ag­o­nal, the same as the iphone X. In my re­view of the iphone X ( go.mac­world. com/ipnx), I said that that dis­play was the best I’ve seen on an iphone. Com­ing up with neg­a­tives about the iphone XS dis­play is dif­fi­cult, be­cause it looks so damn good. Col­ors are great, text is sharp, and blacks are rich. Maybe that’s not sur­pris­ing, be­cause it’s the same dis­play, but my thoughts about iphone X—and thus, the iphone Xs—be­ing the best dis­play I’ve seen on an iphone have changed. It’s not the best any­more.

The best dis­play on an iphone be­longs to the iphone XS Max. There’s noth­ing tech­ni­cally dif­fer­ent about the iphone XS Max’s screen, it’s just big­ger, and that means it leaves a big­ger im­pres­sion on any­one who looks at it. When I first started to re­ally use the iphone XS Max (not just look at it, but re­ally use it), it was thrilling, as silly as that may sound. The sight of the 6.5-inch screen tak­ing up prac­ti­cally the whole front of the de­vice, the rich col­ors, the deep black, the sharp de­tail, put me in awe for a while. Phones this size aren’t for ev­ery­one, but the im­pres­sion the iphone XS Max’s screen makes could change a few minds.

When the iphone X made its de­but, there was a lit­tle bit of con­cern about the pos­si­bil­ity of screen burn in, the “ghost” ef­fect where you can see el­e­ments that are of­ten on the screen. This is more likely to hap­pen with OLEDS, but af­ter al­most a year of own­ing the iphone X, I haven’t

no­ticed any burn-in at all. So that sets up my ex­pec­ta­tions for the iphone XS and iphone XS Max; I don’t ex­pect to see burn-in any time soon. Ap­ple does have a knowl­edge­base ar­ti­cle ( go.mac­world.com/ sper) about burn-in and how to stave it off as much as pos­si­ble.


To test for bat­tery life, we used Geek­bench 4’s bat­tery test. Granted, this test is more about run­ning pro­cesses to drain the bat­tery than it is about repli­cat­ing real-world us­age. Peo­ple use their phones dif­fer­ently, so bat­tery life varies per per­son. But by run­ning the same test on all phones, we can at least get an idea of the im­prove­ment you’ll see.

Ap­ple says that the iphone XS of­fers 30 min­utes more bat­tery life than the iphone X, even though the XS has a slightly smaller bat­tery—the iphone’s XS bat­tery has a size of 2,658 mah, while the iphone X is 2,716 mah. Our Geek­bench 4 re­sults show that the iphone XS lasted 7 min­utes longer than the iphone X. Again, Geek­bench 4 is closer to a tor­ture test than a real-world ex­am­ple, and with that in mind, it’s not much of a stretch to think that the iphone XS could ac­tu­ally reach the 30-minute ex­ten­sion that Ap­ple states.

The iphone XS Max has the big­gest bat­tery we’ve seen in an iphone, with a size of 3,174 mah. The large bat­tery in the iphone XS Max lasts 1.5 hours longer than the one in the iphone X, ac­cord­ing to Ap­ple. In our Geek­bench 4 test, the iphone XS Max lasted 57 min­utes longer than the iphone X. Reach­ing Ap­ple’s stated 1.5 hours of ex­tended bat­tery life un­der real-world con­di­tions shouldn’t be a prob­lem for the iphone XS Max.

As for my ex­pe­ri­ence in ev­ery­day use, I should first say that I tend to be harder on bat­tery life than the av­er­age user, be­cause I’m an avid Poké­mon Go player. If I’m walk­ing dur­ing my com­mute or with

my dog, I have the game run­ning, and it takes its toll on bat­tery life. With the iphone XS Max, I’ve been end­ing the day with 47 per­cent left on the bat­tery, and on the iphone XS, it’s 40 per­cent. That’s pretty good.

Some users re­port that they’re hav­ing prob­lems charg­ing the new iphone ( go. mac­world.com/btgt), where the phone doesn’t re­spond when the Light­ning ca­ble is plugged in. Some re­ports say that the prob­lem is also hap­pen­ing with older iphones, which leads to the spec­u­la­tion that the prob­lem is with IOS 12. At Mac­world, we haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced prob­lems charg­ing our new iphones, or older iphones and ipads. This could be an­other is­sue we see fixed in an IOS 12 up­date.


If you didn’t up­grade last year, and this year you’re con­tem­plat­ing a move from an iphone 8, 7, or older phone, you might be won­der­ing about the notch, ges­tures, and how it af­fects the way you use the iphone. Much of what I said about the notch and ges­tures in the iphone X re­view still ap­plies. But in case you don’t feel like look­ing up that ar­ti­cle, I’ll sum­ma­rize here.

A lot has been said about the notch and its in­tru­sion into the screen lay­out. It was a dis­trac­tion for me at first, but I quickly got over it, and I don’t no­tice it any­more when us­ing the iphone in por­trait mode, which is most of the time. Some­times it both­ers me when I’m watch­ing a video in land­scape ori­en­ta­tion, but in ev­ery­day use, it’s not an is­sue.

In case you don’t know, the notch is there be­cause it houses the Truedepth cam­era sys­tem for Face ID, and if you’re new to Face ID and won­der how it works, I’ll re­fer you to the Face ID sec­tion of the iphone X re­view. Its im­ple­men­ta­tion hasn’t changed, ex­cept that with IOS 12, you can now set up Face ID with an Al­ter­na­tive Ap­pear­ance, which can be used to reg­is­ter a se­cond per­son to Face ID.

As for ges­tures, you’ll need to learn new ways to ac­cess the phone with­out a Home but­ton. Pre­pare your­self for an

ad­just­ment pe­riod—the length of that pe­riod is dif­fer­ent for ev­ery­one. I learned them quickly, and we have a list of the new ges­tures you’ll need to learn ( go.mac­world. com/gstr). But it’s re­ally not that dif­fi­cult to get used to swip­ing up from the bot­tom of the screen to get to the Home screen, or swip­ing down from the up­per right cor­ner of the screen to get to Con­trol Cen­ter.


The iphone X de­sign works well, so Ap­ple didn’t de­vi­ate from it for the iphone XS. Next to each other, the two phones are iden­ti­cal. Both the iphone XS and the iphone XS Max have glass fronts and backs and sup­port Qi wire­less charg­ing.

There is one is­sue with the iphone XS, how­ever. Even though it’s the same size and shape as the iphone X, the cam­era bump on the XS is dif­fer­ent; it’s slightly wider and a tad longer. If you have an iphone X case with a back-cam­era cutout that’s flush or very close to the cam­era bump, it may not fit the iphone XS prop­erly. I have an iphone X case with a cam­era cutout that fits the X’s cam­era per­fectly, and with the iphone XS, the cutout didn’t fit prop­erly. Time for a new case.

Ap­ple of­fers three col­ors: space gray, white, and gold. I have a space gray iphone XS, and a gold iphone XS Max, and the gold is ab­so­lutely stun­ning. It has a de­light­ful shim­mer to it, and the ac­cents that the stain­less-steel band pro­vide com­pli­ment it nicely. It’s my fa­vorite color com­bi­na­tion.


The iphone X was a smart­phone that re-en­er­gized the iphone line af­ter what seemed like a long pe­riod of stag­na­tion. So the iphone XS and iphone XS Max have a dif­fi­cult job fol­low­ing up a tough

act. But the iphone XS and iphone XS Max do a great job on their own and they do not dis­ap­point.

If you al­ready have an iphone X, you prob­a­bly won’t find a su­per com­pelling rea­son to up­grade to an iphone XS. The main dif­fer­ence is speed: is a CPU boost of up to 15 per­cent (ac­cord­ing to Ap­ple) over the iphone X con­vinc­ing enough? Maybe not. The graph­ics and AR per­for­mance boost is more sub­stan­tial, so if you’re heav­ily into iphone games or AR apps, you could se­ri­ously con­sider up­grad­ing. The iphone XS takes bet­ter pic­tures than the iphone X, but the im­prove­ments are sit­u­a­tional and may not nec­es­sar­ily feel like a big pay­off for most peo­ple. All things con­sid­ered, you’ll be fine stick­ing to your iphone X for at least an­other year, when the up­grade pay­off will be greater.

If you’re think­ing about an up­grade from an iphone X to an iphone XS Max, how­ever, the story is more con­vinc­ing. The big­ger screen leaves a big­ger im­pres­sion than I imag­ined, and I still get a bit of a thrill just us­ing the iphone XS Max.

The iphone XS and iphone XS Max are most com­pelling for users of iphones that are older than the iphone X. The im­prove­ments to the pro­ces­sor, cam­era, and dis­play have more im­pact for own­ers of the iphone 7 and older (or even an iphone 8, which is only a year old). This is the way of the iphone go­ing for­ward, and if you didn’t get the iphone X, the XS is a good place to jump on the band­wagon.

If the price is a big con­sid­er­a­tion— with prices start­ing at $999, it prob­a­bly is—you might con­sider wait­ing for the iphone XR, Ap­ple’s up­com­ing less-ex­pen­sive model. It has the same pro­ces­sor as the iphone XS, but it has a sin­gle-lens back cam­era in­stead of a du­al­lens one, and it also uses a low­er­res­o­lu­tion LED dis­play. At $749, its price is a more friendly.

If you don’t want to wait— ei­ther for the iphone XR or next year’s phone—go for the iphone XS. You’ll be very happy. ■

We saw Wi-fi con­nec­tiv­ity im­prove­ments in down­load speed.

iphone X shot with auto mode.

iphone XS shot with auto mode.

iphone X shot with auto mode.

iphone XS shot with auto mode.

iphone X shot with auto mode.

iphone XS shot with auto mode.

iphone XS Depth Con­trol, ad­justed to f/16.

iphone XS Depth Con­trol, ad­justed to f/1.4.

The iphone XS does more skin smooth­ing than the iphone X. Also, there’s an ob­vi­ous color shift when a face isn’t ap­par­ent.

Left to right: iphone XS, iphone XS Max, iphone 8 Plus.

The notch on the iphone XS Max—it’s re­ally no big deal.

The iphone XS cam­era bump (black phone) is slightly dif­fer­ent from the iphone X’s cam­era bump, which means iphone X cases may not fit the iphone XS prop­erly.

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