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iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max Review

If you watched this year’s iPhone launch event, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking that the iPhone XS is the most underwhelming ‘S’ upgrade in the iPhone’s history. Apple spent surprisingly little time talking about the new features of the flagship iPhone models, a lot more information has come out since, which makes them seem like bigger upgrades than one had initially thought.

Not many realise that while the ‘S’ cycle of iPhone models represents no major changes in design language, historically, we’ve seen some significant features introduced. Siri, Touch ID, 3D Touch, and even the M-series of motion coprocessors all debuted in an iPhone ‘S’.

Of this year’s two new ‘S’ models, the iPhone XS Max can at least claim to be the biggest iPhone till date, packing a 6.5-inch display in a body that’s marginally smaller than that of the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus, but, on the face of it, the iPhone XS certainly seems to lack the kind of headline feature found in many of the previous ‘S’ models.

So is the iPhone XS really the most underwhelming S upgrade in the iPhone’s decade-long history, or does it pack improvements that Apple just didn’t talk about during the keynote? Is the iPhone XS Max too large for its own good, or does the most expensive iPhone till date also represent the most perfect form of the smartphone? Let’s answer these questions and more.

iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max design and display

The iPhone XS has exactly the same dimensions as last year’s iPhone X (Review), though it’s 3g heavier. We loved the iPhone X’s design, so we have no complaints with the fact that Apple has decided to stick to what’s clearly been a popular choice with consumers as well. However, the camera bump on the iPhone XS is a tiny bit bigger than the one on the iPhone X.

Physically, the iPhone XS Max is pretty much the same size as the iPhone 8 Plus, so if you are someone who’s used a Plus-sized iPhone before, you will be right at home with the size. With that said, at 208g, the iPhone XS Max is the heaviest phone Apple has ever made, and it certainly makes its presence felt.

While not that much heavier than the iPhone 8 Plus (202g), the iPhone XS Max is quite a jump if you are coming from any other model or generation. It’s safe to say that not everyone will be fan of this extra weight, but we got used to it pretty quickly.

What we struggle with even after using the phone for a couple of months is reaching the upper corners of the screen. By getting rid of the Home button and the bezel above the screen, Apple has managed to squeeze a 6.5-inch display on the iPhone XS Max, giving you an extra inch compared to previous Plus-sized phones.

iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max performance, battery life, and cameras

As we’ve said before, Apple’s SoC division perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the work it has done in a relatively small amount of time. Though the iPhone has packed some Apple-designed chips in one form or another since its debut in 2007, the iPhone 4 was the first to be powered by an A-series CPU that’s Apple best-known for.

While the first wave of A-series chips were certainly competitive, they now set the benchmark in terms of performance. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 has been the SoC of choice as far as most of 2018’s Android flagships were concerned, and its performance in certain benchmarks still falls short of last year’s A11 chip. This, despite the fact that the first Snapdragon 845powered phones didn’t ship nearly six months after the A11-powered iPhone 8, which is a lifetime in the world of technology.

The A12 chip inside all three 2018 iPhone models further extends Apple’s lead in this department, with benchmark scores well above what Android flagships have delivered this year, and comfortably ahead of last year’s iPhone models as well. It will be interesting to see whether the Snapdragon 855, which is just on the horizon, manages to bridge this gap.

As you would expect, there are absolutely no performance issues when it comes to day-to-day tasks on the new iPhone models. Gaming is a breeze, and even demanding titles such as PUBG Mobile and Asphalt 9 are playable at their highest settings without any issues.

For the first time, you can get an iPhone with 512GB storage, though be prepared to pay through the roof for that privilege. Though Apple doesn’t officially disclose the amount of RAM in iOS devices, benchmarks reveal that the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max both pack 4GB of RAM, which is the most we’ve seen on an iPhone to date. The iPhone XR has to settle for 3GB of RAM.

The new iPhone models ship with iOS 12, and we’ve covered in-depth the new features that the latest version of iOS brings. As for the experience using these new features, since it’s pretty much identical on the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR, we’ve covered that separately in our iOS 12 review, which we encourage you to read before proceeding further.

Arguably the biggest jump that the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max bring is in terms of camera performance. The wide-angle sensor is 32 percent bigger than that of the iPhone X, but the biggest improvements come via software, specifically a feature that Apple is calling Smart HDR.

According to Apple, Smart HDR leverages multiple technologies like the bigger, faster sensors, an improved image signal processor (ISP), and advanced machine learning algorithms to bring “more highlight and shadow detail to your photos”. Colour us impressed, because the resulting images are greatly improved compared to the iPhone X. This finally puts the iPhone camera back in the same league as the big boys.

In our experience, Smart HDR worked best for landscape shots, and some of the photos that we managed to take with the iPhone XS Max were simply stunning, if we do say so ourselves. Shots featuring water bodies like the ocean or lakes came out looking especially good, with plenty of detail and great colour accuracy.

Verdict

The biggest Apple related trend we saw in 2018 was increased prices across the entire line of products. Be it the iPad, MacBook Air, Mac mini, or indeed the iPhone, all Apple products and accessories cost a lot more today than their equivalents 12 months ago.

With unit sales plateauing, some analysts believe this is down to Apple’s focus on increasing the average selling price of each product. Granted, nearly all the products we mentioned above feature some significant upgrades compared to their predecessors, but that’s the nature of hardware products , they evolve over time and these improvements don’t always need to be accompanied by a price increase. That’s especially the case for a company like Apple whose products aren’t priced at the bottom-end of the bargain bin to begin with.

The iPhone X apparently cost a premium because it gave us a glimpse of the future, allowing Apple to charge an “early-adopter” premium, if you will. But a year later, with a starting price of the iPhone XS costs even more than the iPhone X did at its launch in India. The iPhone XS Max Rs. 1,44,900 for the top-end variant takes pricing to ridiculous territory.

It’s easy to say that least some of this is due to reasons beyond Apple’s control, like the rupee’s fate against the US dollar and the tariffs that the Indian government has placed on imported phones. But the truth is that all OEMs operate under the same market conditions, and everyone else seems to have adapted by moving majority of their manufacturing (read assembling) to India, while not being afraid to keep their margins low in order to keep their products accessible for the average Indian consumer.

Now no one’s suggesting Apple go down the Xiaomi route, but the company is in desperate need to rethink its entire India strategy. This includes, among other things, moving assembly of all iPhone models to India, which finally seems to be happening , and improving the experience of key Apple services like Maps and Siri.

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