iPhone XS and XS Max review: 3 weeks later

Memoji and Animoji on iPhone
(Image: © Rene Ritchie / iMore)

My original iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max review was written a week after using Apple's latest devices. Ever since just after the Apple Event at the Steve Jobs Theater. In that time I used to as my main driver. For communication, photography, videography, travel, reading, listening, watching, writing… pretty much everything I do everyday.

For the first week, that was all on the 5.8-inch iPhone XS proper. For the last two weeks, I've been alternating between the XS and the 6.5-inch XS Max. It's a big phone. But, wow, is it a big phone.

So, now that I've had some more real-life, quality time with both phones, I'm revisiting my review and taking a second look.

Update: iOS 12.1 beta pushes out fix for charging issue

Just as I was getting ready to publish this re-review, Apple pushed out an iOS 12.1 beta that addresses the charging issue some people were seeing with iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and older iPhones and iPads running iOS 12.

When it goes into public release later this month/fall, there'll be no more delay or uncertainty about charging. You'll be back to just plugging it in and getting power.

(Pretty much what I said in my video above.)

Max is Max

Max really is Max in every sense of the word. Using it day in, day out, it totally feels more like a tiny tablet than just a big phone. It isn't only the size of the display, which at 6.5-inches is the biggest Apple's ever put into an iPhone, it's how that display goes edge-to-edge that makes it look and feel even more expansive. Like a literal none-more-display meme.

It's no iPad mini replacement. That has — or had, depending on what Apple does or doesn't do with that product line — not only a 7.9-inch screen and, more importantly for a lot of the work I did on it, a 4:3 aspect ratio so I could see more lines of text or rows of content in landscape. But I don't find myself using the Max in landscape unless I'm shooting or watching video. Because it looks and feels so expansive, for productivity stuff, I'm just leaving it in portrait.

And that's caused two interesting reactions.

First, I'm kinda insulated from the complaints about how Apple is handling landscape on the Max. Unlike iPhone Plus, there's no landscape home screen and the split-view controllers in apps like mail aren't persistent — they require a swipe in to get the list, and that's irked some people. Of course, the persistent list in apps like News on iPad have also inspired a ton of complaints because you can't swipe them away to maximize the detail view so… Yeah, not all design has a clear winner.

Personally, I'd prefer landscape icons on the Home Screen so I could have a consistent horizontal experience, but sidebars that I can swipe away so they aren't always just sitting there, eating up my screen.

Second, and more interestingly, because I'm sticking to portrait so much, the experience ends up being a only little better but also a little less convenient than the regular sized iPhone XS. I can swipe down to Reachability then down again to Control Center, but I kinda don't want to. (I mean, all that stuff should be accessible from the bottom of the screen on big phones anyway, so going back to the iOS 11 Mission Control layout still makes all the sense in the world to me — swipe up, get everything.)

So, unlike the previous few years where I've stuck almost exclusively to the bigger iPhone, this year I find myself gravitating back to the regular one more and more. We'll see how that plays out over the next few weeks, but the 5.8-inch display really doesn't feel small and the camera, this year, has zero compromises.

That Camera

I spent the first few days shooting with Smart HDR off. I wanted to see what the new sensor on the wide angle camera could do all on its own. And, while it wasn't life altering by any means, it was a solid, iterative improvement. Turning Smart HDR on, though, was a bigger deal. Smart HDR is Apple's name for the combination of neural network and image signal processing the new A12 Bionic processor can do when you unleash it on the camera system.

iPhone XS taking photo in Chinatown

iPhone XS taking photo in Chinatown (Image credit: iMore)

My criteria for judging any camera, attached to a phone or not, is whether it lets me get photos I simply never could before. With iPhone 7, the first dual-camera system, it was an easy yes. The low-light performance was so much better than iPhone 6s that I could suddenly take photo walks at night.

iPhone XS is a little like that but a lot different. Things like low-light are better but better in the way they're better every year. What's new is how much detail it's pulling out of the shadows and light. Photographer Austin Mann said it was so much he was having a hard time shooting silhouettes. And I believe it.

For me, though, it's the focus in the action shots. Whether I'm moving quickly or my subject is, I'm getting less motion blur in less places, which directly translates into more usable photos more of the time.

Where there's been some controversy is in the new pipeline. Almost everything is new this year, from some of the sensors, through the silicon, new Smart HDR, and all the artistic choices and tweaks made in the software. People who are used to the way iPhone photos used to look may not like, or may take a while to get used to the changes. People who didn't like the way iPhone photos used to look may like them more… or even less.

The biggest example is the hashtag smooth selfie complaints, where people are looking at the warmer, smoother skin tons produced on selfies and wondering if Apple is applying a secret beauty filter to the snaps.

Apple is not.

Part of it is that the noise and banding have significantly been reduced with the iPhone XS camera and Smart HDR. So, artifacts that looked like texture are gone but real skin texture doesn't seem to have been preserved in its place, the way Apple has gone out of its way to preserve rope, brick, cloud, and other textures.

Not that I want my face to look like brick and rope, but beggars can't really be choosers here, can they?

Apple also seems to have biased the white balance and tone mapping more towards warming the skin tons, which has bothered some people as well.

A lot of this stuff is really subjective but here's where I land: Since there's no beauty mode, there's no on/off switch to be added. But, I prefer the naturalness that Apple has spent years focusing on even while other companies crushed the blacks, boosted the sat, or on the opposite end, got all cold and scientific and forgot the quirks and artistry of real photography.

So, even though I know some people like the new normal, I'm really hoping Smart HDR gets iterated back towards the old natural. Because, damn, iPhone XS is still killing it on that for landscapes and action shots.

Battery life

Up front, just as I started getting this re-review ready, there've been some reports of iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and even older iPhones and iPads on the new iOS 12 release not charging when they're plugged in while in sleep mode. Inductive wireless charging, fine. Plugged in while awake, fine. Plugged in and then woken up, fine. But plugged in when the screen is off and kept off, no charge.

I haven't been able to reproduce this, not on my review units, not on the iPhone XS Max I bought, and not on any of the Tens, Eights, Sevens, or iPads of mine or my friends I could get a hold of to test.

That doesn't mean there isn't an issue, just that I couldn't reproduce or help trouble shoot it, which is all shades of frustrating in my line of work.

Either way, my hunch is, one, we'll see a bunch of theories from the savvy to the silly, bandied around online, like always, but two, whatever the issue, Apple will get a fix out asap.

As to battery life in general, I use my iPhone a lot. Like a lot, a lot. And the apps I use, from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook Messenger — because, kill me, I have friends who only use Facebook Messenger, to Pokémon Go are absolutely brutal on the battery. They push a ton of media, not just photos but video, they hit GPS a lot, and the screen stays lit up the whole time, of course.

So, it's nice that Apple spins dedicated encode and decode blocks into the silicon, and it definitely helps when I shoot video or watch iTunes, but social still slams everything it can, as often as it can.

That said, battery life on the XS has been good and on XS Max, great. Yeah, it's a fresh battery but I didn't do a clean install. I kept all the cruft of the last year or two when I restored from backup.

Normally, I top up throughout the day. I have a charge pad next to my desk and a cable in my car. But I've deliberately not done that a few times over the last few weeks and XS managed to last into the night and XS Max overnight and into the next day on the several occasions I didn't really get to go to sleep.

To be continued

There's a lot more to iPhone XS and Max, including everything that's going on with AR and Shortcuts and I'll have a lot more to say about that in the coming weeks and months. These are living reviews for me and my hope is everyone learns at least something new every time. That includes me.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.