Using the ’S’ year to establish the template for a new generation of iPhones, Apple is still bullish on capturing the elite.
Coming out on the other end of a trail of leaks isn’t easy, especially if you want to talk about your hero product. But without wasting precious keynote time on Apple’s financial health or how it’s saving the world’s specially abled diaspora with its amalgamation of hardware and software, CEO Cook jumped right into the thick of things. The Watch, followed by the logical successor to the most innovative iPhone ever, the X. But instead of one anniversary model like last year, for year eleven, we got two ’S’ models, the XS and the XS Max. While the XS retains the dimensions of the X, the Max is more akin to the iPhone Plus models, minus the forehead, chin and home button. So essentially, Apple has managed to shoehorn a massive 6.5in screen in the same size chassis as its typical 5.5in Plus models. Interested? So are we!
For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the XS Max since that really is the all-new model here and its specs are identical to the XS, barring the larger screen size.
Build and Design
Typically faultless, the build quality of any iPhone since the beginning of smartphone time has been the benchmark against which others are compared and the new models are no exceptions. The smooth, seamless feel from the front glass to the rear is only enhanced by the surgical-grade stainless steel band that is polished to the highest degree of shine and gloss, in a shade of gold that will be accepted by all. Not just a certain stereotype from the Middle East! The detailing is typically Apple, with the same care and finish applied to the camera housing too and a clean back, devoid of any official text barring ‘iPhone’ only heightening the sense of occasion. Around the front, the now familiar notch remains, unchanged in dimensions or intent. All the new hardware under the hood has made Face ID faster but the assembly has been carried forward from last years iPhone X which means it gets the Floor Illuminator, Dot Projector, Infrared Sensor and the works to make it the most secure and sophisticated method of facial identification on any smartphone yet. Yes, you still have to deal with the occasional failure to recognise when you hold it at an acute angle or perhaps a bit too far from your face and I wish an update comes soon enough where you don’t have to enter the passcode before making another attempt.
The bezel-free design still holds true compared to even the best of the Android competition that has found more innovative ways to avoid the notch, although with a small chin and more moving parts. The monolithic construction of the iPhone allows it to feel undeniably robust and solid in the hand, unlike any other device and there are functional gains to this approach too - the iPhone Xs and XS Max are now IP68 rated with even more water and dust resistance. Compared to to the previous 1mt/30min submersion rating, it now doubles it to 2mt/30min. Apple doesn’t explicitly mention the name of the glass it uses for its phones but claims that the new devices have the most durable glass ever to be used on a smartphone and that it’s even better than Gorilla Glass 6.
For the first time ever, there is also the option of using dual SIMs on an iPhone and while only a trio of far-eastern markets get physical trays, we in India will get an eSIM as the secondary number. Airtel and Jio are already on board along with their Apple Watch Cellular plans as well while Vodafone is still taking its own sweet time to jump on the bandwagon. In either case, if you are on the Vodafone network, that can be your primary number while an Airtel or Jio could be the one on the eSIM. Flexibility is aplenty in terms of what combinations of physical and eSIMs plans you can opt for so check with your carrier before jumping in the fray.
In terms of finishes, the Silver and Space Grey are retained from last year but the new Gold is what takes the cake with a brilliantly polished stainless steel band that exudes class and an optical quality of the glass that is second to none. Overall, the hand feel still is the best in the business with a feeling that it would survive a nuclear attack and incidentally, if you’ve been a fan of glass-backed, wireless-charging phones, the XS will do is faster than last year’s model as well.
While last years iPhone X was a revelation in immersive displays, this years 6.5in XS Max literally jumps at you with its gorgeous OLED that supports both Dolby Vision and HDR10. Again, stress worthy here is the fact that while it may not trump its Chinese or Korean competitors on the spec sheet, it nevertheless churns out the most accurate colours of all, year on year. With an improved True Tone tech that uses a six-channel ambient light sensor to more accurately calibrate the displays white balance to the surround lighting conditions in real time. It’s a feature that I personally used a lot and while it takes a few seconds to adjust to the warmer balance, you soon come to realise it is a lot less fatiguing after a whole day of use and even more true to the actual hues. The effect isn’t as pronounced as a simple warm or cool colour balance but in fact a lot more nuanced that makes for a more relaxing experience.
The 6.5in XS Max feels right at home in your hand if you’ve ever been a Plus user at any point. Maintaining the same dimensions but with a significantly increased screen-to-body ratio, Apple has managed to still keep it within sanity. Sure, it still feels like a phablet but the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 still dwarfs it, if you want some reference. It must be mentioned that a year on, almost every app (Instagram DM camera still has a bug) has caught up with the full-screen phones and worked their way around the notch, letting all the information through. Or at least flanking the notch. This seems to be the foreseeable future then.
A lot was said during the keynote about the all-new A12 Bionic processor at the heart of the new iPhones, including the slightly compromised XR. After spending some time with the silicon and AR team, it was clear why they were as excited as a sugar-rushed kids at a Hamleys Christmas party! For starters, it uses a 7 nanometer process and in the process, will become the first production phone to move to this tech over from the 10Nm process. What this basically means is that Apple can cram in a lot more transistors on to their chipset, which in turn is capable of exponentially more computational power as it turns out for the A12 Bionic chip. Overall focus has been to increase efficiency to lower power consumption and gain power where it’s needed the most, like graphic intensive games or apps. If official numbers are your thing, the graphics on the XS an XS Max run 50% faster while the AI software running through the Neural Engine runs eight times faster! These are some serious jumps in performance and just in time for iOS12 which brings Memoji and Measure apps with it. Both these rely heavily on the Neural engine to assess data, make computational photography faster (and even possible) and aid in running apps that will be taking advantage of the ARKit in the coming months. Another byproduct of it is also faster Face ID and this is perhaps the least perceptible change. In my week of using the XS Max, it worked fine every time but wasn’t noticeably faster than my iPhone X.
The Measure app for instance replaces your standard physical ruler or measure tape and simply lets you point the iPhone XS camera at a start point, drag it to the end point and get a measurement of length, height or width and copy it. It’s that simple and it really works accurately, within 0.5in when I tried to measure a fellow colleague’s height while he was standing at a distance of 3ft from the phone! Memoji is Apple taking the mickey out of Animoji and adding a bit of character to it. Dozens of options for hairstyles, facial features, accessories and a few minutes later, you too can be an official Animoji. While it is a lot more nuanced than Samsung’s version of a similar silliness, I wonder how long after you make your avatar does the novelty last? Even iMessages gets a boost with Snapchat-like filters built right into it and they can even be used during a live FaceTime call now. There’s plenty of the “fun” stuff that really does take advantage of the AI prowess powered by the Neural engine and the games are a big part of it. Playing Galaga AR along with three other journalists during a close door demo gave me a real sense of how involving and immersive this form of AR can get on a daily basis. Apple isn’t the first or only one to harp about AR in their devices but these use-case scenarios look like the cleanest shot at making AR a mainstream reality instead of a geeky buzzword by the sidelines.
Possibly the biggest ’S’ update to this year’s iPhone, the camera is perhaps the primary reason why anyone should be upgrading from an iPhone 8, or maybe even a X if I’m allowed to stick my neck out! The new image sensor and focus pixels now capture more light and more colour depth while keeping the optics the same as last year. But couple the new ISP with the leap offered by the A12 Bionic in computational photography and you’d feel like you’re using a whole different phone compared to last year’s X. Instantly, there is more visible detail, especially in the shadows while exposure is perfectly judged to preserve colour without blooming out the source of light.
Real time previews of Stage lighting in the camera mode take place notably faster and the camera team has even put in some real hard work to even out the shortcomings. Portraits have a much sharper segmentation to identify stray hair strands or edges of leaves, for example. And of course, the biggest feature of them all, the ability to re-adjust aperture in post, all the way from f1.4 to f16! Again, this isn’t something we haven’t seen before, Samsung having tried it using the ‘Background Blur’ moniker but here, the background objects get affected more subtly and with more dimension as opposed to just a flat treatment. There aren’t any fancy tricks like adding starry effects to your bokeh but just a realistic looking, almost-pro level image if you’ve got it right in the first place. But even without using the Portrait mode, the camera and video quality have jumped up several notches capturing much better highlights than before and opening up a new level low-light capability that was unknown to iPhones earlier. Smart HDR has a lot to do with this too and Apple’s secret sauce lies in how well it ties all of the tech behind a single shutter tap, eliminating any of the complex settings or options. Some might say that this is Apple just catching up to what Google Pixel was doing last year with HDR or what Samsung has always done with low-light, but it’s a huge improvement nevertheless and one that puts the iPhone back in the game for the “best smartphone camera in the world” tag squarely.
Another significant upgrade is to the video recording which now records in stereo sound to really add spatial depth to your home videos and playing it back in widened stereo sound is even better due to the improved speakers. Four microphones capture sonic information from all angles and mix them into a sound field that’s more immersive and real than something that would be just “shot on a phone”.
Thanks to the efficiency gained by the A12 Bionic chip, the effects are far reaching, even to the battery department. In my daily use over a few days of using the XS Max for social media, emailing, watching Instagram videos, taking pictures and editing and ending the day with YouTube on the bed, I passed out with the battery status still indicating a healthy 18%. After a 16 hour work day, this is respectable and enough reason for anyone able to afford these phones to opt for the Max version purely for the increased capacity and stamina. With new additions to customising controls in iOS12, you can even control how you use this time with the Screen Time app and possibly manage your bad habits too.
As far as ’S’ updates go, the XS is a pretty big one. Only the basic design looks familiar but every action feels smoother and faster than before. With iOS12 making full use of the complete gesture-based UX of the full screen phones, actions like swipe up and hold to show all open apps is almost too quick now and similarly, photo or video editing, gaming and Animojis all work like they’re running on skates. It isn’t the cheapest phone by a mile and the Max will max out around a ridiculous ₹1,45,000! Apple is playing it safe in India considering the rapidly devaluing INR but even then, for anyone to justify this kind of outlay on a phone is going to be tough. But, if you are a fanboy or even a travel junkie without the appetite for a big DSLR, this is a phone that really can double up as a primary camera, communicator and for a lot of people, even their primary computer.
Add to it, the experience of iOS with all the cool new apps and AR stuff and you have a gadget that really is at the bleeding edge of 2018 technology. So, if you can afford it, why not! And if you can’t, well every other month there is a flagship Android device biting at the iPhone’s heels and they frankly aren’t too far behind and could save you more than ₹40,000 bucks! It’s hard to recommend the iPhone XS/ XS Max if you are a rational person surviving on a monthly salary, but if you’ve just stumbled upon an oil field, look no further.