Apple's releasing a new iPhone today, and it's calling it the best iPhone yet. But then the company says that every year. We put it through its paces to see if it can possibly be worth the morning.
It’s generally true, and since the iPhone 4 the value proposition on the new iPhone never changes; the two main reasons to upgrade are almost always a better camera, and more power. But how much better is the camera, and how many people will take full advantage of the power in the iPhone, which now regularly beats low end laptops?
These are hard questions to answer for all users, so instead I’ll focus on three types of potential iPhone customers: the Apple fan, the regular iPhone users out of contract, and the potential Android switchers.
If you’re an Apple fan, you almost certainly upgraded to the X last year, so is there any reason to buy the XS? Well, only if you need to have the latest and greatest device, in which case, you’ve already pre-ordered. If you are upgrading from last year's X, Face ID feels a tiny bit faster, but also more reliable. I have no decent numbers to go by, but I can say the only time Face ID failed was when lying in bed, my face squished up against a pillow. Those slight pauses you sometimes get when the phone is at hip height, and you’re glancing down to check for the next bus; those little failures seem to have gone.
Again, I cannot stress enough that this is based on no scientific testing, just a sudden moment on about day three with the XS, when I tried to remember if Face ID had ever failed. The iPhone X has a few little failures a day — usually just missing my face the first time, forcing me to stop and look at the phone — these seem gone with the XS. And that might just answer one of those questions. When are you going to ever use all that power in the A12 Bionic chip? The answer is about 60 times a day, when you unlock the phone, and the biometric security scans you in.
Similarly, photos from the camera look fantastic, especially in the hands of a professional, but are they better than the already excellent shots coming from last year’s iPhone X? Yes, in some circumstances. I’ve mainly seen improvements with the speed of Portrait Mode; which now seems fast enough to grab beautiful images of a toddler while producing that DSLR bokeh effect. Last year’s phone took a mean Portrait, but only when the subject was still, and toddlers rarely are.
The major difference I’ve seen from photographers much more talented than I am are changes to HDR. Traditional HDR (high dynamic range) combines three images; one under exposed to grab detail from the brighter parts of the frame, another over exposed to find detail in the shadows, and a final image at correct exposure, then combining them all. The technology is not new, it was first introduced to the iPhone 5s in 2013. With the iPhone XS, Apple is capturing as many frames as the lighting conditions require, mixing up each individual part of the image. The whole thing happens in an instant, again thanks to the 5 trillion calculations per second the A12 chip can process.
The iPhone XS Max did feel ridiculous to me in the hands on area, and having spent a few days with it now it seems more manageable, but I still prefer the smaller model. Yet the Max is the iPhone XS everyone has been asking me about, so I’m clearly in the minority thinking it’s too big.
The Max shares roughly the same footprint as big Android phones like Samsung's Galaxy S9+, and the same pluses and minuses apply. It’s too large for my pockets, and quite hard to use one handed, although iOS gestures make it less painful than some gigantic phones. Most noticeably, iPhone's face unlock makes it a much easier phone to open than one relying on a fingerprint reader on the back of the device. Only Oppo and OnePlus match the speed of the iPhone’s facial unlock, but their technology is nowhere near as secure.
A larger device means a heavier device, but the weight feels evenly distributed. I’ve used a few enormous phones that felt too "top heavy", which made them feel always a second away from toppling out of my grip. It’s still feels precarious to use on a crowded train, but if this is your one device, your main phone, tablet, and possibly even laptop replacement, then I can understand Maxing out, as it were. And the split screen interface makes using the device in landscape much easier. My standard phone is always locked to portrait, there’s just not enough room in landscape on a regular sized phone.
Considering how much work I now do on the phone — during my commute, when I’m supposed to be listening in a meeting — a larger phone probably makes more sense for me, but I’m going to stubbornly stick with the smaller model. At least I will until I get a chance to try the iPhone XR.
For those regular iPhone users sporting an iPhone 7 or below, the upgrade is well worth it. The iPhone X was the first iPhone I could use without worrying about battery life. Granted, I use my phone way too much, as iOS 12 has shamed me into knowing, but if the X can do me, the XS will be fine for you. Likewise, stepping up from an older iPhone to the XS you’ll see dramatic improvements in camera quality, and in that gorgeous OLED display. For the Apple faithful that upgrade whenever their contract ends, you’ll love this new device.
For the Android switcher, this is when things get interesting. Now let’s be clear, I’m talking to the potential Android Switcher, not the equally passionate Android fanboy who is tearing me apart in the comments below. Just a regular Android user who’s iCurious and out of contract.
For this user, I honestly can’t think of a time when the iOS ecosystem has been this strong. I may have written that AirPods looked ridiculous at launch, but I can concede they’re the best, simplest bluetooth earbuds going around. They’ve locked me into iOS more than any other product.
Likewise, the Apple Watch is easily the best smartwatch on the market. Samsung’s Gear is second, but there’s quite a gap in features, design, and third party support. Meanwhile Google's Wear OS, once the market leader, feels long forgotten.
If you don’t care about either accessory, iOS 12 has the spit and polish of Apple’s glory days. Whoever is in charge of Quality Assurance at iOS — and I assume they’re quite new to the team — deserves a massive raise and stock options. This is the "just works" Apple slogan that was always an exaggeration, but at least with iOS, feels true right now.
That’s not to say the iPhone XS is perfect. While I can see Apple is throwing the best possible components in its flagship devices, the price creep is starting to become more than I can handle. The least expensive way to get an Xs is the smaller device with 64GB of storage for a blistering $1629. The least expensive Max is $1799. At the opposite end, for phones with 512GB, it's $2199 and $2369 respectively.
I was hoping the XR would be a little cheaper to counter this. Instead, it is still an expensive device (starting at $1299). And if you buy into the entire ecosystem, including the AirPods and Apple Watch, that is a massive investment.
And one area where Apple has cut corners is with the power cable. Despite every modern Apple laptop being USB C only, the iPhone still ships with a USB A cable, and the tiny little power adaptor pumps out a measly 5W, so fast charging is only possible by buying another cable and adaptor. This seems ridiculous on a phone with few other compromises.