I Don’t Typically Do This

by Martin Gordon

iPhone XS

After Apple announced the iPhone XS last month, I found myself having to consider a question I hadn't considered since the spring of 2007: am I getting a new iPhone?

Coming out of the keynote, the answer was “no”. The iPhone X presented a truly monumental improvement over the Plus form factor and is a phone I actually have no complaints about. The phone is fast enough, Face ID works well for me, the cameras are excellent, and coming from a 7 Plus, I didn't lose screen size by moving to a physically smaller phone.

In contrast to other “S” years, which brought autofocus and video recording (3GS), Siri (4S), Touch ID (5S), 3D Touch and optical image stabilization (6S), the iPhone XS’s slight speed and questionable camera improvements made it seem as though there just wasn’t enough there to warrant upgrading to an iPhone XS from the iPhone X.

So what am I doing writing about my experience with the iPhone XS? Well, one thing that is significantly different this year is the availability of a larger model. I really like the iPhone X size (finding the 6/7/8 too small and the Plus too large), but since old habits die hard and I was planning on waking up to pre-order a new Apple Watch anyway, I figured I might as well tack on a XS Max to my order and give it a go for a couple of weeks.

The iPhone XS Max is more pleasant to use single-handedly than the 6s and 7 Plus, primarily due to the improved grippiness of the glass back over the soap bar-like aluminum back of the older phones. Still, many UI elements, and most importantly Control Center, are impossible to reach without using two hands.

Most apps I use on a regular basis haven't been updated to take advantage of the larger screen (and so present a scaled up 5.8″ interface), and aside from supporting a “regular” landscape size class over the “compact” one of the 4.7″ and 5.8″ iPhones, neither has iOS. Unless you find yourself watching a ton of video or have another compelling need for the larger screen, there's not a lot of benefit to the larger screen of the XS Max in October of 2018.

In previous years, upgrading to the Plus models afforded a higher density screen and an improved or additional camera. This year’s iPhones are the first time that the two sizes of iPhones are offered with no internal difference aside from the Max having a larger battery, which provides an extra hour of battery life.

After getting used to the 5.5″ Plus and then handling a 4.7″ iPhone, the smaller phone felt too small. After getting used to the 6.5″ Max and then handling a 5.8″ iPhone, the smaller phone feels just right.

Does this mean I’m sticking with my iPhone X? Going solely by the keynote and my personal preference towards the smaller phone, the answer would be “yes”. However, the general consensus is that the keynote this year greatly undersold the iPhone XS’s camera improvements. I personally found the camera segment to be uncharacteristically technical; it seemed far too concerned with not hurting previous iPhone’s feelings than it did with describing how much better the XS’s camera is than the specs suggest.

The many reviews that came out between pre-order and launch had no such qualms, and are what ultimately pushed me towards an iPhone XS. John Gruber’s review, Austin Mann’s camera review, and Sebastiaan de With’s technical deep dive all go into how Smart HDR salvages otherwise-unusable photos and how the larger sensor allows for better low-light photography (which is not without its trade-offs, as de With discusses).

As with every other “S” phone, many will dismiss the XS because it looks the same as the previous generation. On the flip side, tech specs rarely tell the whole story, and that’s what Apple focused on at the keynote last month. Even though incremental improvements seem smaller each year, 2-3 years of incremental improvements adds up to something significant.

As iPhone cameras have gotten better, I’ve been leaving my real camera behind, and having the best iPhone camera possible is a pretty big priority for me, so upgrading to the XS (and giving me the opportunity to get on the iPhone Upgrade Program) is a no-brainer. If you’re on an older phone and itching to upgrade, there’s no reason not to (well, maybe one reason: the iPhone XR, a lower-cost alternative to the XS, which ships next week). If you’re on an iPhone X, consider how often you’re hitting that 10% battery warning, how much video you watch, and how many photos you throw away. If it’s a lot, an iPhone XS or XS Max may be more than a minor upgrade to you.