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Apple iPhone XS and XS Max review: X evolved

By James Lu & Alvin Soon - 23 Sep 2018

Camera features and performance

iPhone XS (with Smart HDR). f/1.8 with wide-angle, 1/45 sec, ISO 400.

Note: The iPhone XS and XS Max have the same camera system. For readability’s sake, I’ll refer to both using ‘iPhone XS’ from here on.

There’s not much here in the iPhone XS that you’ll be surprised by. Apple’s iPhones capture good images and exceptionally good video, and the XS offers more of the same but better.

For example, the new, bigger 12MP sensor in the wide-angle camera delivers cleaner images in low light with more detail. In good light, the iPhone XS captures noticeably more dynamic range and color than last year’s iPhones, even without the new Smart HDR feature enabled (more on that below).

The pixels are larger and deeper, and they do make a difference. But low light performance isn’t that much better. At ISO 1,000 the iPhone XS is pushing it, while the Huawei P20 Pro is handling it with style. And it’s not just detail loss in low light at high ISOs either. Whenever a shot involves heavy processing, like Smart HDR or Portrait Mode, more noise, not less, is introduced into the shot.


Smart HDR is missing a shadow

Smart HDR is a headline feature, and it’s basically a re-brand of HDR. It captures multiple exposures for a single shot and combines them into one image. Apple doesn’t say how many. What we do know is that competing phones like the Samsung S9 series combines up to 12 images, while the Google Pixel 2 XL combines up to 10.

Smart HDR manages to preserve highlights, but not for extreme blowouts. It also doesn’t do much to boost the shadows. Even Apple’s promotional materials for Smart HDR show photos with shadows that have gone to black. It could be that Apple is leaving the shadows to preserve contrast (an evenly toned image creates a flat image). But that’s what ordinary exposures are for. Lost shadows are exactly what you’d have expected a better HDR system not to do.

This is a non-Smart HDR image from the iPhone XS.

How Apple’s Smart HDR processes the shot. There’s more detail in the sky, but the backlit figures are still in shadow.

How I wish Apple’s Smart HDR would do it. I brightened the shadows here in Adobe Lightroom.

Something you’ll notice is that the iPhone XS is prone to glare. It’s there when you’re directly facing a bright light source and can be a problem if you’re facing multiple light sources in video, like in this clip below.

Another headline feature is speed. The new 8-core Neural Engine is now strongly linked with the iPhone XS’ image signal processor (ISP), and that extra power makes a difference. Once the Camera app is launched, it continuously captures a four-frame buffer in the background. This results in zero shutter lag when you hit the shutter and ensures you never miss the desired shot. The iPhones 8 aren’t slow phones, not by a long shot. But when shooting side by side, the iPhone XS’ responsiveness made my iPhone 8 Plus feel sluggish by comparison.

The other benefit to having a faster processor is that Portrait Mode is now much faster. I’ve grown so used to waiting for Portrait Mode to lock on my iPhone 8 Plus that I almost think it’s not working when the iPhone XS locks on almost instantaneously. Portrait shots appear to have cleaner outlines and are more accurate for the most part. And it’s a small detail, but the iPhone XS induces perfectly round highlights in its faux bokeh, which is something photographers love.

Portrait Mode is way faster than it used to be, and creates pretty round bokeh highlights (see the 100% crop on the right side of this composite).


The iPhone XS paints with richer hues

One of the best things about iPhone photographs is their bright, vivid colors, and the iPhone XS takes that up a notch. Hues are deeper and richer when compared to last year’s iPhones, and you can see it on the phone’s screen. Apple says the iPhone XS’ screen shows a 60 percent greater dynamic range in HDR photos. The OLED screen is also color accurate, with a wide color gamut (P30) and color management at the OS level. It’s a real pleasure to shoot with, and if you capture to HEIF, the images are saved in the wider P3 color space.

The iPhone XS’ photo shows dramatically more color and dynamic range than the iPhone 8 Plus’ (below). This is the non-Smart HDR image, by the way.

The iPhone 8 Plus’ non-HDR photo has significantly less detail than the iPhone XS’.

The iPhone XS’ image with Smart HDR captures even more highlight detail, but doesn’t do much for the shadows.


The iPhone XS wins video

Apple has one of the best, if not the best video performance in a smartphone camera. The Huawei P20 Pro doesn’t have optical image stabilization in 4K, while the Samsung Galaxy S9, S9+, and Note9 can only do OIS at up to 4K/30p. The iPhone XS offers OIS to 4K/60p. That OIS makes a big difference, and Apple’s implementation is solid. And for the first time ever, the iPhone XS records video in stereo sound.

When it comes to slow-motion video, the iPhone XS shoots at 1080p at up to 240fps. The Samsung S9, S9+, and Note9 shoot slow-motion at up to 960fps, but at a lower resolution of 720p. The Sony Xperia XZ2 Premium and Xperia XZ2 however, can shoot slow-motion videos at 1080p resolution at up to 960fps. But I gather that most people would shoot more normal video than slow-motion.


The iPhone XS pushes the camera game forward

The iPhone XS doesn’t change the camera game, but it does push it forward. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the best things about the iPhone is that it has consistently delivered a compelling package of both still and video performance with an easy to use UI. That hasn’t changed here. If you’re upgrading from an older iPhone, you’ll enjoy the images and especially the videos you’ll get from the iPhone XS and XS Max.

I’ll have to admit though, it’s September 2018, and I’m spoilt. The Samsung Galaxy S9/S9+ introduced a dual aperture camera, which switches between f/1.5 and f/2.4. The wider aperture makes a visible difference in low light. The Huawei P20 Pro’s incredible Night Mode, while imperfect, opens up new sights in the dark. Even the Sony XZ2 Premium’s new Ultra-High Sensitivity mode changed my mind on what a smartphone camera can do with high ISOs.

It isn’t to say that the Apple iPhone XS camera is bad. It isn’t. But there’s nothing terribly new here, and that’s a big surprise from a company that usually surprises.

  • Design 8.5
  • Features 8.5
  • User-Friendliness 8
  • Performance 9.5
  • Value 7
The Good
Gorgeous Display
Significantly faster performance
Great battery life
Improved cameras
Louder speakers
New 512GB storage option
The Bad
Same design as last year
Really expensive
Fast charging sold separately
Lightning-to-3.5mm headphone jack dongle sold separately