For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the nights have started to draw in and temperatures drop. This can mean only one thing - we're now in what is traditionally Apple's main season for new product launches.
Last week saw the releases of iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and Apple Watch Series 4. The iPhone XR will begin shipping next month, and it's likely that at the very least there will also be an update to iPad Pro before the season ends. Beyond this, there might be new MacBooks; refreshes for iMac and Mac Mini; and possibly even a second generation of AirPods.
Add to this mix the recent round of major OS releases, and you currently have lots of talking points for anybody with an interest in all things Apple; lots to have opinions on; and lots to have questions about.
I've now had nearly a week with an iPhone XS Max, so I thought that I would share some experiences and early opinions in the hope that this will answer some possible questions.
Before we move on, I want to make it very clear that what follows should not be considered as a deep dive review, as I need more time to discover which of this iPhone's mostly subtle and incremental differences to my previous iPhone X will be meaningful over extended use. Additionally, having previously been somewhat hostile towards ‘jumbo’ sized phones, it's perhaps prudent to allow the iPhone XS Max some time to respond to any preconceptions or biases which I might bring to my relationship with its 6.5-inch display.
Accordingly, I would encourage readers to regard everything below as nothing more than a somewhat random collection of thoughts; some of which may prove to be incomplete - or even downright wrong - after more time and use of the iPhone XS Max.
But, this has to be enough preamble and caveats, lets get to some actual experiences and opinions.
When lifting the iPhone XS Max out of its box for the first time, it felt very familiar. And, so it should, as to all intents and purposes, it's visually a scaled up iPhone X.
If it weren't for reading this Apple Insider article, I would probably not have found out for myself with only touch to rely on, that there are in fact some aesthetic differences to the iPhone X that I had been using for the past 10 months:
Aesthetically, the iPhone XS is almost identical to last year's iPhone X, but if you take a closer look, you'll see that the speaker grille layout is completely different. The iPhone X had six speaker holes on the left side of its Lightning port, while the XS cuts that number down to three to make room for an added antenna band. Users will also notice a similar band at the top of the handset right above the camera lens.
Apparently, the camera bump is also ever so slightly larger than that of the iPhone X. This won't make a difference to those buying an iPhone XS Max, but anybody who gets an iPhone XS shouldn't assume that cases originally designed for the iPhone X will also fit their new iPhone.
It's not just visually that the iPhone XS Max has much in common with the iPhone X. Both feature OLED displays, Face ID, 3D Touch and wireless charging: whilst features like HDR10, Dolby Vision, and Super Retina technology are also identical.
As for differences between the iPhone XS Max and iPhone X, these include improved speakers, the ability to record video with stereo sound, better waterproofing, and an upgraded camera.
I'm not going to pretend that I understand the how and why, but of these changes, the camera on the iPhone XS Max and iPhone XS is reported to be “a huge camera upgrade”. One of the reasons for this, is that the camera sensor is approximately 30% larger, and this should convert into more detailed images and better performance in low light conditions. Although I rarely use my iPhone's camera to take photos, I do routinely use it to recognize text and images. I've not performed extensive or comparative testing, but when using KNFB Reader to scan letters, there does ‘seem’ to be an improvement in low light conditions over the iPhone X.
Another notable change with the new iPhones, is that they feature Apple’s new A12 Bionic chip. Apple unsurprisingly claims this to be “the smartest, most powerful chip in a smart-phone”; smarter and more powerful in ways that I am not going to pretend I fully understand or can begin to explain, so I will let Tom's Hardware assist me here:
The 7nm chip has 6.9 billion transistors. It features a 6-core CPU using Apple's Fusion architecture combining two performance cores and four efficiency cores. The Bionic also features a quad-core GPU that's promises to be up to 50 percent faster than the previous CPU. It allows for tessellation and multilayer rendering and lossless memory compression. It also features a new image processor, video processor, a faster secure enclave and more.
It also runs Apple's neural engine, with an 8-core design. The company claims that it can run 5 trillion operations for second, up from 600 billion operations per second on the A11 Bionic, Apple's last CPU.
The company also claims that apps will launch 30 percent faster on the XS and XS Max than previous phones.
I didn't expect any of this to translate in to something that I would notice in daily use of the phone. Possibly, apps do indeed open a little faster than they had on my iPhone X, but I wouldn't rule out that this is simply a placebo effect from being told that they would open faster.
There is, however, one area where I do believe that the new chip may be responsible for an actual performance improvement - VoiceOver feels faster and more responsive. Something that makes me believe that this isn't another possible placebo effect, is that I have switched to a voice other than Alex, and am enjoying the experience. Whenever I have tried other voices over recent years, the drop in responsiveness has typically had me revert back to Alex in less than an hour. On the iPhone X, I once managed to last on another voice for about 1 day, but spent most of that time complaining and missing Alex. I've now spent nearly a week with Ava, and the only niggles are the differences in some pronunciations and inflections.
Whilst on the topic of VoiceOver, I should also mention that the improvements to the speakers on the iPhone XS Max are noticeable when listening to VoiceOver. Not only are the speakers louder and clearer, but I suspect that they might also be a factor in why I am taken by the Ava voice. I don't know enough about audio and the workings of hearing to begin to understand the how and why of Ava sounding better than she used to, but I believe that the improved speakers of the iPhone XS Max are a contributing factor.
But, back to that new A12 Bionic chip.
One area where I have heard reports of people experiencing an immediate impact from the A12 Bionic chip's Neural Engine, is with the speed and reliability of Face ID. So far, I haven't noticed any discernible difference. It could be that this will come over time as the Neural Engine familiarizes itself with my face in a range of environments, but for now I am not noticing any improvement compared to that of an iPhone X running iOS 12.
Whilst on the topic of Face ID, I would recommend that anybody who hasn't owned or used an iPhone X and has questions about the setup and use of Face ID, or what the lack of a Home button means for VoiceOver users, should read my review from last year of the iPhone X along with the additional information shared by others in replies to that post. The only change of note in these areas since that review, is that VoiceOver users are now told about the ‘Attention Aware’ feature when setting up Face ID - specifically, now being told that this feature has been automatically disabled due to them being a VoiceOver user.
If after reading last year's review and comments on the iPhone X you still have concerns about Face ID and the removal of the Home button, I would encourage you not to. You will adapt; you will adjust quickly; it will simply become what you are used to.
And this leads me on to the “adapting’ and “adjusting” which I'm currently going through with the iPhone XS Max.
Yes, it's finally time to mention what's probably most significant about the iPhone XS Max - it sports the largest screen ever seen on an iPhone, a whopping 6.5-inches.
If you've read my review of the iPhone X, you will know that one of the issues I had with it compared to my previous iPhone 6S, was that it might no longer be a one-handed device. This is even more true with the iPhone XS Max. Even those used to one of the ‘Plus’ iPhones will need to adapt, as although the XS Max is similar in physical dimensions to one of these, its screen stretches to all four edges.
This leaves your fingers with a long stretch to reach the Status Bar and other page elements located near to the top of the screen, whilst triggering the Control Center and Notification Center are likely to require readjusting your grip.
I've noticed that without making a conscious decision to do so, I have switched to typically holding the iPhone XS Max in my left hand, and using my right hand to do most of the tapping and swiping. On those occasions when I do use the iPhone with just the one hand, it's already feeling less natural, efficient and secure. I guess that this is another example of how you adapt and just get used to whatever you are using.
One surprise with the iPhone XS Max, is that Apple hasn't taken advantage of the extra screen space to add at least one more row of app icons to the Home screen. There may be technical or UX reasons for not doing so. But, if they had, it's extremely likely that I would have moved to a single Home screen for all of my folders and apps, as it wouldn't have taken too much re-organizing on my part to have made this happen.
I am also disappointed that Apple hasn't taken advantage of the extra space available to the Status Bar on the iPhone XS Max. For example, the name of my carrier and the current connection type (3G or 4G in my case) were only displayed on my iPhone X in certain situations. It would have been nice if some of the extra space on the iPhone XS Max's Status Bar could have been used to make one or both of these present all of the time.
One area where Apple has taken advantage of the larger screen of the iPhone XS Max, is by adding support for expanded landscape applications, allowing for a two-column view in apps such as Mail, Messages and Calendar. I initially struggled with this, as there just seemed to be more to swipe through on the screen than I was used to. However, since switching to using one thumb to navigate and activate what's in the left column, and my other thumb to do the same in the right column, I actually now find myself enjoying this layout and often opt for it in favor of holding my phone upright.
As somebody who routinely uses a combination of swiping and touch to explore and navigate my iPhone's screen, there are numerous times and situations where I've been aware that the screen on the iPhone XS Max is also taking advantage of that extra real estate to display more content than I am used to. For example, more tweets in my Twitterrific timelines, and an extra episode when browsing podcasts in Overcast. It's not significant, and hasn't yet felt like it's transforming my user experience. But, it's not a bad thing either.
As for other potential benefits of that larger screen, my assumption is that in our community the benefits will be for low vision users and those who routinely use the “explore by touch” method to locate screen content.
I don't personally have enough residual vision to know from experience what the large screen of the iPhone XS Max offers to low vision users compared to smaller variants. However, one distinction between the iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XS that may be of specific interest and value to low vision users, is that the former supports the Display Zoom feature.
Display Zoom can be turned on in the Settings app under Display & Brightness and View. “Standard” shows more content on the screen, and “Zoomed” shows larger controls for content. Display Zoom makes elements on screen more legible with larger tap targets. This feature was first introduced on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, but was notably absent on the iPhone X (and now also the iPhone XS).
All three of this year's new iPhone models have support for two SIMs. In some Asian countries this will be offered via two SIM trays, whilst elsewhere one by the standard nano-SIM slot and a second via eSIM, a fully digital alternative. Apple identifies three possible use cases where Dual SIM might make an iPhone XR, XS or XS Max a compelling upgrade:
- Use one number for business and another number for personal calls.
- Add a local data plan when you travel outside of the country or region.
- Have separate voice and data plans. List end
The iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max come in three colors: space gray, silver and a new shade of gold. They are available with storage capacities of 64GB, 256GB or 512GB. Prices start at US$999 and US$1099 respectively.
Unlike the ‘Plus’ iPhone models released in the past, the smaller variant this year has the exact same camera system as its larger counterpart. In fact, the only difference other than in size, is that the iPhone XS Max offers up to 60 minutes of extra battery life than the iPhone XS.
The big ‘leap’ in terms of the evolution of the iPhone came last year. If there is a big change this year, it's that there are three new iPhone models, all of which build in mostly small ways upon the iPhone X; and each of which aims to offer potential buyers something different. I was thrilled last year at what the iPhone X offered compared to my previous iPhone 6S, and I have no doubt that I would be even more thrilled if I were upgrading from a 6S to one of this year's three new iPhones.
I am confident that anybody looking to upgrade from anything other than an iPhone X would also be thrilled by any one of this year's new iPhone models. For those who own an iPhone X, it's likely that only being on an annual upgrade program or needing extra storage space or a second SIM will be a strong reason to upgrade.
However, my strong recommendation to anyone considering buying the iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max, would be to wait at least a few weeks for the release of the iPhone XR, as it shares many of the headline features, but with a saving of at least $250. And, much of what it is lacking, may arguably not offer any added value to blind or low vision users.
The main differences between the iPhone XR and the XS and XS Max, are that the former has an LCD display rather than OLED, has Haptic Touch in place of 3D Touch, has an aluminium housing instead of stainless steel, has 1GB less of RAM, and that it has only a single rear camera compared to the dual camera system of the iPhone XS and XS Max.
That leaves a lot to potentially like about the iPhone XR, and my expectation is that it will be the most popular of this year's new iPhones. This has me waiting with anticipation for the first batch of iPhone XR reviews.
As I said right at the start of this post, my intention was not to go deep in to the iPhone XS Max at this point. This will no doubt have readers keener than ever to learn the experiences and opinions of others. So, if you've already taken the plunge and bought either an iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max, please do share your thoughts by posting a comment below. If you are holding out for the iPhone XR, it would also be great to hear your reasons.
If you are looking for a deep dive in to the iPhone XS and XS Max, , Mashable has you covered: iPhone XS and XS Max review: The best iPhones ever