One Week With the New iPhone XS

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We tested the new iPhone XS for a week doing everything from shooting high-speed video while mountain biking to snapping gorgeous scenic stills. If you’re thinking about upgrading or buying the new Apple device, here’s everything you should know about using the new iPhone XS, its coolest features, and more.

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What It Is

It’s all about the engine that makes the new XS zippy, and, man, is this thing turbocharged. Apple’s new A12 chip’s faster functionality literally begins to demonstrate its value the moment you go to unlock it. Since there’s no Home button on either the XS and XS Max, you do this with your face, using Face ID and it is freakishly fast, and much less prone to flub than on the X. After a trail run at dusk, we got back to the car in the dark, stood stretching, grabbed the phone out of the cupholder, and even though there was barely any ambient light, it unlocked in an instant. Before we go further, understand just how much the new chip matters.

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The iPhone X that came out last year ran Apple’s A11 chip that was already powerful, and could perform 600 billion operations per second. But while that chip had a three-core graphics processor, the new iPhones run a four-core processor that’s 50 percent faster than the prior setup. Plus the new A12 chip has eight total cores, and even if all of this sounds like we’re speaking a foreign language, just know the bottom line: The new A12 chip can run five trillion operations per second. In other words, the new XS and XS Max are way more powerful than the X, and it shows.

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Why We Like It

The Display
Another way we noticed that chip’s speed is in the rendering of gorgeous and seamless gaming graphics. Note that both the new displays on the XS and XS Max are both bigger than on the X, and the contrast is greatly improved. To test out the XS, we noodled with Playdead’s Inside, a super creepy, puzzle-solving, mental train-wrecker (caution: it’s also addictive) that came out originally for dedicated platforms like Xbox One. It’s rendered beautifully on the iPhone XS and XS Max.

We chose this game not because it should totally tax the A12 chip, but because it’s so cinematic to play on a big 4K TV. On the small, 5.8-inch XS screen, though, it was just as immersive and the nearly liquid graphics are straight-up stunning. Also, because this game’s scenes are mostly rendered as a shades-of-gray-and-brown monotone, any lack of visual sharpness would be manifested as muddiness, but the XS’ newer, deeper blacks and considerably stronger contrast allow Inside’s dystopian vibe to come through with haunting clarity.

Overall, the new phones have the greatest pixel density of any Apple device, period, and makes us wish Apple would make TV screens, not just desktop monitors. Also, they use spatial microphones and true stereo sound, too, so any playback that was mixed in stereo comes back out in stereo, and the phones get really LOUD too, so if you’re somewhere where you can crank the volume, go for it. It sounds remarkably good.

Downloading Shows
If you’re on the go, downloading your favorite shows before you board that flight to LAX is wise. Naturally, we spaced until just before un-linking WiFi, and it didn’t matter. Yes, we have strong WiFi at home, but our last-second grab of full seasons of both Amazon Prime’s Man in the High Castle and Netflix’s Jessica Jones dropped out of the ether at easily triple the speeds we’ve seen on an iPad Pro. Likewise, playback, even on the smallish, 5.8-inch screen, was rich.

For basic cell and text reception we’ve experienced far better reception in far more zones where we once had weak reception than with any cell phone we’ve tested in the past two years. That’s a huge deal for commuters who aren’t on a bus or train with WiFi. This meant being tethered and connected and keeping a workflow going was a heck of a lot better, with far less thumb-twiddling waiting for an email to go out or a document to load.

Reading and Writing
It’s a simple thing, but Apple’s Super Retina OLED is less tiring to eyeball. If you’re an eBook reader, or just have to do a lot of texting and composing email, it’s an important facet of what the phones bring. The clearer display actually let us reduce the brightness of the screen without any loss in legibility of text.

Using Portrait Mode—After the Fact
Apple’s computational photography and Smart HDR are what enable you to take a shot in Portrait Mode, then alter the depth of field after the fact. This is especially cool, because it means for interior shots you can soften the background, and essentially mute contextual details to a smudges of warmth and color rather than distracting visual noise, which also has the effect of pulling your subject forward.

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Also, while in the past it felt like a chore to use Portrait Mode, now it’s becoming our default, because it enables using that depth map to edit images in an entirely new way. We predict that many more photography apps are going to take advantage of the depth map to enable all sorts of extra-interesting edits and live photography tools that have simply never existed before.

iphone xs portrait mode
Michael Frank

… and for the Outdoors 
Outside, Portrait Mode is also handy, because it makes landscapes and skies especially painterly. In our sample, where the subject used the front-facing camera (yep, selfies get depth-mapped too), we took the original and altered the depth of field all the way to f /1.8, which both makes the subject look sharper, and more clearly defines him.

Michael Frank

…and for Objects
Here’s where it gets interesting: Now, it’s a lot easier to use Portrait Mode for things, not just people. So this series of the new 2019 Dodge Challenger gives you a good idea what’s now possible. Not only did we shoot the car in Portrait Mode, it got a clear depth map of it. That extra information means that as we edited the shot after the fact, even though we had crappy light that was fairly flat, there was more warmth and color to bring back out of the blacks. It’s worth giving credit to the OLED display here, too. Making edits on a better screen with 60 percent better dynamic range when you’re looking at HDR images makes a huge difference in your ability to see your changes.

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Michael Frank
iphone xs portrait mode on objects
Michael Frank
iphone xs portrait mode outdoors objects
Michael Frank

Take Your iPhone Mountain Biking
The hardest test of the new iPhone, and one you might not make on your own, is to see if the image stabilization of both lenses that Apple touted is truly “action-cam” worthy. The sample footage is by no means proof either way, and it’s shot at 1080, not in 4K. Although the iPhone will shoot in 4K at up to 60 frames per second, which might have smoothed out this footage a bit, most social media sharing sites, not to mention Youtube, massively crunch down 4K. You can’t even find much TV streaming in 4K, yet, so we wanted to see what the footage was like out of the box in a format that reflects the way most people shoot and share.

And it’s truly not bad. The focus is seamlessly retained on the subject, and only when he pops out of the frame and then back in do you see some fishbowl effects to the focus. Naturally, it also warbled where we’re rolling over bumpy singletrack. But if this was instead a ski shoot on fluffy powder snow, we’d guess that would evaporate as an issue. Also, we captured incredibly clear audio thanks to four microphones that play sound back in true-to-life stereo with very clear separation, so the sound has its own depth; voices come from “where” they should in the video. Now, would you put a $1,000-plus phone on your helmet to record video when the new GoPro Hero7 Black runs $400 and is way more rugged? That’s your call. The newest iPhones are rated for submersion in up to 6.6 feet of water for a half hour, but they’re not touted as “GoPro-rugged” for one simple reason—they’re not.


Sure, we do have one beef. We’d like to see somewhat longer battery life. Apple says the new XS and XS Max get their biggest battery life, ever, but because that new A12 chip enables even greater use, especially videography and better streaming, you can imagine the inevitable: You’re going to shoot more, and watch more. And that happens to be power hungry. Can Apple really blame us if we want even longer run time between charges? And yes, this is one pricy phone, with the 256GB model running a wallet-swiping $1,099.

[From $999;]

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