CUPERTINO, Calif.—The iPhone X is the new default iPhone. Sure, the new iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR all have Apple’s new, 7nm A12 Bionic chip, and two of them come in different sizes or different materials from before. But these phones are very much the next iteration of the new vision for the iPhone that Apple introduced on exactly the same day last year.
That means a heavy emphasis on TrueDepth, the Kinect-like augmented reality sensor array that powers Face ID, which is a new way of authenticating with phones with just your face. Apple believes TrueDepth’s best days are ahead of it and its watershed moment in terms of third-party app support has yet to happen. (Apple also believes that about augmented reality more generally.)
The new phones’ similarities to the iPhone X also include a nearly edge-to-edge display with rounded corners and a notch at the top. Despite being initially mocked, that notch has now become ubiquitous in the industry. They also sport glass backs that look lovely and enable wireless charging, even if they raise concerns about durability.
TrueDepth and augmented reality promise a future iPhone experience that just isn’t a reality yet for most people, though. That’s because they haven’t taken off with third-party app and game developers yet. But by shifting the entire new iPhone line toward these features, Apple is encouraging more of its consumers to buy into the technology, and that could spark interest from developers in turn. And the new iPhone XR (which I’ll talk more about very shortly) brings the price down to a point where the install base developers need could be achievable.
The new iPhones are meant to drive Apple’s three biggest focus points today: augmented reality, machine learning, and services like Apple Music, Apple TV, and the App Store. They’re meant to lay the groundwork for new experiences in the future and for a very different kind of Apple.
But that’s the future—maybe. What about today? I spent some time with all three new phones at Apple’s event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino; let’s go over them one by one.
iPhone XS: The new default iPhone
Did you like the iPhone X? You’ll like the iPhone XS. If you didn’t, well, tough luck. That’s what iPhones are now.
I spent about 15 minutes handling the XS, and if it weren’t for the new, gold finish, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you whether it was the X or a new phone without looking into the settings or digging deep to find the handful of small new features. The exception was when I was viewing photos, videos, or games: the new HDR OLED screen is noticeably more vibrant than its predecessor. An Apple representative told me it can reach 600 nits of brightness, but we’ll test that claim in the review.
Done well, OLED displays are gorgeous—last year, I called the iPhone X’s the best phone display I had ever seen. That remained true until I saw the iPhone XS and XS Max today. If you play games or regularly watch movies or TV on your phone, you couldn’t pick a better phone. Apple provides arguably the best library in the world of digitally available HDR movies to watch on this device.
I played Bethesda Games Studios’ The Elder Scrolls Blades on the device. I had played it on an iPhone X at E3, and it was impressive, but it was more impressive on this new phone. It looked better than the game’s PC and console predecessor (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) did on high-end PCs a few years ago.
I tried the new bokeh camera effect, which can be applied to a photo and adjusted after the photo is taken—just like the portrait lighting mode added in last year’s phones. It won’t fool a professional photographer, but amateurs will love it.
The XS seemed speedy and responsive, but then again, so did the X. And the external design is identical. All that is to say that the iPhone XS is basically just an iPhone X with a faster and more efficient CPU, some camera improvements, and a moderately better screen—and ostensibly, faster Face ID, though we didn’t get to test that today. We’ll explore that last one in our review.
The XS is one of the most conservative phone upgrades Apple has ever done. Other than the artificial bokeh, it doesn’t introduce any new features of note compared to its now-deprecated predecessor. The 7nm A12 chip is a promising development, but its advantages will be subtle for most users.
The iPhone XS is an improved version of an already great—albeit expensive—phone. But the other two phones are the bigger story.
iPhone XS Max: The ever-expanding phone
Apple opted to name the 6.5-inch device it just unveiled the “iPhone XS Max,” because it’s even bigger than phones the company has applied the “Plus” label to in the past.
The XS Max is enormous. While the OLED display on the iPhone XS looks great, the increased size helped me notice those remarkable details even more.
I turned the phone into landscape orientation to see if it supports the special landscape app layouts that iPhone Plus users have enjoyed for the past few years. It does. (Like the iPhone X, the iPhone XS does not support these layouts.)
And games looked great. The iPhone XS Max has a larger display than any previous iPhone, the PlayStation Vita, the Nintendo 3DS, or even the Nintendo Switch. With triple-A games like Fortnite and The Elder Scrolls Blades hitting the platform, and with Apple emphasizing developers that make subscription-based apps-and-games-as-a-service over free-to-play in the coming months, this is shaping up to be an attractive gaming device. And the AR games market is only just taking off.