The iPhone XS, XS Max, XR and Apple Watch 4 Hands-Onby Andrei Frumusanu on September 12, 2018 7:00 PM EST
Today at Apples iPhone launch event, we saw the unveiling of three new iPhones as well as the Apple Watch Series 4. We go into more detail about the specifications of the new phones in our separate announcement article. Least to say, the new phones are a major upgrade in terms of their hardware capabilities, and also mark the across-the-board adoption of the iPhone X design for the entire iPhone product line.
I had a bit of hands-on time with the new phones at the event, and I was able to come away with a few impressions of the new models.
One thing that’s pretty evident is that the iPhone XS’ and the XR are pretty much successors to the iPhone X, as they adopt the same design language as their predecessors, along with Apple’s take on “edge-to-edge” displays and the notch design.
In terms of size, there’s quite a bit of a shakeup in the product line. The new iPhone XS replaces the iPhone 8 as the smallest phone available from Apple, and yet this "smallest" phone is actually identical in size to the iPhone X, which itself was closer to the iPhone 8 Plus in size than it was the standard iPhone 8. Essentially this means that Apple no longer offers a current-generation small form-factor phone; you'd need to go with previous generation phones (such as the now price reduced iPhone 8) to get something smaller than the X/XS.
Overall the iPhone XS is so close in design to the original iPhone X that in just looking at the exterior of the phones, you would be hard pressed to differentiate between the iPhone X and iPhone XS. And upon closer inspection there’s only two visible differences between the two units. On the bottom of the phone there’s now only three holes instead of six holes on the left side. As a reminder only the right holes actually output sound from the speaker, while the left ones hide the bottom microphone. Instead Apple added one more antenna line here, and this feature is mirrored at the top right corner of the phone as well. We don’t know yet as to what the two new antennas are for, other than they’re there for better reception.
Otherwise the front of the iPhone XS remains essentially identical to the iPhone X. I do find it a bit unfortunate that Apple decided not to iterate on the bezels and possibly make them smaller, as that would have been a great change and given a better “edge-to-edge” effect.
Apple put a lot of emphasis on the screen size of the iPhone XS Max – and I think it’s well warranted. The larger variation of the phone has the same physical footprint as the iPhone 8 Plus and prior Plus variants, however the XS Max just offers a lot more screen real estate thanks to the edge-to-edge design. This results in a device that’s a lot more fit among the 2018 competition than what we’ve seen last year.
The iPhone XS and XS Max otherwise don’t have any new external features differentiating from what we’ve seen in last year’s X. The camera housing is very much identical, even though the CMOS sensors have been upgraded.
While it was quite hard to evaluate this on-location with the very noisy crowd, the new speakers definitely sounded a lot louder and showcased better depth to them than what I’ve seen on the iPhone X. Here Apple seems to have done a lot to improve their speakers, and it seems 2018 will be remembered as a year where phone manufacturers tried in earnest to improve their external speaker sound quality.
The iPhone XR – What I think will be the most popular
Along the XS and the XS Max, Apple also introduced the iPhone XR, which is a lower priced phone that keeps an LCD display versus the higher end OLED found on the XS line. Here Apple actually introduced a new form-factor that’s in-between the XS and the XS Max. Unfortunately Apple didn’t have all three phones side-by-side, but here’s it showcased alongside last year’s iPhone X.
Overall I was a lot more impressed by the iPhone XR than I had expected, and I do think it gives the iPhone XS & XS Max a good run for their money.
Now make no mistake, it’s still very much an LCD screen and this can be seen by the inferior viewing angles. But for an LCD it was still excellent and I saw no faults in the panel itself. Though it did end up with a lower resolution than I was expecting from a phone of its size.
On the back of the phone we have a similar design to the iPhone 8 – a glass back which enables wireless charging and a single camera. Here the iPhone XR doesn’t adopt the secondary telephoto module that its siblings employ.
In terms of build quality, I found the aluminium band of the XR to be nicer than the steel band of the iPhone XS’s. Though perhaps it’s just my subjective opinion, as I’m not too great a fan of glossy frames (something I had also commented on with other devices this year).
Where the XR definitely beats the XS is in terms of phone body colour options. Reminiscent of the colour options for the iPhone 5C, I find the options offered for the XR to be a fresh breath of air for Apple. And the blue, yellow, red, and coral colours are definitely very attractive additions to the white and black variants that are traditionally available. Gold is the only version that the XS models are going to have to themselves in this regard.
Overall I suspect that the iPhone XR will be the phone of choice for the vast majority of people, especially as the $250 lower price tag is well worth giving up a few features.
The Apple Watch Series 4
The new Apple Watch was today’s first announcement, and it seems a positively great improvement in every aspect. The new variant comes in 40 or 44mm size variants, and the key feature of the new models is that they have a larger screen filling up more of the watch front – increasing the display-to-body ratio.
The screen seemed excellent and there’s definitely a lot more space, allowing for more information to be visible to the user.
Among other design changes, the microphone has been moved to the right side of the watch, between the button and the crown dial. Apple did this to improve the speaker of the watch – making it a lot louder now – as well as to enable better separation of recorded audio and to avoid echos.
The crown has also been updated and now includes haptic (clicky) feedback. The crown itself is still a freely-spinning wheel, so the feedback isn’t caused by a mechanism in the crown itself, but instead it's achieved through a vibration motor (the Taptic Engine) in the watch. Still it’s very convincing and serves the watch well.
On the back of the watch we have a similar design to past Apple Watches – which actually is a positive as the new watch is fully compatible with existing bands. The heart-rate monitor has seen an upgrade, but the most interesting aspect of the new watch is its ability to measure electrocardiograms. Here the user just wears the watch normally, and just has to touch the crown to create a closed loop, formed with your arms across your heart.
Much of the same, but improved details
Overall the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR are very much the successors to the iPhone X. Here what Apple has done is to bring last year’s design to a wider audience. However the prices of the XS models are a bit of a concern, as Apple's pricing really raises the bar in terms of the most expensive phones. With this latest generation of phones, we're looking at a whopping $1449 for the highest priced version.
Consequently, thanks in particular to its lower $749 starting price, I expect that the iPhone XR is going to be a much more successful and accessible device.
But with all of that said, there was also plenty that we didn't get to do with the new iPhones during our limited hands-on time. A lot of the improvements in the new iPhones are in the actual hardware powering the phones, and as is usually the case, we weren’t able to run any benchmarks during the hands-on. So we’ll have to wait for the upcoming review to address matters such as the new 7nm A12 chip.