Apple iPhone XS and XS Max review: Pricey but future-proof

When Apple introduced the iPhone X last year, it didn’t just release a new phone — it presented a new vision of what iPhones should be. The fact that the X became Apple’s top-selling model quarter after quarter was proof that people were embracing change. Now, with the arrival of the new iPhone xs and xs maxx, Apple’s vision feels almost inescapable.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for iOS fans. These new XS models represent Apple at the top of its hardware game, and if you buy either of them, you probably won’t need to upgrade for quite a while. They’re that good. The bigger question here is whether the iPhone XS and XS Max are must-own devices, and that’s where things get complicated. Before we can divine an answer to that question, though, we need to understand what makes these iPhones as valuable as they are.

Last year’s iPhone X defined a new kind of normal for Apple’s smartphone fans. This year’s iPhone XS, meanwhile, is all about balancing polish and progress. The XS uses the same thoughtfully updated iOS 12 as the iPhone X and their physical designs are basically identical, but a more powerful chipset and much-needed camera improvements make the XS a solid step forward. If you’re itching for a new iPhone and can justify the hefty cost, the XS is the safe choice — but you should probably wait to see what the forthcoming iPhone XR has to offer.

Fundamentally, the iPhone XS and the XS Max are the same phone — one of them is just bigger. This itself is interesting, because in prior years, the iPhone x6 Plus and 6s Plus had cameras with optical image stabilization, while the 7 Plus and 8 Plus had dual cameras. The Max holds no such advantage this year — instead, the two phones share a long list of tweaks and improvements worth noting.

Both, for instance, pack improved stereo speakers that offer some additional clarity and a more pronounced sense of space. This is especially apparent when you’re watching movies or live music recordings — it doesn’t exactly feel like you’re in the middle of the action, but the experience comes closer to that than I would’ve expected.

The glass covering the front and back of these new iPhones is tougher this year too, and that’s a good thing. My iPhone X suffered a few serious gouges soon after I started using it, but so far the XS phones have withstood the hellscape that is my backpack. Even better, the XS and XS Max are (finally) rated IP68 for water and dust resistance, meaning you can leave one of these phones in as much as seven feet of water for up to 30 minutes. Not that you ever would. Right?

Both phones also have eSIMS tucked away inside, though it’ll be a while before you can actually use them. The idea here is to offer dual SIM support — so you can attach multiple lines of services to a single device — without having to juggle two tiny pieces of plastic. (Unless you live in China, where regional versions of the XS make you do just that.)

This is a concession for international users who often have separate lines of service for voice and data, but Apple says you’ll eventually be able to activate just the eSIM and skip traditional SIM cards entirely.

Lastly, in addition to the usual 64GB and 256GB storage options, you can now get an iPhone XS or an XS Max with a whopping 512GB of storage. That’s not exactly unheard of — Samsung also offers its massive Galaxy Note 9 with that much storage — but it’s a great, if expensive, way to make sure you’ll never run out of room for your offline Netflix movies.

To say that these are Apple’s best iPhones ever isn’t really saying much — that’s true of just about every iPhone release. That said, the iPhone XS and XS Max subtly improve on the important work Apple started last year with the iPhone X in just about every way that matters. These aren’t just worthy successors; they’re fantastic smartphones in their own right. And thanks to Apple’s growing focus on machine learning and the A12 Bionic’s Neural Engine, both of these phones have been set up for success as our smartphone software continues to become more sophisticated.

But we need to circle back to our original question: Are either of these new iPhones must-own devices? The answer really depends. If you splurged on an iPhone X last year, you could easily skip out on this generation — and maybe even the next one — and not feel bad about it. To be clear, Apple has done some fine work here, but once you’ve installed iOS 12, I don’t think you’re missing out on enough to justify the costs. If you’ve been using an older iPhone, though, or mulling a switch from Android, the XS line’s value becomes much more clear. Even so, most of you reading this should consider waiting until the iPhone XR launches next month. Until we get a clearer sense of how Apple’s cheap new iPhone X stacks up to these premium options, it’s hard to say if the company’s best iPhones ever are actually the best iPhones for you.

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