I’ve obviously missed my regular Apple event day coverage for this year’s iPhone and Watch announcement (YouTube link), there was a family emergency that necessitated lots of travel. I won’t dwell on that emergency much except to say that if you enjoy reading Nuclear Monster at all I would appreciate any contributions you can make either by sharing posts you like with your friends and family, through donations, or by buying a shirt.
Thank you to everyone who has helped with that already.
Nevertheless, Apple didn’t wait around for me and has announced and released a new iPhone in two sizes, the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, the Apple Watch Series 4, and a third new iPhone, the iPhone XR. The XR is at first glance a “budget” device that is somehow still very expensive (starting at $750) and has odd trade offs compared to the XS line.
The new XS phones are supposed to be pronounced “ten S,” and the XR is supposed to be pronounced “ten R” I don’t think anyone is going to go out of their way to do that. Those names are extremely silly and I hope nobody is very fussy about pronouncing them “correctly,” still, the devices and prices for these phones are still interesting.
iPhone XS & iPhone XS Max: Ridiculously Named, Too Expensive
This is an “S” year, which usually calls for incremental technical improvements inside a very similar outward-facing design to the previous year’s iPhone, like the iPhone 4S upgrade was to the iPhone 4.
That trend kind of went out of the window with the 6, 6S, 7, and 8 phones that all looked very much alike. Apple skipped the big design changes until finally we got the iPhone X, last year. That phone finally ditched the home button on the “chin” in favor of an almost entirely edge-to-edge screen with a notch replacing the “forehead” of the phone and new swipe gestures replacing the Home button. The 8 and 8 Plus were the “new” phones released alongside the X that kept the old 6, 6S, and 7 style with a traditional home button for anyone who didn’t want to spend $1000 on a new iPhone X.
This year the XS, XS Max, and XR are all styled after the iPhone X. The iPhone XR is a bit bigger than the XS and last year’s X with a 6.1 inch screen. The iPhone XS is almost exactly the same size as last year’s X, but with a slightly different camera bump that knocks out some case compatibility.
The XS Max is very similar in terms of physical dimensions to the Plus phones like the iPhone 8 Plus. This year’s phones are all gesture-based, no home buttons to be found. The XS and XS Max also come in a new color, gold.
We won’t know until next September if there will be some significant external design changes that bring us back to the “big design change” year followed by the “incremental improvement to the internal hardware” year. Honestly, the external design is not as important as we approach the inevitable full-rectangles of screen with so few trade-offs for usability and style. Apple makes the most appealing designs to those rectangles and with the software of those rectangles. The next biggest change just might be losing the notch and putting those sensors behind the screen.
The XS phones are very expensive pocket computers at $1000, and $1100 for the XS Max. Reviewers are trying to understand how anyone could justify that upgrade from an iPhone X or earlier, and it is a huge upgrade from some of the older series of devices. Less so for anyone with the iPhone X, and Apple says they’re also trying to make sure these iPhones can last longer, but that doesn’t make the price right.
There used to be a sentiment that these iPhones are for everyone. If you’re the heir to a fortune in fashion, or someone working 9-5 at retail, the iPhone was the iPhone. You’d have the same one as everyone else if you bought the top of the line in any particular year. This supposedly worked the same way that everyone could buy the same coca-cola from Coke.
All that went out the window when the product started exclusively targeting a luxury market with incredibly high prices. The poorer end of the market is now targeted with the questionable “iPhone Upgrade Program” that turns an iPhone purchase into an installment plan that turns Apple Stores into Rent-A-Center.
Jason Snell has a great article breaking down why Apple is charging so much.
I really appreciated John Gruber’s review for acknowledging this:
It’s worth emphasizing — as I do every year — that normal people do not upgrade their phones after a single year. Most don’t upgrade after two years. They upgrade when their old phone breaks or gets too slow.
His conclusion for upgraders also seems spot on:
Anyone upgrading to the iPhone XS from an iPhone 7 or older is getting a great upgrade in dozens of ways, and the camera system is just one of them.
…for the people who own an iPhone X who are considering an upgrade to the XS, to my mind, the camera system is the one and only reason to do it. There are always edge cases. Someone who is a frequent international traveler might consider it worth upgrading just to get the dual SIM support. I’m sure some number of iPhone X owners will upgrade just to get the gold model. But for most people, I’m convinced the camera system is the reason to think about it.
There are some big improvements in the camera system this year, for both the iPhone XS, Max, and XR.
Reviewers are focusing on those camera upgrades, rightly so. The reportedly 32% larger sensor that Gruber found out about is huge news for these tiny cameras to bring in more light and take better (or even acceptable) photos in situations that would have produced garbage with the iPhone X and earlier phones. The example galleries and reviews from both pro and amateur photographers prove the quality of these new camera systems in the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR.
The Other Camera Option
If you’re willing to carry another camera with your phone, even a small point and shoot like Sony’s RX100 series cameras will have a dramatically larger sensor that might be a better value than trying to keep up with iPhone upgrades right now.
Matthew Panzarino wouldn’t even try to compare the iPhone XS to a DSLR in his review:
I’m (still) not going to be comparing the iPhone XS to an interchangeable lens camera because portrait mode is not a replacement for those, it’s about pulling them out less. That said, this is closest its ever been.
You’d miss out on quick social sharing, and live photos that grab a few moments of video before and after the still photo. The camera makers’ apps are all garbage, but you can import JPEGs from an SD card relatively quickly to any iOS device using Apple’s SD Card dongle.
RAW photos might still be too slow to import over the wire, but the rub there is that you can now take and edit RAW photos on iOS. So, that might work for you the other way.
Photography is important to me, it might be the thing I care about most in an iPhone after communicating with friends and family. I’m still not sure if I can even be the person that drags around a separate camera anymore, but I think it’s a legitimate option for some people who love the iOS ecosystem and aren’t interested in keeping up with iPhone camera technology. The mobile camera sensors can only be so big, the built-in processing technology is getting more impressive but I’m not sure how impressive they can get compared to almost any small camera.
Recently, I picked up my almost decade-old Nikon entry-level DSLR, the D3000, and the shots it takes are just so much better than any phone camera. They’re not the easiest to get, I’m out of touch with the camera controls and the autofocus (AF) lock-on takes forever on that old DSLR, but I could get an upgraded body of that same camera line use the same 35mm lens, and blaze on with much better AF. That D3000 has uniquely terrible auto-focus speed.
iOS 12 is out and from what I’ve tried it makes older devices feel more spritely. Andrew Cunningham reviewed iOS 12 on older devices for Ars:
I’ve been testing iOS on old devices for six years, and I’ve never seen a release that has actually improved performance on old devices. At best, updates like iOS 6, iOS 9, and iOS 10 didn’t make things much worse; at worst, updates like iOS 7 and iOS 8 made old devices feel like old devices. Anyone using an older device can safely upgrade to iOS 12 without worrying about speed, and that’s a big deal. You’ll notice an improvement most of the time, even on newer devices (my iPad Air 2, which had started to feel its age running iOS 11, feels great with iOS 12).
The iPhone is very compelling as a camera, but the high prices for the XS models are a great time to jump ship off the upgrade schedule. If you need to stick with an iPhone for more time to try and grind out more value, there has never been a better time to try the other camera option.
AppleCare+ in 2018
I have to give up my iPhone 7 Plus this year to another family member, the 256GB iPhone XS Max I was looking at to replace my iPhone is $1500 after tax with Applecare+. That’s the $200 iPhone insurance program from Apple. I did a cartoon “rub my eyes and look again” after I saw that number.
Before this update, Applecare would help you recover from your iPhone being stolen as long as you had a police report. Now, Apple won’t let you get a new iPhone if yours is stolen unless you also have ponied up another $100 for “Theft and Loss” coverage. That would bring the total to $300, but I’ve never had an iPhone stolen or lost to the point where I can’t find it.
Apple has one more caveat to this new Theft and Loss insurance, it’s null and void unless their Find My iPhone feature is enabled.
If Wishes Were Cameras
My wish is for something less like a DSLR and more like the (relatively) huge CMOS sensor of the Sony RX100 but running iOS. That isn’t happening, Apple would probably never do that because their goal is to make a great phone that is also a great camera due to the powerful custom A-series of chips processing the image data from the biggest sensors and lenses they can fit into the size of the camera bump. It’s so important to them that they still have a bump. Even with that pimple on the back of the latest iPhones, the photos their tiny camera sensors make might still look like watercolor paintings when you zoom in on them. Cropping a photo is so disappointing with any camera phone, and this year may fix that.
The iPhone XS Max vs The Galaxy Note 9
The iPhone 6/7/8 Plus-sized iPhone XS Max is very interesting. It has the same style of the XS and X, notch and all, but in the larger form-factor giving us an incredibly huge 6.5 inch screen. The old Plus phones had a 5.5 inch screen, but the new phones aren’t any wider so the measurement is a little odd to compare.
I liked the old Plus phones’ landscape mode features. The home screen would reconfigure for landscape mode display horizontally. Unfortunately, Apple has apparently dropped this feature from the XS Max.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 has gone in the opposite direction and offered more tablet-like features in a similar size of device as Apple’s Plus and XS Max iPhones.
That Galaxy Note 9 includes a stylus, has more storage at a lower price than the iPhone XS Max, and expandable storage through Micro SD cards so you’re not locked into paying hundreds of dollars to Samsung for upgrading. It also has a 19 hour battery life according to CNET’s reviewer, Jessica Dolcourt.
I would never buy a Samsung device, they’re a scummy business with an operating system from the world’s largest advertising publisher. Their camera app sounds like complete garbage, Dolcourt says:
The AI software analyzes a scene and quickly detects if you’re shooting a flower, food, a dog, a person or something else entirely. There are 20 options, including snowflakes, cityscapes, fire — you get it. Then the camera optimizes white balance, saturation and contrast to make photos pop.
It works fine, and you’ll see some big differences when photographing your lunch for Instagram photos. But the scene optimizer often takes a beat to kick in, and you can’t dismiss the suggestions with a swipe the way you can on the Huawei P20 Pro. It’s either on, or off.
The last thing I want to do with a camera app is fight with it to decide how I want the scene to be shot and processed. Samsung’s software sounds like a complete nightmare that overrides your thinking about a scene to provide what Samsung thinks is best versus Apple (and Google’s Pixel phones) hands-off “this is what a better camera would do” approach.
Ignoring the camera issues, the Galaxy Note 9 really goes further with the tablet-like features, Mike Murphy talked about Picture-in-PIcture in his review for Quartz:
This is actually a standard Android feature, where apps you need to look at (like YouTube or Google Maps) will minimize themselves into little windows in the corner when you exit them. But the Note 9 is one of the few phones where this isn’t annoying, just because there’s so much screen real estate to play with. It’s also why the Galaxy’s split-screen mode actually works—two apps running side-by-side doesn’t look terrible at this size
Murphy also wrote about Samsung’s Stylus, the S-Pen, which has interesting features in addition to being useful for drawing and taking notes:
What really makes a Note a Note (according to Samsung) is its built-in stylus, the S Pen. The new version (which comes in a striking shade of yellow on the blue version of the phone), has learned some new tricks. Tapping on its button can trigger different functions in different apps. In the camera, it can be used as a remote shutter; in PowerPoint, it can advance slides.
The iPhone XS Max has gone in a completely different direction. Apple doesn’t have a stylus that works at this scale, and they’re rejecting the notion that you should use any iPhone as a small tablet, even at the XS Max’s enormous 6.5 inch screen size.
James Rogers at iPad Insight:
The Max’s 6.5? screen cries out for stylus support. At least it does for me and others who would benefit from this capability It is definitely big enough, and the resolution is plenty high. It would be the perfect portable wireless notepad, a use case which the current iPad Pro sizes aren’t really cut out for.
Samsung even lets you connect a mouse, keyboard, and display into a special dock for the Note 9. That might be going too far for Apple, until you see the benchmarks comparing recent Macbooks to the iPhone XS.
Joanna Stern wrapped this up well in her review:
Apple isn’t doing enough to take advantage of all the extra space. The Max just feels like a blown-up iPhone, when it could be a new sort of computer. Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Note or even Apple’s iPad, you can’t place apps side by side or float a video in the corner.
Apple includes a measly five watt adapter in the box with these $1000-and-up phones. Joanna Stern has another great video and article about that adapter. This is extra ridiculous because in Apple’s own web store you can find that they will sell you either the five watt OR the twelve watt adapter that Joanna recommends for the same $19!
If they have the same value in their own store then there is no excuse to not include the faster, better, adapter.
Just include the twelve watt adapter, Apple.
All of Apple’s modern laptops, the MacBook and MacBook Pro, only have USB-C ports. You can’t charge or connect any iPhone to them with the included USB-to-Lightning cable, it has a type-A plug on the end. Apple charges $19 for a USB-C-to-Lightning cable.
No Apple product discussion would be complete talking about iCloud storage pricing. The iPhone uses this storage to back itself up at night, back up your apps, and most importantly to back up your photos.
iCloud’s free tier is still only a paltry 5 gigabytes. That is nothing. For a dollar a month they will give you 50 gigs and there are people who will never pay that twelve dollars a year just because they’re too cheap or can’t understand why they need it until they see an ad from Google that tells them exactly what they’re missing out on because their iPhone can’t offload any more photos and videos to the cloud to free up space on the device to take new photos and videos.
The worst scenario of all is when someone walks into an Apple store with a broken phone and wants to know where their photos of their family and friends are and the person supporting them has to tell them that the photos were lost when their phone died. That’s an awful experience to pawn off on retail employees because $12 dollars a year is more important to Apple’s bottom line.
Pennies Down the Line
When there’s no more free-space on an iPhone, you can’t load more apps and games, take more photos or videos, and the device’s performance might suffer. Upgrades become difficult. Even with all the app-thinning that Apple’s done to make older iPhones with less storage more useful, I think it’s absolutely rotten that today’s XS line doesn’t include expandable storage. Today’s 64 gigs might be tomorrow’s 16GB, rendering the iPhone you want to give to your family useless even if it was the top-of-the-line for the day.
For the past day or so I’ve been trying to use a five-year-old 16GB iPhone 5S in 2018. It’s not a good experience. iOS 12 has made these old iPhones snappy and responsive, which is fantastic. You just can’t load…anything onto the phone. I’ve run out of space almost instantly for the apps I need to do everything. Apps that include giant hundred-megabyte frameworks to operate can’t fit.
The iPhone helpfully offloads as many apps as possible to free-up space but there is only so much it can do. I don’t recommend that experience to anyone. If Apple truly wants to start making their iPhones last longer, they need to introduce expandable storage.
It’s clear that Apple put a lot of thought and work into these new devices, I haven’t even talked about the better OLED screens with 120hz touch detection, or the improved FaceID system, but I’m also very concerned about iPhone prices.
Yet to be reviewed is the iPhone XR, which has the same great wide angle camera as the iPhone XS, the same A12 system-on-a-chip, better battery life, and an almost edge-to-edge screen that unfortunately has a lower resolution than my iPhone 7 Plus. The iPhone XR is also missing 3D Touch and the telephoto camera from the iPhone XS.
Unless you have money to burn, I would suggest that anyone on an iPhone 8 or iPhone X wait until next September at the earliest. The iPhone XS Max is a new size in the iPhone 6/7/8 Plus physical range, and if you hated how small the iPhone X was that would be the only good reason to upgrade to this year’s Max.
For people like me, with an iPhone 7 Plus, the 6.1 inch iPhone XR might be the right device. I’m very curious to read those reviews when that embargo lifts before they’re released on the 26th of October. Like I said above, the XR has better battery life, but the same wide-angle camera, processor, and a similar notched design like the XS and XS Max. However, it also has less RAM, 3 gigs, to the 4 gigs of the XS and XS Max. That means that web pages may need to be reloaded when you navigate away from them, apps might unload sooner when you switch to another one.
The XR might not support as many versions of iOS down the line. The iPhone 5S is 5 years old, and is the oldest iPhone that is getting iOS 12. The 5S was also released alongside the 5C, and the XR picks a note of the 5C up and gets a lot of color options.
The XR also has an oddly lower resolution than the 7 Plus despite having a larger screen, it’s a very strange product.
Anyone who has stuck with the iPhone 5S or 6 and 6 Plus due to price should wait until reviews are out for the iPhone XR.
These high prices really made me understand why Apple has stopped selling last year’s iPhone X entirely. The X is still a great mobile camera upgrade from any older series of iPhone, still a good processor upgrade, and anyone who got a cheaper iPhone X could use another camera for great photos if they have one laying around.
When I bought my iPhone 7 Plus in 2016 it was $870 for the 128GB tier and $1000 after AppleCare+. That insurance was $130. That was a lot. $1250 for the equivalent tier of iPhone XS Max and about $1500 including AppleCare+ and tax in 2018 is ridiculous.
The XR is also $50 more at $750 than last year’s 8.
Maybe I’m getting old, but do you remember how computers were supposed to be less expensive to purchase as time went on?
The materials Apple are using are premium in these X-series of devices, but maybe they’re too premium if they’re what is jacking up the price of an equivalent tier of phone by $380 and the insurance by 70 bucks over the course of two years.
Maybe we don’t need a glass back on a phone. Even though Apple claims the iPhone XS’ back is more durable than last year’s iPhone X, it still breaks easier than the equivalent metal. Joanna Stern’s review unit broke within a week!
Apple’s answer to general economic concerns is that they’re still selling the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, and iPhone 8, 8 Plus for lower prices. This really speaks to how great those devices are with iOS 12
The iPhone X doesn’t exist anymore and you can’t buy the iPhone X new or used from Apple. It’s pretty clear that Apple isn’t sure a person in the store would be able to understand the differences between the XS and X.
Keeping old devices around past their regular shelf-life is Tim Cook’s schtick. If you can, keeping your devices useful for yourself or giving them to a friend or family member is the best thing to do today.