Apple keeps some innovative surprises with iPhone XS, XS Max and XR

13 Sep 2018

The new iPhone XS and XS Max. Image: Apple

If there is one thing that is certain, Apple is covering all bases in its determination to see off competition from Samsung and the rising tide of Chinese manufacturers such as Huawei.

The leaks were more or less on the money about how Apple was going to bring out three new smartphones, including a 6.5in device called the XS Max. Yes, they even got the name right.

Part of the magic of Apple iPhone reveals goes back to Steve Jobs’ ‘one more thing’ moments and, for me, the mystery and the surety that ‘only Apple really knows’.

The fear was that the leaks would spoil all the surprises and that the launch event would be a lacklustre parade of iterative specs and performance boosts with little to amaze or enthuse.

Well, I’m happy to tell you that Apple did manage to keep some surprises up its sleeve and, if anything, has revealed a steely determination to cover all bases in a smartphone market with very little differentiation going on.

From a business perspective, the iPhone is undoubtedly Apple’s cash cow and the company last night (12 September) revealed that it sold 2bn iOS devices in the last year. That compares with 1.2bn devices sold by this time last year. The iPhone X, revealed in 2017, had accounted for 35pc of smartphone profits on planet Earth by the fourth quarter. No single gadget has ever held such sway.

First impressions of the iPhone XS and XS Max

Man making a presentation on stage.

Phil Schiller on stage at the 2018 Apple event. Image: Apple

First impression? The devices – the iPhone XS Max, the XS and the XR, as well as the Apple Watch Series 4 – are gorgeous.

The next impression? While still pricey, they are not as hefty as feared and you get the sense that, despite making the priciest phones in the market, Apple is also trying to keep it real and not totally alienate people – most people – who don’t have deep pockets.

First off, the 5.8in iPhone XS and the 6.5in XS Max. Apple CEO Tim Cook described the new generation as “taking the iPhone to the next level”. He added: “[It is] by far the most advanced iPhone we have ever created.”

Summoned to the stage, Apple’s head of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, gushed about how the new devices – which come in gold, silver and space grey – are made of surgical-grade stainless steel. “It is the most beautiful iPhone we have ever made, with a screen top to bottom, edge to edge, a new formulation of the most durable glass made in a smartphone” – you get the picture.

Crucially, both the XS and XS Max come with a much-expected organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display. This is important because, up until now, only Samsung had this distinction on its devices. Samsung and LG are the suppliers of OLED to Apple.

This enables Apple to reveal what it calls its Super Retina display, or as Schiller enthused about the XS Max, “the biggest on an iPhone with 3.3m pixels”. Interestingly for the 5.8in XS, it enables a bigger display on a smaller design, allowing the same screen space as an iPhone 8 Plus on a smaller device.

Not only do the new devices promise more vibrant True Tone displays but they also come with a wider stereo sound as well as facial display and recognition with a faster version of the Secure Enclave, with all sensors working well together.

The next breakthrough was the new A12 Bionic processor, the smartphone industry’s first seven-nanometre chip, and perhaps the real technology story of the entire iPhone reveal. Boasting a neural engine, the A12 comes with a GPU that is 50pc faster than last year’s A11 chip, and the A12 can process 5trn operations a second.

The next major reveal was that the new XS and XS Max iPhone devices will come with 512GB of storage, which is pretty much unheard of in smartphones and double the 256GB on previous generations of high-end iPhone devices.

The new smartphones will also be Apple’s first real augmented-reality (AR) devices as Apple revealed new applications such as a basketball training app called HomeCourt and a shooter game called Galaga AR.

Schiller also showed off some impressive feats of photography and videography with the new 12MP cameras in the XS and XS Max, including interesting ‘bokeh’ effects that allow users to edit even the blurry parts. “We are in a new era of photography; some call it computational photography.”

Schiller also revealed that the new iPhones will come with more LTE (4G) bands for worldwide roaming as well as dual SIM capabilities (allowing owners to keep two different phone numbers) and data plans within the same device using Apple’s eSIM technology. iPhone XS and XS Max buyers in China will get a dual SIM tray.

Watch out Huawei, iPhone XR could be the great leveller

Man on stage in a green shirt making a presentation.

Phil Schiller on stage at the 2018 Apple event. Image: Apple

If there was a ‘one more thing’ moment from the Apple event, it was the reveal of the iPhone XR, which in most respects looks identical to the XS and XS Max only that instead of an OLED display, it comes with what Schiller described as “the most advanced LCD ever in a smartphone”.

Like the XS and XS Max, the XR has facial recognition, the same new camera system and the A12 Bionic chipset. Instead of 3D touch, it comes with haptic touch.

The 6.1in Liquid Retina display is still a game-changer in the overall smartphone space, and the biggest such display in LCD terms.

Pricing and availability

Apple shocked the world last year when it revealed the price of the iPhone X, pretty much the first time a new smartphone device debuted at around the thousand-dollar mark.

Many punters had tipped that the new iPhone XS Max would cost a whopping $1,500. Thankfully, this was not the case.

In what Cook described as the “fastest roll-out geographically”, the iPhone XS Max will ship on 21 September to most markets, including Ireland, starting at $1,099 in the US. The iPhone XS will start at $999 while the iPhone XR will start at a reasonable enough $749m in the US.

According to the local pricing tables for Ireland provided by Apple, the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max will be available in 64GB, 256GB and 512GB capacity models in space grey, silver and a new gold finish starting at €1,179 and €1,279, respectively. Customers will be able to pre-order the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max beginning Friday 14 September, with availability beginning Friday 21 September.

The iPhone XR will be available in 64GB, 128GB and 256GB models in white, black, blue, yellow, coral and red, starting at €879. Punters will be able to pre-order the iPhone XR beginning Friday 19 October with availability beginning Friday 26 October.

Updated, 11.31am, 13 September 2018: This article was updated to provide correct US figures for the new smartphones and clarify that the iPhone XS will start at $999 while the iPhone XR will start at $749.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years