I have owned, or used at length, every model of iPhone that Apple has released from the original to the X. It is my strong opinion that the iPhone X is the best iPhone Apple has ever made and the best smartphone on the market. And it is my strong opinion that the iPhone Xs is better. But it is also my (strong) opinion that this doesn't particularly matter.
Here’s why: Most smartphones are good; many are very good.
Author Michael Pollan once reduced the entirety of a healthy human diet to a simple three-phrase dictum: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Here’s a similar one for smartphone purchases: Pick the ecosystem you like. Spend what you can afford. Buy the newest device.
That’s a reasonable calculus for buying a new smartphone when the time comes to upgrade these days, I think. And if you follow it, it’s likely that the screen on your phone will be beautiful; the battery life will be great; the camera will take fantastic photos; media will render quickly; the apps will be great. It will serve you well.
Beyond that, who gives a shit, really. I’m not sure I do — anymore. And I have been endlessly fascinated by the evolution of the smartphone. My kids definitely don't, nor do their peers. And yet they are ferocious users of smartphones. They use their phones with a brutal thoroughness that is sometimes shocking — like a line cook uses a spatula. But they care about smartphones — their design, their capabilities — the way you might care about a TV, or a hairdryer.
Thing performs intended functions well. Thing good!
In 2015, I established that I very much liked the iPhone 6s. In mulling this newest iPhone release it occurred to me that many — many — of the observations I made in my review of that device could also be made truthfully and accurately in what I am writing here. I said this of the iPhone 6s camera:
The photos I've taken with the new 12-megapixel rear camera on the iPhone 6s look a little bit better than the ones I've taken with the 8-megapixel one on the iPhone 6 — and even my not-at-all-a-photographer's eye can see that.
Apple says this is because of "improved local tone mapping" and an "advanced pixel technology" called Focus Pixels. It probably is. I don't care. What matters is that pictures of my daughters look warmer, sharper, more detailed, whatever. And they look equally good when I blow them up. What matters is that the iPhone 6s selfie I took with my dog looks better than the one I shot with the 6. Is this because the iPhone 6s's "True Tone flash" matched the ambient light around my dog and me to deliver more "true-to-life colors"? OK, sure. But again, I don't care. What's important here is that iPhone 6s dog selfie > iPhone 6 dog selfie.
Guess what? iPhone Xs dog selfie > iPhone X dog selfie. Caveat: It's pretty hard to tell.
Which is not to diminish the Xs or its camera system, which is a fantastically impressive piece of technology. It uses a powerful artificial intelligence “neural engine” to — at the moment the shutter button is pressed — identify scene and subject (facial landmarking! depth mapping!) in a way that makes it possible to change depth of field, refocusing photos AFTER they’ve been taken. For me, a hobbyist photographer in the loosest sense of the word, this is legitimately batshit — a phone camera capable of capturing an array of photo possibilities. (Note: Samsung’s Live Focus feature does the same thing for some Android phones. Again, pick the ecosystem you like.) One of Apple’s camera engineers described it as turning a “hairy chunk of math” into a showstopper photo. That seems apt — a detail to embrace if I’m going to spend $1,200 on a new smartphone (with tax). And in practice, it’s pretty slick, quickly and seamlessly transforming the pile of dirty sheets below into a fluffy, white dog. “And … boom.”
That the iPhone Xs is able to do this is thanks to the serious and seriously powerful silicon buried in its innards: the A12 Bionic chip. Apple SVP Phil Schiller introduced the A12 as “the smartest, most powerful chip ever in a smartphone.”
Now, Schiller has, to the best of my recollection, said this (or a version of it) about every mobile chip Apple has ever designed. Yet truthfully, I am certain the A12 is an amazing feat of engineering; I am certain the iPhone Xs is better because of it. But I am not at all sure that it means anything to me as a human for it to have gone from an incomprehensible 600 billion operations per second in last year’s model to an even more incomprehensible 5 trillion this year. Perhaps it will mean something to others who enjoy benchmarking and keeping battery life diaries. But as far as my personal benchmarks go, the iPhone Xs exceeds them all. But so did the iPhone X — and the iPhone 6s, for that matter. They were all “screamers,” as the late Steve Jobs used to say. I was happy with them all.
Now, to be clear, Apple has certainly improved the iPhone with the Xs and the Xs Max; There's a clam bucket of documentation and marketing bullet points to support that assertion. But, crucially, it hasn't improved my experience of the iPhone. Or if it has, I haven't noticed. I know the Xs Max has more battery life than the X, but that doesn’t really matter to me because I’ve never been caught short on battery with my X, and I use the hell out of it. The new “wide stereo” speakers on the XS are great, but it's not like I'm going to carry the device around like boombox-style like Radio Raheem.
I know the Xs Max is faster, but the X was so fast I struggle to appreciate its speed improvements. The display is beautiful, but is its true black a truer black than the one I see on the X? I am embarrassed that I am even asking the question. Also, I don’t care. The true black of my other dog has been great since his puppy pics.
The one feature that I truly appreciate in the Xs line is the size of the Max — largely because I am old and now prefer my phones graphing calculator size. If I decide to upgrade my phone this year, the Max and its size will be my only rationale. The display is vast — stunning, really. I can configure it to have as much memory as my laptop (512GB). For a plus-size smartphone it feels better in the hand, more ergonomic, though I have no idea why. Its battery lasts long enough that I’m not screwed if I forget to charge it overnight. Beyond that, I already know it’s a badass phone; its predecessor was badass too.
But when I tell my wife I might want to upgrade, she asks the price. Then she says, “Which do you like better, new phones or vacations?”
My daughter has an iPhone 7. The other day I handed her the Xs Max. She was puzzled in a “Why was this handed to me?” sort of way. I raised an eyebrow. “Oh,” she said. “This is the new iPhone. … It’s bigger.” Then, without a second thought, she handed it back to me, returning to whatever she was doing on her 7. Disappointedly, I said, “You’re not interested in the new iPhones? Not at all?”
“Not really,” she replied. “My phone works fine.”
Then my daughter suggested that, perhaps, the reason I care about new iPhones and she doesn’t is because once upon a time, way back a long time ago when the smartphone universe consisted of nothing more elaborate than…flip phones, I had to use one. Meanwhile, she has known only the iPhone — and other phones that look and behave like it.
I thought this a reasonable point. And it gave me pause because I realized my daughter was born into a world where “It just works” is (largely) a truism and not a miracle tonic to a Sisyphean search for a possibly nonexistent printer driver or service pack. She’s never seen the Fisher-Price phone horror of a pre-iPhone smartphone UI. Apple hasn’t made anything transformatively better for her. The world has always been thus.
You don’t need to be young to feel this way. For very many, the iPhone was their first smartphone. Its steady improvement over the years is a given. Its ability to spawn multiple multibillion-dollar companies (Uber, Instagram, etc.) is just a fact of modern life.
And so for many, Apple has always been a commodity company, the iPhone a franchise. An unremarkable, if splendid, reality.
So should you buy the Xs?
Do you need a new phone?
Then pick the ecosystem you like. Spend what you can afford. Buy the newest device. If that’s the iPhone Xs, it’ll be the most badass phone you’ve ever had. Just like the last one.