iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max get stronger and smarter

Among the many things it announced at its special event today, Apple revealed the iPhone Xs (say ten-ess) and iPhone Xs Max, its new flagship smartphones. As "S" devices, these new iPhones build on the design that Apple introduced last year with the iPhone X. The iPhone Xs sticks with the same 5.8" edge-to-edge screen design as the iPhone X, while the iPhone Xs Max crams a 6.5" edge-to-edge display into what Apple calls the biggest-screened iPhone yet.

The heart of these phones is a new A12 Bionic SoC. Apple says this chip is fabricated on a 7-nm process, and it includes two performance cores that the company claims are up to 15% faster than those in the iPhone X and its A11 Bionic SoC. Apple also weaves four efficiency cores into the A12 Bionic that are apparently up to 50% less power-hungry than those in the A11. The company also touted its own fresh four-core GPU design that purports to be as much as 50% faster than the part in the A11.

Some features of the A12 Bionic

The biggest advancement in the A12 Bionic likely comes from its Neural Engine neural-network accelerator. The A12 Bionic's AI block claims 5 tera-ops per second versus the 600 giga-ops delivered by the one in the A11. The enhanced performance of this functional unit has important implications for the speed and capability of Face ID, the phones' Portrait Mode and Portrait Lighting effects, Animoji, Memoji, and a burgeoning crop of augmented-reality apps.

Apple says that it's allowing access to the Neural Engine through its CoreML API, and it brought forth the developers of HomeCourt, a real-time basketball tutoring app that benefited from the enhancements in the A12's AI accelerator. In tandem with the new hardware, CoreML allowed those developers to track parameters like shot types, leg angles, release angles, release time, ball speed, and release height. The app could also track the position of swishes and misses that the player made around the court for review.

The screen on the iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max remains Apple's Super Retina OLED panel, although it's been upgraded as part of the wave of refinements that coursed through the rest of the phone. While the displays on these devices still support HDR10 and Dolby Vision content, Apple says the display panels themselves have as much as 60% greater dynamic range compared to the Super Retina screen on the iPhone Xs. iOS' system-wide color management ensures that colors and tones will look accurate on these displays throughout the operating system.

The body of each phone starts with the same "surgical-grade" stainless-steel band that defined the iPhone X, and it's sandwiched by panes of newly-formulated glass that Apple says are the most durable it's ever put in a smartphone. The company will make iPhone Xs devices in gold, space gray, and silver finishes. The iPhone Xs boasts IP68 dust and water resistance, meaning the phone can be dunked in fluids as deep as two meters for up to 30 minutes.

The iPhone Xs camera system carries forward the dual-lens system of the iPhone X, although Apple says the size and depth of each photo well in the main 12-MP wide-angle image sensor has been increased for better performance. The company also claims that the sensor itself is "2x faster," likely referring to sensor readout speed. That figure is important for reducing the "rolling shutter" or "jello effect" that can occur with electronic shutters and video. Both the wide-angle and telephoto cameras have optical image stabilization for crisper images while the phone is being hand-held in challenging light conditions.

Depth Control in action. Source: Apple

Although the camera hardware itself may be better, Apple is doing much more in post-processing with the pixels it collects. The new Neural Engine allows the company to perform better depth-segmentation for each photo for its Portrait Lighting and Portrait Mode bokeh effects, but the killer app of the new system might be a feature called Depth Control. Depth Control allows the user to adjust the perceived depth-of-field of each shot after it's been taken, from a simulated and super-shallow f/1.4 all the way out to a pin-sharp-all-over f/16. Depth Control works with both rear-camera shots and selfies, thanks to the front camera's TrueDepth system that also powers Face ID and Animoji.

Apple says that it managed to add all those new features and processing power while improving battery life. The regular iPhone Xs gains an extra 30 minutes of run time versus the iPhone X, while the increased size of the iPhone Xs Max allows Apple to cram in "the biggest battery it's ever put in a smartphone." Apple claims the Xs Max is good for an extra hour and 30 minutes versus the iPhone X.

The iPhone Xs and Xs Max will be available in 64-GB, 256-GB, and 512-GB versions. The iPhone Xs will start at $999 for the 64-GB model, while the iPhone Xs Max will start at $1,099. Pre-orders will begin Friday, September 14, while retail availability will begin Friday, September 21. Some regions will have to wait a week longer for availability.

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