Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

John Gruber’s Review of the iPhones XS

Many of the iPhone XS reviews I’ve read today have repeated effectively the same thing: it’s an “S” year; this is an incremental update; the big one is really big. Well, yeah.

But John Gruber has, as usual, the best review of the new iPhones — largely because of his explanation of why the new camera system is so different despite seemingly-identical tech specs. And, as a bonus, it includes new information:

[…] I checked, and Apple confirmed that the iPhone XS wide-angle sensor is in fact 32 percent larger. That the pixels on the sensor are deeper, too, is what allows this sensor to gather 50 percent more light. This exemplifies why more “megapixels” are not necessarily better. One way to make a sensor bigger is to add more pixels. But what Apple’s done here is use the same number — 12 megapixels — and make the pixels themselves bigger. 12 megapixels are plenty — what phone cameras need are bigger pixels.

I think what makes this 32 percent increase in sensor size hard to believe, especially combined with a slightly longer lens, is that by necessity, this combination means the sensor must be further away from the lens. This basic necessity of moving the lens further from the sensor (or film) is why DSLRs are so big compared to a phone. But the iPhone XS is exactly the same thickness as the iPhone X, including the camera bump. (Apple doesn’t publish the bump thickness but I measured with precision calipers.) So somehow Apple managed not only to put a 32 percent larger sensor in the iPhone XS wide-angle camera, but also moved the sensor deeper into the body of the phone, further from the lens.

You can see the results of the bigger sensor and better HDR performance in Rafael Zeier’s comparison between the iPhone X and iPhone XS. Judging by the reviews I’ve seen so far, it looks like the result of that is, in part, more detail in images, though I’m not sure how much of that can be attributed solely to the larger sensor and not it in combination with adjusted noise reduction. I bet you’ll get some killer RAW photos on this thing.

Many reviewers are advising readers to wait for the iPhone XR, coming next month. I totally get that — in part, because it’s much less expensive, but also because you’ll get nearly everything that the iPhone XS has. But one thing you won’t get is the telephoto camera. I’ve used that camera for probably half of the pictures I’ve taken on my iPhone X since I got it, and I don’t think I could go back to a single-camera phone. If I were upgrading this year, I’d go for the XS in a heartbeat — just because it has a telephoto camera. In fact, I’d be comfortable with a single-camera iPhone that only had an approximately 56mm-equivalent camera. But that’s just me.

Also, it looks like most, if not all, writers received gold review units. I’m not sure the saturated colour of the steel frame fits my taste, but the cream-coloured back is gorgeous.