Full disclaimer: I’ve had the Samsung Note 9 for slightly more than a month now, but haven’t had the chance to go hands-on with the newly-launched Apple iPhone Xs Max. Most publications have only had a limited hands-on with the phone, and I’ve based my conclusions in this piece on tech specification sheets and secondary opinions.
The new series of iPhones have just been announced two days earlier: the iPhone Xs, iPhone Xs Max, and the iPhone XR. It follows Apple’s tradition of following up flagship models with “s” updated variants every alternate year: we’ve seen this previously with the iPhone 6s and the iPhone 7s. This year, the iPhone X has been discontinued, giving way to its recent spawn: the identical iPhone Xs, but also a plus-sized variant that all Apple users have been waiting for: the iPhone Xs Max.
Apart from poor naming schemata (plus-sized iPhones have been usually suffixed with, well, “Plus”), the Max is a true beast of a phone in form and in functino. With a 6.5-inch display, it physically hulks over most of the competition… except that one phone, launched almost exactly one month ago. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9. With its 6.4-inch display, the Note 9 is one of the few flagship phones that directly compete with the new iPhone Xs Max (the LG V40 ThinQ will be a strong contender, but will only be out later this year).
Notably, both phones feature simply massive 512GB storage capacities. On Apple’s lineup of MacBooks and MacBook Pros, there are plenty of laptops that offer less than 512GB of storage – keeping that ludicrous amount of capacity in a device that fits into your pocket just reminds us where we are when it comes to tech.
But the most important feature of both phones we need to know and internalise before we delve into the article is good ol’ price.
The Note 9 launched almost exactly a month ago at SGD 1,728. It was a price that shocked a world that had been used to sub-US$1,000 phones.
But that was just the beginning. The iPhone Xs Max retails at SGD 2,349.
Yes, that’s right. Almost the price of a fully tricked-out MacBook Pro 13-inch. You would be forking out a premium of S$621 for a new iPhone Xs Max over a Samsung Note 9.
We start with the screen, the most obvious trait on these two heavyweight smartphones. While the Samsung’s screen is 6.4 inches diagonal, it actually has a larger screen by area than the 6.5-inch iPhone Xs Max. Without the intrusive notch and with less rounded corners (the Note 9 is decidedly boxy), the Note 9 gives more total screen estate, and also more usable space. A more regular rectangle 18.5:9 balances well between watching movies and having vertical space for displaying text and messaging apps.
The iPhone Xs Max has a 19.5:9 display, which is one of the longest aspect ratios on a production smartphone. While the tall form of the display does do very well in displaying chats and text, too, the top few millimetres aren’t the most useful due to the wide, intrusive notch.
Despite the fancy branding by Apple, the display on the iPhone Xs Max actually has 20% less resolution than that on the Note 9. Don’t get me wrong: Apple’s “Super Retina Display” has and continues to look great on Apple’s other devices, and there’s no reason to expect otherwise on its new 2018 flagships. However, the numbers speak for themselves: the Note 9’s 1440x2960p QHD+ display gives a total of 4.25M dots/516ppi, as compared to the 1242x2688p on the iPhone Xs Max delivers 3.34M dots/458ppi.
This, however, is only noticeable to the most astute users. Personally, I leave my Note 9 in FHD+ (2220x1080p/2.40M dot) resolution most of the time to conserve battery.
There’s not much to say about the performance of either phone compared to one another. Fundamental differences in architecture and implementation make such a comparison between the new A12 Bionic chip and the Exynos 9810 like comparing Apples to, well, Androids.
However, the spec sheet of the iPhone Xs Max has a strange blank when it comes to its RAM. No official information exists on it currently – but an enterprising sleuth noticed an iPhone Xs Max entry on Geekbench, which revealed the updated “s” model still only packed a 4GB RAM, seen on its predecessor the iPhone X. The Note 9, for comparison, comes in 6GB and 8GB RAM variants, and I’ve got the fully specced-out version with 512GB storage and 8GB RAM.
Form Factor and Durability
By taking full advantage of the notch design it popularised, the iPhone manages to squeeze in a larger screen (in terms of paper stats) while maintaining a slimmer and smaller form when compared to the Note 9. While the front (duh) and back panels are glass on both phones, the iPhone Xs Max sports a beautiful, robust and functional stainless steel frame around the middle. The Note 9, in comparison, is mystery coated metal (not specified on official documentation). I suspect it is aluminium.
This might be marketing mumbo-jumbo, but I’ve owned stainless steel watches, and have seen how aluminium frames end up on phones. Reports of iPhone X owners buffing out scratches with Autosol or some other metal polish aren’t fake, probably, since they’re so numerous. You’re almost guaranteed to drop your phone – might as well get a phone that holds up to your use.
Apple has also bumped up the new iPhone to have IP68-certified water and dust resistance. The Note 9 had it, but so did the Note 8 and Note 7 (RIP) before it. It works even with the S-Pen out.
Form-wise I can see the appeal of both phones. Apple’s immaculate approach to design cannot be questioned, and Samsung’s revolutionary curved infinity edge display helps make the screen melt into the bezels. The forehead and chin of the new Note 9 have also been reduced slightly to look more at home with the bezelless competition.
At 157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7mm, and weighing 208g, the iPhone Xs Max is every so slightly smaller and thinner than the Note 9 which measures 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm. It does weigh a hair heavier than the 201g Note 9.
Again, battery capacity of Apple’s new devices are as good as clandestine, with the company choosing only to state that it will last 1.5h longer than the iPhone X. The 2017 flagship packed a 2716mAh battery at 3.81V (10.35Wh). This is compared to the 4,000mAh (15.4Wh)behemoth contained within the Note 9. Of course, software, processing optimisations and other design expertise does help the iPhone X last throughout the day, and if Apple’s claims that it will last 1.5h longer, it would be decent.
Yes, they’ve both got 512GB variants. Yes, they’re priced differently. Yes, the cheaper one has the option to expand memory capacity with the use of a memory card, potentially doubling total storage space to 1TB. It’s an obvious one if it matters to you, but it’s your choice. 512GB is plenty, and I wouldn’t ask for more myself.
Both brands haven’t done a whole lot in upgrades on the hardware side from the previous model. Both feature dual 12-megapixel rear cameras, with one wide and one telephoto lens (2x optical zoom). Both cameras are optically image stabilised. The Samsung has a variable aperture brought over from the S9+, toggling between f1.5 and f2.4. The iPhone is fixed at f1.8.
Apple did, however, increase pixel size to 1.4µm to improve low-light performance. The Note 9 brought it over from the S9+ that came before it.
Apple brought on a new feature that allows users to adjust bokeh (background blur) in portrait mode shots after the fact. The Note 9 has it too.
Video-wise, both phones capture up to 4K/60p. The iPhone Xs Max allows for slow-motion capture at 240fps, while the Samsung offer super-slow-motion at 960fps.
The iPhone Xs Max only offers Face ID if users do not wish to manually enter in patterns, PINs or passwords into the phone to unlock it. This feature hasn’t been fully upgraded, but Apple maintains that its Neural Processor has enabled it to perform better than it did on the iPhone X, which worked decently.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has facial scanning too but lacks the same 3D dot-projection and detection magic found on the iPhone. Instead, it utilises a combination of 2D facial recognition and an iris scan to offer an ‘Intelligent Scan’. It doesn’t work particularly well in the darkness, but the Note 9 has Old Faithful in reserve: a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor that works brilliantly and doubles as a trigger to drop the notifications shade if hauling your thumb all the way up there is difficult.
The Note 9 has the S-Pen, that does double duty as a pressure-sensitive stylus, and as a single-button remote trigger via Bluetooth Low Energy.
It’s S$621 more, but the iPhone Xs Max is priced the same as a respectable MacBook Pro 13 inch for a reason. Technology, and because Apple can. While that might be two reasons, they’re not necessarily independent. Being the absolute leader in technology, as Apple proved itself to be with the very, very successful launch of the divisive iPhone X, the company has clout – a strong reputation for being right.
This gives it the right to charge whatever amount it deems fit – those who know will accept it, those who don’t – well, they’re the Android users aren’t they?
Watching the Apple keynotes, it is apparent that Apple isn’t chasing paper qualifications and specifications. It’s chasing the perfect user experience. The Apple iPhone Xs Max is terribly named (Xs, but a Max-sized phone? Talk about contradictions), insipid in terms of design, and a bit of a bummer when it comes to tech specifications.
While I’d agree that whoever named the new iPhones should be strung up and shamed publicly, the iPhone’s seemingly-subpar stats are irrelevant. No matter what they stuff in there, it has worked for the past decade, and it will work again – too much is at stake for this multi billion-dollar company. It helps that the largest thing at stake happens to be their reputation, and thus their impetus to produce and continue to produce the perfect product, every single time.
About the same terrible notched designs on the new iPhones? Samsung copied their Note 8 design wholesale, only rotating the fingerprint sensor downward underneath the horizontal camera arrays after customers complained en masse.