Apple iPhone XS / Max vs Samsung Galaxy S9 / S9+
Review indexDesign | Display | Interface | Performance and Storage | Camera | Sound & Call Quality | Battery life | Prices and Conclusion
In the world of modern smartphones, there are two names that shine brighter than any other and have done so over the past few years: Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy.
Like it or not, these are the most popular flagship phones out there, the ones that spark the most conflict when mobile tech enthusiasts collide and the ones that traditionally pack the latest and most advanced technology.
XS and XS Max are the most expensive phones the company has ever made and also its most powerful ones so far. Spice that up with an ambition to raise the bar in mobile photography and we’ve got ourselves a clash of titans.
The Samsung Galaxy series, on the other hand, has risen to the heights of flagship phones thanks to a combination of the feature-rich Android software with a Samsung spice, some of the finest screens ever put in phones, as well as a polished near to perfection design.
But we’re not here to sing praise to either one: it’s time to shut down emotions and proceed with this battle of epic proportions.
Premium class? Nope! It’s straight luxury territory here.
The design of the new iPhone XS family is a combination of gorgeous, toughened glass on both the back and front, combined with a stainless steel frame with a shiny silhouette. It inherits the look and feel of last year’s iPhone X, but polishes it one step further and adds a luxurious, gold color option. The Galaxy S9 family, on the other hand, can say that it was there first: the glass design with a curved screen has been a staple of the series since the Galaxy S6. In the S9, Samsung uses an improved, 7000-series aluminum frame that resists scratches better than the 6000 series Samsung used earlier and contributes to the lower weight of the phone, while the iPhone has a noticeable heft to it. Still, stainless steel adds a bit of that luxurious aura around the iPhone and adds a bit of extra glitter to it.
Then, you have the little touches that count: both Samsung and Apple have put in the time to make every physical button on the phones provide a satisfying clicking sensation. Samsung’s Bixby button is the only thing that really probably should not be there, and we’re constantly mistakenly pushing it by accident when pressing the power button on the opposite side! If only Samsung allowed us to customize it… Apple, on the other hand, has done something great with the power key on the XS series (it’s been this way since the X): it’s a much bigger button, and this makes it so much more comfortable to find without even looking. Again, it’s the little things that count.
The elephant in the room and the thing that you will probably have most doubt if you are picking between these phones, however, is clearly the size.
Let’s break it all down by the numbers and in pictures right below:
So roughly speaking, the XS and the S9 are about the same size, and the XS Max and the S9+ are also similarly big. In real life, the differences between these pairs are really negligible and it all boils down to whether you want a bigger or a smaller phone. The bigger phones are definitely not so comfortable in a pocket, and it’s a stretch to reach the top and use them with a single hand, unless you’re an NBA player, while the smaller phones have… well, smaller screens of course, which is bad for media, but are much more comfortable to slip in a pocket and carry around, plus it’s easier to use them with one hand.
It’s great that both the iPhones and the Galaxies are water-resistant devices, all carrying an IP68 rating, meaning that they are certified and tested to survive a drop in up to 6-feet deep water for as long as 30 minutes. So, this is a tie.
In terms of ports, the iPhones use the Lightning one, while Galaxies rely on a USB-C port for charging. The Galaxies also come equipped with a headphone jack, while Apple has killed the headphone jack long ago, and this year, for the first time, the XS series doesn’t even come with an adapter, so if you want to connect wired audio, you’d need to purchase a dongle yourself.
Security: Face ID or good old fingerprint scanners?
The Galaxy, on the other hand, has both a fingerprint scanner and a face recognition system, and you can have the two work in combination, so sometimes you can just look at your phone and unlock it, and other times you can use the fingerprint scanner, depending on which method you find to be the more convenient one. It’s worth noting that face recognition on the Galaxy is much easier to hack and is nowhere nearly as secure as Face ID, which uses complex AI and 3D maps your face.
Two of the most beautiful OLED screens.
The iPhone XS and XS Max both use beautiful OLED screens, the same technology that Samsung phones have been using for a much longer while. And yes, you have the big notch on the iPhones, while Samsung phones just get a bigger top and bottom bezel instead.
So what are the screen specs? Let’s take a look:
- iPhone XS: 5.8” OLED, 1125 x 2436 pixels
- iPhone XS Max: 6.5” OLED, 1242 x 2688 pixels
- Samsung Galaxy S9: 5.8” Super AMOLED, 1440 x 2960 pixels
- Samsung Galaxy S9+: 6.2” Super AMOLED, 1440 x 2960 pixels
Both the iPhone and Samsung phones appear very sharp, and while the Galaxy does have more pixels, it’s really not something that makes a big difference in real life. In fact, Samsung sets the screen on its Galaxy to a lower, 1080p resolution by default (you can change this in settings if you want).
We love colors on all these screens: everything appears lively, vibrant, contrast is great, colors appear dynamic, images and videos really come to life, and it is those incredible screens that make these phones stand out from the rest of the competition.
Samsung offers different color settings that can change the way colors appear: the defaults is a very punchy setting with eye-popping colors, the Adaptive mode, but you can choose more toned-down colors and even a Basic mode that complies with the sRGB color standard.
Apple, on the other hand, has something even better: native color management! The new iPhones support both the sRGB standard, as well as the newer DCI-P3, wider color standard, and the iPhone would detect which content is shot in which standard and will automatically display it in the proper setting, something that the competition cannot do just yet. Plus, Apple's TrueTone tech automatically adjusts the white balance depending on the environment, making its screens appear even more natural.
Take a look at our comprehensive display tests and measurements right below, if you want to know all the details.
iOS vs Android, the battle that has been going for years, gets more intense.
While modern mobile operating systems have evolved to handle most tasks similarly well, there is still a conceptual difference between iOS and Android.
Android stands out with its rich customization options, launchers, icon packs, as well as with being a more open ecosystem, while the iOS platform is closely curated by Apple and while it lacks many customization options, it is very well optimized to run on the iPhone software and features the App Store, which is still the place where most games and some great apps arrive first and often exclusively.
The other consideration is the update situation: Samsung has its own Samsung Experience (previously known as TouchWiz) skin on top of Android, and updating all of this structure to newer Android versions often takes a lot of time, to the tune of half a year or more for older devices. iPhones, on the other hand, all receive the newest updates that rolls out in a matter of days across all devices, all across the world. Moreover, iPhones continue getting updates even after years of use. In this regard, the iPhone XS series will certainly pass the test of time much better than the Galaxy S9 series, which are already 2 months behind the Google Pixel series for the Android Pie update.
In terms of daily use, the fluidity of the iOS interface is something that really stands out. Samsung has been optimizing its own interface and while it does feel faster than before, there is a bit of a stutter here and there, so that the experience does not feel as perfectly smooth.
Performance and Storage
The new A12 chip in iPhones is miles ahead of the competition.
It’s no surprise that the newer iPhones ship with a newer system chip than the Galaxy S9 series that were launched nearly half a year ago.
What is impressive, however, is just how good the new A12 chip in the XS series really is. The world’s first 7nm system chip, the A12 sets a new bar for smartphone performance and you can see this in the benchmarks right below.
In the Geekbench single-core and multi-core tests, the iPhone gets a 30% higher score than the S9, while in the GFXBench 3.1 test, it was the first phone to max out the score and hit the 60fps VSync limit.
In real-life, the performance is buttery smooth on the iPhones, while you do get the occasional stutter on the Galaxies.
Then, there are the differences in storage capacity. These days, the Galaxy S9 series are offered mostly in their 64GB version, while the iPhone XS starts at the same 64 gigs, but you also have versions with 256GB and 512GB of on-board storage.
The S9 series also keep the microSD card slot, so you can easily get a card and use more storage than what’s built in the phone, while the iPhone traditionally does not provide such an option, and the storage you get cannot be expanded.
The clash of titans.
While affordable phones these days can emulate a flagship phone in many ways in its looks, there is still a big difference in the camera quality that flagships provide. The iPhone XS is a clear example of this as Apple raises the bar higher than ever before with features like Smart HDR.
First, though, let’s talk specs: the iPhone XS and XS Max both have the same camera arrangement, with a 12-megapixel wide camera and a 12-megapixel tele cam on the back, while the situation with the Galaxies is a bit more complicated. The smaller S9 only has one camera on the back, a 12MP wide shooter, while the bigger S9+ features a dual-camera setup with a 12MP wide cam and a 12MP tele cam. This makes the S9 the only phone in this lineup to lack the fancy portrait mode option and the ability to get a clearer 2x zoom.
The camera apps on the two phones have not changed from what we’ve seen in the past: the iPhone keeps a simplified camera interface without many manual settings, while the Galaxy offers a ton of shooting modes, but also a full-on manual ride. What we like on the Samsung is the option to double press the power key on the side to quickly start the camera app, a shortcut that has no equivalent on the iPhone.
So… which phone takes better-looking pictures?
The Galaxy S9 series was one of the leading camera phones of 2018, with an outstanding amount of captured detail, beautiful color reproduction and super-fast auto-focusing speeds.
The iPhone XS takes all of that and raises the bar even higher, though. The new Smart HDR feature works miracles to show an incredible amount of light in both the dark and light parts of an image. Focus is fast and reliable. Colors look great (with a slight preference for warmer tones), the contrast from earlier iPhones is way more balanced.
Portrait Mode has improved on the iPhone XS, and you now have better object detection and a very subtle blur to images, plus you can control the amount of blur in the background. Samsung has been doing this for a while, so Apple is playing catch up here. Comparing portrait shots from the two, we are impressed with the dynamics from the iPhones and how they are able to capture more colors and expose better.
It also appears that the Galaxies capture very soft details when it comes to the skin and thanks to this effect people in the photos appear with a very pleasing skin structure that softens out wrinkles, while the iPhone seems to do the opposite: it captures a very sharp picture with sharper detail, but when it comes to faces, this effect overemphasizes imperfections like wrinkles, which seems to do more harm than good.
The iPhone raises the bar not just during the day, but also in night time when it captures bright photos with great dynamics and sharp detail. The Galaxy S9 series were one of the leaders back in their time, but compared with the night time shots of the iPhone, you see that the dynamics on the Samsung are not quite as high and colors don’t quite look as good.
Both phones have great selfie cameras as well. Again, the iPhone applies a similar Smart HDR magic to selfie shots, so that you get image with much more light in both shadows and bright areas. The Galaxy does good, but it often burns the highlights and the iPhone is a cut above it.
Both iPhones and Galaxies can record 4K video in up to 60 frames per second, with proper stabilization at 4K30 and both support HEVC codecs for smaller file sizes. The Galaxy, however, still has a limit to recordings, and you can only record up to 5 minutes of 4K60 video and 10 minutes of 4K30, while the iPhone does not have any such limits.
How about the quality of video recordings, though? 4K is similarly detailed on both phones and both do a great job with this. Focusing is of huge importance for videos and both do an excellent job here as well, but the Galaxy is a bit faster, while the iPhone has a slightly slower and smoother transition.
The iPhone does have the upper hand in one important area: dynamic range. Videos shot on the XS series don’t get their highlights blown that much and you get more detail in the shadows, while the Galaxy S9 is not quite on par with this.
Then there is slow motion video. You get 240 frames per second at 1080p resolution on both phones, but on the Galaxy you also have a Super Slo-mo option that allows you to shoot at the motion-freezing 960fps for just a few seconds. This is a cool gimmick that allows you to capture some interesting things, if you don’t mind the drop in quality.
Sound & Call Quality
The loudspeakers sound great on both the iPhones and the Galaxy phones. Both brands use two separate speakers for a stereo effect: one in the earpiece and another one firing from the bottom of the phone. Sound from all phones is loud and clear, exceeding expectations for sound coming out of tiny phone speakers.
You also get a pair of headphones in the box with all phones. Those are the EarPods with a Lightning cable on the iPhones, a pair that sits on the ear and not inside it, and while it does not isolate the outside world very well, it sounds fairly good and is not tiring to wear for longer periods of time. The AKG-tuned earbuds that come with the Galaxy phones are of the in-ear type, and they also sound great and provide much better isolation, but might feel a bit tight to some people.
We’ve had no issues with call quality on either of these phones. All live up to expectations of a flagship 2018 phone and calls come out with good reception and sufficiently loud and clear voice quality.
Which phone lasts more?
Before we dive in a topic as complex as battery life, let’s start by listing the capacity of the batteries used inside each of these devices:
- iPhone XS: 2,659 mAh
- iPhone XS Max: 3,179 mAh
- Samsung Galaxy S9: 3,000 mAh
- Samsung Galaxy S9+: 3,500 mAh
As you can see, the Galaxies have noticeably bigger batteries in terms of pure capacity, but size is not the only thing that matters in the complex battery equation. The king here is good optimization.
So how is all of that working out and what battery life can you expect from these phones?
We ran our proprietary battery test on all four phones and found that the iPhones last a bit more than the Galaxies, despite their smaller battery size.
In real life, you will be able to get through a full day with all of these phones without any issues, so no big worries, but if you are a heavy user, shoot a lot of video or play a lot of games, you will likely need to top up your battery mid-day, especially with the Galaxy.
Both the iPhones and two Galaxy S9 phones also support quick charging, but weirdly, there is no quick charger in the box with the iPhones, so you need to spend more money on top of the already high price that you paid for the phones. The Galaxies come with a quick charger in the box.
You can see how much time it takes to fully charge up the phones using the stock chargers in the table below:
All these phones also support wireless charging, which is a nice option. Here, you would need to buy a wireless charger separately for all of these phones.
Prices and Conclusion
It’s time to answer the big question: which of these four phones should you get?
Let’s first look at the prices:
- Apple iPhone XS Max 64GB: $1,100
- Apple iPhone XS 64GB: $1,000
- Samsung Galaxy S9+ 64GB: $790 at BestBuy, $740 at Samsung.com (Prices current at time of publishing)
- Samsung Galaxy S9 64GB: $670 at BestBuy, $620 at Samsung.com (Prices current at time of publishing)
Summing this up, we can say that the XS and XS Max cost significantly more than the Galaxy S9 and the Galaxy S9+. And if you opt for an iPhone with more storage you would be paying an even bigger premium.
So yes, the difference in prices is really big and it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth it.
Our job is to point out the differences and scale them, so there you go: the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, as well as the two Galaxy S9 variants, are very well built and look stylish, but the iPhones feel a bit more luxurious, and we love little details like the big and comfortable power button; both the iPhones and Galaxies have similarly stunning OLED display, a cut above all others in the industry; the performance, however, is smoother on the iPhone and the Samsung still lacks things like the comfortable gesture navigation; the iPhone raises the bar for camera performance in a big way, and while the two S9 phones are also excellent, the XS series are a step up from that in both photo and video; battery life is slightly better on the iPhones, but mostly, we are dealing with one-day phones, be it an iPhone or Galaxy.
There is also another factor and it’s called ecosystem: if you are even remotely invested in the Apple ecosystem, be it with a Mac, AirPods, HomePod, iPad, or something else, you will get more value from an iPhone that works seamlessly and augments those devices.
So… which one do you prefer?
- iOS ecosystem with better update support
- Made of more durable stainless steel
- Smart HDR helps take better photos
- Smoother performace
- Faster, Apple A12 chip
- No-limit 4K video recording
- Lower price
- MicroSD card support
- Headphone jack
- Quick charger in the box