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iPhone XS, XS Max and XR cameras: what you need to know

iPhone XS, XS Max and XR cameras: what you need to know


iPhone XS, XS Max and XR cameras: what you need to know 1

On Wednesday Apple launched its new iPhone models for 2018, the XS, XS Max and XR. The two XS devices come with OLED HDR displays, that offer a 60% improvement in dynamic range compared to the iPhone X (1,000,000:1 contrast ratio). On the iPhone XS the screen measures 5.8″, on the Max variant it is 6.5″. Both devices come with a dual-camera setup that combines a wide-angle main camera with a 2x tele module.

The iPhone XR is a more affordable model and has to make do with a 6.1″ LCD display and a single-camera setup. The iPhone XS and XS Max will be available first, shipping September 21st in 64GB, 256GB and 512GB configurations. The XS starts at $999; the XS Max starts at $1099. The iPhone XR will ship October 26th starting at $749 with 64GB, 128GB and 256GB configurations.

All phones sport the industry’s most color accurate, wide color gamut (P3) displays which, combined with best-in-class color management built into the OS, ensures accurate display of photos and videos. When you go to print or share an image online, you can rest assured that color rendition will be consistent.

At first sight the new cameras aren’t much different from last year’s iPhone X but improvements have been made in terms of hardware, software and features. On the following pages we take a closer look.

Camera hardware

iPhone XS, XS Max and XR cameras: what you need to know 2

The iPhone XS and its larger sibling XS Max share the same dual-camera setup. On paper the specifications look pretty much identical to last year’s iPhone X but there is an important change: the 12MP sensor in the wide-angle camera is bigger, now with larger pixels (1.4 µm, up from 1.22 µm) for improved low light capabilities and dynamic range.

The F1.8 aperture on the 6-element wide-angle remains unchanged and the 12MP tele-module with F2.4 aperture is the same as before as well. The tele comes with six elements as well and both lenses are optically stabilized.

The most affordable of the new devices, the iPhone XR, comes with the same wide-angle camera as the XS and XS Max but has to make do without a tele-lens.

And though this has less to do with hardware, it’s important to note that images shot in HEIF will capture and display a wider range of colors extending to the P3 color space. This makes for vibrant images, preserving more of the reds, yellows, greens and cyan tones that are visible to us by the naked eye.

New Neural Engine and ISP

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The new iPhone’s A12 Bionic processor has been upgraded in several areas compared to its A11 Bionic predecessor. It comes with faster and more efficient processing cores and a more powerful GPU. More importantly, though, the 8-core Neural Engine is now more directly involved in image capture and processing and strongly linked with the image signal processor (ISP).

For example, the Neural Engine helps improve facial recognition and image segmentation. The latter helps distinguish the subject from the background and plays an important role in Apple’s bokeh mode portrait images. Facial landmarking means the engine can identify facial features and apply different processing – like red eye reduction – to different areas of the face. And generally speaking, scene detection allows the ISP to optimize processing of different scene elements individually.

The processor’s additional speed also allows for more image information to be captured and processed. This has enabled the Apple engineers to create the new Smart HDR feature, which they claim is faster and more accurate than the HDR mode of previous iPhone generations. The company says that the device is capable of performing one trillion operations on each image that is captured.

Bokeh-effect in Portrait mode

iPhone XS, XS Max and XR cameras: what you need to know 4

A background-blurring bokeh effect has been available in the iPhone’s Portrait Mode for some time now. In the new models the feature has been refined, however, and now offers adjustment of depth-of-field for stills in the native camera app.

At launch, this will only work in post-processing after the photo has been taken, but a software update this fall will enable a real-time preview at the point of capture. You can set the aperture on a virtual slider on your screen from F1.4 to F16 and see the results instantly, allowing for easy optimization of that portrait look.

Thanks to the updated Neural Engine, Portrait mode is now also better at distinguishing subject and background. Advanced depth segmentation allows for a more realistic bokeh effect with fewer artifacts.

In the iPhones XS and XS Max the camera can make use of both the wide and tele lenses for parallax-based subject segmentation. The iPhone XR has to make do with a single-camera setup but is still capable of generating a convincing portrait look.

On the XR the camera uses the sensor’s focus pixels for parallax and then segmentation masking. Thanks to the device’s processing power, the depth effect is still visible in real time but currently only works with faces.

Smart HDR

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Smart HDR is another new camera feature made possible by the new iPhones’ beefier processor and updated Neural Engine. Smart HDR is quite similar to Google’s approach to HDR on its Pixel devices and continuously captures a four-frame buffer while the camera app is open. This means when the shutter is pressed the image is captured instantly, with zero shutter lag.

In addition, Smart HDR captures several interframes at different exposures – including long exposures for added shadow detail – and intelligently combines all frames of the same scene. The system picks and blends the best parts of each frame in order to create the final image. This helps reduce ghosting artifacts on moving subjects and create a well-balanced HDR look with good detail in both highlight and shadow areas.

Additionally, thanks to the HDR displays on the XS and XS Max, HDR photos will appear more vibrant, with more colors but also with increased contrast. Typically HDR capture can result in flat images with bright shadows and darker skies, but HDR display of HDR images expands the displayed range by making dark tones darker and bright tones brighter. This yields more realistic appearing HDR images. To date, Apple iPhones are still the first and only consumer devices in the world to bring the concept of HDR display as it is known in the video industry (Dolby Vision, HDR10, HLG) over to the stills sector.


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The new model also come with improvements in the video department. As before, the new models can shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second and 1080p Full-HD at up to 240fps, allowing for smooth slow-motion footage with good detail. We found the iPhone X 4K/60p video to be remarkably detailed and relatively free of artifacts when shooting in the HEVC format, so we expect similar high quality video from these phones. Apple claims that the 2x faster sensor readout allows for better video stabilization this time around.


When limiting the frame rate to 30 fps, the camera can extend the dynamic range of video capture, presumably by shooting at 60 fps and combining two frames of varying exposure per final frame of video. Ideally such HDR capture would also be displayed in a native HDR format (HDR10, HLG) on the HDR displays of the XS and XS Max, as this would help extend perceived contrast of wide dynamic range footage. However, we see no indication that Apple is doing so at this time. Thanks to the larger sensor in the main camera and increased processing power, low light performance has been improved as well, with lower noise levels and brighter exposures in very low light. In addition all cameras come with an all-new video stabilization system.

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