Selecting the right phone for you depends on several factors:
Do you prefer a large screen or small? Are you super picky about pictures the camera takes and do you pixel-peep your photos seeking technical perfection? Do you play processor- or graphics-intensive games or mostly browse the web, make calls, and watch an occasional movie? Do you need to store a terabyte of data or is less storage okay? How much are you willing to pay to own the latest and greatest device?
With these questions in mind, I took a comparative look at the latest Apple and Samsung devices.
Apple's line-up includes the new iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max. Likewise, Samsung offers the Galaxy S9, S9+, and Note 9.
The primary differences between the Apple phones are screen size and battery life (the XS Max has a larger screen and somewhat bigger battery). The S9 approximately matches the iPhone XS in size, while the S9+ corresponds roughly to the iPhone XS Max. The Note 9 is also large but adds a pen for writing on the screen. Each phone variant has minor other differences in the specifications, but overall that's the general description.
The most obvious difference between these phones is size. This table summarizes the size and screen resolution of each phone:
- iPhone XS: 5.8-inch screen size, 2436 x 1125 resolution
- iPhone XS Max: 6.5-inch screen size, 2688 x 1242 resolution
- Samsung S9: 5.8-inch screen size, 2960 x 1440 resolution
- Samsung S9+: 6.2-inch screen size, 2960 x 1440 resolution
- Samsung Note 9: 6.4-inch screen size, 2960 x 1440 resolution
Screen size has an impact on many aspects of these phones. The decision to use a smaller or larger phone is highly personal, depending on factors such as portability, hand size, and eyesight.
Here are positive aspects of a larger screen:
- Everything on the screen is bigger and easier to read.
- Larger keyboards offer more space for fat fingers when typing.
- Movies and photos look beautiful.
- Samsung lets you multitask apps in multiple windows. This software trick is great for viewing your calendar while sending an email, as one small example. Apple lags when it comes to making use of the large screen.
There are also downsides to a larger phone:
- Larger phones do not fit easily into pockets.
- The large size phones are easier to drop and break. Give the cost of screen repairs, this is a real consideration.
- They are heavier and feel less convenient in hand.
Although screen resolutions and phone sizes are different between Samsung and Apple, in practice, the small and large variants from each company do match fairly closely. The iPhone XS Max is a bit wider and heavier than either the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the Note 8 marginally easier to handle than the XS Max.
Some will say that the Note 9 doesn't offer much over the Note 8, but those who use their phones to get work done with greatly appreciate the massive 4,000 mAh battery, Bluetooth S Pen, stunning display, virtually unlimited storage options, and more.
If you want a smaller phone, get the iPhone XS or the Galaxy S9. If you prefer something big, either the XS Max or the larger Samsung devices are for you. Small differences in phone specifications have little impact on daily use, so don't worry about them.
Summary: Although sizes are roughly comparable, Samsung takes advantage of the large screen, through multitasking, in a way that Apple does not.
Winner: Tie on the small phones, but Samsung wins on the larger size.
For most people taking casual snapshots, both Samsung and Apple offer photo quality that is good enough to replace a dedicated camera. That said, each company has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to photos and video.
In general, Samsung's telephoto lens (these phones have two lenses, one wide-angle and other for distance), while the new Apple phones have better dynamic range. However, in some cases, Apple's dynamic range comes at the expense of flattening the visual tone and contrast of images.
This image, taken from a video created by SuperSaf TV, demonstrates the importance of dynamic range. Note this image is part of a video test, but it shows off dynamic range nicely.
With the Samsung, the sky is completely over-exposed with no cloud detail at all; the Apple phone retains color in the trees, with less overall contrast, while the clouds are visible in the bright sky. Although it's not clear whether Apple achieves this dynamic range with a better sensor or through more sophisticated manipulation of brightness curves, the iPhone XS is better.
On the other hand, Tom's Guide took photos with the iPhone XS and Galaxy S9. The iPhone XS versions are flat and lifeless while the Note 9 photos are brighter.
Portrait mode on these phones uses computational photography techniques to adjust the bokeh, or background blur, of photos. The resulting image, therefore, results from hardware capture together with software processing. As users, we only care about the result, but it's helpful to be aware of what's happening behind the scenes inside these devices.
The new iPhones include a larger sensor that gathers light more effectively than in the past. As a result, the low-light performance of the XS series has improved over the original iPhone X. However, the Samsung devices have a larger aperture, so they allow more light into the sensor, which significantly improves photos taken in low light.
If you want to see comparison photos, check this article, which does an excellent job showing side-by-side photos from Apple, Samsung, and Google flagship phones.
Photo analyst Ken Rockwell has an excellent article praising the iPhone XS Max depth of field and bokeh simulation while comparing it to a full-frame DSLR.
Summary: The iPhone XS offers significant camera improvement over last year's iPhone X. However, the Samsung devices continue to hold their own. Depending on what you are photographing, either phone may give superior results to the other, and you cannot go wrong either way.
When evaluating speed for general business purposes, the most important criteria is subjective: Does the phone feel fast enough for you?
Browsing websites, writing documents, watching movies, listening to music, using spreadsheets, and similar activities do not require the fastest speeds, whether on desktop computers or mobile devices.
On the other hand, editing movies and playing action games do gain real benefits from faster processor and graphics speeds. So, if you create movies or want to squeeze the highest possible frame rates out of games and simulations, then speed is important. Otherwise, not so much.
Just for kicks, I benchmarked the iPhone XS and the Galaxy S9+ using the popular Antutu test software. Antutu runs a variety of tests to gauge the speed of multiple subsystems on a mobile device.
As you can see from the results below, the iPhone comes out significantly ahead on all scores:
But, what do these synthetic benchmarks tell us that's useful? In short, not much beyond the fact that Apple runs faster hardware than Samsung.
Eventually, augmented reality and all kinds of AI applications will make use of that fancy hardware, but that time is not yet here for most of us.
Let your own subjective experience be a guide. If your phone feels responsive and fast when you open apps, browse the web, send email, or watch a movie, then it's probably fast enough for your needs. Of course, you can pay more to gain additional snappy responsiveness, but only you can decide if the cost is worth the benefit.
Summary: Even though it makes no practical difference for most users, the new iPhones are faster than Samsung's latest offerings.
Samsung and Apple use fabulous OLED screens on their phones. You cannot go wrong with either. Check the great review of the Note 9 screen from DisplayMate. And here is their review of the iPhone XS Max screen.
Summary: Both companies use bright, sharp, highly-calibrated screens.
Home screen unlocking
Fast, reliable phone unlocking is a crucial feature in today's security-conscious world. Our phones store financial data, business information, and all kinds of personal content, so security is a crucial dimension when evaluating mobile devices.
Face ID was one of the great innovations on last year's iPhone X. Although the original incarnation of Face ID worked well most of the time, Face ID on the new iPhones is faster and more reliable than in the past. As you use Face ID, it becomes a natural way to unlock the phone: simply look at the screen and it unlocks almost immediately.
The Samsung devices offer facial recognition, iris scanning and a fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone. Of these three, I found the fingerprint sensor to be fast and reliable, while the other methods seem slow and often do not work at all.
Summary: Security combined with speed and ease of use is the holy grail of home screen unlocked. Apple does this better than anyone and leaves Samsung in the dust on this point.
Depending on your needs, you may want lots of storage space. For example, if you want to store many high-res movies, then you will require more space than someone who does not watch movies on their phone.
Samsung phones come with a MicroSD card expansion slot, which lets you increase storage capacity beyond what is built into the phone. The top storage option from Samsung is the 512GB version of the Note 9, which can expand to 1TB with a 512GB MicroSD card.
Also: Best smartphones of 2018 for tech experts TechRepublic
The Apple phones max out at 512GB of internal storage that is not expandable.
Summary: If you need 1TB of data storage, go with Samsung. Otherwise, both companies offer good options, but they are expensive.
As the need for strong, unique passwords grows, the complexity and hassle of remembering those passwords also increase. Password managers, such as LastPass and Dashlane, help you create a unique and strong password for every website. The password manager then automatically supplies those credentials when logging into websites and apps.
Historically, using a password manager on both Android and iOS has been a complicated, unreliable, and hard to use mess.
With the new iOS 12, Apple has significantly improved the integration of password managers to the point where they are convenient and safe to use. Although this is an operating system issue rather than a function of hardware, it is of enough importance to warrant being called out here.
Summary: Password safety and convenience rarely go together, but Apple does it well in iOS 12.
Here is a summary of the winners for each section above:
- Physical size: Tie on small phones; Samsung wins on the larger size
- Speed: Apple
- Screen quality: Tie
- Camera: Tie
- Home screen unlocking: Apple
- Storage capacity: Samsung
- Password management: Apple
And the overall winner: Both Samsung and Apple make great phones. Figure out which aspects of the phone are more important to you and buy based on that personal criteria. If you prefer Android, for example, go with Samsung. If the convenience of Face ID matters more to you, then buy Apple.
These phones will all serve your needs, and major apps will run on both Android and iOS.
A final note -- buy a case: All these devices are expensive, fragile, and easy to drop. I've dropped phones in the past and you probably have too. After testing many cases over the years, I recommend the Speck Presidio Grip. Not only do they protect the phone, but the grippy rubber really does help you hold tight without dropping.
Disclosure: I paid for these phones, just as you do. There's no free lunch or hidden agenda here.
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