A lighthearted iPhone Xs Max & Apple Watch 4 review

Are they both all that they’re cracked up to be?

Now, we don’t normally “do hardware reviews” here at BrianMadden.com, but people seemed to enjoy our look at the Yubikey and sometimes you just want a different opinion of a “new” piece of tech—plus Jack is on vacation and can’t stop me posting this. And what’s the hottest new tech to hit the market? The latest iPhone and Apple Watch models, of course!

So, here are my thoughts on the iPhone Xs Max and Apple Watch 4 after playing around with them for little over a week now.

iPhone Xs Max thoughts

This was the first time I’ve ever upgraded after doing it the year prior. I really liked my iPhone 8 Plus, but did regret (over time) not splurging for the then-most-expensive iPhone model, the iPhone X. I was hesitant about how good Face ID would be and didn’t want to part with the home button just yet. But after a year of seeing people I knew really love the X, I was comfortable that Face ID wasn’t the issue I thought it might be.

In fact, I’m impressed at how quick it is. The iPhone Xs Max running on iOS 12 is very speedy and often unlocks before I’m ready to do whatever it was that I picked it up for. I’ve tested it at 3 a.m. when I can barely open my eyes but still want to check the time and when I’m wearing my large over-the-ear headphones and sunglasses during my commute. No problems either time; it might occasionally take an extra second longer in the latter situation, but it still recognizes me well enough.

What I love the most is just how massive the screen is. I thought the iPhone 8 Plus screen was large (I had the iPhone 6S prior to it), but the Xs Max is so much bigger, plus it’s beautiful OLED. My big work use case with my last phone was doing a little extra writing or answering of email when not next to my computer. I would sometimes do a little extra writing on Microsoft Word while waiting for the BART (sometimes even on it for the rare times I got a seat), but I used my 8 Plus most heavily while at conferences. All my notes from Citrix Synergy, Google Cloud Next, and VMworld were written from my phone. It’s so much easier to use my iPhone to write down notes during a breakout session than to pull out my laptop (plus possibly less annoying to those seated next to me). The iPhone Xs Max screen makes it even easier to take legible notes I won’t have to decipher later. I’ve also started using it to do some reading or research during my commute.

The other major change from the 8 Plus to the Xs Max is when taking pictures. Jack is definitely much more of a photographer than I, but early reviews made me showed me just what the new phones were capable of. Portrait Mode with the computational bokeh feature is really neat. I wondered if there would be a slight delay as you adjusted how much blur you wanted for the background, bringing the focus of the image into sharp focus, but there really isn’t.

The only issue Jack and I noticed when trying out the camera last week was that it seemed to struggle to capture individual strands of our hair with clarity at the corners of the image—our hair would begin to look blurred as it approached the background, contrasting with the clarity of our hair closer to our foreheads. I wonder if this has something to do with the way the phone captures you versus the background. But the editing on the phone is easy, whether you want the background blurred or to just blacken it completely. I was impressed.

My only real complaint so far with the new iPhone is that the battery life isn’t quite as good as my 8 Plus. It’ll still last me about two days between charges (I usually just plop it down on the wireless charger next to my bed every night, though), but might require a little more restraint on the second day unlike with the 8 Plus. Still, I do demand it play music roughly 10-11 hours each workday, so I can’t complain too much.

Apple Watch 4 thoughts

Unlike the iPhone, I’ve never owned an Apple Watch before. I didn’t think very highly of it when it was first announced, but over time I came around. My mother was an early adopter and has upgraded a couple times, my father now has one, and my grandmother even has one. Plus, it seems like everyone has one, especially in the Bay Area. (I didn’t get one because everyone else has one, it just let me see the various ways one can use the Watch and won me over/ground down my ability to say no—I’m especially susceptible when new tech gets announced.)

Jack previously wrote about how he consciously made a decision to not to wear his Apple Watch into a bar in the city:

Interestingly, I did take it off in a bar in San Francisco one day, and it was almost an unconscious decision. With all of the complicated interactions involving the tech scene, housing prices, gentrification, Google Buses, and such, it just seems wise to inconspicuous. (After all, I live in a neighborhood where a few bars banned Google Glass after an uproar last year. I don’t want to be the Apple Watch equivalent of a Glasshole.)

But since he wrote that back in 2015, the Apple Watch has become ubiquitous and you’ll see one freaking everywhere, especially here in San Francisco.

Jack first reviewed a year of the Apple Watch and its effect/non-effect on EUC. I don’t see the situation has changed much, but more and more apps work on the Watch, so it’s possible to maybe eventually foresee what the enterprise might be able to make work, especially as you can access Siri from it.

Now, on to the Watch experience itself. The initial watch face is definitely information overload, but thankfully you can customize it how you like and dial it back to as minimal as you like (or maybe you just want one of the new Apple Watch faces with the fire or water). One aspect I liked is the temperature gauge you can add. It shows the projected high and low for the day on a semi-circle and a dot shows where the temperature currently is and then says within the semi-circle the actual temperature. I do wish some areas of the watch face allowed for more customization (some you can add nearly any option while other areas are restricted to but a few), but that’s a minor complaint.

For the moment, I haven’t played with the notifications settings. It vibrates/rings when I get a text or it’s time to stand up or use the Breathe app, while it just silently and without vibration shows me all my other notifications. Due to the lack of feedback, they can pile up until I randomly look to see the time and find I need to dismiss a few notifications I never knew I had. In time, I’m sure I’ll adjust to what apps I actually want notifications from.

I haven’t found any legitimate work use case for the Watch, unlike the iPhone. The most work-related use case I’ve come up with so far is how much easier it makes my daily commute. I live in the East Bay and the BART is very crowded when I’m heading into the office and going home. It’s not often practical to reach into my pocket and grab my phone—there’s no such thing as personal space on much of my commute. With the Watch I can easily switch songs or podcasts, as well as quickly respond to texts and check email without bothering the other commuters who are already quite cranky. That alone justified the purchase—for me anyway.

The Apple Watch 4 works fairly flawlessly with AirPods. I didn’t even need to pair them, and when I want to listen to something on my Watch (podcast, music, etc.), it will automatically try to pair with the Airpods, but also allow you to switch to another device with speakers from the same screen.

Though you can change what you’re listening to from the Watch, I still prefer to do it from the iPhone if I’m walking around, it’s still easier. If you’re in one place and can’t easily access your phone at the moment, the Watch works well enough, it’s just the small screen isn’t ideal when walking (especially if on a busy sidewalk—maybe in time I’ll get better with the Watch).

For the Apple Watch 4, my only issue is that you can’t delete when using the talk to text feature. I respond to a lot of texts that way when home and not next to my phone. It’s a fun feature, but if it misinterprets what you say, and it will—though unlike iMessages it does let me swear without autocorrect getting in the way, which I absolutely love—you can’t correct it. You either have to hope the person just understands what you meant or you cancel and start again.

To upgrade, or not to upgrade

So, should you upgrade? I would say it depends on the phone you currently have. If you have something other than an iPhone and have wanted to make the jump to iOS, then this is a good first phone, especially if used to all-screen phones like the Samsung S9. If you have an iPhone X—stick with what you have unless the larger screen and new photography features really interest you; any other iPhone? I’d say upgrade. I don’t regret it.

The Apple Watch 4 is also really great compared to the older models (though I don’t have first-hand knowledge since this is my first one, after all—but I’ve learned what the other phones are like compared to mine by talking with Jack and family over the last week). It’s basically the same size as Jack’s Series 0, but has a much larger screen and feels slightly lighter. If the eventual ECG feature and fall detection are important new features, then go ahead and upgrade.

On the other hand, neither the phone nor the watch are cheap—don’t spend money you don’t have!

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