The $1,000 phone may not be as shocking this year as it was when Apple first broke the barrier with 2017’s iPhone X, but the amount you’re asked to cough up for a premium handset is hardly chump change. The newly announced iPhone XS and August’s Galaxy Note 9 both start at a grand, and the higher-storage models go up from there. (See the charts below for international pricing.)
So what do these phones have to justify the $1,000 price tag? And which one is the better buy? While we can’t say for certain until we’ve tested the iPhone XS’ new features side by side with the Galaxy Note 9, we have a pretty good idea now of what they offer, and how they compete for your affection — and your cash.
And remember too, both these phones have smaller, cheaper counterparts. The iPhone XR is a slightly stripped-down version of the iPhone XS and starts at $750. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are essentially Note 9s minus the S Pen, some of the camera features and the massive storage space and battery. The Galaxy S9 starts at $720 (varies by carrier).
More on wallet-breaking phones: Why phones are getting more expensive
Note 9 has the larger OLED screen
The iPhone XS and even larger iPhone XS Max are Apple’s second and third phones to use and OLED display (the iPhone XR sticks with an LCD screen). OLED technology produces vibrant contrast and color, which gives phones using the display some premium cache.
Samsung gives you more screen for your money: A curved 6.4-inch display rather than the iPhone XS’ 5.8-inch screen. If you want more iPhone screen, you’ll have to upgrade to the iPhone XS Max, which has 6.5 inches of OLED goodness, and a higher starting price.
King of the camera is up in the air
This one is going to be an important test. The iPhone XS camera look the same as the iPhone X on paper, but Apple says it’s enhanced the phone’s dual 12-megapixel setup with software smarts that can automatically fix red-eye and pump up shadows and detail for improved HDR that Apple calls Smart HDR.
Apple has also added more portrait lighting effects to the iPhone XS, and claims to give portrait selfies greater depth. There’s also a new slider adjustment that lets you edit the amount of blur you put on a Bokeh selfie after it’s taken. Samsung has had a similar feature for the last two years.
For its part, the Note 9’s dual 12-megapixel camera setup has an automatic scene recognition tool that uses AI to automatically select the ‘best’ settings for your photos. The main camera’s dual-aperture lens automatically changes to bring you better, brighter low-light shots, but the nature of the technology means that if subjects move, the picture may blur.
The Note 9 has super-slow motion video as well as slow motion (the latter is higher quality), while the iPhone XS has slow-motion video only — this is a minor feature for most.
In our photo comparison with the iPhone X, the Note 9’s low light shots were brighter, the selfies a little sharper and the photos more in a shutterbug’s control with Pro Mode. The Note 9’s S Pen also serves as a remote for group photos and selfies, from up to 30 feet away. (You can do this with the iPhone EarPods that come in the box, as far as the cable stretches.)
However, Apple’s small adjustments to its image processing algorithms could make all the difference, especially in those low-light shots.
The processor advantage goes to the iPhone XS
Apple’s new A12 Bionic chip promises some serious competition against the Galaxy Note 9’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor. The chipset is the phone’s workhorse. Made up of multiple processors — including the CPU, GPU for graphics and coprocessors such as the image signal processor for photography — it handles everything from loading apps and running daily tasks, to photo processing and power efficiency.
Things get technical fast, but the overview is that Apple promises apps will load up to 30 percent faster than they did on the iPhone X and that the entire phone will be 15 percent faster. It’ll be more battery efficient, Apple says, play resource-heavy games more smoothly and help photos look their best with that Smart HDR feature mentioned above.
A faster processor can also make Face ID work faster, make Apple’s new Memoji avatars track your real-life facial expressions and reduce lag in AR environments.
One technical detail is that Apple’s new A12 chip uses a 7-nanometer manufacturing process, which helps with power efficiency and reducing space inside the phone to make room for other elements, for example a larger battery.
Meanwhile, the Snapdragon 845 processor performed extremely well in our lab and real-life tests. Qualcomm’s phones for 2019 will use a chip made with the same 7nm process, and will also be ready to support 5G data connection speeds, something that Apple never mentioned in its presentation.
Battery life could lean the Note 9’s way
Forecasting the iPhone’s battery life from specs has always been tricky because Apple doesn’t share battery capacity figures like the rest of the industry. Instead, Apple told us that the iPhone XS is expected to last 30 minutes per day longer than the iPhone X did. That phone’s battery life lasted about 11.5 hours, a work day, in CNET’s looping video battery drain tests. However, it failed to impress us with its longevity. 30 minutes longer per day isn’t going to crack a smile on our end.
The Galaxy Note 9, meanwhile, carried on from early morning to late night on a single charge, running over 19 hours on a single charge in our drain tests. Samsung’s 4,000mAh battery has the advantage this round.
Storage is much cheaper on the Note 9
For $1,000, you get 64GB of iPhone XS storage and 128GB of storage on the Galaxy Note 9. That’s double the space for photos and videos on Samsung’s phone. For more storage, you have to jump up a level to the 256GB iPhone XS model for $1,149.
For 512GB of internal storage, the Galaxy Note 9 costs $1,250. The iPhone XS: $1,349, which is $100 more. The Galaxy Note 9 also comes with a microSD card slot that takes up to 512GB in external storage, which is a cheaper route to go.
Security updates, aka Android versus iOS 12
iPhones have always had the upper hand in security updates and software upgrades in general. Apple updates all it phones at the same time. For example, iPhones receive their iOS 12 upgrade on Sept. 17.
While Google also makes its software available for phones — we’re now in Android Pie — the Note 9 shipped with Android 8.1 Oreo. The phone will surely upgrade, but Samsung first has to test Android Pie with its custom Samsung Experience software before getting approval to push the update from carriers. So, it takes awhile.
Both the Note 9 and iPhone XS have wireless charging, a IP68 water-resistance rating and dual-SIM options. But it’s the extras that make the phones worth their value.
The Note 9 stands out with its Bluetooth-connected S Pen stylus, which now works as a remote control for certain apps. You can securely unlock the phone with your iris or finger, and Samsung Pay is a bonus service that works on registers where Google Pay and Apple Pay may not.
Samsung’s Bixby Voice assistant is aggressive and won’t turn off: This is either a pesky annoyance or major drawback depending on where you stand.
Meanwhile, the iPhone XS has Face Unlock (with no fingerprint backup) and works seamlessly with the entire Apple ecosystem, from new Apple Watch 4 with its enhanced health features to message syncing on a MacBook or MacBook Air.
Too soon to say
While the Galaxy Note 9 has its benefits, but until we take in both phones in their totality, we can’t say for sure which phone gives you ‘more.’ Some devices are worth more than the sum of its parts; some less. Apple fans will no doubt choose from one of the three new iPhones, or else an iPhone 8, 8 Plus or 7.
But if you’re on the fence, hold off on that preorder until we get a chance to dive deep.
iPhone XS specs vs. Galaxy Note 9 vs. iPhone XS Max
|iPhone XS||Samsung Galaxy Note 9||iPhone XS Max|
|Display size, resolution||5.8-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,436×1,125 pixels||6.4-inch Super AMOLED; 2,960×1,440 pixels||6.5-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,688×1,242 pixels|
|Pixel density||458 ppi||516ppi||458 ppi|
|Dimensions (Inches)||5.7×2.8×0.3 in||6.37×3.01×0.35 in||6.2×3.0x.3 in|
|Dimensions (Millimeters)||143.6×70.9×7.7 mm||161.9×76.4×8.8 mm||157.5×77.4×7.7 mm|
|Weight (Ounces, Grams)||6.24 oz; 177g||7.09 oz.; 201g||7.3oz; 208g|
|Mobile software||iOS 12||Android 8.1 Oreo||iOS 12|
|Camera||Dual 12-megapixel||Dual 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (telephoto)||Dual 12-megapixel|
|Front-facing camera||7-megapixel with Face ID||8-megapixel||7-megapixel with Face ID|
|Processor||Apple A12 Bionic||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz)||Apple A12 Bionic|
|Storage||64GB, 256GB, 512GB||128GB, 512GB||64GB, 256GB, 512GB|
|Battery||N/A, but Apple claims it will last 30 min. longer than iPhone X||4,000mAh||N/A, but Apple claims it will last 90 min. longer than iPhone X|
|Fingerprint sensor||None (Face ID)||Back of phone||None (Face ID)|
|Special features||Water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging; Face ID, Animoji||Water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; S-Pen with Bluetooth connectivity; Iris and facial scanning||Water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging; Face ID, Animoji|
|Price off-contract (USD)||$999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB), $1,349 (512GB)||$1,000 (128GB), $1,250 (512GB)||$1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB)|
|Price (GBP)||£999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB), £1,349 (512GB)||£899 (128GB), £1,099 (512GB)||$1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB)|
|Price (AUD)||AU$1,629 (64GB), AU$1,879 (256GB), AU$2,199 (512GB)||AU$1499 (128GB), AU$1,799 (512GB)||AU$1,799 (64GB), AU$2,049 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB)|