The best iPhone yet – but not a huge step on from the iPhone X

Is the new iPhone XS truly worth $1,000 of your hard-earned? Apple certainly hopes you’ll think so, and there’s no doubt this is an utterly premium smartphone. But there’s no getting away from that price-tag. The XS is Apple’s newest phone, replacing 2017’s iPhone X and sitting between the enormous XS Max and cheaper XR. The XS is a big phone for Apple in more ways than one – it has a sizeable 5.8-inch screen. But, it’s a big departure, too. Together with the XS Max and XR, this phone sees the company completely abandoning the older design first seen on 2014’s iPhone 6. There’s no more Home Button, and certainly no headphone jack. You’re unlikely to be disappointed by the finished product – it’s a gorgeous, top-of-the-line phone with a blisteringly fast processor at its heart. Read on to learn if it’s the right phone for you.

iPhone XS Design

Before we get to the nit-picking, let’s be clear – the XS is a gorgeous phone. It features a pin-sharp Super Retina OLED screen that runs all the way to the edge of the phone.

Durable, Premium Design

There’s a stainless steel band encasing the whole screen – it’s a premium-looking touch, but it also facilitates the phone’s IP68 waterproof credentials. It also lends it a feeling of durability and quality thanks to the noticeable, but not bothersome, weight. The rear of the XS is coated in glass. Again, this serves form and function, enabling wireless charging, and rounding out the premium feel of the XS’ hardware. It does have a significant camera bump, though – when resting the phone flat, it rocks back-and-forth slightly. However, you’ll be hard-pushed to spot the difference between the XS and its predecessor. From the front, they’re completely identical. From the rear, the only difference you’ll find is that the XS is available in Gold (the X which could only be purchased in Silver and Space Gray). This isn’t a great surprise, if we’re honest – the XS is, after all, an upgrade to the X.

Screen Quality

The XS display is truly impressive. It’s bright, sharp and makes colors pop. This is largely thanks to the change from LCD screens on older iPhones to OLED (organic light emitting diode) displays, first seen on the X, though long established on top-end Samsung models. OLED screens can show a wider range of colours than LCD, and excel at blacks, lending greater contrast to the images you see on screen.

Notch and Icons

It’s not all good news for the XS’ screen, though. The notch has persisted from the X and like its forbear, the XS fails to make the most of the extra screen real estate. It’ll display the time, whether your location is being used, your signal, whether you’re connected to wifi, plus the battery icon (though not battery percentage). Apple has also decided to bump up the size of these icons compared to older 4 and 4.7-inch phones – so there’s actually less room to display information than older phones. Like we said though, this is nit-picking. The iPhone XS is a great-looking phone, crafted from high-quality materials with an excellent screen. It may be familiar, but it’s still exceptional.

iPhone XS Cameras

When Apple launched the XS, the company waxed lyrical about its camera qualities. In particular, it noted the raft of software improvements over its predecessor, including an improved portrait mode and new ‘Smart HDR’ function.

Same Cameras, Different Software

There’s no discernable upgrade in the camera hardware from the X to the XS. Both feature two 12 megapixel rear cameras (one wide angle, one telephoto for detail shots). Both feature the same aperture ratings. Both have dual optical image stabilization, and both offer 2x optical and 10x digital zoom. There’s no real hardware change on the front camera, either. It’s still housed within the notch, and still uses a 7Mp lens which Apple calls ‘TrueDepth’ – a nod to its FaceID tech. Again, the improvements come from the software. So what exactly are the software improvements?

Smart HDR

Smart HDR (high dynamic range) replaces the Auto HDR featured on the iPhone X. HDR is an imaging technique that allows for the creation of greater contrast within images by taking multiple shots and combining them into one. The iPhone XS’ Smart HDR technology makes use of its new smarter processor and neural engine (more on that later) to create images that are more visually engaging and dramatic thanks to the way it can understand and display shadow, light and color. You’re also able to see each individual frame captured and select the ‘lead image’ after taking the photos. So, does it work? On the whole, yes. We didn’t have the XS for a long time, but on a whistlestop photo tour of Camden Market in London, we found that the XS was capable of capturing a wide variety of colours without losing detail and sharpness. However, we did find that the XS had a tendency to make some images seem slightly overexposed.

Apple iPHone XS Review photo quality

Portrait Mode

Another big change over the X was the advanced “bokeh” (background blur) and Depth Control available on Portrait Mode. Depth Control, in particular, received a big round of applause at the launch event, but isn’t exactly unprecedented in the world of phone photography. In essence, this new tech takes Portrait Mode, debuted on the X, to another level. It lets the user change the aperture after the picture has been taken. Again, this means you’ll be able to capture more visually engaging images where you want to create focus on the foreground. Does it work? Yes, but it’s far from perfect. As it’s software-based, it can’t exactly replicate the effect of widening the aperture on a camera. Lights in the background retain their rough shape and become blurry rather than emerging as circular light droplets, for instance. When we were testing it, we also discovered that the software occasionally had a hard time discerning exactly what was in the foreground and what was the background – particularly if you’re using the front camera (that right-side image below shows where portrait mode picked up some coats on coat rack at the back of the room and decided it was part of our reviewer’s face).

Apple iPhone XS Review Portrait Mode

Is the iPhone XS Camera Good?

On the whole, yes. It excels at capturing detailed wide angle and closeup shots in well-lit environments. However, in poorly-lit environments, it can’t always match the same level of detail. Some shots can look overexposed but, if we’re honest, we’re splitting hairs. The iPhone XS has one of the best phone cameras on sale, and it’s a notable improvement from previous iPhone cameras.

iPhone XS Battery Life

Over the hours we used it, we put the iPhone XS through near-constant intense use. Playing AR and non-AR games, taking photos, and more. Impressively, we didn’t notice a dramatic drop-off in the battery life, from when we started using the XS to when we finished. And, while the battery life on iPhones isn’t always the longest on the market, they generally meet (and sometimes exceed) Apple’s own battery life estimates. This means for the XS, you should get around a day-and-a-half of low intensity use (checking social media, sending messages etc.) For high intensity use, we’d probably expect closer to 12-18 hours.

iPhone XS Features

The iPhone XS is laden with features some coming courtesy of the new iOS 12 plus others inherent to the new iPhones only.

Face ID

It was one of the standout features to launch with the old iPhone X, but Apple has been able to further improve the Face ID experience. Thanks to sensor improvements and the new neural engine, Face ID is quicker and smoother than ever.

Dual SIM

In a first for iPhones, you’ll be able to use two SIM cards – although one will have to be an eSIM. This means that you’ll be able to hold two numbers on your iPhone, useful if you’re travelling or want one phone to work as a business and personal phone.

Storage Space

However, there’s still no option for expandable storage. While Samsung phones let you slot in a microSD card, Apple limits you to the on-board storage only (or backing up to iCloud). Things are more generous with the latest generation of iPhones. When buying the XS, you can choose between 64GB, 256GB and 512GB models, with the price rising accordingly.

Better Waterproofing

We briefly mentioned this earlier, but the iPhone XS is now more waterproof than ever, meeting IP68 certification standards. Apple states you should be able to dunk your iPhone in up to 2 meters of water for half an hour with no nasty side effects. See our list ofthe Best Waterproof Phones you can buy

Improved speakers

Thanks to improved speakers, the iPhone XS has wider stereo playback compared to the iPhone X. This means that when you’re playing music, videos or games on your phone, the sound won’t feel like it’s being pumped out of the speakers on the bottom of your phone exclusively. It should be less directional, and should help fill the space around you better.

No Headphone Jack

In keeping with all models since the iPhone 7, Apple has ditched the headphone jack with the iPhone XS. You’re expected to use wireless headphones, or an adaptor that fits into the lightning socket. Two bits of bad news here, though. First, that means you can’t charge the phone and have the headphone adaptor connected at once. Second, unlike with the iPhone X, Apple doesn’t include a complementary headphone adaptor with the iPhone XS.

iPhone XS Performance

iPhones are always speedy, and the newer models always improve on what’s come before. Apple has sought yet again to ensure the XS was noticeably more powerful than the X.

New Processor

The XS uses a new processor, the A12 Bionic. This features an expanded GPU with four cores, rather than the A11’s three, and an improved six-core CPU. This should translate to performance improvements of around 50% and make the iPhone XS one of, if not the, fastest phones in the world.Apple iPhone XS review A12 BionicHowever, the most important performance upgrades will come from the new Neural Engine built-in to the A12 chip. It’s designed to handle the machine learning functions of the iPhone XS and its new eight-core design means that it is able to handle 5 trillion operations per second, compared to the 600 billion for the A11’s Neural Engine.

Augmented Reality

The processor improvements mean that Augmented Reality (AR) functions are faster and more accurate than ever. That includes improvements to Animoji and Memoji, as well as AR games, ARKit functions (such as the new measure tool) and apps such as Ikea Place. This may sound incidental and more of a nice-to-have, but AR is set to become one of the cornerstones of the iPhone experience, and will help to make it an infinitely more helpful device.

Day-to-day Performance

When we tried the iPhone XS, the performance improvement when running regular tasks wasn’t entirely noticeable over an iPhone 8. However, as time goes on, the benefits of a more efficient chip will become apparent, with battery life improvements, and the capability to handle more demanding apps. When we tried using the AR functions, though, the increased speed became immediately apparent. AR games such as Lightstream Racer loaded faster, and tools such as Measure were able to identify surfaces faster. Animoji is still fun, as well.

iPhone XS Cost and Value for Money

There’s no easy way to say this: the iPhone XS costs $1,000 out of contract. For that price, it’s hard to argue the XS is truly good value for money. However, if you do want to buy the XS, you will be getting one of the best phones on the market, with class-leading AR features, a brilliant camera and top-quality design. Moreover, the XS should be built to last. The tech in this phone has the potential to be future-proof for at least five years, should you want stick with it. Apple doubled-down on its commitment to environmental responsibility at the launch of the XS, and it wants to keep people using the same iPhone, rather than replacing them every year and throwing the materials away. And, unlike a lot of Android phones, you’ll keep getting the latest versions of iOS every year, which will give you more features, security and speed improvements.

iPhone XS vs XS Max vs XR vs X

Of course, the XS doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has a ton of rivals, including those made by Apple.

iPhone XS vs XS Max

The XS has a bigger brother, the XS Max. For an extra $100, you’ll get an further 0.7-inches of screen. The XS Max has a higher resolution, but the same number of pixels per inch, so the sharpness is like-for-like.

This extra screen size makes it over half-an-inch taller, plus a third-of-an-inch wider. It weighs 7.34 ounces, compared to the XS at 6.24 ounces.

If you really want this extra screen size, go for it. You’re already spending a grand on a phone, so an extra $100 won’t make that much difference. But, we struggled at times to use the XS with one hand, so it might be worth trying out the XS Max in store, before committing your life savings to owning one.

iPhone XS vs XR

Apple also debuted the iPhone XR with the XS. The XR is now the cheapest new model in the iPhone line-up, starting at $749.

It features a lot of the same tech, only really losing out to the iPhone XS’ screen and dual-cameras. It makes do with a lower-resolution LCD display and a single rear camera.

However, you get the same processor and camera software. It should stand the test of time, just like the XS. If you want an incredible new iPhone, and don’t mind having a great, but not class-leading camera, or don’t intend to watch a lot of films or TV shows that need the XS Max screen, we’d opt for the XR.

iPhone XS vs X

But, what if you already own an iPhone X? Should you bother with the upgrade? Simple answer – no.

In truth, it’s difficult to suggest a compelling reason to buy the XS if you already have the X.

Sure, there are lots of incremental updates and improvements, but not enough to make it stand head-and-shoulders above its predecessor. The new camera tech is neat, sure. The processor sees it perform better in the most testing situations – but you won’t notice the difference when texting, browsing or emailing.

Even the battery life improvements are a mixed bag – it lasts 30 minutes longer overall than the iPhone X, but the you get an hour less of talk time and an hour more of video playback. All told, we’d probably wait for the next iPhone to upgrade.

iPhone XS Verdict

The iPhone XS is, objectively, a fantastic phone. It has excellent cameras, powers through tasks with speed, has an impressive battery life, is beautifully made from high-quality materials, and has advanced machine learning and unparalleled AR features. It’s not just a phone – it’s a glimpse into the future of phones.

However, when compared to its rivals within the Apple lineup, it’s difficult to recommend the XS over all others. For 10% more cost, you get a whole lot more screen on the XS Max. For 25% less cost, you get a phone of very similar caliber in the iPhone XR.

Still, if you’re in the market for a new phone, you’d be hard-pressed to find one from another manufacturer that is truly better than the new iPhone XS.