iPhone XS review
This is a 'tock' year for the iPhone (or, in Apple lingo, an 'S' update) and many of us expected a relatively quiet and minor refresh for 2018 after the fireworks of 2017's iPhone X.
Of course, Apple doesn't really do quiet phone launches, and two of its late-2018 newbies are fascinating: if nothing else the XS Max and XR have enormous screens (the biggest and second-biggest Apple's ever offered) and the latter's price tag offers a comparatively affordable entry point to the new generation of all-screen iPhones.
But where does that leave the third new handset, the iPhone XS? Rather outshone. Physically, it's the same design as the iPhone X, and the 5.8in edge-to-edge screen that looked so fancy last autumn has now got bigger (and in one case cheaper) alternatives to compete with.
The iPhone XS, then, is not this year's glamour update. But you know what? Glamour is overrated. And in this review, covering the XS's design, new camera features, speed testing, pricing and more, we're going to argue that this is a terrific choice for those upgrading from an iPhone 6s Plus or 7s Plus.
If you'd like to see the device compared to one of its biggest rivals, see Google Pixel 3 vs iPhone XS.
iPhone XS: Price & Availability
Don't let comparisons with the (truly eye-watering) XS Max fool you: the XS is a seriously expensive phone in its own right. It starts at a cool grand and you can spend more on it than a MacBook if you get the highest storage capacity.
- iPhone XS (64GB): £999/$999
- iPhone XS (256GB): £1,149/$1,149
- iPhone XS (512GB): £1,349/$1,349
The iPhone XS is in most respects physically identical to the X from last year. That will make X owners less likely to upgrade, but for the rest of us it shouldn't be taken as a criticism: the X was a beautiful and convenient device to hold, use and look at, and the same things are true of its successor. The phone is slim, lightweight and cleanly designed: it's all about the screen, and the rest of the hardware gets out of the way.
There's no Home button, and almost no bezel around the edge of the display: this is a nearly all-screen handset. Compared to older-style phones, you're getting far more screen for your chassis volume/weight, although there is a payoff in no longer having access to a hardware button, and therefore having to learn new gestures for many common functions, from screenshots (easy - now it's the side button and volume up) to Reachability (really fiddly - swipe down on the gesture bar).
In a lot of ways the XS makes most sense as an upgrade model from the 6s Plus or 7 Plus. It's a fair bit smaller than those devices, but in the same ballpark; it has a bigger screen that those devices, but again it's in the same ballpark. Size-wise, the transition is smooth. You just have more space in your pocket, more space on screen, without really being conscious of it.
The rear of the XS, as on all of the iPhones released in 2017, is made of glass, thereby enabling wireless charging. But Apple tells us the glass has been reinforced, and is now less prone to cracking and scratching. We haven't tested our samples to destruction just yet but can at least report that we haven't noticed any scratches in our first week of use - then again, the same was true of iPhones we've used in the past.
It's worth noting that although the design is almost identical, some X cases might not fit the XS. Check our round up of the best iPhone XS cases to make sure you get one that does.
Water and dust resistance
We're also, for that matter, reluctant to examine too closely Apple's claim that the XS is dust- and water-resistant to the (effectively maximum) IP rating of IP68, up from IP67 on the iPhone X. (The firm boasts, indeed, that you don't even need to worry about spills from tea, coffee and fruit juice.) But we're inclined to take the company's word for it, since it seems that it may have been underreporting its devices' capabilities in this area. We've heard numerous anecdotes of submerged iPhones (various models) coping better than expected according to their ratings, and none at all of them coping worse.
Early teardowns suggest little has changed this time around in terms of internal sealing, and our sense is that the firm simply prefers not to make claims until it is absolutely certain it can back them. The iPhone X was probably IP68 too, in other words, but if anyone asks we didn't tell you that.
The last physical change is that there's a new gold finish that wasn't available on the X last year. That's on top of the silver and Space Grey options.
As you can see in our photos, it's a fairly subdued gold, but has the faintest touch of pink on the back. And while the sheer shininess of the band may put off some (Space Grey is much less blingy), we rather like it.
iPhone XS: Specs & Features
An 'S' model typically means the same design as last year, but with some hardware upgrades instead. But is the XS really that different to the X?
It feels apt to begin with the screen, since that dominates the device so utterly, but be warned that here too not much has changed from the X. Once again, that isn't a bad thing (unless you're looking for reasons to justify an upgrade from 2017's flagship), since it's an excellent display.
It's a 5.8in OLED screen at a resolution of 2436 x 1125 and a pixel density of 458ppi, and while those figures can be bettered by other phones out there (including the XS Max, of course), they're quite good enough to be going along with.
The screen is big enough for comfortable immersion in games and films - the notch can disrupt this a little, although we found we learned to zone it out quite early on - while the OLED technology means richer blacks and better colour fidelity at wide viewing angles (as well as improved power efficiency). The picture is bright and sharp, and the colours vivid and accurate.
Colour reproduction will be aided by the inclusion of True Tone (again, as on the X), which adjusts screen output to account for environmental lighting conditions.
And finally, Apple has retained its 3D Touch tech so you can hard-press on app icons to access quick function shortcuts and on emails and web links to see a preview - even though the omission of 3D Touch on the still-relatively-expensive iPhone XR hints that the company might no longer be fully committed to the concept.
The iPhone XS is a fast and powerfully specced smartphone, and we should say before we start that it is vastly faster than necessary to run any and all of the apps on the App Store, and that real-life use (thanks partly to the smooth efficiency of iOS 12) is almost impossibly slick. All that's in question is future-proofing - how long is the XS likely to last before we begin to notice a slowdown?
A good while, we'd say.
The XS has a new (Apple-designed) A12 Bionic processor chip with six CPU cores and what Apple calls the Neural Engine, backed up by 4GB of RAM (up from 3GB RAM in the X and 8 Plus, and 2GB in the 8). The latter might not sound much, and Android phones often include 6GB or even 8GB, but Apple's optimisation between its phones and their iOS software is so slick that it can get by with less without compromising on performance.
You can choose from 64, 256 or 512GB of storage with, as usual, no option to add more with an SD card.
Apple keeps mum about the precise specs of its chips (even the RAM is not announced officially) so the best way to assess those numbers is to put the XS through our rigorous battery of lab tests.
We began by assessing general processing speed in Geekbench 4's CPU benchmark: the XS averaged 4,815 points in single-core and 11,082 in multicore. The latter is up 6 percent from the iPhone 8 Plus, which scored 10,456 (once we updated it to iOS 12 to make the comparison fair).
Finally we moved on to graphics performance, where we hope for great things: the GPU in the A12 has four cores, compared to three in the A11.
Across GFXBench Metal's four longstanding onscreen tests (T-Rex/Manhattan/Manhattan 3.1 and Car Chase), the XS recorded scores of 60/58/49/32fps - extremely solid efforts throughout - while the new Aztec Ruins test saw scores of 40 and 25fps in Normal and High. It produces playable framerates in even the most demanding graphical tests.
However! While impressive, this does not appear to be noticeably better than the previous generation. For comparison, our (iOS 12) 8 Plus scored 60/58/54/32/39/28fps across the six tests, although having a lower-res screen would usually give it a small advantage. And we actually saw higher scores when we tested the XS Max, which has the same GPU as the XS plus a higher-res screen.
What's happened to our extra core of performance?
Macworld US made similar findings with the 3DMark benchmark, which showed almost no improvement in graphical performance using the high-end Sling Shot test. Our colleagues theorise that the large assets of high-stress graphics tests mean memory bandwidth and cache are the bottleneck, rather than GPU performance. Sure enough, the simpler Ice Storm Unlimited test showed an 18 percent improvement compared to the X.
The XS's cameras are largely the same as on the X: the front lens remains 7Mp with an aperture of f/2.2; the dual 12Mp rear lenses are f/1.8 (wide-angle) and f/2.4 (telephoto). Optical zoom still tops out at 2x, and there's dual OIS (optical image stabilisation) and 4K video at up to 60fps.
It's a terrific photographic setup, and our standard test shot of St Pancras shows good detail and faithful colour reproduction. That's what we expect from iPhone cameras these days.
Also as on the X, you get Portrait Mode on the front-facing camera, thanks to the TrueDepth camera used for Face ID. We find this messier around the edges than the quite crisp bokeh effect you get from the rear cameras, but selfie shots taken in standard mode are good.
(We didn't notice this in our testing, but there have been complaints that the selfie camera on the XS applies an excessive 'smoothing' beauty filter in order to appeal to the Asian market. The company says it's now working on a fix, but it didn't strike us as a significant issue.)
In terms of major changes, Apple says, a little vaguely, that the pixels are deeper and larger for better image fidelity and low-light performance. Sure enough, a heavy zoom on our standard low-light test shot revealed a cleaner, smoother image with less noise. (Something appears to have been lost in colour fidelity, however; the X has got closer to the correct yellow of this novelty case.)
But most of the changes are to do with the intelligent processing made possible by the Neural Engine mentioned earlier. This gives benefits when shooting in complex lighting conditions.
Having the subject's face in shadow and a bright light source behind, for example, would ordinarily be a recipe for disaster, but the device's new Smart HDR mode is much cleverer about assessing the varied conditions and applying the correct settings where appropriate: our tests confirmed that the XS is capable of showing unexpectedly detailed shadowy areas and bright lighting in the same shot.
In the below shot, for example, the sun is peeping through the branches of the tree so directly that we're getting lens flare, but we can still make out good detail on the shadowed leaves.
These are improvements that will happen behind the scenes - in classic Apple style - and lead to better photos without your necessarily knowing why. But one aspect of the XS's clever image processing calls for more of your input.
If you take an image using Portrait Mode, it's now possible to adjust the degree of bokeh (depth effect or in simple terms, blur) afterwards. Open the shot in Pictures and hit the Edit button, and you'll now see the option to fine-tune the focal length from f/1.4 up to f/16, the blurring effect adjusting in real time as you do so.
What you can't do is add bokeh retrospectively to shots that were not taken in Portrait Mode, so you still need to plan ahead. But it's nice to have more control over this highly artistic - and therefore subjective - effect.
The XS comes with a 2,658mAh battery, which is a little smaller than the 2,716mAh one you'll find inside the X. Yet, thanks to the improved power efficiency of the A12 chip, Apple claims it'll last 30 minutes longer. The estimates are 12 hours of internet use and 14 hours of wireless video playback.
Our subjective experiences were decent enough: following a full charge, a lightish day's usage left it on 54 percent at bedtime, and we didn't feel we were having to top it up a lot.
But the phone's performance in a formal battery test wasn't so great. In Geekbench 4 it lasted just 4h 47m, scoring 2,853; Samsung's Note 9 lasted 7h 27m on the same test, albeit using a much larger (4,000mAh) capacity.
Now, don't panic. First, remember that this is a stress test, and not representative of the times you should expect in real-world use. And at risk of venturing into fanboy territory, it could be argued that tests of this type aren't entirely fair to iPhones, which tend to have smaller cells yet achieve decent real-world battery life thanks to iOS's efficiency. But we're still a little disappointed the XS didn't do better.
The XS is capable of wireless charging although as with other Apple handsets you'll need to buy a wireless charging pad separately - we're still waiting on AirPower and no third-party accessory is bundled. This feature is convenient but not super fast; even after the boost added in the iOS 11.2 update Apple devices are limited to 7.5W (it was just 5W before that), compared with up to 15W on Samsung handsets.
Connectivity & Audio
As well as the expected Bluetooth 5.0, the iPhone XS offers Gigabit LTE, which Apple has been surprisingly reluctant to hype up, reflecting that it is not yet offered very widely. But if you can find coverage it will yield far higher connection speeds than on the X.
You also get dual SIMs, but note that this is not offered by means of twin hardware trays. Instead you get a single SIM tray plus eSIM functionality, and Apple told us you could even have multiple eSIMs on top of the hardware SIM.
Finally, the XS has stereo speakers as on previous devices but Apple says these have been tweaked for a 'wider' effect - the stereo effect is more pronounced than in past generations when subjects move from one side to another of a recorded video, for instance.
- iOS 12
- A12 Bionic processor chip with Neural Engine
- 4GB RAM
- 64GB/256GB/512GB storage
- 5.8in (2436 x 1125, 19.5:9, 458ppi) 'Super Retina HD' OLED screen, 625cd/m2, True Tone, 3D Touch
- Dual (f/1.8 wide-angle and f/2.4 telephoto) 12Mp rear-facing camera, True Tone flash, 2x optical zoom, dual OIS, 4K video at up to 60fps, slo-mo at 1080p at up to 240fps, Portrait Mode, Portrait Lighting
- 7Mp front-facing camera, f/2.2, Retina Flash, 1080p video at up to 60fps, Portrait Mode, Portrait Lighting, Animoji/Memoji
- 2,658 mAh battery; up to 12 hours internet use (claimed); fast charge up to 50% charge in 30 minutes (claimed)
- Stereo speakers
- IP68 water- and dust-resistant
- Face ID
- Gigabit LTE, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC
- 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7mm
iPhone XS: Software & Apps
The XS is based on iOS, and if you buy now it will come with iOS 12.0 pre-installed. It will be able to install free iOS updates for the foreseeable future; the iPhone 5s is still receiving updates five years on from its launch.
iOS 12 was unofficially billed ahead of launch as a stability upgrade, and sure enough it runs exceptionally smoothly and gives all compatible phones and tablets a speed bump compared to iOS 11. (That's considerably more noticeable on older hardware, of course.) Nevertheless, it still found space to include a number of significant new features such as smart photo search, custom 'Memoji', Screen Time and group FaceTime conversations - although the latter has been pushed back to an update later in 2018.
iOS is in general a secure and user-friendly OS, with a huge library of apps. Android has an even huger library, mind you, although entrants to Apple's store are subject to a more rigorous vetting procedure, and this, combined with the difficulty of installing apps from unofficial sources, means it is extremely rare for an iPhone owner to find their device infected with malware.
It's rare for an Android owner too, to be fair, but not quite as rare.
The XS Max is bigger, the XR is cheaper, and the X is largely the same and came out a year ago. Why would anyone buy the iPhone XS?
Because it's the sweet spot. It might feel like a boring choice by comparison with the headline grabbers, but if budget allows it's the model that will make most sense for a lot of people.
As with the X, you get a big, bright, 3D Touch-equipped OLED screen within a superbly portable chassis - it's big but not too big. You also get a dual camera, which the XR can't match.
And you can now add a speed bump (albeit quite a small one), better future-proofing and a far smarter camera setup - we love being able to adjust the bokeh effect of Portrait Mode shots afterwards, and camera performance is demonstrably better under various types of difficult lighting. That's without even mentioning water resistance, which may be better... or may only now be getting the credit it deserved last year.
The XS is super-fast, looks wonderful, and is a pleasure to use. The only downer is that punishing price tag, but if you can look past that, this is a terrific choice for those upgrading from a pre-X iPhone, and particularly (in our view) from one of the older Plus models like the 7 or 6s.
Tock updates are underrated, in our opinion. Radical launches like the iPhone X get all the attention but it's often the next instalment that consolidates the new features into a more rounded, reliable package.