Glowing and glamorous, the Apple iPhone XS ($ 999) aims to be the sweet spot for iPhones this year. But while it’s certainly an excellent phone, I find it to be the least distinguished of Apple’s 2018 lineup. If the XS stood alone, I’d be judging it more highly. But it doesn’t. I see where it fits in: The XS has a 2X zoom camera and an OLED screen, and it’s not quite as big as the XS Max. But the Max is a bigger leap forward from previous iPhones in the Plus family, and a more striking device all around. Ultimately, I feel most people will want to pay an extra $ 100 for the iPhone XS Max, or save $ 250 on the iPhone XR.
There’s No Small iPhone Anymore
At 5.65 by 2.79 by 0.30 inches (HWD), the iPhone XS is almost the exact same size as the iPhone X. Like the X, the design is basically a glass sandwich around metal. It has an edge-to-edge 5.8-inch, 19.5:9 OLED screen with the infamous notch at the top. I’m happy to see Apple finally getting rid of its gigantic bezels, but at 2.79 inches wide, the XS is 0.14-inch wider than the iPhone 6/7/8 and just about at the borderline of what most people consider to be a one-handed phone. The XR is even wider. (For more on the size of the new iPhones, check out our story in which we do the math.)
The XS isn’t designed exactly like the X, though. In addition to silver and space gray, it also comes in gold. The new 4×4 MIMO antennas forced Apple to slightly move the camera bump, which means many X cases and accessories will not fit on the new XS. I tried the Olloclip Mobile Photography Set for the iPhone X, for instance, and found that it did not align properly with the XS cameras. Speck cases, on the other hand, work on both the X and the XS.
The phone also no longer ships with a Lightning-to-headphone dongle. This made some of my testing more annoying, but I can’t get too worked up about it because the dongle only costs $ 9.
The AMOLED screen is the same size as the iPhone X’s, but it’s both brighter and has better color accuracy. We’re currently waiting for test results from Dr. Ray Soneira at DisplayMate Labs, and we’ll update this review when we get them. But initial looks have the XS in the running with the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 for the brightest, most accurate, and least reflective screen available.
Apple says the iPhone XS’s new glass is tougher than previous glass, so it’s less likely to crack. The phone is also IP68 rated for water resistance at up to 6 feet in depth. We can confirm that the XS held up just fine after half an hour in water. Testing this led to a pleasant surprise: The screen works better than competing phones when it’s wet. For most phones, if you’re trying to type on a wet screen, the keyboard will go a little haywire. The XS performed perfectly well with a wet screen, which Apple confirmed is a new feature on this year’s devices.
The phone’s 2,659mAh battery is slightly smaller than the iPhone X’s 2,716mAh cell, but the XS more than makes up for the gap with a more power-efficient processor and radio. Especially on LTE, 4×4 MIMO really reduces the amount of power needed to eke out a signal. Unfortunately, my battery tests haven’t completed yet, but I got 9 hours, 50 minutes of video streaming over Wi-Fi with the iPhone XS Max, and Apple says the XS has slightly less battery life. That puts it in full-day range, but short of the Galaxy Note 9. I’ll update this review when I have a battery result.
Apple includes the same slow-charging 5W power adapter it always does with its
There’s a new twist, though—literally. For wireless charging, Apple says it has tightened the coils in the phone so it wirelessly charges faster than previous models. That requires a 7.5W wireless charger, though. We only had 5W wireless chargers in
Apple’s new A12 processor is, CPU-wise, the fastest handheld device processor available. It scores about 15 percent better than the A11 did on Geekbench benchmarks, which measure hard-core CPU math. It just crushes the Snapdragon 845 on Geekbench, although on the more realistic Antutu benchmark, which tests UI elements too, it’s only about 6 percent faster than the Galaxy Note 9.
You definitely see major improvements on graphics benchmarks as well. We averaged 43fps in the GFXBench Car Crash offscreen benchmark, which just cranks the GPU without taking screen resolution into account. Compare that with 35fps on the Galaxy Note 9, 25fps on the iPhone 8, and 18fps on the iPhone 6s. Because of the much higher screen resolution than iPhone 8, though (2,436-by-1,125 vs. 1,334-by-750), you actually get higher apparent frame rates in onscreen benchmarks on the 8. The XS is delivering 60 percent better GPU power, but it’s pushing 2.7 times as many pixels as on the iPhone 8’s screen.
The most impressive part of the new processor is the hardest to test. Apple has massively improved the Neural Engine, a part of the chip dedicated to AI and machine learning tasks (basically, matrix math), bumping it from two cores to eight. Standard benchmarks don’t tend to test NPUs, so we turned to AIMark, a dedicated benchmark for things like object identification in scenes. The results were stunning: The XS got 3,320, triple the 1,206 score of the Galaxy Note 9. If anyone can figure out what to use the Neural Engine for, it’ll really set the XS apart.
You also can’t discount the effect of Apple’s tight hardware-software integration on performance. In the browser-based Basemark Web benchmark, iPhones tend to utterly smoke Android phones—the XS scored 532 to the iPhone 8’s 385, the Galaxy Note 9’s 265, and the OnePlus 6‘s 295. Those latest Android phones performed more like the iPhone 6s, which scored 244. That has to do with how utterly integrated and accelerated Safari on iOS is versus Chrome on Android.
The A12 also increases available storage. The iPhone XS comes in 64GB, 256GB, and a new 512GB model, with built-in software taking up about 8GB. There’s no removable storage, but that’s a lot of space.
Why do you need so much storage? Well, if you’re recording 4K video at 60fps, you’re running at 400MB per minute, or 24GB per hour. Honestly, I can’t figure out the math to justify having 512GB in a phone. But if you insist, knock yourself out.
For the first time in years, there is one iPhone model for North America. That means any iPhone bought will work on any US or Canadian carrier, unlike with previous models, where AT&T and T-Mobile phones often had trouble with Sprint and Verizon. It’s worth noting that this is the first iPhone to support T-Mobile’s new Band 71, for rural coverage, and the first iPhone to support LAA, for additional speed in dense urban settings on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
Globally, there are four different regional versions of the XS, with slightly different LTE bands. They’ll all roam globally, but they’re each best for primary use in the countries where they’re sold. (We have a full rundown of the differences here.)
The iPhone XS is a great leap forward from the iPhone 8 and X in LTE capabilities. The key is 4×4 MIMO, which uses four antennas rather than two to improve signal strength and speeds. We’ll test that further in the weeks to come, but in our experience with other devices, 4×4 has had very dramatic effects on LTE performance. Take a look at the charts in our Fastest Mobile Networks story comparing iPhones with Galaxy phones and notice that even the Galaxy S8 was, on average, faster than the iPhone X: That’s 4×4 MIMO.
The really radical innovation here isn’t active on our test phone as of this writing. That’s the iPhone’s new eSIM, dual-SIM capability. Less than 5 percent of Americans carry dual-SIM
For now, all iPhones will ship with a physical SIM from their associated carrier. If your phone isn’t locked (only AT&T still locks phones nowadays), you’ll be able to add a secondary subscription using the settings menu in the future.
You’ll also be able to transition the eSIM into being your primary SIM, which means you can switch primary carriers for your phone much more easily than if you had to go to a store and get a new SIM card. That could be pretty exciting if you’re looking to switch carriers to take advantage of lower rates.
With two subscriptions active, you can use both for phone calls and SMS. You have to pick one to use for data, and one to use for iMessage.
Voice call quality is excellent, and the top and bottom dual speakers (for calls and other audio) are plenty loud. The iPhone XS, XS Max, and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 all delivered about 82dB at a 6-inch distance when we called a recorded conversation line. The dual speakers on the iPhones deliver an expanded sound field, though, with audio seeming like it’s coming from farther away around the phone. That’s pretty neat, especially if you play music on the phone’s speaker a lot.
Like the iPhone 8 and X, but unlike previous iPhones, the XS supports the EVS voice encoding system for higher-quality calls. (For more on that, see our feature here.) If you’re upgrading from an iPhone 7 or below, and you primarily call other EVS-capable phones on the same carrier, you’ll get very noticeably better sound quality than previously.
For Wi-Fi, the XS proved to be on par with the Galaxy Note 9 and other top smartphones in testing.
The Most Popular Camera
It used to be that I reviewed iPhones in cooperation with Tim Gideon, our audio analyst. The iPhone was a phone, plus a handheld computer, plus an iPod, after all. I don’t think that’s really the case anymore. The iPhone is now a handheld computer, plus a camera, so I turned it over to our senior camera analyst, Jim Fisher, to test it.
The iPhone XS and XS Max use the same dual-lens rear camera system. Last year, when the 8 Plus and X were announced, Apple made a big deal about a larger image sensor. Our testing, along with iFixit’s X-rays, showed that, if the sensor was indeed larger, it was only minimally so.
Apple made a smaller deal about a larger sensor this time
The question on everyone’s mind is the same as it is with every phone: Is the iPhone XS better in low light? The sensor is, without question. It manages to capture images with crisp detail and little noise through ISO 100. That’s not a high number if you’re talking about a full-frame camera, but for a phone? It’s up there with the best we’ve tested, negating the one-stop advantage the Galaxy S9+ showed over last year’s iPhones in our testing.
The secondary 2x sensor performs a little bit better than the same as the one on the iPhone X. It’s about a half-stop sharper to my eye at lower
You shouldn’t worry too much about its high ISO performance, as the iPhone automatically switches to the brighter, wider lens and applies digital zoom in dim light. If you use a third-party camera app you can force the phone to use the 2x lens in any sort of light. We used the Moment app for testing as it supports Raw capture and manual ISO control, both of which are missing from Apple’s baked-in Camera app.
Improvements to the image sensor are good news for iPhone owners, but they don’t tell the entirety of the camera story. A lot of the new stuff happens behind the scenes in software. The A12 Bionic processor (explained in more detail in the next section) allows the camera to do a lot of cool computational photography tricks.
Portrait Mode is included, of course, and now you can adjust the level of blur. Oddly enough, Apple has used an f-stop scale to show you the effect in the interface. That’s something which is intuitive to
HDR now works in conjunction with Portrait Mode, so the buildings behind the Buckingham Palace Guard statue aren’t blown out like they are on the iPhone 8 Plus. It’s a subtle difference, but one that can make images more pleasing to the eye.
I also found an improvement when using Portrait Mode in dim lighting. I was able to snap a shot of my lunch with the iPhone XS Max, while I simply couldn’t get it with the iPhone 8 Plus. The older handset kept telling me that I was too close, and when I backed up a bit the phone said I should keep my subject within 8 feet of the lens.
This has been a frustration point throughout the time I’ve used the iPhone 8 Plus as my daily driver. I’m glad to see it work a bit better in dim light, but I do think Apple could go further. The forthcoming iPhone XR is able to shoot images with background blur using its single, wide-angle lens, just like the Google Pixel 2. I’d love to see this option added to the XS family, assuming Apple is able to sidestep the distance frustration by eschewing the dual-camera mechanism. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, if you want wide portraits with blurred-out backgrounds, you’ll need to nab a Pixel
On the front, the XS has a sharp 7-megapixel camera that also allows you to adjust bokeh after the fact, thanks to the infrared depth sensors used for Face ID.
A Unique OS
The iPhone XS, of course, runs iOS 12. We have a full review of iOS 12 that’s long and in depth. In short, some of the big advances over iOS 11 are useful content controls and screen-time monitoring for parents and to prevent device overuse; in general, faster performance in almost everything; and (perpetually) improved augmented reality capabilities. The biggest disappointment is Siri, which really falls down in capabilities and comprehension compared with Google Assistant.
Otherwise, there’s very little in iOS 12, other than things covered elsewhere in this review, that needs an iPhone XS/XR. There’s the occasional third-party app that uses the front-facing, depth-sensing camera, but there aren’t that many. iOS is a reason to get an iPhone, absolutely, but it’s not necessarily a reason to get this iPhone specifically.
As the year rolls on, though, there’s a good chance that we’ll start seeing augmented reality and smart camera apps that use Apple’s
The most dramatic app at Apple’s launch event, HomeCourt, which analyzes basketball shots, is prime territory for A12 acceleration. Multiplayer augmented reality games that use an iOS 12 feature linking several iPhones will also probably work better on the new phones.
Should You Upgrade to the iPhone XS?
Apple’s 2018 iPhones have a lot in common, and a lot that’s impressive about them. They all have better cameras than last year’s models, a faster processor, better audio, better LTE networking, and dual-SIM capability. None of them have any real deal
Apple does not intend for you to get a new iPhone every year. That’s not the way iPhones have been designed since the transition from the iPhone 6 to the 6s. If you have an iPhone X, the iPhone XS has some advantages over the X. But unless you really need the dual-SIM capability, which is the one really disruptive thing here, we can’t justify making you spend $ 1,000 again.
The iPhone XS falls in the middle of a crowded iPhone lineup. It’s supposed to be the midrange crowd-pleaser, but I think this year it’s suffering from
If you’re coming from an iPhone 7 or earlier, there is great power here. The XS has a faster processor, a nicer screen, better cameras, clearer call quality, faster LTE, dual SIMs…it’s a lot. It’s a big jump, but you’re also going to get a lot of those advantages (except for the second main camera and the OLED screen) from the iPhone XR for $ 250 less. I can’t recommend that one yet because I haven’t tested it, but I’d say hold off until the reviews start coming out.
If you want a smaller iPhone, Apple is keeping the iPhone 7 and 8 on the market. The 8, especially, is a fine phone with plenty of life left in it, and $ 599 is a solid price for it. We recommended the iPhone 7 to a lot of people last year because it was powerful and less astronomically priced than the new iPhones. We’re happy to do the same with the 8 this year.
We have a separate review of the iPhone XS Max, but iPhone Plus owners looking to upgrade should definitely go with that phone. The iPhone Plus form factor wastes a huge amount of real estate on giant bezels. The iPhone XS Max reclaims all of that space for actual use, offering you massively more real estate in the same size package—and massive real estate is probably why you bought the Plus, right?
The iPhone XS is a good phone, but I’m not awarding it our Editors’ Choice. As I said at the beginning of this review, I think that with the 8, the XR, and the XS Max in Apple’s lineup, the XS is in a less appealing place than some of the others. That means the XS Max is our Editors’ Choice, and I’m very much looking forward to testing the XR when it comes out in October.