Apple iPhone XS First Impressions

Posted on September 23, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in iOS with 51 Comments

As was the case for many others, my iPhone XS arrived on Friday. But I held off on this article so I could surprise Brad. And get reacquainted with the iPhone.

So far, nothing major stands out: The iPhone XS is identical to its predecessor, the original iPhone X, from a design perspective. And the internal changes don’t appear to result in any major advances. This is very much an “S year” upgrade.

Which is fine: The iPhone XS, like its predecessor, is an absolutely stunning handset, with its stainless steel and glass body, and a gorgeous OLED display. I grabbed the new gold color—Apple only offers silver (white) and space gray (black) last year—and it’s one of the prettiest devices I’ve ever seen.

It’s also just as crazy expensive as the original iPhone X, with prices starting at $999 for a handset with 64 GB of storage. And it comes with most of the same design compromises, including its overly-large notch and its reliance on Face ID rather than a fingerprint reader.

So let’s discuss the big negatives first.

The cost of the phone is well understood: $999 for the base model, or $1150 for a version with 256 GB of storage. (There’s a 512 GB version too, for a whopping $1349.) But here’s my gripe: Apple should make a version with 128 GB of storage, and if you split the difference, that version would cost $1075. Not doing so is a basic money grab, and Apple should be embarrassed by that. (Oddly, Apple does offer this mid-tier storage option on its cheaper iPhone XR, which won’t be available for sale until next month.)

The notch was controversial in 2017. But a year later, most phone vendors, with the prominent exception of Samsung have or will adopt a similar cutout as a way to achieve an otherwise edge-to-edge display. But Apple’s notch is huge, and takes up about 60 percent of the width of the top edge of the display. Many Android phones have much smaller notches, making it easier to get used to the occlusion; over time it just seems to disappear.

My God, that notch!

Not so with the iPhone XS notch, though I know I’ll hear from some iPhone X/XS owners who feel differently. But here’s the thing: Even Apple knows its notch is too large, which you can tell by the stock wallpapers it uses on these handsets. The area around notch is black, making the notch essentially invisible. This is true in Apple’s advertising, but it’s also true in real life. Until you open an app, of course.

The default wallpaper for iPhone XS is designed to hide the notch.

(And you know Apple will be cheered for making a smaller notch on next year’s iPhone 11. And that they likewise held off on doing that now because the XS is, after all, an “S year” phone. No major changes for you!)

Even the iPhone XS documentation has a notch!

Apple said during the iPhone XS introduction that Face ID was “faster” this year, but it didn’t say how much faster. I still don’t like (or even trust) Face ID, and would much rather use a fingerprint reader on the back of the device. But the biggest issue isn’t the speed at which the iPhone XS recognizes your face. That actually does happen pretty quickly. It’s that it doing so doesn’t mean you’ve signed in. You still need to swipe up on the display to get to the home screen or whatever app you were previously using. On Android, when you sign in with your face, you’ve really signed in, and there’s no additional work required to actually use the handset.

OK, I had to get the really bad stuff out of the way. I do have other minor quibbles, of course. But mostly it’s very good news.

Let’s start with the hardware.

The 5.8-inch 2436 x 1125 “Super Retina HD” (ugh) display is to die for, with inky blacks, wide viewing angles, and bright, saturated HDR colors. It also provides True Tone capabilities, which dynamically adjust the warmth of the display to match the lighting in your environment. It’s just … perfect.

Speaking of which, while I tend towards phones with bigger displays—including the iPhone 6/6S/7 Plus, Nexus 6P, Pixel XL, and Pixel 2 XL—I find the size and shape of the iPhone XS’s display to be nearly ideal. And it’s actually about the same size as the Pixel 2 XL display, just the phone itself is smaller. Like other modern smartphones, the iPhone XS has a tall and thin display, in this case with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. You can opt for the bigger iPhone XS Max, but the display is much bigger, at 6.5-inches and a resolution of 2688 x 1242. I decided against that.

Internally, the iPhone XS packs the expected upgrades: A 64-bit A12 Bionic chip with a second-generation Neural Engine, 4 GB of RAM, 64, 256, or 512 GB of storage, improved cellular connectivity with Gigabit-LTE, Qi-compatible wireless charging capabilities, and improved water resistance. Like all modern iPhones, the performance so far has been excellent. No surprises there.

And then there’s the camera.

You know how I feel about smartphone cameras. And the iPhone XS camera is excellent. As was the case with its predecessor, which provided a nearly-identical two-lens camera system, it delivers superior photos that are often as good as, if not better than, those from my Pixel 2 XL.

There are two main differences. Low-light, of course: The Pixel 2 XL is still better overall.

Low-light example: iPhone XS (top) and Pixel 2 XL (bottom).

And those situations in which you wish to manually adjust the light by tapping on-screen in the viewfinder at the part of the view—the sky, perhaps, or a light in a darkened room—that is too bright. The Pixel still handles that much better.

I couldn’t get this one to not be washed-out. The Pixel 2 XL handles this kind of picture easily.

Beyond these special-case scenarios, however, I’ve been impressed by the quality of the iPhone XS photos, and especially by those where I can make a side-by-side comparison with the Pixel 2 XL. So I will continue with these tests, suddenly intrigued.

There are fewer surprises from a software perspective: Though I gave up my iPhone earlier this year, I still use an iPad every day. And I’ve kept two iPads, an iPad mini and an iPad Pro, up-to-date with iOS 12 betas all year so I could anticipate what was coming publicly from Apple this month.

And that’s only interesting for one reason: iOS 12 brings the gesture-based navigation system that was unique to the iPhone X last year to all compatible iOS devices. I described that system, last year, as being almost intuitive. You know, assuming you’d used any multi-touch device before. And it has certainly stood the test of time. It works well on my iPads. And it works well on the iPhone XS, too, of course.

That said, I do miss a few things from Android. On my Pixel 2 XL, it’s very easy to switch between the two most recent apps: You just do a short swipe on the Home “pill” in Android 9 Pie to return to the previous app, and you repeat this quick gesture to return again to the first. In iOS 12, you still need to access App Switcher—a screen of app thumbnails—and then pick the app you want.

(UPDATE: As several readers have pointed out to me, you can in fact quickly switch between the two or more most-recently-used iOS apps using the visible line that appears at the bottom of the screen in place of the Home button. My mistake, and this is one of those things you need to learn (or in my case, relearn) coming from an iOS device with a physical Home button. —Paul)

The iOS 12 password manager is likewise less convenient than the one in Android: Where Android auto-fills passwords in apps just like Chrome does in websites, iOS presents a Passwords button over the keyboard when a password is required, and then you have to go to a second screen—and sign-in with Face ID and then potentially search for the account too—before you can fill the form onscreen. It’s too many steps.

Beyond those two missteps, iOS 12 is a nice refinement over previous iOS versions, and it will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s used previous iPhones (or other iOS devices).

Anyway, when it comes to the iPhone XS overall, my initial advice still applies. Don’t upgrade if you already have an iPhone X. And seriously consider an iPhone XR and save lots of money. I plan to review that iPhone as well.

More soon.


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Comments (51)

51 responses to “Apple iPhone XS First Impressions”

  1. pesos

    Felt exactly the same way about my X - no point in the XS. Happened to be in the mall late in the day on launch day and strolled in to get a look at the gold (not for me personally) and the Max. Then a curious thing happened... Maybe I'm getting older but I really liked the bigger screen. A lot. Ended up walking out with a space grey unlocked 64gb Max (yes it is a ridiculous moneygrab that this device doesn't start at 128, even though 64 is fine for my uses) - very happy with it. The body is basically exactly the same size as an 8+ but it's almost all screen - huge difference.

  2. SherlockHolmes

    My advice: Dont buy one. Everyone who buys a cellphone for a 1000 bucks is out of his mind.

    • wright_is

      In reply to SherlockHolmes:

      Looks like the bugs got at your post. ;-)

      But I agree, 1,000 bucks for a phone is crazy. I really don't see the additional benefit over a mid-range phone running the latest high-end chips. Even the Samsung Galaxy S9 is discounted down to $500 on Amazon.

      • SherlockHolmes

        In reply to wright_is:

        Yeah sorry. It was early in the morning ;-)

        I recently bought a Nokia 7 Plus with Android One. The smartie costs around 400 € and its just fine.

        • overseer

          In reply to SherlockHolmes:

          I've really been wanting that Nokia 7, but as it's not released in US, and the International version doesn't necessarily hit all the bands my carrier here uses I've held off. Still considering it, as I spend the majority of my time under WiFi and don't actually make that many calls or use a lot of data while out and about.

          How has the camera been on that, and the fingerprint reader? Had the 2017 model of the Nokia 6. Camera was not great, and the combination home button/fingerprint reader caused me a lot of grief, but was a $220 phone so hard to criticize too much.

    • ben55124

      In reply to SherlockHolmes:

      Majority of $1000 phone users likely couldn't tell you how much it costs. It's just a line item on their monthly phone service bill which gets paid automatically without inspection. Regardless, $1000 over 2 years is $1.37/day without trade-in. Most would say that's a bargain based on how much they use their phone.

  3. mattbg

    iPhone 7 doesn’t have the same gestures as iPad gets with iOS 12, so it’s not consistent across the board...

  4. markld

    Yikes, 512gb version for 1349$. You were correct to point out a possible 128gb version.

    Wonder?how much it costs them and what the markup is for that Version and it's memory? My guess it costs them 25$ for 512gbs on a volume discount, markup 1400% to 349$, so that's a killing of 324$. It is a wild guess. It's gross anyway you put it.

    Think if you're one that buys the 512gb version, if you have the money fine, but for those that don't and spend that kind of money anyway, please look in the mirror, write these letters on your head: M O R O N

    • wright_is

      In reply to Markld:

      At those sorts of prices, I'd certainly look at cleaning up my device, rather than buying more memory.

      That said, I'm more than happy with the 128GB in my $500 device (Hauwei Mate 10 Pro). With all the Audible books I've listened to so far this year, I've still got 95GB free.

  5. locust infested orchard inc

    Quote by Paul Thurrott, "My God, that notch!"

    I know, tell me about it.

    It epitomises everything about Apple – substandard and exorbitantly priced.

  6. wocowboy

    Switching between two apps could not be easier on the iPhone, just swipe right across the bottom of the screen to move to the last-used app, or keep swiping right to go to the last-used apps in order then you just swipe left/right to go between the two apps you want to use. Simple. No need to find and use a Home icon or "Pill" (since you don't need either one of those in iOS) or swipe up/right/hold or anything, it is way more intuitive this way. I am amazed that Paul doesn't know about this.

  7. ivarh

    Also you dont have to wait for faceid to unlock the phone before swiping up. If you swipe up while picking up the phone you will be taken to the home screen as soon as faceid recognises you.

  8. kzrystof

    I can't help but notice... On the night-dark-shot comparison between the iPhone and the Pixel, was there a freaking plug on the window frame?

  9. m_p_w_84

    The notch is not ideal. But I would suggest if your a 'notch hater' to get the iPhone Max (i just got one), at least in terms of proportion of screen space taken up it's smaller. And to be fair to Face ID; it's actually pretty good.

  10. GT Tecolotecreek

    How in the world is the Pixel lowlight example better? The iPhone has way more detail and the Pixel is very dark. For example, look at the mullions in the window on the right. In the top pic they are clearly visible. You can even see some detail through the window. The bottom photo is just black. Top photo has way more detail where the shades are pulled up, the bottom is too dark. The orange door on the house across the street (on the left) has way more detail. Look at the center of the light fixture it has more detail in the iPhone photo. Color balance is more neutral overall with the iPhone.

  11. ebnador

    Paul, here is another example of Microsoft's ridiculous advertising. I got a new Xs yesterday, and when I connected my hotmail account it didn't sync my contacts, email or calendar. It took me a while to figure out the reason. when I connected the iphone, it put an email in that basically advertised the outlook mobile app. I had to decline the AD to get it finish connecting, and sync my stuff. It was kind of confusing, and I when I searched for the issue I could find anyone reporting on this.

    Just thought I'd add another example for your rand about Microsoft advertising.

  12. Jeffsters

    BTW: a notch on the iPhone is going to be larger than some as there is more there!


    I got my iPhone XS Max on Saturday and think it's the finest device I have ever owned. We took pictures at the local park before my daughter's first homecoming dance ... not a single bad photo. The park is heavily wooded and the sun was low in the sky producing some harsh lighting at times ... but the iPhone XS prevailed. I can't wait to take on some more ambitious projects with the 4K video recording ability ... I just need to find some free time.

    The screen and battery life of the Max are easily worth the extra money and size. But .. truth be told .. it's width and height are actually a bit smaller than my Previous iPhone 7+.

    Apple has done it again.

  14. NT6.1

    No one needs this phone. You can get an iPhone 8 and you'll be fine. Nothing outstanding about iPhone Xs. No groundbreaking design, display, camera or processor.

  15. vigilant

    Paul, you can swipe on the indicator at the bottom to go between two different apps since iPhone X. The feature you like on Android is a copied feature that I’ve used daily for the last year happily.

    Great review otherwise.

  16. badboz66

    For the price of the phone Apple should continue to supply the lighting headphone adapter. For a $1000.00 + phone.

  17. nicola

    Paul, in Order to switch between the current and former open app in ios12, just swipe your finger horizontally over the black bar at the bottom of the screen. It works really well

  18. Minke

    Apple was always high-end, but I really don't see the value of these $1000 phones over say a $650 Pixel 2. In general, a $250 phone can now do everything almost as well as a $1000 phone, except on the photography front. For those of us that find the camera one of the most important features it is beginning to look like it makes more sense to spend $250 on a phone and $650 on a compact camera that won't be obsolete or broken in two years. I do also wonder about Apple leaving behind those who prefer smaller phones. I still see tons of SEs, 6s, 7s, and even 5s in the wild. But, I suspect Apple will continue to sell a lot of new phones since many people are into the status symbol, which you don't get with the $250 phone.

    • curtisspendlove

      In reply to Minke:

      I don’t think most people walk into a store and drop $1000 bucks on the table.

      Most people are looking at websites or plaques in a store showing $35/month.

      This is probably only the American market, not sure how other countries sell.

      But when the price of a phone is $25 vs $35, most people are going to go for the expensive one, if it is the one they want.

      This trend started several years ago and is only getting worse in the tech industry.

      • Minke

        In reply to curtisspendlove: If you buy the base Xs outright from Apple it is something like $50 per month, but I suppose most people in the USA get them with some carrier deal that is highly misleading as to the monthly cost. They get a "deal" on the phone that saves $10 a month by overpaying for their phone service by $30 per month. What a bargain!

        • curtisspendlove

          In reply to Minke:

          I never said it was a bargain. All I said was that most people do it. Most people in America pay insane amounts of money for their mobile plans and phones. Like, “car payment” dollars.

          The thing is, your service still costs the same whether you buy the $25 / month phone or the $35 one. So you might as well buy the iPhone or Galaxy.

          The financial institutions around here are *very* good at what they do.

    • macguy59

      In reply to Minke:

      I see value arguments frequently. Some people seem to think it's just a matter of switching hardware. It's not. Some people find iOS easier to use. For those it's not just about hardware at all. Same applies to macOS vs Windows 10. Had a close friend decide he can get the same hardware for less money (you absolutely can) by buying a Windows 10 laptop. He only lasted 2 weeks, telling me that while he liked the hardware, it created a fundamental change in how he worked. Enough so that he returned it and bought a new MBP.

      • curtisspendlove

        In reply to macguy59:

        Yup. I “try” android every few years to see if I am being stubborn and missing stuff.

        I lasted about 8 months this last time. The X drew me out of my misery.

        I would have called it quits earlier but I didn’t really want to upgrade to an 8 when I knew the X was coming in a few months.

        Regardless this all boils down to choice. Would I be sad if apple released a $350 iPhone.

        Nope. (As long as they still also made a significantly better model.)

        Would I buy it?


        I use my phone frequently, or so Screen Time is fond of telling me. I want to enjoy it.

      • Minke

        In reply to macguy59: If the "value" is there for you, great! Personally, I have used all the major software/hardware ecosystems and they each have their pluses and minuses. After having several expensive Apple products die on me just after the warranties expired, becoming expensive door stops, I have moved on to devices that are easier and cheaper to repair or replace. Personally, almost everything I do and need runs in the cloud now, so I can use almost any device and software to get to my Google account and it operates in almost the same manner whether I am using a Macbook, an iPhone, an Android phone, or some PC running a Linux distro.

  19. thalter

    I just received my XS Max on Friday (upgrading from two-year old iPhone 7 Plus). All I can say is wow, what a difference! I've never seen an image that looks so close to the surface of the glass - like someone put on a sticker to the front of the screen. I'm not sure why everyone is making a big deal about the size. It is actually a few millimeters smaller in length and width than the previous "Plus" models, and is not gargantuan by any stretch of the imagination.

    I'm not sure why the notch gets so much hate: I got used to it in about 30 seconds and honestly don't even notice it. The notch is better than having a full width bezel across the top, and the "ears" can easily fit the clock and various meters, freeing up the rest of the screen for more useful stuff.

    While the password management of IOS 12 might be less convenient, it is more secure (requiring an additional biometric scan), and also allows for the inclusion of third-party password managers (like LastPass and 1Password). The button is necessary to allow you to select which password provider you want to use.

  20. Divodd

    Although I don't yet have a phone in the X family, I like Face ID and dislike Touch ID for the opposite of the reasons Paul prefers touch over face. I want to see my lockscreen and the notifications on it when I pick up my phone to check it, and then be able to press the notification to go straight into the app with no hassle. Touch ID goes straight to the home screen and password unlock is a frustrating hassle, which is why my lock screen has no security to this point. Face ID, though, will provide me the ability to have a lock while still keeping the lock screen functioning in the same way it does with no security, allowing me to go straight to my app without having to pull Notification Center back down. That said, my ideal unlock would be in screen Touch Id, which would identify me as I was pressing the notification to go straight to the app I want, while eliminating the infuriating notch.

    • the_real_entheos

      I don't quite understand what you said, but in android oreo and pie, you can swipe down on the fingerprint reader to show your notification screen after unlocking (you can turn this on/off in a setting)
      In reply to Divodd:

    • wright_is

      In reply to Divodd:

      I had face ID enabled on my 2 Hauweis, it worked very well and very quickly. But I didn't like it that, when I just wanted to glance at the time or messages, it unlocked. Either direct to the home screen / active app or, to an iPhone like intermediate screen that needed swiping, but didn't display time or messages.

      I turned it off and went back to fingerprints and PINs.

      But on the other hand, biometrics are no replacement for a password / PIN. Biometric information is your user ID and not a password replacement.

  21. ChristopherCollins

    FYI, you can swipe between apps via the bottom bar on the screen. No need to go into the app viewer. Just swipe left or right. I can't remember if that was in iOS 11 or not, but I've done it for a while on my X.

  22. Divodd

    In regards to the app switcher, if you pull up and to the right/left on iPhone X series or iPad you can do the same quick gestural switching you can on Android

  23. SeattleMike

    As was the case for many others, my iPhone XS arrived on Friday.”

    And yet, mine is locked away at the local (closed) UPS facility until tomorrow. ?

  24. Hawaiianteg

    Also for auto password input, apple now let’s you use multiple app storing passwords at the same time so you have s choice of using iCloud Keychain or instead you can have 1Password be your default

  25. RobertJasiek

    It is fascinating how different people and their perceptions are: some tolerate the notch immediately, some never. For me, the notch is sufficient reason not to use such a device ever even if I get it for free. A notch is aesthetically so insulting that it hurts. Using devices shall be both useful and joyful.

    • curtisspendlove

      In reply to RobertJasiek:

      As a highly OCD individual (true OCD not just “yeah I don’t like the stapler on my desk”) I assumed my X would go back before the return window last year.

      Now i honestly don’t even see it most of the time. I hardly ever look at the top of the phone. Maybe I’m weird.

  26. Jeffsters

    Paul wrote: “iOS presents a Passwords button over the keyboard when a password is required, and then you have to go to a second screen—and sign-in with Face ID and then potentially search for the account too—before you can fill the form onscreen. It’s too many steps.”

    This is is not entirely correct. When logging in here I get the password suggestion on top of the keyboard for this site. One tap and no other screens neeed. That’s because this site is consistent in how it requests a password. Some sites however have multiple entry points and iOS, when it’s unsure it’s actually the site referenced, won’t show the password meaning the password manager will slide up to search.

    Another new new feature of iOS and passwords is the ability to use another password manager, such as 1Password, instead of Apple’s keychain so those, like Paul, who use non-Apple devices can reference a cross-platform password database.


  27. RossNWirth

    I just upgraded to iOS 12 on my iPad - and the addition of LastPass to password managers is a big step forward - haven't used it much to confirm the actual worfklow, but happy for the functionality - similar to the android functionality, i hope...

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