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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