Apple iPhone XS Review

Posted on October 10, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in iOS with 59 Comments

The expensive iPhone XS offers no major improvements over the iPhone X it replaces, and it comes with a few design quirks. But it is still arguably the single best smartphone on the market today.

And that’s saying something, given the state of the industry. We’re awash in excellent choices at virtually any price point. And there are, of course, certain phones that do particular things better than the iPhone.

But Apple’s biggest strength, I think, is its ability to bring it all together into a complete and cohesive package. This is the “finish the job” thing that Microsoft never seems to get right. And it’s nice to see this attention to detail, especially in the hardware.

So let’s start there.

Design

As an “S year” product, the iPhone XS of course brings forward the design from last year’s iPhone X. Which is just fine: As I noted in my review of that product, the design is ageless, and as much a work of art as it is a carefully-crafted tool. It’s gorgeous.

No, Apple wasn’t the first to market with a tall, thin smartphone design. And it wasn’t the first to use a notch. Likewise, some of its competitors ship smartphones with even smaller bezels, and with much-smaller notches.

But there is something magical about Apple’s use of materials, shapes, and colors. The iPhone XS has a quality I’ve noted before in some other Apple products: You find yourself just staring at it. You almost want to caress it. I’m particularly fond of the gold color, which is new to 2018 and is really a bronze or goldish-brown hue. It’s a shame that you’ll want to hide it in a protective cover. But you will.

Less successful are the notch, which remains overly-large, and the lack of a fingerprint reader, which has necessitated some design quirks.

I’m not sure I’ve ever run into an iPhone X (or, now, XS) user who hasn’t claimed that they get used to the notch. And I guess I buy that: One can get used to anything. But there are much better—and, more important, much smaller—designs than the bus-sized notch that Apple uses here. And I think we all collectively understand that the only reason the notch hasn’t gotten smaller in the XS is that whole S year thing.

The lack of a fingerprint reader may not seem like a design issue. But I mention it here because it represents a design compromise that requires the user to do extra work every single time they sign-in. And many other times, too: Not only do you need to learn new system gestures, but you also need to learn new multi-button shortcuts, like Power + Volume Up for powering off the device.

For all that, the iPhone XS is still a stunner. It’s mostly glass, with stainless steel on the edges and rounded corners. And it’s as beautiful to look at as it is to hold it in your hand.

There is one design curiosity I hadn’t noticed until I reviewed my iPhone X photos from last year: Where the iPhone X had symmetrical holes cut into the bottom of the device on either side of the Lightning port, the XS has three holes on the left (for the microphone) and six on the right (for the right speaker). Mon Dieu! (Part of the reason might be to improve cell reception as there is also a new antenna band on the left side of the Lightning port.)

Display

The iPhone XS’s 5.8-inch OLED display is perhaps the best I’ve ever experienced, with inky blacks and bright, contrasty colors. It hits a resolution of 2436 x 1125, or 458 PPI. It supports both Dolby Vision and HDR10, which makes for some immersive movie viewing (if you can ignore the notch, of course). And with Apple’s excellent True Tone technologies automatically adjusting the white level to suit your environment, there’s just nothing to complain about.

Indeed, I see no reason to upgrade to the bigger XS Max, unless you intend to watch a lot of video, I guess. After years of using larger, phablet-type phones—like the Pixel XL and 2 XL, the Nexus 6P, the Samsung Galaxy S8+ and S9+, and so on—I feel like Apple has arrived at a size sweet spot of sorts. By which I mean, the iPhone XS is considerably smaller than the Pixel 2 XL that I normally use, but the displays are just about the same size. It’s almost perfect.

And the advantage to this design is obvious, as the iPhone XS is easier to use with one hand and is more easily pocketable (something that will be an even bigger concern for smaller people and women).

Hardware and specs

The iPhone XS is powered by Apple’s new A12 Bionic system on a chip. No, I don’t think the gap between Apple’s A-series chips and the rest of the ARM world is a wide as benchmarks suggest. But it is clear to me after several years of using iPhones and Android handsets side-by-side that some combination of Apple’s hardware and software makes the iPhone the most powerful mobile platform on earth. I never burst into an impromptu complaint about the lack of speed when I try to open apps like Camera, as I do routinely with my Google handsets, for example. That this chipset may or may not be advantageous for AR and other nonsense is of little concern to me. It’s fast.

The iPhone XS can be had with 64 GB, 256 GB, or a ludicrous 512 GB of internal storage and, as always, no expansion is available. That gap—of both size and upgrade cost—between 64 GB and 256 GB is unfortunate, as a 128 GB version, not offered, should rightfully be the sweet spot of this product line. (The upcoming iPhone XR will offer a 128 GB upgrade, fortunately.)

The iPhone XS is the first Apple handset to support dual-SIM capabilities, though your experience will vary by region. Here in the U.S., you don’t actually get a dual-SIM tray. Instead, there is Apple’s internal eSIM and then a normal single SIM tray. It’s a big if belated improvement.

I will always mourn the unnecessary loss of the headphone jack. But the stereo speakers are crisp and loud, and among the best I’ve used on a smartphone. The device is also more water resistant than the iPhone XS, but you won’t be going swimming with it. Instead, it should survive any toilet or sink dunking. It’s OK: We’ve all done it.

I haven’t really figured out a way to accurately measure battery life on phones, but I found the iPhone XS to be an able, all-day performer and roughly on-par with my Pixel 2 XL. I can’t imagine not charging a smartphone overnight, so the iPhone XS delivers in real-world performance at least.

Cameras

This will be controversial, but I believe that the iPhone XS has the single best smartphone camera system in the market today. It delivers shots that are of consistently high quality, and with accurate color, and it does so with excellent performance.

There is a fairly pronounced camera bump, if that kind of thing bothers you.

First, a few small complaints.

Optical zoom is still locked at 2X, fully two years after this feature debuted on the iPhone 7 Plus. I’m surprised Apple is moving more quickly in this area.

And you still can’t auto-enable HDR all the time, as I’d prefer. At the firm has improved its capabilities in this area with something called Smart HDR, which works to improve detail in contrasty shots.

Saint-Sulpice fountain: iPhone XS

Saint-Sulpice fountain: Pixel 2 XL

But what the iPhone XS doesn’t do is outperform my Pixel 2 XL in low-light conditions, a fact I’ve proven over and over again in repeated side-by-side tests. But I need to qualify that statement because the iPhone XS probably provides the shots that most users would want, and will grow to expect. And in this way, the XS absolutely outperforms the Samsung Galaxy S9+ (and, presumably, the nearly identical Note 9), while handling low-light photos in a similar fashion, technically.

So what does that mean?

Let’s say you’re in a bar or restaurant, or perhaps are outside at dusk or full night. And you want to take a photo—perhaps of a drink, food, the people, you’re with, or whatever scene—without using that annoying flash, blinding everyone nearby.

Whiskey: iPhone XS

Whiskey: Pixel 2 XL

Since the Nexus 5X/6P from three years ago, Google’s handsets have handled these scenes in a way that I find to be quite satisfying, especially when you use your finger to focus on a light source in the otherwise dark scene. The results are often spectacular, with bright colors, inky darks, and an overall quality that is impossible to duplicate on other smartphone flagships.

Food porn: iPhone XS

Food porn: Pixel 2 XL

That said, what most people want is for the camera to produce a photo that illuminates the subject without introducing noise and without triggering that annoying flash. Samsung’s approach, which I noted in my review of the Galaxy S9+, is unsatisfactory … to me. It lights up the scene, robbing it somewhat of the real-life ambiance. But it does provide the user with a viewable photo of the subject they were trying to shoot. Albeit one with some display noise.

The iPhone XS works similarly, but with better results. There’s less noise, for starters. And the colors are very accurate. Looking at side-by-side low-light photos taken with the Pixel 2 XL and the XS, I consistently see the same thing: The colors in the iPhone photos are more accurate. But I personally prefer the HDR-heavy photos taken by the Pixel 2 XL better.

I’ve shown these side-by-side photos to people like Brad on work trips and to my wife and daughter on our recent trip to Paris. And they have universally agreed with this assessment. The iPhone versions are more accurate to the scene … but the Pixel photos have a “wow” factor that Apple can’t match.

The thing is, most people will never see this kind of comparison. And I feel that anyone who does buy an iPhone XS, especially someone who is upgrading from an older iPhone, will be delighted by its low-light performance. It’s not just that they don’t know any better, though there is something to that. It’s that the iPhone XS photos are, in many cases, literally better because they are more accurate. The Pixel 2 XL’s low-light shots are, in some ways, “better” than reality. I think they look great. But others may find them over-produced, like an Instagram filter gone wild.

Put simply, when it comes time for me to capture memories on a trip—like that Paris trip—I will always turn to the Pixel. The night shots, in particular, are amazing. But if you want to optimize for the every day, the overall quality and speed of the iPhone XS’s camera system cannot be denied. Overall, it really is better. Without the air quotes.

Neat action shot

There’s a lot more to the camera system, but I don’t see a huge need to cover every new feature: Portrait mode still has problems with edges despite some alleged improvements, and the ability to dynamically adjust background blur post-shot is a feature other smartphones have had for years. But I do want to address Beautygate, where the iPhone XS appears to smooth out selfies so that you look younger (or at least more plastic-like) than is the case with other iPhones.

The iPhone XS (right) smooths out wrinkles and makes your skin look smoother

It’s real. I asked Brad, a pathological selfie-taker, to take a selfie of himself with his old iPhone 7 and then again with the iPhone XS, and the smoothing on the latter is obvious. I’ve seen all kinds of excuses/explanations for this behavior—Apple’s fan base retains its hyper-bias—but whatever. It’s real. I would prefer for this to be a mode, not the default.

Security

When Apple controversially moved to Face ID with last year’s iPhone X, I complained that it wasn’t as fast or accurate as the Touch ID-based Home button that the firm dropped. This year, I have the same observations: It is slow and awkward and doesn’t work as well as the solution it replaces in most situations.

The awkward bit refers to the additional swipe that is required when you authenticate yourself to the phone: As you bring the iPhone up to your face, Face ID recognizes you—hopefully; reliability is spotty at times—and a locked icon on the screen changes to an unlocked icon. But you’re not logged in yet: You also have to do a full swipe up on the screen first.

This is more tedious than the way I unlock phones like the Google Pixel XL, OnePlus 6, or Samsung Galaxy S9+, where I can simply bring the phone up to my face as my finger rests on the back-mounted fingerprint reader. Voila, there is no extra step.

Some iPhone fans have told me that Face ID is preferable in certain situations as, for example, when you’re wearing gloves. But there is no reason for Apple not to support both sign-in methods as many Android vendors have done. Other than Apple being Apple.

Is this new system “more secure”? Apple claims that it is. But as with Microsoft’s security (and reliability and battery life claims for Windows 10 in S mode), we’ll have to take their word for it.

Software

The iPhone XS ships with iOS 12 and Apple’s stable of productivity and creative apps. What it doesn’t come with is the rampant crapware that we see on many Android devices and in Windows 10.

I like iOS 12 quite a bit. The performance and reliability are rock-solid, as always, and Apple’s new digital well-being features, like the Screen Time dashboard in Settings, are well-designed and can help parents rein in their kids’ budding smartphone addictions. Or their own more established ones.

I don’t use a lot of Apple’s lock-in solutions, from the iLife apps to Siri to Apple Music and the like. But as the platform with the most and best apps, iOS is without peer from a quality perspective. I find that iOS versions of apps I use all the time on Android, from Google’s own apps to things like Duolingo, are consistently better on iOS than they are on Android.

Here’s one example which should be embarrassing to Google: Because iOS provides an accessibility feature that lets you bold fonts on the system, Google Maps is actually much easier to use on iOS than Android because you can actually read the text labels on locations and roads more easily. This is crucial when you’re navigating in a car, when that otherwise big display is further away than usual from your face and you need to quickly scan it and get back to driving quickly.

I’ve complained in the past about the iOS “whack-a-mole” method of app launching. But people understand how iOS works, and users simply move between the apps they need effortlessly. I understand that a nicer, more configurable home screen is on tap for 2019, and that may silence the complainers. But iOS just works. Regardless, iOS’s superior app ecosystem puts the iPhone over the top.

(If you’re coming to iPhone XS from an older iPhone, the gesture-based navigation will be new to you. But this system debuted with iOS 11 and the iPhone X last year. You’ll find it to be obvious and almost intuitive.)

Pricing and availability

The iPhone XS starts at a whopping $999 for a version with an inadequate 64 GB of storage. So the real starting price for a reasonable device—with 256 GB of storage—is $1149. Apple also sells versions with 512 GB, for some reason, for $1349. And you can opt for the bigger display of the iPhone XS Plus for about $100 more per storage tier.

So yes, the iPhone XS is expensive. And while some will argue that you get what you pay for, that’s not entirely fair. Unlike other smartphone vendors, Apple doesn’t include a fast-charging power adapter in the box, and Apple’s many compatible versions are expensive ($50 to $80) and require a separate and unusual USB-C-to-Lightning cable ($20) too. As bad, Apple cheaps-out by not including a Lightning-to-headphone dongle ($9) either. For a handset this expensive, that should all be included in the box.

But there’s more: Buying an iPhone XS but not getting both a protective case ($40 to $100) and Apple Care+ ($200) is about as dumb as driving a motorcycle without a helmet. So factor in another $240 to $300. Oof.

The good news? There’s no wait. After a very short period of post-launch shipping delays, you can snag any iPhone XS model in any of the three available colors—silver (white), space gray (black), or gold—immediately.

Recommendations and conclusions

Yes, smartphone flagships from Samsung and OnePlus, in particular, have their advantages. And Google’s Pixel 2 XL still retains an obvious edge when it comes to camera quality, at least in low-light conditions. Despite all this, I feel that the iPhone XS is the single best smartphone available today. And I have no qualms recommending to anyone, power user and mainstream user alike.

Yes, I have complaints. But that’s true of the competition as well, and the decision one makes will reflect what’s most important to the individual, and what little issues one can deal with. The iPhone XS’s most obvious design issues—that wide notch, the slow Face ID key among them—are very much outweighed by the handset’s many advantages, both big and small.

And while the cost is extravagant, to say the least, it’s fair to point out that most people will pay for the device over two years and perhaps use it for as long as three or four years. Further, when you consider that smartphones are our most personal and most frequently-used devices, it gets easier and easier to justify the expense.

The iPhone XS is highly recommended. You’ll love it.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • The design is somehow both pretty and professional
  • Stunning display
  • Excellent performance
  • Excellent camera system
  • iOS apps are typically better than those on Android

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Overly-large notch
  • Face ID is still slow and not automatic
  • Fast charging not included
  • Headphone dongle not included

 

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