Apple has taken the iPhone X design that introduced in 2017 and made it the template for all of their new iPhone models. With three new iPhone models this year, the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR, Apple has made the near-bezel-less design their standard. The two premium models, the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max have identical specifications other than display size. That means everything I cover in this review should apply to both flagship models. After a couple of weeks using the iPhone XS, here's what I've learned.
What Is It?
The iPhone XS is one of two flagship smartphones released by Apple in October 2018. It represents an incremental shift on last year's iPhone X and signals the end of a number of technologies such as Touch ID and the Home button. Unlike previous plus-sized iPhones, the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max have the same specifications. Previously, the larger-screened models were differentiated by having superior cameras. That distinction has been abandoned with display size the only difference on the spec sheet.
|Size and weight||iPhone XS: 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7mm, 177g
iPhone XS Max: 157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7mm, 208g
|Display size||Phone XS: 5.8-inch, 2436 x 1125
iPhone XS Max: 6.5-inch, 2688 x 1242
Both with OLED Multi-Touch and HDR display
|Cameras||Rear: Dual 12MB - one wide-angle, one telephoto Front: 7MP 4K video recording at 24, 30 and 60 fps, 1080p video recording at 30 or 60 fps, 720p video recording at 30 fps|
|Ports||Lightning connector for charging and data transfer|
|Storage||64, 256 and 512GB options|
|Connectivity||4G and LTE compatibility, 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO, NFC with reader mode and Bluetooth 5.0|
|Processor||A12 Bionic chip with next-generation Neural Engine|
|Splash, Water, and Dust Resistant||Rated IP68 (maximum depth of 2 meters up to 30 minutes) under IEC standard 60529|
After spending most of the last year using an iPhone X, it's hard to point at anything that is a compelling improvement. But Apple's focus has shifted from annual upgraders to those making the move from a two or three year old iPhone.
The OLED display Apple has slipped into their iPhone showpiece is spectacular. It's bright and the detail it shows is rich. Looking at pics of my family's new dog, the detail I could pick up in the shadows, the different hues in his fur and overall clarity were incredible. And while the difference between the iPhone XS and iPhone X were negligible, when I looked at the same images on an iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone SE, the differences were substantial.
The same can be said for performance. Apple says the new new A12 Bionic Chip is about 15% faster than the A11 Bionic from last year's model. It's a 6-core 7nm processor with two "performance" and four "high-efficiency" cores. Which cores are invoked depends on what you're doing but Apple says the performance cores are 15% faster than the A11 Bionic and the efficiency cores use about half as much power. And the on-board machine learning/AI capability has been given a boost through the new Neural Engine that Apple says can execute 5 trillion operations per second compared to 600 billion.
One area where I found significant improvement has been battery life. For example, a full day out including using Google Maps to navigate an hour long drive, taking about 50 photos, using WiFI and cellular data to access social media and making a few phone calls left me with about 20% remaining charge by 11:00PM after starting the day at about 6:30AM. On a normal workday, when I'm mainly on WiFi, I still have at least 50% charge remaining after getting up at around 6:00AM and hitting the sack 16 hours or so later.
While the old YMMV caveat applies, I have little doubt that battery life has improved over the iPhone X. And it leaves my old iPhone 7 Plus in the dust.
And, on dust, the iPhone XS is rated at IP68 (you can read about IP ratings here) which means no dust can enter and it can survive immersion in water up to 1m in depth for 30 minutes.
One other big win for buyers and a potential trigger for upgrading even if you have the iPhone X is the inclusion of dual SIM capability. The iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max support nano-SIM and eSIM so you can now connect to multiple networks.
I had the opportunity to play with the iPhone XS Max briefly. There are three factors to consider if you're thinking about the upsized model. Firstly, there's budget. The larger model costs more. If you already have an iPhone X (as I did) then you need to ask the question about accessorising. I chose the smaller model as I have a Quadlock case and didn't fancy needing to buy an updated case so I could take my iPhone running or cycling. Thirdly, there's the size. My wife has small hands and the iPhone X is at the edge of what she can comfortably use. The Max would simply be too large. I'd suggest visiting a store and handling both models if you're thinking about an upgrade.
If you're coming from a "Plus" version iPhone, the iPhone XS display is about the same size in a significantly smaller body.
The iPhone XS represents over a decade of research and development and reflects the fact it's the 16th iPhone version (if you don't count the Plus and Max version which gets you up to about 20 discrete iPhone models). In other words, Apple has ironed out most of the kinks on the hardware side. There have been reports of charging issues but these are being addressed in the iOS 12.1 software update that is in the hands of developers.
My one hardware criticism is that Apple hasn't made the shift to USB-C and continues to hang onto their proprietary Lightning connector.
Adding to that annoyance is Apple's decision to no longer include a Lightning to 3.5mm headphone adaptor. Surely with a device that sells for over $2000, Apple could spring for an adaptor that likely costs them cents to produce. I might be a holdout, but I prefer wired headphones when I travel.
Apple - if you're reading this - it's time to move on.
My chief criticism of the iPhone XS is that the software is holding the hardware back.
iOS 12 has evolved into a very messy operating system in my view. Its roots, as an app-based user interface means a lot of the new hardware capability is wasted. The best comparison I can think of is how Apple has developed watchOS.
When watchOS was first released, it was terrible. It was slow, didn't allow any on-board processing and had limited functionality. But as the hardwire improved, the software evolved to take advantage. And while it's by no means perfect, the hardware/software interaction - which is something Apple has traditionally been very good at - is strong.
The iPhone XS is a powerful piece of hardware trapped by last decade's operating system. Where are the information-centric on-screen widgets? Why are app settings so hard to access and split into two places? And why did Apple Pay become harder to use with FaceID. I used to be able to hold my iPhone 7 to a contactless terminal and use Touch ID, Getting Face ID to recognise me is not quite as smooth.
Rumour has it that IOS 13 will be see a major change in the user interface. And I suspect Apple is waiting for another generation of older devices to move out of service before they move to a more processor intensive version.
At the moment, I see the design of iOS as Apple's biggest issue when to comes to the iPhone.
Should You Buy It
iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are available in 64GB, 256GB and 512GB capacity models in space grey, silver and a new gold finish.
Pricing for the iPhone Xs is
- $1629 for 64GB
- $1879 for 256GB
- $2199 for 512GB
Pricing for the iPhone Xs Max is
- $1799 for 64GB
- $2049 for 256GB
- $2369 for 512GB
No matter how you look at it - that's a lot of money.
It's worth noting iOS 12 is supported on iPhone 5s or later (the iPhone 5c is not supported). If you've been holding on to an iPhone that's three or more years old, then the update will be a massive difference. The shift to the Bionic processor family, with the Neural Engine for better augmented reality and AI applications is a big move if those kinds of apps matter to you.
If you have last year's iPhone X, then unless you're looking at the iPhone XS Max, the iOS 12 update will give you a functionally equivalent device, albeit running a little slower and with slightly less battery life.
My feeling is that if you're an iPhone user and have a device that's two years old or newer, waiting another year won't hurt. If your device is more than two years old then there are lots of benefits to moving to the newest iPhone if your budget can handle it.
Or, you can wait a month of so for the iPhone XR which has an in-between display size, the newer processor and cuts the cost by using an LCD display and dropping 3D Touch.