When Tim Cook revealed the iPhone X in 2017, the Apple CEO announced that this was the new direction for iPhone, the foundation of the next 10 years. Fulfilling that promise, the iPhone XS and XS Max build on what the iPhone X started.
Of course, we also now have the new iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, too, while the XS series is discontinued. That said, you'll still be able to pick it up so we've updated our review. The iPhone 11 Pro is the natural successor.
Compared to last year's offering, the iPhone XS is the one that sees the least amount of change. It looks the same, but does that mean it should be overlooked? It most certainly should not.
Solid design, but better protected
- New tougher glass
- IP68 waterproofing
- New stereo speakers
Being an "S" model, the display and design is the same as the model it directly replaces, the iPhone X. That edge-to-edge 5.8-inch OLED display is still stunning with the top "notch" that's packed full of sensors the only thing interrupting the design.
To say that Apple started a trend might be giving it too much credit, but it certainly validated notch design and pretty much all smartphones have followed. Here Apple hasn't changed the design at all, meaning you'll also still get the same glass back with wireless charging, and same stainless-steel core and the same overall quality look and feel.
There are design tweaks, or more precisely, improvements to the build on iPhone XS as well as improvements to the wireless charging.
The iPhone XS features tougher glass that promises is Apple's toughest glass yet - Apple's standard phrase to mean "better than before" - while new IP68 waterproofing means you can drop the phone in water up to 2m for 30 minutes without damage. You should be able to mess around with it at the pool without any fear of it getting damaged, as long as you're careful. It's not "Scuba ready" though.
There are also improvements to the speakers, so you'll now get much better sound; side-by-side with the iPhone X, it's a subtle but noticeable difference. The iPhone XS sounds more rounded with ever so slightly better bass, which in turn delivers the feeling of a wider sound stage. It's not a huge step-change from the iPhone X, but it is better.
Available in the Space Grey and Silver options as previously, a new Gold version is also available. But this gold is more a muted gold rather than what we would call jewellery gold, while the back sports a subtler "nude" colour that is popular in posh high heel shoes. Christian Louboutin eat your heart out. It's not brash as you might think, and certainly not bling in a crass way. In fact, we rather like it.
Performance gets a boost
- New 7nm A12 Bionic processor
- 512GB storage option
- Longer battery than iPhone X
The biggest focus, of course, is not the design - Apple feels it cracked that last year - but the processing power Apple puts in the new iPhone. This year that means the introduction of the A12 Bionic chip.
The launch of the new phone focused on buzzwords like neural engines and multi-core processing. Apple went as far as saying that this was a 7nm chip, making it one of the first to market with this new architecture.
What you really need to know is that the A12 Bionic is more capable of understanding what the phone is trying to do and offload the computational questions to various processors to make it more efficient.
The new processor opens up plenty of opportunities, which many apps won't be taking advantage of yet. There's the sense that A12 Bionic prepares iPhone XS for increasing demands of the future, rather than rewriting the experience of now. Apple itself is using the processor for new camera skills - like Smart HDR - faster app opening (up to 30 per cent faster-launching apps according to Apple), and to achieve longer battery life, which we will talk about in a second.
Power-hungry games like Asphalt 9: Legends loads within a few seconds (faster than iPhone X) while high-intensity tasks like AR apps that utilise the camera, the GPU, the processor, and a stack of other things all at the same time work effortlessly. The old iPhone X is a slick experience and in the iPhone XS - an S update - while you won't notice a huge difference in power, it's laying the foundation for continued strong performance in the future.
Battery life and charging
- Longer lasting battery than iPhone X
- Faster wireless charging
- Quick Charging option via additional charger
The good thing is that extra processing power doesn't have an impact on battery life. In fact, that's one of the advantages of the 7nm architecture that Apple mentioned - it's more power-efficient.
The iPhone XS offers greater efficiency in terms of battery performance, extending it to around 21 hours and 30 minutes talk time - 30 minutes more than the iPhone X (according to Apple's figures), and in practice we've noticed the minor boost over the iPhone X. Gone are the days of needing a power boost around 4pm because you've got carried away playing the latest game or shooting 4K video.
The rules are the same though, use it hard and the battery will still drain quick. Apple hasn't invented a never-ending battery, yet.
One advantage that the new model brings is that wireless charging is now faster, between 5-20 per cent, but again, you might not notice as it's not a game-changing difference. If you really want fast charging, you'll have to buy a more powerful charging adapter and cable. Quick charging is quick though so it's worth it if you are a power user.
Cameras are much better even in low-light
- Two 12-megapixel cameras on the rear
- One 7-megapixel camera on the front
- New camera features include Smart HDR and adaptable depth of field
The new iPhone XS certainly expands on the skillset laid down in the iPhone X and it's here you can really see improvements over previous iPhone models.
While the rear dual camera features both a 12-megapixel wide-angle and telephoto lens (as previously), the sensors now have larger pixels, expanding to 1.4µm over the 1.22µm of the previous cameras. That makes it both better at absorbing available light and boosting low light photography.
This comes to the fore in tricky photo situations, for example, photographing a candle in the darkness. While the iPhone X copes well enough, the iPhone XS is noticeably better, delivering an atmospheric shot with far less noise. It also boosts the dynamic range to improve those HDR functions with Apple introducing a new feature called Smart HDR.
The feature crunches more photographic data to ensure your pictures look even better than on previous devices. Smart HDR, although described as completely new by Apple at the launch, is actually a pretty common technique and found in most flagship rivals, but certainly works with great results. What is does is take more successive images, analysing the scene, filling in data and giving you a better result.
We especially like that you can control the effect yourself between f/1.4 up to f/16. What this means in photography terms is at f/1.4 the subject should be sharply in focus, while the background is blurred, for that classic bokeh effect; at f/16 everything should be in focus across the scene, for a flatter result. Want to tweak the bokeh effect? No problem.
While it's not a new feature in the smartphone world - it was first introduced by HTC in 2014 - it does look very good on the iPhone XS.
While the iPhone does a good job of trying to get the f stop right in the first place for a desirable portrait image, a bonus is that we've been able to use the feature when the AI gets it wrong, reducing the effect to benefit the picture. For example, sometimes the depth map will see something in the background that's not part of the image, or it will blur away the edges of hair so that a person doesn't look natural. In these cases, you can reduce the effect or impact for a better result.
Apple also looks to have improved the edge detection to cope with wavy hair, and while better than the iPhone X, it's still not perfect. The previous rule of making sure you have a contrast between the subject and background still holds true.
Put simply, the iPhone XS will take great photos that given the right conditions, while the new features gives it a boost in popular areas - HDR and portrait photos.
Dual SIM: eSIM makes its debut
- Will support eSIM
- eSIM EE, O2 and Vodafone in the UK
- eSIM on all major carriers in the US
The iPhone XS also now features dual SIM support, meaning you'll be able to have two numbers/networks on a single device. Rather than have a dual SIM slot (that's only going to be available in China) in the UK and US, you'll be able to add a second account via eSIM.
The technology has previously been available on the Apple iPad and Apple Watch, but it now comes to the iPhone for the first time. In the US, all the major carriers will be supporting the feature, while in the UK, it's going to be available from EE.
The feature, when it launches later this year, is going to be great for those who carry around two phones or travel a lot as you'll be able to sign up to another eSIM in that country.
EE has yet to price or detail its offering in the UK, but we suspect it will offer eSIM-only packages with a 30-day contract with getting the second the SIM up and running as simple as scanning a QR code.
- New software features
- Quicker at loading apps, better at conserving battery
- More powerful AR offering
- iOS 13 is coming too
iOS 12 is at the core of the new iPhone, and it brings the usual array of new features to the phone. On the new iPhone it is fast, with the various apps we've used opening quickly with little delay. ARKit 2 apps we've used so far are fast too, a sign that the phone can cope with doing a multitude of things (gaming, camera, display, audio) all at the same time.
iOS 12 is nippy, powerful, and at times, very useful. We've found Screen Time especially handy for allowing us to understand how much time we spend on our phone on a day-to-day basis. But it's not just about curtailing our phone usage; the improved intelligent search within photos allows you to search for things like "beach" or "animals", while there are still fun elements like Memojis to keep you entertained.
There's still plenty we've yet to explore. Siri Shortcuts could be a game-changer (we are still learning), in allowing you to create rules and scripts for a range of tasks: saying something like "Hey Siri, find my keys" and Siri could connect to Tile to help you locate them, while saying something like "Hey Siri, Take me home" could result in Google Maps opening and your home address loaded.
It's slightly overwhelming, but we can already see the potential for those who want to embrace it. Slightly confusing is that you can access suggested Siri Shortcuts via the Settings app, but if you want to make your own you'll have to download a new app from Apple.
Finally, Group FaceTime looks really interesting. We've seen it in a demo, but it's a feature that isn't available at the start.
iOS 13 is also coming, with a system-wide dark mode, new gesture keyboard, updated stock apps, Maps and privacy enhancements.
As with all iPhone "S" model upgrades, the iPhone XS is about bringing new processing power to a phone that already looks really good. The Apple iPhone XS offers a faster experience, a tougher shell, and an improved camera that really impresses.
The iPhone XS gives you a technically better phone, but it isn't a huge step forward. The XS Max is now the risqué option, the answer to Apple's size question, leaving you to decide whether the XS is enough iPhone for you.
This review was first published in October 2018 and has been updated to reflect market context and software updates.
Alternatives to consider...
iPhone 11 Pro
The new 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are the natural successors to the now-discontinued XS and XS Max. There's an extra wide angle camera plus an upgraded platform in the form of the A13 Bionic. It's another iteration of the X and XS design rather than a wholesale reimagining.
Samsung Galaxy S10
The Samsung Galaxy S has been the iPhone's most consistent direct competitor for years, and the S10 is no different. It's the pinnacle of what's available on Android and has all the top features you'd expect. Wireless charging, a great camera, amazing display and a water proof design are only the tip of the iceberg. It'd be a perfect phone if its battery lasted longer.
Apple iPhone XS Max
The big brother to the iPhone XS is the XS Max. It's a phone that looks the same, has the same specs and all the same features - aside from a couple of app tweaks to provide a better layout in landscape working - but scales up the display to 6.5-inches. In the iPhone's frame, it's not too large as a phone, despite the big display. What is large, however, is the price, which might make you think twice. Also see the iPhone 11 Pro Max.