(Pocket-lint) - When Tim Cook revealed the iPhone X in 2017, it represented was the new direction for iPhone, the foundation of the next 10 years.

The iPhone XS and XS Max were released in 2018 and 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 to the iPhone XS, but you shouldn't overlook deals on the XS because it's still a very powerful iPhone. Let's look more closely at it. 

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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.

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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.

The iPhone XS is available in Space Grey, Silver and Gold. But the gold around the edge 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 iPhone XS features the A12 Bionic which features its own neural engine. It's also a 7nm chip, so is more efficient. 

Apple is using the processor for new camera skills like Smart HDR and faster app opening (up to 30 per cent faster-launching apps according to Apple).

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Power-hungry games like Asphalt 9: Legends load within a few seconds 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.

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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 - it's more power-efficient. 

The iPhone XS offers around 21 hours and 30 minutes talk time 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.

Even so, use it hard and the battery will still drain quick.

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.

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Cameras aren't as good for low light as iPhone 11 Pro

  • 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

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.

The iPhone XS certainly doesn't offer as much as the iPhone 11 Pro in terms of low light photography though and if you're particularly interested in that it's probably worth getting the more expensive model. 

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Even so, Smart HDR crunches more photographic data to ensure your pictures look even better than on previous devices.

It's similar to the tech found in most flagship rivals, but certainly works with great results. What it 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.

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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.

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. But it's not a patch on the iPhone 11 Pro

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 was previously been available on the Apple iPad and Apple Watch.

Verdict

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 main difference between this and the current iPhone 11 Pro that replaces it is the camera setup, which is much better for low light and night shots. 

This review was first published in October 2018 and was last updated in May 2020 to reflect market context and software updates.

Alternatives to consider...

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iPhone 11 Pro 

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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. 

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Samsung Galaxy S10

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The Samsung Galaxy S has been the iPhone's most consistent direct competitor for years, and the S10 is no different (though the S20 is now available of course). 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 waterproof design are only the tip of the iceberg. It'd be a perfect phone if its battery lasted longer. 

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Apple iPhone XS Max

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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. 

Writing by Stuart Miles.