Apple iPhone XS Review: Iterative Greatness

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Apple has famously created a tick-tock cycle when it comes to releasing new iPhones. One year, we get an entirely new generation of iPhone. The year after, we get a phone that builds on top of its predecessor with some new features sprinkled in. 2018 was one of those years, and as a result, we got the iPhone XS.

I wouldn’t be lying if I said the XS is extremely identical to the 2017 iPhone X. After all, that’s the phone the device builds itself upon. It has a similar form factor, similar internals, a near-identical software experience, and the same issues iPhones have had for years. The iPhone XS is an iterative upgrade in its truest form, but the overall package is great, even if it’s not worth what Apple is charging.

Starting with the iPhone 6, Apple (arguably) fell short when it came to phone design. Competitors were introducing beautiful phones with curves and sculpted edges that simply sparkled in every carrier store they were on display in. Meanwhile, Apple just stuck with the same formula: aluminum or glass on the back, aluminum on the sides, thick and chunky bezels on the front. They did this for three years with the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, and 8. Clearly, it was time for a change.

Luckily, that’s what we got with the iPhone X. The device featured a gorgeous glass design with a stainless steel rail around the sides that screamed premium. With the iPhone XS, we’re getting virtually the same design language. Of course, it’s too early to say whether this is gonna turn into a similar situation to the iPhone 6 design, but at least the X and XS’ looks aren’t susceptible to being completely outdone by other companies in the near future.

I’m a huge fan of the iPhone XS’ design. It fits in your hand super comfortably thanks to its rounded edges and corners that make it perfect for handling for longer periods of time. It’s also the perfect weight at 177 grams. It’s a touch on the heavy side, but it makes the phone feel solid and premium.

In addition, the XS is rated at IP68 for water and dust resistance. Previously, the X was rated at IP67. It’s a small increase, but a welcome one at that.

Admittedly, this is one of the most slippery phones I’ve ever test since it’s so glossy, so my advice to you would be to avoid wearing soft gloves while handling the device. The glossy coating is pretty and makes the phone shimmer and shine, but it can be deadly if you aren’t careful.

Notably, that’s the case with basically any glass phone, but it’s important to reiterate since this is an iPhone and people pay closer attention to Apple.

Also worth noting is the fact Apple says it uses the strongest glass ever on a smartphone with the iPhone XS. I have a hard time believing this since all glass breaks if dropped at the right angle, but I didn’t test this thesis since I didn’t want my phone to shatter.

Looking around the rest of the iPhone XS, you’ll find even more familiarities. There’s a Lightning connector at the bottom along with two speaker grilles (only one speaker, however, since the other acts as a microphone); a side button on the right that can trigger Siri, take screenshots, and power the device; and volume up/down buttons on the left along with an alert switch.

It’s not a big deal, but I just want to clarify that I love the alert switch on the iPhone. It’s so convenient to be able to just flick a switch and mute your phone. Admittedly, it does fall in comparison to what OnePlus includes with its devices, but nonetheless, you won’t realize you need this feature until you do.

Picking up the device, and powering it on, you’ll be immediately greeted by a 5.8-inch 2436×1125 OLED display with an aspect ratio of 19.5:9. In the simplest terms possible, the iPhone XS’ display is awesome. It packs vivid colors, plenty of brightness, and possibly the best viewing angles of any phone I’ve tried to date. The panel is made by Samsung, and while you don’t get the super punchy, vibrant colors of a Galaxy Note 9 screen, you do get near textbook reproduction of images which, to me, is more pleasing to look at.

I’m also a huge fan of the aspect ratio. It isn’t the greatest for watching 16:9 video, but whenever you’re consumer vertical content like articles or Instagram Stories, it’s perfect.

If you’re on an iPhone 8 or earlier and you look at the XS’ display, you’ll love it. It’s tuned to look almost identical to Apple’s older LCD panels, but with OLED, you get inky blacks and a much better viewing experience overall. Essentially, it’s just a way better version of Apple’s previous displays, and I think you’re really gonna like it.

Of course, you can’t talk about phone screens nowadays without mentioning their notches, and the same goes for the iPhone XS. Look, I’m used to seeing notches on phone screens at this point, and you should be, too. Almost every major phone manufacturer (with the obvious exception of Samsung) has a notch on at least one of their phones, and unless you’re a curmudgeon, I can tell you the XS’ notch will disappear the moment you start using it.

Admittedly, the notch isn’t great when watching video since it cuts into the side of the screen, but to be honest, I didn’t think it was that big a deal.

Regardless of how you feel about the notch in general, it’s hard to deny Apple does the best job at justifying its existence. Inside, the company include its facial recognition system it calls Face ID. Using a flood illuminator, an infrared camera, a dot project, and other sensors, the iPhone XS can securely recognize your face and unlock your phone, authenticate purchases, and do other actions that would typically require Touch ID verification.

New with the XS is a Face ID speed increase. We’re not talking night and day here, but at least compared to the iPhone X, the iPhone XS can recognize your face in about one to two seconds faster. We’re not expecting any drastic speed improvements until Apple’s next iPhones come out which are rumored to have upgraded hardware that should greatly improve the experience of unlocking your phone. Until that happens, you should be pretty satisfied with the XS’ facial recognition.

While we’re on the subject of improved speed, let’s talk XS performance. After all, it’s one of the biggest upgrades over the iPhone X.

Under the hood, Apple is using its A12 Bionic processor. It’s the first chipset manufactured on a 7-nanometer process ever in a smartphone. Apple says because of this, it was able better performance in a more efficient package which is the case with most 7nm processors. And much like A processors of the past, this one packs a six-core architecture, with two performance cores that are 15 percent faster than before and four efficiency cores that re 50 percent more efficient.

In a nutshell, this is a fast phone. I’m not just saying “fast like every other 2018 flagship,” either. This is the fastest phone I’ve ever used. Animations fly at high frame rates, multitasking is a breeze, and every heavy operation I throw at the device, it’s able to handle it perfectly.

With the A12, Apple says the iPhone XS can complete as many as 5 trillion operations at a time. That’s up from 600 billion with the A11 inside the iPhone X and 8. At this point, it’s pretty impossible for developers to take full advantage of the vast capabilities of this processor, so the A12 is a good representation of Apple’s ambitions to include a ton of head room for the future. This means years down the line, your $1,000 XS should still perform pretty well, even if it isn’t as fast as the latest phone from the company.

Gaming is also fantastic on the XS. Titles like Asphalt 9 and Alto’s Adventure run at high frame rates, but thanks to both the XS’ A12 processor and Apple’s four-core CPU, graphics are silky smooth. Plus, I’ve never noticed a single dropped frame during my testing, and I’ve been playing Alto’s Adventure like a crazy man.

A big part of why the iPhone XS performs as well as it does is due to iOS 12 and Apple’s underlying optimizations. Whereas Android manufacturers don’t have much control over how well their hardware works with Google’s software, Apple has total control over how well its hardware and software play with each. And it shows.

The iPhone XS comes with 4GB of RAM. That’s not enough in this day and age for most flagship Android devices, but it’s plenty for this device because of iOS’ aggressive app management. No, it doesn’t kill apps in the background without telling you. Rather, it puts them on hold until you need them and instantly fires them back up once you open them. It’s a neat trick that’s been attempted by many manufacturers in the past but never mastered like Apple has done in this case.

iOS 12 is also a big part of the reason people buy iPhones, and it could very well be the main reason at that. It’s all thanks to Apple’s magical ecosystem its built around its products, where everything basically ties back into iOS in some form or fashion. And luckily, iOS 12 is the best version of iOS to date, so you shouldn’t have any issues using it.

I won’t go too far into detail about iOS 12 since I did a full review of it back in September, but in short, it’ll make any device you install it on much faster. Plus, you get notification grouping, Screen Time monitoring, a few upgraded apps, improvements to ARKit, and more Animoji that work with the camera system on the XS. Other than that, you get the same iOS experience we’re all used to at this point, with the same grid of app icons on the home screen and Siri still being Siri.

I will say, however, that I’ve never used an iPhone before that used gestures to navigate the UI. I never got a chance to review the iPhone X, and I’ve been using an iPhone 7 for the past year and a half which still has a home button. That being said, I had no problems with adjusting to the XS’ methods of navigation since they’re simple and easy to get a hang of.

Basically, you swipe up to go home, swipe up and hold for recent apps, swipe from the top right for Control Center, and swipe from the left for notifications, You can also do a weird pull-down gesture on the bottom 10 percent of the screen to use Reachability. Surprisingly, I was able to get a hang of this gesture pretty easily, although I do know plenty of people who still haven’t adjusted.

Personally, I think Apple does phone gestures the best. They’re the most intuitive and actually feel like part of the phone itself. To put this into perspective, I don’t like Android Pie’s gestures since they feel pointless, almost like Google felt a responsibility to introduce gestures of its own for the sake of putting gesture controls on more phones. I do like OnePlus’ implementation on the 6T since they replicate those on the iPhone. But in terms of fluidity and ease of use, the iPhone takes the cake.

Historically, part of the reason people buy iPhones is because of the camera. In recent years, the iPhone has struggled a bit when it comes to overall quality since competitors like Samsung and, especially, Google have stepped up their game. With the XS, Apple is trying really hard to keep up with the pack, and it shows.

The camera on the iPhone XS could very well be the biggest change over 2017’s iPhone X. With the XS, Apple is including a brand-new 12MP main sensor on the back with bigger pixels to take in more light, an f/1.8 aperture, and a new type of high dynamic range called Smart HDR. Apple’s taking a page out of Google’s playbook in this case as it’s fusing together new hardware with new software tricks to better the devices photo output.

The way Smart HDR works is pretty simple. When you open the camera app, the phone begins capturing images four at a time. Once you hit the shutter button, it captures whatever image you land on. This allows for zero shutter lag. Behind the scenes, the iPhone captures multiple different exposures, including underexposed photos and overexposed photos. This pulls out details the camera might fail to grab if it were just taking pictures with the sensor itself, with no AI help at all. Once Apple’s algorithms select the best exposures, it merges a few of them together to create the photo you find in your gallery.

The result? Photos that are a nice improvement over what the iPhone X was capable of. As you can see in the images above, the XS includes more detail and is much warmer than the photo taken with the X. I’ve also noticed in testing the XS is better in low-light and reproducing colors.

Here are some more sample pics from the XS to take a look at.

Portrait mode photo take with iPhone XS

Of course, the main camera on the back of the XS isn’t alone. It comes paired to a secondary 12MP f/2.4 lens which captures depth information and enables portrait mode. For this generation, Apple lets you adjust the background blur of portrait photos after you’ve taken them for a more dramatic effect. Personally, I enjoy the iPhone’s version of portrait mode more than I do competitor’s offerings since I find it to be the most true-to-life. It’s not perfect, but it certainly gets the job done.

With Apple’s cameras on the iPhone XS, you also get 2x lossless zoom which I love. It lets you get super close to a subject and take micro photos, something that comes in handy when my subject is a flower or butterfly. Not a lot of people appreciate a lossless zoom lens since wide-angle hardware normally proves to be more useful. But I love getting up close to things I see, and I’m a fan whenever a company includes a lossless zoom function on their phone.

The iPhone XS is also great at video. New with this generation is 4K video at 60 frames per second, enabled by the A12 processor and Apple’s Neural Engine. It’s a popular opinion I agree with: if you want a phone you can take killer video with, buy an iPhone.

Selfies are also pretty great with the XS. The device packs a 7MP f/2.2 lens which serves its purpose. However, I desperately wish Apple would widen the angle of the front-facing camera. Every other manufacturer is including somewhat of a wide-angle lens so you can fit more people into your selfie. For whatever reason, Apple’s selfie shooter is still cropped in. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to iPhones, and I pray every night that Apple fixes it.

You can also take portrait selfies which use software to mimic a blur effect. Personally, I don’t think it looks that great, but some people like it.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned “Oh, but the Google Pixel 3 takes waaay better pictures than the iPhone ever could!” like every other reviewer has. That’s because I don’t think there’s an obvious best camera on the market right now. Sure, some would argue the Pixel 3 or Galaxy Note 9 or LG V40 takes better pictures than the iPhone XS. But those are just opinions.

We’ve reached a point in the smartphone world where phone cameras are so good, it comes down to personal preference as to which pictures are better. And that’s an extremely subjective decision to make. So while I’m not gonna sit here and tell you to like the XS’ photos, I will say the device is definitely fully capable of capturing some awesome shots, even if they aren’t the best you can get on the market.

Every year, Apple promises better battery life with its newest iPhones. With the XS, the company claimed it could last a half hour longer than the iPhone X on a full charge. I don’t have an iPhone X to compare it to, but I can say it’s definitely an all-day phone with its 2,658mAh cell. I’m able to wake up at 6:30 a.m., unplug my phone, and use it until 11 p.m. with 25 or 30 percent left in the tank. I was even able to get 7 hours of screen-on time during a day of constantly taking photographs at CES. It’s not the most impressive battery life I’ve seen and you’ll definitely wanna charge it overnight, but you can at least expect it to last you all day long.


Speaking of things lasting all day long, charging the iPhone XS from zero to 100 percent takes forever. You know why? Because despite charging $1,000 and more for their phones, Apple still includes a dinky 5W charging brick and USB-A to Lightning cable. While the rest of the industry converts to some sort of fast charging in the box, Apple is still supplying the same, slow adapters it’s been using for almost a decade. If you want fast charging, it’ll cost you $50 to buy the necessary supplies which Apple will be happy to sell you. And don’t think wireless charging is the answer to your prayers, becasue it’s just as slow.

For $1,000, you should at least get fast charging out of the box, not the option to adopt it for an additional fee.

As far as audio goes, this is another controversial point of the iPhone XS. You don’t get a headphone jack on the device, but you do get Lightning EarPods and the option to connect wireless headphones over Bluetooth. However, in box where it should be, you don’t get a Lightning to 3.5mm dongle. Why? Because Apple wants you to buy that separately, too.

It’s not the hardest pill to swallow since it only costs $9. Plus, if you’ve owned an iPhone in the past that didn’t come with a headphone jack, chances are you already have the dongle. Regardless, it still sucks that Apple doesn’t just throw in the dongle anymore, especially if you’re using something like an iPhone 6s and you have lots of wired headphones.

While we’re on the subject of audio, let’s talk speaker quality. The iPhone XS makes major improvements in this area as Apple is now allowing greater stereo separation between the bottom-firing speaker and the earpiece. You also get more bass and better clarity as a result. I’ve been a huge fan of the iPhone’s speakers since the iPhone 7, and the XS just makes everything better. I’ll even go as far as to say they’re my favorite speakers on a phone, period.

Finally, I’d like to mention connectivity. The iPhone XS I have is from Verizon who was courteous enough to send me a unit for this review. I experienced great speeds in and around South Jersey and throughout Las Vegas, Nevada, with at least three bars in the status indicator at all times. If you’re interested in checking out Verizon and possibly picking up a XS from them, check out their website.

The iPhone XS is a great phone. It’s the best iPhone to date and packs a beautiful screen, amazing performance, a premium design, and an overall great experience.

But is it worth $1,000? Well, consider this. You don’t get the best cameras on a smartphone, you don’t get the best battery life, there’s no fast charging in the box, you only get 64GB of storage, and the headphone situation has gotten worse year over year.

It gets even worse when you look at the other storage tiers available with the XS. For $999, you get 64GB of space which might not be enough for most people. The next step up would be 256GB, but that’s gonna run you $1,149. And for 512GB, it costs $1,349. That’s a ridiculous amount of money for a phone. So if you don’t think it’s worth $1,000, by no means should you even consider getting more storage.

None of this is to say the XS is a bad phone. By all means, it’s a great phone. But personally, I don’t think you should spend the full asking price to acquire the device.

As far as upgrading goes, if you have an iPhone X, don’t bother. The XS is too iterative of an update to justify its price. But if you have an iPhone 8 or 7, your return on investment will be much greater since you get a new design, way better cameras, faster performance, and better battery life.

As I said in the beginning of this review, the iPhone XS is a great phone, but it’s not perfect. It’s an iteration of the iPhone X in its truest form, and the experience using the device feels like that. It’s a great package overall, and anybody who buys it will probably love it.

Just do me one favor: search around before you buy it for promotions and trade-in deals. If you can get it for cheaper, you’ll be better off.

Rating: 8/10