Price: £999 from fave.co/2zMwHKC
This is a ‘tock’ year for the iPhone (or, in Apple lingo, an ‘S’ update) and many of us expected a relatively quiet and minor refresh for 2018 after the fireworks of 2017’s iPhone X.
Of course, Apple doesn’t really do quiet phone launches, and two of its late-2018 newbies are fascinating: if nothing else the XS Max (read our review on page 24) and XR have enormous screens (the biggest
and second-biggest Apple’s ever offered) and the latter’s price tag offers a comparatively affordable entry point to the new generation of all-screen iPhones.
But where does that leave the third new handset, the iPhone XS? Rather outshone. Physically, it’s the same design as the iPhone X, and the 5.8in edge-toedge screen that looked so fancy last autumn has now got bigger (and in one case cheaper) alternatives to compete with.
The iPhone XS, then, is not this year’s glamour update. But you know what? Glamour is overrated. And in this review, covering the XS’s design, new camera features, speed testing, pricing and more, we’re going to argue that this is a terrific choice for those upgrading from an iPhone 6s Plus or 7s Plus.
Don’t let comparisons with the (truly eye-watering) XS Max fool you: the XS is a seriously expensive phone in its own right. It starts at a cool grand and you can spend more on it than a MacBook if you get the highest storage capacity.
iPhone XS (64GB): £999
iPhone XS (256GB): £1,149
iPhone XS (512GB): £1,349
The iPhone XS is in most respects physically identical to the X from last year. That will make X owners less likely to upgrade, but for the rest of us it shouldn’t be taken as a criticism: the X was a beautiful and
convenient device to hold, use and look at, and the same things are true of its successor. The phone is slim, lightweight and cleanly designed: it’s all about the screen, and the rest of the hardware gets out of the way.
There’s no Home button, and almost no bezel around the edge of the display: this is a nearly allscreen handset. Compared to older-style phones, you’re getting far more screen for your chassis volume/ weight, although there is a payoff in no longer having access to a hardware button, and therefore having to learn new gestures for many common functions, from screenshots (easy – now it’s the side button and volume up) to Reachability (really fiddly – swipe down on the gesture bar).
In a lot of ways the XS makes most sense as an upgrade model from the 6s Plus or 7 Plus. It’s a fair bit smaller than those devices, but in the same ballpark; it has a bigger screen that those devices, but again it’s in the same ballpark. Size-wise, the transition is smooth. You just have more space in your pocket, more space on screen, without really being conscious of it.
The rear of the XS, as on all of the iPhones released in 2017, is made of glass, thereby enabling wireless charging. But Apple tells us the glass has been reinforced, and is now less prone to cracking and scratching. We haven’t tested our samples to destruction just yet, but can at least report that we haven’t noticed any scratches in our first week of use – then again, the same was true of iPhones we’ve used in the past. It’s worth noting that some X cases might not fit the XS.
Water and dust resistance
We’re also, for that matter, reluctant to examine too closely Apple’s claim that the XS is dust- and waterresistant to the (effectively maximum) IP rating of IP68, up from IP67 on the iPhone X. (The firm boasts, indeed, that you don’t even need to worry about spills from tea, coffee and fruit juice.) But we’re inclined to take the company’s word for it, since it seems that it may have been underreporting its devices’ capabilities in this area. We’ve heard numerous anecdotes of submerged iPhones (various models) coping better than expected according to their ratings, and none at all of them coping worse.
Early teardowns suggest little has changed this time around in terms of internal sealing, and our sense is that the firm simply prefers not to make claims until it is absolutely certain it can back them. The iPhone X was probably IP68 too, in other words, but if anyone asks we didn’t tell you that.
The last physical change is that there’s a new gold finish that wasn’t available on the X last year. That’s on top of the silver and Space Grey options. As you can see in our photo (above), it’s a subdued gold, but has the faintest touch of pink on the back. And while the sheer shininess of the band may put off some (Space Grey is less blingy), we rather like it.
It feels apt to begin with the screen, since that dominates the device so utterly, but be warned that here too not much has changed from the X. Once again, that isn’t a bad thing (unless you’re looking for reasons to justify an upgrade from 2017’s flagship), since it’s an excellent display.
It’s a 5.8in OLED screen at a resolution of 2,436x1,125 and a pixel density of 458ppi, and while those figures can be bettered by other phones out there (including the XS Max, of course), they’re good enough to be going along with.
The display is big enough for comfortable immersion in games and films – the notch can disrupt this a little, although we found we learned to zone it out quite early on – while the OLED technology means richer blacks and better colour fidelity at wide viewing angles (as well as improved power efficiency). The picture is bright and sharp, and the colours vivid and accurate.
Colour reproduction will be aided by the inclusion of True Tone (again, as on the X), which adjusts screen output to account for environmental lighting conditions.
Apple has retained its 3D Touch tech, so you can hard-press on app icons to access quick function shortcuts and on emails and web links to see a preview – even though the omission of 3D Touch on the stillrelatively-expensive iPhone XR hints that the company might no longer be fully committed to the concept.
Processor, memory and storage
The iPhone XS is a fast and powerfully specified smartphone, and we should say before we start that it
is vastly faster than necessary to run any and all of the apps on the App Store, and that real-life use (thanks partly to the smooth efficiency of iOS 12) is almost impossibly slick. All that’s in question is future-proofing – how long is the XS likely to last before we begin to notice a slowdown? A good while, we’d say. The XS has a new (Apple-designed) A12 Bionic processor chip with six CPU cores and what Apple calls the Neural Engine, backed up by 4GB of RAM (up from 3GB RAM in the X and 8 Plus, and 2GB in the 8). The latter might not sound much, and Android phones often include 6GB or even 8GB, but Apple’s optimization between its phones and their iOS software is so slick that it can get by with less without compromising on performance.
You can choose from 64-, 256- or 512GB of storage with, as usual, no option to add more with an SD card.
Apple keeps mum about the precise specs of its chips (even the RAM is not announced officially), so the best way to assess those numbers is to put the XS through our rigorous battery of lab tests.
We began by assessing general processing speed in Geekbench 4’s CPU benchmark: the XS averaged 4,815 points in single-core and 11,082 in multicore. The latter is up 6 percent from the iPhone 8 Plus, which scored 10,456 (once we updated it to iOS 12 to make the comparison fair).
Finally we moved on to graphics performance, where we hope for great things: the GPU in the A12 has four cores, compared to three in the A11.
Across GFXBench Metal’s four long-standing onscreen tests (T-Rex/Manhattan/Manhattan 3.1 and Car Chase), the XS recorded scores of 60-, 58-, 49-, 32fps – extremely solid efforts throughout – while the new Aztec Ruins test saw scores of 40- and 25fps in Normal and High. It produces playable frame rates in even the most demanding graphical tests. However, while impressive, this does not appear to be noticeably better than the previous generation. For comparison, our (iOS 12) 8 Plus scored 60-, 58-, 54-, 32-, 39-, 28fps across the six tests, although having a lower-res screen would usually give it a small advantage. And we actually saw higher scores when we tested the XS Max, which has the same GPU as the XS, plus a higher-resolution screen.
What’s happened to our extra core of performance? Colleague Jason Cross made similar findings with the 3DMark benchmark (see fave.co/2IAhnDs), which showed almost no improvement in graphical performance using the high-end Sling Shot test. Our colleagues theorize that the large assets of high-stress graphics tests mean memory bandwidth and cache are the bottleneck, rather than GPU performance. Sure enough, the simpler Ice Storm Unlimited test showed an 18 percent improvement compared to the X.
The XS’s cameras are largely the same as on the X: the front lens remains 7Mp with an aperture of f/2.2;
the dual 12Mp rear lenses are f/1.8 (wide-angle) and f/2.4 (telephoto). Optical zoom still tops out at 2x, and there’s dual OIS (optical image stabilization) and 4K video at up to 60fps.
It’s a terrific photographic setup, and our standard test shots show good detail and faithful colour reproduction. That’s what we expect from iPhone cameras these days.
Also as on the X, you get Portrait Mode on the frontfacing camera, thanks to the TrueDepth camera used for Face ID. We find this messier around the edges than the crisp bokeh effect you get from the rear cameras, but selfie shots taken in standard mode are good.
(We didn’t notice this in our testing, but there have been complaints that the selfie camera on the XS applies an excessive ‘smoothing’ beauty filter in order to appeal to the Asian market. The company says
it’s now working on a fix, but it didn’t strike us as a significant issue.)
In terms of major changes, Apple says, a little vaguely, that the pixels are deeper and larger for better image fidelity and low-light performance. Sure enough, a heavy zoom on our standard low-light test shot revealed a cleaner, smoother image with less noise. (Something appears to have been lost in colour fidelity, however; the X has got closer to the correct yellow of this novelty case.)
But most of the changes are to do with the intelligent processing made possible by the Neural Engine mentioned earlier. This gives benefits when shooting in complex lighting conditions.
Having the subject’s face in shadow and a bright light source behind, for example, would ordinarily be a recipe for disaster, but the device’s new Smart HDR
mode is much cleverer about assessing the varied conditions and applying the correct settings where appropriate: our tests confirmed that the XS is capable of showing unexpectedly detailed shadowy areas and bright lighting in the same shot.
In the below shot, for example, the sun is peeping through the branches of the tree so directly that we’re getting lens flare, but we can still make out good detail on the shadowed leaves.
These are improvements that will happen behind the scenes – in classic Apple style – and lead to better
photos without your necessarily knowing why. But one aspect of the XS’s clever image processing calls for more of your input.
If you take an image using Portrait Mode, it’s now possible to adjust the degree of bokeh (depth effect or in simple terms, blur) afterwards. Open the shot in Pictures and hit the Edit button, and you’ll now see the option to fine-tune the focal length from f/1.4 up to f/16, the blurring effect adjusting in real time as you do so.
What you can’t do is add bokeh retrospectively to shots that were not taken in Portrait Mode, so you still need to plan ahead. But it’s nice to have more control over this highly artistic – and therefore subjective – effect.
The XS comes with a 2,658mAh battery, which is a little smaller than the 2,716mAh one you’ll find inside the X. Yet, thanks to the improved power efficiency of the A12 chip, Apple claims it will last 30 minutes longer. The estimates are 12 hours of Internet use and 14 hours of
Compared to older models, you get far more screen for your chassis
The gold version is more subdued than on previous models
Portrait mode on the iPhone XS
Comparison of low light shots taken on the iPhone X and XS
If you take an image using Portrait Mode, it’s possible to adjust the degree of bokeh afterwards