Alex Kidman is the tech and telco editor at Finder. He's been a technology writer with experience spanning more than 20 years, writing and editing at Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and many more. Alex has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of New England and a serious passion for retro gaming.
Which isn't to say that the iPhone XS is a backwards-looking device in every aspect. There are clear design cues taken from 2017's iPhone X as well as price points that shift the goalposts for what you'll pay for a new Apple phone ever upwards.
iPhone X style with more screen space
Antenna points boosted around the frame
Slippery to hold, so a case is a must
The iPhone XS is a more pocket-friendly phone than the immense iPhone XS Max. It measures in at 143.6x70.9x7.7mm with a carrying weight of 177g, slightly above what you might expect for a phone of this size, although it's not "heavy" to speak of.
What it is, thanks to the glass back that enables wireless charging is a noticeably slippery handset. Given the asking price, it would be extremely wise to budget an extra $50 or so on a case that suits your own personal style. That's partly because "smashed screen" phones fit nobody's style, but also because the repair costs for the iPhone XS screen are very high indeed.
While Apple's taken the iPhone X design and refined it just a little with the iPhone XS, it does feature a few new innovations. You get two more banded notches on the side of the iPhone XS compared to the iPhone X, and this isn't just an aesthetic matter. They're actually antenna bands, designed to improve the reception and category speeds of the iPhone XS. Apple's 2018 iPhone lines are all Category 16 phones, which means that they're capable of download speeds of up to 1Gbps, depending on your network conditions. Additional bands also means it's much less likely that your hands will block them, even when taking a call.
While it's built on the iPhone X style, Apple has upped your choices when it comes to finishes, even though it's on familiar lines. Apple has long offered up Silver, Space Grey and Gold finishes, and you can have your iPhone XS in any of those colours as best suits your style. If you want more extensive colour choices than that, then the iPhone XR might be a better fit.
The iPhone XS continues Apple's insistence that you don't need a traditional headphone jack, but there's another sting in the tail here because Apple used to throw in a lightning-to-headphone adaptor plug in the box. Go looking for it in your iPhone XS box and you'll find it entirely absent.
Apple still sells that adaptor at $15 apiece, but on a smartphone that can cost more than $2,000 outright, it feels exceptionally cheap on Apple's part to have skipped out on the adaptor.
Apple clearly wants to recoup its Beats investment with as many wireless headphones and Airpods as possible, but that doesn't mean consumers who want to use their own wired headphones should have to pay more.
Dual cameras shoot well
Smaller camera body makes it easier to snap shots
Video stabilisation is great
In previous years, if you opted for the "smaller" iPhone, you were usually stuck with just a single camera of lesser quality. That's not the case this year because while the iPhone XS is Apple's smallest 2018 smartphone, it shares the exact same camera specifications and sensors as the larger and more expensive Apple iPhone XS Max. Apple does produce a single lens 2018 iPhone, but that's the cheaper iPhone XR.
At the back of an iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, you'll find dual 12MP lenses. The wide angle 12MP lens has an f/1.8 aperture, while the 2x optical telephoto lens has an f/2.4 aperture.
Around the front, you'll find the 7MP "TrueDepth" selfie camera that's used for both portrait selfies and Face ID.
Like last year's iPhone X, there's no fingerprint sensor at all, with facial biometrics used instead for unlocking and authorising payments via Apple Pay.
Apple hasn't opted for radical reinvention here, and they essentially lifted the camera set-up from the Apple iPhone X. It's good, but arguably a step behind the kinds of variable aperture or triple-lens cameras we're seeing on premium Android handsets.
Apple's contention is that the larger pixel size on the iPhone XS/iPhone XS Max camera array working in concert with the image signal processing abilities of the A12 Bionic chip at the heart of its new phones gives them a significant step up in performance terms. Apple calls this feature "Smart HDR".
Smart HDR is auto-enabled by default, working on every image you take with the iPhone XS, and it's symptomatic of Apple's entire approach to smartphone photography. Apple is well aware that most smartphone users aren't pro photographers, so it strives to make taking good photos as simple as possible, at the cost of making it harder (within its own camera app) to adjust parameters that it doesn't pick itself.
At the premium end, we're seeing a number of manufacturers adopt pro-style approaches to photography, putting you in charge of exposure, aperture and shutter speeds with specific in-app functions for pro-level snappers.
You're not going to be upset at the kinds of photos you'll be able to take with the Apple iPhone XS, but the reality is that premium smartphones all offer very good photographic experiences overall. One small benefit of using the iPhone XS over the iPhone XS Max is that it's easier to whip out of your pocket and quicker to balance than a larger handset might be.
So how does it compare?
We tested with the Apple iPhone XS Max for photographic purposes, and size of handset aside, that's the exact same sensor, processor and memory configuration as the Apple iPhone XS, so the results (and comparison) still holds up.
We took the Apple iPhone XS Max out on a little comparative shooting expedition, alongside last year's iPhone X, Google's Pixel 2 XL, and Samsung's Galaxy S9+ and Galaxy Note9.
First up, I took a shot to test out just how good the iPhone XS/Max's Smart HDR was at picking up fine detail in shots with quite varied lighting. Here's how it compared:
All four phones present quite decent images, but the iPhone XS/Max does deliver more detail in the highlight areas, and the Pixel 2 XL falls behind in terms of light pick-up, a theme that continued throughout comparative testing.
Low light is a key differentiator for premium phones over their mid-range counterparts, so it was time for some night-time shooting. First, I used a local fountain with a variety of side lighting. What was interesting here was how each camera, which was set to automatic shooting so it was choosing its own settings, interpreted the scene:
Finally, a more brutal test, shooting a darkened field nearby to see just how much light each camera could pick up. Here, there was a clear loser in the Pixel 2 XL, which really struggled, and a very close run battle between the iPhone XS/Max and Samsung Galaxy S9+:
The iPhone XS/Max picks up more foreground detail, but ends up washing out the clouds in an almost impressionistic way compared to the Galaxy S9+.
Given that the Galaxy S9+ is one of the absolute best phones for low-light photography in 2018, it ultimately means that the iPhone XS is a serious camera contender.
Portrait lighting, as first seen in last year's iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, makes its return in the iPhone XS, with the added ability to adjust aperture after taking a photo. The actual effect of this can be rather subtle, and it's precisely what (for example) Samsung already does with the "live focus" feature found on the Galaxy Note 8, Galaxy S9/S9+ and Galaxy Note9, but it does give you a level of photographic flexibility.
For example, here's a portrait photo shot with aperture adjusted to f/1.4 (left) and f/16 (right):
You can also combine that with the differing portrait lighting effects, although not all of them work all that elegantly. Here's the same shot with the mono studio lighting effect applied, showing how it sometimes fails to get the cut-out quite right. It's an interesting effect, but probably not what you'd want in most cases:
The iPhone XS can also handle video recording at up to 4K with stereo recording, and here it compares very well indeed. Apple utilises the same HDR effects in its video recording as well as some impressive stabilisation if you're shooting handheld rather than with a tripod.
Here's some footage shot from a Sydney train crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As regular Sydney commuters will know, Sydney trains aren't exactly the most stable of vehicles in the first place, but this doesn't faze the iPhone XS at all:
Apple's A12 Bionic is easily the fastest processor you can get in a mobile
IP68 water resistance, but not a good idea to get wet thanks to warranty woes
Gigabit LTE, but not the fastest
Technically dual SIM, but not in Australia
No expandable memory (again).
Apple put itself firmly in first place for processor performance with the stellar Apple A11 Bionic at the heart of the Apple iPhone X, so it had its work cut out to do even better with the A12 Bionic that runs the Apple iPhone XS.
It's managed just that, with a processor capable of some truly astounding computational performance.
The A12 Bionic is Apple's first processor built on a 7nm process. You might not care about how big the processor is, but what you should care about are Apple's claims. It states that the A12 Bionic has up to a 50% power usage boost over the A11 Fusion, along with up to a 15% increase in performance and 50% better GPU performance. Remember, the A11 Fusion was our previous high watermark for CPU performance on mobile devices, so those are some pretty bold claims.
Generally speaking, the iPhone XS backs them up. Here's how it compares using Geekbench 4's CPU test against a range of premium handsets.
The A12 Fusion running the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR is the best processor at a benchmark level we've ever tested, and the iPhone XS narrowly beats out the larger iPhone XS Max in that benchmark test. However, it's not a significant gap between the two, given the light variability of most benchmarks.
It's not quite the same story for graphics benchmarking. The iPhone XS performs well, but not at the top of the premium smartphone space:
Apple does have support for OpenGL, which is what the 3DMark Slingshot Extreme test evaluates, but its own Metal API is fast becoming the preferred (at least by Apple) way to measure graphics performance.
There's little doubt in my mind that this is where that 50% GPU boost figure is from. In any case, within the direct iOS hierarchy, the iPhone XS sits just below the iPhone XS Max, which is frankly, great company to keep.
A phone is more than just benchmarks, however. The iPhone XS is suitably slick in real-world use with actual iOS apps, but you absolutely should expect that.
The A12 Fusion is an incredible processor, but when will we see apps that really push it hard?
The iPhone XS runs very well on iOS 12, and apps launch rapidly as you'd expect, but that's for applications that, at best, were written with the A11 Fusion in mind. There's a massive untapped overhead here that isn't being stressed by the A12 Fusion just yet. The A12 Fusion is an incredible processor, but when will we see apps that really push it hard?
The iPhone XS and its 2018 siblings are Apple's first phones capable of gigabit LTE speeds – as long as you're in an area where that's supported.
You're most likely to get those speeds around the CBDs of Australia's capital cities, rather than in regional areas.
iFixit's teardown suggests that Apple has indeed switched over to the Intel modem camp and away from Qualcomm. That does mean that some competing Android handsets that push up into Category 18 or Category 21 will outpace the theoretical network performance of the iPhone XS. As always, that will depend on the network you're on and the conditions at the time.
The Apple iPhone XS ups the water resistance ratings for iPhones with IP68 water resistance, up from IP67 on previous models.
IP68 is great in terms of water endurance... at least in theory. At launch, Apple went to the extent of claiming that it had tested the iPhone XS in a variety of fluids, from water to milk and even beer.
That's a fascinating admission, partly because IP-rated water resistance is meant to be in pure lab water only, but mostly because while it's upped the stated water resistance on this year's iPhones, there's no change in Apple's official Australian warranties.
They state explicitly that it doesn't cover damage caused by "accident, abuse, misuse, fire, liquid contact, earthquake or other external cause".
So in other words, while Apple has more faith in the water resistance of its new phones, that faith doesn't actually extend to what happens if it gets wet and something actually goes wrong.
The iPhone XS has a 5.8-inch OLED display with what Apple calls the "Super Retina" display. It's the highest density display Apple's ever put into a phone, at 458ppi, but the size of the iPhone XS screen means that stretches out to a resolution of only 2436x1125. We've seen higher resolution in some competing Android flagships.
Which isn't to say that the iPhone XS is a bad looking handset to look at. Apple pours considerable resources into colour accuracy and display technologies for its handsets.
The Apple iPhone XS boasts Dolby Vision and HDR10 compatibility despite that relatively low resolution.
Apple has also shifted into the dual SIM space with the new iPhone XS, although it's only in the Chinese market that it's shipping an iPhone with two actual SIM card slots.
In Australia (and the rest of the word), you get a single regular nano-SIM, along with Apple's eSIM solution, something it's used previously on iPad tablets. Dual SIM adds flexibility to your telco spend, but there's a massive catch for Australian iPhone buyers.
No Australian networks support Apple's eSIM, or for that matter, provide dual SIM phones. They're opposed to providing them, which is why the carrier-provided model of any given smartphone – not just iPhones – comes in a single-SIM variant if you get it from them.
eSIM is supported by Australian telcos on the Apple Watch Series 3 and Apple Watch Series 4 watches at an additional cost to your existing phone plan, but you can't sign up for eSIM services on an iPhone XS at all.
You may be able to use that eSIM for global roaming if you can find an international carrier willing to sign up tourists to an eSIM service, but for practical purposes, the Australian iPhone XS is a single SIM phone only.
you could import a Chinese iPhone XS or iPhone XR with proper dual SIM support, but you shouldn't.
If you're pondering it, you could import a Chinese iPhone XS or iPhone XR with proper dual SIM support, but you shouldn't. Chinese iPhones lack support for the 700Mhz frequencies used by Optus and Telstra for their higher-speed 4G networks. You'd gain in dual SIM support, but lose out in real-world speeds, which feels like a very poor trade-off for such a premium phone.
But actual battery life still lags behind Android's best.
Still lags behind premium Android phones for battery life
Apple has long had an issue with battery stamina, largely because it's consistently chased thinner devices, and with that design choice, it's given itself much less space for actual batteries. The iPhone XS packs in a 2,658mAh battery, which is slightly down from 2017's iPhone X and a degree below the 3,174 mAh battery in the iPhone XS Max.
We're still waiting to conclude our battery testing for the Apple iPhone XS, but our existing figures for the iPhone XS Max are instructive:
The iPhone XS Max has decent battery life, but well below that of contemporary premium Android handsets. The iPhone XS has a smaller screen, which should mean a slightly lower power draw, but it's also got a much smaller battery. The prognosis for iPhone XS battery life isn't great.
The iPhone XS can technically support fast charging with Apple's 12W power adaptor, but again Apple plays the annoyingly cheap card of only supplying a 5W charger in the box. If you want faster wired charging, you'll have to pay extra for it.
As with previous generations, wireless charging is supported via the Qi standard, but we're still left waiting to see if Apple ever releases its own Airpower charger.
A good option for iPhone upgraders.
Expensive, even for a premium phone.
The iPhone XS sits in a relatively high price bracket, although not quite as eye watering as that of the Apple iPhone XS Max. That's a handset that we'd argue is overpriced, where the iPhone XS is merely expensive, at least in its lower storage capacities.
At the same time, the combination of a top-notch camera and the power of the Apple A12 Fusion make for a compelling handset. It's easier to pocket than the iPhone XS Max, and it'll leave a much smaller dent in your wallet too.
The lower price of the iPhone XS does make it a more interesting prospect than the iPhone XS Max. You could go even cheaper with the iPhone XR, but then you'd miss out on the dual-lens camera, the OLED display and a little bit of performance as that phone has less RAM.
If you're on the fence and have one of last year's phones, stay there. The iPhone X and 8 Plus (and even the iPhone 8) have a few good more years of life in them, and you've already spent your money.
If you're coming from earlier iPhone generations, the iPhone XS will make the most sense if you pick it up on contract and bust out a lot of that painful asking price.
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