When it launched last year, the iPhone X was something the phone-buying public sorely wanted: the chance to get their hands on a new style of handset from Apple.
That need was filled, so this year we weren’t expecting anything as impressive – and that’s been the case with the new iPhone XS.
Confusing name aside, the new phone is largely similar to last year’s model, but with some key upgrades: there’s now 512GB of storage, an all-new A12 Bionic chipset to improve the speed and camera performance, and an enhanced display.
iPhone XS price and release date
The iPhone XS will be available to pre-order in most countries around the world from September 14, with the handset going on sale globally from September 21 if you want to pick it up from a store. In terms of price, the good (ish) news is that the cost hasn’t risen over last year’s incredibly expensive iPhone X, with the 64GB iPhone XS price coming in at $999 / £999 / AU$1,629. The 256GB iPhone XS price is $1,149 / £1,149 / AU$1,879, and the 512GB iPhone XS price is $1,349 / £1,349 / AU$2,199. That said, while the cost of rival smartphones has been going up, the iPhone XS is still going to be one of the most costly phones you can buy (apart from the iPhone XS Max, which will have the eye-watering price tag of $1,099 / £1,099 / AU$1,799).
As we said, the main thing that excited people last year was the all-new design, and Apple’s staying true to form and making this an ‘S’ year – that means the same design, with only a few tweaks inside to mark this out as a different phone.
The main change is to the color scheme: this year we’ve got a gold shade thrown into the mix, which we have to say looks rather striking in the flesh.
Beyond that, the same frame as last year is present: a steel frame around the edge, a 5.8-inch display encapsulated by thin bezels all the way around, and (unsurprisingly) no home button, with the notch at the top of the display housing all the components required for the Face ID facial recognition for unlocking the phone.
The glass front and back are here once again too, and despite not really changing anything year on year, Apple has still delivered one of the more striking smartphone designs on the market.
When we say striking we’re not talking about the look – there are an absolute slew of iPhone copycats on the market now from Asian firms, and many offer a similar design – but the build quality. The feel of the iPhone in the hand still conjures a premium feeling, going some way to offsetting that sky-high price.
In the hand, it’s very hard to feel there’s much different between the iPhone X and iPhone XS from last year – the gold coloring aside – but you still get a real feel that this is one of the most premium smartphones on the market, and that more durable glass on the back doesn’t diminish the feeling at all.
Compared to the iPhone X, it really is identical though – the chances of anyone noticing the difference are miniscule as there really aren’t any.
Some will be disappointed to learn there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack-to-Lightning port adaptor in the box, as there has been with phones since the iPhone 7. You can still buy these from Apple for $9 / £9 if you need one.
The iPhone XS does come with the bundled Lightning connector earbuds, which many people will choose to use and so won’t miss the dongle.
On the left-hand side of the phone (and, for that matter, the right-hand side too) things are much as expected: the volume buttons and silencer rocker switch remain on the left, and the larger lock / Siri button sits proudly on the right of the phone, jutting out just enough to be used effectively without ruining the flow of the rim.
The iPhone XS is water-resistant to IP68 rating, an improvement on the X which means you can slosh it about in the bath or shower without a care in the world, and there are dual speakers on the top and bottom of the device.
They don’t both fire forward (the bottom one spits sound downwards from the edge of the phone), which is still a shame if you’re trying to watch a film without headphones, but they’re still impressively loud – Apple has improved the output this year to make them even more dynamic and rich-sounding, and although it was hard to fully test this out in the demo area at the launch event there does seem to be a definite improvement in sound quality, with the bass especially feeling more robust.
Again, the iPhone XS hasn’t really changed much in terms of the screen it’s offering. The 5.8-inch OLED option is back once again, and that was already one of the best screens we’ve seen on a phone in the last year, delivering rich colors, deep blacks and strong contrast ratios.
There’s still the aggravating notch at the top of the phone, housing the front-facing cameras and speaker, and while you’ll probably get used to this in a week or two there are some films or YouTube videos that you’ll want to expand to fill the whole screen, and you’ll lose a touch of picture there.
Apple has improved the performance of this screen by adding 60% better dynamic range to the already-offered HDR 10 and Dolby Vision movies – this basically improves the quality even further by managing to make both bright and dark elements of the scene rich and clear, without just driving the brightness right up and ruining the overall quality.
We played Ready Player One – a visually rich experience – and as you’d expect, the color reproduction and clarity between the light and dark scenes was pretty impressive.
Watching HDR video on the screen we didn’t instantly feel like it was miles better, but it was engaging and deep – we just remember having the same kind of reaction last year.
Also just scrolling around the device a pleasant experience, and the speed was phenomenal thanks to the new A12 Bionic chipset.
Apps opened and closed in a flash, the camera fired up instantly, and while we took an age to load a Bethesda game (Elder Scrolls Blaze) the overall quality when we got into it was great, and really does offer the feeling that you’re getting console quality on a smartphone (despite it being a touch juddery to run through – although this is an unreleased game).
The overall graphical quality of Blaze was really impressive when it came to the visuals, but we really need to test the graphical prowess of the phone to see where it’s made big steps ahead.
While there are some minor refinements to the camera on the iPhone XS, there are nowhere near as many as some might have expected, once again highlighting how this is very much an ‘S’ year for the iPhone range.
It’s good to get dual cameras on the ‘normal-sized’ iPhone – last year’s iPhone 8 only had a single sensor – but perhaps there could have been more added to the mix.
There are two 12MP sensors, both with optical image stabilization we believe, although one is a wide-angle lens offering higher-quality low-light performance, and the other a telephoto lens that allows for 2x zoom to get you closer to subjects.
The two can be used together in Apple’s Portrait Mode, enabling you to blur backgrounds and allowing you to change the lighting or add effects to the subject with a few simple swipes.
You can also change the depth effect of the bokeh from within the app – there’s a neat ‘dot’ where Apple things you should be scrolling to, but you have control too.
What has been upgraded is this phone’s capability to understand and improve photos through its onboard smarts: it can now dynamically work out scenes and enhance overall photo quality algorithmically, as Apple strives to catch up to the photographical prowess of the Google Pixel 2 and Huawei P20 Pro.
Overall, the quality is enhanced, with the new chipset taking in the capability of the A12 Bionic’s Neural engine – as you can see in the photos that Apple showed off on stage, the quality is incredible.
Testing the camera in the demo area, things were super-crisp and clean, but we’d expect that in bright conditions. We’ll need to spend more time trying it out in more challenging environments to find out more.
As ever, Apple doesn’t announce the size of its battery on stage, preferring to talk about what its phones can actually do. The iPhone X last year had a capacity of just over 2,700mAh, but could generally last the day pretty well.
Apple is claiming that the iPhone XS, with its new, more efficient A12 Bionic chipset inside, is capable of lasting 30 minutes longer than the iPhone X – which doesn’t seem that much, and makes us inclined to believe that it’s the chipset doing so much more that’s the reason for the low jump.
There’s wireless charging in the mix too (we assume, although Apple never mentioned it), based on the Qi standard, and we’ve found with any phone that’s capable of wireless charging that if you head out and buy a couple of power pads for work and home we doubt you’ll actually run out of battery very often at all. The back is still glass, so there’s no worry that the charging signal won’t get through.
There’s no fast charger in the box from Apple it seems, as it wasn’t mentioned, which is a missed opportunity when you consider rivals like Samsung and OnePlus have been offering that functionality with the cost of the phone for years.
There aren’t many huge strides forward in battery life on the iPhone XS, but that’s hardly surprising given it has the same frame, with little room to shove in more battery capacity.
There’s always something so disappointing about the ‘S’ years of the iPhone – sure, it makes business sense for Apple given it can still command sales without having to redesign the phone every time, but without a new shape it’s not as easy to explain to buyers why it’s worth buying.
There are some decent improvements in the mix – notably the capacity, the louder speakers and the more colorful screen – but beyond that many will likely be torn between last year’s iPhone X, which will now be cheaper, and having the latest iPhone, as we can’t say the upgrades we saw were plentiful or overpowering. The iPhone XR seems more of an impressive feat from Apple, to be honest.
There’s a real snap to using the iPhone XS in the hand, and it’s capable of being held easily with one palm. The edges still being steel make us worry that it’ll scratch like the X managed to, so you certainly may want to consider a case, as these phones were already hoovering up fingerprints in the demo area.
We’re looking forward to getting our teeth into this handset over the next few weeks, and we’ll bring you our full iPhone XS review with all the details you need to know before deciding whether to take the plunge.