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iPhone XS Review: Apple’s Incredible Flagship Impresses on All Fronts

by Brandon Russell | October 11, 2018October 11, 2018 12:00 pm PDT

When Apple launched the iPhone X, the company billed the device as the smartphone of the future—an audacious claim considering what the device lacked (physical home button, headphone jack). One year later and it’s plain to see the iPhone X has had an indomitable impact on the mobile industry.

For a company long considered to be devoid of innovation, the iPhone X was a turning point; it ditched the home button for an entirely new gesture system and introduced mainstream audiences to advanced facial recognition. It also featured arguably the most elegant design ever.

With the iPhone XS and XS Max, Apple is expanding on the foundation laid by the iPhone X. That means improving the accuracy and speed of FaceID and introducing a more advanced camera. Apple’s new models even come in a swanky gold color, perfectly complementing the stainless steel design.

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Similar to last year, the iPhone XS and XS Max are very much in the upper echelon of luxury gadgets. As such, they demand a luxurious price. The iPhone XS and XS Max start at $999 and $1,099, respectively. If you want something more affordable, you can wait for the iPhone XR, which starts at $749.

Note: Aside from size, the iPhone XS and XS Max are identical. I used the iPhone XS, while Jon used the iPhone XS Max for his video review. In this written portion, we will focus largely on the iPhone XS and discuss the XS Max when relevant.

Aging Beautifully

The iPhone XS is arguably the most grandiose smartphone available right now, displaying an opulent level of quality matched by few competitors. Apple pushed the envelope with last year’s release, and its engineering prowess remains front and center with the iPhone XS.

Hold the iPhone X and iPhone XS side by side, and you’ll notice the devices are virtually indistinguishable, save for the aforementioned gold finish. There have been reports that the camera hump is slightly different, but nothing that’s discernible to the naked eye.

Which is fine, considering how much we liked the design of the iPhone X. Apple nailed the fit and finish to such a degree that the iPhone XS still feels fresh, despite being a carbon copy of a phone that’s almost a year old.

With a 5.8-inch OLED display, the iPhone XS’ size provides plenty of screen real estate without feeling overbearing or cumbersome, making it incredibly comfortable to use one-handed.

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The iPhone XS Max is a different story. Featuring a positively massive 6.5-inch display, it’s the biggest screen ever in an iPhone. While that sounds big, the device’s size is deceivingly manageable, although there are some situations when it can be a bit much.

The screen was made for consuming content, but it can be difficult to use one-handed. Swiping from the top down can only be done by the biggest of hands. Even reaching the top row of icons is a challenge.

Those issues aside, the trade-off is you get a much more expansive display for playing Fortnite, watching Netflix, and editing content. Editing multiple photos on the iPhone XS Max is a lot more doable thanks to the 6.5-inch screen.

When you are watching content, you’ll love the “wide stereo” speakers, which provide louder, richer sound compared to the iPhone X.

Some of the other design changes include the leap to IP68 water and dust resistance, dual-SIM support, up to 512GB of internal storage, faster FaceID, and improved wireless charging compared to the iPhone X.

Making Improvements

On the inside, the iPhone XS comes equipped with an A12 Bionic chip, which Apple says features its next-generation Neural Engine, using real-time machine learning for a better gaming, photo, and augmented reality experience. The Neural Engine is capable of performing five trillion operations per second—compare that to the iPhone X’s 600 billion operations per second—which basically means performance is top notch, and will continue to be top notch for the next few years.

The battery is top notch as well. Coming from an iPhone X, I was able to get through a heavy day of use with power to spare—never did I encounter anxiety about needing to charge up, and I didn’t have to rely on Apple’s low power mode to eke out a few more minutes of usage.

Of course, the device is brand new, so you’d expect the battery to be running on all cylinders. If it degrades in any significant way in the near future, we’ll be sure to let you know.

The iPhone XS Max provides even better battery life thanks to its massive size. Getting through a full day is no problem at all, even for power users. If you’re someone who only occasionally uses their device to send a few texts or two throughout the day, it’s likely you’ll enjoy a few days of usage without needing to charge.

Apple also upgraded Face ID, the advanced biometric technology introduced last year. The TrueDepth camera still contains the dot projector, infrared camera, flood illuminator, and adaptive recognition features. New this year is a faster, more accurate recognition. The technology still has its issues—using it lying down possess problems, for example—but it does feel improved now that it’s in its second cycle.

The important thing is that it still feels like a truly futuristic replacement for Touch ID, which Apple is eliminating from its library of products in a hurry. One of the new things you can do with Face ID is add a secondary appearance, which essentially means you can add another person to unlock your device. It’s a nice new feature if you frequently share your device with someone, such as a significant other.

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While no noticeable changes were made to either screen, it bears repeating how fantastic the OLED panel of the iPhone XS looks. All of the best features from the iPhone X have been carried over, including TrueTone and Night Shift. It’s a pleasant experience all around.

As is the software, which is faster, more efficient and more stable compared to iOS 11. Indeed, it feels cleaner and more optimized than it has over the past few years, resulting in excellent performance, with smarter features that improve the daily experience. Grouped notifications make notifications more manageable while Screen Time encourages more mindful usage.

Is the Camera Better?

The most significant change this year comes in the form of an upgraded camera, so let’s just get this out of the way: the iPhone XS camera is noticeably better than the one found in the iPhone X. Pictures are more detailed, more vibrant, and more pleasing to look at. You can thank Apple’s new Smart HDR feature for that. (It’s similar to the Pixel’s HDR features.)

During Apple’s keynote, the company explained that while the wide-angle lens still features a 12-megapixel sensor with an f/1.8 aperture, the pixels are bigger (1.4µm) and deeper (3.5µm). The company also detailed the image signal processor (ISP), which automatically sets exposure, white balance, noise reduction, and more.

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Apple has integrated the ISP with its neural engine, allowing the iPhone XS to perform functions like facial landmarking and red-eye reduction. Apple said these systems work together to perform 1 trillion operations per photo. There’s even a function called zero shutter lag, which shoots a four-frame buffer even before you take a picture.

The A12 Bionic chips also works to capture secondary frames to bring out highlights and shadows, merging them into the perfect photo. What this all means is that iPhone XS is a definite upgrade over the iPhone X based on the camera alone.

One small thing to note: if you look hard enough, you’ll notice that the focal length of the iPhone XS’s wide angle lens is about 30 percent wider compared to the iPhone X. That in and of itself doesn’t make the iPhone XS’s camera better, but it just means that you’ll be able to capture a little more scenery in your shots.

A cool new trick Apple added this year is the ability to adjust a picture’s background blur after it’s been taken. It’s a fun way to provide users with more control and imitate a more robust camera system. Similar to last year, portrait shots snapped by the iPhone XS can be both excellent and average—it’s cool to adjust the bokeh after the fast and see which focal lengths work best for a particular image.

I did encounter some situations when Smart HDR was too aggressive, making shots look fake and overly processed. There were also some instances when Apple’s noise reduction software made photos look less detailed than they otherwise might have. To my eye, photos look plenty sharp, unless you really zoom and do pixel peeping. For social media, however, pictures look terrific.

Apple’s Best Device Ever

Although the iPhone XS is an “s” upgrade, it’s still a hugely important one. Apple took the iPhone X and refined it to be even better, creating the best iPhone available right now. It’s incredible to see how far Apple’s device—and the mobile industry as a whole—has come over the past several years.

For anyone who has an iPhone 7 or older, the iPhone XS is a monumental upgrade that will serve you over the next few years; the A12 Bionic chip has been built to last, and we’re not even close to seeing its full potential. Apple built the iPhone XS for those who were looking for a substantial upgrade, and older iPhone owners will be very happy.

But if you own an iPhone X (like me), then the upgrade is more difficult to recommend. Sure, the iPhone XS is slightly faster and FaceID is more consistent, but you’re not missing out on much by not upgrade, unless you really, really want the better camera or the iPhone XS Max’s larger display.

Of course, if you want the power of the iPhone XS without the premium price, you might want to wait for the iPhone XR, which is right around the corner.

Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo purchased the iPhone XS with 256GB of storage from Apple. We used the device for 10 days before writing this review.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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