Review: Apple iPhone XS

Apple came out with three new phones this past September. The iPhone XS (pronounced “Ten S”), the iPhone XS Max, and the “budget” iPhone XR (pronounced “Ten R”). I managed to get my hands on an iPhone XS (a silver 256GB model) thanks to my friends at TELUS to replace my iPhone 7 Plus (which is now going to my wife as the 128GB of storage and the dual camera is something that she would welcome) as my daily driver and I’ve been using it for just over a week and a half. I have to admit that this phone is outstanding.

First of all, this is my first “X” model iPhone. And I have to admit that the screen is one of the stars of the show. It’s an 5.8″ OLED display that has much sharper blacks, colours that just pop, and quite frankly the display looks brighter and richer at maximum brightness than any other iPhone (or any other smartphone for that matter) that I have seen. The inclusion of Dolby Vision and HDR10 in the iPhone XS helps with that. It has a resolution of 2436‑by-1125‑pixel resolution at 458 ppi which is insanely sharp. Not only that, it has a  82.9% screen-to-body ratio. That means that it’s essentially an all screen iPhone which allows it to be physically smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus that I was previously using while still having the same if not slightly more screen real estate. That’s a good thing as it makes the phone slightly easier to hold and to pocket.

There is no home button anymore which means that Touch ID as an authentication method is dead. Instead there’s Face ID and it is quick. Though it has to learn about your face first so that it unlocks with a high degree of reliability. But once it does that which takes a few days, you can be into your phone in seconds. Though you still have to swipe up after you unlock the phone with your face which is a bit annoying. But I can see why that is done as it allows you to see and act on notifications.

Now related to the above, I’ve had to get used to a bunch of changes to how I use my iPhone:

  • To use Apple Pay, you have to rapidly double click the right side button. That activates Face ID which in turn allows you to pay for something. I discovered that the hard way at the local Shoppers Drug Mart when I wasn’t clicking fast enough to get the phone to authenticate to allow me to pay for my shopping.
  • To invoke Siri without saying “Hey Siri” you need to press and hold the right side button.
  • To return home you swipe up from the bottom.
  • You raise the phone to wake it up.
  • To use App Switcher (which is Apple speak for multitasking), swipe up from the bottom edge and pause for a second with your finger still on the display. You can also swipe right from the bottom to access other apps.
  • To see notifications you have to swipe down from the top left or top center.
  • To see control center you have to swipe down from the top right.
  • To get the power off slider and S.O.S. button, press and hold the side button and the  volume down button for a few seconds. (Also of note, this disables FaceID until you enter your passcode).
  • Quickly tap the volume up button, then the volume down button, then press and hold the side button to reboot the iPhone.

After a few days I did get the hang of these new gestures. Though I am still finding myself unlearning things that I have ingrained in me since 2011 which is when I got my very first iPhone. If you’re coming to the iPhone as a new user, I suspect that this won’t be an issue. But if you’ve had another iPhone, I can see how this might be a challenge for the first little while. Fortunately, 3D Touch is still there as I find that to be very handy in apps that support it.

The iPhone XS is an all glass body, which means that you are highly advised to put it in a case the nanosecond that you get it. A screen protector made of tempered glass is something that I would recommend as well. For the record, my go to case is this one which provides military spec drop protection, and the screen protector that I went with was this one. My concern about the iPhone surviving a drop comes from the fact that iPhone X had a bit of a reputation for having either the screen or the back shatter if it fell. Now Apple says they have the strongest glass that man has ever seen in the iPhone XS, but I am not willing to test that by leaving my iPhone XS case free and neither should you. While you are at it you should get AppleCare+ because the out of warranty costs of repairing one of these phones is insanely high. The upshot of being an all glass phone is that wireless charging is possible. I tested that on this charger and found it to charge reasonably quickly and it is sure convenient to be able to just place it on a stand and have it charge. The iPhone XS is also now rated using the IP68 standard to a maximum depth of 2 metres up to 30 minutes in liquid. Which means it will survive a splash of water or beer with ease. There’s one other thing that I should mention. The outer band is stainless steel that makes the phone look really upscale and it has some sort of coating on it. Hopefully for scratch resistance because stainless steel scratches easily. Thus that’s another reason why you should pop this phone in a case the nanosecond you get it because it would be a shame to scratch such a good looking iPhone.

The big news is the A12 Bionic process which is wickedly fast. While every iPhone is faster than the last one, this one is noticeably faster than an iPhone X that I borrowed to compare the XS against. And it is way faster than the iPhone 7 or 8. It likely helps that the iPhone XS has 4GB of RAM which is 1GB more than the iPhone X and in line with the iPad Pro. Regardless, anything I tossed at it was fluid and fast. Another piece of big news is that the iPhone XS supports dual SIM cards in the form of a physical nano SIM and a eSIM that is similar to what is found in the Apple Watch with GPS+Cellular. That means you can have two phone numbers on your iPhone. Say one for work and one for personal use so that you are only carrying one phone and not two. Or use the eSIM for your primary carrier in your home country and the physical nano SIM for travelling overseas. And in either case you are reachable by either number though you will have designate one as a primary number which makes sense. This feature isn’t currently switched on but this functionality is due in a future software update. Most likely iOS 12.1. It also requires carrier support. So your mileage may vary in terms of whether your carrier supports this feature or not. But I for one would take advantage of this as I travel enough and tend to use a local SIM card when doing so. But at the same time I don’t want to lose access to my Canadian phone number which I would when I swap out the SIM card.

Other things that I noted:

  • The speakers are now stereo and produce very loud, crisp and well defined audio.
  • LTE is insanely fast. The iPhone XS supports LTE Advanced and it is not unusual for me to get triple digit LTE speeds in some places in Toronto. As in up to 170 Mbps at times on the TELUS network which is insanely great.
  • Battery life is what I would call acceptable. The previous iPhone 7 Plus that I had would easily have 50% or more battery life by the time I came to the end of my 6AM to 10PM workday. The iPhone XS by contrast will only have 30%-40% depending on how heavy I used the phone. Though I will admit that the iPhone 7 Plus didn’t have a power hungry OLED display to suck the life out of the battery. Still, you should be able to make it through the day without having to top up your battery which may be in the cards with the iPhone XS if you are a heavy user. If you need longer battery life, you might want to look at the iPhone XR as it has the best battery life of the three new iPhones.
  • My iPhone 7 Plus which also has a 5.8″ screen acted like an iPad as it would flip the home screen icons into landscape mode when the phone was oriented that way. The iPhone XS doesn’t do that. Only the XS Max has this feature. Why Apple took this feature away is a mystery to me.
  • There’s no Lightning to 3.5mm jack adapter in the box. So if you prefer wired headphones rather than using wireless ones like the EarPods or the Beats ones that Apple wants you to buy, you’ll have to buy one from the Apple Store for $10 and live the dongle life accordingly. Not including this dongle is a complete #Fail on Apple’s part given how much this phone costs.
  • Another #Fail is the 5W power adapter that comes in the box when the iPhone is capable of charging far faster using one of Apple’s 12W chargers or Apple’s 30W USB-C charger. Seriously Apple. Is it too much to ask for you to not nickel and dime your customers to death when they spend this kind of money?

But the really big news is the camera. From the spec sheet you’d be forgiven if you think there’s nothing to see here as the same dual cameras, same aperture settings, same 12 megapixel ratings, same 2x optical zoom that the iPhone X had are here. But Apple’s done plenty of work under the hood as the XS has a totally new image sensor that really does noticeably improve the quality of photos. The better sensor and the new image processor on the A12 Bionic processor combine to enable what Apple calls “Smart HDR.” In practice, that means my photos look better in low light and extreme contrast situations, making for better pictures whether shot on a nighttime street, in a dark bar or in bright sunlight. Here’s a bunch of photos in a variety of lighting conditions to illustrate the improvements that Apple has made to the camera:

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Apple wasn’t finished there. For portrait photos, Apple now also uses software to let you adjust background focus after you’ve shot a photo. Yes other phones can do that. But it works insanely well on the iPhone XS and the resulting photos look sharp. Here’s an example:

Video recording is also been stepped up this year. Not only do videos now record with stereo sound, you can record 4K 60FPS videos with close to rock solid stability. Here’s a couple of examples of 4K videos at 30FPS.

It was a windy day on when I recorded this video. But that allows you to hear the new feature which is stereo separation. So do the sound of the jet engines. It’s is also got great image stabilization as it looks like I was shooting these videos on a gimbal.

I can’t end the camera part of this review without talking about “BeautyGate” which is the latest Apple “gate” style controversy that involves the front facing camera smoothing the skin to excessive levels. This in turn caused the Internet to erupt in rage. Now someone will say that other phones have a beauty mode such as Samsung phones for example that does something similar. And that person will be right. But…. It’s a feature that you deliberately pick which is not the case with “BeautyGate” as there is no choice for this skin smoothing that people are seeing. Apparently the core issue is that Smart HDR has a bug in it that will be fixed in iOS 12.1 which should be out in the next couple of weeks. I’m not a big selfie taker so this is a total non issue for me. Though I was able to replicate this issue by comparing selfie photos between the iPhone 7 Plus and XS. But based on the fact that this quickly became a “gate” shows how big a deal this is for some.

Gripes? Price is my only one. Apple clearly has abandoned any pretense that they want to have an affordable iPhone. The iPhone XS starts at $1379 CDN for 64GB and goes up to $1859 CDN for 512GB. My iPhone XS with 256GB slots in at $1589 CDN. None of those prices are cheap and my wife refers to Apple’s pricing as “mortgage money” because it’s the same as the monthly mortgage payment for some. And if that isn’t enough, the iPhone XS Max starts at $1519 CDN for 64GB and tops out just under $2000 CDN with 512GB which is mind blowing. The closest thing to a budget phone that Apple offers is the iPhone XR. If you call a phone that starts at $1029 CDN for 64GB a budget phone. Good thing Apple still offers the iPhone 8/8 Plus and iPhone 7/7 Plus for those who don’t want to cough up “mortgage money” for an iPhone. Having said all of that, Apple sold something like 216 million iPhones in 2017. Thus I am going to go out on a limb and say that they will sell every one that they make without issue regardless of what the price is.

So, should you get the iPhone XS? Well, that depends on who you are:

  • If you have an iPhone X, Apple’s latest effort is an improvement for sure. But I question if there is enough value for you to jump to the XS unless you want the bigger screen found in the XS Max.
  • If you have an iPhone 7/7 Plus or iPhone 8/8 Plus or anything else before the iPhone X, it’s worth the upgrade if you can shell out the money that Apple is asking for the iPhone XS or XS Max.
  • If you’re coming over from Team Android to join Team iPhone, I suspect that you’re likely to zero in on the XS Max because of the screen size. But either is a more than worthy upgrade.

The only fly in the ointment that might keep people from going to the iPhone XS or XS Max is the iPhone XR which may offer better value for some for these reasons.  But let me be clear. Apple has come out with a killer smartphone. Sure it’s insanely expensive, but they actually have provided a phone that justifies the money they want for it. That’s not easy for anyone to do and you have to give Apple credit for doing that. The iPhone XS is absolutely worth looking if you’re in the market for a smartphone and you have a whole lot of cash to spend on one.

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3 Responses to “Review: Apple iPhone XS”

  1. […] Apple came out with three new phones this past September. The iPhone XS (pronounced “Ten S”), the iPhone XS Max, and the “budget” iPhone XR (pronounced “Ten R”). I managed to get my hands on an iPhone … ( read original story …) […]

  2. […] dropped the cash (and to be frank, it’s a lot of cash) on the new iPhones from Apple like I did, you might be wondering what accessories you need. I’ve gotten a few emails asking me that […]

  3. […] when I reviewed the iPhone XS, I said that my main criticism was price. According to my wife, it costs more than my monthly […]

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