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iPhone Xs review: Apple’s £999 middle child

A wonderful smartphone, but the launch price should rule out a day-one purchase

4
Price when reviewed 
999
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If you’ve already read my iPhone Xs Max review, let me save you a whole lot of time: the iPhone Xs is identical, except with 0.7in less screen, a smaller battery and a saving of £100. Everything else is the same: the unmatched performance, the great screen quality and the solid camera. The price, while slightly lower, should still make any right-thinking person wince though.

As you haven’t closed the browser window, I’m assuming you either haven’t read the Xs Max review, or have and want to see how I manage to churn out another 1,750 words on a phone that’s essentially the same without suffering an obvious breakdown.

Let’s find out, shall we?

Buy the iPhone Xs from Carphone Warehouse

iPhone Xs review: Design

Put the gone but not-forgotten iPhone X next to the shiny new iPhone Xs, and you may quickly lose track of which is which. They’re virtually identical: the only tell-tale clue being the positioning of the plastic antenna bands, with two bonus ones on the Xs.

That isn’t a bad thing, of course. The iPhone X is widely regarded as one of the best-looking phones around, and if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery then other manufacturers must have a bit of a crush on Apple, given their embrace of the widely-mocked notch.

Said notch is back here, of course, although Apple has tried to sneakily hide it in press shots with a wallpaper that is conveniently the same colour as the one obvious remaining bit of bezel. Fragile as the beautifully crafted bit of tech looks, Apple reckons it should be a bit tougher than the last outing, with more crack and shatter resistance on the front and back. I still wouldn’t recommend throwing it around, though.

No, the 3.5mm headphone jack hasn’t come back, there’s no expandable storage and Touch ID remains MIA. The latter of these still stings a bit: Face ID is good, but it’s not as straightforward as being able to unlock your handset quickly with a fingerprint.

iPhone Xs review: Screen

Fortunately, every time you do unlock the iPhone Xs with your face, you’ll have the pleasure of looking at a damned fine screen. Like last year’s iPhone X, and the larger iPhone Xs Max, it’s AMOLED and it’s very good indeed.

AMOLED tech, as you may know, means that each onscreen pixel has its own light source. That means they can switch off at will, leading to perfect inky blacks and contrast that literally can’t be beaten.

Elsewhere, it’s a great screen – albeit one that hasn’t changed much from last year’s iPhone X. Colour reproduction is excellent, and the colourimeter shows that its

coverage is great too, with 96.1% of the sRGB colour gamut reproduced. Brightness is one area that’s considerably improved, with a searing 668cd/m2 – up 166cd/m2 on the iPhone X. You won’t have problems seeing the screen, even if this summer’s ridiculous heatwave is repeated in 2019.

HDR10 and Dolby Vision standards are supported, and the results in Netflix and YouTube are nothing short of spectacular with colours popping left, right and centre, and everything looking tremendously realistic.

TrueTone colour correction is here too, which shifts the white balance of the content to match the light in the area around you, making everything nice and easy on the eyes. In short, it may not be markedly different from the iPhone X screen, but if it ain’t broke, there’s no reason to fix it.

iPhone Xs review: Performance

So far, to recap, you’re looking at a device that’s virtually identical to 2017’s iPhone X. The good news is that from here until the end of the review, it’s nothing but improvements, so settle in.

Let’s start with the performance. Apple’s new A12 Bionic processor – the first 7nm smartphone chip – is everything that Apple promised. Not only is the phone buttery smooth in everyday use, but it makes mincemeat out of the opposition in benchmarks. Which is kind of awkward, because Apple’s Android rivals still hadn’t quite caught up with the iPhone X…

The results are even starker when it comes to graphical performance. 119fps offscreen in the Manhattan 3 benchmark is by far the biggest score we’ve ever see – and it’s 39fps faster than the nearest Android rival, the OnePlus 6.

But it’s important not to overstate this for two very simple reasons. The first is that because the iPhone Xs has a 60Hz refresh rate, you won’t actually see any games breaking the 60fps barrier. With that wall in place, things will appear identical to the experience you’d get playing a game any big Android flagship rival.

Second, and more importantly, you won’t notice this in day to day use because almost every phone is powerful enough for basic functionality to perform well. Still for bragging rights, let me be clear: the iPhone Xs is as fast a handset as we’ve seen.

Given last year’s iPhone X was already faster than all the Android opposition, it’s possibly more important to focus on the efficiency improvement that the shift to 7nm chips brings to the table. To that end, the iPhone Xs’ battery has far more stamina than that offered by the iPhone X.

That said, as you can see above, it’s still not up there with the best Android can offer. More relevantly to those who will never cross the floor to Android, the iPhone Xs Max offers more battery life still. Nearly five hours’ more than the iPhone X, in fact.

iPhone Xs review: Camera

The camera array on the iPhone Xs is identical to that of the iPhone Xs Max. I know this is repeating my point from the start, but it’s an important point and something that Apple should be praised for, because not every manufacturer offers this level of parity between price tiers. The Samsung Galaxy S9, for example, doesn’t get the telephoto lens of the Plus model.

Back to the iPhone Xs. This design parity means you get a pair of 12-megapixel cameras on the back of the device. The first of these is a f/1.8 wide-angle lens, while the other is a f/2.4 2x telephoto lens for (slightly) zoomed shots without a deterioration in quality. Both snappers are optically stablised and benefit from phase-detect autofocus and a quad-LED flash.

Those specs may sound familiar: they’re the same that we got on the iPhone X. But the results are considerably better, and there are two reasons for this. The first is that the main camera now has 1.4um pixels, up from 1.22um on last year’s model. That means it’s better at getting good results from limited lighting.

For the other improvements, you have the A12 Bionic processor to thank again. Apple has boosted image signal processing with something it calls “Smart HDR”: what that means in effect is the camera will capture eight frames every time you take a photo, and the software will then combine them into a photo which balances out the light and shadow.

In practice, the results are excellent. Compared to the iPhone X, photos are simply better both in bright and low-light conditions:

Excellent, but not the best smartphone still camera. That honour goes to the Huawei P20 Pro, thanks to its three-camera array and 40-megapixel primary camera. The ability to zoom in at 3x and 5x magnifications gives Huawei the edge there.

But the fact it’s a close-run thing is a good result, and where Apple has the edge over Huawei (and everyone else in fact) is with video recording. The iPhone X was already the best phone for taking video, but now the iPhone Xs family has made the gulf even wider.

Being able to shoot video in 4K isn’t a new thing for flagship devices by any means, but the iPhone Xs does so flawlessly, letting you do so at 60fps with stabilisation. Other phones have those options, but often not all at the same time – in other words, you can shoot 30fps 4K video, or 1080p only if you want it to be shake-free.

But even amongst handsets which offer 4K 60fps stabilised footage, the iPhone Xs is a class apart. The Xs takes the great work of the iPhone X in this area and makes footage smoother and with a greater dynamic range than we’ve seen before on a smartphone. Flick from a bright area to a shadowy spot, and you won’t even notice the camera adjusting. It’s remarkable.

Between these and the f/2.2 front-facing camera (which now adds video stabilisation and 60fps 1080p to its list of tricks), the iPhone Xs probably has the best all-round camera package we’ve seen – even if stills on their own are a little weaker than the P20 Pro. Though in the fast-moving world of smartphones, it may not hold that crown for long – the Huawei Mate 20 and Google Pixel 3 are just around the corner, after all.  

iPhone Xs review: Software

With a new iPhone comes a new version of iOS. I’ll be brief because, again, not only has this been covered in the iPhone Xs Max review, but also in our dedicated iOS 12 page.

The changes are pretty incremental, in general. There are upgrades to Siri, more Animoji, a bit more ARKit, and you can now take multiple photos for FaceID to make it more reliable. Shortcuts is a little closer to being a game-changer, allowing you to create IFTTT style processes to your iPhone which can be triggered via a desktop link or via phrases to Siri. All are welcome, but hardly showstoppers.

In fact, ironically, the best new feature in iOS is one that’s intended to help you use it less. Screen Time shows you interesting stats on how often you use your iPhone – from the number of times you pick it up in a day, to how many notifications disturb you. If the information worries you, you can schedule quiet periods where apps become off limits. Bypassing that is as easy as pressing the ‘ignore’ button, but it could help you focus on other things if you find yourself being constantly distracted, I suppose.

iPhone Xs review: Verdict

Buy the iPhone Xs from Carphone Warehouse

Read back the last 1,700-odd words and you won’t find much negative in there. And that’s with good reason: the iPhone Xs is undoubtedly one of the best phones we’ve ever seen.

The problem is that, brilliant as it is, it just isn’t worth £999. Not when the OnePlus 6 costs £469. Not even when the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 costs £899 – and I never thought I’d live in a world where that would qualify as the value option.

It’s cheaper than the iPhone Xs Max, but if you are dead set on Apple’s latest and greatest, you may want to spend the extra for the bigger battery and screen real estate. After all, if you’re already spending a grand, what’s another £100?

Everyone else would be better looking at a pre-owned iPhone X on the cheap, waiting for the iPhone XR or learning how to navigate Android.

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