The iPhone X changed everything. With it,
reinvented iPhone design, security and (most controversially) the price we can expect to pay for a flagship smartphone. One year on, the iPhone XS has pushed this pricing even higher but are there enough differences to justify an upgrade?
Here’s everything you need to know…
Displays – The Same But Better
The iPhone X marked Apple’s first venture into OLED displays, and it immediately set the bar for everyone else. Predictably, the iPhone XS makes further improvements, though you won’t notice any difference in the core specs:
- iPhone XS, iPhone X – 5.8-inch 19.5:9 aspect ratio True Tone OLED, 2436 x 1125 pixels (458 ppi), 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio, 82.9% screen-to-body ratio,
Yes, Apple has fitted an OLED panel of identical size and resolution into the iPhone XS and yet claims it will deliver 60% greater dynamic range with HDR content. This is backed up with Dolby Vision / HDR10 support so you’ll get ample opportunity to see the improvement in images and video.
The other major change is what Apple calls “120Hz touch sensing”. This isn’t to be confused with a 120Hz refresh rate, which is used by the Razor phone to gloriously smooth effect. 120Hz touch sensing is the speed at which the phone will look for touch input. The 60Hz panel refresh rate remains, but by reacting twice as quickly to touch input the iPhone XS should feel more responsive than the iPhone X the moment you touch it.
Furthermore, while the notch remains (and is no smaller) on the iPhone XS, Apple claims the Face ID facial recognition system housed within it is “faster”.
No concrete figure was put on the difference, and the improvements are believed to be software based, as opposed to new hardware. But given Face ID on the iPhone X was slower than the Touch ID fingerprint recognition system it replaced and we unlock our phones dozens of times a day, all improvements here are welcome.
Design – Identical Twins
While looking closely at the iPhone XS display will reveal its upgrades over the iPhone X, the same can’t be said of their designs:
- iPhone XS – 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7 mm (5.65 x 2.79 x 0.30 in) and 177g (6.24 oz)
- iPhone X – 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7 mm (5.65 x 2.79 x 0.30 in) and 174g (6.14 oz)
Yes, a 3g (0.1 oz) weight difference is it. That said, Apple has made design improvements, you just won’t spot them with the naked eye.
The first of these is increased IP68 water and dust resistance over the IP67 certification in the iPhone X. You can read about the technicalities here, but essentially it means you can now submerge your iPhone in up to three metres of water instead of one.
Next up, and equally subtle, is a 25% increase in speaker volume and stereo support – the latter of which Apple promises deliver audibly clear left and right channels. The iPhone X has surprisingly loudspeakers (more so than the front firing, stereo supporting Pixel 2) so this should be a welcome increase for anyone who likes to listen to podcasts on the kitchen counter.
Most tangibly, and least easy to spot, is Apple’s addition of dual sim support – a first for the iPhone range. The second sim isn’t physical, it’s an eSIM, but the two can work simultaneously allowing you to share work/home or home/roaming numbers in a single device. eSim support is currently limited, but expect that to change quickly now iPhones have it.
Elsewhere, the stainless steel frame introduced with the iPhone X remains, as does the more polarising glass back required for wireless charging (another boosted feature I’ll discuss next).
You can also buy the iPhone XS in one additional colour: gold, which is carried over from the iPhone 8 range. Silver and Space Grey finishes remain.
Performance – Beating Itself
Apple’s A11 chipset (iPhone X, iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus) delivered by far the fastest performance of any phone last year, and the new A12 chipset in the iPhone XS (also iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR) will retain that crown:
- iPhone XS – Apple A12 ‘Bionic’ chipset: Six-Core CPU, Six Core GPU, M12 motion coprocessor, 4GB RAM
- iPhone X – Apple A11 ‘Bionic’ chipset: Six-Core CPU, Six Core GPU, M11 motion coprocessor, 3GB RAM
So how does this all boil down? In terms of graphics, Apple is promising a leap of 50%, and another 50% in power efficiency while idle. A 15% boost to peak performance is less impressive, but the iPhone X already has power to burn.
In terms of smarts, Apple says the A12 will also deliver improvements to image processing (more in the ‘Cameras’ section), while it is behind the iPhone XS’s aforementioned speed improvements with Face ID. A boost to 3GB of RAM should help multitasking as well, the one area where Apple has struggled against rivals.
What does ‘Bionic’ mean? It’s marketing nonsense.
In addition, the iPhone XS has “faster” wireless charging (another improvement Apple declined to define) as well as much faster 4G networking with a leap from Cat 12 to Cat 16 LTE and support of the 600MHz band.
The Cat 16 leap is significant as it will achieve potential 4G speeds of one gigabit whereas Cat 12 was limited to 600 Mbit. While both speeds are unlikely to be achieved in real-world scenarios, it helps future proof the iPhone XS. Useful at a time when Apple is unlikely to support 5G anytime soon.
As for 600 MHz support, this is a genuinely great addition. 600 MHz is a slower network band, but it is one which covers great distances and is being used by networks to deliver coverage to areas previously without signal. The iPhone XS is the first iPhone to support 600 MHz so this will be a big deal to people living in 600 MHz-only areas.
Cameras – New Hardware, Better Software
Apple will never admit it, but the iPhone range had fallen far behind rivals – most notably the Pixel 2. But with the iPhone XS, Apple is playing an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ strategy by mimicking the image processing of Google’s Pixels.
What Google called ‘HDR+’, Apple has named ‘Smart HDR’ and it combines the best parts of multiple photos taken at different exposures into a single image. This should significantly improve dynamic range, a particular iPhone weakness, while improvements to its Portrait Mode deliver a Samsung-style party trick where the iPhone XS can adjust the background blur of an image after it is taken.
As for hardware, aside from new six-piece lenses, there’s one major upgrade in the iPhone XS you should look out for:
- Primary rear camera – 12MP, f/1.8 aperture, 1.4µm pixel size, Optical Image stabilisation (OIS), Quad-LED True Tone flash, Portrait Lighting
- Secondary telephoto lens – 12MP, f/2.4 aperture, 1.0µm pixel size, OIS, 2x optical zoom
- Front ‘TrueDepth’ camera – 7MP, f/2.2 aperture
If you need a hint, it’s the pixel size. 1.4µm matches the Pixel 2 and bigger pixels can take in more light, so the iPhone XS should deliver much better performance than the 1.22µm pixels on the iPhone X.
Just like last year, the iPhone XS can also take Portrait photos with its front camera. This is another area where Apple has fallen behind Google so, hopefully, Smart HDR rides to the rescue here as well. Certainly the upcoming Pixel 3 looks set for a much sterner test this year.
Battery Life And Charging – Incremental Improvements
The iPhone X didn’t have great battery life, so you’ll be pleased to hear the iPhone XS has more stamina. You’ll be less impressed to hear it’s just “30 minutes longer” according to Apple. This is surprising given the A12’s 50% increase in efficiency while idle and Apple really should’ve fitted a bigger battery:
- iPhone XS – 2800 mAh
- iPhone X – 2716 mAh
In fact, battery life is the area where I have most complaints with the iPhone XS. The aforementioned “faster” wireless charging is vague and doesn’t suggest much improvement over the 7.5W achieved by the iPhone X. Something not even close to the 15W supported by the Qi-standard it uses.
Secondly, while the iPhone XS has the same fast wired charging as the iPhone X (a 50% charge in 30 minutes from flat), Apple has still bundled a slow charger with the new phone. This is remarkable when a) every rival has done this for years, and b) Apple charges $75 for a single fast charger and compatible cable. That’s outrageous.
In short: when it comes to battery life and charging, rivals are doing far better.
Storage And Price – Bigger But Higher
As for pricing, you’ll find the iPhone XS matches the iPhone X though as it has a new top tier you can pay even more:
- iPhone XS – 64GB ($999), 256GB ($1,149), 512GB ($1,349)
- iPhone X – 64GB ($999), 256GB ($1,149)
I remain convinced 128GB is the sweet spot for most iPhone owners, which is undoubtedly why Apple sticks with 64GB as the entry point. But Americans shouldn’t complain too much given Apple is charging Europeans up to $2,000.
While the naming may be new, the iPhone XS is the very definition of a typical iPhone ‘S year’. So while there are numerous smart improvements internally, from the outside the only way to tell you have an iPhone XS is if you get the gold one.
Consequently, my advice to iPhone X owners would be to hold tight for another year – you are not the target audience. As for those upgrading from older iPhones, I’d suggest you take a long, hard look at the more colourful iPhone XR. It matches the most important specs (though not all) of the iPhone XS and starts at $750.
What if you’ve got money to spend? Then the iPhone XS Max is the model for you. It has a display to make jaws drop, and much better battery life.
Ultimately, this is the big problem with the iPhone XS. While undoubtedly an excellent phone, Apple has flanked it with two better options and you’d be smart to check them out first…
More On Forbes