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iPhone XS review: Everything Apple has to offer, but in a smaller package


Reports indicate Apple’s iPhone XS Max is by far the most popular of the iPhone XS line. The Max is the bigger of the two, with a massive 6.5-inch display. The smaller, more familiar-sized iPhone XS looks nearly identical to last year’s iPhone X, in terms of design and size.

With the release of the 6.1-inch iPhone XR just around the corner, the iPhone XS is the smallest iPhone Apple announced this year despite its price tag.

In nearly every aspect, the iPhone XS is identical to the iPhone XS Max. Both devices use the same processor, display tech, and camera setup. The only differences are the screen and battery size.

Also: The 10 best smartphones of 2018

Because the two devices are virtually identical, make sure to read my review of the iPhone XS Max for a more nuanced look at the iPhone XS.

After using an iPhone XS for a week, I found it to be every bit as good as the iPhone XS Max, with one exception.

iPhone XS: Design

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

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Outside of the new gold color, you’d be hard pressed to tell the iPhone X and iPhone XS apart. The only visually identifiable difference I can find is a single new antenna line on the bottom left corner for the phone.

The iPhone XS measures 5.65 x 2.79 x 0.3-inches, which means cases for the iPhone X should fit the XS without issue. I say should, because there is a slight variation with the camera bump on the back of the XS, meaning iPhone X cases may not fit the iPhone XS.

What makes the iPhone XS so appealing is its size. It fits comfortably in the palm of my hand, and the entire screen is easily reachable when using the phone with one hand.

Also: Best smartphones for 2018 CNET

I’ve adjusted to the sometimes awkwardness that comes with using the Max with one hand, thanks in part to Reachability, and the rest of the time perfecting how to adjust the position of the Max in my hand.

The iPhone XS just feels like the ideal size for a phone to rest comfortably in your hand, without sacrificing a decently sized display.

The right side of the iPhone XS is where the Side button is found. It’s used to lock, wake, or summon Siri. The left side houses the mute switch, along with the volume up and down buttons. A stainless steel band wraps the perimeter of the phone, holding the glass front and back in place.

The headphone jack is still gone, as is the home button, replaced instead with navigation that’s made up entirely of gestures. A minimal design that forces you to focus on what’s on the screen, with minimal buttons and distractions is clearly the future of the iPhone.

iPhone XS: Performance

The iPhone XS uses Apple’s A12 Bionic six-core processor, with updated Neural Engine, Face ID, and 4×4 MIMO wireless tech (thus the added antenna band). According to iFixit’s teardown, the XS has 4GB of memory and a 2,658mAh hour battery. Apple is selling the iPhone XS with storage options of 64GB, 256GB, and 512GB.

The rear-facing camera features a dual 12-megapixel setup, along with a 7-megapixel front-facing camera used for selfies and Face ID.

For the past two weeks, I’ve used either the iPhone XS or XS Max, and the longer I use either phone, the more impressed I am with the camera. I’ve noticed the improvements, not in Instagram worthy photos, but instead in the everyday mundane photos we’ve come to rely on our phones to capture. For example, during a recent visit to IKEA, I snapped a photo of the location tag for a shelf I wanted to buy. When it came time to find the item in the warehouse, I opened the Photos app and opened the photo. Embarrassing as it is, the clarity in the photo was something that caught me off guard.

Also: iPhone XS: 7 things the pros need TechRepublic

In my review of the XS Max, I went into detail about reported issues with connectivity. I didn’t have a chance to run the same tests on the standard XS, because I no longer have access to an iPhone X, but in my experience with the XS, its reception and throughput have been without issue. I ran a few random speed tests in the same location as I conducted the XS Max testing, and found it to average right around the same speed as I experienced with the XS Max. However, that experience can’t be taken as gospel — there are simply too many variables involved.

In addition to display size, one trade-off users who opt for the XS instead of the XS Max will make is battery life. At the end of each day when using the iPhone XS, I was close to killing the battery. On a couple occasions, with heavier use, I had to top off the battery around 7pm. That’s about in line with my experience on the iPhone X. With the iPhone XS Max, however, I typically didn’t have to charge after a day and a half of use.

iPhone XS: Conclusion

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

To be clear, the iPhone XS is every bit as good as the iPhone XS Max, save for battery life. It delivers on Apple’s (now yearly) promise of being the best iPhone ever.

But as was the case with the iPhone XS Max, the biggest hurdle potential customers will have to overcome is the cost. The XS starts at $999 for the 64GB model and tops out at $1,349 for the 512GB model.

With the iPhone XR, that starts at $749, just a couple of weeks away, the iPhone XS is a perhaps the most confusing iPhone of 2018. Its display is top-notch, the camera is impeccable, and performance is as fast as you could hope from a tiny handheld computer. Yet, it’s the smallest iPhone out of the new crop, while simultaneously being the second most expensive model.

Also: iPhone XS: A cheat sheet for professionals TechRepublic

It’s hard not to look at the XS and see it as the middle child, with most of the attention going to less expensive — and more colorful — iPhone XR, all the while the iPhone XS Max is setting the example. Or, I could be looking at this way too deep and it simply boils down to your budget, or maybe what size of screen you want.

Either way, if you’re on the fence of whether or not you should upgrade to the iPhone XS, I’d wait until the iPhone XR is available and then make a decision.

Previous and related coverage:

Apple vs Samsung phones: We compare the Galaxy S series and the iPhone XS

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Six months with Apple Watch 3: I’m sold

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iPhone XS Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: We compare the big phones

Apple and Samsung recently released large flagship smartphones priced at $1,000+. They are close to the same size and have the latest specs, but there are also some significant differences that will lead you to one over the other for your business needs.

Will there be an October Apple event? Signs point to yes

Once again, David Gewirtz puts on his mystical prognostication hat (okay, fine, he launches Excel) to delve into Apple announcement history. Will we see new Macs, iPads, and whatnot in October? There’s a pretty good chance, and we’ll even tell you what dates to write in your calendar.

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I'm a 50 year old PLC programmer from Burnley, UK. I severed my time as an electrician in the baking industry and soon got involved with the up and coming technology of PLC's. Initially this was all based in the Uk but as the years went by I have gradually worked my way around the globe. At first it was mainly Mitsubishi with a bit of Modicon thrown in but these days the industry leaders seem to be the Allen Bradley range of PLC and HMI’s.

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