Apple iPhone XS – The iPhone X, improved


The iPhone XS is perhaps the most conventional phone that Apple is launching this year, a direct follow-up to the iPhone X, last year’s iOS-flavoured chart topper with a wallet busting price and a crop of new features. So why go for the XS this year?

The iPhone keeps the same size, basically the same screen, even a lot of the same features. But there are parts that have been improved — the camera has a better taste for night-life and Apple’s new A12 Bionic is also here to induce shame in the (slower) competition.

The price, though… the iPhone XS starts at R22,000 which is enough to make bank accounts freeze in fear. Battery life also isn’t anything to write home about but that’s about par for the course, isn’t it?

Design – Past meets Future

The iPhone XS was never going to be an all-new device. Those slots are filled, this year at least, by the XS Max and the out-of-left-field iPhone XR. The XS was always supposed to look and feel like the iPhone X, but better. In terms of design, though, not much has changed.

The iPhone XS is the smallest device Apple has for 2018, though its price is right up there with the Max. If you can afford a top-tier iPhone but still want to fit it into a pocket, this steel-and-glass slab is the one to buy. The XS’ size makes it the most manageable of the lot.

But why do you want one? Well, the notch has become commonplace enough that it no longer looks weird, and Apple has thrown all of their tech wizardry at this device as well. FaceID outclasses anything that Android devices have to offer right now. Apple’s system uses 3D scanning, picking up and recognising faces from odd angles and when glasses are added (or subtracted) from the equation. It’ll even keep up if you decide that a beard is a thing that you have to have right now.

There are some issues, which are usual for Apple at this point. There’s no headphone jack and the included headphones somehow manage to amplify ambient noise when you’re using them. And then there’s the lack of storage expansion. You’ll have to be very decisive when buying, while keeping in mind that R22,000 will get you 64GB, while the range-topping 512GB will call for an additional R7,000. Yikes.

Screen – You expected something less?

Apple’s screens, as always, have to be seen to be believed. If you want to gaze upon their Super AMOLED displays, you’re going to have to spring for the XS or the XS Max — the XR is LCD all the way. The iPhone XS is packing a 5.8in 2,436 x 1,125 panel and it’s as good as you think it would be.

The colour calibration is top-notch, brightness ticks the ‘bright enough’ box in most conditions and if you opt to turn True Tone on, white balance will alter based on ambient light. This means there’s a slightly warm effect when you’re out of natural light but we’d still stack this panel up with the best Samsung can field.

The screen is so good that it’s got us thinking about the XS Max’s display. Maybe paying extra for that extra screen real estate will be worth it after all. It’ll certainly be a pleasure to look at all day.

The XS, as with other iPhones, has Night Shift, a feature that trims out some of the blue light from the screen in the evening. This helps you fall asleep after a long session of answering Facebook posts pre-bedtime.

Software: The right approach

iOS 12 added Screen Time, the babysitting protocol intended to make sure that you don’t use your iPhone to the max. You can use it to limit how much time you spend in specific apps but there’s another feature called Downtime that can shut down all but a few apps after a set amount of time.

The irony of a R22,000 smartphone having a feature designed to help you to use it less isn’t lost on us but then again… a lot of us probably need the feature as well. But Screen Time and Downtime aren’t specific to the iPhone XS — they’re available to any iOS 12 device (and Android Pie). As are any of the new operating system’s features.

What really makes the iPhone XS is the camera, the processor, the design, and FaceID. Particularly the processor. Apple’s new A12 Bionic is an upgrade on the iPhone X’s CPU, with 2018’s chip outperforming the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the OnePlus 6 by a wide margin. The closest competition? Apple’s own iPhone X, by a smaller margin. The X is still a beast, the XS is going to be a beast for even longer. This processor has legs.

Camera – Dynamic entry

If you’re the type for an annual upgrade and already have the iPhone X, you’ll likely pay more attention to the camera changes than the processor update. Right out the gate, the XS and the X sound like they’ve got similar camera setups.

The XS has a 12MP main sensor and another (12MP) secondary that adds 2x zoom as part of its rear configuration. There’s a 7MP front-facer in place too. The main rear sensor is a little larger than that found on the iPhone X, giving Apple’s newest improved performance in low light. Expect more detailed, sharper images in the murk.

Apple has included OIS (optical image stabilisation), meaning it’ll be harder to take an out-of-focus image than an in-focus one. The XS lacks the magic wand effect found in Huawei’s P20 Pro, which is very, very good at what it does if you take a smidge more time about it. Samsung’s best sensors are a teensy bit sharper but this is by far the best iPhone camera we’ve seen. So far.

But Apple doesn’t seem too concerned with low-light, spending their efforts on dynamic range. This feature decides how much difference you’ll see between the darkest and lightest points in an image. Good dynamic range will keep bright spots from being blown out and few phones can manage this as well as the iPhone XS, which can even pull off images taken directly into the sun.

There is some flattening of mid-tones, which makes some photos less vivid than those taken by a Samsung, but you can always tweak contrast afterwards if you’re after that in your shots. The best thing about the iPhone XS’ camera is that it’s fun to use. It’s very responsive, with a more consistent snapping speed than just about any of the competition.

And that’s without exploring the advantages of Apple’s 2x zoom and the new portrait mode, which blurs backgrounds for more artistic shots. The 7MP selfie cam gets the dynamic range treatment for some great (but not the best) selfies on social media. If you’re more in the market for moving pictures, the XS is capable of 4K at 60fps. It’ll stabilise 4K neatly but it works better at a lower resolution, like 1080p.

Battery Life – As expected

It’s better, stronger, faster. But it’s not blessed with more than the standard iPhone battery life. Which is expected — Apple never claims that you’ll get more than a single day on a charge. But here you’re definitely going to get a lone day. A packed day, but still a day.

That’s if you’re listening to a mess of audio (streamed, naturally), making use of the XS’s delicious camera and mucking around on the social medias. Do that and you’re looking at a dead phone by midnight. On occasion we did an afternoon top-up, just to be sure it made it to the end of the day.

Loads of Androids (boo, hiss!) last longer than the XS. Huawei’s P20 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S9+ count themselves among that number but a full day’s not-too-obsessive usage is what most users actually need from their phones. And that’s what Apple delivers. The 2,658mAh battery supports fast charging and will get you up to 50% in about half an hour, which should be enough for any short-notice top-ups. The iPhone X’s fast charging makes the jump to the XS, of course.

iPhone XS Verdict

The iPhone XS is the least exciting, if you can use that term without smirking, of Apple’s 2018 crop. It doesn’t stand out the way the supersized XS Max does, it’s not a wholly new device like the incoming XR. It’s basically the iPhone X, with a few improvements. Which, really, makes it exactly what you’d expect from an Apple device with an ‘S’ at the end.

But those improvements are enough to make it a better option than last year’s iPhone X. There’s more power under the hood and the camera is a ways ahead of what Apple fielded last year. The only real downside, beside the cost, is the battery. Anyone using the iPhone XS is going to want better performance in that line but a daily charge…? That’s nothing new for owners of Apple’s standard-sized phones.

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