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Apple iPhone XS review: The luxury-upgrade iPhone

Adjustable bokeh depth effect for portrait shots

The big camera upgrade for 2017's iPhone X and iPhone 8 Plus ($699 at Walmart) was portrait mode, which delivers DSLR-style head shots: focused face in the foreground, with an out-of-focus background. Known as "bokeh," this effect has been a must-have feature in every phone camera since.  

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Adjusting bokeh blur effect is possible now. Will I really use it?

Sarah Tew/CNET

For the 2018 models, Apple now also uses software to let you adjust background focus after you've shot a photo. Third-party apps already offer similar manipulation, and other phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 and LG G7 have shipped with blur adjustment first. Apple's post-shot bokeh looks sharp -- it's been getting better by degrees thanks to software tweaks since Apple introduced it in beta last year -- but you have to be in Portrait mode to get it, which I don't often make my default because of its specific distance needs. Still, those of you who want even more customization when getting that perfect shot of a loved one -- or a pet! -- will have plenty to play with here.

Portrait Lighting effects, which digitally remove the background and turn selfies into head shots, now look slightly less artificial but are still hit and miss. The head shots I took with Portrait Lighting mode still look jarring on the edges. 

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AR is awfully good on this iPhone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A12 chip: seriously fast, but not always a huge leap over last year

Apple's speedier A12 Bionic chip is, as is often the case on brand-new iPhone chips compared to the year before, hard to compare in everyday use. It feels fast, but new phones often give that fast feeling before apps and wear and tear take their toll. Apps load somewhat faster in casual use. Early benchmarks don't always show great gains in straight-on speed: Geekbench 4 showed a modest bump, but 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited shows about a 50 percent improvement.

Augmented-reality experiences might see the biggest leap on this phone in terms of speed, quality and performance. I can feel the difference, even before most apps have updated for iOS 12 and ARKit 2. AR apps I tried on both the X and XS had better, smoother video and higher-resolution backgrounds on the new phone. Apple says that's due to a greatly improved Neural Engine chip for machine learning and computer vision.

All I know is the virtual dinosaurs looked better on the grassy hill I put them on. The puzzle boxes felt more realistic as I made them sprout from the ground. And the AR shoes sometimes looked so real through the phone screen that I reached out in reality and tried to move them with my hands.

Other improvements over the 2017 iPhone X

  • Better water and dust resistance: These iPhones can stay water-safe an extra meter under water, up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) of immersion for up to 30 minutes. Last year's iPhones already survived up to 1 meter. This phone, according to Apple, will also better handle salt water, chlorinated water and various liquid spills. As always, the iPhone isn't expected to be an underwater camera, or a scuba companion -- but if this means it's more resistant to accidental dunkings, I'll take it. It passed CNET's tests perfectly.
  • So far, these phones can handle drops better: CNET's iPhone XS drop tests show how durable the XS is compared to the X, which shattered really easily last year. That's great news. But by all means, put a case on your $1,000 phone... you'd be crazy not to.
  • Advanced LTE and 4x4 MIMO could offer speedier connections in some cases: Apple didn't include 5G on the newest iPhones -- no current phones have adopted it, and it's not available from carriers yet anyway. (Expect it on more phones in 2019, and possibly in the 2020 iPhones.) In the meantime, these phones promise faster Gigabit LTE, at last -- something other phones have offered, but these faster speeds are new to the iPhone. On the test Verizon account I used, the iPhone XS delivers. I got download speeds of 250 Mbps in New Jersey, versus 170 Mbps using the same SIM in the iPhone X. My home broadband, by contrast, is only about 85 Mbps. The iPhone's now my fastest home internet device. The XS antennas could also help pick up signals better in borderline-coverage zones, but FYI: My NJ Transit commute still has dead spots on AT&T.
  • Face ID on the new phones is a bit better. When I first reviewed the XS, I saw somewhat faster Face ID log-in speeds. Now that iOS 12 is available for all phones, it seems like Face ID's advantages on the XS versus the X are marginal. Face ID still has moments where it doesn't recognize my face, or makes me use a physical passcode.
  • Dual SIM support: The ability to handle two SIM cards in the XR and XS lets you use a physical nano-SIM plus an eSIM, which means you can have two different phone lines at once. But it's taking time for carriers to offer dual-SIM, and keep in mind that carrier-locked phones won't be able to add service on another carrier. Go with unlocked if you want the freedom to SIM-swap.
  • Slightly improved wireless charging: Apple says the phone's wireless charging coil has improved so there'll be fewer misses when you place it on a charge pad. This could also mean faster charging in some conditions, but 7.5 watts is still the limit. I still notice that you have to make sure the iPhone is placed just right to charge up (as is the case with other phones, too). Apple promised its own fast wireless charging tech called AirPower in 2017, but that's still MIA. Meanwhile, Apple only includes a 5-watt basic Lightning iPhone charger in-box -- and yes, that's pretty annoying in a $1,000 phone, especially since it can charge faster if you buy separate accessories. (The XR also has wireless charging.)
  • NFC can be scanned without launching an app: A new NFC chip in these iPhones means you can take an iPhone XS near an NFC tag, and it'll prompt launching a web page or app. But you won't be able to use the iPhone to instantly swipe into turnstiles or open doors yet.
  • Gold returns: The iPhone X shipped in only two colors, a stainless steel and white-backed silver model, and a nearly black space gray version. In the new gold version, the stainless steel rim is gold colored, but the back glass looks a subtle beige. If you want a more radical color lineup -- including coral, yellow and red -- go for the iPhone XR.
  • Video recordings look impressive: The added HDR (better auto contrast, as with the still photos) and extra stabilization made even my more casual videos look more vibrant, even at 1080p and 30fps. Walking with the camera in hand, shots often looked like I was using a stabilizing Steadicam device like a gimbal -- there was less shake and stutter. The microphones now record in stereo, too, but I didn't notice the difference in casual use. But in head-to-head tests versus the Galaxy Note 9 and versus the Pixel 3, the iPhone XS won out as a better video camera.
  • Speakers sound better: As with the iPhone X, the iPhone XS pumps out some solid stereo sound in landscape mode, but the XS takes it up a notch. I don't listen to things on my iPhone without headphones if I can help it.

What I'd like to have seen

A lower price

These 2018 iPhones are the most expensive range in Apple's history. And on the XS side, we're now in $1,000 phone land, like it or not. Many people I know don't like this at all. Some people find that a growing selection of midrange Android phones are more than good enough. The iPhone XR is a much better deal, but at $749, it's still not anywhere near "budget."

For those folks, Apple is happy to offer its still-excellent older models, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 (and their Plus siblings), in the $450-$700 range. Even so, nearly everyone needs to spend the extra $100 to get to 128 or 256GB from the entry-level 32 or 64GB models. Add an extra $9 for the headphone dongle, now gone from the box on all new iPhones, and $49 for a 29-watt USB-C Apple charger and $19 for the USB-C-to-Lightning cable. Or, go the "affordable" route and get the $19 12-watt iPad charger, at least. The point being, there should have been a faster charger in the box.

Apple could include more default storage and throw some of those step-up accessories in the box. Consider the Galaxy Note 9: It costs the same, steep $1,000 starting price, but at least you're getting 128GB to start -- along with a stylus and a real headphone jack thrown in for "free." Oh, and you can double the storage with a microSD card for a mere $30.

These new phones also get more expensive at the top end because of a whole new 512GB storage tier, something that only pro photographers and videographers should consider.

Better battery life

The XS lasts, according to Apple, 30 minutes more than the X. So far, in everyday use, it feels mostly the same. On our CNET offline video playback battery test, the XS lasted 13 hours, 17 minutes, which is better than the 11 hours, 27 minutes the X managed last year. The larger XS Max lasted considerably better, at 17 hours, 28 minutes. I still had to recharge the XS midway through the day to make sure I wasn't going to run too low on the train commute home. More gentle users may do fine with the XS battery, but I'd sacrifice a millimeter of thickness for longer battery life. 

The XR beats them all at battery: 19 hours, 53 minutes.

iPhone X owners don't need this

The XS is an incremental step up from the iPhone X. Speed gains are hard to judge, and aren't nearly as dramatic at first as the X felt compared to the iPhone 7 of the prior year. The camera is certainly better, but the X already takes great shots. Battery life is close enough, and the XS' general design is identical. There isn't a good reason to upgrade from the X to the XS.

The exception to that rule may be the XS Max. iPhone X owners who want more screen real estate may find the 6.5-inch screen worth the cash, but that's strictly a personal preference.

For everyone else: Get the iPhone XR, unless you crave dual cameras and that OLED

The XS and XS Max are more polished, more advanced versions of the iPhone X. It's hard to imagine what more I'd want, except for the two notes I gave above. And, while the phone landscape has produced lots of great devices, the iPhone XS (and Max, which is basically just a larger-screened variant with the same internal specs) stand at the top. For their processors alone, they bleed potential. As a hub for the entire connected world, the iPhone XS feels like a perfect engine that you'll pay laptop money for.

But, these step-up models are luxury tiers. The phone you should now consider first is the iPhone XR. With its lower price, fast performance and a still great set of features, it's the one I'd suggest for nearly anyone. For those who want that extra 2x lens and that fancier OLED, and a touch of steel... sure, go for it. But if you see the iPhone XR and wish you'd saved some money instead, don't say I didn't warn you.

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