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Apple iPhone XS review: The luxury-upgrade iPhone

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The Good The iPhone XS has a markedly improved dual camera, delivering better photos than the iPhone X in both dark and high-contrast environments. It has a faster processor, faster face ID, adds dual-SIM support and it’s now available in gold and 512GB versions.

The Bad Its battery life is the shortest of the three new iPhones and only incrementally better than last year's. Despite its still-rich price tag, increased storage, USB-C fast chargers and headphone dongles will have you spending even more.

The Bottom Line While we'd still recommend the iPhone XR first, the XS has some extras worth noting.

8.8 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 10
  • Camera 9
  • Battery 8

There are too many iPhones. Or, maybe there's just one new iPhone, in several step-up flavors.

The iPhone XS and XS Max, along with the iPhone XR, are Apple's three new 2018 iPhones. But looking back on them now, in December, they have a lot more in common than you might think. Same new processors, same upgraded camera sensors and same image signal processors. Know that the  XS is no longer the starting point for any iPhone X shopper: it's merely the slightly step-up model.

The iPhone X was a singular design in 2017. This year, the trio of iPhone X models represent a spectrum from $749 to nearly $1,500, should you choose to pay for all the storage. When I first reviewed the XS, I considered it a modest upgrade over the X, and to wait for the XR (which was released more than a month later). That feeling holds true now that I've reviewed the XR.

The iPhone XR is Apple's "affordable" X model, and the best iPhone to buy right now. Starting at $749, it has Face ID and a depth-sensing front camera instead of a home button, just like the rest of the iPhone X gang. There's a notch at the top of the screen, too. It's faster and has better battery life than 2017's iPhone X, but has only a single rear camera (equipped with its own software-aided portrait mode that simulates depth of field bokeh effects), and a lower-res LCD screen instead of OLED. But for the vast majority of people, those are far from dealbreakers. In fact, it's the first choice you should make in buying a new iPhone.

09-iphone-xs-and-iphone-xs-max
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Bigger, big.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So, where does that leave the XS and XS Max? Luxury upgrades. Everything the XS offers still stands out, if you look hard enough.

  • An added 2x telephoto rear camera really does help frame shots better, and can make for more versatile portrait mode photos.
  • The OLED display is more vibrant, higher-resolution, and has much better black levels, but it won't always be something an average eye will spot.
  • The XS has a more durable construction: The rear glass doesn't crack as easily, and the stainless steel body won't ding as easily as the XR's aluminum.
  • The XS has bit faster cellular connectivity with gigabit LTE and improved 4x4 MIMO Wi-Fi antennas versus the XR, too.
  • The XS display has smaller bezels than the XR -- but the screen is smaller, too.

iPhone XS prices


iPhone XS (64GB) iPhone XS (256GB) iPhone XS (512GB)
US $999 $1,149 $1,349
UK £999 £1,149 £1,349
Australia AU$1,629 AU$1,879 AU$2,199

Does any of that matter to you? Pro users and anyone who's using their phone as a camera for their job should pick the XS, for its extra camera advantage and perfect display. Anyone else, though, should just get the XR instead.

Yes, it's that simple. Apple may have flooded the zone with lots of iPhones, but if you think about it as "how much phone to you need to pay for," the XR is the clear utility pick, and the XS is the fancy phone upgrade that you may or may not convince yourself to spring for.

Everything you need to know about this year's iPhones: 

This review was originally published Sept. 18. Update, Dec. 7: Adds final year-end battery comparisons and XR observations.

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Photos have indeed taken a step up.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That HDR OLED display looks mighty nice

The iPhone X OLED screen already looked great, but the XS OLED does it a bit better. I noticed side-by-side improvements on the iPhone XS versus the X when watching Blade Runner 2049 and other HDR movies. The new display looks subtly brighter and richer at maximum brightness over last year's iPhone X, which already looked lovely. It's a great display, and better than the iPhone XR's lower-res, lower-contrast LCD. However, in normal everyday use, it's sometimes hard to tell the OLED from LCD to a casual eye. The XR's display is fine. Enthusiasts of perfect displays or pros needing top-notch detail might want the XS or XS Max.

The one camera advantage of the iPhone XS: dual rear camera

The telephoto lens on the XS and XS Max have 2x optical zoom and work in a telephoto Portrait Mode, just like the iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus cameras. That extra zoom can be helpful, and delivers great close-up shots for me on lots of occasions. It's also not entirely necessary, but if you're into taking the best photos regardless of price or use your phone as a pro camera tool, it's an upgrade worth considering.

The iPhone XR also takes portrait photos, but in a wide-angle mode using image processing that simulates the depth effect. It only works on people (the AI literally won't recognize anything else to activate the mode), and you need to get closer to your subjects when shooting. But it's good enough that it becomes one less reason to crave the XS.

In-depth camera comparisons:

Smart HDR: This year's key iPhone camera improvement (that's also on the XR)

If you compare camera specs for the 2017 iPhone X and the new iPhone XS, you'd think almost nothing's changed: Same dual cameras, same aperture settings, same megapixel ratings, same 2x optical zoom. But Apple's done plenty of work under the hood. The iPhone XR, XS and XS Max all have a totally new image sensor that really does noticeably improve the quality of photos. You could use any one of these phones and take similar step-up shots.

The better sensor and the new image processor on the A12 Bionic chip combine to enable what Apple calls "Smart HDR." In practice, that means my photos look better in low light and extreme contrast situations, making for better pictures whether shot on a nighttime street, in a dark bar or in bright sunlight.

I love this photo I took of a fly.

Scott Stein/CNET

Bright lights in my living room show more detail now, and don't turn into blown-up bright spots like they used to. I see more detail around windows and street lights. I'm also finding less blur and noise in most shots. Sometimes, it almost seems like too much light. The color and brightness of some shots is surprising. I'm much happier with my photos now.

The larger sensor allows more light in, according to Apple, and I can tell. Focus is faster, too. But, keep in mind that the lower-cost iPhone XR can do all of this, too, in exactly the same way.

CNET did an in-depth photo comparison between the iPhone XS and iPhone X, and TL;DR: The photos are better, but not always dramatically so. For some shots, the difference matters a lot, with clear gains in detail and much less overexposure. But for others, the advantages can be subtle. And, in some cases, we find the iPhone XS' photo colors can end up looking a little less saturated, leading to some slightly less vibrant-looking pictures. But, no doubt about it, the iPhone XS takes improved photos, and it's noticeable.

But again, for the front-facing camera and rear wide-angle camera, you could buy the XR and get the same impact.

Note, too, that if you want the best overall camera in a smartphone right now, you need to migrate to Android and check out the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL. With the addition of its Night Sight feature, it can shoot in dark environments where the iPhone (and nearly every other phone) offers little more than muddy blurs.

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