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iPhone XS review: Great phone. Nice camera. But wait for iPhone XR

The iPhone XS is an “S” iPhone, an overall polish and refinement of the bold iPhone X ($820 at Amazon Marketplace) from last year. But unlike “S” iPhones of years past, the XS doesn’t have one new, impressive feature. Instead, it spreads out the improvements, the most notable being its cameras and the new A12 Bionic chip, another step up in speed that could offer a major difference in AI, AR and graphics. A great phone has gotten better.

I remember how it felt to try that 2017 iPhone X for the first time. Exciting. Sometimes frustrating. I spent a lot of time testing Face ID, figuring out gestures. But ditching the home button and moving to a face-based login ended up working — and allowed the iPhone to go nearly all-screen, at last.

That was Apple’s gamble for its 10th-anniversary iPhone, and it paid off. The radically redesigned handset was priced at $1,000 — unprecedented for a mainstream phone — and it’s been the best-selling phone in the company’s line since.

For an encore, Apple has multiplied the offerings. The new X line now has three models, all with Face ID, all with large screens. And two of the three still come at laptop-level prices: the 5.8-inch iPhone XS and the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max ($1,099 at Apple), which start at $999 and $1,099, respectively. (Apple wants you to pronounce it like “tennis”. Most people will pronounce it like “excess.”)

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Bigger, big.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPhone XS and XS Max follow in the footsteps of S-year iPhones — they’re faster, with better camera hardware that will make everyday photography more professional-looking. But except for dual SIM support, there isn’t a brand-new feature like Touch ID or 3D Touch this time. And, unlike past camera differences between the smaller and Plus-sized phones, the XS Max and XS are spec-identical. You’re only choosing between “large” and “extra large,” and the bit of battery and extra screen real estate that come with it.

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

Both the iPhone XS and XS Max are great phones, fantastic refinements and incredibly promising hubs for your super-connected universe. As you’d expect, they’re the best iPhones at the moment. But here’s the twist: That third new iPhone, the iPhone XR, may be the best pick for anyone upgrading from any iPhone other than the 2017 iPhone X

It has many of the same features as the XS, but with a larger yet lower-resolution 6.1-inch LCD screen compared to the XS, and — according to Apple — better battery life. And it’s $250 cheaper to start — only $50 more than the iPhone 8‘s starting price this time last year. 

Unfortunately, we can’t review the iPhone XR for a few more weeks — it won’t be released until Oct. 26 — and that’s why we think you should wait before getting any new iPhone. In the meantime, here’s my initial experience with the XS and XS Max. (Note: These ratings are tentative until we complete additional battery, photo and performance testing.)

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Photos have indeed taken a step up.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The best things about the iPhone XS

Smart HDR is a great camera upgrade

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 XS has a totally new image sensor that really does improve the quality of photos.  

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. These elements do a lot to transform the picture quality this year, and serious photographers will be interested.

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


Sarah Tew/CNET

Adjustable background depth in portrait mode is there, if you want it

The big camera upgrade for 2017’s iPhone X and iPhone 8 Plus ($1,300 at Amazon Marketplace) was portrait mode, which delivers DSLR-style headshots: 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.  

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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Face ID is back, and it’s speedier.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Face ID is faster, which helps me open my phone faster

I had mixed feelings on Face ID last year. Apple’s facial recognition really, truly works, often uncannily well. But in day-to-day living with the iPhone X, there are many moments when Face ID doesn’t recognize me, or doesn’t unlock the phone — maybe I’m not holding the phone right, in the correct position or at the right distance or with nothing covering my face. Those hiccups often kept me wishing for good, old button-based Touch ID.

Face ID on the new phones is faster, although sometimes not as dramatically as I’d have liked. It can now unlock the phone nearly as fast as a finger swipe. (You still need to swipe to finish the unlock process, rather than just staring at your phone.) But you still need to keep the iPhone XS at a certain distance — not too close, not at an off-angle. I’ve come to find the XS works pretty well, but I still think the learning curve for gestures and navigation is more confusing than before Face ID, and remains a bit weird for anyone moving from a home-button iPhone. If you’re considering the leap (and you’ll have to for any of the new phones as none of them will have buttons), take note and watch this video guide from last year.


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