Our Verdict

Yes, the iPhone XS is the best phone Apple's ever created, but that's not really a surprise - it's the new one. The bigger question is: what's actually changed, given the design is so similar to last year? Well, the speakers are more powerful and 'wider' in sound, the camera has been enhanced with Smart HDR, the battery management is better and the chipset is far more powerful inside. These are all just tweaks though, and it's smart from Apple to remove the iPhone X from sale, as that would be a far more attractive option this year.

For

  • Smart HDR helps the camera
  • More powerful again
  • Fast operation in the hand

Against

  • Battery life not world-beating
  • Design not altered in a year
  • Still very expensive

This is the iPhone XS – pronounced ‘10-S’, not ‘excess’ as you might think. It looks identical to last year's iPhone X, and you might think that not a lot has changed – but it’s inside where the differences lie.

This is a weird situation for a review; usually, when looking at an ‘S’ variant of an iPhone we’re asking the question of whether it’s better than the now-cheaper model from the previous year.

In 2018, however, Apple has made the choice to discontinue the iPhone X, so while we can draw comparisons they won’t help you make an informed choice (unless you can still pick one up while stocks last).

If you want the best iPhone Apple has created, the iPhone XS is surely it – but do the tweaks inside really justify the price tag, and are they enough to fend off the ever-improving competition?

There’s also the looming specter of the iPhone XR – it’s a more affordable version in many ways compared to the iPhone XS, but until we can test that in the future (it’s due out in October) it’s hard for us to say whether the iPhone XS is the best Apple handset for you.

iPhone XS price and release date

The iPhone XS is now available to pre-order in most countries around the world, with the handset going on sale globally from September 21 if you want to pick it up from a store.

In terms of the price, the good (ish) news is that it hasn't risen over last year’s incredibly expensive iPhone X, with the 64GB iPhone XS price coming in at $999 / £999 / AU$1,629. 

The 256GB iPhone XS price is $1,149 / £1,149 / AU$1,879, and the 512GB iPhone XS price is $1,349 / £1,349 / AU$2,199.

That said, while the cost of rival smartphones has been going up, the iPhone XS is still going to be one of the most costly phones you can buy (apart from the iPhone XS Max, which carries the eye-watering price tag of $1,099 / £1,099 / AU$1,799 for the cheapest option).

Key features

Usually in this section we'd talk about all the new features that the phone brings – but in this case there really aren't that many, with Apple resolutely sticking to the strategy of launching an 'S' phone with little changed other than speed improvements and a few other performance bumps.

That's not to say it isn't impressive, and useful, new hardware in the iPhone XS, but most of the benefits won't be instantly discernible to the average user.

One change that is easy to spot is the new color: the gold variant is more mocha than anything else, with a touch of copper in the shade, and brings another option in addition to the Space Gray and silver options.

We can only surmise that this was possible because the chassis of the iPhone XS is so similar to that of the iPhone X, so it wasn't expensive or time-consuming to alter the process to add in a new hue.

A12 Bionic chipset

The iPhone XS and XS Max both have the same chipset inside

The iPhone XS and XS Max both have the same chipset inside

  • Loads of power
  • Neural Engine brings enhancements throughout
  • Notably more powerful AR capabilities

Apple is proudly talking up its new chipset, and with good reason: it's one of the most powerful on a smartphone, created as it was using a 7nm process. 

That may not mean much to most people, but essentially it means that more transistors can be chucked onto this hexa-core CPU, which has two 'power' cores and four more that are optimized for efficiency.

However, even those slower cores are still more powerful than any of those found in the iPhone 6, a handset that's only four years old, showing just how rapidly smartphone technology is progressing in terms of power and efficiency.

One might question whether this much power is really needed – and sure, if you're just browsing the web and sending messages it's utterly wasted. 

However, if you want to explore the world of augmented reality, then these extra transistors are on hand to help out.

There's also a new 'Neural Engine' in the mix, enabling your phone to become more intelligent, learning as you use it. 

It adds a 'smart layer' to proceedings, allowing the handset to recognize things on the screen, whether that's appending an Animoji to your head in real time during a FaceTime call, or working out what's needed to improve the quality of a photo as you're taking it.

It's hard to really quantify the benefit of this improved chipset other than through numbers. Running the iPhone XS through the Geekbench CPU testing process showed that it's the most powerful phones we've ever used: a score of 11,481 is over 1,000 higher than the iPhone X from last year, and better than any phone we've tested.

That speed improvement is easy to feel within the phone, as the iPhone XS is one of the snappiest handsets we've ever tapped our way through. 

It's tricky to say how much of this is down to the hardware and how much to the improved iOS 12 software – but either way, it's a really, really rapid experience.

The A12 chipset brings a step up in graphical performance too – gaming is getting ever closer to console-level graphics, and we had the chance to check out a few AR titles too.

That said, we're still not fully convinced about the benefits of AR gaming – it's mildly diverting for a while, but many titles still seem to lack the overall polish that more typical iPhone games bring, such as Elder Scrolls: Blades, where you've got incredible gaming prowess mixed with high-level effects within.

For instance, we played ElemenTao, and not only did it lack any kind of tutorial but it was a bit clunky when we tried to play it on a desk. That's not really the fault of the game, but rarely do we have a large table with nothing on it on which we can play solo titles, or with chums.

Yes, there will be moments when it's cool, but they'll be as rare as deciding to play board games of an evening – so it depends if that’s what you’re into.