Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook took to the stage of the company’s two-year-old Steve Jobs Theater for an annual event that has increased in hype, expectation, and spoilers over the years.
That's because the second-generation versions of the iPhone X — the pricey Xs and Xs Max, and the less expensive Xr — are very similar in look and feel to last year's model. There's no one gasp-worthy feature, although there are many useful and necessary improvements. (This is not unusual for Apple's "S" iPhone release cycle, but that didn't temper any of the excitement leading up to the event.)
Ahead, a full breakdown of what you need to know about the Xs as you decide whether to invest in the newest $1,000 phone or hold out for the Xr.
Note: The bulk of this review will focus on the Xs, the more affordable of the two new Xs models.
Aside from the gorgeous new brassy gold exterior (you can also get space gray and silver models), it's hard to tell the Xs apart from the X at first glance. Both have a 5.8-inch edge-to-edge Super Retina display, a notch at the top of the screen, and no home button. However, you will start to notice improvements almost as soon as you start using the Xs.
For starters, Face ID is faster. Not only did the phone learn my face — with and without glasses; with and without morning bedhead — faster, it also unlocked more quickly. Where it would have taken two tries on the X, it usually took only one try on the Xs.
I also noticed that photos, especially ones in portrait mode, could be taken faster, and the lag time when opening apps was almost completely nonexistent.
Some other, harder to notice improvements Apple is touting on the new iPhone: better color accuracy, tougher glass, and increased water resistance of up to two meters for 30 minutes. It's safe to say you can spill coffee, tea, or soda on the Xs and not have a panic attack thinking you've just ruined the $1,000 phone. (Maybe don't dunk it in a cup of coffee, though.)
As for that screen, the notch can still be annoying at times, but if you've gotten used to it on the X, you'll be used to it on the Xs, too. The screen on the 6.5-inch Xs Max (the largest iPhone display ever) is stunning and feels much more immersive. If you do plan on streaming a lot of videos, that would be one reason consider investing in the $1,099 phone instead of its slightly less expensive sibling.
The impressive, wider stereo sound adds to the experience, and makes it more feasible that you might use your phone as your go-to portable speaker instead of buying a separate one.
After last December's battery controversy and constant calls for improved battery life, it was inevitable that Apple would announce some improvements in this area. And it did, saying last week that the iPhone Xs would have 3o minutes more battery life and the Xs Max would have an hour and a half more.
Unfortunately, I didn't notice a huge difference in my usual battery life when using the Xs compared to the X. Granted, 30 minutes isn't that much, but after a full morning of listening to music and checking emails on my way to work, texting friends, conducting interviews, and tapping through Instagram Stories, I was left hovering just around 50%. Again, this isn't bad, but I would love to see a longer lifespan.
I also didn't notice faster wireless charging — 15 minutes on the charging pad resulted in a 10% battery boost on both the X and Xs.
Compared to the camera advances in the iPhone X — portrait mode selfies and lighting effects — the improvements in the Xs are less noticeable. However, they are there. During last week's event, Apple said that a new camera sensor with larger pixels would improve photos shot in low-light conditions. The company also said that a new feature called Smart HDR would combine several photos taken simultaneously (all with just one press of the shutter button) to create a photo with more detail and make challenging shooting situations — for example, taking a photo where someone is backlit — easier.
I found all of these claims to be true.
In the iPhone X photo below (left), you can barely make out any of the figures in the stands and a lens flare creates an unwanted line of light across the scene. Meanwhile, the iPhone Xs photo (right) shows more detail behind the bases and gets rid of the lens flare.
The differences in photos shot at night are also subtle, but important. If you look at the string lights above the counter of this taco stand in the iPhone X photo (left), you can barely distinguish one light from another. In the iPhone Xs photo (right), you can, and it's also easier to see more structural detail behind the neon sign.
Blur Baby, Blur
Portrait mode is nothing new at this point, but it's been in need of some improvements. How many times have you taken a portrait mode photo, only to look at it later and realize half of the image that should be in focus in the foreground is actually blurred out and included in the background? Too many to count? Same.
The iPhone Xs has made some advancements in this area (although you will still see some strands of hair and flower stems blurred by mistake), as well as a new option to adjust the depth of field after taking the photo (i.e. you can decrease or increase the background blur).
In this portrait mode selfie you can see that the lighting across my face is much more even in the iPhone Xs photo (right) than the iPhone X photo (left), where the lefthand side of my face shines a little too brightly in the sun. You can also make out the floral details in my dress more clearly in the Xs shot.
Meanwhile, the increased color in the background blur is especially noticeable in photos of bright flowers.
It's easy to adjust the depth control: Go to your camera roll, select the photo, tap edit, and move the bottom slider to the left to increase the blur, or the right to decrease the blur and see the entire background in focus. (Samsung users already know this feature well.)
There is also a useful improvement to portrait mode's lighting effects. Now, you can see how a photo shot with stage light or stage light mono will look in preview mode. This way, you can adjust the photo accordingly so that part of your subject isn't accidentally blacked out, becoming part of the background.
While the improvements are certainly there, especially when it comes to speed and photos, the phone still feels prohibitively expensive. That being said, if you're using an older model or are due for an upgrade, the Xs is a smart buy. But, if the price is throwing you for a loop or you want a more colorful phone, wait for the reviews of the less expensive Xr to start rolling in around mid-October, when the model is released to retailers.