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Is Apple's iPhone XS worth buying?

Apple's new iPhone XS is its most feature-packed phone yet. Photo / supplied

Such was the tone of indignation that greeted the unveiling of the new iPhones two weeks ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking Apple had delivered some real clunkers.

In fact, its new flagship offering, the iPhone XS, is its highest-performing, most feature-packed phone ever. If you are an Apple fan, this is the phone to own.

But such is the level of pent-up expectation permeating that rabid fanbase, it has become harder and harder for Apple to live up to its legacy of innovation. Incremental change doesn’t delight, especially when what were always considered premium devices, now risk tipping over into the luxury category.

Click here for NOTED's smartphone buying guide.

The iPhone XS with an inadequate 64GB of memory costs $1,899 if bought outright, $100 more than what the iPhone X sold for a year ago. The larger screen XS Max starts at $2,099 with the 512GB version going for a whopping $2,799.

Those are not the sort of prices even Apple devotees can stomach forking over every year or two. As such, the iPhone XS and XS Max reflect the reality for Apple these days - it needs to sell more higher-value phones as people hold onto their devices for longer, and rely more on the enduring power of its brand than the technical originality that fuelled its earlier success.

For iPhone X owners the new phones offer little incentive to upgrade. They will appeal instead to iPhone, 5, 6 and 7 owners who will be rewarded with markedly improved performance and design. But waiting in the wings and potentially a better option for upgraders, is Apple’s iPhone XR, which will debut here next month.

Same look and feel

Design wise, the iPhone XS is almost identical to the iPhone X, that is to say, one of the nicest hardware packages you can find, available in elegant silver, space grey or gold finish. I have been using the gold version and love the salmon-hued shades of colour it gives off.

It feels great in the hand, substantial but not heavy at 176 grams and the perfect format for slipping into a pocket. Apple claims the XS is coated with tougher glass to avoid cracks when it is inevitably dropped.

You get the same 5.8 inch OLED screen and 2436 x 1125 resolution as with the iPhone X though better dynamic range in the display yields more accurate colour, contrast, and brightness than iPhone users will be used to.

The Face ID feature. Photo / supplied

Face ID, for unlocking the phone is marginally faster and a now indispensable authentication feature for a growing number of third-party services, such as ANZ’s online banking app. If you are migrating from an iPhone 7 or an earlier model, the edge to edge display and lack of a physical home button mark the biggest design changes.

Apple insists you'll see improved colour on the XS screen in the form of 60 per cent greater dynamic range than the original iPhone X. For extended time watching videos, you’ll want to consider the XS Max with its 6.2-inch screen.

Impressive Slo-mo and live photo modes also match up to the competition.

Wellington’s waterfront captured by the iPhone XS (left) and the Samsung Note9, both on standard automatic camera settings. Photo / Peter Griffin

What lies beneath

The camera is where the real improvements are and boy did Apple need to up its game with the Android gang delivering stunning camera quality via the Samsung S9 and Note9, the Huawei P20 Pro and the Google Pixel 2, which isn’t on sale here.

The XS camera is a pleasure to use and really lets you get great photos with ease. Its performance in low light is much better than any other iPhone and compares well to the aforementioned Android rivals.

The dual 12-megapixel cameras on the rear of the XS have a bigger sensor and let in more light than their predecessors. Apple has done clever things with the phone’s software and algorithms to improve the results - better depth of colour and detail. SmartHDR (high dynamic range) mirrors the functionality of other high-end smartphones by taking a series of frames with different exposures and combining them into one image to give the best result. This sort of artificial intelligence, I think represents the biggest improvements in phone cameras in the last two years, backed up by bigger camera sensors. The improvements extend into video performance, which is excellent.

There are a good selection of lighting effects on the XS to get the right look and feel for a shot before you take it, but a new feature in portrait mode, Depth Control, lets you work on a photo after shooting it, turning an on-screen dial to change the desired level of background blur in the photo of a subject.

This is the bokeh effect and is what gives a photo that atmospheric and professional look. It makes a huge difference and the ease with which you can manipulate that out-of-focus look on the XS is remarkable.

Driving those camera improvements, which extend to the front-facing 7MP version for FaceTime calls, FaceID log-in and Memoji animated selfies, is a more powerful processor.

The A12 Bionic chip represents a big performance boost over the A11, though you won’t notice it in day to day app usage. It proves its worth in those intensive applications like photography, gaming and the iPhone’s promising but so far underutilised augmented reality functions.

A new feature in portrait mode, Depth Control, lets you work on a photo after shooting it.

Minor changes elsewhere

Other tweaks and improvements offer marginal benefit to us. Apple has introduced support for carrying two SIM cards in some countries and introduced the eSIM in others to achieve the same goal of being able to operate two phone accounts on the same phone.

Unfortunately, these options are not available in New Zealand due to lack of support for eSIM from Spark, 2Degrees and Vodafone, though that is likely to change. Still, the lack of a physical dual SIM bay in the XS puts the phone behind the likes of the Huawei P20. This is hugely valuable when travelling overseas, where you pick up a local SIM for local web surfing, texts and calls, but can still communicate on your roaming number. This needs to be smoothed out in time for the next iPhone launch.

You’ll squeeze a claimed 30 minutes or so extra out of the battery and on that front I had no issues, with the XS lasting a day and a half between charges on moderate use.

Upgrades to the wireless chip and (NFC) near-field communications will go unnoticed, the latter being slow to take off here for using the phone to make payments in stores - ANZ and BNZ currently support that for debit and credit cards.

Unfortunately, Apple has stuck with its proprietary lighting connector meaning you’ll need to use a USB-C dongle to plug into the more universal charger you are likely to have in your arsenal. There is also no 3.5mm headphone jack, so the same goes for plugging in your old headphones.

The 64GB of storage included in the base XS model is miserly, given how you’ll want to take advantage of that beautiful camera. The next step up is the 256GB version - for an extra $300. That’s another place where Apple gets you. Many Android rivals have since moved to 128GB as entry-level standard. You’ll also need to pay extra to get a fast-charging brick to take advantage of the phone’s ability to jump to half charge in 30 minutes. That’s not acceptable for a phone costing at least $1,899.

Alas, those are the irritating quirks of living in the Apple world.

The XS may not be revolutionary but it is a great phone, exactly what you’d expect from Apple’s engineers. It underwhelms when placed next to the iPhone X, but the huge base of Apple users upgrading from legacy phones are in for a treat.

They may, however, want to hold off to consider the iPhone XR which will go on sale here next month at a more reasonable $1,399. Yes, there are compromises in screen quality and design-build, but the XR will feature much of the functionality of last year’s iPhone X with a bigger screen (6.1 inch) than the XS.

That handset somewhat tempers Apple’s march upmarket. But the XS is Apple’s crowning glory, complete with the price tag.


Great edge to edge design

Faster processor

Improved camera performance


eSIM not working here yet

No USB-C charging as standard

No fast-charging out of the box

64GB storage not enough


Rating: 7/10

Price: From $1899