iPhone Ten Ess

I picked up the new iPhone XS a couple of weeks ago, the day it first became available.  I was replacing the iPhone 6s that replaced my iPhone 5s that shattered when some thoughtless fool knocked it out of my hands at the train station. I’ve had the 6s for about two and a half years; it still works, but the battery runs down quickly, and having skipped a couple of years of iPhones, I’d already decided that this would be my upgrade year, even before this year’s models were announced.

I took a lunch break the day the phone was released, and went over to the Apple store in Dedham. There was a very very short line — it didn’t run out the store — and they had the model I wanted: 256 GB, gold. It took them a few minutes to fetch it out of the back, then it was brought out, and I moved my SIM card over from the 6s to the XS; no fuss, no muss. I’ve kept the 6s, by the way, as I’ve been doing some responsive stuff for work, and it gives me another device to test on. Once I got it home, I plugged it into my Mac and restored it from the backup I’d made of the 6s that morning. A short time later, I was all set.

How it feels

Unlike the 6 and 5S, the XS has a glass back. It feels really nice in the hand, and the glass back is grippier than metal back on the 6s. I like it, at least until/unless I drop it.

The case is only a little bit bigger than the 6s case, so I don’t notice much difference in my pocket. The screen is much bigger, but I tend to use my phone two handed, so reaching the top of the screen hasn’t been too much of a problem.

How it looks

The XS is a revision of the form factor introduced with the iPhone X — it has no home button, and the empty area at the top has been reduced to a small notch at the top of the screen. Although the case is only slightly bigger than the old phone, the screen is a lot bigger — taller, especially. It is really nice for reading, both webpages and books. The text is sharp, and the screen is contrasty, thanks to the blacker blacks offered by an OLED display.

How it works

Because it has no home button, the way you use the phone is different from my old phone. Instead of touching the home button to recognize a fingerprint, and unlock the phone, the iPhone XS has Face ID – it can recognize your face by projecting an infra-red dot pattern on your face, and cameras to interpret the pattern, match it to your stored face pattern, and unlock the phone. 

It’s simple enough to set up; you go to Settings and Face Id, where the phone shows a picture of your face inside a circle of index marks. You move your head around until all the index marks turn green. 

So far, it’s worked well. It recognizes my face — even with my Oakleys on, and no one else’s. Operationally, Face Id will work anywhere where Touch Id was used before.

Because it has no home button, to get back to the home screen, you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen. This has been mostly OK, though there are times I’m finding myself pressing on the home button that isn’t there to get back.

Battery life has been much much better than the 6s, but then, the 6s is nearly 3 years old. I was having real trouble getting the 6s to last through the day, and it nearly led to some problems while I was London, and heavily dependent on the phone for finding my way around. I spend most of my time at home, on wifi, and I’ve been able to get two days out a charge if I forget to charge it overnight. The phone does offer wireless charging, and I’ve been thinking of picking up a wireless charger for my desk.

The phone is much faster than the 6s, and in fact, doing work development, I’m noticing it actually loads web pages faster than my work Mac. 

I haven’t used the camera too much yet; what I’ve seen so far, I’ve liked. I have seen some complaints online that the XS over-smooths photos. The choice to shoot HDR (high dynamic range) or not is no longer a choice. When you take a picture, the camera automatically shoots a burst of photos and combines them to create a HDR image on the fly — the processor is that powerful. Take a look at this sunset picture I shot near the end of my bike ride today:

Sunset along the Charles

Not only is the sky not blown out, but there is detail in the foreground. 

One of the benefits of this computational photography is Portrait mode. In Portrait mode, the phone makes a depth map of the picture, and then applies lighting effects to the foreground and blurring effects to the background to simulate the effect of using a longer lens and a wider aperture on an SLR. On the XS, the artificial depth of field enhancement can be applied after the fact.

I was showing off the camera to my friends the week after I got it, and snapped a picture of Rich, because he was unlucky enough to be be sitting across from me, and then played with the picture, adjusting the “depth of field” until the lights behind him were slightly blurred. It was easy to go from no effect to too much; we decided to go with something in the middle.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed a couple of times now is Hand Off for phone calls — I moved the SIM card from the 6s to the XS, so the 6s is now wifi only, but because both phones are generally on the same wifi network, and the 6s is still active, both phones will often ring when I get a call. 

Overall, I’m pleased with the new phone. In a lot of ways, it’s the same, especially since I started with a backup of the 6s. I have the same apps and music and books and the icons are mostly in the same place — the home page layout is mostly the same, the icons are just a little bit bigger and more spread out. I love the speed and battery life, and the having the extra screen space without a lot of extra bulk is really nice.