Apple iPhone XS review

GSMArena team, 25 Sept 2018.

Portrait mode

The Portrait mode uses the telephoto camera for the shots, but it isn't relying on a second sensor for the depth map. Instead, the new ISP and the A12's NPU do the subject separation thing and Apple says both the mapping and the bokeh effect have become better because of that.

The new A12 chip is exactly the reason why the iPhone XR is also getting Portrait mode in spite of it having just one camera at the back.

Apple iPhone XS review

The blur strength is adjustable post-shooting - the default setting is f/4.5, but you can opt or anything between f/1.4 and f/16. Even better, iOS 12.1 will allow you to do this real-time on the viewfinder.

Adjusting the level of blur after taking the photo - Apple iPhone XS review Adjusting the level of blur after taking the photo - Apple iPhone XS review Adjusting the level of blur after taking the photo - Apple iPhone XS review
Adjusting the level of blur after taking the photo

The portrait samples are quite good. Indeed, the subject separation has improved and the bokeh effect is a little bit more natural than it was on the iPhone X. Once again, the improvements aren't massive, but they do move the mobile Portrait photography yet another step further.

Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait samples - f/2.4, ISO 160, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait samples - f/2.4, ISO 250, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait samples - f/2.4, ISO 125, 1/103s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait samples - f/2.4, ISO 16, 1/269s - Apple iPhone XS review
Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait samples

Smart HDR works in portraits, too, and it does its magic for popping more detail in both faces and backgrounds.

HDR off - f/2.4, ISO 16, 1/247s - Apple iPhone XS review HDR on - f/2.4, ISO 16, 1/249s - Apple iPhone XS review Default blur - f/2.4, ISO 16, 1/268s - Apple iPhone XS review Adjusted to f/1.4 later - f/2.4, ISO 16, 1/249s - Apple iPhone XS review
HDR off HDR on Default blur Adjusted to f/1.4 later

And if you are keen on using those Stage Light effects, they are still here for you.

Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait shot with Portrait Lightning Effects - f/2.4, ISO 320, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait shot with Portrait Lightning Effects - f/2.4, ISO 250, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait shot with Portrait Lightning Effects - f/2.4, ISO 320, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait shot with Portrait Lightning Effects - f/2.4, ISO 250, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review
Apple iPhone XS 12MP portrait shot with Portrait Lightning Effects

4K video recording at 60fps, wide stereo audio for videos

Apple iPhone XS is capable of capturing all kind of videos, all of them - optically stabilized as usual. All except the 4K@60fps clips also feature cinematic video stabilization and expanded dynamic range thanks to the Smart HDR. The XS can do 4K at 60fps and 1080p at 240fps, just like the iPhone X. Every one of these modes and features is available for the telephoto camera as well.

The 4K 60fps videos are available only on the new high-efficiency format (H.265 HEVC). The regular 4K at 30 fps, 1080p at 30, and 1080p at 60fps are available for both H.264 and HEVC. The 4K at 24fps film mode is here to stay, too.

One final thing, the iPhone XS captures wide stereo recording for the videos. This means spatial sound, just like some recent HTCs and some old Nokia phones did, and you should enjoy richer and deeper sound if compared to just regular stereo.

The camcorder UI is as simple as it can get, offering nothing but the flash setting. You can find the resolution and file format switch in the Settings menu instead of having a shortcut in the viewfinder, which is as annoying as it has ever been. The video options along with the other camera related settings are all buried far away in the iOS Settings menu.

The 4K videos captured both at 60, and 30 fps with the main and telephoto camera are virtually identical in quality. The picture is very close to the still images - plenty of detail, but there is an average foliage presentation. The colors are great, and so is the contrast and white balance. There are no focus issues or compression artifacts. And the dynamic range is nothing short of impressive even when Smart HDR is not involved.

The 1080p videos, 30 or 60 fps, from the main or telephoto camera, are class-leading. Plenty of detail, great foliage, jaw-dropping dynamic range. Those are among the best 1080p videos a smartphone can do.

The iPhone XS has a new setting for its videos - automatically drop the frame rate of the 4K videos down to 24fps to improve the quality in low-light. These 30 and 24 fps clips make use of the wider stereo recording, too, and we decided to do a quick test.

While we were shooting our low-light samples, there was a concert nearby. We captured short clips with the iPhone XS and the iPhone X and you can clearly hear the difference in the audio recording. We've put those into a playlist for you to compare. You can easily notice the brighter iPhone XS video, but if you own a high-end pair of headphones, you can hear its huge superiority in audio capturing as well. Indeed, Apple did great with the audio capturing, but it's pity it's only available for the iPhone XS.

You can directly download the wide-angle 4K@60fps (148MB, 11s), 4K@60fps telephoto (140MB, 10s), 4K@30fps (58MB, 10s), 4K@30fps telephoto (60MB, 10s), 1080p@30fps (20MB, 10s), 1080p@30fps telephoto (20MB, 10s), 1080p@60fps (29MB, 10s), and 1080p@60fps telephoto (30MB, 10s) video samples.

Below you have the Apple iPhone XS in our video compare tool. You can check the telephoto video quality with this tool as well.

Video Compare Tool Video Compare Tool Video Compare Tool
2160p at 30fps: Apple iPhone XS vs. iPhone X vs. Pixel 2 XL in our 4K video compare tool

Selfies camera

The front-facing camera has the same 7MP unit behind f/2.2 lens we saw on the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus, and X, but it captures photos a little bit faster thanks to the new ISP. Smart HDR is also available for the selfies, so you have it enabled in Settings, you will notice it doing its mojo.

The camera can use the so-called Retina flash, where your screen lights your face up in particular color to provide more pleasing skin tones depending on the color of the available light.

There is plenty of resolved detail, though not the best we've seen. The contrast and colors are very good, while the exposure is always based on the human subject, while the Smart HDR takes care of the background.

Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfies - f/2.2, ISO 50, 1/121s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfies - f/2.2, ISO 64, 1/83s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfies - f/2.2, ISO 200, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfies - f/2.2, ISO 160, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review
Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfies

The new A12 chip enables smart portraits on the selfie camera, too. The quality is quite alright, subject separation is excellent and you can adjust the blur after shooting them.

Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits - f/2.2, ISO 50, 1/121s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits - f/2.2, ISO 64, 1/86s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits - f/2.2, ISO 200, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits - f/2.2, ISO 160, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS review
Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits

Finally, Portrait Lightning is available for the selfie portrait photos, too.

Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits with effects - f/2.2, ISO 50, 1/121s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits with effects - f/2.2, ISO 50, 1/121s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits with effects - f/2.2, ISO 50, 1/121s - Apple iPhone XS review Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits with effects - f/2.2, ISO 50, 1/121s - Apple iPhone XS review
Apple iPhone XS 7MP selfie portraits with effects

The iPhone XS improves the video recording capabilities of the selfie camera, though. First, you can now shoot 1080p videos at 60fps. It took us two days to find how to use this new mode - we had to set the main camera to shoot at 1080p at 60fps in order to get the selfie camera do the same. Otherwise, it will always capture at 30 fps. Really, Apple?

There is also cinematic video stabilization available for both 1080p at 30 and at 60 fps. It's always working, you can't turn it off, but you really don't want to do this anyway as it is excellent.

The 30 fps videos benefit from the Smart HDR and you can see the restored skies in our sample. You can see our 30 and 60 fps samples in the playlist below.

Finally, wide stereo audio capturing for the selfie videos is available, as promised.

The video quality is excellent - the stabilization works great, there is more than enough detail, the colors are accurate, and the exposure is correct - the subject's face. HDR is available for the 30fps clips, as we mentioned, and it restores most of the blown spots.

Overall, the iPhone XS offers some of the best selfie videos we've captured in a while. Now if only Apple organizes its camera settings better that would be really nice and long, long overdue.

Update, Oct. 4. We received quite a few tips about the iPhone XS and XS Max selfie cameras. There are various claims for some permanent beautification effects and samples to prove it. Well, we had to check it for ourselves and here is what we found out.

There are no beautification effects in the selfie camera whatsoever. Apple had never added such throughout the years and it won't just sneak them in the new iPhones without making some big deal out of it at least.

It's quite simple - the selfie camera shoots poor quality shots without Smart HDR. The faces are very soft in the non-HDR selfie photos, the resolved detail is average and the noise reduction smears some of the detail. All of these make the images look soft, while the lack of detail and the face smear can be mistaken for beautification.

But if Smart HDR is enabled, as well as Keep Original Photo option, you can see both the original and the HDR photo. And the HDR one is very sharp and detailed because of the multi-stacking, while the original is, well, just poor. And this applies not just for the regular selfies, but for the portrait ones, too.

Here are some samples to prove it.

iPhone X - f/2.2, ISO 80, 1/60s - Apple iPhone XS Max review iPhone XS Max (no HDR) - f/2.2, ISO 64, 1/63s - Apple iPhone XS Max review iPhone XS Max (Smart HDR) - f/2.2, ISO 64, 1/61s - Apple iPhone XS Max review
iPhone X iPhone XS Max (no HDR) iPhone XS Max (Smart HDR)

Check this side by side comparison.

So, there is no conspiracy in the selfie camera, it just shoots so poor without HDR, that some people mistake this for beautification enhancements.