A few weeks ago, after trying out the iPhone XR in store and realizing I had pretty much no other option, I went out and got an iPhone XS. After a few weeks, if I were to summarize my experience in a word, I would call it… excessive.

An Upgrade?

The XS replaced a long-lived iPhone 6 that had its battery replaced a while back. However, even with a fresh battery the phone was getting too slow and hard to use on a daily basis.

Launching Outlook (or OneNote, or just about anything else non-trivial, even Twitter) would take 3-10s, taking calls would sometimes lead to awkward pauses as the display caught up with what was actually going on, and battery life would be sub-par whenever I listened to podcasts on my commute, since Overcast‘s audio processing could easily wipe out up to 10% battery life in an hour.

iOS 12 massively improved performance, but on the other hand power management became an issue again. Even with nearly every single form of background processing turned off (including Screen Time), the phone would either last me half a day or just barely past dinnertime, with any significant app usage taking its toll.

It also bears mentioning that battery life on Altice Portugal’s absolutely crummy mobile network (which drops calls everywhere, has lousy throughput and does not filter unsolicited inbound traffic to devices1) is usually terrible, but I mitigated that by setting the phone to 3G mode.

The XS, in comparison, has excellent battery life (for now) and is (occasionally) terrifyingly fast, so on that count it was indeed an upgrade.

Even considering the iPhone 6 ran the latest iOS version, niceties like tap-to-wake and hardware support for the Siri wake word blunted some of the edge off the Samsung S8 I have to carry for work, and I was able to go back to using the apps I needed to on my personal phone.

But there was so much else involved in the transition…

Why Not The XR?

Given that Apple doesn’t do AppleCare+ in Portugal (we still don’t have official Apple stores in 2018…), splurging on such an expensive piece of personal gadgetry is a bit risky.

Being the thrifty kind, I spent a couple of evenings mulling the risks and making a mental list of everything else I could have bought instead, and I’m still not completely at ease…

I was certainly overdue for an upgrade and was originally considering the XR, but my experience handling one was, in a word, lousy. The (caseless) size and weight were a major turn-off, and even though I had zero issues with the display and the (nominally) inferior camera, the form factor completely killed it for me (like I wrote earlier, the 6 was already too big for my taste, and the 5 was the perfect size).

There’s also the old adage about never buying the first revision of an Apple product (and, anectodally, the store attendant said the XR wasn’t selling anywhere as well as the XS/XS Max), but in this case I was more than willing to overlook that–if the thing didn’t look and handle like a Chicco phone.

I suspect I will come to envy the XR’s extended battery life, and if there is one extra I am planning to buy, it is a battery case for travel, which I hope Apple has plans for (I used one with my iPhone 6, and getting an XS-sized one is a no-brainer given the time I spend on the move).

Form Factor

Compared to the iPhone 6 it is replacing, the XS feels slightly larger than the 6 with a leather case (which I prefer, since in my case it weathered well and provided a very nice grip), but add its own leather case and it quickly becomes just a little too wide to use with one hand.

And the crux of the matter here is the size, not just the weight. I would say that the XR (without a case) feels harder to handle, but not noticeably larger–but I would never use a glass-backed iPhone without a case, and in the XR’s case, the use of nominally worse glass was also another factor against it.

I can use the phone single-handedly without qualms while sitting down, but when standing or moving handling the phone that way is hard and feels a tad hazardous.

It annoys me considerably that all of Apple’s modern phones are too big for comfort, and even if the XS falls into the lower end of the spectrum, it is still too big to hold and use comfortably at length given the way the UI has failed to keep up with the new screen sizes.

I have had to enable Reachability to be able to use it at all (even two-handed, it is too big for me to thumb up and tap to use the ridiculously tiny “back” indicator on the top left to return to the previous app or to tap the URL bar2), and with the case on, taking calls on it feels like bringing a leather slipper to my ear (without the olfactory overhead).


I like the size and resolution, loathe the notch, and find it more tolerable than the Samsung S8’s oversaturated tones until True Tone kicks in.

Then I just hate the color shifts it introduces when looking at photos, although to be fair it’s likely to be a matter of habit, and it does look slightly more natural than other devices when both Night Shift and True Tone are on.

The gesture interface is a no-brainer when you’ve been using the iPad equivalents for a while, but 3D Touch is… annoying enough for its own section.

3D Touch

3D touch isn’t new to me, but I didn’t have it on the 6, and so far it has been more of a hindrance than help for daily tasks since long presses for flagging items, popping up context menus or quick actions like copying text suddenly became inconsistent and hard to discover once I switched over to the XS.

Reeder, Twitter and other apps that use 3D Touch for “diving” into content became a minefield, and the only place where it improved the experience was GarageBand (which I appreciate, but is hardly significant in the greater scheme of things).

I’d much rather long presses were standardized across all iOS devices, really. Deprecating the increasingly archaic long press to delete apps would be a nice start, and be a lot easier for everybody…

In Your Face

Face ID is, in a word, fine.

I don’t like it because I (still) prefer Touch ID for explicit authentication (the power button double click to confirm purchases in the App Store doesn’t cut it for me), but having notification previews expand when it recognizes me is a nice touch.

I’ve had to train an alternate appearance already for unlocking my phone in the mornings without my glasses on, and it’s failed on me a few times in direct sunlight (even the relatively dim Autumn variety we’ve had recently), so no, it’s not perfect.

The Camera

I have taken an exact total of two portrait mode photos, and find the feature uninspiring and gimmicky because I see every bit of the fudged edges on the fake bokeh (and miss the real thing).

I have Halide as my “go-to” camera (which makes me resent Android‘s ability to set third-party apps for common tasks) and have taken a few excellent photos with it, so I can confirm the dual camera system is indeed a substantial improvement over the iPhone 6’s.

But in the intervening weeks I still took more photos with the Samsung S8 than with my iPhone simply because (again) the XS is still too awkward to handle comfortably.

Let this sink in: Even though both devices are about the same size, I can take my Samsung S8 (which I am not a fan of, on the contrary) out of a jacket pocket, unfold its folio cover, hold it securely and frame a shot single handedly, while in comparison getting the XS out of a pants pocket is, at best, fiddly, and at worst, nearly impossible–such as when sitting in a car.

I have as yet to figure out a way to fit HEIF and HEVC formats into my photo triage and archiving workflow, and expect to overhaul a few of my scripts within a few weeks. In the meantime, I find Live Photos intriguing, but not terribly useful since I haven’t yet taken enough for the advantages to matter.

The Lightning Connector

I’m a bit annoyed at this year’s phones not having switched to USB-C. Not because it’s a pressing need (after all, I still have plenty of Lightning cables and other Apple hardware around the house), but because I would very much like to stop treating my phone like a special snowflake and carry less cables around with me.

For all of Apple‘s “courage”, they show remarkably little of it sometimes.

As to alternatives, the promise of Qi wireless charging is interesting, but I never charged my Samsung wirelessly given that other than airport lounges, public charging spots are thin on the ground.

The IKEA desk lamp I picked up this weekend has a Qi charger, but I expect to get more mileage out of the USB plug on it.

I do, however, expect to get a lot of mileage out of this phone…

  1. I had that feature active when I worked at SAPO a few years back, and battery life was vastly superior. But nothing beats Vodafone Portugal’s network, though… Shame I can’t use it for work. ↩︎

  2. I fully expect all essential iOS navigation to gravitate to the bottom of the screen and match Android’s within a couple of years. ↩︎