Sure, Apple largely stuck to last year's reinvigorated design, and who can blame them? But the usual annual enhancements promise to pack in more power, improved dynamic range, better photos, and potential other benefits along the way.
So what really sets these phones apart? Let's break it down.
Design: The same, but gold
The iPhone X was a revolutionary handset for Apple, scrapping the familiar bezel-and-home-button approach for an edge-to-edge display, that divisive notch, and a whole lot of premium polish. Granted, it cost a grand, but amazingly it felt worth every penny.
The iPhone XS is not a revolutionary handset. It's seemingly identical from a visual standpoint, aside from the addition of a new Gold colour option. Still, what looked great the last time around hasn't faded after only a year.
Screen: Even more dynamic
Likewise, we're not expecting much of a difference here. It's still a 5.8in OLED display at 2436x1125 (458ppi), and can handle HDR footage in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision flavours. Last year's Samsung-produced panel was an absolute treat, but the XS one should be even better.
That's because Apple has packed in 60% more dynamic range than before, which means much bolder contrast, truer blacks, and more visual pop overall. It's probably a subtle difference side-by-side, but we'll take it. In any case, it's sure to be a noticeable upgrade over the lower-res, LCD screen of the new iPhone XR.
Camera: The biggest upgrade?
On paper, it might seem like Apple hasn't done much with the camera setup from the iPhone X. The XS still features a dual 12-megapixel camera setup on the back: one wide-angle (f/1.8) and the other telephoto (f/2.4). The dual-camera approach allows for blurred-backdrop Portrait photos, bokeh effects, and 2x optical zoom... just like before.
But speedier sensors and the new Smart HDR feature promise improved highlight and shadow detail to photos, plus better low-light performance. The shots shown onstage looked fantastic, but we'll have to see what everyday photos look like when we're out and about in the real world. Apple also says that snaps happen faster than ever, making for better action shots.
And the iPhone XS packs in another super-cool feature: a slider that lets you adjust the background focal depth after shooting, giving you manual control over the blur and bokeh. It looks incredibly impressive.
On the front, again, the specs look the same: it's a 7MP camera flanked by sensors that enable Face ID security and Animoji. But now it's faster and more secure than before, plus the same kind of focal depth slider is available for selfie Portrait shots, as well. All told, front and back, there are some big benefits to the iPhone XS over the iPhone X.
Performance: More power!
Even now, a year after its release in the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, the A11 Bionic chip is the fastest smartphone processor on the market today. And the A12 Bionic apparently tops it, according to Apple.
The two performance cores within are up to 15% faster, while the four efficiency cores require up to 50% less power than the A11 Bionic. Apple's new GPU likewise pumps up the graphics performance, plus the hugely-enhanced Neural Engine allows up to 5 trillion operations per second, a nine-fold improvement. The Neural Engine empowers things like augmented reality (shown) and machine learning, and should pay dividends across the OS and its apps.
Apple hasn't officially confirmed this detail yet, but the iPhone XS was also rumoured to bump the RAM tally to 4GB from 3GB in the iPhone X. And since many of the other pre-release rumours panned out as legitimate, we believe it's likely also true.
Battery and perks: Just a smidge more
As for battery life, Apple didn't provide specs for the iPhone XS pack, but they claim that it'll last for about 30 minutes longer than last year. That's hardly worth boasting about, but it's something. Officially, Apple estimates up to 12 hours of internet usage and 14 hours of video playback. It should be a suitable all-day battery with average use.
This time around, Apple is offering more storage on the top end, although you'll certainly pay for it. Along with the 64GB and 256GB options from the iPhone X, the XS also has a 512GB version available. Still no expandable storage, however. Surprise, surprise.
Initial verdict: They're close
The iPhone XS is the classic Apple revision model: it takes the revolutionary upgrade of the previous year's edition and adds in numerous refinements and enhancements.
That's great news if you held out on the iPhone X, but it's sure to make current iPhone X owners a bit antsy. Granted, there are no individually enormous upgrades here, as far as we can tell from the announcements and upgrades. But collectively, they add up to some nice perks.
Should you upgrade? If you're in an annual upgrade program that lets you easily jump ship to the next big thing, then you might consider it – but you might also shift larger with the iPhone XS Max or cheaper/more colourful with the iPhone XR.
We're not immediately convinced that the iPhone XS is worth any great expense or hassle if you're considering replacing the still-brilliant iPhone X, but we'll find out for sure once we issue our full review in the near future.