Apple iPhone XS Max - bigger is much better
4.6Overall Score
Name: iPhone XS Max Price (RRP): $$1799 (256GB) - $2369 (512GB) Manufacturer: Apple

It’s hard to imagine that the original iPhone X (read as ‘ten’) has been out for a year. As with previous years, Apple tends to launch an all new phone, followed by an uprated ‘S’ model the year after. This time, there’s a new ‘XS’ version of the iPhone X, and now we also get two other variants. The iPhone XS Max, which is out now, and the all-new iPhone XR, which will land at the end of October. But for now, our spotlight is on the new iPhone XS Max, Apple’s largest smartphone ever.

Design

While one of the biggest benefits of the iPhone X’s design introduced last year was that it gave you a bigger screen without increasing the dimensions of the phone very much. This is because the screen now takes up most of the front, especially where the ‘home’ button used to be. The iPhone XS Max follows the same design principles, only, where the regular iPhone XS has a 5.8 inch display, the Max’s 6.5 inch screen is truly huge.3 iPhone XS Max phones stacked on top of each other in space grey, silver and gold coloursAlso, if you compare body sizes with an iPhone 8 Plus, they are nearly identical, while the Max delivers a 6.5 inch screen compared to 5.5 inches. So essentially, this phone is for those who want a larger screen in a smaller package, be it for watching videos (which look marvellous by the way), reading emails, documents, attachments or scanning social feeds.

Apart from the display size, the XS Max follows the same design language as the XS, with curved edges made from surgical grade stainless steel, and now, the most durable glass ever used in a smartphone. While I haven’t tested it, this is what Apple is claiming, I have dropped it a few times without damage. Considering there’s glass used on both the front and rear of the phone, this is good news.

Lastly, the iPhone gets a new colour added to the silver and space grey options. The Gold finish is attractive, somewhat subtle, and adds a premium feel to those who want a bit more ‘bling’.

iPhone XS Max

It’s also great to see that the iPhone XS and XS Max have improved water and dust resistance, and are now rated to the IP68 standard. This means you can submerge your device in 2 meters of water for 30 minutes, where it was just 1 meter for the iPhone X.

The only gripes I have about the design are that, considering the Max’s body size, one handed use can be tricky and the phone is slippery! I’ve dropped it trying to use it with one hand while navigating with my thumb. This can be easily remedied by adding a case, which I’ll be doing very soon.

Display

As mentioned, the 6.5 inch screen is huge. It’s also beautiful to look at, with an OLED type display that delivers deep, pure blacks and vibrant colours. Both XS models use Apple’s latest Super Retina Display, which is brighter than last year at 625 cd/m2, and is sharper than any other iPhone at 458 pixels per inch.

side by side comparison of iPhone XS Max and Samsung Galaxy Note9
The iPhone XS Max’s screen is a sliver larger that Samsung’s Galaxy Note9, while the Note has a taller body overall. The ‘notch’ is still there though

In terms of colour accuracy, the Super Retina Display can support HDR10 and Dolby Vision movies, supports the Wide Colour Gamut also found on the iPad Pro and new iMac screens and the DCI P3 colour space. There’s also True Tone technology, which adjusts the white-balance to match the colour temperature of the light around you. The net result is a truly excellent display, and one that you won’t be disappointed looking at. Seriously, just watch a Dolby Vision movie on this thing, such as Jurassic World, and you will be very impressed!

Sound

It should be noted that the iPhone XS Max’s speakers have improved too. Compared to a Galaxy Note9, they are louder overall and have noticeable audio separation, so the sound appears to be emanating from a wider, larger source. They are also have decent bass and don’t sound as ‘tinny’ as many smartphones.

Close up of iPhone XS Max speaker grille.
The stereo speakers sit beneath the grille closest to the camera, and are plenty loud

FaceID

While some hate it, the so called ‘notch’ persists on the new iPhone XS models. This is needed to house the very clever TrueDepth camera array, which also enables the FaceID facial recognition system, the front facing 7 megapixel ‘selfie’ camera and some other image sensors. In general, you hardly notice the notch once you get used to it, and it’s good to see that, thanks to the new A12 Bionic processor, the facial recognition system gets faster and more accurate. In use, I felt there were less ‘fails’ compared to last year’s iPhone X, and it is about half a second quicker when unlocking the phone with my face. I’ve also yet to find another phone that can even come close to its accuracy and repeatability.

A12 Bionic

One of the big changes inside the XS Max and regular XS is a new processing engine. It’s called the A12 Bionic and made up of a combination of different processor units. This includes an 8-core Neural Engine, which is designed for machine learning applications such as photo enhancements and augmented reality. For comparison, this year’s version can manage 5 trillion operations per second while the A11 Bionic could do ‘just’ 600 billion. Apart from being around 9 times faster, it uses as little as one tenth the energy running Core ML on the A11 Bionic. So it’s fast, yes, and efficient too.

Added to this is a 6-core high-performance CPU (Central Processing Unit), which is about 15 percent faster than the A11 Bionic, and an Apple-designed GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) which is about 50 percent faster when doing things like compressing and decompressing video, playing high end graphics and video games.

Even if you don’t care about the specifications, it must be said that this is a monster of a smartphone in the processing department. While it’s difficult to compare directly to Android smartphones, as they use different chips, in real world use, the Max is very, very fast. So, what can you do with all this power then? 

iPhone XS Max Benchmark comparison tables.
GeekBench 4 results for the iPhone XS Max. It ranked fastest by a large margin in CPU and Compute tasks

Photo features

One direct application of the A12 Bionic is taking photos. Working with the new dual-camera setup, intensive image adjustment algorithms can be applied to make your shots look better. For example, there’s now a Smart HDR mode, which brings highlights and shadows together. So, if you take a portrait while facing the sun, the Smart HDR feature can balance the photo so the sky still looks bright, while keeping your subject visible. 

side by side comparison of iPhone XS Max depth of field feature
Testing the Depth Control effect on our writer. After taking a Portrait Photo, you can use the slider to adjust the depth of field, such as F1.4 (left) for a blurred background to F16 (right), for a sharper effect.

There’s also a new Depth Control mode when using the Portrait setting that lets you dynamically adjust the depth of field after the photo has been taken. To do this, the A12Bionic needs to figure out the foreground and background, separate the two, and they apply bokeh, or blur, in a natural way. While the setting does require the right conditions and doesn’t always work, it’s a nice option to have if you’re into creative photography.