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’.

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? 

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.

There has been some talk about some facial smoothing effects automatically added to selfies, which has annoyed some people. Yes, there should be an option added to switch it off in the next software update, but it didn’t worry me much as the effects are quite subtle when comparing selfies to other phones. Besides, who wouldn’t want a few blemishes smoothed out anyway?

Image quality

Photo quality from the Max is very consistent across a broad range of photo types. It excelled in indoor lighting conditions and full sunlight. It managed to keep a broad dynamic range when shooting outside, and captured plenty of texture and detail. Low light was also strong, and there appeared to be less blur and shutter delay than the iPhone X. I also compared photos with Samsung’s Galaxy Note9, which is an excellent camera. The main differences between the two were with colour accuracy. In normal light, the Max was more accurate, with the Note9 appearing cooler, however, in low light, the Note’s colour appeared more vibrant.

The iPhone XS Max (right) displayed a slightly softer but warmer photo than the Samsung Galaxy Note9 on the left.

The iPhone XS Max (right) displayed a slightly softer but warmer photo than the Samsung Galaxy Note9 on the left.

In terms of benchmarks, the iPhone X’s camera system was already quite good and scored a 97 on DXOMark’s independent camera tests, which is 9thoverall. The iPhone XS Max, however, scored a very impressive 105, and ranked second, just beneath Huawei’s P20 Pro. The P20 Pro has a triple camera system, so it’s still the one to beat, though the Max is clearly very, very good. For more, see DXOMark’s report here.

Dual-camera system

Tight shot showing the iPhone XS's new dual camera including flash and two lensesThe XS has gets a faster F1.8 wide-angle lens and F2.4 telephoto lens to work with, along with dual Optical Image Stabilisation support. The front facing TrueDepth camera is a 7 megapixel unit, compared to the 12MP dual cameras on the rear. Still, it’s no slouch and gets plenty of features including enhanced bokeh (background blur) and Portrait Mode for nicer looking selfies, dynamic Depth Control and Smart-HDR.

The A12 Bionic and TrueDepth camera are also better for face tracking. With iMessage’s Animoji and Memoji ‘masks’ that you can put over your face and record, the effect is more responsive and accurate. Just try sticking your tongue out, winking or raise your eyebrows, and it’s uncanny how well the system tracks your face.

Video recording also sees some improvements. Now, you can enjoy better dynamic range and low-light filming in video modes up to 4K and 30 frames per second.

Battery

Compared to last year’s iPhone X, the 3174 mAh battery in the iPhone XS Max is rated to last about 1 and a half hours longer, while the iPhone XS gets an additional 30 minutes. The discrepancy is due to the Max having a larger battery than the 5.8in XS, by about 500 mAh. In use, the Max was quite happy to keep feeding my moderate digital demands for an overnighter without my charger, so that’s just under 2 days.

There’s also a slightly better wireless recharge system, with better off-axis placement. I’m assuming this means that you don’t need to directly centre your phone on a charge pad, though I can’t say I really noticed a difference.

Fast charging support will give you about a 50 percent charge in 30 minutes on both XS models. However, an extremely frustrating thing is that the 5 Watt USB power adaptor supplied in the box does not have enough power to fast charge your phone. You’ll need to borrow one from an iPad or otherwise, buy a 12W USB power adaptor from Apple, which costs $29. Considering the iPhone’s premium price, this is unacceptable.

Dual Sim

It’s great to see a dual-SIM feature added to the new iPhone XS models. This means that you can have two separate numbers, one connected to a MicroSIM, and another via Apple’s eSIM. This was introduced in the iPad Pro and Apple Watch, and an eSIM is essentially an embedded, programmable SIM. Having two numbers can be handy if you use your phone for work and want to separate calls, if you travel a lot, or just want to have two numbers for other ‘reasons’. While not supported until later this year, you will be able to choose your eSIM provider and plan right from your phone and use a QR code to validate it.

iOS12

If you haven’t had a chance to use it already, the new iPhone XS and XS Max come with iOS 12. This, in itself, delivers many new features, such as the camera’s Portrait mode and Studio Lighting, animated and face tracking emojis, group FaceTime, augmented reality apps and features, Screen Time usage monitoring and a whole lot more. Even if you don’t plan on buying a new iPhone, you should upgrade your existing iPhone as it offers some performance improvements at the very least. For a full list of iOS 12 features, check here

Girl holding iPhone XS Max using an augmented reality app.

There’s lots to see and do with iOS12, and the Max is a perfect match

Pricing

This has been the big bone of contention with the new iPhones. The iPhone XS Max starts at $1,799 for the 256GB version and tops out at $2,369 for the 512GB variant. Yes, this is the most expensive iPhone ever, and comparable to new laptop prices. You can save by choosing the 5.8in iPhone XS, which has nearly identical everything except the screen, and starts at $1629. For those that want to wait for the iPhone XR, coming out in October, this starts at $1299 for the 64GB version. The XR uses a uniquely sized 6.1 inch LED screen and a single-lens camera system, but otherwise, it gets the A12Bionic and nearly identical features.

iPhone XS Max in Gold, shown on brown leather, face down.

The iPhone XS Max is a gorgeous, premium device, but commands a hefty price

While very expensive, it may not matter to you all that much if it’s part of your phone plan. Also, the 512GB version probably isn’t necessary for most people, as music and photo libraries are often stored on the cloud. Unless you have huge movie, music, app and photo albums that you want to warehouse on your iPhone, the 256GB model should do fine.

What Apple has done, however, is firmly establish a new ‘ultra-premium’ space, which is for flagship phones from about $1500 and upwards. This is currently shared with Samsung’s Note9, which starts at $1499 for 128GB of RAM and tops out at $1799 for 512GB. Others will certainly join this elite club soon.

Final thoughts

So, is the iPhone XS Max worth the money? That depends on how you’re paying for it, and if having the ‘best’ is worth it to you. It is indeed a very impressive, cutting edge phone that offers just about the best of everything:  looks, performance, camera quality, features, screen, smarts, speakers and more. Is it better than a Samsung Galaxy Note9? Its camera and screen are comparable, and it doesn’t have an S-Pen (stylus) if that’s important to you. However, for many that want to stay within the Apple camp, or even those jumping ship from Android, the iPhone XS, and XS Max especially, will be sure to surprise and delight.

Specs comparison table

ModelXRXSXS Max
Screen6.1” LCD 1792×8285.8” OLED 2436×1125
Dolby Vision
6.5” OLED 2688 x 1242
Dolby Vision
ProcessorA12 with neural engineSameSame
Storage GB64/128/25664/256/512Same
Rear CameraSingle 12MP f/1.8Dual 12MP f/1.8/f/2.4Same
Front camera7MP f/2.2 with flashSameSame
Face IDYesSameSame
Wi-FiAC with MIMOSameSame
NFCApple PaySameSame
LTE4GXVoLTE/Wi-Fi callingNano Sim and eSIMGigabit
Same
Same
Same
Same
Same
Size/Weight150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3mm
194g
143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7mm
177g
157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7mm
194g
Battery mAhNot statedSameSame
Wireless chargeYesSameSame
BuildAluminium frame and glass back
Blue, White, Black, Yellow, Coral, Red
Stainless steel frame and glass backSilver, Space Grey, GoldSame Same
Water resistanceIP67 1m/30minIP68 2m/30mSame
OSiOS 12SameSame
Price64GB – $1229128GB – $1299256GB – $147964GB – $1629256GB – $1879512GB – $219964GB – $1799256GB – $2049512GB – $2369

Apple iPhone XS Max - bigger is much better
Name: iPhone XS Max Price (RRP): $$1799 (256GB) - $2369 (512GB) Manufacturer: Apple
Amazing dual-lens camera and clever features to create stunning photosThat amazing 6.5 inch OLED screen is just beautifulPremium materials and typical Apple design excellence The best facial recognition in the businessAn immesely powerful phone with impressive capabiliites for gaming and AR
Out-of-the-box charger doesn't support quick chargingThe top of the range 512GB model is very, very expensiveCan get slippery without a case
Features
Value for money
Performance
Design
4.6Overall Score
Reader Rating 2 Votes
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