iPhone XS Max review: The iPhone's future is big and bright
The future of the iPhone is here. The home button, an iconic part of the iPhone’s design for the past decade, is no more. For at least the immediate future, the iPhone will feature a display that goes nearly edge to edge, broken up only by a notch at the top of the device.
The overall size of the iPhone has not increased, but the display size has increased. So too has the cost.
Also: Battle of the big smartphones: Apple iPhone XS Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Apple announced a trio of new iPhone models this year, with the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max as modest upgrades from last year’s iPhone X. The iPhone XR looks similar to the XS, but incorporates different display technology and is the cheapest of the group.
For the past week, I’ve been using the iPhone XS Max; the biggest and most expensive iPhone ever. This is the phone I had said I was all in on. And you know what? It’s shaping up to be my favorite iPhone ever.
With the iPhone XS Max, Apple kept the same overall design as the iPhone X. A stainless steel housing band wraps the sides, broken up only by a new antenna band along the bottom. The front and back of the phone are covered in glass, once again allowing for Qi-standard wireless charging. The iPhone XS and XS Max come in three colors this year: Space gray, silver, and a new gold color.
The iPhone now carries an IP68 water and dust resistance rating, meaning it can withstand a dip in up to 2m of water for 30 minutes. Whenever this rating is mentioned,Apple has made sure to mix in references to testing the iPhone XS in other liquids such as beer. I opted to not test my iPhone XS Max in a pint of beer, namely because I didn’t want to waste a good beer.
The XS Max’s OLED display is a massive 6.5 inches, with a resolution of 2688×1242 and a pixel density of 458ppi. The Max’s display is slightly larger than Samsung’s Note 9, which measures 6.4 inches.
Also: iPhone XS Max teardown: Here’s what $1,249 flagship costs Apple in parts
As with last year’s iPhone X, the top of the display has a notch or cutout. In that cutout, Apple has placed one of the phone’s speakers, along with the various components for its True Depth camera system, which is a crucial part of its Face ID system.
The iPhone XS Max supports HDR, both Dolby Vision and HDR10. To sum up the display in a word: Stunning. Watching HDR-enabled YouTube videos, I was mesmerized by the saturation and clarity. Unlike Samsung’s Note 9 and its oversaturated color replication, the iPhone XS Max takes a more realistic approach.
In fact, DisplayMate’s Dr. Raymond M. Soneira recently tested the iPhone XS Max display and awarded it the “Best Smartphone Display” award, surpassing the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
Despite the size of the display, the phone is actually smaller than Apple’s previous Plus iPhone model and the Note 9.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the dimensions in inches:
|iPhone 8 Plus||iPhone XS Max||Galaxy Note 9|
As you can see, the XS Max is the smallest of the group, even if it’s just barely so.
On the bottom of the XS Max, you’ll find a Lightning port to charge, sync, and listen to audio via Lightning compatible headphones. Yes, the headphone jack is still missing. Also missing this year is the Lightning to 3.5mm headphone plug adapter that Apple had previously included in the box with previous iPhone models after ditching the headphone jack.
Along the right side of the phone is where you’ll find the SIM card tray and the side button. On the opposite side is the traditional Ring/Silent switch, along with volume up and down buttons.
The back of the phone features a dual-camera system, complete with a camera bump. Both cameras are 12 megapixels and dual optical image stabilization.
Also: iPhone XS Max vs iPhone X: Apple’s latest flagship’s display sets new records
The only notable difference between the iPhone XS and XS Max is the size. The XS is nearly identical to last year’s iPhone X, save for a slightly bigger camera bump and the antenna band.
As I said in my first impressions of the XS Max, yes, the phone is big… but it’s not that big. Reading through a spec sheet, it’s easy to see the display size and figure the phone is unwieldily, but for me, that’s just not the case.
Again, I don’t have what I would consider large hands, and I’ve resisted the phablet trend by opting for the smaller iPhone and Galaxy devices over the past few years.
And yet, I’ve had no issues adapting to the XS Max. I’m able to use it with one hand when needed, thanks in part to Reachability.
The combination of more content on the screen, combined with the picture quality for my frequent YouTube binges and the overall comfort of using a phone I would have previously thought too big for me, the iPhone XS Max is a joy to use.
Powering the iPhone XS Max is Apple’s latest processor, the A12 Bionic. The 7-nanometer chip has six cores, two performance cores that are only used for resource-intensive tasks like gaming. The four remaining cores are used for more common tasks, like sending messages or checking email.
Another benefit of the new processor is the ability to handle storage of up to 512GB. Yes, that means that Apple now offers an iPhone with 512GB of storage, along with 64GB and 256GB.
According to iFixit’s teardown of the XS Max, it has a 3,174mAh battery and 4GB of memory.
Battery life for me has been nothing short of stellar. I routinely go the entire day and halfway into the next before I need to charge the XS Max.
Also: iPhone XS and XS Max reveals some battery surprises
I’m annoyed that Apple is still shipping a 5W wall adapter with all iPhone models, instead of a wall adapter that’s capable of fast charging the iPhone. And despite sticking to 7.5W wireless charging, the iPhone XS Max chargers faster thanks to a resigned wireless charging coil inside the phone. The coil is wound tighter, making it more efficient, and in turn capable of charging the phone faster via a Qi wireless charging pad. Another benefit of this year’s wireless charging redesign is that the coil is more forgiving in the phone’s placement on the pad.
As far as speed goes, apps open without hesitation, and there’s been no slowdown in my short time with the phone.
Thanks to the upgraded processor, Face ID is reportedly faster than it was with the iPhone X. If it is faster, it’s not enough for me to notice.
Let’s talk reception
Apple updates the processor and internals with every iPhone release, but this year there’s a notable change that could potentially impact all users. Instead of using Qualcomm modems in every iPhone model, Apple has fully switched to Intel modems. Previously, only GSM iPhone models (example: AT&T, T-Mobile) used Intel modems for connectivity.
Shortly after the iPhone XS launched, reports of reception and throughout issues began to surface. In some cases, users report the iPhone XS is unable to connect to an LTE network in an area with poor reception, despite other smartphones able to find and hold onto an LTE signal.
Also: New Apple connection problem? iPhone XS users report subpar cell and Wi-Fi reception
With an iPhone XS Max, iPhone X, and Galaxy Note 9 on hand, I decided to run some speed tests using an AT&T SIM card.
I checked the signal strength of each device, as measured in dBm, prior to running any tests. Using the Ookla Speedtest app, I ensured all three devices used the same test server and then I ran each test three times. The first series of tests were in an area of poor reception, and the second series ran outside where reception isn’t an issue. I then averaged the three tests. Download and update speeds are listed in Mbps.
|iPhone XS Max||9.41||0.48||-118|
As you can see, the iPhone XS Max performed very poorly, with the Note 9 coming out on top. Once I moved outside, however, the story changed a bit.
|iPhone XS Max||47.97||18.77||-98|
The iPhone X performed worse than the XS Max when reception improved, which is exactly what should happen despite both devices I have on hand using an Intel modem. With the XS line, Apple added an additional antenna that enables 4×4 MIMO and Gigabit-class LTE. The Note 9 still offered the best performance.
I also ran the same tests when connected to my Wi-Fi network, but all three devices performed the same, each reaching the speed limit provided by my ISP (125 Mbps down/10 Mbps up). I have experienced no issues with Wi-Fi on the iPhone XS Max.
As for why the iPhone XS Max struggled in an area with poor reception in my testing, I’m not sure. There are a number of factors that can go into impacting reception and throughput, not all of which are Apple or even a wireless carrier’s fault. I plan on continuing to test and monitor reports over the coming days and weeks.
A few years ago, it felt as if we reached a plateau when it came to camera performance. The picture quality from Samsung, Google, and Apple devices is nearly identical and boils down to personal preference.
The iPhone XS Max boasts a new sensor with enhancements to image fidelity, faster auto-focus, deeper pixels, and larger pixels. There’s even a new Smart HDR feature that goes beyond the precious HDR mode of combing three photos of varying exposure to capture more detail and light in a photo.
Also: Apple iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR: Features and specs compared
All of that sounds fancy, but what does it mean exactly? For me, it means one of the best cameras I’ve used on a smartphone in recent memory.
The amount of detail captured in situations with low light, or with difficult shadows, has been impressive. Look at this photo:
I took this on an overcast day, in an alley, without much thought. After I took it, I zoomed in to see how much detail of the wall was captured in the shot. Every single bump and imperfection of the wall is there and properly lit. The only editing done on this photo was to crop it for Instagram. I did not adjust any colors or saturation.
Apple also made improvements to Portrait Mode on the XS Max. Specifically, Apple has added the ability to adjust the amount of blur — or bokeh — after the photo has been taken. Previously, when a photo was taken in Portrait Mode, you had to live with the amount of background blur.
I’m still not entirely sold on Portrait Mode, and honestly, it hasn’t been a feature I’ve used very often in the past. I need to test it out more, but so far the ability to adjust the background after the fact has been intriguing.
The iPhone XS Max is the best iPhone Apple has ever made. Sure, that can be said about each year’s new iPhone crop, but the iPhone XS Max sets the bar for iPhone and Android smartphones.
The only downside to the XS Max is its price tag. It starts at $1,099 for the 64GB model and maxes out at $1,449 for the 512GB model. Those prices for a smartphone are insane, and yet Apple is confident that users are willing to pay a premium.
Also: iPhone XS Max: How much profit does Apple really make on each one sold?
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 is arguably the XS Max’s biggest competition. In that regard, the decision comes down to which operating system you prefer and whether or not having a stylus is important to you.
Before writing off the size of the iPhone XS Max, I recommend visiting a store where you can spend a few minutes and get a better idea of what the XS Max is all about. If you recently upgraded to an iPhone X, or maybe even an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus, don’t feel left out if aren’t ready to upgrade. It’s an expensive decision! The future of the iPhone is big and bright, and the iPhone XS Max is the embodiment of that future.
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