Apple’s top of the line smartphone has been supersized in both screen size and price, but is the iPhone XS Max really worth the eye-watering £1,099-plus asking price?
Last year’s iPhone X was a massive leap forward in design for Apple after years of resting on its laurels. This year the iPhone XS Max is essentially that winning design stuck in a photocopier on 112%, which doesn’t sound a lot but makes quite a difference.
The iPhone XS Max is all about its massive, beautiful screen, which iseasily better than any other, apart from Samsung’s top-of-the-line displays. At 6.5in diagonally the screen is essentially the same size as that on Samsung’s monster-phone the Galaxy Note 9, which has a 6.4in display but with a different width to length ratio. Both are high-end phones with around 103cm2 of screen area and a screen-to-body ratio of around 84%, and as such dwarf the competition.
Apple’s biggest achievement is that the colossal screen has been squeezed into a body that isn’t that enormous. The iPhone XS Max is certainly a big phone, but at 7.7mm thick it’s thinner than all of the current top-end phones, including the 8.8mm thick Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
At 157.5mm long the iPhone XS Max is also shorter than even phones with much smaller screens such as the 6in Google Pixel 2 XL (157.9mm long), the 6.2in Samsung Galaxy S9+ (158.1mm long) and is a full 4.4mm shorter than the Note 9.
The thing is the iPhone XS Max is actually one of the more difficult super-sized phones to handle. That’s partly because it’s marginally wider than the competition at 77.4mm wide, which is 1mm wider than the Note 9 and a full 3.6mm wider than the S9+. But the biggest difference between the iPhone and the rest is Apple’s use of rounded sides.
Yes, they look and feel luxurious in stainless steel, but they’re difficult to get a solid grip on with your fingers. Others taper to an edge of some sort along the sides, which gives your fingers purchase.
Unless you have abnormally large hands, the iPhone XS Max is therefore almost exclusively a two-handed phone, even with Apple’s reachability, which brings the top of the screen down to the middle – try and use it with one hand at your peril, as this metal and glass sandwich will smash if you drop it.
Screen: 6.5in Super Retina HD (OLED) (458ppi)
Processor: Apple A12 Bionic
RAM: 4GB of RAM
Storage: 64, 256 or 512GB
Operating system: iOS 12
Camera: Dual 12MP rear cameras with OIS, 7MP front-facing camera
Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fiac, NFC, Bluetooth 5, Lightning and GPS
Dimensions: 157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7 mm
All-day battery, but nowhere near two
The iPhone XS Max has Apple’s latest processor, the six-core A12 Bionic, which the company says is 15% faster than last year’s A11 Bionic and up to 50% more efficient. But it is the integrated AI chip that is up to nine times faster than the old one that apparently makes all the difference.
In day-to-day operation it’s not noticeably faster than the iPhone X, which already feels snappy and responsive with iOS 12. But as with other recent iPhone upgrades, the raw power will only likely come into its own with new software, speeding up AR experiences and other bits and pieces behind the scenes.
The battery life of the iPhone XS Max was slightly disappointing. It will get through the daylight hours without issue, but it won’t rival the Huaweis of this world. It lasted just over 27 hours between charges, starting at 7am on day one and lasting right through till past 10am on day two.
That was while using it as my primary device sending and receiving hundreds of emails, messages and push notifications, listening to five hours of music on Bluetooth headphones, watching an hour of Netflix and shooting around 10 or so photos a day. The Lightning connector in the bottom is still the fastest way to charge the phone, with a full charge taking around two hours using an optional fast charger and USB-C cable.
For perspective the iPhone X lasted for 30 hours under the same conditions, while last year’s Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro lasted 50 hours. This year’s Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ only lasted 26 hours and the Note 9 only 25 hours, so it seems we’ve taken a step back in battery life in 2018.
Apple’s strength is that it pushes software updates to phones for a long time. The iPhone 5S, released in 2013, runs the same version of iOS as the iPhone XS Max.
The differences in how they behave come down to the gesture-based navigation that was introduced with the iPhone X last year, and not a lot has changed because iOS 12 concentrated on optimisation over new features.
The big addition is a set of wellbeing tools, alongside much better group notifications, which can be dismissed in one go. Siri Shortcuts, an extra app you can download, also allows power-user automation should you want it, setting up custom routines and trigger words you can utter to Siri.
One of the downsides with the iPhone XS Max is how little Apple has made of the large screen in software. There’s no split-screen multitasking or anything of that ilk. A few of Apple’s apps have a few more features compared to the smaller iPhone XS.
When in landscape there’s a slide-out inbox selector in Mail, chat selector in Messages, Reminders and Contacts get a split-screen view, while Calendar gets an iPad-style Day, Week, Month, Year selector and new view. The Settings app also adopts an iPad-style view in landscape. But these changes aren’t as useful as the enormous wealth of productivity features put into phones with screens this large by Samsung.
Face ID continues to be the only biometric security system on Apple’s iPhones. It works just as well as it did on the iPhone X for me, but wasn’t noticeably faster. Those wearing glasses may have difficulty, as will some with sunglasses, although it works perfectly fine when wearing a set of Oakley TwoFace XL Prizm Polarized sunglasses.
The dual camera system on the back of the iPhone XS Max has been improved since it first appeared on the iPhone X and 8 Plus last year. It features the same combo of 12-megapixel cameras, one wide angle and one with an effective optical zoom of 2x, but both image sensors and algorithms have been updated.
The result is markedly better low light performance, which still doesn’t quite beat rivals from Samsung or Huawei, but comes much closer. Detail preservation in images at full crop is also much improved, coming much closer to that of Google’s Pixel 2 XL.
The improved HDR mode, which is now on by default, is also better at dealing with high-contrast scenes, meaning shots into the sun and other bright areas are not as much of a problem.
Portraits are now noticeably better too, particularly the shallow depth of field effect around hair and other extremities. The bokeh is also now adjustable after the fact, which is fun.
The selfie camera is good, but not quite as rich in detailas some rivals. Video is also good, with better stabilisation than previous iPhones.
Overall the iPhone XS Max’s camera is rival for the very best in the business.
I got hand cramp placing my little finger under the bottom of the phone to support its weight, which I haven’t experienced with any other phone
When your hands are warm they stick to the glass back for an easier grip, but it’s pretty slippery when they’re cold
You can swipe side-to-side on the gesture bar to switch apps without invoking the recently used apps cards
Weirdly, restoring some apps such as Evernote from the background took an abnormal amount of time
The eSim for dual-sim support (two phone numbers on one phone) won’t be activated until later in the year
The holes in the bottom of the phone are no longer symmetrical, get over it
There’s a surprising amount of stereo separation from the speakers, which is all the better for annoying your fellow bus passengers
For comparison, the 5.8in iPhone XS costs £999 for 64GB of storage, 6.4in Samsung Galaxy Note 9 costs £899 for 128GB, the 6.2in Galaxy S9+ costs £869 with 128GB of storage, 6.1in Huawei P20 Pro costs £669 with 128GB, the 6in Google Pixel 2 XL with 64GB costs £549, the 6.3in OnePlus 6 with 64GB costs £469.
The iPhone XS Max is big, beautiful and expensive. Its primary selling point is that enormous, gorgeous screen, which is really only useful for watching video or viewing photos.
But in maximising the screen, Apple has lost some of the charm that made the iPhone X and its replacement the XS so good. It is much more difficult to handle, heavier and bigger in your pocket.
The camera is great, battery life is OK, there’s wireless charging and a myriad of other features. It oozes opulence in a way other smartphones just don’t. But the same can be said of its smaller sibling. And there’s there’s the slightly smaller and cheaper 6.1in iPhone XR arriving later.
If you want the biggest iPhone, and can stomach the eye-watering asking price, then this is it. Just try not to drop it.
Pros: massive, gorgeous screen, decent battery life, water resistance, great camera, Face ID
Cons: no fingerprint scanner, very expensive, no fast charger in the box, no headphone socket, massive body
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