Review

iPhone Xs Max review: Bigger, better, faster

A month ago, Apple introduced the iPhone Xs and Xs Max. The iPhone Xs is the direct successor to last year's iPhone X, while the Max puts it in the size of an iPhone Plus model.

The two devices are widely seen as a small upgrade on last year's iPhone X, and Apple actually did something different this time. There's actually a feature parity between the iPhone Xs and the Xs Max, aside from the larger battery and screen that comes with the larger body on the Max.

And yes, this is probably one of the most insignificant upgrades in the history of the iPhone. Depending on how you look at it, every year has been significant. The 's' models have always had the major features (Siri, Touch ID, Apple Pay/3D touch), while the years in-between have brought the design changes. This is an 's' year, and there really isn't a specific feature to think of.

Still, the iPhone X was a great device, and this is still an improvement. Here's our review:

Specs

CPU Hexa-core A12 (dual-core Vortex, quad-core Tempest), quad-core GPU, octa-core NPU
Body 157.5x77.4x7.7mm (6.20x3.05x0.30in), 208g (7.34oz)
Display 6.5 inches, 1242x2688 (19.5:9), 458ppi, Super AMOLED
Camera 12MP + 12MP, Front - 7MP
Video 4K - 60fps, Front - 1080p - 60fps
Aperture f/1.8 + f/2.4, Front - f/2.2
Camera features Dual OIS, PDAF, 2x optical zoom, quad-LED dual-tone flash
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB/256GB/512GB
Battery 3,174mAh
Colors Space Gray, Silver, Gold
Price $1,099/$1,249/$1,449


Day one

Once again, Apple opted to not include a fast charger in the box, and it even removed the headphone adapter.

Design

It's an iPhone X, but bigger. If you've got an iPhone X, read those five words and skip over the rest of this section.

I've never liked the design of a Plus-sized iPhone, and it disappoints me that Apple hasn't done anything about it. The standard-sized iPhone is more comfortable to hold, as the flat back makes the big one uncomfortable. If you made that switch at any point from say, an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 8 Plus, then you know what I'm talking about. That's exactly what you're going through in switching from an iPhone X to an iPhone Xs Max.

It's still a beautiful device though, and the gold is sexy. The frame is made of stainless steel, and it has a glass back. That means the device still supports wireless charging, just like last year.

On the right side of the device is the power button and below that, a nano-SIM slot. On the right is the volume rocker and switch to mute the device.

The bottom of the iPhone Xs Max is where you'll find the Lightning port and the speaker grill. The speakers are now asymmetrical, with seven holes on one side and four on the other. This is so Apple could fit another antenna line on the bottom.

The 3.5mm headphone jack can be found in the same place as it's been since the iPhone 7, which is nowhere. Apple includes Lightning EarPods in the box, but there's no more 3.5mm adapter. Sadly, you'd think that a device that costs up to $1,449 might include AirPods, since Bluetooth is clearly the direction that we're heading in, but that's not the case.

As far as the front of the device goes, one thing that isn't directly scaled up to the larger size is the notch. It's the exact same size as it was on the iPhone X. The bezels around the rest of the screen are completely even, something that looks lovely and no other OEM has been able to replicate, despite the trend of copying the notch.

Display

Let's talk about the notch for a moment. Apple wasn't the first to do a notch, even if it's the company that everyone else is imitating. The first was probably the LG V10, and the notch was in the top-left corner of the screen. For some reason, companies have universally decided that the right place for a notch is smack in the middle of your screen.

I don't dislike the idea of notches. After all, why would I want my battery and connectivity status to take up my important screen real estate? I do wish, however, that the iPhone Xs Max would take advantage of its additional real estate though.

For example, a feature that we lost with the iPhone X is the ability to see the battery percentage from the home screen. Apple could have added that back given the larger screen, but it didn't.

The screen itself is beautiful though, and it's been praised across the board. It's Super AMOLED, so it's the same technology that's being used in Samsung Galaxy, Motorola Moto Z, and other devices.

AMOLED stands for active matrix organic light emitting diodes. OLED screens work differently from LCDs in that some pixels are turned off, allowing for true blacks. That's why when you turn on the iPhone Xs Max and see the white Apple logo on the black background, you can't really see where the screen ends and the bezels begin. That's also why when your LCD TV is showing you something all black, you can see that it's still on, because LCDs are entirely backlit.

When colors are rendered on top of the true black, they tend to be more vibrant, rather than the more washed out look you might get on top of the backlight of an LCD. Naturally, there are great LCDs and poor OLED displays, so it's not like one is universally better than the other. Apple's upcoming iPhone Xr will use an LCD, as did the iPhone 8 series and everything that came before it, and it's still going to look great.

OLED displays come in two flavors: active matrix and passive matrix. For a smartphone, AMOLED is almost always better than P-OLED, or PMOLED. PMOLED screens are usually used on smaller devices like wearables.

The short story is that the iPhone Xs Max screen is awesome. I don't believe in display benchmarks (or camera benchmarks for that matter), and I stick to real-world usage tests. If you do want display benchmarks, there are plenty of those available, such as the one from DisplayMate that says it's the best screen ever.

The 1242x2688 resolution is a custom one, which means that Apple isn't using an off-the-shelf part. It's directly scaled up from the iPhone X, so it has the same 458ppi pixel density.

Battery life and charging

The iPhone Xs series is very much a minor upgrade over the iPhone X. When it comes to thousand-dollar phones, it's tough to make a case for an upgrade; however, battery life could actually be a deciding factor. The battery life on the iPhone Xs Max is phenomenal.

If you were a user of the old iPhone Plus model because of the larger battery and then switched to the iPhone X, you took a hit on battery life. After all, the iPhone X was roughly the same with as a standard-sized iPhone. With the iPhone Xs Max, you get to have that large battery again.

I never struggled to get a full day's charge from the iPhone Xs Max, and most of the time I'd still have some juice left the next day. I'm the type of person that feels the need to charge my phone when it gets down to around 40%, so the fact that I can make it until the end of the day without reaching that, or going slightly beyond that, is awesome.

As far as charging goes, Apple stuck with the same model as last year, with a Lightning port for wired charging and a glass back for wireless Qi charging. The device comes with the same 5W charger it's come with since the Lightning port debuted in the iPhone 5. Sadly, either one will take you about three hours to fully charge the phone.

The good news is that the new iPhones once again support fast charging, and the bad news is that despite paying up to $1,449 for an iPhone Xs Max, it doesn't come with a fast charger in the box. In order to get one, you'll need to buy not only a new power adapter, but a new Lightning cable as well. You'll need the 30W USB-C Power Adapter for $49, and a USB-C to Lightning cable that starts at $19.

I still say that the fast charger is worth it, and it's the only way that I charge my iPhone. You can get a full charge from 0-100% in under two hours.

Camera

I'd describe last year's iPhone X camera as mediocre. Sure, the camera is fine for most users, but when you put it up against everything else on the market, it's nothing more than mediocre. The iPhone Xs Max is, well, better than that. It still won't stand up to gems like the Huawei P20 Pro, but it's better than it was.

Like last year's iPhone X, the Xs Max has dual 12MP sensors, with f/1.8 and f/2.4 apertures, the latter of which is for 2X zoom. The telephoto lens is exactly the same, with a 1/3.4" size resulting in 1.0µm pixel size. The primary lens, however, is larger, which provides better low light performance. It's now 1/2.55", so you get a 1.4µm pixel size instead of 1.22µm.

That means that sadly, 2X zoom photos really aren't any better. The idea behind a lens with 2X zoom is that you can zoom without losing quality. With a single lens, it can only see so much, so zooming to 2X gives you half the quality. The 2X lens is packing the same resolution into a smaller sensor, so you're not losing image quality, but low-light performance isn't very good.

The front-facing camera hasn't changed; however, it does have better video recording. While last year's suite of iPhones were the first devices to offer 4K 60fps video capture from the rear camera, this year's models are the first to capture 1080p 60fps video from the front camera.

Apple's new A12 Bionic chipset also has a lot to do with taking photos. It's meant to take a series of shots and either pick the best one or combine elements into a great shot. This can be done because the A12 has a neural engine, a dedicated component for AI and machine learning tasks.

Let's look at some samples.


First, I want to point out a few annoyances that I must point out in every iPhone review. There's still no reasonable way to take 16:9 photos with an iPhone. To do it, you need to take a video and capture a photo while it's recording. Also, you'll notice that every photo I took that should be vertical becomes horizontal when uploaded to the internet. And finally, everything captured with the front camera is upside-down after uploading, and those were fixed by simply opening them in Photoshop and saving them again.

I think that the rear camera can be promoted from mediocre to good. The low light performance is significantly better than last year. It's still not going to compete with Huawei's night mode, but this really isn't for someone that wants to spend four seconds taking a picture.

No, an iPhone camera is for someone that wants to get the best shot they can get in the shortest amount of time, and Apple has always nailed that. In terms of a smartphone camera where you can quickly launch the app and snap a picture without changing settings, the iPhone Xs Max does quite well.

It's important to remember this, as we tend to look at the best smartphone camera. But there isn't one answer, because different people have different needs. The one that takes the best picture might require adjusting too many settings or takes too long to take a picture, and you could miss your kid's first steps.

On to the front camera, that's still mediocre. Nothing about the images scream high quality, and they're a little grainy. I didn't even push the lighting conditions on those. I do give Apple a lot of credit for 1080p 60fps video capture though.

Performance

As was the case with the display (and most of the device), Apple uses another custom part in the processor. The A12 Bionic once again does better than its competitors; however, it's not as much of an improvement as we've seen over its predecessor than we've seen from the company in the past.

The hexa-core CPU has two big cores and four little cores. The two big ones are made for tasks that require more grunt, while the little cores are efficient, for tasks that don't need that level of power. For example, syncing notifications can be handled by the little cores.

The A12 also includes Apple's custom quad-core GPU along with a dedicated neural engine. This is something that Huawei first did with the Kirin 970 and Qualcomm will do next year with the Snapdragon 855, and it helps with AI and machine learning tasks.

All you really need to know is that this is plenty of power for anything that you're planning on doing with your iPhone. Apple always packs a lot of power into its custom CPUs, and this year is no different.

For benchmarks, I used Geekbench 4, AnTuTu, and GFXBench. First up is Geekbench 4 which tests the CPU.

In comparison with when I reviewed the iPhone X, this isn't a meaningful change. The iPhone X scored 4,237 on single-core and 10,112 on multi-core.

Next up is AnTuTu, which tests a bit of everything.

There's a more meaningful improvement here, as last year's A11 got 236,063. That's because other elements of the chipset are included in this test like the GPU.

Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU.

The thing to take away here is that the A12 Bionic isn't a massive improvement over last year's A11. This isn't necessarily bad news for anyone, but the good news is that if you've still got a phone with an A11, you're in good shape for a while.

The new UX

I assume that many of the people reading this review are considering buying an iPhone Xs Max, and many of those people are coming from an iPhone that is not an iPhone X. With that in mind, you might not be familiar with the new iOS UX, and you might be a little skeptical, which is natural given that this is the first time that iOS has changed in such a major way.

Here's how it works. Instead of pressing a home button, you now swipe up from the bottom to go home. Swiping up and holding briefly will bring you to multitasking. If you swipe down from the top-right corner you get Control Center, and from the top-middle, you get notifications.

It's a lot more intuitive than you think, and it becomes second nature before you know it. Last year I complained about how it was a pain to go back and forth between the iPhone X and an iPad, which still has the old UX. The good news is that with iOS 12, those gestures work on iPads now too.

Of course, Touch ID is gone in favor of Face ID. You can raise the phone to wake it up, tap the screen, or press the power button. Face ID is always improving, as if it doesn't recognize you, it will learn when you type your PIN. This was something that exceeded my expectations last year, and it's just as good this year.

While the new iPhone X-style UX is old to many of us by now, I did want to include this section for those that haven't used it. It's very easy to get used to.

Price

The iPhone Xs Max is the most expensive mainstream phone to date, starting at $1,099 and topping off at $1,449. As I noted a few weeks ago, it hasn't been long since you could get a brand new iPhone for $199. Those $199 phones were subsidized by contracts, and when contracts went away, we saw the real price of our devices.

At the time, those prices were around $650. Since then though, prices of devices have skyrocketed, as there was no more expected $199 price tag. It's a bit ironic, as we all hated contracts and thought we'd save money if contracts were abolished, and the exact opposite happened.

Here's where this comes into reviewing a new iPhone: you probably don't need this device, or any other thousand-ish dollar device. That was the realization that we were supposed to come to when the true prices of our phones were revealed. The fact is that a $250 Moto G is good for the vast majority of users.

Flagship phones in 2018 are being powered by chipsets that are now being used in Windows 10 laptops. At the same time, people are using a smartphone that costs more than they'd be willing to spend on a PC, for checking social networks and light mobile gaming.

Keep that in mind before you go and spend over a thousand dollars on the iPhone Xs Max. Consider if you'd spend that much on a PC that you get real productivity value from, or on a TV that you get real entertainment value from, and so on. If it's worth it to you, that's cool. I'm not trying to tell you it's not, but you should certainly be asking yourself these things.

Cases

MobileFun was kind enough to send some cases my way for the device, so I've been testing those out as well.

Olixar Carbon Fibre Case

Out of all of the cases that were sent to me, this one was probably my favorite. It's got a sleek design, but it also feels sturdy.

$16.96 at MobileFun

Olixar Farley RFID Blocking Executive Wallet Case

If you're the type of person that can get by carrying around just a couple of cards, then you can say goodbye to your wallet with this one. It has two RFID-protected slots for your cards.

$26.10 at MobileFun

Clear Case - Olixar Ultra Thin Gel

This one is more about style than protection. It's like carrying your iPhone naked, but it has a case on it.

$10.43 at Mobile Fun

Case-Mate Tough Case - Matte Black

Ever wish your iPhone case used Microsoft's Fluent Design? Now's your chance. It's a sturdy case with some transparency, so you can see what Apple writes on the back of the phone.

$45.69 at MobileFun

Rearth Ringke Onyx Tough Case

This is another one that promises a combination of design and durability. It has a brushed metal look to it.

$16.96 at MobileFun

UAG Plasma Protective Case - Cobalt

This is definitely the most rugged of the cases that I tested. It's a bit bulky, but that bulk comes with additional protection.

$39.16 at MobileFun

Conclusion

The main conclusion to any iPhone Xs review that you're going to read is that it's a worthy upgrade from iPhone 8 and earlier, and you shouldn't spend the money if you're coming from an iPhone X. Of course, many of us are now on yearly upgrade plans, where it still makes some level of sense to do so.

The only thing that totally makes it worth it for me is the additional battery life. That's the only feature that isn't just a matter of being a little bit better than the iPhone X. This is significant.

Other than that, the iPhone Xs Max is a really great phone, just like its predecessors. Sadly, there's nothing unique that sets it apart from last year's model, but it does well overall.

If you buy one, I don't think you'll regret it, as long as you considered the price point and discussed it with your spouse before purchasing it. As I said in the title, it's bigger, better, and faster, and that's about it.

 

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