iPhone XS Max review

The introduction of the iPhone X last year meant you could have an entirely new iPhone in your hands with innovative new features such as Face ID and a big screen in a compact body.

Now Apple has iterated that design to create the XS, but aside from the gold finish, there isn’t really anything new to see on the outside.

What is new, though, is the XS Max, a larger option that gives us the biggest screen yet in an iPhone at a whopping 6.5in.

The design is the same, but importantly the fact that there’s feature parity across both models mean you no longer have to compromise if you want the smaller phone as you did when you chose the iPhone 8, say, over the 8 Plus.

iPhone XS Max: Price & availability

The iPhone XS Max starts at £1099/US$1099. Don't expect contracts to be cheap, either, with most starting at around £40 per month, and that's with an upfront cost of £250. See Best iPhone XS deals.

  • 64GB iPhone XS Max: £1099/$1099
  • 128GB iPhone XS Max: £1249/$1249
  • 512GB iPhone XS Max: £1449/$1449

iPhone XS Max: Design and build

It would be easy to say at this point that there isn’t a whole lot to talk about since the XS Max has the same features and design as the XS and, broadly speaking, the X before it. But there are plenty of people who will be upgrading from an iPhone 6, 7 or 8 (including the Plus and ‘s’ models) and for whom the XS will be a first foray into an iOS world with no home button or fingerprint scanner.

Let’s start with the gold colour. Gold isn’t new for Apple, but this is a new finish. Remember that the iPhone XS has a stainless steel, not aluminium, frame so the look and feel is different to those older iPhones.

The gold is quite dark and quite a contrast from the light-coloured glass panel on the rear. This doesn’t really have a noticeable gold colour at all but you’ll see glimmers as you turn the phone in your hand and the light reflects off it.

There’s also a gold band around the cameras, which remains noticeable when you put the XS Max in a case. And you’ll almost certainly want to do so, even if it does have the most durable glass yet: the cost to replace a broken screen is painful.

With Apple’s leather case in place the XS Max is quite a beast. It’s heavy (208g) and it’s big. If you’re used to an iPhone 7 Plus, you probably won’t notice the extra weight too much, but if you’re coming from a 4.7in iPhone it can be quite a shock.

Where the iPhone XS comfortably fits in your jeans pocket, the Max is distinctly less comfortable: only you can decide whether the trade-off for the bigger screen is worth the additional weight and bulk.

Both XS phones get a bump in waterproofing from IP67 to IP68, which simply means you can take them in up to 2m of water for up to 30 minutes.

iPhone XS Max: Specs and features

When it comes to Apple, 'S' models have a lot more going on when it comes to the hardware rather than design. As we've alluded to already, the lure with the Max is it's almost tablet sized display.

Screen

The sheer amount of screen real-estate will make your jaw drop when you first see it, though. It’s impressive enough on the iPhone X and XS, but on the Max it has an even bigger wow factor.

Resolution is increased to maintain the same 458ppi pixel density as those two smaller phones, and tech is also the same.

This means 625 nits maximum brightness, 1 million-to-one contrast ratio and support for HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

Again, if you’re upgrading from an older iPhone with an LCD screen, the differences are noticeable. It’s a bit easier to see in bright sunlight (though it’s not the brightest phone around), it has fantastic colour accuracy, black levels and viewing angles.

With True Tone enabled, colours remain accurate as lighting conditions change from daylight to office lights to your warm-white LED bulbs at home.

The extra size and resolution doesn’t get you any extra interface detail, though. Apps and iOS menus are just bigger. Of course, the bigger screen is better for watching videos and it’s a decent compromise if you usually carry around a small-screen phone and an iPad mini.

It’s still frustrating that there is no option to take advantage of the ability to light up individual pixels on the screen to display an always-on clock, date or notifications as you get with most Android phones with OLED screens.

Processor, memory and storage

The A12 Bionic processor is the first to be made using a 7nm process. That probably doesn’t mean much, but the technology is undeniably impressive. Using a smaller process means better power efficiency, and it’s the main reason why Apple is able to quote an extra 90 minutes of battery life over the iPhone X.

We’ll get to the battery later: it’s time to talk performance.

The A12 doesn’t offer a huge leap over the A11, with roughly 15 percent improvement on average. We saw this in our benchmarks, but such synthetic tests are fairly meaningless in the real world and serve mainly as a way to compare other phones.

And in the real world you probably won’t notice much of a difference if you’re coming from, say, an A11-equipped iPhone 8 or 8 Plus. It also means that the iPhone XS Max isn’t necessarily as future-proof as you might hope for: it doesn’t have huge amounts of headroom for future versions of iOS compared to what we’ve seen in the past.

Don’t hear what we’re not saying, though. This is a phenomenally powerful phone that is impressively slick in real-world use. Apps open seriously fast and we haven’t yet seen a single stutter when navigating around iOS 12.

The improvement in gaming performance is noticeable in certain benchmarks but not in others. For example in the GFXBench Manhattan 3.1 Metal test the XS Max managed 55fps. That’s just 2fps quicker than the iPhone X.

But run the less demanding 3DMark Ice Storm test and the XS Max is roughly 20 percent quicker. Given that the GPU has an extra core in the A12, the results we’re seeing don’t tally with what should be at least 25 percent  on average and nothing approaching Apple’s ‘up to 50 percent’ claim.

It’s important to remember these increases are comparisons to an already very, very fast phone so we might not have the large year-on-year increases that we’ve become used to but it’s still even better performance.

Lastly, the Neural Engine has been boosted from two to eight cores in total, allowing it to process 5 trillion operations per second. Benefits include the ability to process photos faster, which in turn means you can have features such as Smart HDR.

It also makes other things faster, such as detecting the floor or a table in AR apps and more responsive Memoji.

Connectivity and audio

Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and most other components are the latest versions (but unchanged from the previous-generation iPhones) and there’s still NFC for Apple Pay only.

What’s new is a 4x4 MIMO antenna array for Gigabit LTE. Android phones have had similar capabilities for a while, but currently – at least in the UK – no mobile operator can yet support these speeds.

It’s good for future-proofing but you won’t see a benefit right now. Some people are reporting poor 4G signal from their XS and XS Max but in our tests of both phones (admittedly in London where mobile signal is strong) we haven’t had any issues.

The new array means there’s a new antenna line on the bottom edge so it isn’t symmetrical like the iPhone X. A very minor point, granted.

On the other side of the Lightning port are the holes for the speaker. Along with the improved earpiece speaker, stereo sound is now far better than on the iPhone X.

If you do play games in landscape mode, watch TV or YouTube, you’ll notice that there’s great stereo separation and a very good balance between left and right channels, as well as no noticeable difference in frequency range.

Typically with this kind of setup, only the main speaker at the bottom is capable of any low frequencies, which makes it sound imbalanced, but on the XS Max, that’s not an issue.

Of course, the speakers aren’t that loud and you’re going to prefer headphones on many occasions. The bundled Lightning earbuds are great, but it is a bit of a kick in the teeth (given the steep price) that there’s no longer a Lightning-to-minijack adapter in the box for using standard headphones.

Dual SIM

One of the big new features is dual SIM. This isn’t done in the traditional way: you can still fit just one nano SIM card in the tray. The other is an eSIM which is a SIM card soldered to the motherboard. There are pros and cons to this, as our colleagues on Macworld explain, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to test or use the dual-SIM capabilities as they won’t be activated until some point later this year.

The way it will work, however, is like many dual-SIM Android phones. It’s a dual-SIM, dual standby system. It means both SIMs are active simultaneously: you can receive a call on either number at any time, and choose which number to use when you make a call or text.

You can choose in Settings which is your primary number, and which SIM to use for data. Apple says that the eSIM won’t be limited to just one number: you could have multiple

Cameras

On paper, you won’t spot any real upgrades to the cameras compared to the iPhone X, but the XS Max – and the XS – take noticeably better photos and videos. This is largely down to the fact there’s more processing power available, but also because the sensor pixels on the main 12Mp camera are a little larger.

Combined, this improves low-light performance a bit, but makes a real difference to HDR photos and video. You can now expect photos of kids (and pets) to be sharper even if they won’t stay still and with the ‘extended’ dynamic range in video, highlights are much less likely to be blown out.

Ultimately, the XS Max is a fantastic device for photography and video, recording great stereo sound as well.

Even when the new smart HDR mode is called for, you won’t notice any shutter lag or processing delay: it’s just as instantaneous as taking a photo in less-challenging conditions. And thanks to the simple interface in the Camera app, everyone can reliably shoot impressive photos and video.

This is a 100 percent crop from the photo above. Not as sharp as some phones.

It’s nice that slo-mo defaults to 240fps at 1080p, and video to 4K at 30fps, but you can increase frame rate to 60fps if you can live with the 400MB of storage this mode consumes per minute.

As ever, stabilisation is amazing, even at the top resolution. Many phones either don’t offer stabilisation at 4K or it’s noticeably less effective than at 1080p. But you really can use the XS Max to shoot smooth 4K.

There’s one new photography feature: Depth Control. This is new to Apple, but has been around in the Android world for a while. When you take a Photo in Portrait mode it’s possible to adjust the aperture in the Photos app when you tap Edit.

A new slider appears which can be moved between f/1.4 and f/16 and allowing you to choose any aperture in between and therefore depth of field. Effectively it changes the amount of blur in the background, just as it would look if you were to have taken the image on an SLR camera at that aperture.

It’s a simulation achieved with a combination of software and depth information from the twin rear cameras.

In general it works pretty well on the rear camera, with great bokeh that looks more authentic (and blurrier at f/1.4) than it has done on older iPhones. Subject and background separation is very good, too.

The adjustability causes issues when transferring the photos to a PC, though, as the blurred background disappears, and that's when transferring the original HEIC files.

The front camera has the same 7Mp sensor as we’ve seen previously, and photos are similarly decent. Some people say the selfie camera smooths skin tones in a similar way to 'beauty' modes on other phones. However, we couldn't spot any evidence of this in the selfies we took.

Depth Control is also available for selfies, despite the single front camera. But it doesn't do half as good a job as the rear cameras - check out the amount of blurred hair:

Battery life

Thanks to teardowns we know that the XS Max has a 3174mAh battery, which is the biggest capacity ever in an iPhone. In the Geekbench 4 rundown test – effectively a worst-case scenario which really pushes the phone – it lasted 5 hours 23 minutes.

That isn’t fantastic: other phones such as the Galaxy Note 9 last around 7.5 hours, but it also isn’t a particularly real-world test.

In actual use, we found the XS Max had about half of its juice left at the end of a day of light use. But push it hard and you will need to charge it every night.

Again it’s disappointing at this price that you still get the bog-standard 5W mains charger in the box: you could spend more and get a USB-C PD charger and buy Apple’s Lightning-to-USB-C cable for proper fast charging.

You can also make use of wireless charging, but again, you'll need to buy a wireless charger to do so.

iPhone XS Max: Software and apps

There are quite a few new features in iOS 12, but these aren’t specific to the XS Max of course. Siri shortcuts, grouped notifications and Do Not Disturb at bedtime are all handy quality-of-life features you’ll appreciate, though you’ll have to invest a little time to get to grips with Shortcuts first.

Screen Time is a new app that could prove useful to wean you off Facebook, games or whatever takes up too much of your time.

A feature that’s still pretty exclusive is Memojis, which allow you to create an avatar that looks like you and use it in Messages (just like Animoji) and also by using the Messages camera to add your Memoji – and stickers – to photos before you send them.

The real fun comes in FaceTime, though, where you can overlay your Memoji on the video and it animates in realtime as you speak. It sounds gimmicky, but it’s great fun.

An important point you might overlook is that the XS Max isn’t a one-handed phone. Yes, you can use the reachability feature to bring the top half of the screen down, but the fact remains the Max is not as easy to use as the XS or X with one hand.

OUR VERDICT

In some ways the XS Max could be your perfect phone. It brings the option of a larger screen to those for whom 5.8in just isn’t enough and is the first iPhone to cater for those who need two SIMs.

It also brings upgrades to photos (Smart HDR), videos (extended dynamic range) and audio (better stereo).

However, it remains tricky to justify the high price (from £1,099), especially if 64GB isn’t enough storage for you. Battery life could be better and while performance is great, it isn’t a huge jump up from the iPhone 8 or X.

The upcoming iPhone XR could be a better alternative if you’re after something cheaper, too. And if your current phone isn’t an iPhone 6, 7 or 8 Plus, go to an Apple store and try out an XS Max for size before you buy.

This review originally appeared on our sister site Tech Advisor.

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