The Apple iPhone Xs Max will attract headlines for plenty of reasons this year, but I can guarantee the majority won’t be for its new features, or its camera, or its better performance. It possesses all of these and, I don’t mind telling you this early in the review, it’s the best phone Apple has ever produced.
Much of the coverage will focus, instead, on the price. So let’s get that out of the way before proceeding any further in this review. It’s expensive, alright? And I’m not going to ignore that just because it’s Apple and that’s what Apple does.
In fact, I’m going to call it here and now. The Xs Max is a phone that, objectively, no-one in his or her right mind should go out and buy. The cheapest version of the iPhone Xs Max is, even by modern standards, uncomfortably expensive: it’s £1,099 for the model that comes with 64GB of storage and that price rises even further to £1,249 and £1,449 for the 256GB and 512GB models.
That’s too much for any phone, and the fact that many will pay up doesn’t excuse it. This is a phone Apple could sell for less if it wanted to; it simply chooses not to.
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iPhone Xs Max review: What you need to know
And yet, for many, the price will be a non-issue. For a lot of people, regardless of whether they should make the sensible decision and move to Android, a new smartphone simply means a new iPhone. And that’s why, having addressed the elephant in the room, I’m going to sidestep its trunk, steer clear of its tusks and step quietly outside.
So what do we have here, now we’re free and clear or our house-bound pachyderm? The easiest way to think about the Apple iPhone Xs Max is to conjure a picture of the iPhone X in your mind – and then add a centimetre or so. If you want to think about it in another way, it’s roughly the same size as the iPhone 8 Plus but with a bigger, front-filling screen.
To be precise, the iPhone Xs (pronounced “ten-ess”) has a 6.5in display when measured from corner to corner. It measures 77 x 7.7 x 158mm, weighs 208g, runs iOS 12 and features improvements to the construction of the phone, the cameras, the waterproofing and performance. Essentially, it’s the biggest, fastest, best iPhone yet.
Apple iPhone Xs review: Price and competition
I’ve kind of covered this already. You know the iPhone Xs Max is expensive, but what about the competition? There are plenty of serious rivals for the iPhone Xs, but the most serious are the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (6.4in, £899) and Galaxy S9+ (6.2in, £829), the Huawei P20 Pro (6.1in £669) and the OnePlus 6 (6.3in, £469). Since this review was published, we’ve also seen the Huawei Mate 20 Pro emerge, which costs £899 and ships on the 26th of October.
You’ll notice that they’re all cheaper, some significantly so. But that’s the way Apple is rolling these days. If you want the latest iPhone, at least until the iPhone XR arrives, you’ll have to pay more than the competition. Even the smaller 5.8in iPhone Xs is £999.
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Apple iPhone Xs Max review: Design
The key question is, exactly how much better than the iPhone X is it? In terms of form and function, there isn’t much to choose between the two. The iPhone Xs Max comes in a new, slightly refined gold colour that’s best described as foundation-beige, and it has a stainless-steel, gold-coloured chrome band running around the outside. I quite like the new colour; it’s pretty and stylish but in an understated way. More Chanel than Jean-Paul Gaultier.
As you’d expect, all the phone’s various bits and bobs are situated in the same places as before. The volume buttons and do-not-disturb switch are located on the left edge of the phone and the power button on the right. There’s still no 3.5mm headphone jack – Apple says the space saved by removing it is far too valuable to go back – and it’s flanked with a couple of rows of perforations hiding one of the phone’s two stereo speakers. The other speaker sits behind the phone’s earpiece.
At the rear, the phone’s slightly protruding dual-camera module perches in the top-left corner, with the quad-LED True Tone flash flanked by the twin lenses of the 12-megapixel camera. On the front, the screen fills most of the front panel, with a broad notch eating into the top of the screen. It’s a shame Apple couldn’t find a way around this rather inelegant solution, especially when other manufacturers are already making tentative steps forwards in this regard, but it seems we’re stuck with it for now.
The other change we seem to be stuck with is Face ID. With the fingerprint reader now relegated to the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, which oddly are still on sale, it seems Apple isn’t for turning and bringing the popular sign-on method back. That’s a shame because there are elements of Face ID that still feel clunky, even given a year to get used to it. The fact that you have to lift the phone, stare at it, wait a second for recognition and THEN swipe up to get past the lock screen is still a pain and the fact that Apple hasn’t changed this default behaviour is irritating.
As for the rest of the big design changes, they won’t be immediately obvious, even on careful inspection. For instance, Apple says the chemical composition of the glass is improved and is currently the “most durable glass in the industry”. Apple doesn’t say – beyond the fact that it works with Corning to produce it – what type of glass this is, but anything that makes a phone more scratch- and breakage-resistant is good news.
Apple is more specific about the phone’s dust- and water-resistance rating, which improves from IP67 to IP68 this year. According to Apple, the phone will survive immersion to a maximum depth of two metres in fresh water for up to 30 minutes under IEC standard 60529, which is a metre deeper than last year. More than this, though, Apple is now comfortable enough with the waterproofing to state that it will also shrug off a dousing in coffee, tea or “soda”.
You’re also getting better speakers than on the iPhone X, with noticeably more volume and a wider soundstage; nice for the odd occasion when you’ve forgotten your headphones or don’t have access to a Bluetooth speaker. There’s dual-SIM capability now for the first time in an iPhone, thanks to the fact that you can add an eSIM to the phone’s regular, physical nano-SIM card. And, for the first time, the phone has four microphones for positional stereo audio recording.
Apple iPhone Xs Max review: Display
There are plenty of new features to get your teeth stuck into, then, but the screen is not one of them – aside from its bigger size of course. I can see why. After all, this is only the second year Apple has used OLED technology in its smartphones and it’s a pretty tough ask to improve it when the quality of its first effort was so good.
So, to the numbers: the screen in the iPhone Xs Max measures 6.5in across the diagonal, with a resolution of 1,242 x 2,688 and a pixel density of 458ppi. It peaks at 628cd/m2, far brighter than the iPhone X, which could reach only 502cd/m2. That’s about the only significant improvement, though.
There’s still support for HDR10 and Dolby Vision, so movies and TV shows supporting those standards look spectacular. Colour reproduction is excellent, with superb colour accuracy and sRGB colour coverage at 92.6%. Plus you still get Apple’s wonderful True Tone screen tech, which monitors the colour temperature of the ambient light and adjusts the screen’s white point to match, thus making it less of a chore for your eyes to readjust when you pull them away from the screen for a moment or two.
Apple iPhone Xs Max review: Performance and battery life
So far it’s been a case of “nothing to see here” with the iPhone Xs Max (if you ignore the extra size and price). When it comes to performance, however, that’s absolutely not the case.
That’s because the A12 Bionic processor powering the phone is the first smartphone chip to go on sale that’s built with a 7nm manufacturing process. It’ll shortly be matched by Huawei when it launches its Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro on 16 October but, for now, the new iPhones stand alone.
What this means, in a practical sense, is that Apple has been able to squeeze more transistors into the same space as its previous chip. That typically leads to faster speeds and more efficient running. The latter is the most interesting thing here and contributes to significantly better battery life on the Xs Max than the X.
Having said that, there’s nothing outlandish about the stamina of the iPhone Xs Max. In our video-rundown tests, conducted with the screen set to 170cd/m2, it beat the iPhone 8 Plus, but not by much, and lasted about the same length of time as the Huawei P20 Pro. It lagged behind both the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and the OnePlus 6, however.
Speed-wise, there are no surprises. The Apple iPhone Xs Max is a beast of a phone, faster than any other smartphone you can buy. The quad-core GPU, octa-core “neural engine” and 7nm, six-core A12 chip all work together to deliver a phone that feels instantaneously responsive and that beats all comers in the benchmarks, too.
It’s faster than the iPhone X and 8 Plus, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, OnePlus 6 and Huawei P20 Pro in both the Geekbench 4 CPU and GFXBench Manhattan 3 GPU tests. Past evidence suggests it will probably remain the fastest phone on the planet until September 2019 when the iPhone XIs Super-duper Max is launched. On my birthday. Again. (Sorry, sore point.)
The one disappointment, perhaps, is that game playback is limited to 60 frames per second due to the 60Hz refresh rate of the display. Despite much excitement at the mention of “120Hz” during the Apple press event, it turns out it was referring to the performance of the touchscreen rather than the refresh rate of the pixels on the screen. The Razer Phone remains the only smartphone on the market with a 120Hz display, more’s the pity.
Apple iPhone Xs Max review: Camera
As ever, it’s all impressive stuff, but hardly surprising. We’ve come to expect Apple to up its game year after year when it comes to performance upgrades, no matter whether it’s an “S” or a non-“S” year, and the iPhone Xs Max is no different.
It’s a similar story with the cameras. The sensor for the main camera at the rear now has larger pixels (up from 1.22um to 1.4um here), which enhances its abilities in low and poor light – and video – with the software having to work less hard to produce cleaner, sharper images.
The rest of the camera hardware looks the same as last year. The resolution of both rear cameras is 12-megapixels, the apertures are f/1.8 on the main camera and f/2.4 on the 2x telephoto camera and the equivalent focal lengths remain at 28mm and 52mm. There’s still optical image stabilisation and phase-detect autofocus on both rear cameras and, at the front, the True Depth camera remains a 7-megapixel, f/2.2 unit with an equivalent focal length of 32mm.
Most of the headline improvements come courtesy of software and the A12 Bionic’s beefed-up image signal processor (ISP), with Apple giving its computational photography engine a boost. The main improvement here is “Smart HDR”. This doubles the number of frames captured from four to eight (four underexposed, four overexposed) when you hit the shutter button, knitting them together to produce a photo with better balance between areas of shadow and light.
There’s also greater dynamic range in video capture, video stabilisation has been added to the front camera for the first time and, in Portrait Mode, it’s now possible to adjust the intensity of the bokeh effect. Once you’ve captured your portrait photo, just hit Edit and you’ll be presented with a dial you can drag to increase or decrease the blur.
How does this translate to quality in the real world? For stills, there is an improvement over the iPhone X, not only in low light, but across the board. Images look sharper, have less noise and more contrast, and the camera captures more subtle details than the X can. I’m also pleased to see the iPhone Xs Max’s photographs look more neutral, too, more natural than the photographs from the iPhone X.
As to whether or not the camera is better than the Huawei P20 Pro – 2018’s leading smartphone camera so far – well, it’s not far off. But it can’t compete with the sheer detail the P20 Pro’s 40-megapixel sensor can reproduce, nor can it beat the P20 Pro’s impressive 3x and 5x zoom for capturing close-up detail.
Portrait mode works well, too – better than all but the Pixel 2 and 2 XL – and it’s nice to have the option of adjusting the bokeh as well. But, as with most fake bokeh modes in smartphones, it’s not perfect: often the edges of faces and hair are spoiled by background objects poking through.
It’s a different story for video, though. The iPhone X still beats most other smartphones for overall quality here and the iPhone Xs Max improves on that. It’s capable of capturing stabilised 4K footage at 60fps with greater dynamic range, smoothness and noticeably better detail than the iPhone X, but I was particularly impressed with the way the Xs Max’s camera adapts from bright to dark scenes.
With the iPhone X, you can see the camera adapting a second or so after moving the camera from a dark to a light scene, adjusting exposure smoothly, but almost as if it were an afterthought. With the iPhone Xs Max, the change is much smoother, to the point at which it’s barely noticeable at all.
As ever, Apple’s stabilisation is incredible, too, and in combination with the improved quality, the results are simply stunning. It’s no overstatement to say this is the best video camera on a smartphone and a long way in front of the rest. In fact, taken in combination with excellent but not-quite-class-leading stills quality, the iPhone Xs Max’s camera is, on balance, the best all-round camera on the market.
iPhone Xs Max review: Software
Of course, there’s also a ton of new features arriving on the new iPhone Xs Max courtesy of the iOS 12 update. We’ve written about all the new features in some depth in our explanatory feature, but I’m going to pull out a couple of highlights quickly, just to give you a flavour.
The first is that the iPhone’s face-unlock feature can now recognise multiple faces. That’s handy if you find your main “face” data doesn’t work when you’re wearing sunglasses, a favourite hat or a motorcycle helmet, for instance.
Then there’s the controversial “Screen Time”, a new feature I thought I’d be instantly disabling, mainly because I don’t really want to be reminded how much time I spend staring at my smartphone screen on a daily basis. Actually, though, I’ve found its breakdown of how I use my smartphone absolutely fascinating. Not only does Screen time tell you how much time you’ve spent using your phone on a daily basis but it also provides a scarily detailed breakdown.
At its most basic, you can view how your usage breaks down by category – health and fitness, entertainment, games, creativity and so on – which I don’t think is particularly helpful. More illuminating, perhaps, is the data the app mines on other activity, such as how many times you pick up your phone or how many notifications you receive per day. The idea, I suppose, is to highlight just how much time you’re wasting away when you could be doing something more constructive instead.
The good news, for me at least, is that it turns out I’m not as much of an obsessive as I thought I was. But if I was, I’d also be able to use the app to schedule downtime every day, where the phone blocks the use of all but the core apps and phone calls at certain times of day. It’s fairly easy to bypass this, though, by simply clicking “ignore”. It’s even possible to set time limits for apps and the app also integrates content and privacy controls – parental controls by the back door.
Another new feature is Shortcuts, which lets you tap into third-party apps and create macro-style shortcuts, a bit like IFTTT. You need to download the Shortcuts app to get this to work, but once downloaded you’ll be able to combine elements from apps like Photos and the sharing menu and other apps and perform programmable actions with them. The resulting macros can then be assigned to desktop shortcuts or even Siri-based voice phrases.
The interface for creating your own shortcuts from scratch is quite daunting, though, and a lot to get your head around, so there’s a gallery of examples to choose from to help you get started. Useful tools include one for AirDropping your most recent screenshot, searching for a link on Twitter or asking where a photo has been captured.
Otherwise, iOS 12 is the usual selection of small, incremental upgrades on pre-existing features, with the list covering things such as new Animoji (remember them?), an update to ARKit (remember that?) and Siri, which, despite the update, still lags a long way behind Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.
One small niggle, though, before we move on to the verdict. Apple still doesn’t seem to want users of its phones to turn off auto brightness. The toggle for the setting, which was moved in the settings menu from Display to Accessibility under “Display Accommodations”. It had me scratching my head for a while trying to find it.
iPhone Xs Max review: Verdict
It’s early days yet for the iPhone Xs Max. I haven’t had the phone for a huge amount of time just yet, so inevitably my thoughts and feelings about it may evolve. But from what I’ve seen so far, I’ve been impressed with it.
It’s the fastest iPhone ever and the biggest, too. The cameras are excellent, particularly for video, and the battery life is great. Again, it’s not best in class, but it’s the best battery life in an iPhone for a long, long while.
Indeed, of the iPhone Xs and the iPhone Xs Max this is the model I’d choose – if I had enough money, that is – and I’d choose it over the iPhone XR as well. That’s mainly because of the size of the screen. Put simply, I’m now used to using a phone with a 6in+ screen and I don’t want to go back. The iPhone Xs Max feeds that need; it’s also a brilliant device to watch Netflix on, with support for HDR10 and exceptionally high peak brightness.
The Apple iPhone Xs Max is an exceptional smartphone, of that there is absolutely no doubt. The question is, is it worth the money? Objectively, no. There are plenty of other smartphones that are better in some respects than the iPhone Xs Max and cheaper. There are smartphones that have better cameras, longer battery life, more interesting design and more innovative features.
But buying a smartphone is about more than just facts and figures. The iPhone Xs Max may be the most expensive mainstream phone money can buy, and it may not truly justify its price tag. However, it’s the best phone Apple has ever made and, for millions of people, that will likely be enough.
Apple iPhone XS Max specifications
|Processor||Six-core Apple A12 Bionic|
|Screen resolution||1,242 x 2,688|
|Front camera||7MP, f/2.2, 1080@60fps|
|Rear camera||Dual: 12MP, f/1.8, OIS, PDAF; 12MP, f/2.4, OIS, PDAF|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||No|
|Wi-Fi||802.11ac dual-band 4×4 MIMO|
|Wireless data||4G, Cat16 (1Gbits/sec DL; 150Mbits/sec UL)|
|Dimensions (WDH)||77 x 158 x 7.7mm|
|Operating system||Apple iOS 12|
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