An Unbiased iPhone XS Max Review

BY Steve Litchfield

Published 25 Sep 2018

iPhone XS Max ReviewHere’s my review of the iPhone XS Max – a bit of a mouthful to write and say but the phone itself is something special.

Let us dive in:

Not so long ago, the iPhone was championed with relatively small 4” screens and significant top and bottom bezels. Exemplified by the classic SE, the idea was that the iPhone fitted every pocket and was both compact and powerful. But the arrival of the ‘Plus’ models in 2015 opened the iPhone up to a wider world, traditionally dominated by Android ‘phablets’, and pretty successfully. The larger the display, the wider the range of uses for the phone, and no one has really been surprised to see a 2018 super-sized version of 2017’s iconic iPhone X.

Control Center

It’s also somewhat outrageously priced – up to £1449 in the UK for the 512GB version, though if you’re happy with 64GB and stream most of your media then the base iPhone XS Max is around £1100 or your local equivalent elsewhere in the world. Yes, it’s still (very) expensive, but Apple rightly refers to the XS range as ‘no compromise’, so the best materials, the best components at every stage. Really. And with the best support in the phone world by a huge margin, you can justify the investment as long as you have a valid use for all the extra pixels.

Existing iPhone ‘Plus’ users don’t gain quite as much (an extra inch on the screen diagonal, compared to the 8 Plus, thanks to the elimination of traditional bezels), though anyone with an iPhone 6s Plus or 7 Plus will also appreciate the extra speed, much better camera array, terrific speakers, and wireless charging.

Note that this isn’t a review of the smaller ‘XS’ as such – even though a lot of the features are similar, there are some screen layouts that just aren’t possible on the smaller phone, plus you obviously get major spec points downgraded, e.g. the battery. Anyone with a standard sized iPhone X from last year doesn’t need to upgrade to this year’s Xs, rather obviously. But more on that another time.

1. Hardware

Apple are dead right with the ‘no compromise’ tag too – the XS Max is sumptuously made and finished. A polished and curved steel frame, sandwiched by two glass panels and with meticulous attention to detail. The eagle eyed will notice extra antenna bands compared to previous iPhones, essentially meaning more reliable signal for cellular and Wifi.

Xs Max display edge

The display’s a Samsung-made AMOLED panel and 6.5” diagonal, at 1242 x 2688 pixels resolution, which works out to a 19.5:9 ratio.

The Xs Max notch

Minus the ‘notch’, of course. Opinions have differed on this across the industry, but as I said last year when the iPhone X appeared, it’s just a case of thinking about gaining extra space either side of the front cameras rather than losing space that you wouldn’t normally have used anyway (with a standard rectangular display).

As usual, there’s a default ‘True Tone’ colour balancing for the displays and this works really well – whatever situation you’ll find yourself in, the colour balance is adjusted in software to make white seem the ‘right’ white – never too harsh, never too warm. Purists hate that the display is being messed with, but I loved this and left everything on full ‘auto’. There’s the usual (optional) auto-activating ‘Night Shift’ as well, of course – something you never really appreciate until you turn your phone screen on at 3am…

Inside, there’s Apple’s 2018 chipset, the A12 Bionic, with a mixture of low and high power cores, all fabricated at 7nm. Why should you care about the chip die size? Because smaller sizes mean lower power requirements and thus longer battery life, all other things being equal. Making processors at 7nm (7 nanometres, right down on the atomic scale!) is really impressive and no one doubts that Apple’s chips lead the world each year.

iPhone Xs Max back

Although Apple doesn’t advertise the RAM in each iPhone (usually to avoid confusing users), the iPhone XS Max has 4GB, which seems on the low side for a 2018 flagship, except that iOS has better memory management than Android and so you shouldn’t compare like for like.

Storage is, obviously, whatever you pay for. 64GB is a sensible first step on the ladder and many people will be fine with this for casual use – it all depends how much video you shoot, I suspect. There’s no 128GB option, sadly, so there’s a big step up to four times the storage, i.e. 256GB, and then 512GB beyond this. It’s a slightly cynical jump for Apple to enforce, guiding people towards the middle model and suitably increased price. But it’s not surprising.

One change for 2018 is that the iPhone Xs range has an embedded eSIM. The idea is that you configure this to work on your main cell network, using the physical SIM slot for ‘guest’ or work SIMs, depending on your use case for the phone. Unfortunately, the rollout of carrier support for eSIMs is extremely limited at the moment, so I couldn’t test this here in the UK. It’s a nice idea and will no doubt become more common, though it’s never going to be quite as flexible as two physical SIM slots.

Face ID is faultless, as it was last year. It’s years more advanced than competing face unlock solutions on Android, being secure enough to authenticate for payments and passwords rather than just ‘getting into the phone’.

Effectively, you pick up the iPhone XS Max and the display powers on automatically (‘Raise to wake’), then the phone sees your face a split second later and it’s unlocked. Done. You’ll see time, date and notifications though, unlike on Android phones, you’ve still got to swipe upwards (I’ll come to this in a moment) before you get to see the phone’s main UI and applications. So it all works well, but yet again I wonder whether there should be an iOS setting to unlock straight into whatever you were doing or at least to your main home screen.

Display around front cameras

2. Software

With my cross-platform ‘hat’ on (I also review for AndroidBeat), the only possible compromise in sight is the use of iOS itself. Moving to a static Home screen, top of screen back controls, no card expansion or mass storage/MTP mode, and so on, the usual reasons for eschewing iOS in favour of something more flexible are just as valid as ever, but to anyone who’s used iOS over the years it’s business as usual here, just with a larger display, more pixels, and more content.

And, just as with the Plus models over the years, only more so here, the extra screen size allows extra views of your content in landscape mode. Yes, the infamous notch does get in the way just a little, but from the way some applications – Calendar, Notes, Mail – offer extra layout options in landscape mode, it’s clear that some thought has been put into using the Max with a Bluetooth keyboard.

Calendar landscape

Sadly, the Home screen doesn’t work in landscape, something that the previous Plus models did support, plus there are many other Apple core applications which could do with a split screen landscape rework. Something for future updates? And while Apple is at it, let’s have Face ID work in landscape… pretty please.

No landscape home

Also benefiting from the increased display size is the iOS keyboard, of course. Just as on past Plus models, the extra width means that each individual key is larger and the final result is very comfortable – whereas on the smaller XS, typing is all a bit fiddly and over-reliant on auto-corrections. Or maybe I’m just used to bigger phones now, in late 2018?

widgets and control centre

Not everything is bigger and better, of course. The extra screen height in the XS Max means that it’s virtually impossible to swipe down for notifications or Control Centre using the same hand that’s holding the phone. So, without messing around with Reachability mode, the Xs Max definitely becomes a two-handed experience. Heck – it probably was for you anyway, but the frequent swipe down gestures needed in iOS for the X range make two hands a necessity.

lockscreen and home

I’d also take issue with the ‘swipe up to start’ from the ‘unlock’ screen. Apple has programmed this to only work when started from the very bottom of the display, i.e. you can’t just swipe up with your thumb from anywhere, and this is harder to do on the giant display on the Xs Max than it was on the smaller iPhone X. Again, the experience becomes one needing two hands.

With the launch of the iPhone X, many applications and games were adversely affected by the bottom-of-screen home bar and the presence of the notch – understandably. One of my test games is Real Racing 3 (App Store link) and this effectively ran in a black-barred box at first, but this and other titles have since been adapted over the last year and they now run full-screen, working their UI and displays around the notch.

Real Racing 3

iOS 12 is out for everyone now, of course, and we’ll never have seen the new XS models on the older iOS 11, but version 12 is fresh and – unusually – faster than its predecessor, breathing life into older iPhones and making sure that the newer ones like this XS Max are impressively quick. The only real waits are while animations play out, and Apple makes sure these never outstay their welcome.

There’s little point in going over iOS 12 in extra detail here because anyone with any iPhone from the last five years has already upgraded and is already using it. So go enjoy, etc.

3. iPhone XS Camera Review

On the hardware side, the camera hardware is slightly bigger than on the iPhone X in 2017 – the core specs are nigh identical, though the bump on the back is slightly larger, hinting at a slightly larger sensor, with larger 1.4 micron pixels.

Xs Max camera

We again have a nicely balanced regular and telephoto 12MP optically stabilised lens pair, with software managing when to switch, as appropriate and making the combination easy to use without too much thought. As usually happens with Apple. The inclusion of a good telephoto lens was one of the factors which raised the iPhone 8 Plus and then X to the status of arguably the best overall camera phone in the world, since the well regarded Pixel 2 range from Google produced stunning standard images but had no zoom facilities at all.

In fact, borrowing from Google’s HDR+ ideas, the iPhone XS and (here) XS Max add some Apple multi-exposure trickery, dubbed ‘Smart HDR’, going further than traditional HDR by blending in frames from a sequence of up to ten, shot with different parameters, and with the A12 Bionic’s machine learning allegedly working out what you’re shooting and using its deliberations to guide which frames to blend in.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course… and I was very impressed by the XS Max’s output. In all light conditions standard shots are stunning – softer than some of the competition, but realistically so and not oversharpened (as, for example, Samsung tends to do). In low light, the software does force out the use of the telephoto lens, as usual, but then zooming in low light is a bit niche (concerts, perhaps?) – it’s just something to be aware of.

See below for sample photos from the iPhone XS Max, along with 1:1 crops to show the rather excellent) quality.

Sample photo from the Xs Max, see below for 1:1 crop

Terrific natural-looking HDR and handling of highlights in what was dazzling sun in front of the phone. See below for 1:1 crop

1:1 crop from the photo above...

1:1 crop from the photo above… Good detail under challenging circumstances, I think.

Sample photo from the Xs Max, see below for 1:1 crop

Sample close-up photo from the Xs Max, with natural optical bokeh, see below for 1:1 crop

1:1 crop from the photo above...

1:1 crop from the photo above… OK, you don’t get to see much in a 1:1 crop of a close-up, but the colours are pure and gentle – no over-sharpening here!

Sample photo from the Xs Max, see below for 1:1 crop

Sample photo from the XS Max, see below for 1:1 crop. Again, I was shooting into bright light and trying to really exercise the Smart HDR – and it worked fabulously. Colours are rich and there’s genuine detail in the shadows.

1:1 crop from the photo above...

1:1 crop from the photo above… Look at the natural feel of the blades of grass, in both sun and shadow, and at the detail on the grave, in deep shadow.

Sample photo from the Xs Max, see below for 1:1 crop

Sample photo from the Xs Max, see below for 1:1 crop. This was at night, obviously, with pretty floodlighting on the church. All round, the Xs Max camera nailed this scene.

1:1 crop from the photo above...

1:1 crop from the photo above… Admittedly, the detail here is looking quite ‘fragile’, but for a handheld shot at night, the camera is still performing very well indeed.

Sample photo from the Xs Max, see below for 1:1 crop

Sample photo from the Xs Max, see below for 1:1 crop. Another night shot, it was darker than the photo appears, since I was really trying to stretch the camera. This is the sort of casual shot that the Google Pixel HDR+ software eats up with its multi-exposure trickery, yet the iPhone Xs Max achieves much the same result.

1:1 crop from the photo above...

1:1 crop from the photo above… There are artefacts at the pixel level, but given the light conditions, these are completely acceptable. Still, it shows that even Apple has some room for improvement in terms of smoothing edges and straight lines…

Shown off at the iPhone Xs launch was a new editor of ‘Portrait’ photos called Depth Control, i.e. those taken in Portrait mode to add artificial bokeh, i.e. shallow depth of field. The new editor control allows retrospective adjustment of the bokeh effect and is extremely impressive when available (not all attempted Portrait shots qualify, the range and lighting have to be just right). Plus you will be able to do it live while taking photos in iOS 12.1.

Depth control at work!

Depth control at work! After the fact simulated Depth of Field adjustment. And very polished, as you’d expect from Apple. PS. Why no human subject? My family flatly refused to be publicised! But you’ll get the idea…

Video capture is still excellent and hasn’t changed much since previous iPhone generations, though I can’t emphasise enough the support for stereo audio capture that Apple has now added for this year’s flagships. Competing phones have had camcorder stereo for almost a decade, so it’s great to see Apple match them at last. As a result, there is wind noise when outdoors, but there’s also more sense of space and depth in videos, plus when shooting music events the audio will sound dramatically better.

4. Multimedia and endurance

A bigger display means one thing – you’ll consume more media. More YouTube, more Netflix, and so on. And more gaming, though I have to confess to not being a hard core gamer.

I’m more a movie fan and watching streaming films on the iPhone Xs Max is a treat. The AMOLED screen is perfect in terms of rich colours and darkest blacks and with excellent detail in 1080p streams and good frame rates.

The ‘notch’ is handled in different ways according to the application, though on a screen this size even black bars on all sides (Netflix) isn’t a showstopper. Google’s YouTube is more flexible, offering both a barred view and, with a quick finger splay, a full screen notched experience, and again the sheer screen size means that the notch isn’t really that noticeable.

Movie watching on the Xs Max!

The iPhone 8 range introduced stereo speakers, or at least a tuned earpiece and bottom-firing speaker array, and the result was pretty convincing – it was hard to fault. Samsung has done the same in the last 12 months, ditto Huawei, with results improving all the time. The iPhone X was comparable, but the Xs Max speakers are in a different league, with the earpiece putting out significant mid frequencies as well as top end, and with the bottom speaker pushing out good bass. Apple quotes “25% more” volume and stereo separation and I think they’re being modest – I was blown away by how loud and pleasant watching video material was.

With the 6.5 AMOLED screen, the combination is the most cinematic yet on an iPhone.

You should be used to the iPhone not having a headphone jack by now. You do get in-box Lightning earpods, but they’re not brilliant and if your expectations of a smartphone are high enough to go for the Xs Max in the first place then the chances are that you want a bit extra on the headphone front too. And, for music, don’t talk to me about AirPods, which offer much the same outer-ear quality.

So if you do have a lovely pair of over ear or in-ear reference headphones, note that you also don’t get a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter/DAC in the box anymore, which is a bit crazy, given the price of the phones. Yes, Apple could argue that many users will already have such a dongle from previous iPhones, but then wouldn’t these be passed on to new owners as these older iPhones are sold or passed down the family chain?

It’s a bizarre cost cutting measure for Apple that makes no sense in the real world. Ditto the continued inclusion of a slow 1A/5W charger in the box. When every other flagship phone in the Android world comes with a fast charger of some kind, typically 3A or 4A, or using higher voltages (typically through Qualcomm QuickCharge), why does Apple still ship the weediest mains charger in the world?

One theory is that Apple thinks that slow charging will prolong the iPhone’s battery. It may well do, but it comes across as a cheapskate gesture from a company that’s already making more money than King Midas.

XS Max in hand

The iPhone XS Max does charge from the USB Type C ‘Power Delivery’ chargers (as per the newer MacBooks) and at a full 3A, making Apple’s decisions here even more mysterious.

The iPhone XS Max’s battery is – obviously – larger than that in the standard Xs, at 3174mAh, and lasts appropriately longer, getting through a very heavy day here with no issues. But just as battery life was always a reason to buy the ‘Plus’ iPhones in the past, so it will be for this Xs Max and I can recommend it in this regard.

The new iPhone XS range are rated for dust and water at ‘IP68’, giving marginally better water protection than the previous ‘IP67’, but don’t worry about the difference – either way you can drop your iPhone into water by accident and you’ll be fine.


5. Verdict

It’s tempting to look across at so-called ‘phablets’ in the Android world, available from as little as £200 (in the UK) now, with the Nokia 6.1 being a great example, and wonder why the iPhone XS Max is so expensive. I’m certainly not going to call it ‘good value’, but then you wouldn’t call a Ferrari that either. The iPhone XS Max price is a function of the materials and components used, including better camera and speakers, of the durability improvements and extra waterproofing, of the super-cutting-edge chipset, of the exemplary Apple Store network for support, of (in my case) the weak pound against the US dollar – it’s all of these factors, thrown together.

The functionality versus price curve has never been remotely linear and Apple takes this to the extreme. I’d normally exercise caution at working your way up to the top of this curve, but in this case the XS Max offers a totally new form factor for the iPhone and for iOS in terms of how much display you get for the size, i.e. the width in the hand. Readers may know that I’m usually found reviewing and loving Android ‘phablets’, think Galaxy S9+, Google Pixel 2 XL, and the iPhone XS Max brings iOS into the exact same playing field.

Yes, you’ll find Apple’s XS Max purchase price gut wrenching, to say the least, but after this shock you’ll settle into a pocket computer experience for the next two or more years that will make it all seem more than worthwhile.

Editor’s Note:

I wanted to provide some context for the title. It is unusual, but there is so much cynicism around reviews that people no longer trust reviews either because they think the author is an Apple fanboy, or an Apple basher. So I wanted to bring you a truly unbiased iPhone XS review. Unlike most early iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max reviewers who get their review units from Apple, we had to buy our own iPhone XS Max to review it by ensuring that we preorder it within the first 5 minutes. Also unlike Evan and myself (Gautam here), Steve is no where close to being an Apple fanboy, which is the reason I wanted him to do the reviews. Hope you enjoyed his iPhone XS Max review as much as I did. Feel free to ask him any questions in the comments below.