Apple's flagship iPhone certainly makes a statement
It's finally happened. Apple may have resisted a move into the realm of super big-screen 'phablets' but that time has ended; the iPhone XS Max (that's '10 S', in case you were still unclear) boasts a screen that's so big, it makes the Samsung Galaxy S9+'s display feel cramped in comparison.
At a whopping 6.5-inches, it's comfortably the biggest screen on any iPhone, ever, and makes the iPhone 8 Plus' 5.5-inch panel look positively weedy. However, a bigger screen isn't the only trick this beastly blower has up its sleeve – it's got a faster processor, better OLED tech, fancy new HDR video support and an improved camera, as well as bolstered water and dust resistance. It's also worth noting that it's the most expensive phone Apple has ever created – so is it really worth it?
iPhone XS Max review: Design & Display
Right from the outset, there's no denying that the iPhone XS Max is a monster of a device. While the core design hasn't really altered all that much from last year's iPhone X, the sheer size of the thing will give many users reason for pause; however, in terms of pure measurements, it's not actually that much different from the iPhone 7 and iPhone Plus models. What makes the XS Max look so darn huge is the edge-to-edge display which dominates the front of the handset.
If you've already cradled an iPhone X then there will be few shocks for you here. The XS Max has a glossy metal frame with a flat glass back, and is certainly one of the shiniest phones we've seen in a while – although, with IP86 certification, it's even more robust this time around. There's no home button, and the only physical inputs are the volume rocker (on the left-hand edge) and power button (on the right-hand edge). Oh, and there's the traditional 'mute' switch to completely disable all audio notifications. The SIM tray is located below the power button, but the big news this year is that the handset comes with eSIM support – which is great news if you're on a network which offers that service.
The 3.5mm headphone jack is totally and utterly dead in Apple's eyes, so the only other feature of note on the entire phone is the Lightning port at the bottom of the device, which is not only used for charging, but also serves as your connection for wired headphones (there's a pair included in the box).
The design of the iPhone X was pretty swish, so we certainly don't mind having it in our pocket for another 12 months. However, the size and weight of this larger device does present some problems; because the phone is so slippy it can be hard to hold it securely, given the increased dimensions. Needless to say, a case is a must if you want to keep the XS Max in good condition; we can imagine a few accidental drops will occur over time because trying to use the phone with one hand is borderline impossible.
The phone's OLED panel – or 'Super Retina HD' display – delivers a resolution of 2688 x 1242 pixels; that's a pixel density of around 458ppi. While people are grumbling that the iPhone XR is lumbered with a 720p screen, it's clear that Apple is taking zero changes with its flagship device. The screen on the XS Max is sharp, punchy and has superb dynamic range; it's also easy to view in bright sunlight. It's nice to see an iPhone fighting on even terms with the Android-based competition in terms of screen sharpness.
HDR support is a big deal this year, and we noticed that movies with HDR enabled did look impressive, with amazing levels of contrast. However, we can't say it's a dealbreaker of the feature, and when we showed other people the XS Max running side-by-side with another OLED phone which lacked HDR support, they couldn't tell which one had it turned on. To be honest, you really need to be watching the film in a darkened environment to benefit from the feature. While we're here, it's worth noting that the stereo speakers on the XS Max are wonderful, and match those on the Galaxy S9+ when it comes to power and bass.
iPhone XS Max review: Software & Performance
When the iPhone X launched last year, it had the misfortune of being teamed up with iOS 11, one of the most bug-ridden operating systems Apple has ever created. Despite numerous updates, things didn't get a lot better, but we're thankful to report that iOS 12 – which ships with the XS Max – is a totally different beast. Not only is it smooth, bug-free and a joy to navigate, it also comes with some genuinely good 'quality of life' features, such as Screen Time, which tracks how much you use your phone and what activities you're using it for.
This might sound like some kind of Orwellian nightmare, but it's actually a really useful thing to have; it reminds you exactly how much time you waste on social media and other largely pointless functions, and could end up being a really healthy and productive feature to have. Elsewhere, grouped notifications mean iOS 12 is more like Android now in this respect, and doesn't fill your notification panel with hundreds of alerts from the same app.
Because there's no home button, the navigation system introduced on the iPhone X makes a return. While it takes some getting used to, it becomes second nature very quickly and we're not at all surprised to see many Android handset makers incorporate similar systems into their phones.
The chip that ensures iOS 12 runs as smooth as silk is Apple's new A12 Bionic, which – the company claims – is 40 percent more efficient and 50 percent more powerful than the A11 seen in the iPhone X. While Apple makes similar claims each year, this time around, there does seem to have been quite a large leap in performance. Everything feels smoother and faster on the XS Max, from simple navigation to loading up apps and games; it's hard to recall a time when an iPhone felt as blisteringly fast as this, or as polished.
Much of this slickness is down to the fact that unlike its rivals, Apple handles all of the key elements of the iPhone – because the A12 only has to worry about working in conjunction with Apple devices, the company can optimise it perfectly, whereas Qualcomm's chips – which power the leading Android flagships – have to be compatible with loads of different hardware configurations.
iPhone XS Max review: FaceID
Just like the 3.5mm headphone jack, the home button – and TouchID – is now a thing of the past as far as Apple is concerned. Sure, you can still buy last year's iPhone 8 which has a home button, but none of Apple's 2018 challengers have one. Instead, the company is going all-in with its FaceID technology, which uses a 3D camera to map and read your face, using that as a means of unlocking your phone, verifying purchases and negating the need for passwords.
FaceID is a pretty incredible piece of tech, and because it uses a proper 3D camera, it's more reliable than the 2D imaging used on other handsets. Even so, it's still far from perfect, and just as we said last year when we reviewed the iPhone X, it feels like a solution in search of a problem. Fingerprint scanners are faster and more convenient, as your hand is always on the phone anyway; not including a rear-mounted scanner on the XS and XS Max feels like pure stubbornness on Apple's part.
FaceID is improved this year according to Apple, but we didn't notice much of a difference if we're honest. It still struggles in bright sunlight and isn't as fast to unlock the phone as a fingerprint scanner. It's also not 100 percent reliable, and while it 'learns' your face, we still had a few failed unlock attempts even after a few solid days of use. It's still a cool feature, but we wish it wasn't the only way to unlock the device, outside of a pin code. We also found that we couldn't make purchases using FaceID on the App Store, with an error saying that 'biometric security had failed' and we needed to 'try again later'.
FaceID was a neat touch in 2017 but with so many other phones offering fingerprint scanners (some of which are actually mounted in the screen itself) as well as face unlock options that are almost as good as Apple's, it feels a little half-baked now. Hopefully, Apple will include an in-screen TouchID option in next year's devices to give us the best of both worlds.
iPhone XS Max review: Battery & Memory
In keeping with the 'biggest ever' theme, the XS Max has a 3,174mAh power cell, the largest in any iPhone, ever. Because the A12 is more efficient when it comes to power consumption, Apple is claiming that the XS Max will last over an hour longer per charge than the iPhone X.
Of course, real-life stamina is going to vary depending on what you're actually doing. In a typical usage pattern where you surf the web, answer emails, make calls, watch videos, stream music and play games all in the same 24 hour period, you're going to struggle to make it to the end of the day with any juice left in the tank. It's long been accepted that most phones will only last a single day per charge, and the XS Max doesn't buck that trend – despite the bigger battery and more efficient chipset.
Wireless charging is included, but you'll need to purchase a compatible charging pad. Fast charging is also on the cards, but Apple doesn't supply the required charger in the box – quite a cheek when you consider practically every Android phone with fast charging has the necessary power block bundled in with it. For a phone that costs over a grand, this is pretty poor form on Apple's part.
When it comes to storage, you've got three basic options. The entry-level XS Max has 64GB and costs £1,099. In the middle is the 256GB option, which will set you back £1,249. Finally, if you're feeling really flush, there's the 512GB version, priced at a whopping £1,449). As has been the case since the iPhone range launched, you can't add-in more memory with MicroSD cards, so you'll need to choose wisely at the point of purchase.
iPhone XS Max review: Camera
One element which, at first glance, appears to have remained static when compared to last year's iPhone is the camera. The XS Max has the same dual 12-megapixel setup as the iPhone X, flanked by a quad-LED 'True Tone' flash. One of these cameras is telephoto for zoomed shots, while the other is wide-angle. However, there are some key changes – the most obvious of which is larger pixels on both cameras, which means low-light shooting is better this time around – although it's still not as impressive as the variable aperture-enabled Galaxy S9, it should be noted.
Apple has also included what it is calling 'Smart HDR', which is an advanced version of the HDR mode seen on pretty much any smartphone these days. Smart HDR makes photos look even better, but there have been complaints that the system 'smooths out' skin tone, making people look like dolls.
Apple was one of the first companies to popularise the 'Portrait' mode in phones, but this year it's playing catch-up with its rivals. You can now adjust the level of 'bokeh' blur after you've taken a shot, which is something the Galaxy S9 offered earlier this year. Even so, we feel that Apple's phone does a much better job when it comes to applying this effect, although the Google Pixel 2 remains the king of bokeh if you ask us – despite the fact that it only has a single lens.
iPhone XS Max review: Conclusion
Is Apple's biggest and most expensive iPhone really worth getting excited about? That's a tough question to answer, because while the XS Max is a wonderful phone with loads of power, great specs, a gorgeous design and brilliant screen, it doesn't really offer any massive leaps over the competition. There's no in-screen fingerprint scanner – in fact, Apple has refocused its efforts on the divisive FaceID – and while the A12 Bionic chipset is blisteringly fast, there's precious little else from a technological standpoint that makes this anything more than an iterative leap over the iPhone X.
Having said that, the phone is insanely powerful, is perfect for watching movies and comes with one of the best versions of iOS yet. It ticks boxes such as water resistance, wireless charging, fast charging and much more besides, and comes with a pair of powerful stereo speakers that sound fantastic. If you want the biggest and best iPhone this year, then the XS Max is the one for you – however, those who don't like the pocket-busting size might wish to opt for the standard iPhone XS. If money is a concern, then the iPhone XR might be a good choice – although it's worth noting that it is larger than the standard XS and only has a 720p screen. All three of these phones have the same A12 Bionic chip inside them, so you don't need to sacrifice power, regardless of which you pick.