iPhone Xs Max review: Your dream phone is here (if you have more money than sense)
We’re used to Apple phones being expensive, but the iPhone Xs Max is something else. Starting at £1,099 for the 64GB model, and going all the way to £1,449 for the 512GB version, I can only assume the “Max” is not a reference to its size or power, but a reflection of how buying the damned thing will max out your overdraft.
How expensive is it? It makes the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 look like a bargain. Remember the Note 9? It’s the handset I said was retailing at “a loopy price”. Well Apple just went £300 more expensive with the iPhone Xs Max. Is it worth it?
Are you high? Of course it isn’t.
But there are plenty of people who only see smartphones in terms of iPhones, and for them, the Xs Max is the best there has ever been. For them, it’s grudgingly recommended with the caveat that learning to love Android is a lifestyle change that could save them an awful lot of money.
iPhone Xs Max review: Design
The iPhone X may officially be no more, but its design lives on with both the Xs Max. Slightly bigger 6.5in size aside, there’s really not that much different here. It’s a thin, expensive-looking mix of stainless steel and glass. There’s a reason dozens of hardware manufacturers take inspiration from Apple’s design, after all.
So it’s broadly good news, though it means that a couple of questionable design decisions remain. Some of these, like the lack of microSD card slot and headphone jack, have been around for generations and are priced into iPhone ownership.
Others are newer, and they still sting a bit: the thick notch and removal of Touch ID. The latter especially, as it means you’re stuck with Face ID for security. There’s simply no room for a fingerprint reader underneath the screen, as the phone has no chin. It looks beautiful but loses something in utility: to unlock, you have to pick up the phone, stare at it intently, wait a second, and then swipe to unlock.
On the bright side, with the arrival of iOS 12, Apple has made Face ID a bit more flexible. You can add multiple faces, which is handy for filling out the use cases where the phone fails to recognise you: wearing a hat, or sunglasses, say. Alternatively, you can add multiple people to it, which might be handy if you decide the only way you can justify a £1,099 phone is to buy it as a timeshare.
There are a few minor design improvements on the iPhone X which aren’t visible to the naked eye. The chemical composition of the glass, Apple says, has improved and is now the “most durable glass in the industry.” Yes, that’s vague, but if it means your new expensive toy is a bit more hardy then it’s certainly a good thing.
It’ll also survive more dunks. The iPhone X was IP67 water and dust resistant, and the Xs Max is IP68. What this means is that it’ll survive a half-hour dip in two metres of fresh water, which is twice as deep as before. More importantly, Apple now claims the iPhone Xs Max will cope better when facing the triple threat of tea, coffee or soda.
The speakers have improved to have a higher volume and a wider soundstage. Still not as good as a Bluetooth speaker or headphones, of course, but handy in a pinch. Finally, the iPhone Xs Max marks the first generation of Apple phones where dual-SIM support is present. You can add an eSIM to the phone’s regular nano-SIM card. That’s quite a big deal to some, though others will happily shrug it off.
iPhone Xs Max review: Screen
The modest improvements continue with the screen. On paper, it’s the same as the iPhone X, only a bit bigger. Our tests found the display got significantly brighter than the iPhone X, peaking at a brightness of 628cd/m2 compared to the X’s 502cd/m2, but that’s about the only real improvement.
You can forgive Apple not feeling the need to innovate here, mind: this is only the second generation of OLED screens after all, and there was nothing wrong with the first one. So across the diagonal, you have a screen size of 6.5in, with a resolution of 1,242 x 2,688 for a pixel density of 458ppi. Colour reproduction is very good indeed with superb accuracy, and sRGB coverage at 92.6%.
On paper, those may not be the biggest numbers we’ve seen, but it does Apple a disservice to just focus on them when there are other factors at play. The company’s True Tone screen technology makes a welcome return here, for example, which makes things easier on the eyes by matching the whites of the screen to the environmental light.
Support for HDR10 and Dolby Vision means that the increasing number of compatible shows and films really do look fantastic on the screen too.
In other words, it’s a superb screen – it just hasn’t changed much from the iPhone X. Which is fine when there was nothing wrong with it. So, moving on…
iPhone Xs Max review: Performance
So far, you may be wondering why you wouldn’t just try and find an iPhone X, and you’re correct in spotting that the upgrades are incremental at best. But that all changes when we get to the performance, thanks to Apple’s new A12 Bionic processor: the first 7nm chip on sale for smartphones.
Manufacturing to a 7nm process means that Apple can squeeze more transistors into the same space as its previous chip, which theoretically means faster speeds and better efficiency. True, Huawei will follow with its Kirin 980 processor in a matter of weeks, but for now, Apple is alone in this space.
And Holy Moly, the results are impressive. In short, the iPhone Xs Max wipes the floor with everything else out there, be it iOS or Android-based. Here are the Geekbench 4 stats to prove it:
The difference gets even starker when you get to 3D performance. Our GFXBench tests show a phone that eats polygons for breakfast.
As you can see, the performance (probably helped by the differing requirements of iOS) crushes processors by Qualcomm, Samsung and Huawei. It’s just no contest – and past form suggests it will be unbeaten until the iPhone XI, iPhone 9 or whatever Apple comes up with emerges in September 2019.
But – and this is a big but – you probably won’t notice this much power. Bluntly, all flagship phones feel ‘fast enough’ at this point, and even the extra frame rate won’t translate to a better real world experience. You see the onscreen framerate of 59fps? That’s not because of a higher resolution screen, but because the refresh rate is capped at 60Hz. To date, the Razer Phone is the only smartphone in the world which supports 120Hz.
Of course, this does mean that your phone should feel a bit fresher and faster for longer, which is undoubtedly a good thing. I’d just question whether that kind of insurance policy is worth considering when last year’s A11-powered iPhone 8 is still a better performer than the rest of the Android field.
On another note, while the efficiencies of the new 7nm chip do indeed give markedly better battery life than the iPhone X, the difference is less pronounced over the iPhone 8 Plus – and it’s still a way behind the power offered by the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, Huawei P20 Pro and OnePlus 6.
iPhone Xs Max review: Software
A new iPhone means a new version of iOS. You can read what this means in more detail here, but there are a few things worth pointing out from this largely incremental update. The most interesting addition is Screen Time. Prufrock famously measured his life in coffee spoons, and Apple wants to let you do the same with app usage. To this end, Screen Time provides a dizzying array of statistics to help you figure out how much of your time you waste enslaved to the super computer in your pocket.
At its broadest, this means telling you how much time you spend in vague categories like “entertainment”, “productivity” and “health and fitness”. This seems a little too black and white to me: if I’m in my email, I might be being productive, but I could equally be forwarding pictures of kittens. Equally, if I’m using Safari, I might be sourcing pictures of kittens to forward, or I could be applying for jobs.
But what’s more interesting here is the other stats the phone draws out. Ever wondered how often you pick up your phone, or how many notifications you get in a day? If you find yourself appalled by what you discover, Apple lets you schedule periods of downtime where certain apps are off limits. You can bypass this easily enough, but the first step of recovery is accepting you have a problem, I suppose.
Another new feature – Shortcuts – may prove more useful to you if you can get past the daunting interface. Download the Shortcuts app and you can create macro-style shortcuts like an Apple-sanctioned version of IFTTT. In short, it’ll let you combine elements of apps into a flow of actions which can then be assigned to desktop shortcuts or Siri voice commands. It’s good for power users, but difficult for beginners, so Apple has provided a gallery of examples to help you get started: AirDropping your most recent screenshot, or asking where a photo was snapped.
Otherwise, it’s minor tweaks, which is unsurprising given we’re now on the 12th iteration of iOS. There are new Animoji, a bit more ARKit and some upgrades to Siri – though not enough to make it a serious rival to Google Assistant.
iPhone Xs Max review: Camera
The camera is another area where Apple gives the iPhone Xs Max a substantial update to last year’s version. On paper, it doesn’t look hugely different: it’s still a dual-camera setup on the back. The main event is a 12-megapixel affair with a f/1.8 aperture, while a second 12-megapixel f/2.4 event handles 2x telephoto zoom.
There are two reasons for the improvement in quality. The first is that Apple has installed larger 1.4um pixels – a decent improvement from the 1.22um pixels found in the iPhone X. This means it’s better at making the most of the limited light in darker conditions.
The second is thanks to the A12 Bionic processor, Apple has improved the image signal processing to give things a significant boost. You may remember the company boasting about Smart HDR during the September reveal. This means the camera can now capture eight frames (half overexposed and half underexposed) when you take a photo, and the software will stitch them together to create a fine balance of light and shadow.
The results are great. The iPhone X had a decent camera, but the improvements here help push Apple up to the top table alongside the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, the Huawei P20 Pro and the Google Pixel 2. Compared to the iPhone X, images are sharper, with less noise and more contrast.
Is it enough to match the Huawei P20 Pro? Not quite: the detail the P20 Pro’s 40-megapixel sensor can catch makes it the superior snapper – especially when you consider Huawei packs in 3x and 5x zoom functions. But it’s not far off, and that’s a good result.
There are some decent improvements to the front-facing camera too. Video stabilisation is there if you like to vlog on the move, and Portrait Mode now lets you adjust the intensity of your bokeh effect. Once you’ve snapped your selfie, you can edit the shot and drag a dial to increase or reduce the blur effect.
It works better than everything we’ve seen, except on the Pixel 2 family. It’s not perfect, mind: sometimes the spell is broken when background objects poke through the edges of faces and hair. But it’s definitely a better example of the genre, and you can undoubtedly get some great results.
Video is where the iPhone Xs Max really takes the crown – which is impressive, given the crown already belonged to the iPhone X. It’s capable of recording stabilised 4K footage at 60fps, for a start. That may not sound like a big deal, but plenty of rivals make you pick and choose between those three features, making you record at 30fps for 4K, or only allowing for stabilisation at 1080p.
But it’s more than that: the footage it captures offers a great dynamic range and smoothness that we’ve just not seen anywhere else. It’s simply the best video capture available on a smartphone, and it’s not even a close-run thing.
Add together video and still shots, and you’ve probably got the best all-round camera on the market. Though if you’re only interested in still shots, then it’s worth looking at the Huawei P20 Pro – or waiting to see what the upcoming Mate 20 or Google Pixel 3 offer.
iPhone Xs Max review: Verdict
But I maintain you’d have to be mad to pay over a grand for one. Yes, it’s faster than the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, but not £300 faster. More damningly, you could buy two OnePlus 6 handsets for the price of the entry-level iPhone Xs Max, and still have enough change left for a Moto E5 Plus.
You know as well as I do that buying a smartphone isn’t just about the cost and the benchmarks though. For many, the iPhone is the only smartphone around and therefore, for them, this is simply the best smartphone. They won’t be disappointed, but their bank manager will be.