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The iPhone XS Max is the biggest breakthrough in big iPhones since the iPhone 6 Plus. Its new design dramatically increases usable screen real estate and makes both text and images denser and sharper, making it a brilliant upgrade for people who want a large phone, but don’t need the Samsung Galaxy Note 9’s S Pen. While the smaller iPhone XS will split its audience with the less expensive iPhone XR and the even smaller iPhone 8, there’s simply nothing like the XS Max. Its grand sweep of screen earns it our Editors’ Choice.
That is, if you can afford it. The XS Max is also the most expensive base model phone we’ve ever tested, starting at $1,099 for 64GB. I don’t like to make a big deal about upfront phone prices. Here in the US, many people pay for their phones on monthly plans, with quick-upgrade deals, or with trade-ins, so the upfront price is often not the price you pay. Still, if there’s anything that’s going to stop you from buying this phone, it’s the price.
It’s the XS, But Max
For a basic rundown of the XS Max’s features, see our iPhone XS review. Under the hood, the XS and XS Max are the same phone, except for the screen and the battery. We’re doing separate reviews because I feel a lot of people buy phones by size, and they’ll be comparing the iPhone XS Max with either the iPhone 6/7/8 Plus they have, or the iPhone 8 Plus they’re considering.
The iPhone XS Max has a 6.5-inch, 2,688-by-1,242 screen, as compared with the 5.5-inch screen in the iPhone Plus line. The Max’s body is actually very slightly smaller than the iPhone Plus, though. So although there’s a big debate around the internet about whether the Max is too big, I feel like that ship sailed three years ago. Apple has had a phone this size since 2014. Check out this story if you want to go more in-depth on the size of the XS Max.
Apple can fit a bigger screen into the same size phone because of two related changes: the aspect ratio and the bezels. Previous Plus-sized iPhones had 16:9 screens. The 19.5:9 screen on the XS Max is taller and thinner, enabled by removing the giant top and bottom bezels. Increasing the relative height of the screen makes the diagonal longer at the same width. That gets you 16.08 square inches of screen, as compared with the iPhone 6/7/8 Plus’s 12.93 inches. The XS Max’s screen real estate is much more like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9’s 16.11 square inches.
From left: iPhone XS Max, XS, iPhone X, iPhone 8
What this means for you is simple: You’re able to see more of a web page, more lines of an email, and more of your game board at once compared with an iPhone Plus (or any other iPhone, for that matter). Those images and that text will be sharper and richer, too, because the XS Max vaults from 401 to 458 pixels per inch and adopts the glowy colors and deep blacks of OLED screens.
We’re waiting for a final report from DisplayMate Labs on the quality of the XS and XS Max screens, but they’re made of the same stuff, which appears to be even brighter than the iPhone X’s OLED and considerably more colorful and better saturated than previous Plus phones’ screens.
You lose your home button, though, and have to take on Face ID. Apple says the A12 processor has made Face ID much faster. In testing, I didn’t have any problems with Face ID accuracy.
Thankfully the camera is the same excellent dual-lens system as in the iPhone XS. See that review for detailed camera analysis and sample photos.
Cranking That A12
The XS Max has the same A12 processor as the XS, and it benchmarked pretty much the same. Both phones do terrifically on strict processor, graphics, and AI benchmarks, outpacing any other phone, whether iPhone or Android. iPhones excel especially at browser benchmarks, because Apple’s Safari is so well-optimized.
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I was surprised to find that the speaker volume on the XS Max is just about the same as on the XS (and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9). I’d have thought that a bigger phone made for bigger speakers, but apparently not. Ditto for the Wi-Fi performance, camera performance, and call quality. Apple didn’t work to make speakers or antennas bigger as it made the XS Max bigger than the XS. It looks like it basically crammed the extra space with battery and called it a day.
On the plus side, battery life is very good. We recently switched from streaming video over cellular to streaming video over Wi-Fi for our battery tests, which means I can’t compare the XS Max results directly with last year’s phones. Using our new test, I got 9 hours, 50 minutes of battery life, which is very good, although it’s shorter than the 12-plus hours I got with the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
A Wider View
The iPhone XS Max runs iOS 12, just like other recent iPhones do. We have a full review of iOS 12 where you can run down the new features. The Max has one key feature that the smaller iPhone X and XS don’t have, though: When you turn the phone sideways, many apps fall into a two-paned landscape mode, almost as if the phone was an iPad.
Now, this isn’t true dual-window multitasking, like on iPads and recent Galaxy phones. It’s just a wider view, controlled by the app. It’s active in Calendar, Files, Mail, Notes, and a few other apps, and it mostly lets you see navigation and content panes together rather than just one at a time (check out the example below).
On a screen this big, with a processor this powerful, I think Apple should do dual-window multitasking like on the iPad. Apple, though, is obsessive about segmenting its product lines, and may not want to steal the iPad’s thunder.
Should You Buy the XS Max?
I’m a little ambivalent about the iPhone XS. It’s good, but older iPhone users will have to get used to a bigger device, and the iPhone XR costs $250 less.
If you want a big iPhone, save up and get the XS Max. You buy a big iPhone for a big screen, and the XS Max gives you much more screen than previous models, without adding to the size of the phone. All that screen also gives the powerful A12 processor a bit of an early reason to exist: The A12 is cranking far more pixels than previous phones were, and handling them admirably.
From left: iPhone XS Max, iPhone XS
How does it stand against other premium phablets? From a pure hardware perspective, the Galaxy Note 9 looks like a slightly better buy than the XS Max. You get an even denser screen, even better connectivity, even longer battery life, and the S Pen for $100 less.
But few people really shop between Android phones and iPhones from a pure hardware perspective. You’re paying extra for iOS: the smoother performance over several years, the guaranteed software upgrades, the Genius Bars, the slicker third-party apps, and the better attitude toward privacy and security. If that’s what you’re after, the gorgeous iPhone XS Max will serve you well until three years from now when you get your 5G iPhone with those Apple AR glasses. For now, it’s our Editors’ Choice.
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