It’s expensive and won’t be for everyone, but the iPhone XS Max is a great phone in just about every area.
- Lovely, big screen
- Welcome camera improvements
- Strong battery life
- Face ID remains the best at facial recognition
- Eye-watering prices both SIM-free and on contract
- iOS doesn’t make the most of the big display
- It’s heavy
- No included way to fast charge the phone
- Review Price: £1099
- 6.5-inch OLED display
- Face ID
- Dual-12 megapixels camera with Smart HDR and OIS
- A12 Bionic
- 4GB RAM
- up to 512GB storage
What is the iPhone XS Max?
It’s an ‘S’ year for iPhone revisions. That means instead of complete redesigns, refinements and spec-bumps are the order of the day. Despite this being the case, the iPhone XS Max feels like a more significant revision than the smaller iPhone XS. This is because it offers users an iPhone X design in a ‘Plus’ size. In short, this is the device that many wanted last year.
- Read our Samsung Galaxy S10 review
It’s not the only exciting large phone we’ve seen this year and it has some strong competition. The Samsung Galaxy S10 arguably does more with the big screen as does the Huawei P30 Pro. There’s also the OnePlus 6T, a phone that’s half the price of the XS Max.
Updated: read the latest about the upcoming iPhone 11
iPhone XS Max – Design
The most significant update to the iPhone line this year is the iPhone XS Max. Where the iPhone XS feels like the smallest jump between new iPhones, the Max version genuinely offers something different.
The iPhone XS Max packs all the design tweaks and material choices that debuted with the X: a stainless steel rim, glass back and the near edge-to-edge display. If someone stretched out an iPhone X then this would be the result.
There are some issues, though. This is a big phone and I feel that Apple should have done more to better deal with its size. For example, with the Galaxy Note 9, Samsung has used curves to almost disguise the size of the device and make it feel smaller.
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The iPhone XS Max takes no such tack, and as a result feels thicker and more difficult to manage. Holding it one-handed has proved an impossible feat for me, and reaching up to pull down the notification panel constantly leaves me with the feeling that I’m going to drop the device. While it’s no bigger than previous Plus-sized iPhones, the larger screen and lack of bezel makes it much trickier to get to parts of the screen.
Apple claims the glass that features on both the front and back of the handset is the strongest ever. It remains glass, however, and if you were to drop this device on a hard surface it will almost certainly crack. I’d suggest using a case.
The review unit I was testing was of the gold hue – an addition that joins the Silver and Space Grey options. It’s different to any gold product Apple has shipped before, with a softer, almost salmon-look on the rear and super-bright, shiny sides. After a week with the phone, I can’t decide whether it’s classy or tasteless. It has a 70s vibe and wouldn’t look out of place at a disco. The way the gold colouring has been applied to the stainless steel sides makes them a little harder to grip than the silver version.
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Water-resistance has been upped from IP67 to IP68 (giving you 30 extra minutes of resistance), and Apple has said it has tested the device against beer – a welcome addition if you’re clumsy after a few bevvies. The XS Max doesn’t have a headphone jack and Apple also no longer includes a dongle in the box to add support for your older wired cans.
iPhone XS Max – Display
The standout feature on the iPhone XS Max is the display. At 6.5 inches, not only is it the biggest screen Apple has ever included on a phone, but it’s more sizeable than even those that feature in high-profile rivals. It’s larger than the 6.4-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 9, 6.3-inch OnePlus 6, and dwarfs the 5.5-inch display on the iPhone 8 Plus.
Like the iPhone X, the iPhone XS Max ditches LCD screen tech for OLED, and the benefits are immediately obvious. Blacks are deep and inky; colours pop with vibrancy; and viewing angles are excellent. Pair that with an (almost) edge-to-edge style and you’ve got one of the most immersive panels on the market. I’ve already lost countless hours watching Dolby Vision HDR content from iTunes and Netflix, and this isn’t something I’d usually do on a phone. It’s likely that this phone might replace an iPad the next time I travel by plane.
Related: Dolby Vision HDR
The display also supports Apple’s favoured DCI-P3 wide-colour gamut and, new for the XS and XS Max, can display 60% more dynamic range in photos shot with the device. Brightness has been bumped up next to the iPhone X, too.
Where Apple’s display annoys is in the complete lack of customisations on offer. With a Samsung, Sony or LG device, I can tune colours to my personal preference. With the iPhone XS, I’m stuck with Apple’s interpretation of how the display should look. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but offering the user a level of customisation can be helpful.
Apple True Tone remains a feature in the XS Max and, once again, it matches the colour and temperature of the display to your environment. It results in a screen that’s softer on your eyes, reducing bright white hues and making content easier to read.
The difference between having True Tone on and off is only really perceptible if you compare it to a phone without it, but it becomes natural over time. Be warned: I’d turn it off if you’re doing photo or video editing, since it will alter colours and make them look a little off.
Of course, the biggest controversy with the display remains the notch – a small-ish cut-out at the top of the screen, where the bevy of Face ID sensors and front-facing cameras sit. In the year since Apple first introduced a notched-style device, it’s become increasingly popular for Android manufacturers to follow suit, with many making it part of the design.
Last year, it appeared that Apple embraced the notch. This year, the company seems more than happy to hide it with the XS Max. For example, the default wallpaper cleverly makes the notch invisible; it’s barely visible on any of Apple’s press materials. I wouldn’t be surprised if the company feels all these Android copies have soured its presence.
iPhone XS Max – Performance
I feel that the following words have been present in every iPhone review I’ve ever written, but the XS Max is a very fast phone. However, the differences between the XS Max and the iPhone 8 Plus, for example, aren’t as pronounced as they have been in previous years.
Powering the iPhone XS Max is Apple’s A12 Bionic SoC paired with 4GB of RAM – the first mass-market 7nm chip you’ll find in a phone. Huawei, too, has announced its own 7nm chipset; however, at the time of writing, there isn’t a device packing it available.
Being a 7nm chip, as opposed to the 10nm chip of the A11 Bionic, allows a greater number of transistors to be packed inside the silicone. This leads to a more efficient chip. The headline features for the new chip are a 15% faster CPU, 50% faster GPU (both when compared to the A11 Bionic), a new neural engine for AI, and a few other benefits such as Gigabit-class LTE.
So, since the CPU is only judged by Apple to be 15% faster, it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that general snappiness doesn’t feel that different. It remains fast, but the jump I’ve experienced in previous generations just isn’t as noticeable this time round. The jump in CPU performance is mirrored in synthetic benchmarks, with only a slight improvement in Geekbench 4. See below for more detailed benchmark scores.
There are more significant improvements in graphical performance – but, again, they’re hard to really feel. Apple is pushing AR (augmented reality) heavily here, and in some instances it’s cool. But for much of the time, it just feels like a throwaway gimmick.
Each and every ‘intensive’ game I played during the review process ran without any dropped frames or issues of any kind. Games such as Fortnite and Asphalt 9 open up marginally faster than on the iPhone X and iPhone 7, but in all honesty, there’s very little in the App Store that can take advantage of all this horsepower.
This appears to be a deliberate move on Apple’s part, with the company ensuring its handsets continue to be ahead for speed over the next few years. When you consider that Apple has only just stopped selling the four-year-old iPhone 6S, with that phone still able to run exceptionally well with iOS 12, it’s clear the company is planning for the future.
The A12 Bionic also has an updated ‘secure enclave’ inside it, and combined with the CPU improvements this leads to faster, more reliable Face ID.
Whether or not Face ID is a viable alternative to Touch ID will likely be down to your personal taste. Personally, I prefer it: it’s faster, works in a wider range of situations, and allows for a cleaner design. Others, including numerous folk who have used the phone during the review period, think differently. They’d revert to the fingerprint sensor without a second thought.
Moving away from the A12, there are plenty of other performance boosts with the iPhone XS Max.
The speakers are louder and clearer than any previous iPhone, comfortably matching the best-sounding Android handsets out there. It’s still the same setup as before: there’s one downward-firing speaker next to the lightning port, and another one pointing towards you housed in the notch. However, Apple has levelled out the sound so that the downward speaker is no longer the more powerful.
Gigabit-class LTE is available for supported carriers, and there’s an extra antenna on the phone to handle this. I’ve compared both Wi-Fi and data speeds to an iPhone X, and Samsung Galaxy S9 seems to achieve the best speeds, with the iPhone X and iPhone XS Max on a par with one another.
Dual-SIM support is finally included – but, in typical Apple fashion, it comes with some caveats. Unless you live in China, the iPhone XS Max won’t come with two distinct SIM-card slots. Instead, it uses a single traditional slot and a secondary eSIM that appears to focus on roaming. It will work similarly to cellular iPads, letting you alter carriers and plans easily and quickly through a tab in Settings. However, carrier-locking still applies and networks will be able to restrict how dual-SIM support works.
iPhone XS Max – Software
Like all of Apple’s other iPhones, the iPhone XS Max runs iOS 12. All versions of iOS 12 across devices are virtually identical, and Apple hasn’t really added anything here to make the most of the larger display offered by the device. Ultimately, this feels like a missed opportunity.
I’d love to be able to use two apps side-by-side (a feature offered natively on Android); having Safari open in one window and an email app or YouTube in the other. Having such generous screen real-estate available without such an option is bizarre. In addition, you can’t pop-out a video player and have that always visible – again, this would have been a handy feature.
The only real differences in the way apps behave are those you’d find on previous ‘Plus’ phones. Apps such as Messages or Mail will switch to a more information-dense layout on turning the device into landscape orientation. You get two panes of information in Messages, for example, so you can view your current conversation along with other threads in your inbox.
The rest of iOS 12 is as you’d find it on every device from an iPhone SE to iPhone 8. Apple’s latest software update focuses its efforts on improvements to speed, with actual new features kept to a minimum.
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Notifications are now grouped together in threads, so if you receive 30 WhatsApp messages in quick succession then they won’t completely take over your phone. The fact that this hasn’t been a feature up until this point still baffles me, but at least it’s here now.
iOS 12 also sees the introduction of Screen Time: a new area in the Settings app designed to encourage more measured use of your device. Well, that’s the idea. In reality, its useful for tracking how much time you spend in apps and setting timers to stop you wasting three hours a day scrolling through Twitter.
Related: How to download iOS 12
Once you get past the embarrassment of having your daily/weekly smartphone usage stats layed out in front of you in technicolor graphs, there’s much you can do to alter things for the better. For instance, I’ve set up my device so that I can no longer use Twitter and Instagram for more than 30 minutes each a day. Once that time is up, the app icon darkens and you can’t get back in until the following day – unless alter the settings, of course.
Instead of receiving a much-needed overhaul, Siri’s functionality has been improved with a new Shortcuts app. This is a re-skin of the Workflow app Apple purchased a few years back, letting you string together – often complicated – commands that you can engage with your voice. For instance, you can set up a morning routine where it will turn on your lights, increase the temperature and play a certain music playlist.
Routines in the Siri Shortcuts app can get increasingly powerful, and there’s already a pretty thriving Reddit and YouTube community offering up new and interesting recipes.
Even with Shortcuts, Siri’s actual accuracy and knowledge remains disappointing. It will often completely ignore what I say, or say it hasn’t heard me correctly when I’m still speaking. It languishes comfortably behind Google Assistant.
Due to the lack of a physical home button, your primary interaction with the iPhone XS Max is through gestures. Swipe up from the bottom to go home; pull down from the top-left for notifications and top-right for Control Center. It’s mostly straightforward, although trying to pull down the Control Center proves tricky due to the large display. It appears that this method of navigation requires more thought.
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