Apple iPhone XS Max review: big, bold, and bloody expensive

iPhone XS Max 1

Apple’s brand loyalty is unparalleled. Sample this conversation I had with a fellow colleague just recently.

Colleague: Which phone should I buy? The iPhone XS or the XS Max?

Me: How about neither? You have a perfectly unscathed iPhone 7.

Colleague: I am an Apple slave and I need to upgrade. 

Me: *blank stare*

Yes, India is a price-sensitive market. Yes, Indians love to bash Apple products for being prohibitively expensive. But, there is no denying that an iPhone has an aspirational value that no other phone can demand. 

Where it is a commodity in the US, it is a luxury in India. And over the years, the iPhone — mostly due to its price — has evolved into a phone that defines the status of an individual in his/her social circles. To be honest, it is a pity that a phone defines who you are but it is what it is. 

For the folks who have already to decided to buy the new iPhone XS Max, they don’t need my review. They probably have an iPhone XS Max already. 

iPhone XS Max 7

This review is, in fact, for the aspirants. The ones who want to trade up in life. The ones who still need to justify spending so much money on a phone. 

So, does the iPhone XS Max make your life any “better?” Let’s find out together. 

iPhone XS Max design: a lesson in smartphone industrial design

The iPhone XS Max’s design is a Jony Ive masterclass through and through. The iPhone XS Max is essentially an elongated and flattened iPhone X that can fit in the new big display. It has the same glass sandwich design from the 10th anniversary iPhone. Glass on the front and the back is protected by the stainless steel side trim. The phone has nicely rounded edges that makes it sit in the palm firmly and the whole in-hand experience of using the phone is exceptional. This also has a lot to do with the 208g weight of the phone. Yes, it is heavy but it feels solid because of this weight. Despite the same 7.7mm thickness, the iPhone XS Max feels slimmer than the iPhone XS. 

There are at least six plastic inserts on the stainless steel trim for antenna to catch network signals. And no, there is no #AntennaGate on the iPhone XS Max as I didn’t face any drop in network bars even after covering the antenna cutouts. 

But here’s the thing, the iPhone XS Max is a massive phone. And therefore, reaching the top of the display with your thumb is near impossible. Thankfully, there is reachability to solve that problem. However, I could never get it to work seamlessly. Also, it adds another step to a simple task like pulling down the notification panel, which is irksome. Lest I forget, the phone’s rear panel is a major fingerprint magnet as well. 

There’s the lightning port at the bottom and Apple doesn’t bundle a jack anymore in the box. The logic is pretty simple, make more money by selling dongles. As a business decision, the whole accessories space is a gold mine. In fact,  Apple actually charges around 4 dollars as the licensing fee for the MFi certification for lightning accessories. It is no wonder that Apple is sticking to its proprietary port. 

Flanking on either side are the speaker grille and microphone grille, which is only three holes big now because Apple has added a new antenna band. The dual camera setup on the rear is inside a module so big that it juts out of the main body. When you place the phone on a flat surface, it is bound to wobble at the slightest touch. Also, for the first time, I actually noticed the hole inside the camera module. It is pretty damn big now. This hole is meant to be a microphone. And this mic should be instrumental in capturing spatial stereo audio in video recording.

The iPhone XS Max is a bigger and bolder phone now, which is a stark turnaround from Steve Jobs’ philosophy of smaller iPhones. 

iPhone XS Max display and Face ID: tantalisingly close to being the best

The iPhone XS Max has the biggest 6.5-inch display that Apple has used in an iPhone yet. But the beauty of this display is that it extends from edge-to-edge, only to be obstructed by a notch. The notch is essential to the iPhone XS Max. Apart from the front-facing camera, it includes a smattering of sensors that work together to enable Face ID. This futuristic unlocking mechanism is the most secure one on a smartphone ever. That said, it is still annoying that even after Face ID identifies you and unlocks the phone, you have to swipe up the tab to actually get into the home screen of apps. R.I.P Touch ID, you were great when you were around. The notch is still annoying if you ask me. 

iPhone XS Max 5

Coming back to the 6.5-inch AMOLED screen, it offers a resolution of 1242 x 2688 pixels. Also, the aspect ratio of 19.5:9 makes it one of the tallest phones around. The display is crammed with 458 pixels per inch and it looks stunning, to say the least. It is the crispest, brightest, most colour accurate panel, I have used on a phone till date. If you don’t trust me, DisplayMate has actually rated it the best display on a smartphone yet. What better validation do you need? 

Furthermore, the 120Hz touch refresh rate – first introduced in the iPhone X – is still pretty kickass. Your fingers just glide through the screen and it is quite a surreal experience. Coupled with the industry-best haptic engine, the 120Hz touch refresh rate is the kind of premium experience that you expect from an iPhone.

iPhone XS Max 7

All things considered, I still think the 6.5-inch display is still not the best because of one major problem that has annoyed me ever since I fished the phone out the box. The big AMOLED panel on the iPhone XS Max has a very perceptible colour shift. It is prominent and not very subtle, unlike other big AMOLED screens I’ve used in the recent past in phones like the Note 9 (review), the Vivo Nex (review), or the OnePlus 6 (review). You will literally see the colour temperature move from warm (yellow) to cool (blue) when you are on a white screen. And since most of iOS 12 and its default apps – for e.g. Apple Music – is in white, this colour shift becomes doubly bothersome. You really cannot ‘unsee’ it, once you’ve seen it.

I didn’t notice this problem on the XS or even the X for that matter. The colour shift issue is the sole reason that restricts the iPhone XS Max from being the best display on a phone. The iPhone XS takes that spot. 

iPhone XS Max software: clean and refined software experience 

iPhone XS Max runs on iOS 12, the latest version of Apple’s homegrown software. You will either hate it or love it, but you cannot ignore it. Apple loyalists will love the familiarity of iOS and the newly added features are definitely the icing on the cake. Let me break down what I like and don’t like on iOS 12 from the iPhone XS Max’s perspective. 

iPhone XS Max 11

Stuff I like

  1. iOS 12 has the best, most intuitive gesture-based navigation system on a mobile operating system. 
  2. The new Screen Time feature is an absolute Godsend if you want to cut down on your mobile usage. I have used to cut down on my social networking apps to up to 1 hour daily. Unlike Android’s Digital Wellbeing app, Screen Time doesn’t force you to stop using the app once you’ve hit the limit. But, I prefer iOS’ approach because it isn’t being authoritarian. 

  3. 3D Touch is an underrated feature. For e.g. I still can’t get over the fact that you can literally glide through any part of the text by long pressing the keyboard. It is a feature that no Android phone can replicate with such precision. 
  4. Finally, Apple has introduced grouped notifications now. Praise the lord! 
  5. The new Siri Shortcuts are phenomenal. For example, in an app like Swiggy, you can ask Siri – “where is my order” – and the Voice Assistant promptly responds. 
  6. Animojis have now invaded the camera inside the messages app. These Animoji’s replace your face now and you can send customised video or photo messages. In fact, you also have a few filters to play around with. It is all very cool for the Snapchat generation. From what I understand, Apple is trying to turn Messages into a full-blown social network.

Stuff I don’t like

  1. Most of the stuff I don’t like about iOS 12 are the same things that has plagued the OS forever. The home screens are all very rigid when it comes to the icons. You can’t place them anywhere on the screen. 
  2. Split-screen on the iPhone XS Max is limited to default apps like Messages and Calendar showing slightly more information in landscape orientation. Users would’ve benefited from true split-screen on an iPhone this big in size. 
  3. Many games are still not optimised for the iPhone XS Max. They either play Letterboxed or stretch to include the notch which results in the UI elements get cut. Although, I know this will get fixed soon so I am not really worried. 

iPhone XS Max 12

Overall, iOS 12 has been refined beautifully over the years, but in direct comparison with Android, it still feels slightly immature. Having said that, Apple’s tight control over iOS ensures that shared experiences with Mac are a smooth and pain-free experience. Honestly, there is still no equivalent to Continuity on Android that can do things as seamlessly as Apple’s solution. 

iPhone XS Max camera: improved by a big margin but still not the best

iPhone XS Max 8
I have literally written a thesis on the camera performance of the iPhone XS Max’s dual cameras on the rear and the TrueTone camera on the front. You can read it here. That said, for those who just want a summary, here’s one:

  1. The fact that you still have to head out of the app to enter the main Settings app to change important camera settings is still very annoying. Want to change from 1080p to 4K recording? Go to the settings app. Want to switch off Smart HDR? Go to the settings app. Oh, come on Apple, high time you improved the camera app. 

  2. The iPhone XS Max’s new Smart HDR mode is a killer feature that does a brilliant job with dynamic range, especially when shooting subjects against intense backlighting. 
  3. However, normal shots without HDR do a lot of image smoothening which also explains the #BeautyGate scandal by The Unbox Therapy because Smart HDR is also available for the front camera. 
  4. The cameras smudge details in Normal mode. I suggest shooting with HDR on at all times. The new A12 Bionic chip can handle all that processing with ease. In fact, the chip in conjunction with the NPU helps in faster processing and reducing shutter lag as well. 

  5. Thanks to the larger sensor, you now get a wider 26mm field of view compared to the 28mm on the iPhone X. 
  6. In daylight shots, you get a superb colour accuracy but the phone has a tendency to accentuate the blues when HDR is on. 
  7. The details on the sensor are still lacking compared to phones like the Pixel 2 and the P20 Pro, which is a bit of a letdown. 
  8. You can’t talk about the new iPhones without bringing up the new Portrait mode feature. Yup, you can now change the aperture on the fly after shooting the picture. P.S. live aperture change is coming in iOS 12.1 btdubs. It is such a cool and handy feature and lets you fine-tune the level of depth. While Huawei and Vivo have similar implementations, Apple’s depth mode is creamier and more DSLR-like if you ask me. The new and improved Portrait mode is the single best thing about the new iPhone cameras. 

  9. The lowlight performance has improved drastically. The iPhone XS Max’s Smart HDR mode does a brilliant job with dynamic range and the colours, while slightly muted, are colour accurate. 
  10. The iPhone XS Max’s video recording capabilities – in true iPhone style – continues to be the best when it comes to video recording. I doubt if any other smartphone can shoot such crisp and clean 4K 60fps footage without any shake. In fact, the Smart HDR mode helps improve the dynamic range in videos as well. 
  11. The other brilliant improvement is the new stereo recording for audio capture in video. It sounds spatial and wider than audio that I’ve shot with other phones. 

Apple has done more than enough to improve the imaging on the new iPhones. But, it won’t hurt for Apple to go all out with the cameras as Huawei did with the P20 Pro. Because if there is one company that can actually pull it off, it has to be Apple. 

iPhone XS Max performance: scorching fast

The new A12 Bionic chip inside the iPhone XS Max — like Jose Covaco puts it — is the bom diggity! This six-core chip with 4 gigs of RAM is a scorcher and, after reading Ars Technica’s review of the phone I am convinced that Apple is on the path to remove Intel as its choice of the chip for MacBooks. Yes, the A12 Bionic is that powerful. You can check my performance comparison article with the Snapdragon 845 in case you want to see the benchmark results. Long story short, the iPhone XS Max can put some laptops to shame. 

I can’t even imagine the amount of time I must’ve spent playing Fortnite, Monument Valley 2, and Guns of Boom on the phone. The iPhone XS Max is the best gaming phone ever made, especially with those stunning speakers. Talking about the stereo setup, it is louder and has a better dynamic range across frequencies. It feels like you are listening to a fuller sound from a pair of affordable Bluetooth speakers. Many Android loyalists who use blazing fast phones like the OnePlus 6 will continue to believe that their phone is faster. But the issue here is Apple’s heavy-handed animations across the system UI.

iPhone XS Max 17

I won’t call it a problem per se because I really love the animations and how fluid they feel. For example, like my colleague, Sreehari pointed out, a simple task like swiping up and holding the app to freely move around in the available space feels very fluid. It is possible only due to the extremely powerful chip inside the phone. 

Here’s the thing that a lot of Indians would be really happy to hear – the iPhone XS Max is the first phone to come with dual-SIM support. You still get only a single SIM slot but once iOS 12.1 activates this feature you will be able to get an e-SIM connection along with it. 

As far as network performance is concerned, I used an Airtel connection in Delhi NCR region during my review period, and boy I was completely stunned at the stable 4G connection and improved voice clarity over the earpiece. I have really no complaints with the call performance of the iPhone XS Max.

iPhone XS Max multimedia: unbeatable

Despite the notch, the multimedia experience on the iPhone XS Max is second to none. While the notch breaks the symmetry, there is no chin at the bottom. This means you get a symmetrical design on the other three sides. Moreover, watching Dolby Vision HDR shows on Netflix is a treat to the eyes. This display is seriously something else for consuming video content. Include the stereo speakers, and you have a multimedia champion. 

Now the one thing that Apple has done is removed the headphone jack. We’ve discussed that already but the DAC inside the iPhone XS Max is still pretty damn good. iFixit believes that Apple is still using a Cirrus Logic DAC solution inside the phone. You still need the 3.5mm dongle if you want to connect headphones of your own. Now, what you need to know is that the dongle has a DAC of its own too and it does a good job as well. I have one from my iPhone 7 Plus which came in handy during the review process. In case you want to buy one, it costs Rs 1,500. Add that to the cost of your phone.

iPhone XS Max 14

Notwithstanding the extra expense, the sound quality of the earphones in the box is warm and fuzzy but not very accurate. It sounds bloated to me and I am not a fan. But, the iPhone XS Max managed to drive the FiiO FH5 very well with a warm and crisp reproduction. Overall, listening to music on the iPhone XS Max continues to be great but we all know it…it is no LG G7+ ThinQ. 

iPhone XS Max battery: the accessories conundrum

The iPhone XS Max has a large 3,174mAh battery inside it. Right off the bat, I got a full day worth of moderate usage or around 5 hours of SoT on this battery. It is still a great performance for an iPhone but there are Android phones that can last longer. However, we are talking about a phone requires a lot of juice to power its insane display.

iPhone XS Max 15

But what is actually annoying is that Apple bundles an archaic 5V 1A charger in the box, which takes dinosaur’s years to charge the damn phone. It took me 3 hours and 51 minutes to charge the phone from 0 to 100. In that time, I could’ve have charged a OnePlus 6 twice over and still have had some time to spare. But worry not, Apple offers fast charging support and obviously, it charges more for it. Although, if you are already in the ecosystem you can use a spare iPad charger to charge the phone faster. Else, you’ll have to buy a more powerful adapter for the purpose. 

Oh, and lest I forget the XS Max also comes with fast charging support. 

Should you buy the iPhone XS Max?

The iPhone XS Max is the most expensive phone in the Indian market right now. And the fact that your purchase doesn’t stop at buying the phone itself is an added disadvantage. I consider these additional accessories as essentials in case you are buying the iPhone XS Max:

  1. A protective case
  2. A screen protector
  3. A fast charging adapter 
  4. A 3.5mm dongle
  5. A theft protection plan

Essentially, you will end up paying a bomb for the phone. In fact, for the first time, I noticed that a few banks have extended the EMI loan duration to up to 36 months/3 years. The rising prices obviously mean that the loan duration has also increased. Is it really worth it when you can actually get a great Android flagship for a much lower price?

Well, it is actually worth it and allow me to explain. The iPhone has two major advantages over an Android flagship even today. The latest and greatest iPhone can last 3 years of continuous usage without slowing down and therefore bringing down the running cost. The seamless ecosystem connectivity is still unparalleled. And therefore, think of the iPhone as an investment and not as a purchase. Furthermore, it doesn’t hurt that you get the best resale value on any iPhone. 

So, you could trade up if you have made up your mind. Also, I don’t need to tell you that if you are on an iPhone X, you really don’t need to upgrade to an XS Max. 

iPhone XS Max 9

And the Android-equivalent of an iPhone XS Max has to be the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. I absolutely loved that phone and it is so feature-rich that people are bound to be even more impressed when you flaunt it. 

To sum it all up, the iPhone XS Max is definitely the best iPhone yet but it is too damn expensive for a common man in India. 

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Ershad Kaleebullah

When Ershad isn't writing, he spends time killing virtual zombies on his PS4. Having worked with a slew of renowned publications like PCWorld, Channelworld, CIO, NDTV Gadgets (now Gadgets360), MySmartPrice, The Inquistr, and 91Mobiles, Ershad brings a whole world of experience to Mr. Phone. He is trying hard to convert all the team members into Apple fans but is facing a lot of resistance. Is anyone willing to help?