Apple iPhone XS Max Review: Go Big or Go Home!
The iPhone XS Max (left) & iPhone X (right).
The iPhone XS Max (left) & iPhone X (right).(Photo: @2shar/The Quint)

Apple iPhone XS Max Review: Go Big or Go Home!

When we reviewed the iPhone X last year, we recognised it was a massive leap forward in design for Apple, and little did we know just how much of an impact it would have on the Android segment, the *cough* notch *cough* in particular.

With the XS Max that launched alongside the visually-indistinguishable-from-the-X iPhone XS, Apple supersized its flagship in both screen size and price, but just how is it in day-to-day use, and does it really command that eye-watering premium or is it simply too XS-ive?

We find out!

Note: We’ve reviewed both the XS devices together but in the interest of brevity, our review today will focus on the Max since that’s where the noticeable changes lie, and the XS duo are otherwise identical in specs.

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Pros

  • Immersive and expansive display
  • Top-notch performance that blows the competition away
  • Capable camera, unparalleled video
  • Same flaunt-worthy design, with a new Gold colour

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Cons

  • eSIM yet to be rolled out, likely limited to Airtel and Jio at launch
  • Recent ‘gates’ need to be addressed in software…and fast!
  • Super pricey, the priciest iPhones yet

What’s Good?

Let’s face it – while the iPhone X design is far from old, the only way you’ll distinguish an XS from last year’s model is if you pick up the classy new bronze-ish Gold color option…or are eagle-eyed enough to note that there are three less holes on the left of the lightning port!

The iPhone XS Max comes with a 6.5-inch display.
The iPhone XS Max comes with a 6.5-inch display.
(Photo: @2shar/The Quint)

Yep, they’re that identical, almost comically so, though both phones add in a more durable glass and a higher IP68 dust/water rating.

The Max is where the big changes lie, and it’s for the first time that the larger, previously unwieldy dimensions of the Plus variants start looking like an attractive proposition. Packing in a 6.5-inch display, the Max amazes at how much screen you’re getting in a body that’s not quite as enormous or heavy as you’d expect.

It’s still a handful – two-handfuls for most smaller hands – but consider this, if you’re upgrading from a previous Plus variant, you’re getting a bigger-by-1-inch-diagonal screen, more pixels and a better HDR 10/Dolby Vision display in about the same dimensions!

The bigger visual real estate not only gives you more on-screen space but also affords a landscape Split View for apps like Messages and Calendar.

Both the XS iPhones come with the new  A12 Bionic processor on-board.
Both the XS iPhones come with the new A12 Bionic processor on-board.
(Photo: @2shar/The Quint)

Deep blacks, high brightness levels and richer colors are what we have come to expect from a quality OLED panel, but the iPhone bumps up the dynamic range to make HDR 10 and Dolby Vision content that much more impressive.

Apple’s secret sauce – the improved True Tone tech – calibrates the display’s white balance to ambient light conditions and really makes a difference, particularly when you’re using the phone in the dark.

Yet, for all the time you spend with the new display, the real treat lies under the hood with the new A12 Bionic processor. You’d probably have heard the hype around it being the first commercially available 7 nanometer process chip, besting the previously announced Kirin 980 – what that means is that Apple is now able to cram a lot more transistors on their chip, which delivers not only a significant performance boost but also increased power efficiency.

Where the big performance boosts are seen in everyday operation are thanks to the improved Neural Engine, which adds a touch of machine learning to make stuff like computational and AR apps scream on the new devices – the new eight-core design pushes up to 5 trillion operations per second compared to a mere 600 billion on last year’s A11.

Translated, this means faster surface detection in augmented reality apps (like iOS 12’s Measure app), better face-tracking for Memojis and faster Face ID, aside from freeing up the GPU to handle your more advanced graphics operations in the latest games.

The best bit? Just how much headroom is left for app developers to exploit – when I played the new Galaga AR game in a closed door session at the launch, it gave me a real sense of just how immersive game experiences can get with the raw power under the hood.

Yet, it’s the camera that differentiates the very high end of flagship smartphones. Apple’s made some visible improvements in the XS duo – a bump up in pixel size (1.4 microns versus 1.2 microns on the iPhone X), which allows the sensors to collect more light for photos with better dynamic range and low-light performance, plus a new Smart HDR mode for more detail in the shadows in high contrast conditions.

You also get depth control on Portrait mode shots, similar to what we’ve earlier seen on the Samsung flagships, which lets you adjust depth of field after you have taken the shot, to get that blurry background just right. Results in good light are spectacular, though in low light, the Pixel 2 captures more details.

While shooting videos, the iPhone remains unchallenged, particularly in its space-guzzling 4K/60fps shooting which remains a benchmark for other flagships to aspire to.

In all, the XS camera is deservedly in the high end, even if it isn’t the very best on the market when snapping shots.

The iPhone XS comes with a 12+12-megapixel rear camera.
The iPhone XS comes with a 12+12-megapixel rear camera.
(Photo: @2shar/The Quint)

What’s Bad?

The iPhones XS have been in the news recently, for all the wrong reasons. Controversies have dogged Apple in recent weeks around a number of bugs being seen on the new iPhones, from a charging issue that doesn’t let the phones charge unless woken up from standby to an overaggressive smoothening being applied to the selfie camera shots.

While neither have elicited a response from Apple yet, third-party analyses reveal these are easily fixed in software, and the upcoming 12.1 release should address these…and fast!

The iPhone now comes with dual SIM.
The iPhone now comes with dual SIM.
(Photo: @2shar/The Quint)
For the first time in what feels like a lifetime of waiting, the XS duo ship with the option of using dual SIMs – no, not two physical SIM trays (though China and Hong Kong units have this design) but an eSIM as the secondary number.

With the eSIM Watch launch earlier this year, Airtel and Jio are already on board but the eSIM update is yet to roll out to India units.

Battery life on the bigger Max is better than the XS courtesy the bigger battery but I’d have liked a longer battery life than the all-day performance I’m seeing on the XS units.

What’s a lot more disappointing is that while iPhones have supported fast charging since last year’s models, they still ship with the slow 5W charger in the box and you need to cough up a not-insignificant amount to buy a fast charger and cable.

Now, for the company that took the courageous decision of dropping the headphone jack, there’s more bad news for wired audio enthusiasts as the XS duo no longer ship with a Lightning-to-audio-jack dongle in the box.

And at Rs 99,900/ Rs 1,09,900 onwards for the base 64GB variant of the XS/XS Max, these will likely tear a hole in your wallet. The top-end 512GB XS Max hits close to a lakh and a half, which is just insane amounts to spend on a phone!

Why Buy it?

An ‘S’ iPhone isn’t the easiest sell for Apple, given that it barely (if at all) changes the way the phone looks as compared to the major version releases, but going on looks alone would mean you’d ignore the very perceptible changes that the XS duo pack under the hood.

This is particularly true for the Max, which continues to amaze in how much power and screen it packs into a form factor that’s a smidgen smaller than the Note 9.

So, should you buy the latest iPhones?

If you’re an iPhone X owner, look towards next year’s release before you even consider upgrading – the XS are aimed at 6/7/Plus owners who’re looking to upgrade to a device that won’t be obsoleted by Apple, in terms of hardware or software, for another 2-3 years, if not longer.

Yet, at their current pricing, the new iPhones make significant demands of your wallet, and you may well want to look at the slightly-lower priced iPhone XR, due later this month, before splurging on these.

(Tushar Kanwar is a technology columnist and commentator and has been contributing for the past 15 years to India’s leading newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at @2shar.)

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