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Review : Apple iPhone XS Max, is it a big enough reason to upgrade?


The iPhone joins the giant phone trend with this 6.5-inch monster, but is it a big enough reason to upgrade? For the last few years, when there’s been a ‘plus’-sized iPhone, the bigger one has always been better. 

The screen size is a matter of personal preference, but they’ve also had significantly better battery life and dual cameras instead of single-lens affairs. That all changes with the release of the iPhone XS models. The 5.8-inch iPhone XS and 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max are the same phone in different sizes, so apart from talk of physical dimensions, this is effectively our review of both.


Beauty factor
We might as well start by looking at that screen. The 2688 x 1242 OLED screen is absolutely stunning, leading the field in vibrancy and colours without question, even if the 6.4-inch Samsung Note9 actually has it beaten for sharpness. When things are this high-res, it’s not a problem. Watching movies on the screen is especially impressive: all of Apple’s OLED phones support Dolby Vision, which is the most advanced kind of HDR, and is supported by Netflix and iTunes movies, so there’s plenty of content.

Firing up a blockbuster that makes the most of the dynamic range on offer here puts most TVs to shame – the depth of the blacks and richness of the colours is gripping. As an added bonus, the stereo speakers actually give you true left and right separation if you’re using them, so you can hear things move in space as they travel across the screen. Good headphones will always be better, but the speakers are so clear, loud and well-balanced that this really doesn’t seem like a bad way to watch something. They’re among the most impressive we’ve heard, though the Razer phone’s amazing Atmos speakers still has them beat, since they somehow also added in height, despite coming from a phone you’re holding in front of you.

Obviously, the bigger screen of the XS Max makes this experience that much more spectacular than the regular XS (which is the exact same size and resolution as the X before it). But otherwise, the difference between using the bigger version of the phone and the smaller isn’t that pronounced – even less than we’d assumed, to be honest.

Tall order
A very important piece of context here is that your reviewer is a 6’3″ man, and therefore in possession of hands that are not exactly small. Moving from an iPhone X to the Max wasn’t the huge jump we expected. We could still type one-handed with only a tiny adjustment to grip, and reaching across the phone to use universal ‘back’ swipe was fine. Reaching up to the top of the
screen became a lot more of a hassle, and we had to use our pinky for supporting the phone more, but none of these left us feeling uncomfortable.

However, the Max is at the edge of what we can use one-handed. Giving the two phones to other people, it doesn’t take a big size difference before the Max is too much. Which is fine – that’s why Apple makes two sizes – but outside of making videos and photos look even bigger and better, we have to say that we didn’t find that the bigger screen of the Max did much for us. The idea is that like the Plus phones before it, apps can make better use of the bigger screen. Turn an email or calendar to landscape and you get a split view, with a view of your email inbox on the left, say, and a pane showing the selected email’s contents on the right.

We know that some power users swear by this, and hated that the 5.8-inch iPhone X didn’t have it, but we have to say that we’ve never found it essential. On the Samsung Note9, the bigger screen is used for two apps at once, and though they may be quite cramped, anyone can find this useful in a pinch. We wouldn’t say the same about the Max. Which isn’t a knock against it – we’ve already explained how some apps use the screen, and almost any app can just show more stuff, potentially – but we’re saying don’t get a bigger screen expecting to be an automatic productivity boost. The smaller, easier-to-handle model may actually be faster to use.

Apple has promised that the Max gets better battery life than the 5.8-inch XS model, especially since it includes Apple’s biggest battery ever in a phone. It says the XS Max should last an hour longer than the XS, but Apple’s estimates are usually conservative. In our experience, the Max can definitely last a full day of heavy use, though some tasks (4G hot-spotting, or very intense games) will cut hours off easily. Basically, it’s as good as the equivalent phones from competitors but no better. Incidentally, Apple has once again made the world’s most powerful phone processor, but it’s starting to feel like overkill: the iPhone X was damn fast, and the XS is super slick as well, no surprise.

A new image
One area of improvement Apple has, if anything, underplayed compared to last year’s model is the camera. A much bigger (over 30 per cent) sensor captures lots more light, while the new extra-powerful processor does further AI analysis of scenes as you shoot them, resulting in a big leap forward in quality. Low-light shooting, in particular, is now on a par with the incredible Google Pixel 2 camera – it picks up light and details that were just fuzzy before.

And for bright images, you get even more vibrant colours and crisp outlines. (Apple used to favour its photos coming out quite neutral, but this time seems to have followed Samsung down the path of processing the colours to be quite saturated.) Apple calls its handling of light and shadows ‘Smart HDR’, which helps to avoid shots where exposing for bright sunlight means you really can’t see anything in the shadows, or vice versa.

It combines multiple shots into one final version where both are exposed correctly, more like how the. eye perceives it. he effect is often mind-blowing, producing shots that feel impossible (because they actually were in the old cameras). However, this is kind of how the Pixel 2 makes its shots look so good, and actually we think that phone still does it better – Apple’s come out just a little on the flat side, while Google’s keep a little more dynamic range in the shadows, which gives them a tad more depth and ‘mood’.

This is partly a personal thing, admittedly, but hopefully a little bit of software tweaking could make Apple’s even more pleasing. here’s a new upgrade to the Portrait Mode feature that enables you to choose how blurry the background of your shots should be, which works really well, and gives a nice dose of artistic control to the feature. Intriguingly and somewhat confusingly, you can now record video in HDR… kind of.

Apple calls it “extended dynamic range” instead of HDR. The effect is the same and looks truly fab – in the high-contrast video, you get dramatic light mixing with deep shadow, and in more balanced shots, there’s just an extra level of detail that’s revealed by the way the system works. But you can’t view this anywhere else. Apple isn’t using any HDR standard for this (hence the name change), so it gets flattened if you upload the video anywhere else. Sony’s phones record HDR in the HLG format, which is supported by YouTube and loads of TVs, which would be preferable.

Just face it
We should also mention that Face ID has been updated (including the ability to add a second face), and we did find it even more reliable than the iPhone X for this feature – in our experience, it’s gone from excellent to practically perfect. But it’s only a small change, it has to be said. In the past, Apple’s S phones have always been a little faster and more refined, like this year, but have also had a big new feature, such as Siri or Touch ID. The lack of that this year can definitely be felt. Don’t get us wrong: the iPhone X just won our award as the best phone of the previous 12 months, and this is an even better version of that, so it’s a truly phenomenal phone.

But if you went for the iPhone X, we don’t think there’s enough here to warrant an upgrade. The camera is a big step up, no doubt, but it’s the only thing. If you’re on an older iPhone though, don’t hesitate to pick this phone up. The Max in particular is massively expensive, but we don’t think you’ll regret spending the money: the stainless steel and glass build quality is second to none (and has been made tougher than ever), and the 512GB storage option is welcome.



Screen 6.5-inch 2688×1242 OLED
Processor A12 Bionic
Storage 64BG/256GB/512GB
Cameras 12MP telephoto and wide-angle rear, 7MP True Depth front
Battery capacity 3,179mAh
Dimensions 157.5×77.4×7.7mm
Weight 208g
Connectivity Apple Lightning port, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0

WE’RE IMPRESSED Fantastic new camera; absolutely stunning screen; great stereo speakers; needlessly fast performance.
WE’D IMPROVE iOS could make more of the 6.5-inch screen; battery life is merely standard.
THE LAST WORD Apple’s most advanced phone gets even better. A small upgrade over last year, yes, but a simply brilliant device.

www.apple.com/my from RM5,399

Review : Apple iPhone XS Max, is it a big enough reason to upgrade?

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Editor, Photographer, Video Director & Producer and avid Traveller. The media industry has been my playground for a long time and is getting more exciting by the days.