The highest performing iOS phone of 2018 is still the Apple iPhone XS Max, so it’s high time we did its text review. The biggest iPhone ever, at 6.5 inches, but somehow fit within the body of an iPhone 8 Plus, this machine keeps the notch, has a very solid dual camera and a price to match its specs. The device is priced at around $1099.

It was announced on September 12th and started selling about a week later. It’s available in gold, space gray and silver. Before its debut we took it for a comparative spin, putting it to the test against the Sony Xperia XZ3 and Galaxy Note 9, in a photo comparison test. Spoiler: it won! Be sure to read below to learn why. Let’s check it out!

Design

The Apple iPhone XS Max is a glass and metal machine, that’s incredibly compact for a 6.5 incher. It feels like the iPhone 8 Plus, with a bigger screen. The handset measures 157.5 mm x 77.4 x 7.7 mm, plus it weighs 208 grams. Keep in mind that the iPhone 8 Plus measured 158.4 x 78.1 x 7.5 mm with a smaller screen (by 1 inch) and weighed 202 grams. That’s a fantastic evolution.

The result is a grippy machine, but also easily smudged on the back side. The camera tends to gather lint all around it in the pocket. Buttons are comfy, the phablet is rather big and definitely not one hand usage material. It’s made of glass and stainless steel (frame). We also have the promise of the most durable glass on the market.

There’s also oleophobic coating in the mix and IP68 certification, letting you sink the device 2 meters deep for 30 minutes with zero problems (on paper).

Display

iPhone XS Max uses a 6.5 inch Super Retina HD display, with an OLED panel and HDR support. It has a resolution of 2688 x 1242 pixels, a 1.000.000:1 contrast ratio and True Tone support. There’s wide color support and 3D Touch too. My own viewing experience with this device involved a very high level of brightness, great color calibration and a crisp image.

The contrast is perfect and view angles are wide, plus the black is deep. The pixels have a Pentile Matrix arrangement, as shown by our microscope. The luxmeter test was really an achievement, at 788 LUX and we even reached 799 LUX at some point. It’s the best of 2018 at the time of testing and probably still stays on top.

It beats the iPhone X and its 764 LUX, or the Moto Z2 Play’s 640 LUX. Imagine that the Galaxy S9+ is just at 453 LUX. Settings include brightness, True Tone, Night Shift, raise to wake, text size, bold text, display zoom. The perfect screen for me.

Hardware

Inside this large iPhone you’ll find the latest Apple tech: the Apple A12 Bionic processor, a 7 nm CPU with 6 cores and a 4 core GPU. There’s also Neural Engine action, Apple NPU (2nd gen), 4 GB of RAM and 64, 256 or 512 GB of storage. The smartphone doesn’t suffer from lag, it flies and glides through the UI easily. We played tons of games on it and they all ran like champs.

We also played Fortnite, PUBG, Hello Neighbor and more. We of course also did benchmarks, like AnTuTu 7, where we beat the OnePlus 6, ASUS ROG Phone and Huawei Mate 20 Pro, with an impressive 360k points. In GeekBench 4 Multi Core we scored first place, beating the Xiaomi PocoPhone F1, Galaxy Note 9, by 1000 or 2000 points.

In GFXBench we placed on the 7th spot and it didn’t feel smooth, probably not optimized or something. In Slingshot we scored 16th, so there’s clearly something off here. We beat the Pixel XL and Honor 10, but scored below the Nokia 8 and HTC U11. At least there’s the first spot we placed on in Base OS 2. We also did a temperature test and achieved 41.8 degrees in GFXBench, which sounds excessive, but at least in games it was OK, at 37.5 degrees Celsius.

We also did a CAT S61 FLIR camera test and the hottest point seemed to be below the camera, but overall the temperature wasn’t excessive.

Battery

This handset has what sounds like a modest battery, at 3174 mAh for such a big screen. Many phones have graduated past 4000 mAh lately, Huawei Mate 20 Pro included. Apple promises on paper that the device lasts up to 1.5 hours more than the iPhone X. Also on paper we get up to 15 hours of video playback, or 65 hours of audio playback.

Full charge is expected to provide up to 50% juice in just 30 minutes. We did a video playback test and achieved 15 hours and 24 minutes, which is great. It’s better than the Xperia XA2 Ultra and Xiaomi Pocophone F1, or the Galaxy A8 (2018), but it’s below the Galaxy Note 9, Huawei P20 Pro and ZenFone Max Pro M1. Continuous usage is at about one day, one day and a half, but that happens with ease, no stress.

A light user may even get 2 days. I suspect around 12+ hours of continuous hardcore gaming + YouTube and Facebook usage. Charging is gigantic, sadly and takes 3 hours and 36 minutes, which is not tolerable in 2018. Even the iPhone X is better, at 2 hours and 55 minutes. One hour meant 30% charge and we also have wireless charging. Battery Health is also in the mix and we have a Low Power Mode in the mix too.

Pretty good battery, but a very long charge.

Multimedia

The handset has stereo speakers and the Settings include an equalizer with genre settings, volume limit and Sound Check. The experience was loud and clear, there’s no distortion and the voice was pitch perfect. The case didn’t vibrate very much, unlike other phones. We did a decibelmeter test and achieved 79.7 dBA at the top and 81.3 dBA at the bottom, plus 80.1 dBA with the face down.

These results made the device beat the Xperia XZ1 and Xiaomi Mi 5, but scored below the HTC 10 and Nokia 8, as well as the iPhone 6S Plus. In Riptide GP Renegade we achieved 96.8 dBA, which is rather solid, but not a record. It’s past the Pixel 2 XL and Xperia XZ3, but it’s below the iPhone 8 and HTC U12+. EarPods are the same, so no novelty here for a while.

They’re comfy, but they could be louder. I like the nicely balanced volume of the speakers overall (top and bottom), but I’ve seen better in the big picture.

Camera

The Apple iPhone XS Max is the highest end device from Apple in 2019 and as such it offers the best of the best optics-wise. It has a dual back camera, with a 12 MP wide angle shooter and a 12 MP tele shooter. The main camera provides F/1.8 aperture and the second one brings 2x optical zoom and there’s also digital zoom up to 10X.

We’ve also got dual OIS, focus pixels and a Quad LED flash, plus a Portrait Mode with Depth control. There’s also a Smart HDR, that combines many more shots than regular HDR, 3 times as many even. Thanks to the NPU on board we also have a special sort of depth mapping. The front camera is a 7 MP shooter. with F/2.2 aperture.

I also want to highlight that Apple now brings stereo audio capture with video capture. Selfie videos have also evolved to Full HD in 60 FPS. We took a series of day time shots and we have a pretty detailed gallery of it. The device outputs great colors, perfect clarity, excellent zoom, even though the Galaxy Note 9 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro do better zoom.

Clarity was perfect, the sky looked great in all conditions and the vegetation was perfectly captured and rendered. It beats the Huawei P20 Pro in color calibration, as well as the Sony Xperia XZ3. Closeups are great, but somehow feel inferior compared to the phones with more pixels, like the Sony Xperia XZ3, which catches more details.

Some of the best Bokehs I’ve seen were taken with this camera, which manages to go toe to toe with the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro. I loved the way the light is handled indoors and the textures that every object, tree, wall, piece of clothing and food item gets. Glass is shiny and rounded, pots make you feel their clay work and so forth. Even more shots are here.

That Apple shine is surely present, I can guarantee that. Selfies were pretty solid oudoors (clarity, color, texture), but indoors I’m not very convinced. Panorama was superb, detailed, large and not overly curved. When we tested the iPhone XS Max, it was the best on the market, minus zoom and closeup. Some details and some selfies pulled it back from the throne.

Other than that it’s number one material. I also want to mention that the Bokeh, while praised above is overall inferior to the Huawei one. There’s an overlapping of the blur on you ears, sideburns and more. Portrait gradations aren’t that many and the differences between this model and the iPhone 8 Plus in basic Instagrammable quality are close to zero.

Portrait needs a bit of work and one of the big pluses is that now you can take closer closesups.

We also did low light shots, which were perfectly bright, crisp and excellent in lighting and hues. I loved the way the city lights, city facades are caught, with all the subtle hues of lit brands. It’s also a phone that manages to showcase all the floor tiles in darker areas, where other handsets would barely have you see their highlight.

It beats the Galaxy Note 9 and Xperia XZ3 in that area for sure. The flash was powerful and kind of washed a layer of white all over the image. I like a softer flash, to be honest. Zoom was OK again and colors were spot on, no weird orange, pink or reds coming out of nowhere. I find it superior to the iPhone X, which was also not bad at night.

My only objection would be that the colors are a bit too warm at night compared to what het rivals are offering. It was the number one low light shooter, till the Huawei Mate 20 Pro came. Still, the Galaxy S9+ remains brighter…

We now move further to video capture, where the focus was mind boggingly fast. We caught the perfect autumn colors, all the proper yellows, reds and browns. The zoom was excellent, even a higher levels, so you just look at those trees and be amazed. Stabilization was just OK, much like we found on the iPhone X and a bit better than the underwhelming iPhone XR.

Nice exposure change when panning to lighter areas from darker ones and viceversa. My feeling is that the Galaxy Note 9 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro film a bit better. 4K 60 FPS is where it’s at, though. That type of filming makes the full processing come out and puts all the optics to work. It’s perfect, short movie and documentary worthy.

There are some weird dynamic range problems, but nothing really major. The selfie video was rather odd, since it looked strangely burnt and overexposed at the back, behind me. It was shaky, weird all around and I wondered if I had broken or smudged the front camera. The microphone remains solid, but the sky was all white more than once, instead of blue.

At least we have OK colors, a cute slow mo or two and the details were spot on. I think that you can find some upgrades from the iPhone X, but the weird selfie video and weird white sky are drawbacks for sure. Note 9 is a tad better.

Low light filming is pretty much OK, on par with the highest end flagships of 2019. The zoom triggers grainy shots, the mic was OK and there’s no motion blur. There is some lens flare, but I found the colors to be well calibrated overall. The quantity of yellos is solid and the stabilization was great when walking around.

Things were very bright, the zoom was solid and everything felt fine for me. It’s actually not bad, it’s better than 99% of all phones out there. It does get kind of pink towards the end of the last video. Hard to match even by Huaweis and Samsungs.

Browser

Safari was incredibly fast as usual, as confirmed by benchmarks and the stock keyboard was stock and well spaced, on this large screen.

Connectivity

There aren’t any surprises in the connectivity area, so we have Lightning, 4G LTE of the Gigabit variety, dual SIM (China), 4×4 MIMO, WiFi ac with MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC. There’s AGPS, Glonass, Galileo, QZSS and VoLTE, plus WiFi Calling. Speaking of calling, noise canceling was perfect, calls were loud and perfectly clear.

We also did a SpeedTest, achieving 105 Mbps on 4G downloads and 64.9 Mbps on uploads. WiFi had us at 482 Mbps in download, close to the maximum theoretical limit of my provider. Upload was 24.9 Mbps.

OS, UI, Apps:

There’s not much to say here, except for the fact iOS 12 isn’t a huge upgrade compared to iOS 11. It’s less impressive than iOS 11 and 10 were back in the day. I found Face ID to be able to unlock the iPhone faster and better in low light conditions compared to the iPhone X. Accuracy is also spot on. Memoji is also available now, a way to create your custom Animoji that looks like you, beard, glasses, eye color and all.

Another novelty is Screen Time, showing you how much time you spent on social media, certain apps and phone features. It’s useful to keep your digital addiction in check. iOS 12 also brought a performance jump for iPhone X and also grouped notifications. Face ID now lets you add an alternate face, like your wife’s or your partner’s or what have you.

Navigation still happens via gestures like swiping up to go Home, doing an “L” shaped swipe to trigger multitasking and swiping down from the right side fro the control center and from the left for the notifications. A good piece of news is that you no longer need an “X” to close the multitasking windows. The leftmost homescreen shows the today view and widgets, while the notification area has also been serving like the lockscreen for a while now.

The latest iOS brings an enhanced Do Not Disturb mode, with more control over its options and thanks to the diagonal you can greatly enjoy the landscape view, something not available on the smaller iPhones. Siri is supposed to have also been upgraded, with a more human voice and the already famous Siri Shortcuts. Those let you program stuff into Siri and make it do certain actions.

You can open apps, call a certain person, Google something and more. Measure now comes preinstalled, using AR to measure distances and surfaces with the camera. Facetime now works in groups, of up to 32 people, while Photos now lets you search places and businesses. ARKit is still here, with dedicated apps and games.

Animoji also got updated with support for tongue detection, in case that changes your lives. iBooks has been turned into Apple Books and we’ve also started seeing RAW photo editing, better park navigation in Apple Maps, improved Siri Suggestions and location data shared with 911 in case of emergency. The list of preinstalled apps is rather typical, sans bloatware.

iOS 12 remains a small update, but useful especially for older devices.

Verdict

Pros:

  • compact for a 6.5 incher
  • premium build
  • perfect screen
  • perfect performance and benchmarks
  • great battery
  • solid speakers
  • great gaming
  • great zoom, colors and clarity in picture taking
  • excellent low light capture and video capture
  • faster Face ID
  • nice selfies

Cons:

  • smudgey back
  • notch covers some games and app elements
  • long charging
  • video capture settings are still separate
  • Portrait/Bokeh could be better
  • stabilization can also be improved
  • the sky is too white at times in videos
  • selfie video was really underwhelming
  • iOS 12 is a small update
  • very expensive to repair

The Apple iPhone XS Max is the biggest and best iPhone so far, it’s basically a small tablet and a tablet replacement. It’s a total iPad Mini killer, a perfect gaming device, that even hurts the Nintendo Switch. It’s got the best camera on the market, beats the Galaxy Note 9 and Xperia XZ3, but those were statements made before we tested the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, so things have changed.

The camera and Face ID are superior to the iPhone X for sure. Some camera imperfections may spoil the fun, but if you want raw power and an impressive amount of future proofing, this is the phone for you.

You can get the phone here.