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iPhone XS Max review: Big is beautiful

Apple's iPhone XS Max represents the state of the phone-maker's art. It is big, beautiful and screams luxury from the moment you open the box.

The screen is large by phone standards. Any larger and you'd be looking at a small tablet. It is stunning. You get vibrant colours, dark blacks and strong contrast. I've never known any phone to be as readable outdoors on a sunny day.

If you want to watch movies, look at photos or read documents this is the best phone for the job. Nothing else comes close.

Mind you, nothing else comes close on price either, except the loopy NZ$2400 Oppo Lamborghini-branded Android.

Apple iPhone XS Max

Expensive


There is a review model iPhone XS Max in my pocket with 512 GB of storage. It costs the thick end of three grand: NZ$2800.

That's more storage than most people need. My current phone has 256 GB. In two years I've never come close to filling it and see no prospect of doing so.

You can save money by buying less storage.

Apple has a 256 GB version for NZ$2400 and a 64 GB version for NZ$2100. The last of these could be less storage then you'll need. Although that depends on how you use a phone and how much you send off to the cloud.

Can you justify spending that much money on a phone? That's something only you can answer. I'll save my thoughts on this for another post.



If, and it's a huge if, Oppo's Lamborghini phone is worth $2400, then the 256 GB Apple iPhone XS Max at the same price is a snip.

iPhone XS Max is all about the big screen


Apple wants to let you know all about the camera in the phone. It's good and we'll get to that in a moment. But before we move on, let's make one thing clear: the iPhone XS Max is all about that big screen.

The iPhone XS Max screen covers the same area as the display on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, another leviathan phone. The difference is in the height-to-width ratio.

Both phones have the same screen-to-body ratio at around 85 percent. You can't sensibly do less than this without resorting to a gimmick like a pop-up camera. The Apple phone is smaller than the Note 9. It's a millimetre thinner and 4.5 mm shorter.

I no longer have a Note 9 for direct comparison. Yet I'd say that would be the only other phone screen that comes close to the XS Max in terms of overall display quality.

Apple iPhone XS Screen

Too big?


Reviewers and users elsewhere have criticised the iPhone XS Max for being too big to handle. Of course this depends on the size of your hands. It's a perfect fit for me. I'd recommend getting your own mitts on one before buying.

In fact I'd go further. Don't choose an 2018 iPhone model on the basis of reviews like this or advertising. Go into a shop and put one in your hands. If the XS Max is too big, there's always the smaller size iPhone XS. And while you're at it, check out the less expensive XR. That could be the best model for you but you won't know which fits until you handle all three.

Bionic


Apple's latest processor, the six-core A12 Bionic powers the iPhone XS Max. According to the company it is 15 percent faster than last years A11 Bionic chip and 50 more efficient. There's also an AI chip that is nine times faster than the one in the iPhone X.

Most of the time you don't notice this power. The phone doesn't seem faster than the last two or three iPhones in day-to-day use. Everything already happened in an instant. I don't recall that waiting around from processing has been an iPhone drawback in recent years.

To complicate matters, Apple's newest phone operating system, iOS 12, is also snappier and more responsive than iOS 11. Either way, this is one fast phone.

For the most part the applications that use this extra grunt are yet to appear. I've seen augmented reality apps that may need all the processing power you can throw at them. There is, however, one area where the processing capability is already put to good use: photography.

Apple iPhone XS camera

Camera


Every phone maker will tell you their cameras are the best in the business. Apple is the same, but in this case it is more than mere marketing bravado.

Apple upgraded the rear dual camera on the iPhone XS Max. It, or they, have the same basic specification as on last year's iPhone X. That is: two 12-megapixel cameras. One has a wide-angle lens, the other had what amounts to 2x optical zoom. In both cases Apple upgraded the the image sensors and the hard-wired algorithms.

The effect is that you now get better low light pictures. Samsung and Huawei both have a slight edge in this department. But Apple seems to now do a better job of handling detail.

HDR mode is now the default. It has also been improved to the point where high contrast images look far better. In my experience iPhone XS Max pictures taken in bright outdoors beat those on rival phones.

If you like the bokeh effect, you can now add it after taking the shot. It's a nice option.

Stablisation


Just as important, the image stabilisation works better than before. You can take hand-held video tracking shots which look like they are made with a dolly.

Portraits are now noticeably better too, particularly the shallow depth of field effect around hair and other extremities. The bokeh is also now adjustable after the fact, which is fun.

Much of the improvement in photographs is down to the extra processing power. In effect a supercomputer starts tweaking images the moment you press to click.

Phone photography is partly a matter of taste. There may be equals, but nothing offers a better camera experience than the iPhone XS Max.

That processing power gets a workout elsewhere. Apple uses Face ID as its security system. It works well and it works fast. Since setting it up, Face ID hasn't failed to recognise me even when wearing glasses or sunglasses.

Battery life is good, but not outstanding. There's more than enough juice for me to leave home at 5 AM, fly out-of-town, work all day and get the last flight home. I don't feel the need to curtail my use, but then nor do I spend all day watching or making videos.

In normal life I can almost, but not quite, two days from a single charge. The red warning icon kicks in after around 36 hours. That's eight hours more than I get from the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 .

iPhone XS Max: Verdict


Few people buy a new phone every year. Even fewer are going to do that when the asking price is in the two to three grand range. It's questionable whether those moving from an iPhone X to the XS Max would get much from an upgrade other than the bigger screen.

It makes more sense to compare the XS Max with the iPhone 7 Plus, which has been my main phone for the last two years. While I don't feel a pressing need for an upgrade, there's a lot more phone in the XS Max.

The extra screen size, nicer screen and Face ID are all noticeable. On paper the better camera doesn't sound much, in practice it is a huge leap. Faster processing doesn't make much day-to-day difference. The extra battery life does. But then much of the difference between the two phones' performance here could down to two years of wear.

If you get value from iOS then the iPhone XS Max could well be the way to go. You'd get the most advanced phone on the market and an object of beauty. You might get more value from buying the straight XS model or an XS Max with less storage. With prices starting at NZ$1400, half the price of the fully packed XS Max, the iPhone XR seems like a bargain.

iPhone XS Max review: Big is beautiful was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

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