At 6.5 inches diagonal, the iPhone Xs Max really isn’t much bigger than the 5.8-inch iPhone X or the Xs. Yet, in a form smaller than the iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone Xs Max sports the largest screen ever implemented by Apple on a smartphone. There’s also a new colour, a new chipset, and a smattering of other improvements from last year’s iPhone X. We got our hands on a 512GB Gold iPhone Xs Max (SGD 2,349), and here’s our review.
Unboxing, first impressions and form
There’s nothing much to say about the Apple unboxing experience, except that it’s the definitive unboxing experience. The only thing of note this year is the omission of the lightning-to-3.5mm port adapter from the box, which was a bit of a bummer. My wires earphones and wired microphones that I often use in videos can’t be used with the iPhone right out of the box.
Out of the box, the iPhone Xs Max is familiar and can easily be mistaken for last year’s smaller version if there’s nothing nearby to establish scale. I’m glad I got the gold version, which I felt was a unique take on the colour scheme. There’s a warm tone on the stainless steel frame, and the back panel looked a bit more like a pale wheat gold. To my taste, it looks a touch vintage, but it’s rather classy too.
Coming from the hulking Samsung Galaxy Note 9, I noticed the Xs Max had more presence in the hand. On paper, it does only weigh 7g more, but I think the more compact form factor (in the order of millimetres) of the iPhone makes it feel denser. A large part of this sensation could probably be attributed to the wide stainless steel band around the chassis of the iPhone Xs Max, as compared to the thin aluminium frame on the Samsung.
In this iteration, however, the stainless steel band around the edge of the phone is now subtly broken up with new antenna bands running cutting across it thrice. It is largely unnoticeable, but the left speaker grille is shorter when compared to the one on the right. Very unlike Apple to not be symmetrical, but I’m certain this was a result of a compromise somewhere. Of course, there’s only the single Lightning port for I/O on the iPhone Xs Max. The SIM card slot only accommodates one nanoSIM (though the Chinese version features two physical SIM trays).
Powered on, the massive screen fills your palm (good work on the dark wallpaper that hid the notch, Apple). The notch remains, bold as ever. The hardware is well hidden: apart from the speaker grille and the front-facing camera lens, I’m unable to make out the True Depth IR dot matrix projector and sensor, nor the proximity sensor contained within the notch. It’s great not having those electronic eyes stare at me whenever I’m using it and is some thoughtful design.
At 6.5 inches, the iPhone Xs Max has the largest display on any iPhone yet. Its 458ppi display also makes it the highest resolution screen on an iPhone, but at 1242x2688p, the display seems overshadowed by flagships like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, which has a 1440x2960p QHD+ display. Despite this, Apple’s Super Retina Display does perform on par in real life. Videos look great, although I was stuck at the 1080p option, which looked a tad bit less sharp than the 1440p resolution on the Note 9 next to it.
For entertainment consumption, expanding the video to fill the screen was a great experience with the hulking display, but the notch did get in the way sometimes. This wasn’t as bad on games since my thumbs tended to cover the short edges of the screen anyway. Some Apple-specific applications still aren’t optimised for the notch, like iMovie, where the text up top is hidden.
Tonal range was fantastic, and I was able to make out more details in both images and videos. Apple boasts a 60% improvement in terms of HDR capability on the screen with a P3 wide colour gamut, along with a million-to-one contrast ratio. This does sacrifice some of the punchiness and vividity the AMOLED panel offers, but the tradeoff in terms of detail and dynamic range might be worth it.
With the True Tone display option turned off, the screen on the iPhone Xs Max is particularly warm. The True Tone function adjusts the white balance of the screen in different lighting conditions, but I felt that it just accentuated the yellow, warm tint a tad too much.
Unlocking and security
Face ID has come a long way, and this is simply the best implementation of a facial recognition security feature on any phone, by far. Almost all Android phones boasting face unlock does so with regular RGB cameras, which don’t sense depth and thus are more easily fooled. My Note 9 was able to be unlocked while I was sleeping (with my eyes closed), something that never would occur on the iPhone. In fact, the iPhone Xs Max just refuses to be unlocked unless I look in its direction.
I wear glasses, and the iPhone allows me to register a second facial profile – perfect for unlocking the phone in the middle of the night when I am sans-spectacles.
This is also well implemented on the notifications panel, that simply shows the different applications that have notifications. These generic notifications only display their content when you look at the screen.
The much-hyped A12 Bionic chip is at the core of the iPhone Xs Max: most of the improvements on the dreaded “S” update stem from within. Like the previous A11 chip on the iPhone X, the CPU on the A12 Bionic has six cores: two high-performance ones with four efficiency ones. Apple says the high-performance cores perform 15% better than the previous iteration, while the efficient ones deliver the same output at 50% less power consumption.
It’s also the first 7nm process, which allows much more performance to be packed into the same space.
The GPU is a four-core deal that Apple claims is 50% faster than last year’s deal, but the Neural Engine is Apple’s focus with the A12 Bionic. The company claims the new chip can handle up to 5 trillion operations per second as compared to the 500 billion on the A11. This means the phone is much more equipped to learn from everyday user inputs: everything from Siri voice recognition and search, to Face ID.
RAM is a 4GB deal, up from the 3GB on last year’s iPhone X.
There’s an improved Image Signal Processor (ISP) that helps deliver better image quality, along with a secure enclave for sensitive data like Face ID and other personal information.
Interestingly, some information like clock speeds, along with RAM volume has been cleverly hidden on marketing material. Enterprising outlets like iFixIt and JerryRigEverything have unveiled these, along with other information such as the 3,174mAh battery capacity.
There is only so much that absolute figures and benchmark tests can tell you – battery life outlasted the 4,000mAh Samsung Galaxy Note 9 in our tests, and by a large margin too. Graphics-intensive applications like Lumafusion, Adobe Premiere Rush CC and PUBG also ran smoothly in our tests.
The cameras are arranged as they were on the iPhone X, but they have been improved in many ways. While the lens assembly remains largely the same (some have noticed that the unit itself is slightly smaller), the stabilised 12-megapixel sensors behind the twin lenses now have larger pixels for improved low-light performance, something iPhones have been weak at. The wide angle has an aperture of f1.8, while the telephoto camera is at f2.8.
The largest improvement to the cameras on the iPhone X is the inclusion of Smart HDR, which captures several images in an instant to overlay different exposures in order to obtain an image with stellar dynamic range. That feature, which is heavily reliant on good lighting, doesn’t save the iPhone from poor lighting conditions.
The other options
Of course, there are plenty of other options, including 2017’s iPhone X which still sells from some retailers and telco providers.