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iPhone XS Max Review: Bigger is Better–But It Will Cost Ya

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“How do you like the new iPhone ‘ex-ess’, Gary?”

“(it’s actually ten-ess…) Umm…the screen is bigger, it’s fast and the camera is really good.”

Yeah, that pretty much sums how I respond to friends and family when they ask about Apple’s latest iPhone XS Max, which was announced last month. After pre-ordering the phone (256GB; gold) like a lemming at midnight PDT (or ‘iSheep’ #thanksinternet), I’ve finally had a chance to write down my experience with the iPhone XS Max.

If you’ve been upgrading your iPhone every single year, over time you begin to get upgrade fatigue. Don’t get me wrong, unboxing a new iPhone is still exciting, but when it comes to an incremental “S” year refresh, there can be little to get excited about on the surface. With the iPhone XS Max, I was eager to return to a bigger screen again, after using the iPhone X.

Unboxing and First Hands-On

In the box, you’ll find the iPhone XS Max, the standard Lightning USB cable, and sadly Apple’s 5W USB power adapter. It’s downright comical in 2018 Apple doesn’t include a higher capacity power adapter for faster charging, when you’re spending nearly $2,000 CAD after taxes for a new iPhone (buy a higher-powered Anker wall plug for $20 instead). Yes, spending $2K on a frickin’ smartphone in 2018. What have we done to ourselves, folks?

Also, if you wanted a Lightning to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter, forget about it, because Apple nickel and dimed customers this year as it’s no longer included in the box. You’ll have to buy it on your own from Apple for $10 CAD. For those who already own AirPods, this isn’t a big deal. But for those slow to jump on the wireless future, it can be a major pain in the arse to see no adapter in the box.

As for the new gold colour, it’s a shade of gold that my wife prefers more than I do. It’s still beautiful, but tends to lean more on the “girly” end of the ‘humankind’ spectrum. The iPhone XS Max finish is really nice and the device feels luxurious and expensive. But like the iPhone X, “surgical-grade” stainless steel sides are still slippery as hell (or ‘slippery af’ for you millennials).

The Bigger Screen is So Gorgy

Picking up the iPhone XS Max and seeing that 6.5-inch OLED display light up for the first time does make you instantly fall in love with the new larger screen (and make you feel like it was justified to spend $2,000 on a phone). To have a bigger screen in the physical size of an iPhone “Plus” model is pretty darn awesome.

Sure, the notch still exists but it’s worth it for the benefits and convenience of Face ID. Speaking of the latter, it does feel a smidgeon faster on iPhone XS Max versus iPhone X.

The larger display means some apps have two column layouts in landscape orientation (but the home screen doesn’t). I always have orientation lock on, so using apps such as iMessage in landscape doesn’t happen for me. The iPhone XS and iPhone X lack this landscape mode for apps, so if this is important to you, it’s one thing to consider.

With support for HDR, videos look amazingly bright, vivid and colourful on the 6.5-inch OLED display. It’s definitely a treat again to consume videos on the larger screen.

One-Handed Life

The iPhone XS Max feels heavy in the hand and after looking at its weight of 208 grams, it is heavier than the iPhone 7 Plus (188 grams) and iPhone X (174 grams). This extra weight means holding the XS Max with one hand while laying on the couch or bed can result in some arm strain.

Apple appears to have built the iPhone XS Max with a near perfect 50-50 weight distribution like a BMW; holding the device with one hand means it’s not overly top or bottom heavy. The large iPhone XS Max display means you’ll need to use the Reachability feature to access Control Center. Even with my large hands, using the XS Max one-handed can still be tricky.

Speakers are Definitely Louder

The iPhone XS Max has some really good speakers that actually are loud and stereo sounds much more balanced compared to the iPhone X, as the earpiece speaker is louder now. How long have we had to wait for this as iPhone owners? Sound separation actually now is available on iPhone and you don’t need to “cup” the speakers to have sound directed towards you.

A12 Bionic

With Apple’s newest A12 Bionic, iPhone XS Max is noticeably faster in every way over iPhone X, with the latter not exactly a slouch either. I don’t play games on my iPhone so I didn’t get to test this out, but opening and closing apps, rebooting and everything, in general, felt very snappy. This new chip coupled with iOS 12 makes the phone scream and this phone should last you at least a few years or more into the future of iOS.

Water Resistance

I didn’t get to try this out but I rarely get my iPhone wet. I’ll just have to take the word of recent iPhone XS Max water tests. You shouldn’t be worried about having your iPhone XS Max fall into the pool or bathtub with its new IP68 rating, which allows the device to withstand being submerged under a depth of 2 metres for at least 30 minutes.

Battery life

Apple said the iPhone XS Max battery life is supposed to have 1.5 hours more versus iPhone X. My phone usage is usually light to moderate during the day, consisting of email, iMessage, social media (Facebook, Instagram, Strava, Twitter) use and some videos on YouTube.

With iPhone X, I’d usually get the 20% battery warning around just before bed (12 hours unplugged) With iPhone XS Max, at this equivalent time, I’ve been seeing my battery percentage at around 45-55% remaining, which is definitely improved over the iPhone X. Full day usage with iPhone XS Max is here for us, and for those with moderate usage, you should be fine as well.

Wi-Fi and LTE Download Speeds

Wi-Fi download speed tests using Netflix’s Fast.com resulted in similar speeds on both iPhone XS Max and my iPhone X, at 170Mbps. One time, the iPhone XS Max was able to finish the test at 180Mbps.

As for LTE download speeds, both phones using the same version of iOS, in the same spot in the office, resulted in the iPhone XS Max with faster download speeds at 57 Mbps, compared to 27 Mbps on iPhone X, on Public Mobile (TELUS LTE) near the Victoria Airport. The iPhone XS Max was able to see download speeds more than double of that from the iPhone X:

 

Camera…Yes, It Got Better. Again.

While Apple did emphasize the new improvements of the iPhone XS Max camera over the iPhone X, using the camera in real-life resulted in some pretty significant improvements. My iPhone is the only camera I use to capture moments of my family. It’s also a fantastic camera to take pictures of your food, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Do you guys even go to The Keg?

The new Smart HDR feature with this improved camera is pretty amazing. You’ll instantly notice shadows being brighter and overall images just look better–and images are slightly wider, thanks to the upgraded wide angle lens, which also has a sensor 32% larger, allowing for some impressive low-light images.

A12 Bionic and Apple’s new enhanced image signal processor (ISP), along with other computational power has resulted in an excellent camera.

With Depth Control, you can now control bokeh when it comes to Portrait mode. With iOS 12.1 beta, you’ll be able to control bokeh in real-time on iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. I haven’t used Depth Control a lot, but it’s there if you need it. Maybe the next time I head out for a photo walk (disclosure: I don’t go on photo walks anymore).

Videos now also record in stereo sound–and they playback well on the device’s speakers, which are nice and loud.

Below are sample images comparing iPhone X versus iPhone XS Max. The first pictures were taken by iPhone X, followed by iPhone XS Max. No tap to focus was used, I just raised the phone up and snapped away. Smart HDR seems to bring out shadows and overexposed areas of an image aren’t washed out on iPhone XS Max.

iPhone X:

iPhone XS Max:

Portrait mode on iPhone X:

iPhone XS Max:

iPhone X:

iPhone XS Max–notice the lens flare here:

iPhone X:

iPhone XS Max:

iPhone X:

iPhone XS Max:

iPhone X:

iPhone XS Max–Smart HDR at work here:

iPhone X in low light. Taken with no lights on outside except a street lamp:

iPhone XS Max–notice you can make out what’s on the TV screen across the street:

eSIM on Bell

iPhone XS Max also debuts eSIM support, which allows users to subscribe to a second wireless plan on their phone, using a digital SIM. So far, only Bell supports this in Canada. We haven’t tested this out yet, but the addition of eSIM will make it easier for travellers with an iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR.

Wireless Charging

Here’s a dirty little secret: I still charge my iPhone at night with the Lightning USB cable. Why? Because usually at night, your iPhone battery is nearly depleted so plugging it in is the only way to view YouTube and other media while getting a charge (unless you’re holding your phone on a wireless charger looking like an idiot).

If you happen to fall asleep like a senior with your iPhone (I may or may not do this from time to time) on your face, you’ll still wake up to a full charge. Charging wirelessly won’t guarantee that unless Casper the friendly ghost comes and places your phone down on your wireless charger for you. Wireless charging is very convenient and it’s useful for those quick recharges during the day. It’d be nice to have even faster wireless charging beyond 7.5w on iPhones. But then again I’m okay with not having my phone explode into a fireball, for now.

Price: You Need to Pay to Play

iPhone XS Max starts at $1519 for the 64GB, $1729 for the 256GB and $1999 for the 512GB model. Thinking of these prices makes me feel like the vomiting emoji. Yes, the days of a $2,000 smartphone are here. Are they justified? Only if you’re one of the crazy ones upgrading every year with money to burn.

As for everyone else, the best time to upgrade to a new iPhone is one year after new models have been announced. Older models usually go on sale, such as the iPhone X at Freedom Mobile right now, available for $649 off (if you have decent Freedom coverage in your area). We don’t know what holiday deals are coming from wireless carriers, but there’s always some sort of offer to clear existing stock of iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X (now discontinued).

Protecting My New Bae-by

With a $2,000 phone and a pre-schooler at home, gone are the days of using my iPhone without a screen protector or case (or ‘nekked’ as the Fresh Prince would say). So right now I’m using a JETech tempered glass screen protector and Spigen Liquid Crystal Designed clear case with my iPhone XS Max (I paid for these accessories, not review units BTW #becauseAmazonPrime). The combo has worked out well so far, despite the Spigen case adding a touch of thickness to the sides and back (it’s still clean and clear…for now).

Should you upgrade to iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max?

The iPhone XS Max is the best iPhone ever made. That’s what I’ve heard over and over. Of course, it’s the best iPhone ever made, it’s also the newest one. Why would it be anything else?

If you have an iPhone 8 or newer–heck, even an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus–you probably don’t need to upgrade to an iPhone XS or XS Max, especially with iOS 12 and its performance update.

But if you have an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus or older, jumping to a new model without a Home button and experiencing Face ID, along with these new improved cameras powered by A12 Bionic will be experiencing the future, today (what a line). It feels great to have the larger screen again versus my iPhone X, despite the burning hole in my wallet. Ah, who cares right–it’s only money (#YOLO as the youngins’ say nowadays). The best camera is the one with you, and the iPhone XS Max camera takes it up to another level.

iPhone XS Max–just buy it and live in the moment. You’ll thank me later (that is until your credit card statement arrives).

How are you liking your iPhone XS Max?

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