iPhone XS Max: iPhone X Done Right
Last year, the reason for most people to upgrade to iPhone X was because it was inevitable. It was clear that this was where Apple was heading. It made sense to get onboard early. The reason for most people to upgrade to iPhone XS Max is because it’s great.
In last year’s iPhone X review, I devoted 3,000 words to accessibility, recommending low vision users hold off because of what they lose with screen size. I speculated that the next model would introduce a larger option which is the one they would want. This year, I offer a full-throated recommendation for low-vision users to spring for the iPhone XS Max because size fixes everything.
In large, that is my entire review. Into the weeds, we go:
Maximal size and minimal girth
Don’t be fooled. The Max is the same size as the 7 Plus. At this scale, a half a millimeter here and there don’t matter. If not for the orientation of the camera, the 7 Plus case would fit the Max. If the Plus fits your hand and pocket, so does the Max.
That said, the Max is slightly thicker and heavier. So if you were at your breaking point with the Plus and happen to be extremely sensitive to minuscule changes, visit a retail store to see for yourself. My wife could tell that the Max was slightly heavier. I can tell because I know the specs. Most will not notice.
Usage is a different matter. wile the device is not bigger, usable display area is. The side bezels are thinner. And the forehead and chin are gone. Because of these changes, you get the better part of a vertical inch. Climbing the mountain to the top of the screen and spelunking all the way to the bottom with your thumb is more of a challenge on the Max.
The Max is a two-handed job for most people in most situations. That said, I use the shimmy technique with one hand much of the time. Even so, two hands are advisable, even for me. If operating your smartphone with one hand in most situations is still important to you, get the XS, or hold out for the XR.
Apple claims the glass is more durable. But that tells us nothing about how breakable and scrunchable this glass really is. I hope I don’t find out. Glass scratches and breaks. That is what you should expect until physics tells us differently. I was going to provide a link to some drop tests. But bottom line, drop tests are stupid. Put a case on it.
Sound and fury
This probably should not get a whole section. But I don’t plan to talk about the display because it is unchanged from the X. There is just more of it. It is every good thing you have ever heard about OLED without any of the bad stuff. Apple found a way to eliminate OLED negatives like burn-in.
The sound is what changed. It is better, louder, and more stereo separated. I’m not reading from Apple’s press sheet. If you load up a song or movie, it is a difference you can definitely appreciate. Simpler experiences such as podcasts and audiobooks also benefit. Speech accessibility users can also rejoice.
The question about the sound improvements is does it eliminate the need for portable bluetooth speakers. The answer, most likely not for those serious about the sound quality of their media. If you need base, you need an external speaker. That is likely going to always be the case.
As a casual listener who just wants to watch a video or listen to music in the background, there is no need to fire up a separate speaker. The sound is plenty loud enough and enjoyable enough for casual consumption.
FaceID, Take Two
I have not noticed the improvement in FaceID. it is not awful. But it does not feel improved to me. In situations where it failed before, it still does. It was already fast when it worked. So I don’t notice it being any faster.
It continues to be challenging for blind and low-vision users. The reason is that we tend to hold the phone closer to our face, too close, as it turns out. That means we have to be extra mindful to hold the phone away from us, and at the proper orientation. What counts as a normal viewing distance to most is unnatural to the visually impaired. This probably means that I am the wrong person to judge this feature.
Camera: The art of the possible
I did not test the camera for spectacular photography. I tested it for the other end of the spectrum. Everyone knows these cameras can take breath-taking photos. And for the record, the Max is right up there with the best of them.
Thing is, you don’t need a great camera for spectacular photos. Almost any camera can give you that. You need a great camera to salvage those photo situations that are awful. You need one that can take bad lighting and give you something reasonable.
I went out and took the kind of photos that I would normally advise people to avoid when possible. Taken with any other smartphone camera, these photos would go to the instant delete folder. They would be unusable at any level. With the Max, I couldn’t really take an unusable picture.
I shot outside with the sun directly in front of me and fully in the frame. Normally, I would move around the subject so that I am not shooting into the sun. While not ideal, it didn’t destroy the photo, which actually turned out surprisingly well. I did it a few times just to be sure.
I took pictures in the shadows with bright areas in the frame. No problem. Smart HDR is for real. I took shots that appeared to be overexposed on screen. They turned out perfectly exposed. I did these tests with both the front and rear camera.
I hunted for situations that simply wouldn’t have been possible, even with iPhone X. Max turned the impossible into the possible, and better. What that means is all those situations where you are just not going to get anything useful have to be rethought. Better yet, don’t think. Just point and shoot. This upgrade may well be worth it on the strength of the camera, alone.
Conclusion: Go big or go R
Xers who were disappointed with the size trade-off finally have their day. iPhone XS Max is the X done right. I recommend it for everyone who loved the Plus phones. For everyone else, wait for the R.
This recommendation makes it sound like I think there is something wrong with the XS. I don’t. There is just nothing that makes it stand out. If you like big phones, the Max is an easy recommendation. If you want a more manageable size that is also a lot less expensive and comes in fun colors, the R is for you.
I can’t put my finger on why. But the Max feels like it is worth $1,100. But the XS does not feel like it is worth $1,000, not with the R sitting $250 below it. The XS at $899 would have been easier to justify. As it stands, it feels like the only two choices from this year are the Max and the R. I have gone Max. Ultimately, there are no bad choices this year.