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iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max review: Lavish smartphones with prices to match

Apple’s touting them as the ‘new generation of iPhones’. But how ‘new’ are they really?

Pros

  • Terrific cameras, especially for portraits and low light
  • Improved water-resistance and they’re more durable
  • Screens are big and beautiful. And sound’s much better too

Cons

  • They look great. But it’s the same design as last year’s iPhone X
  • Fast charging handy. But it'll cost you extra
  • They’re a big outlay. Especially the Max edition

First impressions and design

  • Coming from an older iPhone? You’ve got lots of new gestures to learn
  • Same all-screen design and notch ‘cut-out’ as iPhone X
  • XS Max is biggest iPhone ever. And the most striking too

Last year’s warmly received iPhone X was greeted as a bold, bravura leap into the future of smartphones. It’s not hard to see why.

The home button-free, all-screen design was a radical departure for Apple and required users to learn a whole new set of gestures to interact with their handset.

But that’s not all, though. The iPhone X debuted a host of features previously unseen on Apple phones, too.

Not least best-in-class facial security and a camera that allowed you to take really striking ‘bokeh-effect’ selfies. And, although I was officially too old to get involved, you could create technically impressive animated emoji, too.

Fast-forward 12 months and the discontinued iPhone X is consigned to Apple’s graveyard. In its place we’ve got two new phones that at the outset don’t feel anything like as singular or distinctly different as last year’s model.

That’s principally because for the most part, the iPhone XS and larger XS Max cleave very closely to the iPhone X design template.

The all-screen design and notch are present and correct. There’s no home button. And there’s no headphone jack, either.

iPhone XS ports detail

In fact, the standard iPhone XS and X, both of which are equipped a 5.8-inch screen, are completely identical.

As was the case with the X, the XS feels solid and compact in the hand, despite cramming in a pretty big screen.

It’s actually 0.1 grams heavier than the iPhone 8 Plus. Not that you’ll notice, though, unless you’ve got a Princess and the Pea-style ultra-sensitivity to tiny changes in your personal comfort levels.

At 6.5 inches, the super-sized XS Max is a different matter altogether. The blend of premium materials and hefty dimensions mean it feels pretty weighty, for one thing. But in way that it feels ‘reassuringly expensive’. Not in a way that’ll weigh you down.

iPhone XS vs iPhone 7 Plus versus The iPhone XS and 7 Plus are comparably sized. But the former packs in a much larger screen.

That said, while it doesn’t bother us after learning to live with the comparably sized, but slightly narrower iPhone 7 Plus, the XS Max is too big to fit into a jeans pocket.

Unless you’re wearing carpenter pants, that is. Or you’re still rocking loose-and-louche combat trousers, in a solo bid to spearhead the All Saints revival.

Its sheer size also means that using the Max one-handed could be a bit of a trial if you’ve got smaller hands.

iPhone XS reachability

Although Apple’s Reachability function, which slides the features at the top of the screen down to the bottom, mitigates that a great deal.

The notch, which houses the front-facing camera, on both phones is the same size as the iPhone X. Which means it’s a fair bit larger than the Huawei P20, the OnePlus 6 and even the budget-friendly Honor 10. And eats into more of the screen.

That might disappoint some of you, who found the iPhone X’s cut-out unsightly and intrusive. But last time around, we acclimatised to the notch pretty quickly and hardly noticed it after a few weeks of use.

What’s more, given that more apps have now been updated to take the notch into account, we found we registered the presence of the iPhone XS and XS Max notch even less.

The truth is that, Samsung’s Galaxy range aside, notches are a fact of life for modern smartphones.

Until manufacturers find a way to secrete front-facing cameras within the phone and make them pop-up when needed, that is. Happily, if Huawei’s Matebook X laptop is anything to go by, that day may not be too far away.

If you’ve already got an iPhone, setting up the XS or XS Max is simplicity itself. All you need to do is bring your current phone within Bluetooth range of the XS or XS Max.

This kickstarts the transfer process and brings over your initial settings to your shiny, new model. So you can start using it in a matter of minutes.

You will, however, then need to download a back-up if you want to transfer everything from your old phone onto your new one.

Not everything will be quite as plain-sailing, though. If you haven’t used an iPhone X, there’s a whole new set of gestures that you need to learn to perform core functions.

So if you want to return to the homescreen, for instance, you still swipe up from the bottom of the screen. And if you want to take a screenshot, just hold down one of the volume buttons on the side and press the wake-sleep button.

If you’ve used an iPhone X or own one, you’ll be right at home here. But if you haven’t and you’re coming to the XS from any other model, you’ll find it takes a few days to familiarise yourself with this novel way of interacting with your phone.

The only new-for-2018 gesture (by which we mean it wasn’t there on last year’s iPhone X) that we’ve come across is for closing apps.

Before now, this was a case of pressing down on the app, depressing the ‘card’ that appears in the app switcher and applying a light tap to the minus button.

iPhone XS Max apps hero size

But with Apple’s new iOS 12 operating system you can just swipe up once and then swipe up a second time to close an app.

It’s a small change, but is more intuitive and cuts out a step in the process. So for us, it’s a definite improvement.

Not all the changes are welcome, mind. This time Apple hasn’t deigned to include a headphone adaptor in the box. So if you want to use your own wired headphones, you’ll need to shell out for an adaptor. Priced £9 from the Apple Store.

The bog-standard Apple headphones are included, though, and are still about as bad as the single-use freebies you’re provided with on aeroplanes.

We think most folk would have preferred it if Apple omitted these and given us a free adaptor.

But we’re not marketing mavens in the pay of a $1 trillion tech company, who’d prefer to sell you a pair of wireless AirPods for £159. So what do we know?

Build Metal and glass
Weight 177g (XS), 208g (XS Max)
Dimensions 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7mm (XS), 157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7mm (XS Max)

Sold on the iPhone XS? Take a look at our selection of monthly contract deals.

Think you'd prefer the XS Max? You'll find a selection of deals on our comparison page.


Screen and sound

  • Displays are gorgeous. XS Max especially so
  • Shame there’s no split-screen mode
  • Sound is richer, fuller and more detailed

iPhone XS Max screen Lego Star Wars game hero size

Both phones are equipped with notably better speakers than last year. And when we played some Phil Spector studio confections and ornate Aphex Twin productions out loud, the sound was undeniably clearer, beefier and more detailed.

The quality of the screens has also been tweaked. Like the iPhone X, the iPhone XS and XS Max are equipped with Super Retina OLED screen technology.

And the XS packs in the same number of pixels and has identical resolution. So while it’s every bit as sharp as its predecessor, it’s not discernibly sharper to our eyes.

As is the Apple M.O, although screen’s dynamic range has been boosted, colours remain more natural and less eye-searingly saturated than on some rival Android smartphones. With the result that they don’t appear to ‘pop’ quite so much.

Whether that works for you is a matter of personal taste. But for what it’s worth, we much prefer more muted, true-to-life hues.

If you’re planning to watch a lot of movies, the XS Max with its 6.5-inch screen is the one to plump for.

The biggest-ever iPhone screen really is rather lovely to behold and movies, YouTube clips and 3D games look incredible. It’s like your eyes are being massaged.

iPhone XS robot unicorn

The effect is genuinely immersive in a way that surprised us. To the extent that we even found ourselves spending much longer than anticipated admiring photos on Instagram.

If we’re being particularly fussy, we’d note that Apple’s decision to not implement split-screen viewing on the Max‘s huge display feels like a missed opportunity.

Especially given that this has been a core feature of Samsung Galaxy phones for aeons and is already an option on the more compact iPads.

The good news is that this is reportedly on the way to iOS in future. But we’ll have to wait for next year’s iPhone 11.

Viewing angles on both handsets are good and the TrueTone technology works well, by subtly adjusting colours automatically so they still look good in a range of environments.

And even in the challenging, hazy sunlight of the UK’s blessed Indian summer, the displays were bright enough to see. As long as we adjusted the brightness to maximum.

What is noticeable this year is that while recent iPhones have been no slouches, the XS and XS Max’s screens are faster and more responsive to touch inputs and gestures.

Size 5.8" (XS), 6.5" (XS Max)
Resolution 1125 x 2436 pixels (XS), 1242 x 2688 pixels (XS Max)
Technology Super AMOLED

Features

iOS 12 is Apple’s freshly baked software and works in tandem with the similarly new A12 processor to bring a real sense of zip to Apple’s 2018 phones.

Much like the hardware on the iPhone XS, iOS 12 isn't not with wholly new features. But it still brings with it some judiciously chosen additions.

So what’s actually new on the features-front? In short order, then…

ScreenTime

There are some things in life that you’re better off not knowing. Salacious details of your lover’s past, say. Or just how much Google knows about you.

Into the latter category, many people would include how much time they fritter away on their phones every day. And for them, the arrival of ScreenTime will be like opening up Pandora’s Box.

It’s billed as a tool to make you “more aware of how you and your kids use your devices”. It’s certainly that.

Front and centre in Settings, ScreenTime allows you to apply parental controls, schedule downtime away from your handset and set usage limits for apps.

Horrifyingly, it also displays in indisputable, black-and-white and to the very second just how much the time you’ve spent on the likes of Netflix, YouTube and social networking sites. And even how many times you’ve picked up your phone that day.

ScreenTime certainly provides a lot of genuinely useful information. Apple’s done a pretty good job of laying it out, so the gen looks clean and is presented clearly and unfussily.

It’s easy to use and gives parents a rare chance to mould their kids’ tech habits at a formative stage.

It certainly made me think twice about my phone usage, too.

That said, I’m not sure it’s made me more productive or any less inclined to pick up my phone through pure habit or muscle memory.

Despite the initial shock of seeing how I’m spending my time, a few days later I was back to idling away hours on fripperies and diversions.

But it’s not all bad, though. I’ve now set up my XS Max so that I can no longer pick up work emails between the hours of 6pm to 12pm. Stick to it The Man!

Memoji and new Animoji

iPhone XS Max memoji hero size

Apple’s Animoji animated avatars of cartoony characters and animals were a huge hit with pre-teens and kidults last year.

Easy to make using the front-facing camera, they were impressively lifelike and reproduced facial tics and expressions with uncanny accuracy.

iOS 12 ushers in a new type of Animoji. Dubbed Memoji, they’re human likenesses of yourself.

As you’d expect, you still use the front-facing camera to capture your facial movements.

But you actually create the look of your Memoji in the Messages app from pre-assembled face parts. A retroussé nose, say. Or a thick shock of ginger hair. Or in my case, a thinning scalp and Desperate Dan jawline.

Once again, the fealty of the motion capture impresses. It’s not the closest likeness to me physically. But that’s not really the point.

And winningly, it’s certainly the closest I’ll ever get to looking like a character from Guess Who?

New notifications

iPhone XS Max notification centre hero size

For the first time, iOS 12 groups together notifications by apps and by thread. They’re then laid on top of one another tidily, in a way that resembles a deck of cards.

It doesn’t sound like much. But the grouping system really comes into its own when you’re inundated with messages from a group chat and can’t attend to them immediately. Or if you’ve been CC’d into an email chain that doesn’t really concern you.

Improved facial detection security

Face ID iPhone XS

Although maligned in some quarters, the Face ID facial recognition security system that debuted on iPhone X worked pretty well for us. It was fast and secure. And it recognised me even when I shaved my beard and donned shades.

Sure, it was prone to the odd failure. But only about in one in 50 tries. And in truth, the only time it really struggled was in the dark of a matinee cinema session. Or in the gloom of a nightclub.

According to Apple, Face ID 2.0 is faster. We can’t say we noticed the improvement, to be honest. But when it comes to a difference of a few milliseconds, who’s counting?

In good news for people with nothing to hide, Face ID now lets you set it up so that a second person can unlock your phone.


Camera

  • Excels in low-light conditions
  • A.I really helps performance
  • Adjustable ‘depth-of-field’ effect works well in moderation

iPhone XS Max camera in use original filter hero size

As with other key facets of this year’s iPhones, Apple hasn’t massively overhauled the cameras on the XS and XS Max. It’s really a case of more of the same. But better.

Just like the iPhone X, the rear camera module on both phones pairs two 12-megapixel lenses.

And just like the iPhone X once again, they’re a telephoto lens, which is designed to let you zoom in on your subject without losing detail, and a standard, wide-angle lens.

Around the front, you’ll find a seven-megapixel TrueDepth camera for selfies. So far, so familiar to anyone who’s familiar with the iPhone X.

The main, rear camera activates in a trice, focuses and captures images quickly and is very easy to use. Although we’re no Ansel Adams, images are packed with detail, with bright, but natural-looking colours.

What’s changed for 2018 is that Apple has increased the size of the pixels and image sensor, for improved sensitivity to light and better performance when you’re shooting in the dark.

In the night-time shots we took, we noticed a marked improvement from the iPhone 8 Plus and a less dramatic, but tangible, difference from the iPhone X.

There’s much less grain in the images and more background detail than we got with the iPhone X, for instance. While the bright lights of buildings were less overexposed, eliminating the ‘luminous’ effect that can all too often ruin shots of cityscapes after-dark.

The camera copes with bright light too and is helped in this respect by Smart HDR technology.

This means that every time you take a photo, the XS and XS Max take four shots. Each of which has a different level of exposure.

It then combines all the shots to give you the best image possible. Taking care to downplay bright lights and shine-up on parts of the photo that would otherwise be underexposed.

Similarly noteworthy is the addition of adjustable focus, officially termed Depth Control, on portrait mode.

This means that for the first time on an iPhone you can adjust the level of ‘blur’ on the background after you’ve taken a portrait photo. It’s just a case of heading to the gallery and tweaking the background fuzziness with a slider.

Depending on your preference, you can go from ‘barely-there’ blur to a fuzzy, gauzy haze.

When it’s turned up to the max, the subject ends up looking strangely artificial, almost like you’ve pasted a decal onto the screen.

But so long as you keep your post-shoot tweaking within sensible limits, you can definitely improve your shots and add a bit more drama.

The same function is on offer with front-facing camera, so you can fiddle with the level of blur on selfies too. But it’s not quite as crisp as the rear camera version.

Video recording is the same as the iPhone X, giving you the option to record 4K footage at up to 60 frames per second.

And there’s what seems to us a pretty much identical slow-motion mode too. We’ll be taking a closer look at these when we run our standalone, in-depth camera review very soon.

Camera Dual 12MP lenses
Optical image stabilisation Yes
Unique features 4K slow-motion and time-lapse video


Performance and battery life

  • Very good battery life and can be charged wirelessly
  • Faster and more responsive
  • No fast charge cable or charger in the box

iPhone XS Max app tray hero size

As outlined elsewhere, the iPhone XS and XS Max are superbly responsive and speedy to use. Even by the standards of brand-new, boxfresh phones. Which, of course, always seem faster because many of us only upgrade when our current handset is on its last legs.

In marketing material, Apple touts its new phones’ ‘all-day battery’. It’d be easy to dismiss that as just sales patter. But that’d be unfair.

In fairness, the 2,658mAh battery in the standard XS model bore up pretty well under heavy usage conditions.

Switching on at just 6am on the most intensive day of testing, we spent the best part of four hours watching videos, playing games and multi-tasking.

At home time of 5pm, we were on 35%. That’s not staggering, but it’s pretty good going.

Using the XS Max under the same testing conditions, the 3,174mAh battery performed comparably.

As we walked out the door on the way to another weary commute, the largest-ever battery on an iPhone still had about 38% of charge still to give.

Both phones can be charged wirelessly. And Apple claims that you can charge the phone from zero to full charge half an hour faster than the iPhone X. We found it took about two and a bit hours.

Given that the iPhone X took the best part of three hours, that seems like Apple is for once actually downplaying its latest handsets’ capabilities.

It’s even more impressive, because the charging pads that Apple’s phones are compatible with haven’t been improved at all in the meantime.

There’s also a fast-charge mode. But in news that probably won’t surprise you, there’s no fast-charge USB-C to Lightning cable included in the box.

The cost of that you, Sir? That’ll be £20, please. Then you’ll need a USB-C Power Adapter, which is a further £70.

RAM 4GB
Battery capacity 2,658mAh (XS), 3174mAh (XS Max)
OS and version iOS 12

Durability

  • Matches Samsung phones for water-resistance. At last
  • Robust build that won’t scratch easily
  • But it’s an expensive bit of kit. So it’s clever to invest in a case

iPhone XS Max waterproof splash ip68 hero size

For a long time, iPhones have lagged behind the likes of Samsung when it comes to water-resistance. No more, though. The iPhone XS and XS Max are certified IP68.

What does that mean? It means that they can withstand submersion in up to two metres of water for up to 30 minutes.

Good news if you’re a bit of a klutz and prone to dropping your handset. Or can’t be without it, even when you’re in the shower.

However, it’s worth noting that Apple suggests you leave it five hours to dry out before attempting to charge your phone. So it’s worth planning ahead if you’re intending to take your handset for a dip.

The glass used in the XS and XS Max’s construction is reputed to be the toughest on any smartphone. It certainly withstood being stashed in our pockets alongside a bunch of keys and coins and came out scratch-free.

We haven’t dropped either phone yet. But it’s bound to happen eventually. And we’ll be sure to let you know how it bears up.

Waterproof rating IP68
Protection Scratch-resistant glass

Value and verdict

  • Neither phone comes cheap. But they’re excellent devices
  • Irksome that you have to pay extra for fast charging accessories
  • Portrait mode and low-light improvements add up to a great camera
  • Battery life is better. But not incredibly so
  • If you’re coming from an older iPhone, you’ll love the difference
  • iOS 12 brings some handy new apps
  • Lots of storage space to play with
  • XS Max screen is fantastic for watching video and playing games

iPhone XS side on lock screen hero size

Apple’s decision to price the iPhone X at just under £1,000 proved a bridge too far for some tech fans. And 12 months later, the standard iPhone XS’s identical starting price doesn’t look any more wallet-friendly.

The iPhone XS Max is the most expensive phone on the market. The top-of-the-range, 512GB model will set you back £1,4449 if you buy it SIM-free and off-contract. And even if you settle for the 64GB or 256GB editions you’ll be shelling out £1,099 and £1,249 respectively.

But for that outlay, you’re getting a phone that might not turn heads with the shock of the new quite last year’s iPhone X, but is still very much at the cutting-edge of smartphone technology.

If you’re upgrading from an older iPhone you’re likely to bowled over by what they’ve got to offer.

If you’ve got an X, though, we’d recommend you wait another year before upgrading. While the XS and XS Max are great handsets with a suite of improvements, they’re not so much better that it’s worth another £1,000.

Anyone on a budget, though, might want to wait and look at the iPhone XR, which has much the same features as the XS at £750. Look out for our review in October.

Think you'd prefer to wait for the XR? Here's what you need to know.

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