Apple iPhone XS Max review: All that glitters is Gold

For the last 122 years, the greatest benchmark against which athletes have been judged is the Olympics. Be it Jesse Owens, Michael Phelps, Tommie Smith or Usain Bolt, it’s what these great athletes did at the Olympics is where their greatness is judged. For, it remains the gold standard of achievement in the sporting                                                                                       world.

Such has been the cult and aura of Apple -- though it has certainly diminished over the years -- the iPhone has somehow become the exemplar for smartphones. Call it clever marketing, high aspirational value or great products, you can’t escape the iPhone. There was a time when the smartphone industry turned their collective gaze towards Cupertino and wondered in unison, “what will Apple do this year”?

It was ñ in a way like the Olympic Games ñ the barometer against which most other smartphones were rated. It’s the same with this year’s two newly-launched iPhones: the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. So has Apple raised the bar with its new iPhones? Or has it just raised the prices? Read our review of the iPhone XS Max to find out more:

Can just one letter give birth to so many pre-conceived notions? Well, if you’re Apple and that letter is 'S', then the answer is yes. Over the years, it has become a common -- yet slightly incorrect -- assumption that in the “S” year iPhones don’t have any major upgrades. If you look at Apple’s short history of the iPhone then you will notice that the big changes in the “S” year lie inside rather than outside.

What Apple did with iPhone X was move away from its tried and tested design. The iPhone XS Max borrows heavily from that design. It has an all-glass and stainless steel design with an edge-to-edge OLED screen. Don’t be deceived by the iPhones you see in ads and pictures splashed all over as the notch is still very much there. However, unlike last year Apple isn’t tom-toming the notch everywhere and perhaps there lies a hint somewhere that Apple might just ditch it next year. After all, no other Apple design feature has been so shamelessly copied by Android than the notch.

The Gold coloured variant of the iPhone XS Max is a strikingly good looking phone. What adds to the design is the new gold colour -- much better than the Rose Gold variant which Apple makes -- that makes the iPhone XS Max a sure-shot head turner. However, we wonder how many people will actually use this phone without a cover as the costs of getting them repaired will surely be astronomical.
Barring the big screen size, very little is different from the iPhone X. The buttons remain the same, the stainless steel band around the body of the iPhone adds to its allure. The iPhone XS Max is a big phone yet surprisingly feels lighter and easy-to-use. We compared it with the Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone XS Max feels smaller and lighter. It’s heavier than the iPhone 8 Plus as well but bizarrely doesn’t seem that big or bulky.
For the Apple fan brigade who haven’t used big-sized iPhones, this will feel like a drastic change. Tip: Don’t wear those uncomfortable yet somehow trendy slim fit pants/jeans as the iPhone XS Max will find it hard to fit in.

So is everything with the design same as the iPhone X? Not really. There are small yet significant changes with the iPhone XS Max. The two antenna lines are placed differently than the iPhone X. The speakers at the bottom of the phone are also asymmetrical compared to previous iPhones.

It does come as a surprise to see the dual-rear camera set up still jutting out a bit. Samsung, for instance, has managed to blend the camera beautifully at the back of the device. Apple could’ve made it better as the iPhone XS Max does seem a bit wobbly from the back because of the dual-rear camera set up.

At the keynote event, all we could hear was “this is the best iPhone yet”. You don’t become a trillion dollar company without being smart. So everything that we were told about the iPhone XS Max had the same underlying message: The best iPhone yet. Not the ‘best phone’ but the ‘best iPhone’. That ‘best ever’ claim about the display of the iPhone XS Max cannot be disputed.

Even though Apple has been late to the OLED display race, it managed to make it more immersive than competition has. The iPhone XS Max has the exact -- well almost -- display as the iPhone X. The difference is that iPhone XS Max packs in more resolutions compared to the iPhone X. The iPhone X has 2436 x 1125 resolution whereas the XS Max offers 2688 x 1242 resolution.

This is undoubtedly the best display that Apple has incorporated in any iPhone. The brightness levels are just the right amount and the Super Retina display adds to the sheen. Things just look much better on the iPhone XS’ bigger display. The viewing angles are spot on with vibrant colours and sharp images. So much so that we ended up watching a football match on the iPhone XS Max and for a second it didn’t feel like this was a smartphone display.

The iPhone XS Max is smaller than the now defunct iPad Mini but the experience is much better. And yet, the phone doesn’t bulky or make you uncomfortable holding it for 90+ minutes.

You can compare it with any display of any other smartphone and chances are that the iPhone XS will emerge as an outright winner. Having said that this is perhaps the most expensive mainstream phone on the planet. You expect it to be kind of awesome and the good thing is that it doesn’t douse your expectations one bit. With greater price, comes greater performance and that is certainly true for the iPhone XS Max display.

A lot of times people often believe that things about Apple are exaggerated as there’s a lot of unnecessary swooning over it. It’s partly true especially for those who have fallen hook, line and sinker for the Apple ecosystem. However, when it comes to performance, there’s very little that’s actually exaggerated. Like when we say that iPhone XS Max is a ridiculously fast phone, then we aren’t exaggerating. And here again the ‘S’ year assumption is kind of busted.

The iPhone XS Max is powered by Apple’s new A12 Bionic chip. Now, if you are already an iPhone X user then chances are you might not notice the massive jump in the performance. The iPhone X was powered by A11 Bionic and was a powerful phone. Anyone upgrading from iPhone 7 onwards you will see a drastic difference in performance.

Apple has packed in a lot of in the A12 Bionic which gives the real boost to the iPhone XS Max. The 64-bit SoC chip has six cores: Two of these performance cores produce 15 per cent more power. The other four cores are dedicated to efficiency and claim to use up to less than 50 per cent.
That’s not all. There is another four-core GPU specifically for graphic-heavy apps. The iPhone XS Max compared to any top-of-the-line Android phone delivers superior performance.
There are benchmarks that have proven that when compared to the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 -- the South Korean company’s most expensive phone -- the iPhone XS Max delivers almost 30 per cent faster performance. In some tests, it’s also said to perform 52 per cent better.

To test the performance of the iPhone XS Max, we compared it with its predecessor the iPhone X. To the naked eye, perhaps it won’t feel too big of a difference but we transferred a few video files using both the smartphones. The AirDrop feature took less amount of time to transfer the file on iPhone XS Max compared to the iPhone X. It’s just a matter of few seconds but it does feel faster. That’s not all. Opening of apps and the response time on the iPhone XS Max is relatively faster than the iPhone X.

The next test was to play graphic-intensive games and we delved deep into Fortnite for that. To begin with, gaming experience on iPhone XS Max is superior than that of the iPhone X. It’s perhaps a shade better than the Galaxy Note 9 as well. In Fortnite you actually see the extra four-core GPU kicking in. Rendering is faster and the detailing is really impressive in games on the iPhone XS Max.

Apple claims to have made the Neural Engine much more powerful in its A12 Bionic chip. Combined with the A12 Bionic, the neural engine has eight cores and Apple claims its nine times faster than the iPhone X. For reference, the A11 Bionic chip ñ the one used on iPhone X ñ had a neural engine with two cores.

The effect of the Neural Engine are scattered almost every sphere of the iPhone XS Max. Be it the camera or Siri or things like Animoji, the neural engine is at work overtime in the iPhone. We will talk about it more in the camera section of the review.

Combine the much-improved iOS 12 with the iPhone XS Max processor and you’re staring at a phone that is fast, efficient and extremely capable.

The other new feature in the iPhone XS Max can be found in the acoustics aspect. Apple has introduced a feature called wider stereo playback which enhances the audio experience. There’s more depth of sound in the iPhone XS Max and listening to music on this phone is a delight. It’s loud yet not jarring and hits all the right notes.

There’s no headphone jack but that’s something will be the norm with the iPhones of the future as well. There’s very little chance of Apple going back on a feature that it discontinued almost three years back.

It’s a bit of pet peeve but it’s slightly petty of Apple to not give the headphone jack-to-lightning dongle out of the box with the iPhone XS Max. Granted, that Apple wants people to move to the AirPods but for a trillion-dollar company Apple perhaps could have shown some generosity.


Before Google Pixel came on the scene, the iPhones could match almost any other brand when it came to cameras. We know that Samsung has upped the ante with the cameras in its flagship Galaxy series but Google Pixel remains the benchmark.

Google’s real strength in the cameras comes from the fact that it used the power of AI and Machine Learning to its best. So far, no other brand has been able to match it even though they all claim to be AI-enabled cameras, it seems more of lip service.

With the Neural Engine at work in the iPhone XS Max, Apple too is relying in AI to work its magic. On paper, the cameras remain the same as the iPhone X. There are two 12MP sensors at the back with one wide-angle lens with f/1.8 aperture and the other telephoto lens with f/2.4 aperture. While the megapixels remain the same, Apple has given larger micron pixels. In layman terms, this means that the iPhone XS Max collects more light to give sharper image. Now more light can be a good and bad thing. What we noticed with almost all the images we clicked with the iPhone XS Max, there’s a yellowish tint on them. Now some people might be put off by that as a reason why Apple stood head and shoulders above most other brands -- except Pixel -- was that the iPhones clicked ‘natural’ images. Not that there is a sense of artificialness in the images clicked on the iPhone XS Max but still that yellow tint did bother us.
Having said that, amongst all iPhones, the XS Max boasts of the best camera we have seen in any iPhone. The Neural Engine shines in the camera of the iPhone as one really doesn’t need to focus on anything. The iPhone XS Max’s camera almost every time does a fine job of autofocusing.
We did a detailed comparison with the iPhone X and found out that the default ISO in the iPhone XS Max was considerably higher. In iPhone X, the IOS was somewhere between 80-100 whereas in the iPhone XS Max it was close to 400.

What’s new in the iPhone XS Max is that it has something called Smart HDR. The difference between HDR and Smart HDR is that the former shoots multiple underexposed and overexposed shots and then converts them into one photo, while the latter does the same as well but gets more highlights and details in the image. A normal user, however, won’t be able to make out the difference and we managed to do so when comparing it with the iPhone X.
Most images clicked on the iPhone XS Max came out quite good. With the iPhone XS Max, Apple has improved low-light photography as well. There’s absolutely no noise in the images and it captures the exposure perfectly well.

The star of the show is supposed to be the Portrait Mode. Undoubtedly, it’s much better than that of the iPhone X but is it better than Pixel? It’s not. The problem is that there’s a consistency problem with the Portrait mode of the iPhone XS. Some of the Portraits come out brilliantly while some bizarrely don’t manage to capture the details and other elements.
The front camera is great and that’s mostly because Apple doesn’t make you look like someone else. There’s no sense of artificialness in any of the selfies clicked from the iPhone XS Max.

Overall, the camera as we said is the best on the iPhone but it will take some more effort from Apple to beat the Google Pixel camera.

Alright, it’s time to call a spade a spade when it comes to the battery. We don’t have a problem with the battery life of the iPhone XS Max. But will it hurt Apple too much to give a fast charger with a phone that is priced exorbitantly? A phone that costs almost Rs 1,45,000 and doesn’t come with a fast charger? Why should a user spend extra amount of money on getting a feature that is now coming to even the mid-range Android smartphones? Is it asking for too much?

For a moment, you can forgive and forget about the dongle connector not being shipped with the phone. But there’s no logical reason to not give the fast charger with the iPhone XS Max. A little magnanimity on Apple’s part would have gone a long way. For a company that talks so much about customer experience, it certainly missed a trick but not giving this feature with the new iPhones.

Having said that, the battery on the iPhone XS Max is excellent. You can easily last a day with your typical smartphone usage. Although it still takes a lot of time ñ compared to fast chargers ñ to get this phone fully charged.

The iPhone XS Max is a solid upgrade on the iPhone X and easily the best iPhone Apple has ever made. The screen is beautiful to look at, the performance is unmatched and even though the cameras aren’t brilliant they are really good. The 512GB variant we got for review is priced at Rs 1,44,900. Look from any angle, and it is a phone that costs way too much.
Truth be told, it’s hard sell for anyone to convince buyers to spend more than Rs 1,00,000 on a smartphone. The burning question remains: Is it worth it? We will try to answer it in three parts. For those who are in the Apple ecosystem and have the iPhone X, it’s perhaps not worth it. You can easily last a year or two with the iPhone X without missing out on anything huge. For those who are in the Apple ecosystem and don’t have the iPhone X, we will say wait for a month or so. The Apple iPhone XR is around the corner and see if that’s the phone that fits your budget.

The third category of users are those who are deeply-entrenched into Android yet aspire to buy the iPhone. The price will be a big deterrent for those aspirational buyers. With the iPhone X last year, Apple changed the price dynamics of the smartphone market. iPhones will continue to cost more and as we said a phone northwards of Rs 1,00,000 will be a hard sell. Can Apple manage to do it?

For those who say that Apple hasn’t done anything new, perhaps its true on the surface. However, scratch the surface and there are a lot of things that are new which make the iPhone XS Max one of the best ñ but overpriced ñ phones in the market.

The Olympic Games motto are three words in Latin: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which stands for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The iPhone XS Max is certainly faster and stronger than ever before. There’s another word -- Maximus -- in Greek language which means greatest or largest. In the Apple world, the iPhone XS Max is Citius, Fortius, Maximus.

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