Although we've now had the iPhone 11 Pro replace the iPhone XS and the 11 Pro Max replace this model, there are still plenty of XS Max handsets out there and there will probably be some great deals on them over the next couple of months.

The iPhone XS Max debuted in Autumn 2018 alongside the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR. So is it still a large-screen phone to be reckoned with? 

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Design

As an overall package, the XS Max is similar in size to the previous generations of Plus models, except, Apple has made much better use of the space on the front. Apart from the distinguishable notch on the top, there's little to no bezel around the huge 6.5-inch display on the front.

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Since the iPhone X debuted in 2017, it quickly became a look mimicked by almost every other manufacturer. Saying that, in the short time since, most have moved on to adopting much smaller dewdrop style notches.

With that said, the iPhone's frame, particularly the bottom bezel, is impressively slim boosting the striking appearance of the display. Place it alongside a Samsung Galaxy Note 9, for example, and it's noticeably shorter despite having a display that's slightly larger. Whatever opinions you have on Apple, the efficient use of space on the front here is brilliant.

As with the iPhone XS, 11 and 11 Pro, the frame is made from polished stainless steel, a high-end appearance and a sturdy feel in the hand. 

The polished steel on our gold review unit contrasts well with the black glass on the front, while the cream/peach glass back has a reflective gold sheen giving off a metallic finish similar to a lot of current smartphones. Although it doesn't have the eye-catching colour-changing properties of the likes of Huawei, Honor and Oppo phones, still looks great.

That screen - wowsers

  • 6.5-inch OLED panel
  • 1242 x 2688 resolution
  • 458 pixels-per-inch

The notch is something that's caused controversy ever since it first appeared on the iPhone X in 2017. Since then, it's been copied by many competitors to expand the screen-to-body ratio, even Google with its most recent Pixel 3 XL. Until a more elegant solution is found - without sacrificing the super convenient Face ID tech - we feel it's a compromise worth making.

In daily use, for the most part, it doesn't negatively impact the awesome viewing experience that is offered by the iPhone's 6.5-inch OLED display.

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Of course, we'd rather it wasn't there, but with the addition of advanced and convenient Face ID recognition (which we'll go into later) it's justified. We'd much rather that than a sliding mechanism like the Oppo Find X that negatively impacts the structural integrity of the device and makes it vulnerable to dust and water ingress.

As for resolution, it's long been the case that Apple avoids media standard defaults. Rather than a QHD+ resolution, it has 1242 x 2688 pixels spread over the aforementioned 6.5-inch panel, giving a pixel density of 458 pixels per inch. That puts it among some of the sharpest screens out there, putting it somewhere between the full HD+ panel of the OnePlus 7 and the Quad HD+ panel of the Note 9. That's to say, you won't be able to see any individual pixels here.

Details are sharp, fine text is crisp and the whites and colours are really nicely balanced and tuned. What's more, with it being capable of displaying both HDR 10 and Dolby Vision standards of HDR video, compatible movies do look really good on it.

Compared to the likes of the iPhone 8 Plus - which had an LCD display - the dark blacks really stand out. It's inky, and gorgeous to look at. 

While visually the screen is fantastic, the size would lend itself perhaps to be used as a miniature notepad of sorts. We'd love to have seen Apple incorporate support for the Apple Pencil, giving it that extra edge over its smaller sibling and giving the Note 9 some genuine like-for-like competition. You wouldn't want to use it for iPad Pro-level sketching and drawing, but for quickly annotating images, making shortlists and sketching ideas, it could be a convenient addition. 

Super speedy with a long-lasting battery

  • A12 Bionic processor
  • Hexa-core 7nm chip
  • 120Hz touch sensitivity response

Apple made a big deal of its new A12 Bionic processor when it launched the XS and XS Max, and for good reason. It was among the first to make use of the 7nm process, making it possible to have much more power coming from a much smaller chip that's also more efficient.

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It's something of an unsung hero, because it ensures the phone runs smoothly and quickly without any issue. And should hopefully mean a phone that stays that way for years to come. Perhaps that way you can also justify the initial cost of the handset.

It will stay immensely useable for a considerable amount of time, without suffering from the post 12-month lag you sometimes find with older devices, particularly when new software is released.

Gaming on the iPhone XS Max is as smooth and stable as you'd hope. Games load quickly and characters on-screen respond to input and touchscreen gestures without any hesitation, which is also partly down to the 120Hz touch sensor response rate.

For smaller iPhones from the past few years one of the biggest complaints from users is battery life. For the bigger devices, that's rarely an issue, and the same is true for the XS Max, which comfortably lasts a full day without even breaking a sweat. 

Even on the first day of use, with over 120 photos and videos shot on the camera, playing at least 30 minutes of games plus the usual drain that comes from setting up a phone, we still managed to get to bed with around 39 per cent of it leftover. On a regular, moderate day with still plenty of time (around 2 hours) using Bluetooth to listen to music and a Garmin fitness watch connected, we ended the day with around 50 per cent left over. 

For the heavy user, we suspect even the most demanding of days won't drain this battery. For moderate users, a day and a half isn't unreasonable. Despite the fact we could probably have pushed it into a second day, we just fell back into the routine of resting on its wireless charging base and letting it top up overnight while we slept. 

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One thing iPhone is missing here - compared to many others - is a fast-charging wired charger in the box (now finally available with the iPhone 11 Pro Max). Despite its size and capacious battery, the iPhone XS Max ships with the same 5W wall adapter and Lightning cable it's always shipped with.

That means, unless you use a MacBook's more powerful power adapter or buy an upgrade, you're going to spend a long time waiting for it to go from zero to full. Compare that to the likes of Oppo's Super VOOC technology - which can get a battery enough juice to last a full day from just 20 minutes plugged in - and it's worlds apart. 

Moving from an iPhone 8 Plus, or older model, you may be worried about losing your fingerprint sensor, but with Face ID, we actually found unlocking our phone just as convenient and speedy, if not more so. With the lift-to-wake feature switched on, all you need to do is lift up your phone while looking at it, and the phone is normally unlocked before you even touch the screen to activate the swipe-up-to-unlock gesture. It's super easy, and hasn't failed once in our time with the device. 

Software, Siri shortcuts and Memoji

  • iOS 12 (soon to be 13)
  • Siri shortcuts automation
  • Personalised animoji

iOS 12 was launched to be part of Apple's plan to get your old iPhones running for longer, speeding up your phone and lightening the load on your old processor. What that means, in turn, is that brand new phones run really smoothly, but there are some new UI elements and features, particularly for those using iPhone X, XR, XS, XS Max and 11.

Having multiple notifications truncate into a single expandable pile is really useful, particularly if you have a busy social media presence, or receive tonnes of notifications. Tap to expand or swipe across to perform bulk actions (like clearing them all from your lock screen).

For iPhone X, XS or the XR series devices there's the ability to make use of the fun, playful animated emoji that react to your facial expressions. With iOS you can also create your own emoji character called a Memoji, that you can either make look like you or whatever you want, choosing face shape, skin colour, eye colour, eyewear, facial hair and a lot more. While it's not as easy as Samsung's method that scans your face and generates an emoji character for you, it does mean you can make it look vaguely like you, unlike Samsung's, which inevitably doesn't.

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There's plenty more here too, like the return of the landscape view in some of the stock apps, similar to the Plus model phones' of previous years. Turn Messages to its side and you see an inbox on the left, and conversation on the right. In Mail, the use of space is a little less practical, with the inbox sliding over the left side of the screen covering half of whatever email you're trying to read. 

As for Siri shortcuts, that's something that's slowly coming into its own. You can craft your own recipes for Siri to action. Or let it learn how you use the phone and offer suggestions. 

Smart HDR makes photos pop

  • Dual 12MP rear camera
  • One wide, one telephoto 2x
  • Both OIS equipped
  • Smart HDR and adjustable depth effect
  • 7MP front camera

Apple's latest rear dual-camera system is made up of two 12-megapixel sensors, one offering a wide-angle view, and the other a telephoto zoom view, with both cameras optically stabilised. But that only tells part of the story. As with the performance, there's a sense here that the new custom 7nm processor inside the phone is unlocking much more and extracting great quality images from the dual sensors.

Part of this is a feature called Smart HDR that's turned on by default. What it means is that even when you have some fairly intense backlighting from the sun, you can still see details in the shadows and dark areas, and colours are still vibrant and attractive. Even more impressive is that when you take the photo, there's nothing to indicate that it's working on the processing. You snap the picture, and it's saved as simply and quickly as if you're taking any photo.

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From a user perspective, it's similar to the way Google's Pixel phones have done things over the past couple of years. Snap a picture, and the processing power takes care of balancing out all the colours, highlights and shadows to make as good an image as possible without you having to do any of the heavy lifting. In Apple's case, the camera takes multiple pictures in the split second before and after you press the shutter, including long exposure, simultaneously taken with the super-quick burst to give the ISP all the information it needs to balance out the pic.

The end result is generally impressive, looking detailed, colourful and as detailed as you'd hope in challenging conditions, without over-boosting contrast too much. Even with faces in complete shadow with a backlighting sun, the camera still manages to pull out some detail from the face.

One other headline feature is the new ability to adjust the depth effect during portrait mode shoot. It works in a similar way to Huawei/Honor's aperture mode in that you take your photo in Portrait mode, and you can slide over an on-screen control to change the aperture, adjusting the depth of field and increasing or decreasing the blur. While cranking up the blur often has the unwanted effect of making the blur seem far too unnatural, decreasing it has the opposite impact. In fact, that's probably this feature's strength: it gives you the ability to make your portrait mode photos - complete with artificial lighting effects - less unnatural.

As you'd expect, there's still the odd occasion when edges of people's hair gets confused with the background, resulting in either the hair becoming blurred or a snippet of the background being too sharp.

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Since the inception of the iPhone, part of its joy (and frustration for pro photographers) is the fact that it takes care of your photos for you. Just hit the shutter button and it'll make the picture look good, and that's the same with the latest generation of iPhones. You don't get granular controls, the iPhone takes care of all the heavy lifting for you.

Verdict

Even after nearly a year using it the iPhone XS Max is hard to fault. It's fluid, fast and effortless, and is a premium package that looks and feels great in the hand. 

Of course, you could look down the spec list and say "OnePlus 7 Pro has a much better display" or "the Pixel 3 takes better photos", but neither of those elements are so noticeably different that you feel you'd miss out. What's more, iPhone still offers a fantastic all-round experience thanks to quality design, display, camera, battery life and - let's not forget - it's very strong ecosystem. 

It may be too big for some, or too expensive for others, but there's always the iPhone XS or iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max for those who think the former, and the upcoming iPhone XR or 11 for those who think the latter. 

Also consider...

iPhone 11 Pro Max

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The new 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max replace the now-discontinued XS and XS Max. So what's new over the XS Max? Not a massive amount. There's an extra wide angle camera plus a faster processor in the form of the A13 Bionic. If you can get a great deal on the XS Max, you're probably just as well to go for it. 

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Samsung Galaxy Note 9 

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For years Samsung has provided the most consistent competition to Apple in the flagship smartphone game, and with the Galaxy Note 9 it has one of the best big-screened devices out there. The display might not have the same visual impact or skinny bezels, but it's fantastic, and it has the S-Pen, which for many is a great additional tool. Plus, like every other big alternative to the XS Max, it's cheaper. 

Read the review: Samsung Galaxy Note 9 - A sensational big-screen experience

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OnePlus 7 Pro 

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With the OnePlus 7 Pro, the disruptive manufacturer finally threw off all the shackles, and went into "full flagship" mode. It has one of the best displays we've ever seen on a smartphone, it's gorgeous, powerful and charges really quickly. It might be missing that knock-out camera experience, or wireless charging, but with prices starting from just £649, it's nowhere near as expensive as an iPhone. 

Read the review: OnePlus 7 Pro - Sparring with the heavyweights

This review was originally published on 18 October 2018 and has been updated due to changes in the market.