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Apple's Smart Battery Case for iPhone XS and XS Max: Review in progress

It's got a bulge, it can wirelessly charge, and it's not cheap. Early hands-on thoughts.

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The iPhone XS Max (left) and XS (right) with the new Smart Battery Case on.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you spend $750 or more on a phone, you probably don't want to buy a $129 battery case. I've gotten more angry tweets about Apple's just-released smart battery cases for the current-generation iPhones than I can recently remember. Apple's cases have arrived months after the iPhones debuted in September and October, and after reports that battery replacements may have been a cause of dropping iPhone sales during the last iPhone cycle.

I reviewed Apple's first Smart Battery Case years ago. It was good, and it gave the iPhone 6S enough juice to last through my toughest commutes.

I now have Apple's newest Smart Battery Cases for the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, both in black, to test-drive. I'll have the iPhone XR version soon, too. Here are my thoughts after just a day or so. 

  • So far, they're... fine. Like the previous Smart Battery Cases, they're made of rubberized outer material, and a soft microfiber inner lining. They attach to the iPhones by bending the top of the case back, sliding the phone in, and docking with the inner Lightning connector. 
  • The case charges via Lightning, or wirelessly via Qi docks. The case can be recharged on its own, in case you're using the iPhone separately. A little LED light inside the case glows orange and then green when fully charged.
  • The case battery discharges before the phone. Just like many other battery cases, the case battery is used up first, leaving the phone fully charged.
  • It's a dust magnet. The rubberized coating picked up all the particles on my dusty coffee table, and in my bag it ended up covered in stuff. In cold weather with lots of static, bring a good cloth.
  • Yeah, it bulks up the iPhone. It's not a big deal with the iPhone XS, but the XS Max ends up feeling huge with the case on. The grip of the case is comfy, but it's a lot to put in a pocket.
  • There's Lightning pass-through, and button overlays. The Lightning port is built into the case, and isn't recessed. 
  • The iPhone X fits in the XS case, but you'll need to update to 12.1.2. At first, the iPhone X said it was being put in an unsupported accessory, and nothing happened. But after an iOS update, everything seemed OK. I didn't see any problems: it charged, and while the bottom microphone holes aren't quite the same (the XS has few holes on one side), buttons and camera lens all fit fine, and the phone fit correctly, too.
  • How much battery life does it give? I'm trying the XS Max case first. After a morning of use (up at 7 a.m.), the case's battery was down to about 47 percent by 11 a.m. By that early measure, don't expect 100 percent more battery. Both the XS and XS Max battery cases have the same battery capacities: 1,369mAh/10.1 Wh. I'm a little disappointed that the Max battery case didn't also have more battery life, but the case is the same price as the smaller XS version. The XS Max's larger battery is bound to not charge up as much as the XS.
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Behold the bulge.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Do you even really need an iPhone XS Max or XR battery case?

It's odd that Apple made an iPhone XS Max case, because that phone has enough battery life to generally handle fine through a day. It might be needed for a crazy all-week affair like, well, the trip to CES in Vegas I just flew back from. The new case seems like the best fit for XS owners (that phone's battery life isn't great). The iPhone XR already has great battery life, and Apple made a battery case for that phone, too. I don't think I'd need it, and I doubt you would unless you're planning on traveling for days away from a charger. And in that case... what about a cheap battery pack? Consider whether a simple, affordable battery pack (or a less expensive battery case) might make the most sense. Mophie's also-expensive iPhone case is arriving soon, but won't save you any money.