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Apple iPhone XS Max review: The biggest-screen iPhone with the biggest price

Apple's most premium iPhone of 2018 feels like a splurge.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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There are three new iPhones in 2018, in three different sizes and prices. The iPhone XR is the more affordable and has the best battery-life of the new iPhones. The iPhone XS is the smallest, and the sleekest. But the iPhone XS Max is the showboat.

31-iphone-xs-max
8.8

Apple iPhone XS Max

The Good

The iPhone XS Max has a big, brilliant display and a little more battery life than the XS. It benefits from the improvements that the XS also has: faster speeds, some durability and water resistance improvements, better camera and dual-SIM support.

The Bad

It's so, so, so expensive. If the iPhone Plus models were too big for your hands, this one will be, too.

The Bottom Line

The supersize iPhone XS Max crams a 6.5-inch screen and all of the same great features of the iPhone XS into a Plus-size body -- but it's not as huge a leap up as you might think.

If you're looking for the biggest iPhone of 2018 with the biggest screen, look no further: the iPhone XS Max is the larger-screened premium phone many will crave, but only a few can actually afford, or need. Essentially, compared to the iPhone XS you get a larger screen size, more pixels and a battery that lasts longer for $100 more.

So if you're OK with the $1,099 and up price, go for it. It's a beautiful, if unnecessary, luxury.

However, if you want a larger-screen iPhone, but don't want to pay quite as much, you might want to check out the iPhone XR. It's a better bet for value and battery life.

22-iphone-xs-and-iphone-xs-max

The size difference is not always that big.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The thing is, though, the 5.8-inch iPhone X (and XS) already pulled off a great feat in fitting more screen in a smaller size. Going back to a bigger phone after that feels like defeating the purpose. But it's a personal choice. I've always liked the 10.5-inch iPad Pro versus the 12.9-inch. I like the 13-inch MacBook over the 15. So, too, the XS and Max. Others feel differently.

(Note: Updated with final battery results and comparisons to the iPhone XR.)

Related stories: 

What does that screen size give you? The display on the XS Max has tons of pixels: 2,688x1,242, in fact. Movies and games, in particular, look great on it. It's a damn nice display... the OLED looks better this time around, and I've enjoyed just looking at it. It's my favorite Apple device display. But when held side by side with the XS, it's not always easy to see the difference. In fact, I found myself mistaking one for the other when I saw both on a table.

The smaller XS' screen resolution is 2,436x1,125 pixels. That's not a huge difference. The Max's extra size can be helpful when editing photos or watching videos, but it's still a long way from the canvas size of any iPad.

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Kinda smaller than a Kindle.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Compare that against the iPhone XR and its slightly smaller, lower-resolution (but still totally fine and crisp) display, and the iPhone XS Max is even harder to justify.

One small thing: the notch at the top of the XS Max is the same as those on the X and XS, and it feels like it vanishes more on the larger-bodied phone. 

iphonemaxyt-still
Watch this: iPhone XS Max, unboxed
iPhone XS Max, unboxed
5:13

You can see a few more things, sometimes. Much like the Plus iPhones, a few apps have a dual-pane split view -- Notes and Apple's Mail are a few key ones. It all depends on the app, though. Apps need to update to take advantage of this, or add support for the Max's extra pixels. Similarly, some websites enter a more iPad or laptop-like full-web mode in landscape mode on Safari, but I only had luck with a few so far, The New York Times being one of them. Your mileage may vary here. Next to an iPhone XR, you're not really getting much more space (and the XR also works with that split view in a few apps). But the Max display does it better.

026-iphone-xs-and-iphone-xs-max

Video comparison: XS and XS Max.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a big phone to hold, once again. It feels like the same size and weight as the 8 Plus, although it's slightly bigger and heavier. It weighs about an ounce more than the XS. The iPhone XR (yes, I'm going to keep reminding you of that phone) is just a bit easier to hold.

iPhone XS Max vs Samsung Galaxy 9

Next to the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, it looks pretty similar from a distance (can you spot which is which?)

Sarah Tew/CNET

The speakers are booming. Much like the XS, the audio sounds great. Maybe even more so on the Max.

Battery life is better, but the XR is better still.
On our video playback battery drain test, the iPhone XS Max lasted 17 hours, 23 minutes. The iPhone XR did even better (over 19 hours), but still, this battery life is up there with the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, and hours better than the iPhone XS (only 13 hours, 30 minutes). In everyday use, though, I still found I'd want to top the battery life off at the end of the day before my long New Jersey Transit commute, just to be safe.

iPhone XS Max prices


iPhone XS Max (64GB)iPhone XS Max (256GB)iPhone XS Max (512GB)
US $1,099$1,249$1,449
UK £1,099£1,249£1,449
Australia AU$1,799AU$2,049AU$2,369

Oh, the price! This phone starts at $1,099 in the US with only 64GB of storage. From there it skyrockets up to a max of $1,449 with 512GB of storage, which is basically the cost of a MacBook Pro.

This just isn't affordable for most people, and the Max seems to acknowledge it's a specialty product. The amount of storage I'd use on a phone like this would be at least 128GB, but there isn't a 128GB storage tier... just a 256GB, for $1,249. (Gulp.) This is why I'd really recommend a lower-priced iPhone like the XR for most people. 

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Fortnite comparison: iPhone XS Max to Nintendo Switch (Switch is a lot less expensive).

Sarah Tew/CNET

XS advantages vs XR: a few key ones to note. The XS and XS Max have the same insides and cameras this year, which is great for consistency, and also means the Max isn't necessary. Key differences in the XS line over the lower-cost XR amount to:

  • Dual rear cameras instead of a single one: check out our XS Max to Note 9 camera comparison, and the a camera comparison between the iPhone XS and XR
  • Improved cellular antennas (4x4 MIMO, with Gigabit LTE, which could help both data speeds and connection quality in some areas)
  • A more durable construction (our CNET drop test showed that the XS lasted better than the XR, but keep in mind that we didn't drop-test the Max)
  • That nicer-looking (but subtly so) OLED display
  • 3D Touch (do you care?)
  • An extra meter of water resistance (not needed unless you were planning on deep diving, but here's our impressive deep-dive test results)

Photos shot on iPhone XS Max and iPhone XS

See all photos

If price weren't a factor, the XS Max is the most top-notch iPhone of the year. But at its price and size, you really have to ask yourself why you aren't buying something cheaper.

If you've got money to burn and want a giant high-resolution screen, the Max is the phone to buy. I probably wouldn't spend this much on a phone, but maybe I'm not who this phone was made for I do appreciate taking a spin in a luxury car once in a while, though. So I get the appeal. 

top5-iphonexs
Watch this: 5 reasons not to buy the iPhone XS or XS Max
5 reasons not to buy the iPhone XS or XS Max
3:35

Compare iPhone XR, XS, XS Max starting prices


iPhone XR (64GB)iPhone XS (64GB)iPhone XS Max (64GB)
US $749$999$1,099
UK £749£999£1,049
Australia AU$1,229AU$1,629AU$1,799

Best iPhone XS and XS Max cases

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31-iphone-xs-max
8.8

Apple iPhone XS Max

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 10Camera 9Battery 10