Matt Reviews the iPhone Xs Max

A couple of weeks ago I upgraded from an iPhone 8 to an iPhone XS Max. Why? Mostly because my partner finally got rid of her Quite Broken iPhone 7 and be damned if I let her have a better phone than me.

It’s been interesting. Although Your Humble Correspondent has owned iPhones ever since they became available in Australia (with the oddly-named second-generation iPhone 3G), I’ve steered clear of the larger phones since they first became available with the iPhone 7.

The Size

The iPhone Xs Max is, weirdly, not as big as I was expecting. The previous Plus models (7 and 8) always looked hilariously large when Your Humble Correspondent has spotted them “in the wild”.

Of course that changes the moment you pick it up and realise there is absolutely no way in hell your thumb is going to reach that icon in the top-right corner. (I’m left-handed for those playing along at home).

The reachability gesture has been used more in the last three weeks than it has since its introduction back in vague hand-waving because I can’t be bothered to look it up.

You couldn’t call it uncomfortable, or even awkward to use or put away (it still fits in a pocket, for those of us that are blessed with them being in pretty much every pair of pants we own) but I have found myself using two hands more often than not. So goodbye to that sly one-handed operation when you were trying to make sure no one noticed you were on your phone.

The Screen

The screen is probably the most noticeable change over the old iPhone 8.

It is, in a word, pretty.

There is a possibility that this is simply due to the fact the phone is new and hasn’t spent a year being used, thrown in pockets, had Weet-Bix poured over it (thank you for that, child) and all the other minor incidents that a device living in your hand goes through over the course of time, but yeah, it’s pretty.

The extra pixels the Max screen offers over the “normal” phone (and my previous 8) makes things like watching Netflix a much more pleasant experience. I don’t have to hold the phone as close to my eyes in order to be able to see things, which in turn means I’m less inclined to reach for the laptop or something more cumbersome just so I feel like I’m actually watching a movie and not just looking at a video on my phone.

The increased resolution is something else that I’m also noticing in a very good way. The whole screen seems smoother. Even with the Retina display on my old iPhone 8, you could still make out how the screen was drawing rounded corners and just generally see each pixel doing its thing – like when you sit too close to the TV screen because your mum told you not to so of course now you will forever and always and you’re not the boss of me.

Incidentally, the pixel density (458 pixels per inch) is the same as the previous generation iPhone X. Your Humble Correspondent never used an iPhone X so he can’t comment on what that screen was like, but perhaps there is something to be said about just how many pixels you can cram onto a screen a couple of inches wide.

[Extremely Jeremy Clarkson voice] The Power

One of the big talking points when Apple announced the iPhone Xs at its traditional September launch event was the power. The iPhone Xs boasts “the first 7-nanometer chip in a smartphone — the A12 Bionic chip with next-generation Neural Engine”.

And that definitely means….something to people that put all their stock in benchmark numbers and decide that just because one device is 4 less than another on a single test then it’s obviously a failure and the makers should be marching themselves into the sea as that is all they are good for.

In the real world, though, what I’ve noticed day-to-day is that my phone still functions like my phone. It absolutely loads the applications I use constantly like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Mail, Messages and…and…and…

And it does it pretty much just like my last phone did. Nothing is noticeably quicker it just does it.

Now, sure, you can talk about the augmented reality or console-port games and argue that those wouldn’t work on an older phone and you’d probably be right. But let me fill you in on a secret: I don’t (and I don’t think anyone does now the Pokemon Go fad has passed) use augmented reality daily, or even regularly. Why would I want to hold my phone at a weird angle just so I can play virtual chess on the table I’m sitting at when I could just as easily hold my phone at a more comfortable angle and play virtual chess on a screen the way we’ve been playing virtual chess since virtual chess became a thing we could do.

FaceID

FaceID made its debut last year in the iPhone X. The replacement to the now-ubiquitous TouchID used a barrage of cameras and sensors to authenticate users by scanning their face rather than their fingerprint.

FaceID is an intriguing proposition. While Your Humble Correspondent was quite happy to tie his credit card to his thumbprint, the idea of doing the same with a scan of his face was one that didn’t sit particularly well. It all seems a bit too science-fiction and surely it doesn’t work the way it’s intended to.

It does work. Exactly as advertised. And it’s weird. So very weird.

In some aspects it is a lot better than TouchID. For example, having slightly sweaty hands (which is a thing that happens in Sydney during spring) isn’t a barrier to entering your phone. It works with hats on, it works whether I’m wearing my glasses or not.

It doesn’t work if you happen to be holding your phone upside down. That sounds odd, but it absolutely happens because there’s no home button to orient the device in your hand when you’re fumbling around for it on the bedside table.

The other problem I find with it is trying to use my phone when it’s sitting on the table next to me. If I want to access my home screen I either have to pick the thing up and wave it around in front of my face or hunch myself over it so that I’m at the right angle for it to authenticate and unlock for me.

Sure, if I mash the screen enough I can use my passcode (the default for which is now six digits by the by) but I miss just being able to tap my thumb on the home button to unlock it.

The Other Things

Moving from the iPhone 8 to the Xs Max has meant trying to retrain myself in how I use iOS. There’s no home button anymore, so that means no simple click to back to the home screen or double-click to get into the app switcher. Those are gestures now.

The swipe-up-a-bit-and-hold gesture to get into the app switcher is a weird one. It’s easier just to go back home and tap into the second app rather than try and get the exact movement required to access the switcher correct.

Also the control centre living in the top-right of the screen and not the bottom is another one. More than once an app has been exited instead of for example, wifi being switched off before the realisation of “oh, yeah that’s different now” sets in.

The main cameras on the back of the phone are tremendous. Portrait mode and the fake(wish) depth-of-field effect it does are fun to play with. It can be a bit fiddly when it comes to using it on the two-year old. They don’t tend to sit still for that long so you find yourself constantly stuck being told to either move closer or farther away from the them in order to activate the special feature.

In Conclusion

I always find it hard to work out whether a new phone is “worth it” given that so few of us actually buy them outright. The majority of people get a new one every two years when they re-contract their plan and probably (I’m guessing here) don’t notice the cost, just what they pay per month.

That’s certainly what I did. Sort of. (TL;DR – I went back on a contract after being SIM-only for a few years).

The outright cost of my phone (the entry-level 64Gb Xs Max) is an eye-watering $1799. Maxing out at 512Gb will set you back $2369, which is actually more than the 13″ MacBook Pro albeit the one without the Touch Bar.

It’s definitely a phone. And there’s no doubt we’re at the point where the limits of what these devices can improve on year-on-year has been reached.

So if you’ve got a phone that works, especially an iPhone X, then you’re not missing much.

If your contract is up and you’re looking at what’s available, well, the extra screen size is worth considering.

(I’ve illustrated this article with images from Apple’s press material because I didn’t get around to taking my own photos of my own phone.)

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