With its new iPhone XS Max, Apple (AAPL 0.48%) went big while somehow delivering a phone that does not feel large. With a 6.5-inch screen, the XS Max is actually a little bit smaller (by 4/100ths of an inch in height and 2/100ths in width) than the iPhone 8 Plus while offering a full extra inch of screen.
The XS Max takes the promise of its predecessor, the iPhone X, and brings it closer to perfection. The screen size has increased by 7/10ths of an inch, while the phone is only half an inch taller and 2/10ths of an inch wider. None of the changes is all that major, but everything Apple has done works.
This isn't a revolutionary new phone (the S-model improvements never are). Instead, it's a solid improvement that gives consumers more of a good thing.
Using the iPhone XS Max
The iPhone X offered a Super Retina display, and the XS Max has the same display in a larger size. It's an incredibly crisp screen that makes watching movies or television shows a pleasure. I tested it watching a downloaded episode of The Flash -- a show with plenty of fast-moving action -- and it was a superior experience to viewing the same episode on the bigger iPad Mini.
XS Max is built for video, and if you travel a lot, as I do, entertainment during transit is important. The X already made using a laptop or tablet unnecessary for watching TV or movies, and the XS Max simply makes the experience better.
Aside from that, the other changes are minor. It has a new processor, the A12 Bionic, which is supposedly faster. It's not noticeable, but that's not a knock, as speed was never a problem for the iPhone X.
Battery life is reported to be better for the XS Max as well. I used mine from Saturday around 7:30 a.m. through 9 p.m. fairly heavily without running out of charge. I'm taking that success with a grain of salt, however, because in my experience, battery life for various iPhone models -- while reasonably good -- deteriorates over time.
Apple's biggest, newest phone has lots of other tweaks like improved cameras, but most people won't notice them. The real change here is how the company has built a bigger phone that's not unwieldy in my relatively small hand.
A better iOS
Apple's latest iPhone operating system came out a few days before its new phones hit the stores. iOS 12 isn't specifically linked to the XS Max, but the new phone takes advantage of the tweaked operating system.
Perhaps most importantly, Apple has made it dramatically easier to close apps. It no longer takes a two-step effort to close apps, which makes it possible to do so with a single hand. That might not seem like a big deal -- and supposedly leaving apps open was not a battery drain -- but for anyone who likes a clean desktop, it matters.
The great gets better
The iPhone X already established that Apple could make a phone without a home button and with facial recognition. Those are new standards that continue through to the new line, including the XS Max. Facial recognition works nearly flawlessly, although it sometimes does not recognize me after a shower or when I'm wearing contacts instead of glasses.
It's hard, maybe impossible, to find anything other than minor problems with the XS Max. Apple didn't change much. It made incremental improvements to the processor, the cameras, and some of the other guts of the device, but they're not noticeable.
The draw here -- and it's an argument against upgrading from the X to a standard-sized XS -- is that the company delivered a phone with a larger screen that's easy to operate with one hand. This is Apple treating its phone like a well-engineered tiny house. There's no wasted space, no useless features, just a screen like an edgeless infinity pool that's the clear star of the show.
Should you upgrade?
While I very much like the XS Max, it was a little silly to upgrade from the X, because, bigger screen aside, the changes just aren't that major. If you have an iPhone 8 or earlier, that's when you will notice meaningful differences. I enjoy the larger screen and imagine I will get slightly better battery life over the long haul (based on past experience), but those perks aren't enough to justify paying a few hundred dollars to upgrade.