The reviews are in, and the iPhone Xs Max doesn’t seem all that worth it

More of the same?
More of the same?
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Are you ready to spend $1,100 on a smartphone the size of Rhode Island?

The early reviews for Apple’s latest smartphones, the iPhone Xs and Xs Max, are in. Ostensibly, not much has changed since last year’s iPhone X, with the Xs appearing to have an identical design to its predecessor, and the Xs Max being essentially just an elongated version of the Xs. But Apple did announce a fair number of internal improvements at its launch event last week, including faster processors, better augmented-reality technology, more camera wizardry, and a slightly better battery life.

But what do the early reviewers think? Quartz rounded up some of the best out there so you don’t have to wade through it all.

The new camera software is good

The new iPhone Xs uses its two rear cameras to create portrait photos, just like the X, but this time around, new software allows the photographer to change the depth of field after taking the shot—effectively making the image’s background more focused or blurry. Reviewers tended to agree that it was a step in the right direction:

Scott Stein, in Cnet:

If you compare camera specs for the 2017 iPhone X and the new iPhone XS, you’d think almost nothing’s changed: Same dual cameras, same aperture settings, same megapixel ratings, same 2x optical zoom. But Apple’s done plenty of work under the hood. The XS has a totally new image sensor that really does improve the quality of photos.

Matthew Panzarino, in TechCrunch:

I’m (still) not going to be comparing the iPhone XS to an interchangeable lens camera because portrait mode is not a replacement for those, it’s about pulling them out less. That said, this is closest it’s ever been.

Lauren Goode, in Wired:

Overall, Portrait photos taken on the new iPhones looked a lot better than older iPhone Portrait photos—with or without the depth effect. In nighttime photos I took of my colleague Pia, the new iPhone depth-adjusted photos were better able to capture the car lights and city signs flashing behind her, and generally looked better than Samsung’s blurred photos. Still, it’s not comparable to the bokeh effect you’d get on a DSLR with a fast lens.

The giant screen isn’t so bad

Some were concerned that the giant 6.5-inch screen on the new iPhone Xs Max would make the phone too unwieldily for many users.

The New York Times’ Brian X. Chen, a longtime opponent of large phones, has been swayed:

The iPhone XS and the iPhone XS Max may be making me a convert to bigger smartphones. Last week, I began testing both new iPhone models. I had predicted that the larger display on the XS Max would be unwieldy in my pocket and make the phone cumbersome to hold with one hand while typing and reaching for buttons inside apps.

Yet after running the 6.5-inch XS Max alongside the 5.8-inch XS through different situations and conditions for a week, I was surprised by my reaction. Far from being disappointed by the supersized devices, I was delighted. The trade-offs of the new jumbo model felt minor. By eliminating the bezels, which are the screen’s borders, Apple did a terrific job of increasing screen size without adding bulk or compromising the usability of the XS Max. I still think the smaller XS is a better fit for most people, but many would enjoy the XS Max.

The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern, who enlisted the help (paywall) of 7-foot-7-inch former NBA basketball player Gheorghe Mureșan to test out the large phone, enjoyed the large screen, but didn’t think Apple used it well enough to necessitate its largess:

1. Apple isn’t doing enough to take advantage of all the extra space. The Max just feels like a blown-up iPhone, when it could be a new sort of computer. Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Note or even Apple’s iPad, you can’t place apps side by side or float a video in the corner.

2. One-handed use is a struggle at times with smaller hands, especially typing—even with Apple’s “reachability” trick that lets you shift the screen down when needed. The XS is more of a “just right” fit for my hand and pocket. Even the XR felt much smaller than the Max.

Tom’s Guide’s Mark Spoonauer compared the giant phone to its closest giant rival:

The good news is that you get more screen real estate in the same size chassis as Apple’s Plus handsets, minus the bezels and Home button. The bad news is that this is definitely not a skinny-jeans phone (not that anyone should ever wear them), and that you’ll need two hands to use this 7.3-ounce behemoth comfortably. By comparison, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 is a lighter 7.1 ounces but it’s also taller and a little bit thicker.

Mashable’s Ray Wong argued that the phone wasn’t too big, given that it’s effectively the same size as the iPhone 8 Plus from last year:

The iPhone XS Max is a size many iPhone users and even Android users have already adapted to. After spending nearly a week with both the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, I found myself reaching for the larger device more often for its bigger screen for reading, gaming, watching videos, and typing.

The battery life

Even with a faster processor and graphics chip, reviewers seemed to agree that the new iPhone Xs Max generally had better battery life than the iPhone X:

Nilay Patel, The Verge:

I mostly tested the XS Max, and it did great — better than even Apple’s claim of 90 minutes more than the X. In fact, I got a full 12 hours of battery life out of the XS Max without low power mode, and that’s even under my heavy daily use of constant Slack and email usage, video watching, photo taking, and browsing. The smaller XS is rated to get 30 minutes more than the X, which has run for about 8 hours for me this past year. It’s solid.

Matthew Panzarino:

Battery life has been hard to judge. In my rundown tests, the iPhone XS Max clearly went beast mode, outlasting my iPhone X and iPhone XS. Between those two, though, it was tougher to tell. I try to wait until the end of the period I have to test the phones to do battery stuff so that background indexing doesn’t affect the numbers. In my ‘real world’ testing in the 90+ degree heat around here, iPhone XS did best my iPhone X by a few percentage points, which is what Apple does claim, but my X is also a year old. The battery didn’t fail during even intense days of testing with the XS.

For the smaller iPhone Xs, the battery life wasn’t massively different, Refinery29’s Madeline Buxton found:

I didn’t notice a huge difference in my usual battery life when using the Xs compared to the X. Granted, 30 minutes isn’t that much, but after a full morning of listening to music and checking emails on my way to work, texting friends, conducting interviews, and tapping through Instagram Stories, I was left hovering just around 50%. Again, this isn’t bad, but I would love to see a longer lifespan.

Is it worth it?

The new iPhones start at $999 and $1,099, respectively, and that’s no small investment for the vast majority of customers. Whether you’re looking to upgrade from an older model, or last year’s phones, most reviewers seemed to agree that what the iPhone Xs offered over the X wasn’t much. (Which is a shame, given Apple isn’t selling the iPhone X anymore.) Some suggested more price-conscious customers should wait to see what Apple’s more affordable phone, the iPhone Xr, shipping in October, is like before choosing.

USA Today’s Ed Baig breaks down the costs:

Think about this for a second. If you buy the iPhone XS or XS Max with the maximum storage capacity of 512GB, you’re looking at $1,349 or $1,449, respectively, or well within the price range of a new, medium-spec’d MacBook Pro laptop. I recognize that for many of us, the smartphones in our pockets have become our computers and that not everyone is going to max out on storage. But jeez, even the “cheaper” phones aren’t exactly cheap, with the 64GB XS and XS Max versions fetching $999 and $1,099, respectively, and the 256GB version $1,149 and $1,249.

I also realize that four-digit price tags have become the cost of admission for top-of-the-line premium phones nowadays and that trade-ins and monthly installment plans can ease the pain somewhat. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Though I haven’t tested it yet, it is for this reason that some of you may want to hold out for the iPhone XR next month. It starts at $749 and has most of the features of the XS and XS Max, save a second rear camera and a screen that, while very good, isn’t as fancy as these higher priced iPhones.

Buzzfeed’s John Paczkowski doesn’t see the difference:

Now, to be clear, Apple has certainly improved the iPhone with the Xs and the Xs Max; There’s a clam bucket of documentation and marketing bullet points to support that assertion. But, crucially, it hasn’t improved my experience of the iPhone. Or if it has, I haven’t noticed.

Lauren Goode is inclined to agree, albeit more optimistically:

I still think you shouldn’t feel like you have to upgrade if you invested in last year’s phones—or even if you have a slightly older phone, like an iPhone 7. Is there a palpable difference between these models and your one- or two-year old phone? Yes, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean your older phone is bad. That’s the thing about high-end smartphones, these mini-computers in our pockets: even last year’s models are still pretty darn amazing.

Same with Nilay Patel:

I would not rush out to spend another $999 on the XS if you have an X, but if you’re already deep into a preorder, don’t worry: you will love the iPhone XS. It is indeed, more iPhone, and it will probably hold up for years to come. I definitely prefer the Pixel 2’s camera, but the iPhone XS isn’t that far behind, and it’s still a significant improvement over previous iPhones.

For everyone else, I think it’s worth waiting to see how the iPhone XR turns out before rushing in—it has the same processor and the same main camera for $750. The only major question is how good its 6.1-inch LCD will look in comparison to the OLED on the XS. But for that, we’ll just have to wait and see next month.