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iPhone XS Max review: Gigantic-screen phone for a gigantic price

There’s a reason Apple may not have called the XS Max the XS Plus. For years, a Plus-sized iPhone has offered a bigger screen, a bit better battery life and a better dual rear camera. This year, the iPhone XS and XS Max have identical processors, RAM and cameras. Getting the new 6.5-inch Max is really about increasing the size of that screen, and getting a little extra battery to boot. It’ll cost you $100 for the privilege.

I’ve been using the Max and the smaller XS for the last week. The Max has a fantastic big display, and it feels the same to hold as an iPhone 8 Plus. So, if you like that size, go for it — if you can afford it.

The Max might be growing on me, but 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 now. I’ve always liked the 10.5-inch iPad Pro versus the 12.9-inch. I like the 13-inch MacBook over the 15. Others feel differently. So, too, the XS and Max.

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The size difference is not always that big.


Sarah Tew/CNET

What does that screen size give you? The display on the XS Max has tons of pixels: 2,688×1,242, in fact. Movies and games, in particular, look great on it. It’s as nice as a Kindle. But side by side with the XS, there’s not always a dramatic difference. In fact, I found myself getting confused when I saw both on a table.

The smaller XS’ screen resolution is 2,436×1,125 pixels. That’s not a huge difference. But it can do just enough to make a video nicer to look at, or a document better to read and edit, or a photo easier to see fine details in.

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Kinda smaller than a Kindle.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The notch at the top of the XS Max is the same as the X and XS, and it feels like it vanishes more on the larger-bodied phone, making the all-screen effect more immersive. By the way, it’s a damn nice display… the OLED looks better this time around, and I’ve enjoyed looking at it. It’s my favorite Apple device display.

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.

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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. Once again, it requires especially big pockets — you might need a coat or a bag to put it in.


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