Android and iOS take plenty of features, functions and design cues from one another, so it stands to reason that we should take a look at the Apple side of things every once in a while to understand why people choose the iPhone as their main device. The latest and greatest in the iPhone lineup is the iPhone XS Max, so let’s take a brief look before Google announces its latest next week…

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The iPhone XS Max takes everything that made the iPhone X such a popular device last year and then adds a level of polish not unlike that Samsung has been guilty of over the past few device iterations. Now the largest iPhone X device, the Max simply takes the footprint of the X and stretches outward for a slightly larger usability experience. This is especially noticeable with the icon layout, where the basic app grid feels more spacious than with previous Apple phones. But let’s talk hardware first…

Hardware

Very much a retread of the iPhone X but then supersized to accommodate the 6.5-inch display, the XS Max looks no different to the 2017 variant except in stature. I’d be lying if I said the iPhone wasn’t a good-looking smartphone; every single corner has been considered and crafted to the highest standards — something that does exceed many of the following pack in the Android space. Personally, I prefer the Samsung design aesthetic, but the XS Max is a very close second for me — I’d put the OnePlus 6 in third spot FWIW.

My rose gold variant, whilst stunning, only has a 1080p display. In my opinion, whether or not you can tell that it’s only 1080p is a moot point. Apple should be doing their utmost to pack at least 2K panels into devices at this point in 2018 — there is almost no excuse at this entry price. But, that gripe aside, the screen is still very good. Overall it’s bright, color accurate and has great viewing angles. Does it compare well to the Note 9? Yes, it actually does. Does it best the Note 9? No, it gets reasonably close but can’t quite beat it — even with Apple’s True Tone tech packed in.

The notch seems to eat into more of the admittedly larger display, but not to the detriment of the overall look and feel. Apple definitely owns the notch in a way few within the Google ecosystem can — not that I’d opt for a notch just for the fancy camera tricks.

iPhone XS Max Hardware

I don’t care for face unlocking if I’m completely honest. I like to use a fingerprint scanner as I don’t have to do some weird phone contortion or holding to simply get into my home screen. Picking up the iPhone XS Max for the first few days felt weird as I naturally reached for a non-existent scanner to get into the thing and even after registering my face to unlock, I turned that off pretty quickly — as I have with all of my other devices that have the feature included. That doesn’t mean the system isn’t good, because it’s exceptional. Unlocking is fast and fluid, as is the face registration process. Google could definitely learn a thing or two from the Apple system — but please keep the fingerprint reader!

The soft rounded edges of the display are flanked by the only physical buttons found on these newer iPhone devices, with the relatively large sleep/wake button being well positioned and satisfying to activate. The same can be said of the elongated volume rocker on the left side, but for me, the alert slider is still one of the best inclusions on iOS devices. Why can’t more OEMs adopt this simple but effective approach to silent modes? It works flawlessly and is especially important when I don’t want to frustrate or annoy when in public — granted my phone is on silent around 99% of the time.

Software

To me, at least, iOS feels very much the same as it did when I last used iOS 7 on the iPhone 5s model. Yes, it’s fast, and there are subtle neat animations and fluid motion tricks, but overall it’s simple and easy to use. That’s not to say I want something with a learning curve on my everyday mobile device, no, I simply want to have slightly more control to make the device my own. I do really like the gesture navigation, as it feels very natural and slick, but certain things do become awkward — especially on a device this large.

Accessing the quick menu takes a Herculean effort one-handed, as you have to reach the top right of the notch to pull down all of the quick toggles. Similarly, the notification shade is activated via swiping down from the left side or middle of the notch. You have to reach the outer edges of the display to activate these from your home screen; it just doesn’t work well. I like being able to swipe down on the fingerprint sensor on the Google Pixel — it requires a lot less reach. Whilst a minor criticism, it becomes more of a gripe when you use these portions of iOS on a daily basis.

iPhone XS Max Software

I find the multitasking system just more awkward than it should be — but it’s awesome when it works. Swiping up and holding doesn’t feel all that natural and slows the process down. Maybe I need to give it more time to get used to it.

One thing that I know will irk Apple fans as much as it annoyed me is the lack of apps that truly support this larger display. It reminds me of when I upgraded from the iPhone 4 to the 5, or when the iPad was first released. Applications will leave black bars or empty areas as they scale to the original aspect ratio they were designed. Granted this issue will get fixed over time, it’s still a jarring experience from a device that is marketed as the best available.

Whilst it has taken — and will continue to take — time to get used to gesture-based touch OSes, there is absolutely no slowdown on the Xs Max, as you’d expect. It’s an area all of Android could learn from, as iOS just feels like it responds much quicker to any input. It does sometimes feel slower when animations seem to take priority over brevity, but overall iOS 12 is snappy and smooth, no unwanted jankiness or slowdown to speak of.

Performance

Most of that smartphone-leading performance is thanks to the superb A12 Bionic CPU. It’s not a secret that Android is in dire need of something to rival the performance of Apple’s silicon. Even the productivity beast, the Note 9,  can’t compete with last years iPhone X — which packs in the previous Bionic chip.

Putting these CPUs into the iPhone XS Max and iPhone XS means that productivity is guaranteed. Apps like iMovie will fly through mobile edits with no slowdown or hiccups, it also means that AR is no problem either. Gaming performance is all handled by the A12 Bionic too, with an integrated four core GPU on the very same silicon.

As much as I would love Apple to be lagging behind in the performance stakes, they are beating Android in almost every metric. In day-to-day usage like messaging and surfing the web I didn’t really see a major difference, but the vast library of AR apps and games on the App Store are absolutely superb and put the platform performance differences into perspective.

Battery Life

Despite having a powerful CPU packed inside, you’d be surprised at just how power efficient the XS Max actually was. I kept my SIM card in the device for only a few days when testing the device out and not once did I have to worry about the 3174 mAh battery coming close to dying at the end of a long working day. It’s another area I get envious of iPhone users, especially when the phone is idle. Android might have Doze, but it pales in comparison to how little power the iPhone sips when not being actively used.

Camera

For years, we as Android users would cast envious glances at the quality on offer from Cupertino’s smartphones. But over the past few cycles of smartphone release, there seems to have been a pendulum swing towards more Android photo-led dominance. Google’s very own Pixel 2 devices have become the king of the pocket camera mountain and even though the XS Max includes an exceptional camera, it still doesn’t match the Pixel 2 XL. I’ve enjoyed taking time away from my everyday device — the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 — to give the 2018 iPhone a thorough test drive. Its camera takes much more ‘natural’ images, which do often make me consider carrying an iPhone simply for photo taking duties.

iPhone XS Max Camera App

Apple clearly knows what their customers — and by extension the average user — like with regard to image production. For me, the portrait mode proved to be the best feature in these new cameras. I really like being able to adjust the background blur after I’ve taken an image, it’s something that made me want to use the iPhone XS’ camera just that little bit more — although it’s far from perfect. I’ve found the camera to sometimes produce pictures that exhibit yellow or blue tints, which is something I  noticed in a few other camera comparisons published elsewhere.

It’s a great camera, I’m not denying that, but it’s just not the key selling point that Apple might have you believe. Overall I really like Apple’s choices when it comes to organizing the camera app — everything feels there at your fingertips with no modes or extra settings hard to find or hard to decipher. You can see why many other brands have adapted or taken design cues from the stock iOS camera app.

Final Thoughts

I’m kind of torn on the iPhone XS Max, as there is a heck of a lot to like about it. Does it do daily tasks exponentially better than the OnePlus 6 or Pixel 2 for instance? In my opinion, no. Does it offer the most complete spec sheet for your dollar? At over $1000 for the entry-level model with 64GB of storage, no headphone dongle and no fast charger in the box — despite support for faster charging — my take is definitely not. Do you want the best camera on the market? Then, without a doubt, this isn’t the device for you. Google’s Pixel 3 will likely take the cake there.

Despite this brief flirtation with iOS, I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not owning an iPhone, but I’m more intrigued than ever to give it a try again in future — to the point that I’m considering picking up last year’s iPhone X for a taste of what iOS 13 might offer come next summer. With all that being said, this is still the best iOS device on the market right now, even if it’s not the right iOS device for most looking to pick up a new Apple-powered smartphone. At least in terms of overall value — granted I’m likely preaching to the choir — Android ticks so many more boxes for me in 2018 and beyond.

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