We tested the new iPhone XS Max. Here’s why you might need one — and why you wouldn’t

The iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XS on display.
The iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XS on display.Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Maybe the best thing about the newest, largest Apple iPhone, the XS Max, is that you can live without it.

This modest upgrade to last year’s flagship iPhone X is just what it needs to be — a little bigger and a little better. It’s also a little more expensive, with a starting price of $1,099 that is $100 more than its predecessor.

Ready to pay? If you’ve bought an iPhone in the last year or two, you needn’t bother buying this new model. But if you’re in the market anyway, XS Max has a handful of technical tweaks that do seem to matter.


Sheer screen size, for one. The body of the XS Max is about the same size as the iPhone 8 Plus. But unlike the 8 Plus, which had wide bezels and 5.5-inch screen, the XS Max is basically one giant screen from edge to edge, with a diagonal width of 6.5 inches. Replacing the Touch ID fingerprint scanner with the Face ID facial recognition system pays off in a big way here.

At least, it usually does. Face ID still isn’t quite as consistent as fingerprint scanning. The Max usually unlocked when I glanced at it, but all too often I had to move the phone back and forth before it would recognize me.

The rear cameras on the new phone are excellent as ever and come with an upgrade that can polish close-up portraits. The original iPhone X has software in portrait mode to create “bokeh,” the photographer’s word for that pleasantly blurry background that lends drama to a face in the foreground. The XS Max’s new camera has a setting that lets you add or subtract bokeh, changing the focus to a soft blur or sharpening it to crystal clarity. Pushed too far, the results can look a little pasted-on and Photoshoppy. Still, it’s a lovely option.


I wasn’t able to check out another welcome upgrade, but that’s down to AT&T, not Apple. The company’s new 5G Evolution service hasn’t reached the section of downtown Boston where my office is located, so I wasn’t able to achieve cellular download speeds of 100 megabits or more. I’m told I’d have better luck in other neighborhoods, such as the North End.

Don’t be fooled; 5G Evolution is not true 5G, the superfast wireless technology cellular companies are only now beginning to deploy. The “Evolution” version is AT&T’s name for an improved version of existing 4G service.

A number of high-end smartphones, including the latest from Samsung Corp., have been compatible with advanced 4G for about a year. The new Apple phones are the first from that company to support the technology. So if you do upgrade, you might be pleasantly surprised by the zip in your downloads.

In all, the Max gives you what you’d expect — plenty of everything. But if you bought an iPhone in the last year or the year before, relax. You’re behind the curve, but not by all that much. As for those still toting an iPhone 6 or even older models: If you’ve got $1,100 to spare, go right ahead. I won’t try to talk you out of it.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.