Apple iPhone XS and XS Max
Photo: Tercius Bufete

For many iPhone fans, bigger may prove to be better—at least a little.

Apple’s biggest smartphone to date—the iPhone XS Max, starting at $1,100, which boasts a 6.5-inch display—hit stores Friday, alongside the iPhone XS, starting at $1,000, which offers the same features in a package essentially the size of the iPhone X introduced in 2017.

Consumer Reports buys everything we test at retail to make sure we get the same products you do. We purchased the new iPhones as soon as they became available to the public, and our full test results will be available in a bit more than a week.

Our testers started evaluating the phones’ new features right away—and we can already assess some of Apple’s claims for the new top-of-the-line iPhones.

The XS and XS Max both represent incremental updates from the original iPhone X; the improvements include the camera’s advanced “bokeh” capability and Apple’s fastest processor to date.

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But while the tech giant says its new displays are the sharpest on the market, our in-house expert didn’t see much of a difference compared with displays on last year’s X and Samsung’s latest premium smartphone, the Galaxy Note9.

If you already own the X, there may not be enough upside here to entice you to upgrade. But if you own an older smartphone and are willing to part with a grand or more, you might want to think about picking up one of the new Apple phones.

Too rich for your blood? Don’t worry, there are other great iPhones still on the market—including the iPhone X. Opting for an older model may save you several hundred dollars.

Additionally, Apple’s new $750 iPhone XR is coming out Oct. 26. That phone will have a 6.1-inch LCD screen and a single camera but the same processor as the XS.

In the market for a new smartwatch? We’re hard at work testing the new Apple Watch Series 4, too. The Watch has a bigger, easier-to-read screen than its predecessor, on a thinner, less bulky face. And according to Apple, the speaker is louder and the processor is faster. Look for those results in about a week.

In the meantime, here’s our first look at the iPhone XS and XS Max.

From left, the iPhone X, iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone 8 Plus, and Samsung Galaxy Note9.
Sizing up the competition: From left, the iPhone X, XS, XS Max, and 8 Plus, and the Samsung Galaxy Note9.
Photo: Tercius Bufete

Just How Big Is It?

The Max is big—really big. The 6.5-inch display is the largest of any phone listed in our ratings. But that doesn’t mean the Max is unwieldy.

The body is actually a tad smaller than that of the iPhone 8 Plus, introduced alongside the iPhone X in 2017. But since the XS Max has no home button and almost no bezel around the screen, there’s room for a display that’s a little over 1 inch larger, when measured diagonally.

That helps keep the Max from feeling bulky. Aside from the now-trademark notch at the top, it’s basically all screen. There’s no waste.

That’s the case for the XS, too. Just like the X before it, it has a display that measures 5.8 inches, but it feels fairly compact, especially when compared with the smaller-screened 8 Plus.

The only model on the market that really compares to the iPhone XS Max is the Samsung Galaxy Note9, which has a 6.4-inch display. But that phone is narrower, so when you hold the two models back to back, the Note9 stands taller.

The skinnier construction on the Note9 makes it easier to hold, but it’s also harder to reach the top of the screen with your thumb. With the Max, you might have a little more trouble wrapping your fingers around the body—especially if you put the phone in a case—but you won’t have to stretch as much to reach the icons on the top row.

If you like to watch video on your phone, or use the iPhone’s split-screen capabilities for things like email or updating your calendar, the Max might appeal to you. But try before you buy, especially if you have small hands.

For many people, that long reach to the far corners of the screen could get old really fast. 

Photos taken iPhone XS and XS Max using
The XS and XS Max let you digitally adjust the camera's "bokeh" effect, blurring the background little by little.
Photo: Tercius Bufete

Improved Portrait Mode

The most notable upgrade to the phones’ cameras is the improved bokeh capability. The popular photography technique lets you take portraits where the subject in the foreground remains in sharp focus and the background is blurred in an artsy way.

In previous iPhones, Portrait mode would automatically blur the background to create this effect. But the cameras on the XS and XS Max let you manually adjust the amount of blur after you take the picture.

This handy feature, also found on the Note9, requires you to first take your picture in Portrait mode. But after you do that, you can use the slider at the bottom of the image to adjust the depth of field to your liking.

Our testers spent a considerable amount of time playing around with the feature in our labs, even comparing it with the bokeh performance of a good-quality DSLR camera.

It’s a neat option that lets you decide exactly how far to go with the blur. And it does work as promised. But as with any smartphone camera, it’s not going to match the bokeh effect you get with a good Canon, Nikon, or other stand-alone camera.

“It shows there’s still room in the world for those big cameras with interchangeable lenses,” says Richard Fisco, CR’s head of smartphone testing.  

In the lab, the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone X, and Samsung Galaxy Note9 smartphones.
The speedy processor in the XS outperformed the competition in our standard benchmark tests.
Photo: Tercius Bufete

Superfast Processor

Apple says its new A12 Bionic chip is the company’s fastest ever,  giving the phones the processor power needed for operations such as augmented reality apps and graphics-intensive games.

Apple optimizes performance by creating its own processors and highly customizing them to suit its hardware and software, boosting power and efficiency.

We ran two standard benchmark tests on the XS (the Max has the same processor), stressing the phone’s main and graphics processors by making them carry out a series of operations. For comparative purposes, we also ran the tests on the iPhone X, iPhone 8, and the Note9.  

When we put the phones’ processing and graphics capabilities to the test, the XS beat them all. But the performance of the other contenders wasn’t significantly worse, especially considering the kinds of tasks consumers typically perform with their phones.

“Most people would be hard-pressed to see the differences,” Fisco says.

One big question may be how much that faster processor taxes the phones’ batteries. Apple says the chip is designed to be more power-efficient. In fact, the company claims the batteries in the XS and XS Max will last longer than those in its previous phones.

We’ll take a closer look at that claim in the coming days.

Claudio Ciacci, who oversees TV testing at Consumer Reports, studies the pixels in the new iPhones' screens.
Claudio Ciacci, who oversees TV testing at CR, studies the pixels in the new iPhones' screens.
Photo: Tercius Bufete

Better Display?

There’s no discernible difference between the published specs for the displays on the X, XS, and XS Max, but Apple says the new screens are the best the company has ever produced, with industry-leading color accuracy, brightness, and contrast.

All use the OLED technology found in some premium TVs, which allows for darker black levels and nearly unlimited viewing angles. 

Claudio Ciacci, who heads Consumer Reports’ TV testing program, used standard test patterns to compare the screens on the new models with those on the Note9 and two iPhone X phones—one running the new iOS 12 and the other running the previous operating system.

Ciacci confirmed that the new iPhones have deep black levels and supersharp displays—but he didn’t see differences between them and the other models.

Because the XS Max has such a large display, though, it has significantly more pixels than the older iPhones. And, Ciacci says, that gives it the ability to show more detail than phones with similar specs.  

 

The iPhone XS and XS Max are among the most expensive smartphones you can buy, pricier than many laptops and televisions. While our first impressions are positive, we’ll be taking a closer look at the phones to provide consumers with more information for making a buying decision.   

Two areas we’re particularly interested in testing are durability and battery life.

The iPhone X didn’t fare well last year in a tumble test that repeatedly drops each phone from a height of about 2.5 feet, suffering damage to its display and a cracked back. And that phone lagged behind a number of other high-end models in battery life, which we test with an indefatigable robotic finger that puts each test sample through a wide range of tasks, from browsing the web to taking photos.

No matter how well the phones do in our testing, it can really pay to spend time in a store playing with these phones. See if you like the large screens, how you feel about the lack of a Home button, and how much you enjoy the expensive OLED screen.