The iPhone Xs Max is the most expensive iPhone ever made, with a starting price of $1,099. Its 6.5-inch display is the biggest on any iPhone. And its name is certainly the most ridiculous. This is, to be sure, a phone of extremes.
And yet, many of my friends say they'll be getting an iPhone Xs Max the first day it's available. I guess another superlative we need to apply to the iPhone Xs Max may be "most appealing to a certain type of customer."
Let's break down what makes the iPhone Xs Max such an interesting product.
A lack of differentiation
First, here's what the iPhone Xs Max isn't. Unlike the iPhone Plus models Apple released for the previous four years, the iPhone Xs Max doesn't offer anything the standard-size iPhone Xs lacks. The old Plus models had an extra camera with support for zoom modes and, in later models, Portrait Mode. Not the Max — it's got the same processor and cameras as the regular-size, $999 iPhone Xs.
Sometimes, size does matter
Where the Max comes out ahead is in sheer size. That 6.5-inch, 2688 by 1242-pixel OLED display is larger than the 5.8-inch screen on the Xs. And the Max's extra volume — it's 6.2 x 3.05 inches, compared to 5.65 x 2.79 inches on the iPhone Xs — means there's room for a little more battery, too. As a result, Apple estimates that an iPhone Xs Max can last about an hour longer than the regular iPhone Xs.
If you've ever used an iPhone Plus model, you'll know that these large iPhones offer a feature not available on any other iPhone ... at least, when you hold it horizontally. In that orientation, the display is wide enough that apps can display two different panes of content at once, as if the phone were a teeny iPad. The Mail app, for instance, shows your message list on the left while previewing a single message on the right.
Productivity in hand
For people who seamlessly move from iPhone to laptop to tablet, the idea of using an enormous phone might seem strange. But the smartphone market has taught us that a lot of people — especially in parts of the world where an iPhone might be their primary productivity device — will prioritize screen size over most other smartphone features.
A friend of mine used to run a small business on the side while working full time at a job that required a long commute. His iPhone Plus allowed him to work on his own business while riding the train to his other job. If you've got small hands, it may frustrate you that Apple is apparently embracing the large-phone trend, but the market seems to have spoken — and it's shouting, "Bigger phones."
What about the iPhone XR?
Here's the strange thing about the iPhone Xs Max: It's not the only large-screen iPhone Apple introduced this week. That means, for the first time, people in the market for an Apple phone with a big display have a serious choice to make. So, why did most of my friends pick the iPhone Xs Max?
The 6.1-inch iPhone XR has only a single camera, so it can't zoom in to telephoto mode, nor can it detect depth optically in order to create Portrait Mode photos. Instead, it uses the focus pixels on the device and some clever learning algorithms to generate portrait effects. If you want the best photographic experience, you'll choose the iPhone Xs Max.
Then, there's the display itself. The iPhone XR's screen is just 6.1 inches diagonal, so it's smaller than the iPhone Xs Max's screen, and it has lower resolution: 326 dpi, compared to the Max's 458 dpi. The iPhone XR is an HD display, but only barely. And, of course, the XR's screen uses LCD technology, not OLED.
I got a chance to look at the iPhone XR at Apple's event, and it's a very, very good LCD screen. But if you want bright colors and the blackest blacks, whether you're watching movies, looking at photos or even using apps with fashionably dark interfaces, you'll want the iPhone Xs Max.
The $350 dilemma
The big issue with the iPhone XS Max is its price. At $1,099, it is the most expensive iPhone ever, and if you choose the 512GB model, you'll pay $1,449. That's an awful lot of money.
Meanwhile, the iPhone XR sells for $749 to start, with the 256GB model going for $899. (That's another reason to choose the Xs Max — if you need more than 256GB of storage space.) Is the iPhone XS Max worth $350 more than the iPhone XR? As with all devices, it depends entirely on what you want to do with it. If you really care about display quality and resolution and want a better camera setup, the iPhone Xs Max is the right answer. Apparently, everyone I know falls in that camp. Do you?
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Jason Snell was lead editor of Macworld for more than a decade and still contributes a weekly column there. He's currently running the Six Colors blog, which covers all of Apple's doings, and he's the creative force behind The Incomparable, a weekly pop culture podcast and network of related shows.