The iPhone XS Max is an absolutely gorgeous phone, but it proves that bigger isn't always better

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

There is a moment when you’re holding the gold iPhone XS Max in your hands where you’ll start doing the mental maths.

“How much is $US1,100 anyway?” you’ll ask yourself.

“If I just financed it, it’s not that much money per month,” you’ll think.

You’ll start to imagine your life with the phone, mentally calculating whether it will fit in your pocket or purse (it probably won’t) and whether you actually need a screen that big (you probably don’t).

You’ll want to own the XS Max not because your life demands a smartphone that costs as much as the average mortgage payment, but because the gold iPhone XS Max is a stop-and-stare type of product. It’s the type of thing that elicits squeals of delight from people with good taste, a device people can’t resist reaching out to touch, even though doing so automatically deposits fingerprints all over its glossy surface.

You’ll want to own the XS Max because even holding the XS Max feels luxurious.

But the thing about the XS Max is that it’s supposed to be a tool to make your life easier. It’s not supposed to just look amazing – it’s supposed to work amazingly well. And after spending a week with the device, I can say it does that. Mostly.

IPhone XS MaxHollis Johnson/Business Insider

The large display wasn’t a bonus

There’s no getting around it: The iPhone XS Max is huge.

Its screen is outlandishly large, seemingly fit for the mitts of a giant rather than regular, human hands. If you’ve owned the iPhone 6 Plus, 7 Plus, or 8 Plus, you’ll still notice a change. While the XS Max is basically the same overall size as the “Plus” models, it’s as if Apple stretched the screen at the top and bottom to fill the space previously occupied by the home button and top corners. The result is a bigger screen in the same general form factor, and that change brings its own challenges.

During my tests of the phone, there was never a circumstance in which I felt comfortable even holding the XS Max with one hand, and one-handed use is downright impossible – I’d estimate that my thumb was able to reach less than a third of the screen.

For the record, turning on reachability – an accessibility feature that shortens the app you’re using to half the height of the screen – didn’t solve the problem. I still couldn’t reach the entire screen, which literally defeats the purpose of the feature.

For me, someone with smaller hands, this was a major downside of the XS Max. There are so many situations where I need to use my phone one-handed, and it’s neither possible nor smart to try to do that with the XS Max.

IPhone XS MaxHollis Johnson/Business Insider

Beyond not being able to reach all four corners of the screen, I was constantly wondering what the actual point was of having such an enormous display. Sure, you can see more of an app at a time, and if you have poor eyesight, I imagine having a large font on a large screen would be beneficial.

But for me, the huge screen was just an annoyance. I could see all the ways it would be cool to have a big screen, but none played out during regular use. It would have been great to watch a video that took up the entire display, but that’s not possible – each one had large black bars on the top and bottom, and sometimes on the sides. The same went for games.

The huge screen didn’t help me be more productive, or creative, or even more entertained – it just made me feel frustrated.

IPhone XS MaxHollis Johnson/Business Insider

The camera really is that great

It’s true: The camera on the XS Max is better than those of most other phones on the market.

For me, the bar for smartphone cameras is usually set by Google’s Pixel lineup; I’ve never been disappointed. That remains mostly true of the Pixel 3, which came out last month.

But in a few situations while using both devices, I felt as though the XS Max actually performed better. We’ll have a full test of both phones side by side soon, but for now I can say that portrait mode on the iPhone has definitely improved. I was impressed by my portrait-mode photos and thought they were better than the Pixel’s for the first time maybe ever.

Let’s not get ahead ourselves, though – if you have the iPhone X, and maybe even the iPhone 8 Plus, I can’t imagine the camera on the XS Max is so much better that you need to upgrade. It’s great, but it’s not life-changing.

IPhone XS MaxHollis Johnson/Business Insider

The same old iOS

Since this was an “S year,” there’s so much about the XS Max that’s identical to last year’s iPhone X.

The design is unchanged, apart from the new gold colour, and everything else has been refined rather than overhauled. The battery life appears to be slightly better – I typically got well over a full day, though the iPhone X already had great battery life – and some minor features were improved, like less shutter lag when you take a photo. Plus, it’s slightly faster overall, thanks to a new chip.

But much about the XS Max is the same as the X, and the XR, and even iPhones from two, three, four years ago, and that’s because of iOS. Once you get over some of the biggest changes of upgrading to a fancy new phone, you’re left with the exact same operating system that everyone else has. And no, you probably won’t use features like Memoji and Animoji very often. You might even forget about them altogether.

That’s what makes Apple so great, and also so frustrating. If you bought an iPhone 8, for example, you still have a fantastic phone that works mostly like the brand-new phone. But that also makes it hard for me to justify the XS Max’s high price tag – you’re shelling out at least $US1,100 for a beautiful design with incremental improvements.

So yes, go ahead and buy the iPhone XS Max (in gold!) if you’re obsessed with design, have an old iPhone and now want the very best and very biggest of what Apple makes, have big hands, or are just super rich.

Apple’s biggest-screen iPhone commands its biggest price tag yet for an iPhone, but it also demands the attention of everyone around it. It will make you look very, very fancy.

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