Tech review: If you are a casual technology user who wants a superb smartphone that is comfortable to carry, it is recommended you go for the XS. If you plan to treat your phone as a primary computer, go for the XS Max.
For the past few years, I have been a naysayer on one feature of smartphones: their growing size.
My position was unusual given the increasing prevalence of larger screen devices. The world’s top phone makers have all added more substantial glass screens to stretch from one edge of their smartphones to another, on the theory that people can better enjoy their apps and content on an ample display.
Apple helped seal the deal last week when it announced its new phones this year — the iPhone XR, XS and XS Max — would have screens that measured between 5.8 and 6.5 inches diagonally, compared with 4.7 and 5.5 inches two years ago. In fact, the 6.5-inch screen on the iPhone XS Max is Apple’s biggest ever. (The original iPhone in 2007 started with a 3.5-inch screen.)
I have been troubled by this trend. These devices spend a lot of time in your pocket and your hand, and there are often compromises in portability and comfort when the screens balloon in size. For those reasons, I never liked the Plus phones, the line of iPhones Apple introduced in 2014 with 5.5-inch screens. They felt impossible to use with one hand and far too bulky in a pocket.
So it’s humbling to come to you with another confession: The iPhone XS and the iPhone XS Max may make me a convert to bigger smartphones.
Last week, I began testing both new iPhone models. I had predicted that the larger display on the XS Max would be unwieldy in my pocket and make the phone cumbersome to hold with one hand while typing and reaching for buttons inside apps.
There were other things I figured I would dislike. The prices of Apple’s phones, for one, have shot up. The XS will start at $999 and the XS Max at $1,099 when both become available Friday, compared with $699, $799 and $999 for new iPhones last year. The iPhone XR, which will be released Oct. 19, is starting at $749.
None of the new phones are making huge technological leaps from last year, either. The iPhone XS and XS Max have a dual-lens camera, while the XR has a single-lens camera. All three iPhones include Face ID, the feature for unlocking the phone using face recognition.
Yet after running the 6.5-inch XS Max alongside the 5.8-inch XS through different situations and conditions for a week, I was surprised by my reaction. Far from being disappointed by the supersized devices, I was delighted.
The trade-offs of the jumbo model felt minor. By eliminating the bezels, which are the screen’s borders, Apple did a terrific job of increasing screen size without adding bulk or compromising the usability of the XS Max. I think the smaller XS is a better fit for most people, but many would enjoy the XS Max.
Here’s how all the testing went down.
The iPhone XS Max
I began by testing the iPhone XS Max, because why not start with the biggest device? I moved my SIM card and all my data from an older iPhone to the new gadget and took it with me to dinner parties, bars, meetings and the gym.
After three days, I was surprised by how good it felt to use the XS Max with one hand. A key factor was how Apple managed to cram a bigger screen into a slightly smaller body. (The body of the Plus phones was 6.24 by 3.07 inches, while the XS Max’s body is 6.2 by 3.05 inches.)
These changes amounted to meaningful improvements in ergonomics and overall convenience. I was able to hold the XS Max in one hand and type messages easily. In contrast, my thumb could not reach keys on the sides of the older iPhone 8 Plus, like the shift or the backspace keys, because of the space taken up by the bezel.
And I found the jumbo-screen XS Max beneficial in several instances. While driving, it was easier to read maps. The bigger screen made writing longer emails — a task that I usually do on a laptop — more pleasant. The display was also nice for reading recipes in the kitchen.
While browsing Instagram next to my partner, I said to her, “If you can use this thing with one hand, who would want the smaller phone if you only have to pay $100 more for this huge screen?”
“But does it fit inside your pocket?” she asked.
The iPhone XS
That brings me to the iPhone XS. After taking the larger XS Max with me for three days and feeling good about it, I switched to the iPhone XS — and immediately experienced a sense of relief.
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I found I simply preferred the XS’s smaller body for the basic task of moving around. Having the smaller phone in my pocket felt less obtrusive during dog walks, long hikes and gym sessions.
I also found the XS easier to use as a camera. While the XS and XS Max share identical camera systems, which produce excellent, clear photos with natural-looking colors in normal and low-light conditions, the smaller phone worked better in a pinch because it was easier to pull out of a pocket and quickly stabilize to take a clear shot.
As a self-diagnosed phone addict who is trying to cut down on screen time, I decided the XS also felt healthier for me. The XS Max screen was so good looking that I wanted to keep reading articles and looking at photos on Instagram. When I used Apple’s new Screen Time feature to monitor my use of each device, I discovered that I spent an average of roughly 5½ hours a day on the XS Max, 2 hours more than on the XS.
So where does that leave us? I concluded I no longer had any real objection to the bigger size of the iPhone XS Max, but felt that the smaller XS was a better mobile phone because it was just as capable but more portable and pocketable.
That means if you are a more casual technology user who wants a superb smartphone that is comfortable to carry, I recommend you go for the XS. If you plan to treat your phone as a primary computer, go for the XS Max.
One flaw frustrated me in both iPhones: the poor design of Reachability, the software feature that was designed to make larger phone screens easier to use with one hand. On past iPhones, Reachability let people tap the home button twice to lower the top of the screen and reach for the buttons up there. Now there is no home button, so the way to trigger Reachability is to swipe down from the bottom of the screen.
That’s problematic because when you swipe from the bottom, it’s easy to unintentionally hit a button on the bottom of an app, like the search tab inside Instagram or the video tab inside Facebook. There is a clear opportunity here for Apple to use the iPhone’s pressure sensitivity, called 3D Touch, to let you press hard on the bottom of the screen to trigger Reachability. But for now, we are stuck with swiping down.
Apple said the Reachability swipe gesture was designed as a quick action to let people easily reach for the top of the screen.
What about the iPhone XR?
So who should get the entry level iPhone XR? Apple did not provide a review unit for the XR because it will be released next month, so I can’t say with authority.
But I suspect it will largely come down to whether you can live with a single-lens camera, which doesn’t do as good a job taking those DSLR-like photos with a blurred background and a sharpened foreground. The XS is about $250 more than the XR, but I’m sold on dual-lens cameras.
For years, Apple customers have gotten in the habit of buying a new iPhone sight unseen. But now that there are several sizes for different prices, I encourage you to try before you buy.
It may not hurt to wait for the XR’s release next month so you can test all three in a store. Play with the cameras and pay close attention to how each phone feels in one hand and inside your pocket.
It’s important that you find the right fit: Since you have to pay so much for your next iPhone, you will probably live with it for a long time. And who knows? You might assume you will dislike a bigger screen and then change your mind — just as I did.