iPhone XS Max first impressions: It's big, but not too big

Does the biggest iPhone ever make a good first impression? Let's look.
Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributing Writer

Apple's iPhone XS and XS Max have arrived. Customers have lined up across the world in anticipation of the launch day Apple Store experience, all the while delivery trucks with countless identical boxes are delivering new phones globally.

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My FedEx box arrived about an hour ago. Inside was a review sample of the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. I plan on more thoroughly testing both devices in the coming days and weeks, but until then, I thought I'd offer some of my first impressions of the iPhone XS Max -- the biggest iPhone Apple has ever made.

It's not that big

(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Skimming through my Twitter timeline after the iPhone XS review embargo lifted earlier this week (I refuse to read reviews of a product until after I've reviewed it), I got the impression that the iPhone XS Max was too big for most reviewers.

And while, yes, it's a big phone, it's not earth-shattering big. It's marginally smaller than the Samsung Note 9, despite having an ever-so-slightly larger display. If the iPhone XS Max is too big, then the Note 9 is also too big, and by extension, the iPhone 8 Plus is too (it's taller and wider than the XS Max, but barely).

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I actually feel as if the iPhone XS Max is more comfortable to hold than the Note 9. There's something about the way the two curved edges meet on each side of the Note 9 that, by itself isn't noticeable, but when holding the iPhone XS Max at the same time, just feels weird.

I don't have big hands and have resisted the trend of bigger phones as much as I possibly could over the past few years. The Note 9 was the first overly big phone I felt comfortable using, and I hope after some more time with the iPhone XS Max, I feel the same way.

Reachability makes a comeback

One of the complaints I saw this week was that reaching for the notification shade when using the XS Max with one hand was difficult and uncomfortable. I agree.

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For me, it's just not possible to reach the top of the phone and swipe down to reveal notifications or Control Center with one hand. As frustrating as that is, iOS does offer a workaround. It's called Reachability.

(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Reachability lowers the top-half of the display, putting it within reach. The feature has been around since the iPhone 6, when Apple increased the size of its devices and screens. Users activated the feature with a double-tap on the home button. But with the iPhone X, and now the iPhone XS and iPhone XR ditching the home button, there's also a new method to access the feature.

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To use Reachability on modern iPhones, you need to place a finger at the bottom of the display and quickly swipe down. When done right, the screen will move down, putting whatever is at the top of the screen within thumb's reach.

In my brief time with the iPhone XS Max this morning, it's clear to me I once again need to get used to triggering Reachability and start using it more often.

More to come

Outside of the phone simply being bigger, it's the same ol' iPhone X form factor and design I've used for the past 11 months. The buttons, cameras, ports, and finish are all the same.

I haven't had time to get a good feel for battery life or the camera, but I will say that the adjustable Portrait Mode photos is seamless to use, and I can't wait to test it outside of my office, where it's possible to take more than a couple photos of a HomePod or my dog.

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I will have a full review of the iPhone XS Max in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. Much more to come.

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