iPhone XS Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: We compare the big phones

Apple and Samsung recently released large flagship smartphones priced at $1,000+. They are close to the same size and have the latest specs, but there are also some significant differences that will lead you to one over the other for your business needs.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

Apple set the bar for high-priced smartphones last year with the iPhone X starting at $999. This year's Samsung Galaxy Note 9 pushed that by 99 cents to a starting price of $999.99, followed soon after by Apple's even higher priced iPhone XS Max starting at $1,099. If you want either of these new smartphones, prepare to put down more than $1,000 or else finance it through the manufacturer or your local carrier to spread the pain out over two years.

The iPhone Xs Max and Galaxy Note 9 are both extremely powerful smartphones with today's highest specifications, advanced dual rear cameras, battery life that will last you at least a day, and a size that pushes the limits and requires two hands to comfortably navigate. While they may look similar on paper, they each have a slightly different focus too and you may come to prefer one over the other like I have.

Also: iPhone XS Max review: The iPhone's future is big and bright

Tale of the tape

Specifications don't provide the complete picture regarding the capabilities of a smartphone, but they are useful for comparison purposes and to provide you with an indication on what each manufacturer is providing.

Feature Apple iPhone XS Max Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Display size 6.5 inches 6.4 inches
Notch Yes No
Screen-to-body ratio 84.4% 83.4%
Dimensions 157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7 mm 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm
Weight 208 grams 201 grams
Internal storage 64/256/512 GB 128/512 GB
Removable storage No Yes
Battery capacity 3174 mAh 4000 mAh
3.5mm headset jack No Yes
Stereo speakers Yes Yes
Dual rear cameras Yes, both 12 megapixel Yes, both 12 megapixel
Other FaceID, dual SIM S Pen, FM radio, ANT+, heart rate sensor, iris sensor
Assistant Siri Bixby and Google Assistant

Both devices are great for business with large displays, excellent cameras, long battery life, and secure lock options. They also both have an IP68 dust and water resistant rating with a vast case and accessory market ready to outfit and protect your new expensive smartphone.

Due to my role here at ZDNet to test out and write about various smartphones, I currently own both of these flagship smartphones and both are being paid via monthly payment plans. I'm on the Samsung Galaxy Upgrade program for the Note 9 and using T-Mobile Jump On Demand for the Apple iPhone XS Max. However, most people will only choose one of these devices so let's look a bit closer at what makes each different from the other to see if there is one that fits your needs better.

If I did have to choose just one, then it would be the Galaxy Note 9 as you can see below.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Big battery and superb S Pen experience power productivity

Why pick the Samsung Galaxy Note 9?

My 10 best smartphones list will be updated as soon as we see what LG, Google, and Huawei have to announce in the next couple of weeks. Until then, the Galaxy Note 9 lives at the top of that list and it is going to take something special to knock it from that spot.

The Galaxy Note 9 has been in my hands now for more than a month. Here are features of the Note 9 that make it a compelling choice for business:

  • S Pen: I use the S Pen every single day and as I get older it becomes even more valuable to improving my productivity. A coworker just moved from years of using the iPhone to the Note 9 after trying mine out and seeing that Apple did not announce Pencil support for the iPhone XS Max. He is a creative person and loves to doodle and write with a stylus/pen so he bought the Note 9 primarily for the S Pen functionality. The S Pen is a true differentiator in the smartphone market.
  • Samsung DeX: Samsung DeX -- see our Executive Guide -- has been greatly improved on the Note 9 and you can truly use it as your phone and computer with very little compromise. A separate dock is no longer needed and when you plug in an external monitor a full desktop experience appears. The potential for DeX is huge and while it may not be used much by consumers, it makes sense for many businesses looking to maintain a secure environment with lower cost for IT management.
  • Samsung Bixby: Samsung includes a hardware button to launch Bixby and if you truly spend time with it you may find it to be quite compelling thanks in large part to Quick Commands. Bixby works with many third party apps while Siri is often limited to Apple's own apps and ecosystem.
  • Cellular performance: In my experiences, Samsung smartphones achieve stronger reception when compared directly to Apple iPhones. The newest iPhones finally support Gigabit LTE and can match the speed of Android phones in strong signal areas, but there is something amiss in low signal areas. I've also experienced crystal clear calls on Samsung phones while some iPhone calls have been less than stellar.
  • Split-screen and pop-up window support: I've thoroughly enjoyed having a Google Maps or Netflix window showing me directions or playing a video while multi-tasking on the Note 9 and at first was a bit stunned when Google Maps was hidden on the iPhone XS Max when I tried to do something else. I also use the split-screen option on the Note 9 to use two apps side-by-side and was surprised to see that the iPhone XS Max doesn't support these iPad-like functions with its big display.
  • 3.5mm headset jack: Most smartphones have done away with the standard headphone jack, but Samsung keeps supporting this port and I'm a fan of this strategy.
  • USB-C charging: USB-C is used today to charge up many laptop, Chromebooks, and Apple computers so it's a standard that is readily available to charge your phone. Apple's Lightning is a standard for Apple iPhones, but it is more limited than USB-C.

Why pick the Apple iPhone XS Max?

For the first time in many years, I kept the iPhone X in hand and in use for an entire year. The iPhone usually bores me after a few months and I move on to the next shiny Android phone, but the iPhone X kept me excited for many months. After a week using the iPhone XS Max, I'm not sure if it is staying or if I am sticking with the compact, pocket-friendly iPhone X.

The iPhone XS Max is a great technological improvement over the iPhone X, as clearly stated by Jason in his full review. Here are some reasons to choose the iPhone XS Max over the Note 9:

  • Immediate software updates: Apple takes the crown for keeping your device updated and providing timely updates for years. If you want to always be sure to have the latest and greatest software on your phone, Google's Pixel line is the only other option that comes close to Apple.
  • Siri shortcuts: The usefulness of Siri took a major step forward with iOS12. I understand Siri Shortcuts could be as good, or better, than Bixby Quick Commands so stay tuned for a full article comparing these two advanced automation options.
  • Best smartphone display ever: Samsung may manufacture the Super AMOLED screens used in the Apple iPhone XS Max, but Apple is also part of the process and they are Apple displays. Recent independent test results prove that the iPhone XS Max display is the best display ever on a smartphone.
  • Rocking stereo speakers: The Note 9 has stereo speakers, but they can't compare to the high volume and great sounding audio that comes out of the iPhone XS Max. It's the best I've heard in a smartphone and makes you want to leave the headphones behind.
  • Speed and performance: iOS is a more optimized operating system that is able to zip right along with lower specced hardware. iOS manages apps differently, but there is no denying that you can fly around on an iPhone with ease.
  • Ease of use: The basic iPhone interface hasn't changed much in a decade with the app launcher right there on the home screen. The iPhone is easier to use than an Android phone, despite all of the advances made in Android over the years.

If you prefer a particular operating system over the other, then it's a clear choice which is best for you. However, you may be like my coworker and willing to switch your entire ecosystem to get the feature you like. It's really not difficult to switch between the platforms today with most everything syncing to cloud accounts. Which device do you prefer?

How to use Apple Pencil: 21 features, tips, and tricks

Previous and related coverage:

Apple vs Samsung phones: We compare the Galaxy S series and the iPhone XS

Should you buy the latest Apple or Samsung device? And which size? This guide breaks down the factors that matter most to business buyers and consumers alike.

Six months with Apple Watch 3: I'm sold

I hadn't worn a watch for 20 years when I bought an Apple Watch Series 3 six months ago. Now I wear it every day. Here's why -- and what I don't like.

iPhone XS Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9: We compare the big phones

Apple and Samsung recently released large flagship smartphones priced at $1,000+. They are close to the same size and have the latest specs, but there are also some significant differences that will lead you to one over the other for your business needs.

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