Apple iPhone XS Max review: Flagship imaging power

The Apple iPhone XS Max comes with one of the best mobile cameras we have ever tested, and in many areas offers noticeable improvements over last year’s iPhone X.

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PitK / Shutterstock.com
Apple iPhone XS Max. PitK / Shutterstock.com

by Lars Rehm

Apple’s brand-new iPhone XS Max features the company’s largest smartphone display ever — a 6.5-inch Super AMOLED variant — but otherwise comes with camera specs that on the surface look pretty much identical to last year’s iPhone X.

A closer look reveals important changes, however.

For example, the 12MP sensor in the dual-camera setup’s wide-angle module is now larger than before, featuring 1.4 µm pixels compared to 1.22 µm on the iPhone X.

But like the previous version, the new lens channels light onto the sensor through a 6-element lens with an f/1.8 aperture, and as before, the 2x tele-camera comes with 1.0µm pixels and an f/2.4 aperture in a six-element lens.

Both lenses are optically stabilized.

On the software and image processing side of things, the improvements are more obvious.

During still image capture, the camera continuously captures a multi-frame buffer at different exposures, allowing for simultaneous zero shutter lag and HDR processing, something that is unique to the new iPhone at this point.

This also means the iPhone XS Max is capable of displaying HDR images in real-time in the preview image, so what you see is what you get. Again, to our knowledge, this preview function is not currently available from any of the new iPhone’s close competitors.

In video mode, the iPhone XS Max can shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second and 1080p Full-HD at up to 240fps. The faster sensor readout allows for better video stabilization and a reduced jello effect.

In addition, the camera can shoot footage with expanded dynamic range when the frame rate is limited to 30 fps

The new iPhone’s hardware and software specifications make for impressive reading. Read our full report to find out how all the new tech translates into still image and video results.

Please note: The smaller iPhone XS comes with identical camera hardware and software as the XS Max, so will likely achieve the same or very similar test results and scores as the latter. However, our testing was undertaken on the iPhone XS Max only.

Key camera specifications:

  • Dual-camera setup
  • 12Mp main camera with 1/2.55″ sensor (1.4µm pixels) and six-element f/1.8-aperture lens, 26mm equivalent focal length
  • 12Mp secondary 2x tele-camera with 1/3.4″ sensor (1.0µm pixels) and six-element f/2.4-aperture lens, 52mm equivalent focal length
  • Optical image stabilization on both lenses
  • Phase-detection autofocus (PDAF)
  • Quad-LED dual-tone flash
  • 4K video at 30/60 fps, 1080p at up to 240 fps

About DxOMark Mobile tests: For scoring and analysis in our smartphone camera reviews, DxOMark engineers capture and evaluate over 1500 test images and more than 2 hours of video both in controlled lab environments and in natural indoor and outdoor scenes, using the camera’s default settings. 

This article is designed to highlight the most important results of our testing. For more information about the DxOMark Mobile test protocol, click here. More details on how we score smartphone cameras are available here.

Apple iPhone XS Max. Hadrian / Shutterstock.com
Apple iPhone XS Max. Hadrian / Shutterstock.com

Test summary

With a DxOMark Mobile overall score of 105, Apple’s iPhone XS Max achieves an excellent second place in our smartphone ranking and is currently surpassed only by Huawei’s triple-camera juggernaut P20 Pro. The camera’s highlight is its outstanding video quality in bright light. Footage recorded outdoors on a bright day shows a very wide dynamic range, vivid colors, and high levels of detail. In addition, a very effective image stabilization system keeps camera shake to a minimum, making the new iPhone an enticing option for any mobile video shooter.

Our testers were also pleased by the still image quality in bright light, which is excellent all around. Exposure in outdoor images tends to be spot on, levels of detail are high, and colors are pleasant.

If we had to pick one aspect of the camera that could be improved, it’s zoom performance. While zoom has been slightly improved compared to last year’s iPhone X, iPhone XS Max zoom images show coarse luminance noise and less detail than some high-end rivals, such as the Huawei P20 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.

Conclusion

The Apple iPhone XS Max comes with one of the best mobile cameras we have ever tested, and in many areas offers noticeable improvements over last year’s iPhone X. Both still and video image quality in bright light are excellent, with a very wide dynamic range and good detail. Autofocus and image stabilization work swiftly and efficiently, and the camera is very reliable overall, consistently delivering good results.

In lower light, luminance noise becomes a little more intrusive than with other high-end phones, and the iPhone’s zoom mode lags somewhat behind the competition (specifically, the Huawei P20 Pro) as well. However, if that doesn’t bother you too much, the new Apple device is a surefire option for any mobile photographer.

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