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iPhone XS Max review: The iPhone’s future is big and bright Review

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The future of the iPhone is here. The home button, an iconic part of the iPhone’s design for the past decade, is no more. For at least the immediate future, the iPhone will feature a display that goes nearly edge to edge, broken up only by a notch at the top of the device.

The overall size of the iPhone has not increased, but the display size has increased. So too has the cost.

Also: Battle of the big smartphones: Apple iPhone XS Max vs Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Apple announced a trio of new iPhone models this year, with the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max as modest upgrades from last year’s iPhone X. The iPhone XR looks similar to the XS, but incorporates different display technology and is the cheapest of the group.

For the past week, I’ve been using the iPhone XS Max; the biggest and most expensive iPhone ever. This is the phone I had said I was all in on. And you know what? It’s shaping up to be my favorite iPhone ever.

Familiar design


Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

With the iPhone XS Max, Apple kept the same overall design as the iPhone X. A stainless steel housing band wraps the sides, broken up only by a new antenna band along the bottom. The front and back of the phone are covered in glass, once again allowing for Qi-standard wireless charging. The iPhone XS and XS Max come in three colors this year: Space gray, silver, and a new gold color.

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The iPhone now carries an IP68 water and dust resistance rating, meaning it can withstand a dip in up to 2m of water for 30 minutes. Whenever this rating is mentioned,Apple has made sure to mix in references to testing the iPhone XS in other liquids such as beer. I opted to not test my iPhone XS Max in a pint of beer, namely because I didn’t want to waste a good beer.

The XS Max’s OLED display is a massive 6.5 inches, with a resolution of 2688×1242 and a pixel density of 458ppi. The Max’s display is slightly larger than Samsung’s Note 9, which measures 6.4 inches.

Also: iPhone XS Max teardown: Here’s what $1,249 flagship costs Apple in parts

As with last year’s iPhone X, the top of the display has a notch or cutout. In that cutout, Apple has placed one of the phone’s speakers, along with the various components for its True Depth camera system, which is a crucial part of its Face ID system.

The iPhone XS Max supports HDR, both Dolby Vision and HDR10. To sum up the display in a word: Stunning. Watching HDR-enabled YouTube videos, I was mesmerized by the saturation and clarity. Unlike Samsung’s Note 9 and its oversaturated color replication, the iPhone XS Max takes a more realistic approach.

In fact, DisplayMate’s Dr. Raymond M. Soneira recently tested the iPhone XS Max display and awarded it the “Best Smartphone Display” award, surpassing the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.

Despite the size of the display, the phone is actually smaller than Apple’s previous Plus iPhone model and the Note 9.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the dimensions in inches:

iPhone 8 Plus iPhone XS Max Galaxy Note 9
Height 6.24 6.2 6.37
Width 3.07 3.05 3.01
Depth 0.30 0.30 0.35

As you can see, the XS Max is the smallest of the group, even if it’s just barely so.

On the bottom of the XS Max, you’ll find a Lightning port to charge, sync, and listen to audio via Lightning compatible headphones. Yes, the headphone jack is still missing. Also missing this year is the Lightning to 3.5mm headphone plug adapter that Apple had previously included in the box with previous iPhone models after ditching the headphone jack.

Along the right side of the phone is where you’ll find the SIM card tray and the side button. On the opposite side is the traditional Ring/Silent switch, along with volume up and down buttons.

The back of the phone features a dual-camera system, complete with a camera bump. Both cameras are 12 megapixels and dual optical image stabilization.

Also: iPhone XS Max vs iPhone X: Apple’s latest flagship’s display sets new records

The only notable difference between the iPhone XS and XS Max is the size. The XS is nearly identical to last year’s iPhone X, save for a slightly bigger camera bump and the antenna band.

As I said in my first impressions of the XS Max, yes, the phone is big… but it’s not that big. Reading through a spec sheet, it’s easy to see the display size and figure the phone is unwieldily, but for me, that’s just not the case.

Again, I don’t have what I would consider large hands, and I’ve resisted the phablet trend by opting for the smaller iPhone and Galaxy devices over the past few years.

And yet, I’ve had no issues adapting to the XS Max. I’m able to use it with one hand when needed, thanks in part to Reachability.

The combination of more content on the screen, combined with the picture quality for my frequent YouTube binges and the overall comfort of using a phone I would have previously thought too big for me, the iPhone XS Max is a joy to use.

Performance

iphone-xs-max-3.jpgiphone-xs-max-3.jpg

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Powering the iPhone XS Max is Apple’s latest processor, the A12 Bionic. The 7-nanometer chip has six cores, two performance cores that are only used for resource-intensive tasks like gaming. The four remaining cores are used for more common tasks, like sending messages or checking email.

Another benefit of the new processor is the ability to handle storage of up to 512GB. Yes, that means that Apple now offers an iPhone with 512GB of storage, along with 64GB and 256GB.

According to iFixit’s teardown of the XS Max, it has a 3,174mAh battery and 4GB of memory.

Battery life for me has been nothing short of stellar. I routinely go the entire day and halfway into the next before I need to charge the XS Max.

Also: iPhone XS and XS Max reveals some battery surprises

I’m annoyed that Apple is still shipping a 5W wall adapter with all iPhone models, instead of a wall adapter that’s capable of fast charging the iPhone. And despite sticking to 7.5W wireless charging, the iPhone XS Max chargers faster thanks to a resigned wireless charging coil inside the phone. The coil is wound tighter, making it more efficient, and in turn capable of charging the phone faster via a Qi wireless charging pad. Another benefit of this year’s wireless charging redesign is that the coil is more forgiving in the phone’s placement on the pad.

As far as speed goes, apps open without hesitation, and there’s been no slowdown in my short time with the phone.

Thanks to the upgraded processor, Face ID is reportedly faster than it was with the iPhone X. If it is faster, it’s not enough for me to notice.

Let’s talk reception

Apple updates the processor and internals with every iPhone release, but this year there’s a notable change that could potentially impact all users. Instead of using Qualcomm modems in every iPhone model, Apple has fully switched to Intel modems. Previously, only GSM iPhone models (example: AT&T, T-Mobile) used Intel modems for connectivity.

Shortly after the iPhone XS launched, reports of reception and throughout issues began to surface. In some cases, users report the iPhone XS is unable to connect to an LTE network in an area with poor reception, despite other smartphones able to find and hold onto an LTE signal.

Also: New Apple connection problem? iPhone XS users report subpar cell and Wi-Fi reception

With an iPhone XS Max, iPhone X, and Galaxy Note 9 on hand, I decided to run some speed tests using an AT&T SIM card.

I checked the signal strength of each device, as measured in dBm, prior to running any tests. Using the Ookla Speedtest app, I ensured all three devices used the same test server and then I ran each test three times. The first series of tests were in an area of poor reception, and the second series ran outside where reception isn’t an issue. I then averaged the three tests. Download and update speeds are listed in Mbps.

Poor reception

Download Upload Signal strength
iPhone XS Max 9.41 0.48 -118
iPhone X 25.90 1.14 -110
Note 9 29.00 3.24 -109

As you can see, the iPhone XS Max performed very poorly, with the Note 9 coming out on top. Once I moved outside, however, the story changed a bit.

Improved reception

Download Upload Signal strength
iPhone XS Max 47.97 18.77 -98
iPhone X 38.83 11.77 -93
Note 9 52.53 23.17 -95

The iPhone X performed worse than the XS Max when reception improved, which is exactly what should happen despite both devices I have on hand using an Intel modem. With the XS line, Apple added an additional antenna that enables 4×4 MIMO and Gigabit-class LTE. The Note 9 still offered the best performance.

I also ran the same tests when connected to my Wi-Fi network, but all three devices performed the same, each reaching the speed limit provided by my ISP (125 Mbps down/10 Mbps up). I have experienced no issues with Wi-Fi on the iPhone XS Max.

As for why the iPhone XS Max struggled in an area with poor reception in my testing, I’m not sure. There are a number of factors that can go into impacting reception and throughput, not all of which are Apple or even a wireless carrier’s fault. I plan on continuing to test and monitor reports over the coming days and weeks.

Photo quality

A few years ago, it felt as if we reached a plateau when it came to camera performance. The picture quality from Samsung, Google, and Apple devices is nearly identical and boils down to personal preference.

The iPhone XS Max boasts a new sensor with enhancements to image fidelity, faster auto-focus, deeper pixels, and larger pixels. There’s even a new Smart HDR feature that goes beyond the precious HDR mode of combing three photos of varying exposure to capture more detail and light in a photo.

Also: Apple iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR: Features and specs compared

All of that sounds fancy, but what does it mean exactly? For me, it means one of the best cameras I’ve used on a smartphone in recent memory.

The amount of detail captured in situations with low light, or with difficult shadows, has been impressive. Look at this photo:

instagram-jc.jpginstagram-jc.jpg

Jason Cipriani

I took this on an overcast day, in an alley, without much thought. After I took it, I zoomed in to see how much detail of the wall was captured in the shot. Every single bump and imperfection of the wall is there and properly lit. The only editing done on this photo was to crop it for Instagram. I did not adjust any colors or saturation.

Apple also made improvements to Portrait Mode on the XS Max. Specifically, Apple has added the ability to adjust the amount of blur — or bokeh — after the photo has been taken. Previously, when a photo was taken in Portrait Mode, you had to live with the amount of background blur.

I’m still not entirely sold on Portrait Mode, and honestly, it hasn’t been a feature I’ve used very often in the past. I need to test it out more, but so far the ability to adjust the background after the fact has been intriguing.

Conclusion

The iPhone XS Max is the best iPhone Apple has ever made. Sure, that can be said about each year’s new iPhone crop, but the iPhone XS Max sets the bar for iPhone and Android smartphones.

The only downside to the XS Max is its price tag. It starts at $1,099 for the 64GB model and maxes out at $1,449 for the 512GB model. Those prices for a smartphone are insane, and yet Apple is confident that users are willing to pay a premium.

Also: iPhone XS Max: How much profit does Apple really make on each one sold?

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 is arguably the XS Max’s biggest competition. In that regard, the decision comes down to which operating system you prefer and whether or not having a stylus is important to you.

Before writing off the size of the iPhone XS Max, I recommend visiting a store where you can spend a few minutes and get a better idea of what the XS Max is all about. If you recently upgraded to an iPhone X, or maybe even an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus, don’t feel left out if aren’t ready to upgrade. It’s an expensive decision! The future of the iPhone is big and bright, and the iPhone XS Max is the embodiment of that future.

Previous and related coverage:

iPhone XS smartphone beauty really is only skin deep

So, you bought a beautiful new iPhone XR or iPhone XS Max. Are you planning to use it without a protective case? Then you’re living dangerously.

iPhone X expensive? No, $999 is a ‘value price’, says Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple’s new iPhone X $999 price tag only looks expensive, according to Apple chief Tim Cook.

Apple’s Tim Cook: Facebook’s privacy blunder ‘so dire’ we need regulations

Cook thinks Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal is so big that it warrants “well-crafted regulation”.

Apple CEO Tim Cook: It’s still too early for quality AR headsets

The technology just isn’t available to create a flawless augmented reality headset, says Apple’s chief.

The iPhone with a laptop price tag: Will Apple’s iPhone XS Max convince business pros to upgrade? TechRepublic

Jason Hiner and Bill Detwiler discuss Apple’s latest mobile hardware, including the most expensive iPhone ever and the increasingly health-conscious Apple Watch Series 4.

iPhone XS Max review: Gigantic-screen phone for a gigantic price CNET

Gigantic-screen phone for a gigantic price

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Clubhouse gives musicians a new high quality audio mode – TechCrunch

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Clubhouse added a new “music mode” this week, doubling down its commitment to centering social audio in all its permutations. The new music mode will give musicians who play live on the social network their own special set of tools to optimize sound quality and will hit iOS first before rolling out to Android.

Clubhouse didn’t get too into the audiophile weeds with the announcement, but the company said the new feature would allow users to “broadcast with high quality and great stereo sound” — prerequisites for a rich listening experience. The company says that music mode will also make it possible to hook pro-level audio equipment like mixing boards and mics into Clubhouse.

Image Credits: Clubhouse

In late August, Clubhouse made another investment in audio quality with spatial audio, a feature that gives listeners a sense that different speakers in one of its group audio rooms are speaking from different physical locations — an effect more akin to how we’d perceive a real-life social interaction.

To turn on music mode as a speaker, tap the three dots in the upper right corner and choose “audio quality” then select “music.” Clubhouse’s replayable clips will also support the higher quality audio in their recordings. Beyond music mode, Clubhouse is moving its search bar to the top of the feed, and users can now wave at each other through the search bar on iOS.

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Core might be the Vegas of the metaverse – TechCrunch

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A self-described “endless arcade,” Core feels like a 90s cyberpunk fever dream come to life. Half playable game library, half no-code game creator, all neon lights, the new platform is a surprisingly well-realized vision of this metaverse thing everyone sure seems to be talking about lately.

Billing itself as your “portal to the multiverse,” Core is primed to test the age-old proposition If you build it, they will come. Giant companies like Roblox and Facebook might have huge established platforms, but Core has laid some very compelling groundwork for creators and players alike.

Logging in, players are transported to Core’s central hub, a fitting cross between a theme park, a high-tech mall and a casino, with entertainment and shopping a few gravitationally unburdened strides away in every direction. Giant neon signs beckon, enticing players to hop into myriad user-generated virtual worlds. Swapping out clothing and in-game gear or inviting a friend to jump in with you takes only a few clicks and just cruising around and people watching is plenty interesting.

If Core looks a lot like Fortnite, that’s not a coincidence. Core, made by Manticore Games, runs on Fortnite-maker Epic’s Unreal engine. And those ties are even deeper: Epic led a $15 million round of investment in the company last year and the platform is exclusively available through the Epic Games Store for PC. In March, Manticore raised $100 million more from a grab bag of major investors and took its creator platform live.

Core might not be a household name yet, but it’s already nailed one of the challenges that any metaverse aspirant has to crack. In my time playing around with Core, the experience of getting from one place to another was often so seamless I wound up in the wrong place by accident. Chalk this up to user error, but instantly being transported — to a Deadmau5 show, to an overgrown dystopian wasteland, to a isometric pirate game — after walking through various portals was one of the more seamless online multiplayer experiences I’ve had more than a decade of those games.

Core looks great. That’s one strike against Roblox, one of the most successful companies building out a vision for the metaverse. Much like Fortnite, Core’s graphics are cartoony but not too cartoony. Roblox’s under-13 crowd is aging up — a factor that company is actively planning around — and those not-so-young players will be looking for a new virtual home. Any aspiring edgelord would be able to take themselves plenty seriously with Core’s wide selection of custom outfits and avatars. Or you could be a kitty.

Deadmau5, metaverse resident

Most of Core’s content is UGC, a.k.a. user-generated content, a new-ish name for an era-defining online phenomenon (don’t blame yourself if the acronym evokes mixed martial arts). But Manticore also has plenty of room to partner up with musicians and brands for elaborate themed in-game experiences.

This week, DJ and EDM festival perennial Deadmau5 launched his own, a sprawling, colorful series of experiences described as a “permanent residency in the metaverse.” Core is mostly home to user-made games, but it’s also a natural fit for entertainment and even education — the team noted that some users started hosting game development classes.

Unlike recent shows in other virtual worlds like Lil Nas X in Roblox or Ariana Grande in Fortnite, the Deadmau5-themed content will stay live after it debuts for anyone to explore. The team at Manticore likened this to how performers like Penn and Teller camp out in Las Vegas for ongoing shows, and the metaphor is very appropriate. But unlike Vegas, performers can be in two places at once: Deadmau5 also announced he’d participate in a music festival hosted on the Ethereum-based virtual platform Decentraland this week.

I watched the show with Deadmau5, né Joel Zimmerman, for an early sneak preview. He wore one of his signature giant animal helmets (I think a cat?) and cyborg angel wings, while I opted for an understated black hoodie, the little black dress of the metaverse.

“I think what drew me to it was the modularity of it all and how it gives more tools to creators,” Zimmerman told me, hopping around wildly in Core while reclining IRL in a gaming chair emblazoned with the Deadmau5 mouse.

Like we’ve come to expect from virtual concerts, the interactive performance is well-stocked with melting psychedelic visuals, mini games and a menacing Chain Chomp-esque mouse with turntable ears. Zimmerman and Core co-founders Frederic Descamps and Jordan Maynard who also ran around the show with me had seen it at least 10 times, but everyone still seemed to genuinely be having fun.

At some point I either fell into lava or got smashed on a conveyer belt by a massive metal fist while a Deadmau5-themed villain loomed nearby. “I think it’s the only interactive concert you can die in,” Maynard said. The show was visually a lot of fun, creatively interactive and ultimately a lot like concerts in Fortnite, which sets a high bar for this stuff.

The elaborate virtual experience, called Oberhasli, also showcases some unique worlds created by fans with no prior game dev experience, from an eerie jungle ruin to a spooky world full of floating space debris. The Core Deadmau5 performance kicks off on Friday at 3 PM PT. It’ll replay over the weekend and be available on demand afterward, for anyone else who’d like to be smashed into an EDM pancake.

Core for creators

Later on our call, held on Discord, the Core tour devolved into everyone running through a secret gate behind a destructible wall and world-hopping wildly through game genres, each remarkably polished for something that doesn’t require any code or game development experience. Moving from one game world to another took seconds even with a terrible wifi connection, including the time I ran through something that looked like World of Warcraft’s dark portal and wound up sailing an isometric pirate ship.

The WoW nod is probably not a coincidence. Descamps waxed nostalgic about the heyday of WoW machinima, narrative movies built through captured gameplay, like only a serious longtime player could. Descamps and Maynard also previously worked on Rift, another fantasy MMO that still commands a loyal following a decade on. (Maynard was employee number seven.) Everyone is raving about the metaverse these days, but surprisingly few companies in the space trace their roots back to the seamless virtual gaming worlds that have brought people together for years.

Core screenshot gameplay

Image Credits: Manticore

To underline how easy it is to make stuff in Core, Maynard quick-built a first-person shooter for us to play, a drag-and-drop process that took maybe two minutes of dipping into Core’s huge library of original in-game assets that were created using its system. Grab a handful of 3D objects and pick a game mode from the template choices (battle royale, racing or dungeon crawler?) and you’re most of the way to a polished-looking playable game built in Core’s modular sandbox. Setting your game in a chilly snowscape or a barren desert is also as simple as dragging and dropping, lending the environments an expansive feel.

Gameplay aside, out of the box Core games look light years better than the UGC you’d run across in Roblox, though that platform’s users have never seemed to mind. The breadth of visual styles and game genres is also mind-boggling for anyone who’s bounced out of samey UGC on other platforms.

Core users who create content have a pretty good swath of monetization options, which Manticore calls “perks.” That includes offering in-game cosmetic items, but also charging for premium games, selling Fortnite-like battle passes or implementing a subscription model. The revenue split is 50/50, which looks generous next to the 25% that Roblox passes on to creators. And in Core, like in other modular game-making platforms, everyone is a creator — no development experience needed.

Core is PC-only for now, but Manticore plans to bring it to other platforms, including iOS, starting next year. Game creation will likely stay limited to PC, but the idea is that anyone could play Core games anywhere, a platform agnostic vision that certainly boosted Fortnite early on and Roblox more recently.

“[Game development] is kind of like baking: a very precise formula, technical, can take weeks to iterate,” Descamps said. But in Core, the technical stuff gets out of the way and a process that would normally drag on can happen in minutes, leaving the rest of the time for experimentation and play.

“What if you put a portal gun into Mario Kart?” Maynard asked, and I’m fairly certain we could have found out right then.

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WhatsApp now lets users encrypt their chat backups in the cloud – TechCrunch

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WhatsApp is beginning to roll out a new feature that will provide its two billion users the option to encrypt their chat history backup in iCloud or Google Drive, patching a major loophole that has been exploited by governments to obtain and review private communication between individuals.

WhatsApp has long encrypted chats between users on its app. But users have had no means to protect the backup of those chats stored in the cloud. (For iPhone users, the chat history is stored in iCloud, and Android users rely on Google Drive.)

It has been widely reported that law enforcement agencies across the globe have been able to access the private communications between suspect individuals on WhatsApp by exploiting this loophole.

WhatsApp, which processes over 100 billion messages a day, is closing that weak link, and tells TechCrunch that it’s providing this new feature to users in every market where the app is operational. The feature is optional, the company said. (It’s not uncommon for companies to withhold privacy features for legal and regulatory reasons. Apple’s new encrypted browsing feature isn’t available to users in certain authoritarian regimes, such as China, Belarus, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines.)

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook, noted that WhatsApp is the first global messaging service at this scale to offer end-to-end encrypted messaging and backups. “Proud of the team for continuing to lead on security for your private conversations,” he wrote in a post on his Facebook page.

WhatsApp began testing the feature with a small group of users last month. The company devised a system to enable WhatsApp users on Android and iOS to lock their chat backups with encryption keys. WhatsApp says it will offer users two ways to encrypt their cloud backups.

Users on WhatsApp will see an option to generate a 64-digit encryption key to protect their chat backups in the cloud. Users can store the encryption key offline or in a password manager of their choice, or they can create a password that backs up their encryption key in a cloud-based “backup key vault” that WhatsApp has developed. The cloud-stored encryption key can’t be used without the user’s password, which isn’t known to WhatsApp.

“While end-to-end encrypted messages you send and receive are stored on your device, many people also want a way to back up their chats in case they lose their phone,” the company wrote in a blog post.

The feature can be accessible by navigating to Settings > Chats > Chat Backups > End-to-End Encrypted Backup (WhatsApp)

As we wrote last month, the move to introduce this additional layer of privacy is significant and one that can have far-reaching implications.

Thoughts, governments?

End-to-end encryption remains a thorny topic of discussion as governments across the globe continue to lobby for backdoors. Apple was pressured to not add encryption to iCloud Backups after the FBI complained, according to Reuters, and while Google has offered users the ability to encrypt their data stored in Google Drive, the company reportedly didn’t tell governments before it rolled out the feature.

India, WhatsApp’s biggest market by users, has introduced a new law that requires the company to devise a way to make “traceability” of questionable messages possible. WhatsApp has sued the Indian government over this new mandate, and said such a requirement effectively mandates “a new form of mass surveillance.”

The UK government — which isn’t exactly a fan of encryption — recently asked messaging apps to not use end-to-end encryption for kids’ accounts. Elsewhere in the world, Australia passed controversial laws three years ago that are designed to force tech companies to provide police and security agencies access to encrypted chats.

WhatsApp declined to discuss whether it had consulted about the new feature with lawmakers or government agencies.

Privacy-focused organizations including Electronic Frontier Foundation have lauded WhatsApp’s move.

“This privacy win from Facebook-owned WhatsApp is striking in its contrast to Apple, which has been under fire recently for its plans for on-device scanning of photos that minors send on Messages, as well as of every photo that any Apple user uploads to iCloud. While Apple has paused to consider more feedback on its plans, there’s still no sign that they will include fixing one of its longstanding privacy pitfalls: no effective encryption across iCloud backups,” the organization wrote.

“WhatsApp is raising the bar, and Apple and others should follow suit.”

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