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Hands on with the iPhone Xs Max, the binge smartphone for our times

Tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler tries out the $1099 iPhone Xs Max, with a 6.5-inch screen -the largest Apple has ever sold. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jhaan Elker

To understand how big the screens are on the 2018 crop of new iPhones, I brought a few visual aides to Apple's grand unveiling Wednesday at its Silicon Valley headquarters.

The largest of Apple's three new phones, called the iPhone Xs Max, has a 6.5-inch screen (measured on the diagonal) that's longer than a ham and cheese from Subway. It's also larger than a double-wide Snickers bar, a Batman toy and the heel on a pair of red 6-inch stilettos.

The iPhone Xs Max, pronounced like "tennis max," might just as well be read as "excess max." And it says a lot about our era of digital binging that Apple will probably sell them like hot cakes.

Apple - like Google, Samsung and other big tech companies - has lately been talking up a newfound interest in digital health and limiting excess screen time. (A software upgrade called iOS 12 coming to older iPhones Sept. 17 will give parents new tools to monitor their children's online habits, not to mention their own.) But Apple's iPhone event sent a different message: more, more, more. Even a new version of the Apple Watch, called Series 4, has a 30 percent larger screen, making it fit even more information.

In most ways, this year's iPhones look like last year's iPhone X. There's no home button on any of them - love it or hate it, Apple is putting the fingerprint reader permanently out to pasture. Apple promised a few other improvements over last year's model that will require some real-world tests to vet: better cameras, a faster processor and a slightly longer battery life. For folks who follow Apple's naming conventions: It's an "S" upgrade, Apple's every-other-year cycle for big new launches. (I guess the S stands for subtle.)

The big news is there are three new phones and they're all huge: the 5.8-inch iPhone Xs, the 6.1-inch iPhone XR and the 6.5-inch iPhone Xs Max. Confused? Here's how to think of them:

--Big and pricey: iPhone Xs ($999)

--Bigger and a little less pricey: iPhone XR ($749). (It's cheaper because it has a less-fancy screen, a cheaper aluminum case and only one camera on the back. But it also comes in colorful flavors . . . that will immediately get covered in cases.)

--Biggest and most-expensive ever: iPhone Xs Max ($1,099).

Some of you might rightly be wondering: What about my not-so-huge hands? Are there any iPhones that will fit in a pair of women's pants? Or skinny jeans? Unfortunately, Apple didn't update its 4-inch iPhone SE with a new processor and camera. But it is still selling its old 4.7-inch iPhone 7 for $449 and the iPhone 8 for $599, both of which are slightly shorter and thinner than the new lineup.

The flying elephant of the new lot is the iPhone Xs Max, which sounds like it could be a new flavor of Mountain Dew, or perhaps an extreme sport. The part I didn't understand until I held one is that the phone's overall shape is actually very similar to last year's iPhone 8 Plus. What's new is that Apple filled out the "forehead" and "chin" area with screen, giving you the whopping 6.5 inches.

Apple didn't invent this big phone fashion. Samsung launched its Note line in 2011 with a 5.3-inch phone that seemed comical at the time. (For a while, we used the icky word "phablet"- for part-phone part-tablet - to describe them.) But now Apple's largest bests even Samsung's Note 9, which measures 6.4 inches.

It's an engineering marvel that Apple's been able to pack in so much screen, so many sensors and so much processing power into such a small space.

What can you do with all that beautiful iPhone Xs Max screen? The phone, which costs more than a basic Apple laptop ($1449 in its maxed-out Max configuration), is in many ways becoming a replacement for a laptop -- minus the keyboard. Plenty of professionals will be able to get most of their (digital) work done on this device. Ten years into the iPhone revolution, most major websites now have a phone-friendly version that will look great and let you get down to business on that screen. There are lots of tasks you can now do best with apps.

It's the perfect tool for taking bigger selfies, for pawing at bigger Instagram pictures, for streaming even more Netflix.

At one point during Apple's keynote, three people demonstrating an augmented-reality game faced off while consumed by their giant screens, the perfect image for our binge smartphone times.

Good luck ever putting it down. The iPhone Xs Max is the Supersized Big Mac and fries phone for an era of healthier digital diets.

This article was written by Geoffrey A. Fowler, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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