The 12 Pro max is now the ultimate power in the iPhone universe. Come on, you had to know that was coming, right?
OK. I’ve already covered all the basics of the iPhone 12 Pro in my mega review, everything from the new, squared off design and finishes to the OLED displays to the camera systems, including Dolby Vision HDR recording, The A14 Bionic and 5G, and MagSafe accessories, so I won’t waste your time going over it all again here. Just make sure you hit the subscribe button and bell, and check out that video, my iPhone 12 mini review which should be up around the same time, and all the longer-term tests and reviews I have coming your way soon.
For right now, let’s get Max.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is $100 more than the iPhone 12 Pro non-Max. Regular. Normal. Single adjective. And wow these names are getting cumbersome. I’d love it if we could just distill down to iPhone mini, iPhone Air, iPhone Pro, and iPhone Max. But I don’t every time get what I want.
Anyway, SIM free and flat out, that’s US$1100 for 128GB, $1200 for 256GB, and $1400 for 512GB. No 1TB option like the iPad Pro. At least not yet.
But that’s it. For everything, all the extras I’m about to go over. The cost differential is just $100. Just $220 over the 128GB iPhone 12 non-Pro, non-Max, which is… kinda wild. As much as the regular prices have gone up, the Pro prices just haven’t.
And… that’s caused some people to look and think… the features and prices are so close, there’s not much difference, they can just go with the lower cost version and save $100. Others to look at them and think… the features and prices are so close, there’s not much difference, they can just go with the better version for $100 more.
Both are totally valid perspectives, but I’m a glass half full type of, so I figure if I’m going as far as the 12, I might as well go just that one more step to the 12 Pro. Then, maybe, that one last step to the 12 Pro Max. Which is probably exactly why they’re all priced that way this year.
And I understand, seriously, even $100 more may be a too much for some people, 10% more on an already $1000 phone. But, if you really want the size and feature set, what with trade-ins, installments, upgrade programs, the difference over the course of a year, never mind several, isn’t going to be that much.
So, if price isn’t a concern, it also isn’t a huge barrier to jumping up to the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It’s hardly any barrier this year. Especially not if you’ve already decided to go Pro.
The real barrier — and enticement — as always, is the size.
Take the iPhone 12 Pro, make the screen bigger — more than ever before — and make the cameras better — in ways Apple has simply never done before — and you have the iPhone 12 Pro Max. A hybrid of the previous two Max models, where there was no difference other than size, and the old Plus models, where the bigger phones also had slightly better cameras.
And it’s like, switching from a car to a jeep or an SUV. One that’s… a lot to handle and park around town, but is also absolutely and exactly what you want when going off-roading or on long trips. When you gotta just work. Less a phone and more a tiny tablet, a primary computing device that you can do almost anything on from almost anywhere you need to.
Now, this year’s Max isn’t that much more Max. Not really. The display has gone from 6.5 to 6.7-inches, but some of that is thanks to the new design and slightly thinner bezels.
It’s a bit taller, a bit heavier, but negligibly wider and actually slightly thinner than previous Max models. It does feel more substantial, though, because of the new, more squared off design, but somehow less dense, probably because of the surface to depth ratio.
All this to say, if you’ve been fine with other Max or Plus iPhones, or any of the similar or even larger sized Android phones, you’ll be just fine with the iPhone 12 version.
There’s also less of a difference between the regular Pro and the Pro Max this year, because instead of 5.8-inches like the X, XS, and 11 Pro, the 12 Pro has gone up to 6.1-inches like the XR and 11.
If you’ve been using a non-Max or Plus iPhone, the difference between a 6.1-inch iPhone XR or 11, — even 12 if you’re trying to decide between the two — isn’t trivial but also isn’t as extreme as it is from the older, smaller iPhone flagships.
Still, while I can hold an iPhone 12 Pro Max one handed, especially if I balance it on my pinky, and phone-jitsu some basic things with it that way, to use it quickly, to use it effectively, to hit all the interface elements in all the corners, I really do need to use two hands. To me — for me — it’s absolutely less of a phone and more of a tiny tablet.
For that extra size though, you get a ton of extra screen real estate.
The difference isn’t so much in pixel count. An extra 246 vertical and 114 horizontal between the Pro and Pro Max. And only 10 and 6 more than the 11 Pro Max.
The difference is mostly physical size. In some cases, depending on the app, that translates into more text on screen and more items in lists. In other cases the same, sometimes even less if the app goes for bigger instead of more.
That’s what makes the iPhone 12 Pro Max a great choice for anyone who doesn’t just want but needs a bigger display. Because, if the default size isn’t enough, Display Zoom lets you blow up the regular iPhone 12 interface to a much easier to see size, and Accessibility lets you increase text even further while still keeping a good amount on the screen at any given time.
And yeah, things like videos and games are just always bigger. Not the same as an iPad, even the 7.9-inch iPad mini, because iPads have a much taller aspect ratio of 4 by 3 where modern iPhones are closer to 2 by 1. So, iPads remain better at multicolumn, old school TV, books, and comic books, and iPhones at single column, cinematic video, lists, and messaging.
Like previous Plus and Max sizes, the iPhone 12 Pro Max will try to give you a little bit of that iPad feeling in landscape mode, popping up an iPad style split view with a list on the left and details on the right, but it’s not always consistent — like where is the old Plus landscape Home screen… unemployed in Greenland? — and because of the aspect ratio, not always that helpful.
iOS 14 picture-in-picture works terrifically well on the big screen, of course, and makes me long for… not side-by-side apps, because aspect ratio, but maybe top and bottom apps. Come on iOS 15. You know you want to.
Overall, it comes down to practicality versus productivity. If you find the iPhone 12 Pro Max size to just be too cumbersome to use, you won’t enjoy it no matter how useful it may be. If it’s no problem to handle, then it’ll let you handle more than ever.
It’s funny. Computer Twitter has been annoyed by the highest-end iPhone pricing or a while. Complaining a Max costs the same as a… Mac. At least a MacBook Air.
Photography Twitter, though, has a totally different perspective. That the iPhone, especially the Pro and now extra especially the Max, have really good cameras, and really, really good video cameras, and they cost only a fraction of the price of most of the new, dedicated cameras coming out this summer. Sometimes less than a single lens for one of those cameras. And the iPhone comes with three.
And I know they’re not at all the same thing, not at all, not even remotely. But… kinda? Increasingly the iPhone Pro is finding its way into pro video workflows, not because it can do everything a DSLR or mirrorless or cinecam can do… but because it can do some things they can’t, more easily, and yes, less expensively.
Now, when it comes to the iPhone 12 Pro Max camera specifically, you get the same 13mm f/2.4 120º ultra wide as you do on all the other iPhone 12 models, all the way down to the mini. With Smart HDR3, which lets you capture detail in shadows and highlights beyond what even most big sensors and glass can easily capture, because big compute, and also Deep Fusion for better texture in low light, and Night Mode for when there’s almost no light. And those features are across all cameras now, even the front.
Same LiDAR Scanner as on the regular Pro as well, the one that allows for fast auto-focus and portrait mode in low-light, and much faster augmented reality surface acquisition in day light.
Also, new with iOS 14.2, People Detection in the Magnifier app. It’s from Apple’s supremely genius Accessibility team and will help those with no and low vision avoid collisions and maintain safe physical distancing in lines and other public spaces, which is just critical during a pandemic. Such a great team, such a great feature. I want it on my face.
The 26mm f/1.6 wide angle camera is where the differences start on the Pro Max. It’s got bigger, 1.7 micron pixels compared to the 1.4 micron pixels on the regular Pro. Which means it can take in more light. The OIS, or optical image stabilization is also sensor-shift on the Max, like the IBIS or in-body image stabilization you find in higher end dedicated cameras. Basically, instead of the lens floating to cancel out sensor movement, the sensor itself floats, which is mechanically simpler and, yeah, optically better.
It combines to make the iPhone 12 Pro Max just a low-light monster. It’s not something you’ll need or appreciate all the time. I mean, in daytime, it doesn’t really matter. A potato can take a good photo in the daytime. But when it’s not quite Night Mode, that’s where the Max shines.
Apple has also announced a ProRAW format for later in the year, which promises the flexibility of RAW with the power of computational photography. Basically, letting you step through and tweak the process. I can’t wait to test it out and see what it can really do in a follow-up review.
The 52mm telephoto is, well, not 52mm on the Max. It’s 65mm now. Which means it has even more compression and less distortion, which can be really nice for portraits and product shots. The downside is, instead of an f/2.0 aperture, it’s an f/2.2 aperture, which means it’s not as good in low light.
Still, I love the way it frames. Because of the length, it steps up to 2.5x, not just 2x like on Apple’s previous telephoto camera system. And it’s kinda surprising and delightful how much difference that actually makes. It’s still way closer to a 50 than 80, but it’s getting there.
And yeah, even though Apple’s doing a much better job with Smart HDR and Deep Fusion on digital zoom, I’m still really missing much better optical zoom on iPhones. I’m not saying periscope lens me, but something.
I do love, just all-caps love, the natural bokeh you can get off the 65mm though. I mean, Portrait Mode is fine and computational photography never ceases to fascinate me, but there’s just nothing that matches what you get off glass, and when you have enough light this glass is great.
And all the same thing apply to video as well. Including the new 4K60 Dolby Vision HDR mode. I really, truly, intensely wish Apple had a button on the main camera app to toggle it on and off, like they recently added for the resolution and frame rate, and I’m still waiting on proper Final Cut Pro X support like Judge Judy slapping her watch dot JIF KIF. But the 10-bit dynamic range is just gorgeous.
And the 6.7-inch display makes for a terrific view-finder. I mean, camera nerds like me pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to slap a SmalHD or similar, bigger display on our cameras. This one is OLED HDR, does real-time preview for computational modes, so what you see is what you shoot, and it comes built-in. Which is just one more thing that helps explain the difference in perceived value.
Videography is where the bigger size really doesn’t matter either, because most cameras a way bigger, some enormously bigger, and by comparison even the iPhone 12 Pro Max is ridiculously light, and combined with its dynamic range, makes it incredibly easy to get into any space and do almost any type of shot. Especially when you use a gimbal or just the IBIS and stabilize in post. It’s not just slick, it’s sick.
Now, none of these are major differences. They’re small, interesting things that appeal to me because I love exactly these kinds of small, interesting things. They’re fresh. They’re fun. They let me stretch my creative potential.
But, if nothing I said here interests you in the slightest, then you can just scratch camera off your Max list and decide based on size alone. For me, though, it is the decision.
I need to shoot a lot more with this camera. I want to shoot a lot more with this camera. But so far, I like the telephoto even if it is a real tradeoff between length and speed. The wide angle though… that’s pure win. At least when it comes to delivering on the promise of more better photos under more wider conditions.
Apple’s using the same A14 Bionic chipset, with its quad ice storm efficiency cores, dual firestorm performance cores, custom quad-core GPU, deca-hexa… 16 core neural engine, and more controller, accelerator, and special purpose IP than you can shake a benchmark at, in all the iPhone 12s, from mini to Pro Max.
Like the Pro, the Pro Max has it with 6GB of memory, which is terrific. iPhones don’t have to deal with interpreters or garbage collection or the lack of optimization that comes from having to support a wide and eclectic range of software, so they just don’t need as much RAM as other phones. But they do have to deal with cross-platform, cross-compiled games and sloppy social media apps, and that’s where the 6GB shines. Everything from Twitter and Instagram to Pokemon Go just stay in-memory longer and resume without restart far more often. It’s only a few seconds difference per app switch, but those seconds add up. And, I think special relatively has a sub-clause that says observing a relaunch makes seconds feel like minutes anyway. And when you’re in a hurry, basically forever.
In terms of performance, the iPhone 12 Pro Max benchmarks and works the same as the non-Max and even the mini for me. Including video rendering from iMovie. It just doesn’t get as hot as the mini does while doing it. Probably because of its bigger thermal envelop.
Yes, I still use Pokemon Go as my stress test, because yes, it still hits the screen, processor, wireless, GPS — basically everything that radiates — harder than anything else anywhere nearly as fun.
And, after 5 hours, the iPhone 12 Pro Max was still at 75%. That compares to 70% for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, and 50% for the iPhone 12 mini.
Apple rates it at 20 hours for local video, 12 for streaming, and 80 for audio. That’s 3 hours, 1 hour, and 15 hours more than the regular Pro, and 5, 2, and 30 hours more than the mini.
It’s also the same as Apple rated the iPhone 11 Pro Max, though in my tests so far, the iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t last quite a long. Part of that might be the extra efficiency of the A14 trading off against the smaller battery size necessitate a little by the new MagSafe system, and a lot by the new Qualcomm X55 modem, and the 5G that comes with it.
I only have FR1 where I live, the low and mid bands, but I get roughly 2x faster speeds than LTE, at the cost of slightly higher battery drain. If you’re one of the the few who have FR2 in the US, the high bands typically called mmWave, it’d likely be even… higher.
And, PSA, you can’t do 5G on Dual SIM yet. Qualcomm wrote the feature down on the spec sheet but hasn’t actually shipped it yet. Something iPhone users are discovering but Android users have been complaining about for months already. Apple is apparently pushing hard for it to be shipped and soon.
The Pro Max, like all the other iPhones 12, works with that new MagSafe magnetic inductive charging system and can also fast-charge up to 50% in 30 minutes with Apple’s new — but not included in the box — 20 watt AC adapter. Or any AC adapter than can push Power Delivery 3.0.
And yeah, I’d love a next gen MagSafe Smart Battery for the iPhone 12 Pro as well, because when I’m out shooting, there’s just never enough battery, not ever, and being able to slap on a pack rather than wire up a brick would heavier, sure, but still so much better for shooting.
But the bottom line is, bigger is just more. Especially with the regular Pro hurting a bit on battery life, thanks to the new build and especially 5G, the Max is really, truly Max.
Should you upgrade? If you’re on one of the previous Maxes, then no. You’re fine. The tech industry obsesses over, almost fetishizes year-over-year upgrades in a way the TV, appliance, and car industries simply don’t. But you should always wait as long as you can, buy only when you need, and then enjoy for a long as you can.
If you’re on an annual upgrade program, you sell every year to buy new, you’re a tech nerd who just wants the latest and greatest, money is simply no object, then you’re buying anyway. Apple had you at “good morning.”
If you’re on one of the older, Plus-sized iPhones, though, especially 6 or 6s but up to 7 and 8, or if you’re on a smaller iPhone but have wanted to go big, and the camera features are interesting enough to push you over the edge, then the iPhone 12 Pro Max is one hell of an upgrade.
As for me, it’s all about the camera. That’s why I’m personally going Max this year. It’s a little extra for me, but I really want the best camera, and the bigger battery, and I’ll take the bigger display as a bonus.