Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Hands-on: Big Phone, Big Improvements?
Apple’s biggest ever iPhone, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, is here. Unlike the previous two “Max” iPhones, there’s more that separates the iPhone 12 Pro Max from other devices in the iPhone 12 series than just a larger screen. I’ve been using it heavily for the past 36 hours, and here are my thoughts on Apple’s latest and greatest.
I have also been testing the iPhone 12 Mini, so if you’re interested in my thoughts on that petite little thing, you can read it over here (soon).
Apple iPhone 12 series: Specifications and Comparison
|Specifications||Apple iPhone 12 Mini||Apple iPhone 12||Apple iPhone 12 Pro||Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Dimensions & Weight|
|Battery & Charging|
|Security||Face ID (TrueDepth camera for facial recognition)||Face ID (TrueDepth camera for facial recognition)||Face ID (TrueDepth camera for facial recognition)||Face ID (TrueDepth camera for facial recognition)|
|Front Camera(s)||12MP, f/2.2||12MP, f/2.2||12MP, f/2.2||12MP, f/2.2|
|Port(s)||Proprietary Lightning port||Proprietary Lightning port||Proprietary Lightning port||Proprietary Lightning port|
|Audio||Audio formats supported: AAC‑LC, HE‑AAC, HE‑AAC v2, Protected AAC, MP3, Linear PCM, Apple Lossless, FLAC, Dolby Digital (AC‑3), Dolby Digital Plus (E‑AC‑3), Dolby Atmos, and Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX, and AAX+)||Audio formats supported: AAC‑LC, HE‑AAC, HE‑AAC v2, Protected AAC, MP3, Linear PCM, Apple Lossless, FLAC, Dolby Digital (AC‑3), Dolby Digital Plus (E‑AC‑3), Dolby Atmos, and Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX, and AAX+)||Audio formats supported: AAC‑LC, HE‑AAC, HE‑AAC v2, Protected AAC, MP3, Linear PCM, Apple Lossless, FLAC, Dolby Digital (AC‑3), Dolby Digital Plus (E‑AC‑3), Dolby Atmos, and Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX, and AAX+)|
|Software||iOS 14||iOS 14||iOS 14||iOS 14|
|Pricing||Starts at $699||Starts at $799||Starts at $999||Starts at $1,099|
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Design: It’s big, but not that big
The iPhone 12 Pro Max carries the same design language as the other three iPhone 12s, so it’s a rectangular glass-and-metal sandwich slab with four flat sides.
Much has been made by the media about how big the iPhone 12 Pro Max is — its 6.7-inch OLED panel is the largest Apple’s ever used on a phone — but personally, I don’t find it too unwieldy or intimidating to hold. I think it’s because I handle a lot of big phones — my SIM card has called these devices home in the past few months: Huawei Mate 40 Pro, LG Wing, Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
Although the iPhone 12 Pro Max mostly looks like a super-sized version of the iPhone 12, the camera system sees three hardware upgrades: The main 12MP camera uses a larger image sensor, one that Apple claims is 47% larger than the main sensor in the other three iPhone 12s. The main camera also has a new IBIS (in-body image stabilization) system instead of “just” OIS (optical image stabilization) as seen in the other devices in the iPhone 12 series. Finally, the telephoto lens has a longer 2.5x zoom (65mm focal length equivalent).
The other improvements Apple already applied to the other iPhone 12s — faster f/1.6 aperture and the ability to shoot night mode on every lens — are here too, of course. This means the iPhone 12 Pro Max is Apple’s most fully decked out camera system — at least on paper. I’ll talk more about the cameras later.
And because the phone is larger, the battery in it is also larger than the rest. The rest of the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s components and hardware features are the same as the iPhone 12 Pro, so you’re still getting that stainless steel railing (that attract fingerprints like crazy), 5G support, “Ceramic Shield” screen, 5nm Apple A14 Bionic, strong haptic engine, and support for Apple’s MagSafe chargers. I’ve written a half dozen articles on the iPhone 12 including a full review, so I don’t think I have to dwell too much on the hardware — just know that this is one of the most premium-feeling phones on the market. Instead, I want to dedicate a couple of paragraphs to my frustrations with the device due to Apple’s stubbornness.
Software: The iPhone 12 Pro Max is hard to use with one hand not because of its size, but because of iOS
Earlier, I said the iPhone 12 Pro Max didn’t feel too huge in my hand. But the phone is still hard to use with one hand, and it’s because of iOS. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and LG Wing are every bit as tall as the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but they don’t bother me too much because I simply place all my apps at the bottom of the screen where my thumb can easily reach them. If I need to pull down the notifications panel, I don’t have to reach for the very top of the screen as I can just swipe down from anywhere on the home screen.
iOS doesn’t let us do either of these things. Apps must sit in a top-down, left-to-right grid. This means that unless I fill my entire home screen with apps, I don’t have any apps in the bottom half of my home screen except for the dock. I can’t place more apps in the dock, because it’s limited to four apps.
Activating the control center requires swiping down from the very top of the upper right corner of the screen, which is just impossible for most human thumbs to reach while still gripping the phone tightly. Apple’s solution is “reachability,” which brings the screen down about halfway but doesn’t narrow the width of the content, so typing with one hand on a wide phone like the 12 Pro Max is still tough. I want to reiterate that it doesn’t have to be this way: I can use a Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra with one hand perfectly fine. It’s iOS’ draconian design that makes the iPhone 12 Pro Max hard to use with one hand.
I also wish Apple would bring over some of iPadOS’ split-screen multitasking gestures to the iPhone 12 Pro Max since the screen is so large. As it is now, you’re just viewing the existing content in a larger size, but you’re not actually viewing more content.
Cameras: Improvements are present if you look hard enough
I have been testing the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro over the past month, and I found them (particularly the latter) to be very, very good shooters, even if I generally preferred the color science produced by the Google Pixel 5 more, or that the Huawei Mate 40 Pro still produced noticeably more detailed zoom shots and ultra-wide shots.
The reason is that the iPhone 12 Pro still shoots the most consistent photos across all three lenses, does not oversharpen or overprocess human skin, and can capture the most stable videos in terms of stabilization, exposure, and focus. When I heard the iPhone 12 Pro Max would have a larger sensor, better zoom, and stabilization, I was excited. And so it is with a tinge of disappointment for me to report that, for the most part, the photos produced by the iPhone 12 Pro Max do not differ too much from the iPhone 12 Pro in regular real-world shooting conditions.
Let’s start with the main camera because that’s where most of the upgrades are found. During the day, the iPhone 12 Pro Max captures identical photos to the iPhone 12 Pro (or the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini, since they’re all the same sensor). But even when the sun sets, the photos are virtually indistinguishable unless you blow them up on a computer screen and pixel peep. For example, below are two images captured by the iPhone 12 Pro Max and 12 Pro.
They both look very close in terms of lighting and balance, and it’s only when I blew up the images and zoomed in did I see that the 12 Pro Max’s image retained better texture of the buildings.
Here’s another set:
Just like the first set, you’d need to zoom in and search for areas where the 12 Pro Max image (left) is slightly cleaner.
I took up over a dozen test shots like this around the city, and I couldn’t really see noticeable differences between images captured by the iPhone 12 Pro Max or 12 Pro except for two niche situations: shots taken in a really dark alley, and another in a pitch-black room with all lights off (the first two samples in the album below).
That the 47% larger sensor and IBIS system (which Apple says helps prevent micro-jitters when taking night mode shots) produces just slightly better low light images is kind of disappointing. But the silver lining is that this is a testament to Apple’s growing prowess in computational photography because all the iPhone 12 devices automatically turn on night mode in low light scenes. This means Apple’s night mode is so good that it’s compensating for the smaller sensor and relatively-inferior stabilizing system.
And once I gave up trying to take niche low light shots just to see where the iPhone 12 Pro Max wins, I enjoyed the experience a lot. So what if the 12 Pro Max’s main camera isn’t much better than the 12 Pro’s? The latter is already one of the very best cameras on the market. Below are more photo samples captured by the 12 Pro Max — these shots are all perfectly balanced, with lively colors and no noise. I also like the natural creamy bokeh when I get close to a subject or object.
The other camera hardware improvement — the longer telephoto zoom — works as advertised. Any zoom beyond 2x, and you can see that the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s image is sharper. The maximum zoom of the 12 Pro Max is also 12x instead of 10x in the 12 Pro or 5x in the regular 12 and 12 Mini.
The longer zoom’s 65mm focal length makes for a more natural portrait framing too, in my opinion.
Early impression: Don’t pick the iPhone 12 Pro Max just for the cameras
If you’ve already decided you want an iPhone 12 and are deciding between the four, don’t let the cameras be the deciding factor. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has Apple’s most ambitious camera hardware system ever, but Apple’s computational photography, like Google’s, has gotten so good that hardware has been made less important. For most people, most of the photos they take will look the same whether they’re shooting with the 12 Pro Max or 12 Mini.
However, do get the 12 Pro Max if you want the best battery life. This is important this year because 5G has proven to be a battery drain. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro have been barely getting me through a whole day’s use on a single charge, and the iPhone 12 Mini has consistently run out of juice by dinner time. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the only new iPhone that can go the distance. Also do consider the 12 Pro Max if you consume a lot of videos on your phone, because this is the largest screen ever, and the stereo speakers are excellent.
Ultimately, it appears that the assumption most of us in tech media made after the iPhone 12 launch event — that the iPhone 12 is the right iPhone for most people — is indeed the correct take.