Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max review: As good as a Pro iPhone can get for another year
Apple has been launching “Pro” iPhones since 2019’s iPhone 11 series, but it wasn’t until this year’s iPhone 14 Pro phones did it really put meaningful separation between the Pro and non-Pro iPhones. Some of this separation is due to true innovation: the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max introduce a whole new user interface that has generated discourse through the tech industry over the past couple of weeks, and will very likely inspire sweeping changes to Android phones’ UI in the near future. The Pro iPhones also introduce the most pixel-dense camera ever to an iPhone, one that opens up a new optical zoom length and raises the ceiling for what professionals can do in terms of photo editing.
The other separation factor, however, is due to cut-throat business tactics: Apple decided to recycle last year’s silicon for the standard iPhone 14 devices, so only the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max get the new A16 Bionic chip.
By the way: other than screen and battery sizes, both the iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max are identical. So even though I have only tested the 14 Pro Max, most of this review applies to the smaller iPhone 14 Pro too.
Navigate this review:
- Price and Availability
- Design and Hardware
- Performance, Battery Life, and Charging
- Is the iPhone 14 Pro Max the right smartphone for you?
Apple iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max: Price and Availability
The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max, along with the standard iPhone 14, are available now at Apple Stores and retailers around the world. Pricing is below, but there are always deals to be found from various retailers.
- iPhone 14 Pro Max starts at $1,099 for 128GB storage and up to $1,599 for 1TB storage
- iPhone 14 Pro starts at $999 for 128GB storage and up to $1,499 for 1TB storage
iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max: Specifications
|iPhone 14 Pro||iPhone 14 Pro Max|
About this review: Apple provided me with an iPhone 14 Pro Max to test. The company did not have any input in this article.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max: Design and Hardware
- Virtually same size, construction, and in-hand feel as iPhone 13 Pro Max
- The brightest screen in the industry — perfectly usable even under the harshest sunlight
Even though the iPhone 14 Pro Max brings several significant hardware improvements over the iPhone 13 Pro Max, the new phone looks and feels remarkably similar to the last generation. Overall dimensions are virtually identical save for a few millimeters and grams, and the same “Ceramic Shield” (reinforced glass) and stainless steel sides wrap around the new model. All the buttons and the alert slider are in the same spots as before. In other words, if you’ve held or seen up close an iPhone 13 Pro Max (heck, even an iPhone 12 Pro Max), the 14 Pro Max will feel very familiar.
At 240g and measuring 77.6mm (a bit over three inches) wide, this is objectively a big phone, and because of the hard flat sides, it’s even more unwieldy to hold than, say, a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. If you are considering the 14 Pro Max but have not held the 12 or 13 Pro Max before, I’d recommend checking the device out in stores to decide if you can handle the bulk. If not, the standard iPhone 14 Pro is more manageable with a weight of 206g and 71.5mm (roughly 2.8-inches) wide. Do note the flat sides with sharp corners will dig into you palm, so I’d recommend using this phone with a good case.
The biggest visual change, of course, is the much-discussed pill-shaped cutout, which replaces the notch as a means to house Apple’s TrueDepth camera system. By now almost everyone reading this would know Apple has designed an interactive UI named “Dynamic Island” that gives off the illusion that the cutout can change shapes and sizes. Dynamic Island is more of a software feature, so I’ll discuss this in the appropriate section further down.
The 6.7-inch OLED display is noticeably brighter this year, with the ability to get up to 2,000 nits in brightness. This is the brightest display in any smartphone yet, and it’s so bright that when you’re using it indoors, you probably won’t need to go above 25% brightness. For most of these product shots, I actually had to lower screen brightness to 10-15% just to ensure the screen wouldn’t appear blown out (too bright) in photos.
The switch from the notch to the island cutout means the interruption in the screen is different from before. Some people, like my colleague Karthik, argue having a floating island that actually sits further down the screen than the notch is more distracting than before. I don’t disagree with him, but for some reason, I think a separated island cutout feels cleaner than a notch that connects to the top bezel.
The literal “always on” display
The iPhone 13 Pro phones had already made the switch to an LTPO panel which means the refresh rate can dynamically adjust itself to conserve energy. But Apple says this year’s Pro screens got even better at conserving energy, which allowed the company to finally introduce an Always-On Display (AOD). On Android, the AOD (first introduced to modern Android phones in 2016’s LG G6 and Samsung Galaxy S7) is almost always a black screen with text for time, notification icons, and maybe a bit more information like the next event on your calendar. Oppo’s ColorOS 13 has added some flair to the AOD by giving it a more colorful layout with full music player controls, but fundamentally, it’s still a minimal black screen with only bits of crucial information on display.
Apple’s take on this? It is to take the “Always-On” part literally: your entire lockscreen just dims a bit when the phone is locked and not in use. You can still clearly see the wallpaper and whatever widgets you’ve chosen for the lockscreen.
That Apple can do this without negatively impacting the iPhone 14 Pro phone’s battery is an impressive technical feat — it’s not just that the LTPO panel can get as low as 1Hz — plenty of Android phone screens can do this too — it’s also that Apple has dedicated a small part of its A16 Bionic processor to controlling the AOD. Apple even has built-in smart features that will automatically turn off the screen entirely if the iPhone owner is wearing an Apple Watch and has left the room in which the iPhone rests.
However technically impressive it is, I am not a fan of the AOD being this always on. To have the wallpaper visible, and even album cover art if you last had Spotify or Apple Music opened is a bit distracting for me. For example, if I’m watching a movie in a dark room and my phone is face up, I would still be able to see my wallpaper and widgets in my peripheral vision. The photo below? That’s the AOD at work — the phone was locked when the photo was snapped.
Silicon: A16 Bionic
The iPhone 14 Pro Max runs on the Apple A16 Bionic, it’s a 4nm, six-core SoC with 16 billion transistors (1 billion more than the A15 Bionic), and it is simply the most powerful chip in mobile, beating anything in Android, including the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1.
The A16 Bionic consists of two performance cores and four efficiency cores, with a five-core GPU and a 16-core Neural Engine. Perhaps more importantly, Apple increased the GPU’s memory bandwidth by 50%, which helps the new ISP (image signal processor).
What does this all mean in real-world usage? To be honest, for most normal smartphone users, it does not mean all that much. We are at a point where mobile silicon has gotten more than powerful enough for most people. If you’re like most people whose smartphone usage is social media, emails, texting, and light gaming, the A16 Bionic of course keeps everything running fast and smoothly — but so can the A15 Bionic, A14 Bionic, or Qualcomm Snapdragon 888.
Where you will see the benefits of the A16 Bionic is when you do intensive tasks, like using the iPhone 14 Pro’s new Action Mode or Photonic Engine (more on this in the camera section later), or if you’re exporting videos or using AR applications. It’s great to be future-proofed though.
The rest of the hardware bits are all great — the haptic engine is arguably the best in class, the speakers pump out loud enough audio that I often use the phone as a podcast/music player while in the shower, and the IP68 rating ensures I don’t have to worry if the phone gets wet.
The SIM tray (or lack thereof)
One big change Apple introduced to iPhone 14 series devices in the US is the removal of the SIM tray in favor of eSIM. This has also been a topic of much debate, and it doesn’t appear to be a move that benefits the consumers in any way, as my colleague Adam Conway wrote about recently. Apple claims eSIMs are simple and easy to use, and while that may be the case for the average American who buys a phone from a carrier and uses it for years, there will almost certainly be an additional hassle for people like me who switch phones almost every week.
Nonetheless, this is a problem I don’t have to deal with yet, as Apple is only removing the SIM tray in US phones. My Hong Kong unit keeps the dual SIM slot as before.
The new iPhone cameras are getting their own dedicated section further down the review, and it’s a big one.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max: Software
- Apple’s software synergy across devices is still best-in-class
- The Dynamic Island right now is mostly visual flair, but it likely will bring practical benefits later
The iPhone 14 Pro Max runs iOS 16 out of the box. Our own resident Apple expert Mahmoud Itani has written a full breakdown of iOS 16 features, so if you want to know the minutiae of the software, check that out.
As for me, I have a love/hate relationship with iOS. I love how fluid the animations are and how seamlessly connected iOS is with other Apple products. For example, I took this iPhone to an old coffee shop I haven’t visited in a couple of years, and I was surprised when it automatically connected to the WiFi. I also set up this iPhone by transferring from an older iPhone, and not only are the obvious things like old photos and contacts all carried over, but I did not have to re-login to any social media apps or online banking services, everything just worked right away. This is not the case with Android, where every time I set up a new phone, I have to re-enter my passwords to a bunch of apps to sign in and initiate.
There are new software features such as Crash Detection, which uses the iPhone’s sensors and Apple’s software algorithm to, apparently, intelligent understand when you’ve been in a car crash, and will alert emergency services automatically. There’s also Satellite connectivity to let the iPhone text emergency services without any cell reception. I was not able to test either of the new features because (thankfully) I have not been in a car crash during the review period, and the Satellite services aren’t available yet for the public.
Ever since Apple introduced the iPhone X with the notch, it has been a topic of much, much debate. Most people hated it at first, and other brands poked fun at it, but guess what? Within a year, almost every Android phone released post-iPhone X had the notch. And while hardcore Android fans still crack jokes about the notch, the tens of millions of notched iPhones out in the real world prove the average consumer doesn’t particularly care.
To Apple’s credit, it never wavered on the notch. Instead of trying to hide it via a digital bezel the way some Android phones offered, Apple went the other way and told developers not to try to hide it, but to leave it alone. With the new island cutout, Apple has taken it another step further by asking everyone to look at it.
Within 30 seconds of setting up the new iPhone 14 Pro Max — when I got to the Face ID registration screen — the island had already caught my eye. In past iPhones, the page to scan my face just shows up as the next page in a series of setup screens. Here on the 14 Pro Max, a rectangular box drops from the cutout. The animation is buttery smooth, the drop of the face scan box feels like it has gravity, as if the island was a tired traveler dropping a suitcase on the ground.
Once the iPhone is set up, the Dynamic Island will often shift in size depending on the task you’re doing. Anytime Face ID needs to kick in, for example, the island expands horizontally. When I start a song on Spotify, as I swipe out of the Spotify app to do something else, the app flies into the island, which then expands slightly to show the album cover art on the left side and a small music wave bar that thumps along to the tunes. As a former hipster music geek who collected records and attended Coachella before it went mainstream, seeing a tiny album art on a personal device brings a smile to my face.
Tapping on the album art of the music bar opens up Spotify again in full. I reckon this is because Spotify engineers haven’t had time to design for the new iPhone yet. I presume in a few weeks once Spotify has made the changes it needs to make, that tap will likely open a floating music control box, just like many first-party apps already do now. When the iPhone’s native recording app is recording, for example, tapping on the island expands a floating menu that lets me pause or stop recording.
Right now, only a small handful of third-party apps support Dynamic Island. But given this is Apple, I have no doubt we will see widespread support within months, if not weeks.
Does Dynamic Island fundamentally change how we use the iPhone? No. Is it a gimmick? Possibly. But I love it anyway. Though admittedly, I am a sucker for aesthetics in my gadgets, I care more about animation fluidity and slim bezel sizes more than wireless charging speeds or if a phone’s bootloader can be unlocked.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max: Cameras
- 48MP main camera and new Photonic Engine improves low light performance
- Jaw-dropping video stabilization and fluidity when switching between lenses
First things first, the photos you see in this article are compressed. I have uploaded some uncompressed, full-sized images to Flickr.
What’s new with the cameras?
- 48MP main camera, a larger sensor for ultra-wide and selfie
- 3x telephoto remains the same
The new 48MP wide (main) camera brings several benefits. The first and most obvious benefit is it allows Apple to apply pixel-binning to its photos, which essentially packs four pixels’ worth of light information into one. This results in better performance in low light, without resorting to night mode as much.
The second benefit is we can also shoot RAW files (or as photographers call it, “shooting in RAW”) using all 48 million pixels. RAW files are uncompressed, lossless files that keep all the data a camera sensor is capable of capturing. Apple calls their RAW files “ProRaw,” by the way.
The third benefit is that the more pixel-dense main camera allows Apple to crop into the middle section of the sensor to produce what Apple claims is a “2x optical telephoto” shot.
I will talk about the first two upgrades mentioned — pixel binning and 48MP ProRAW — further down the article. Let’s start by examining the new “2x optical zoom.”
Three lenses, four focal lengths
The iPhone 14 Pro Max’s main camera system has three lenses covering the ultra-wide (13mm), wide (24mm), and 3x telephoto (77mm). The wide lens is slightly wider than before (going from 26mm to 24mm), but otherwise, having three optical focal lengths has been the case since the iPhone 11.
But as mentioned in the last section, Apple is advertising a fourth optical focal length, a 2x zoom (48mm) that crops into the main camera sensor to produce a “lossless optical 2x zoom” shot. Below are four shots snapped at the four focal lengths.
Notice Apple does a great job keeping color science consistent across all three lenses (and four focal lengths) (the exception is the last 3x zoom shot of the neon lights, whose brightness shifted a bit). This is something Apple has always excelled at compared to Android brands, some of whom will still produce wide and ultra-wide shots with wildly different color science.
The big question: is that 2x zoom actually lossless optical quality? The answer is mostly. With good lighting, 2x zoom shots do look very clean, and when cropped in to match the actual 3x optical zoom lens, the quality is close enough that it is a very good zoom.
Now if I do the same thing with a 2x and 3x shot captured by the iPhone 13 Pro Max, we can see the older iPhone’s 2x zoom is noticeably softer on details.
But here’s the catch: the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s 2x zoom can only reach near-lossless quality with really good lighting. The above plant sample was taken right by a window with direct sunlight. If I pixel peep the other 2x zoom taken at the restaurant, it is nowhere near as clean.
Keep in mind the restaurant isn’t even that dark, so you really need to shoot during the day with direct sunlight access to get that lossless 2x zoom. Otherwise, it’s just another digital zoom.
If you’re wondering, the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s zoom prowess still falls short of phones with a dedicated Periscope zoom lens, like the Pixel 6 Pro’s 4x Periscope.
How much better are the iPhone 14 Pro Max cameras compared to the iPhone 13 Pro Max cameras?
We already established that the 14 Pro Max’s 2x zoom is better than the 13 Pro Max’s 2x zoom (if the lighting is great). But what about other lenses?
For the main camera, in day scenes, I’m not seeing much difference. But at night, the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s image processing produces much more pleasing colors.
The iPhone 13 Pro Max’s night shots in the above set look bad — the whole scene is just brightened up and has little to no contrast. The iPhone 14 Pro Max seems to understand that “brighter isn’t always better,” and actually keeps shadows, you know, darker. This is likely Apple’s new “Photonic Engine” at work, which is Apple’s machine learning computational photography algorithm that snaps multiple versions of the same photo, trying to retain uncompressed data as early in the pipeline as possible, to produce a shot that has better details and colors.
Do note all shots captured in this section are shot without ProRaw — we’ll get to that in the next section.
The iPhone 14 Pro Max’s ultra-wide is also better than the 13 Pro Max’s ultra-wide in low light situations due to the larger image sensor and the Photonic Engine.
These ultra-wide shots were taken in a really dark alley (see photo below). Both cameras needed night mode, but the 14 Pro Max’s night mode didn’t need as much time (I’d say 1/3 of a second compared to 2/3 of a second). The 14 Pro Max’s shot has more natural colors that are closer to real life.
And if we pixel peep, we can see the 14 Pro Max’s shot has slightly less noise.
These differences may seem small individually, but add them up — the iPhone 14 Pro Max didn’t need as long a night mode, its colors are more accurate, and the photo is slightly less noisy — and they’re not insignificant improvements.
Remember, I tend to conduct my camera tests in extremely challenging shooting scenes (against harsh backlight, in dark alleys) because I want to really test them. There’s not much point in snapping photos of one object in a white room with perfect lighting as a test.
Shooting in ProRAW
The iPhone has had the ability to shoot in ProRAW since the iPhone 12 series, but the 14 Pro phones can shoot in full 48MP resolution, which allows for cropping further in without sacrificing details, and as mentioned earlier, ProRaw retains complete lossless image data information — at least as much as the iPhone camera sensor can take in.
If you’re a casual smartphone photographer, you may be wondering “if RAW files bring more image information, then why don’t all smartphones shoot in RAW all the time?” The answer is because RAW files are much, much larger in size, and more importantly, shooting RAW goes against smartphone computational photography tricks like HDR, pixel-binning, and the Photonic Engine.
The purpose of shooting RAW is so the photographer can take the file to a photo editing software to make changes to colors and lighting (hence why it’s crucial the image keeps as much data as possible). For the most part, only serious photographers have the skills (or would want to spend the time) to do this. Most people would prefer if the smartphone’s computational photography smarts just processes and produces a great shot. Shooting in RAW is a great option to have, but most smartphone users will not want to or know how to use it.
For example, that photo of a small minivan with a red roof (in Hong Kong, these are called red minibusses, a form of public transport) I showed earlier, I also shot in ProRAW, and when I opened the image on my Mac, it defaulted to opening in Adobe Lightroom instead of the usual Mac photo viewer.
The image by default is dimly lit, but when I play around with the image tuning sliders, I see I can increase exposure much higher without blowing out lights. Because this is a RAW image, it retains more dynamic range for me to experiment with. I can also zoom into the shot much more than a typical 12MP shot.