Apple’s 2020 phone lineup is as big as it’s ever been, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the biggest smartphone it’s ever made. This beastly handset isn’t just a jacked up version of the iPhone 12 Pro either, as this time Apple saw fit to offer a bit more differentiation. So, let’s see if bigger is actually better.
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Design and Features
The iPhone 12 Pro Max, like the rest of the iPhone 12 family, is another metal-framed phone sandwiched between two glass slabs. In this case, that metal is stainless steel, which gives it a bit more of an industrial look than the aluminum of the iPhone 12. In the end, the iPhone 12 actually feels a little gentler in the hand than the Pro Max.
Style-wise, the Pro and non-Pro mirror each other’s glass on the back. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a matte glass back with a clear glass camera bump, while the iPhone 12 has a clear glass back with a matte camera bump. The Pro Max camera bump is almost as monstrous as the phone itself. A little plateau pops up from the back of the phone, and then the three camera modules shoot up even more. They look like they mean business.
Now, back to this phone being monstrous. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is huge. I don’t think I’ve ever used a phone this wide. The LG Velvet and LG Wing were also chunky, but they were taller and not as wide. Apple has tied its own hands with its design, as offering a 6.7-inch display on a phone with the same proportions of the iPhone 12 meant delivering a phone that’s just over three inches wide. The 6.33-inch height isn’t troublesome, but that width makes it a true pain to hold.
The iPhone 12 was readily usable one-handed with swipe navigation within reach. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is a two-hander for all but pro basketball players. I’m 6’3” and my hands are by no means small, but I can’t easily reach across the screen to swipe back, and its 228 grams make it a slight pain to balance on a pinky finger.
That size makes the iPhone 12 Pro Max a drop risk, but Apple has included some protection. The 12 Pro Max features the same Ceramic Shield on the front that the rest of the iPhone 12 line offers. It has proven impressively durable, and it should survive some modest tumbles. That said, the back glass will be more fragile. The stainless steel should prove tougher than the aluminum of the iPhone 12 though. There’s a degree of water and dust resistance as well with an IP68 rating.
There is a plus side to the phone’s plus size, though: The 6.6-inch Super Retina XDR display gets that much more room to show off. It can get brilliantly bright and its OLED panel lets pure black backgrounds successfully hide the bezels around the screen, even doing a decent job at hiding the camera notch that should have been banished from Apple’s product line long ago.
Like the rest of the line, the iPhone 12 Pro Max also features Apple’s reinvented MagSafe technology. This comes in the form of an embedded ring of magnets that lets you attach various accessories, including faster wireless charging – Apple will support up to 15W wireless charging with a MagSafe product versus the 7.5W charging available through standard Qi charging.
The biggest new feature of the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the rest of the line is 5G. Apple has included support for a wide range of 5G networks from low- and mid-band to mmWave. Through most of my testing in Chicago, I’ve maintained a 5G connection on T-Mobile. However, it’s generally a low-band connection that rarely exceeds 4G LTE speeds. On some occasions my connection exceeded 100Mbit/s, but your speeds will come down to your carrier, your plan, and your precise location at any given moment.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max comes running iOS 14. The software runs incredibly smooth, thanks in part to Apple’s powerful processing.
Apple has a bit more customization on offer in this version of iOS, a trajectory it seems to have kept up in recent years. There are new widgets, an App Library, and discrete portions of apps available through App Clips. Apple has made Siri and ongoing calls take up less space on the screen too.
I haven’t noticed much difference in iOS 14 since I reviewed the iPhone 12 late last year. The operating system is perfectly usable and not as frequently wonky as I can find Android to sometimes be. But, I’ve found plenty to complain about. The App Library fails to have logical organization, which all but defeats the purpose. The widgets are an upgrade, but they tend to take up more space than they require. And, App Clips are a good idea that will require serious buy-in from developers for them to be meaningful in any way.
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The Notification Center is still a whirlpool of chaos. I’ll hear the phone get a notification and then won’t be able to find which app gave it because the Notification Center doesn’t automatically clear any notifications for messages that have been accessed through apps themselves. I’ve asked a few iPhone users whether they use the Notification Center, and none said they did.
My main gripe with iOS though is just the way it lacks quick access to a lot of settings. The camera app doesn’t provide a means of going into its settings, where simple controls for resolution and frame rate are. And the Control Center is sporadic about it, letting a long press on the Bluetooth toggle take me into the main Bluetooth settings page but no such route for Wireless Hotspot settings.
All this is to say, I’m still impressed how easy it is to find a lack of intuitive operation on an operating system that has been developed so extensively and uniformly and has long held a reputation for being intuitive.
Gaming and performance
Just as it was on the iPhone 12, the A14 Bionic chip inside the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a performance champ. The only thing that ever felt slow was loading up a large game, which comes down to the storage speeds.
Launching apps and navigation is smooth and snappy. Scrolling sometimes feels slow, but I get the impression that that’s something of a speed limit in the software, and it’s definitely not the processor failing to keep up.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s gaming performance is a natural extension of its performance in all other departments. The difference here is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max is just a better gaming phone than its siblings. The 6.7-inch display is still incredibly pixel dense, and it offers a solid showcase for games. Once again, I hopped into Thatgamecompany’s Sky. It looks as stunning as ever on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and the phone shows no hesitation running it in the faster performance mode or quality mode.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max also has sufficient battery life to enjoy a bit of gaming, video, and regular use throughout the day without much worry of it not lasting until the end of the day. I tend to be a lighter user (especially with fewer places to go in 2020), but can average 1.5 hours of screen time per day and easily make it through three days without charging.
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The cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro Max are one of the key ways it differentiates itself from its smaller Pro sibling. It offers the following camera sensors:
- 12MP Ultrawide, f/2.4, 120-degree FoV
- 12MP Wide, f/1.6 with sensor-shift image stabilization
- 12MP Telephoto, f/2.2, 2.5x optical zoom factor
- 12MP TrueDepth front-facing camera, f/2.2
There are two key differentiators here. The Pro Max’s wide-angle camera (the primary one) features a larger sensor and sensor-shift image stabilization which lets the sensor actually move within its housing to counteract hand movements. Then, the telephoto sensor has an increased optical zoom factor and smaller aperture (2.5x and f/2.2 for the Pro Max compared to 2x and f/2.0 for the Pro).
My experience with the iPhone 12’s camera was largely positive aside from some gripes with how recording video works and shortcoming of the ultra-wide sensor, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max manages to largely improve on the experience. As expected, the iPhone 12 Pro Max continues to do an outstanding job at capturing rich and detailed imagery that closely matches what I see with my own eyes. Its HDR and low-light chops also continue to impress.
Apple also has its Deep Fusion image processing available on photos taken with any of its sensors this time around, including the selfie camera, so its contributing a bit of extra sharpness, which really shows itself on the fur of pets. The handling of Night mode shots is strong, with even unsteady hands canceled out effectively by the camera’s processing. I can’t say that I noticed the sensor-shift technology making a difference though.
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Unfortunately, what was true of the iPhone 12 is true of the 12 Pro Max: the main sensor is just better than the others. In good lighting conditions, all three sensors excel. But, even in a modestly lit room (two overhead lights and one large window looking out onto a gray day), the telephoto and ultrawide sensor show considerably more grain and softness in their shots than the main sensor.
I’ve even noticed the iPhone 12 Pro Max sneakily prioritizing the main sensor when lighting conditions are less than ideal. Pressing the 2.5x zoom button in the camera app would normally (presumably) switch to the telephoto sensor, but if conditions are even a bit dim, the phone will often use digital zoom on the primary sensor instead. It takes some control out of the users hands, but the camera app on the iPhone really isn’t all about giving users that specific control anyway. This does hurt the Pro line’s value proposition though, as the telephoto lens is one of the major upgrades from the non-Pro line. If the software is effectively forcing users to shoot the zoomed shots the same way iPhone 12 users would, why pay the extra $300?
The ultra-wide sensor introduces a new problem on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple’s positioning of the sensor couldn’t be worse. In part, the problem stems from how wide the field of view actually is. Because the sensor is positioned lower when held in landscape orientation, it’s incredibly easy to get a finger into the shot (even taking up as much of a quarter of the shot) by holding the phone like a camera.
Moving over the video, the HDR recording with Dolby Vision is very impressive. The video still keeps up with Apple’s handling of color and lighting, which is to say realistic and closely matching what I see with my own eyes. I recorded a dim scene of a lighter igniting and shining against a dark wooden backdrop. The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s recording started out quite dark, with not much visible, but it fit with the lighting. When the lighter flared up it looked brilliant but without over exposing anything, not even the thumb holding the lighter, and the backdrop remained clearly visible.
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I compared this to the Galaxy S20 shooting the same scene in HDR10+. While the S20 can’t shoot HDR10+ at 4K/60, I settled for 4K30 and noted some differences in the way it handled the scene. Prior to ignition, the S20 captured a much brighter scene than the iPhone. Once the lighter was lit, the S20 captured a similar flame and as detailed a background, but the thumb next to the flame was more intensely reflecting the orange firelight. Of course, the iPhone 12 Pro Max being able to record in 4K/60 and Dolby Vision at the same time is an advantage.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s stabilization for video is also powerful. Even with the telephoto sensor zoomed in to 7x while recording, it kept my footage steady enough to read some text on a screen across the room. The phone still does restrict sensor swapping while recording in 4K/60 though, and the digital zoom is painfully grainy, especially on the ultra-wide sensor.
For all its capabilities, I still wouldn’t rate the photography experience of the iPhone 12 Pro Max above that of the Sony Xperia 5 II, which offers a similarly compelling quality in photo and video while delivering more nuanced control, a better balance between its three sensors, and the blessing of a dedicated photo button.
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