iPhone 12 Pro Max Review: Needs To be More than Your Phone!

Following from our review of the smaller and more mainstream iPhone 12, the larger and ‘Max’ed out (in every way) iPhone 12 Pro Max is now available as well. As with previous years’ Plus or Max models, it’s large and heavy, of course. But does the extra screen real estate and, in this case, the possible extra imaging finesse make up for the inconvenience of size and weight? I think so. Mind you, it’s notable that the iPhone 12 mini is also now available, and that’s utterly tiny. You can’t accuse Apple of not giving users options – even if all those options involve handing over significant sums of cash!

iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Improvements, year on year

The improvements over last year’s iPhone 11 Pro Max break down as follows, in order of significance: 

  • Support for 5G worldwide (including mmWave in the USA)
  • The screen is covered with ‘Ceramic Shield’ glass from Corning, claimed to be (and tests have proved accurate) up to four times less prone to cracking and shattering when impacted (during a drop). Though it has also been shown that it’s just as vulnerable to scratches from hard objects in pockets (for example), so you’ll still need to be careful. I keep my smartphones in a PDair belt holster and larger phones are just fine with these, but it’s fair to say that the 12 Pro Max won’t suit trouser pocket storage!
  • The 12 Pro series starts at 128GB (and goes up to 512GB), fixing the main criticism in 2019 of a starting capacity of 64GB and then stepping up to 256GB. 128GB is considered the sweet spot for smartphone flagships in 2020 (also true in the Android world), for storing apps, games, media, and (most of all) captured video and photos. For interest, my review 12 Pro Max is 256GB, chosen by me to apportion a full 128GB of this for video capturing and editing over the next year or so.
  • There’s 2GB more RAM (at 6GB now) in the 12 Pro range – more RAM means more can be done at once, more powerful operations can be attempted, and so on. Although the difference is small in day to day use, future applications and – especially – ProRAW imaging and Dolby Vision video encoding will all make good use of the extra memory and prevent slowdowns.
  • The cameras are beefed up with a larger (1/1.86”) main sensor, stabilised with the new (to phones) ‘sensor shift stabilisation’, in theory allowing for longer exposures for stills and smoother video. Plus a new 65mm (2.5x) telephoto, up from 2x on the older series.
  • Captured video can now be in 10-bit HDR, branded here with Dolby Vision.
  • The display is 0.2” larger (diagonal), at slightly higher resolution, at 1284p. Which is good, but not noticeable day to day.
  • The chipset inside is 2020’s A14 Bionic, based on a ‘5nm process’. Which, translated into English, means that the components on the chip are smaller than in last year’s A13 (7nm) and thus use less power and can potentially work at faster speeds. In practice, there’s no noticeable difference though, I found. 
  • The battery is slightly smaller at 3687mAh, which (added to the extra drain from 5G and more RAM) means shorter battery life than the 11 Pro Max. But then the latter was a champion, so there’s some room for manoeuvre here.
  • Qi wireless charging is upped to 15W, in theory, thanks to MagSafe magnets in an array under the back of each iPhone 12 series. These align the phone to Apple’s special MagSafe chargers and keep inductive charging optimised. Note that charging speeds on third party Qi pads are lower though, typically 7.5W.
  • 3mm longer, but 1mm thinner, neither is really significant, especially once a case is in place, plus the overall weight is almost identical, at 228g
  • A LiDAR scanner is added to the camera array, ostensibly to help with even faster low light focussing, though there’s surely a future in using it for augmented reality applications too.

That’s quite a list when taken as a whole. Enough to prompt a 2019 11 Pro Max user to upgrade? Perhaps not quite, but the improvements are certainly noteworthy. Your reviewer has been using an iPhone 11 Pro (i.e. the smaller one) for the last 12 months, meaning extra potential benefits in going for the 12 Pro Max in terms of screen size and battery.

Not that any of these iPhone flagships are a bad choice, it’s just a balancing act in terms of age, feel, specifications, and so on. And yes, they’re all still expensive – if you have to worry about price then you can’t afford them!

iPhone 12 Pro Max rear glass

iPhone 12 Pro Max Review

Hardware

In person, the iPhone 12 Pro Max follows the style of the iPhone 12 before it, with nice flat sides, though made with stainless steel here, which looks and feels amazing and very, very solid. It’s also shiny, so collects fingerprints, but that won’t be an issue because you will be keeping this in a case, even a simple TPU affair. 

iPhone 12 Pro Max edge

Apple’s quality control is amazing, as usual, and the fit and finish off the screen and rear glass within the steel chassis is top notch. The rear is frosted glass and again feels premium. The real interest is in the ever-more-busy camera island, with three larger than usual lens surrounds and flash and LiDAR system packed in. Plus a tiny hole, presumably a rear-facing microphone (left channel of stereo audio, there being no mic hole in the top edge).

iPhone 12 Pro Max cameras

Down the bottom is the usual speaker grille, the Lightning port (rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated) and few token holes to balance the speaker (and behind which lie another microphone and some sensors).

iPhone 12 Pro Max bottom edge

The edges, the chamfers, the flat surfaces are just… perfect. But I’m still putting this inside a Ringke Fusion clear TPU case because I am going to drop this at some point and when that happens I don’t want to be crying over cracked glass and scratched steel.

Around the front, I was enormously impressed by the 6.7” display here. It’s rated as (deep breath) ‘Super Retina XDR OLED, HDR10’, meaning that it can cope with any HDR video content and with massive dynamic range. Anecdotally, out in the sun and especially taking photos, I don’t think I’ve ever used such a clear screen – it’s rated as going up to ‘1200 nits’ if needed (think camera viewfinder on a sunny day).

Review iPhone 12 Pro Max display

The Face ID notch appears smaller here because the screen around it is larger – but it’s still rarely in the way and with a dark theme on your iPhone (now the default) the status bar at the top is the same black as the Face ID sensor array. Some ill-informed reviewers are complaining that Apple should have gone back to Touch ID in these pandemic times, but the iPhone 12 range was designed back in 2019, long before Covid-19 was known about. So Face ID is here to stay. If you need a Touch ID iPhone then get the SE (2020), which is cheap and still actively sold!

Colour choices for the iPhone 12 Pro Max are Silver, Graphite, Gold, and Pacific Blue, with the latter on show here – it’s restrained and the obvious choice for many. After all, silver and graphite are somewhat boring now, while gold is too ‘bling’!

Imaging

As you’ll have gathered, Apple has differentiated the two ‘Pro’ iPhones for 2020 by putting in bigger cameras in the larger model – which makes sense. Especially for the main camera, which acquires tech from the DSLR world in the shape of ‘sensor shift stabilization’, which can cope with a wider range of movement than traditional phone OIS, where just one or more lenses move. Plus the aperture is larger, at f/1.6, the sensor itself is larger (1/1.86″), giving scope – allied to Apple’s auto-night mode and the LiDAR focus system – for the best low light shots from a phone… ever (in theory).

review: iPhone 12 Pro Max Camera array

Then throw in a 65mm telephoto lens, i.e. 2.5x optical zoom, also stabilised, plus the same ultra-wide lens as in 2019, but all boosted by the power of the A14 chipset to handle multiple exposure shots, Deep Fusion pixel-level analysis, and – notably – Night mode on the front and wide cameras, not just the main one. So zoomed shots, wide angle snaps, even selfies, can be composited in software and using the A14’s GPU to have noise-free, super shots whatever the lighting conditions.

Does all this work out in practice? Well, on the whole yes, though I have some concerns about the degree of sharpening and edge enhancement introduced by Apple in the iOS 14 Camera application, especially in low light and its Night mode. See the example photos (and some 1:1 crops) here, along with my comments.

Sample shot, scaled for the web
A sunny Autumn walk – lovely colours, though an easy shot to pull off, of course…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing slightly oversharpened, enhanced detail. This is kept in check in most light conditions, though do see below…
Sample shot, scaled for the web
Shooting straight into the sun, this captured the scene exactly as it was to my eyes…
Sample shot, scaled for the web
Getting arty among the leaves…
Sample shot, scaled for the web
1:1 crop from a 2.5x telephoto (zoomed) shot, showing again decent control over enhancement in good light.
Sample shot, scaled for the web
No caption needed. Just dig in!!
Sample shot, scaled for the web
Shot in artificial light, nice and crisp. Too crisp? Maybe, but the photo certainly works!
Sample shot, scaled for the web
Again in the sun, a macro of some pebbles. The 12 Pro Max does this type of natural bokeh shot SO well…
Sample shot, scaled for the web
Another bokeh shot – the shallow depth of field from quite a large lens and aperture can be used artily – just don’t let it become a problem!
Sample portrait
Sample portrait, the author on a hazy sunny day, with light behind me. Portrait mode here is outstanding in its accuracy, helped by the LiDAR sensor. Note also the lightening of my face, which was essentially in shadow. Nicely done, iPhone.
Sample ultra-wide image
Sample ultra-wide image, of a Christmas model installation, where the only way to get it all in was to go ultra-wide. There’s no focussing, but everything from 30cm to infinity is ‘in focus’. Which is pretty impressive.
Sample shot, scaled for the web
Low light still life, deliberately focussing on the detail in deep shadow on the van’s left side…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing slightly subdued colours and over-enhanced black outlines. I was expecting a little more from Night mode on such a large sensor. Maybe updates will improve low light processing?
Sample shot, scaled for the web
A closed cafe under UK Covid lockdown. Dimmer than it seems in this shot, Night mode came on automatically, and there’s plenty of detail to focus on…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing heavy edge enhancement and noise reduction. As with the toy van above, I’d like to see Apple dial back the processing on Night mode shots. Pretty please?
Sample shot, scaled for the web
Night mode at (appropriately) dead of night. Stars, clouds, greenery, all come to the fore…
1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing the same water-colour effects. Effectively heavy sharpening and then heavy noise reduction. Dial it back a BIT, please, Apple!

The $6,000,000 question is whether the 12 Pro Max’s camera system is better than the 12 Pro’s? Yes, it is, though it’s hard to demonstrate. Other than slightly shallower depth of field (and better natural bokeh), there’s slightly more zoom available, and Night mode shots can often be captured in a second when the smaller phone camera needs three. But none of this is enough of a reason to buy the bigger ‘Max’ phone, I contend. See below for some more thoughts in my Verdict!

Video is – as usual, for iPhoneHacks – not demonstrated in this review, perhaps we can do a separate feature on this? [FX: approaches editor!] Suffice it to say that you can shoot double-stabilised video in 10-bit HDR Dolby Vision format at up to 4K/60fps. Which is about as good as it gets. In my tests, zooming through the range from ultra-wide camera (0.5x) through to 7x zoom (so a 14x zoom range, effectively) is very smooth, with minimal colour balance shifts in moving from lens to lens.

HDR video is already handled by iMovie on the phone and on Macs, so you should have no problem editing and sharing it. If you have a Windows PC then you’ll have to check your software of choice – or just turn off ‘HDR video’ in Settings on the iPhone. 

Media and Performance

Aside from the (now longstanding) absence of a 3.5mm audio jack, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is terrific at handling media. The stereo speaker pair is one of the best on any modern smartphone. The bottom speaker is still louder, but the earpiece has some heft too, in terms of frequencies supported. Add in Dolby Atmos, baked in, plus Apple’s trademark octave-shifting of sub-100Hz bass up into audible range, and you get a wide stereo experience that’s terrific for music videos, YouTube, and so on.

That 3.5mm jack isn’t missed that badly in practice – Apple’s rather excellent DAC/dongle is priced sensibly at under £10 in the UK (and similarly across the world), making sure that it’s easy to buy a few and stick them on the jacks of any favourite wired headphones. Plus Bluetooth headphones have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. See elsewhere for AirPod reviews, I’m more a third party man, with Marshall and ROCKJAW over-ear and in-ear solutions respectively and top drawer audio fidelity.

Battery life

It’s tough to judge battery life after a short and intensive review period, but results so far indicate that the 12 Pro Max isn’t quite the battery champion that the 11 Pro Max was. But it’s still a hero device in the context of the wider phone world – with care it’s easy to get two days of use on a single charge. And, with Qi pads here and there throughout your life you may not need to plug into a Lightning cable very often.

Which is where Apple is going. The MagSafe magnet array in the back of each 12 series iPhone (covered already) locks onto Apple’s own 15W MagSafe Qi ‘pucks’ to deliver what would normally be a decent wired charge without any physical insertions. As mentioned above, compatibility with third-party Qi pads depends on the spec and power supply driving it, so your mileage will vary. 

Apple’s goal is a portless iPhone in 2022 and I see no reason why at least their flagship can’t get there by then. By 2025, all new iPhones will be free of the Lightning jack and all charging will be MagSafe and wireless. (And if you’re wondering, as a geek, how you’d then run troubleshooting and perhaps connect up to Macs or PCs, I’m guessing some data/charge contact points along one edge and a docking cradle of some kind.)

There’s no charger in the box, a topic that has been covered elsewhere. Even the MagSafe puck doesn’t come with a mains adapter, meaning that a new iPhone owner might need to buy two extra expensive accessories in order to be fully kitted out. Thankfully, for the 12 Pro Max it’s extremely unlikely that this is someone’s first iPhone, so the buyer will almost certainly have Lightning (and probably) Qi chargers lying around already. Which is Apple’s point in terms of reducing electronic waste in the long term, so fair enough.

Box contents

But even with 5G on board here, battery life is just fine. Ask me again in a few months how it is week to week! Talking of 5G, it’s an important future-proofing spec point, but I’ve only glimpsed 5G a couple of times in the UK during the review period. You’ll know about 5G rollout where you live and yes, it’s reassuring to know that a 2020 iPhone will be good to go for high speed data and low latency in 2021 and beyond.

Verdict

There are, it seems, many places in the world where someone’s smartphone is their entire computing environment. No laptop, no tablet, no desktops in sight. Hence the prevalence on the market of 6” to 7” displays on phones. And, while anyone able to afford an iPhone 12 Pro Max probably has some of these as well, the overall feel of a device that can do just about anything without needing accessories is accentuated even over the iPhone 11 Pro Max, thanks to a larger, higher resolution display again in a similar form factor. More pixels, more horsepower, more RAM, more storage, faster charging, it’s ‘more everything’ across the board.

As ‘a computer in your pocket’ the 12 Pro Max fares pretty well. From email to office work to iMovie video editing to watching Netflix, it’s equipped for it all. At a cost. Just as with last year’s 11 Pro Max (only a little more so), this isn’t a smartphone that you can throw in any pocket. I’m based in the UK and for 75% of the year a coat is needed outdoors, in which case finding storage for such a large and heavy phone isn’t a problem. Where this iPhone falls down is in more temperate climes and in the summer here, where finding somewhere to keep a 228g, 161cm phone isn’t going to be easy.

Much as I love the large screen and even the slightly better camera here, my recommendation for the vast majority of people is to pick the smaller iPhone 12 Pro (also starting at 128GB), which can do everything almost as well, yet with a much smaller form factor. Or even the vanilla iPhone 12 if money is tight (if you can make do with the 64GB starting option).

So there’s the paradox. A slice of 2020 tech which I’m virtually in love with, long term. Yet which I can’t really recommend across the board. If you know that you can handle a super-sized iPhone then go for it. If you’re not sure then play safe and avoid!

In box

PS. There’s also the question of whether the 11 series to 12 series is a worthwhile upgrade. I’ll be returning to this in a future ‘Which iPhone?’ article, but in short, you probably don’t need to upgrade unless you need more storage or fancy switching sizes. E.g. I went for it because I wanted more storage (64GB to 256GB) and more screen (5.8” to 6.7”).