The iPhone 12 Pro Max Is Entirely Too Much Phone, but It’s So Good

Illustration for article titled The iPhone 12 Pro Max Is Entirely Too Much Phone, but Its So Good

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

I wish I had never used the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

It is not a bad device. The opposite, in fact: It’s so good that this is the iPhone I want to use every day except for the fact that it’s so fucking massive. This isn’t a bad thing when I am reading or watching videos or composing emails. It’s just when I have to tote it around that I remember that the Pro Max is, well, max. Everything about it is extra as hell: The 6.7-inch display is huge and the phone itself with its stainless steel frame is heavy—a full ounce and a half heavier than the iPhone 12 Pro. I can’t use it one-handed for basically any task, and I cling to it for dear life on morning runs outside because the flat edges make me feel like I’m about to drop it, even when cased. It fits into absolutely none of my clothing pockets—though I will acknowledge that women’s clothes are not, in fact, designed to be useful in any way, so it’s not surprising that the Max doesn’t fit in my Levis (front or back).

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Look, this is a battle I’ve lost. Phones are big now. And I’m not going to dock the 12 Pro Max for being sizable. Compared to Samsung’s 6.9-inch Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the Max is positively petite (and way easier to grip than that beast, besides).

On paper, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best iPhone. In practice, it’s the best iPhone. But whether this is the iPhone you actually want to buy depends on whether you can get over its size, heft, and price. I’m this close to being over all three, and I’m a little mad about it.

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I’ve already reviewed the iPhone 12 (the best iPhone for most people), the iPhone 12 Pro (the almost perfect iPhone), and I’m in the process of reviewing the iPhone 12 Mini (by far the cutest iPhone), so I’ll spare you a rehash of what the four have in common. We’ve been over the redesign that harkens back to the iPhones of yore, we’ve talked about the promises and pains of 5G, we’ve put the A14 Bionic through its paces, and we’ve explored MagSafe charging’s ease and limitations. What sets the iPhone 12 Pro Max apart, aside from its size, is its cameras and its battery life.

Like the 12 Pro, the Pro Max sports a wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto lens, with LiDAR scanner. The difference is in the wide (or standard) and telephoto lenses: The Pro Max’s wide-angle primary lens has a 47% larger sensor, with what Apple calls sensor-shift optical image stabilization, which is meant to reduce shakiness and allow you to shoot low-light images with less exposure time. I found that to be true—nighttime shots that require 3-second exposures on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro required just two seconds on the 12 Pro Max. I noticed a slight but not dramatic difference in Night Mode shots between the 12, 12 Pro, and 12 Pro Max, as you can see in the shot below of a hibiscus bush with a distant streetlamp the only light source. The flowers and leaves were less detailed on the 11 Pro Max, and the Pixel 5’s Night Sight turned out a blurry shot, despite the fact that I was totally still and holding my breath.

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The LiDAR scanner makes the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max capable of Night Portraits, but this is where things get interesting. As you can see in the portraits of me on my front porch below, lit from the front by the light from my living room and from behind by an office building down the street, the 12 Pro Max resulted in a perfectly decent, warmly lit photo, but the iPhone 12 holds its own. The 12’s portraits are zoomed out because of its use of a wide and ultra-wide-angle lens, but both the light and the bokeh effect around my hair are more natural. The Pixel 5’s night portraits are also good, though artificially smooth. The 11 Pro Max’s night portrait is a grainy mess, so as you can see, the iPhone’s cameras have been dramatically improved year-over-year.

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Aside from the changes to the wide-angle lens’s sensor, Apple also lengthened the Pro Max’s telephoto lens from the 52mm f/2.2 found in the 12 Pro to 65mm f/2.0. This means you get 2.5x optical zoom with the Max, as opposed to the 2x optical zoom on the Pro. The improved lens results in clearer, more zoomed-in photos, as you can see in the shots below of the Hollywood sign from Runyon Canyon a few miles away. The iPhone 12 and Pixel 5’s digital zooms are no match for an optical zoom. But Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the clear winner with its 5x optical zoom, which results in incredibly detailed photos. (Too bad it’s also $1,300 and a freakin’ monster of a phone.)

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But in a more challenging shot of light reflecting off the Pacific Ocean just beyond Century City, the Note 20 Ultra’s optical zoom didn’t result in a more amazing shot, because you lose a lot of detail in the skyline. (The 12 Pro is my favorite of the five in this instance.)

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Though the Pixel 5 takes great portraits, even at night, and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s 5x optical zoom is *chef’s kiss* in the perfect light, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best smartphone camera for most situations. But the 12 Pro is almost as good, and the 12 holds its own—except when you need those zoomed-in shots.

Is the iPhone 12 Pro Max worth spending an extra $100 over the Pro just for slightly better night photos and slightly better telephoto lens? No. But the cameras are good! My only issue is the same issue I have with every other iPhone: that damn green lens flare that occasionally occurs when light refracts off the camera (as you can see in the Portrait Mode shot in the last slide below). Of course you never notice when you take the shot so you can do it again. It’s only after—when you pinch to zoom in and notice a giant dot on your turtleneck—do you curse audibly. But I digress.

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The 12 Pro Max’s gigantic size means it has room for a bigger battery. This is important because 5G can suck the life out of your device—if you ever come near a millimeter-wave node stuck to a building or a cell tower somewhere. That’s the only way you’ll get the gigabit speeds Apple hyped during its iPhone event in October. But that’s OK, because the 12 Pro Max’s bigger battery is meaningful right now, even if 5G isn’t quite so much.

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The 12 Pro Max lasted 16 hours and 31 minutes in our video rundown test—that’s more than two hours longer than both the iPhone 12 (14:20) and 12 Pro (14:10), and easily tops the Note 20 Ultra (14:23) and the entire S20 lineup (which range from 14:40 to 15:56). Google’s Pixel 5 eked out an extra 18 minutes but is nowhere near as fully featured as the 12 Pro Max in any other department.

Not only does the 12 Pro Max last longer than its little siblings in the iPhone 12 lineup, but it also is the top-performing phone of the four. Every iPhone 12 has an A14 Bionic processor, but the 12 Pro Max makes the most of it—in synthetic benchmarks like Geekbench 5, the 12 Pro Max’s multi-core score (4,261) rivals that of the fourth-gen iPad Air (4,264), which also packs in an A14 Bionic. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which sports Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 chip, pales in comparison with a multi-core score of 3,299, as does, well, literally every other smartphone on the market. There’s no competition here.

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And I do have to credit Apple for the Pro Max’s design—while it looks just like a 12 Pro but larger, I can’t deny the gold version with gleaming trim and matte champagne-hued back glass is both gorgeous and more impressive in the bigger size. The 6.7-inch Retina XDR display makes the 12 Pro Max a touch bigger than the 11 Pro Max, which, again, is annoying because this phone is so large, but it really is a dream to work on. As I ventured out to Runyon Canyon to shoot photos, I found myself on the top of a hill with incoming Slack messages pinging me for edits. I was able to quickly log into Kinja, edit two news blogs, publish them, and change their status in our editorial tracking system, Airtable, with just a couple bars of 5G signal. If I was doing more work on the go, as I did in the Before Times, the Pro Max would be a serious contender.

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Some have remarked on the 12 Pro Max’s 60 Hz display when competing Android flagships have bumped up to 90 Hz or even 120 Hz. Look, I love Samsung’s screens. I think they’re the best in the business. But I don’t think most people will buy a new iPhone and think to themselves: “This scrolling could be so much smoother.” Would it be nice to have? Sure, but it’s not such a dramatic improvement that it feels like Apple missed the boat.

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I really do like the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but I’m still stuck on its size. I’m mainly working from home, and when I do venture outside, I want to be able to stick my phone in my pocket, grab my mask, and get out the door. The Pro Max makes that a little more difficult, at least for me.

If you are a tall, large-handed person with literal deep pockets, this is the iPhone for you. It’s better than the other iPhones 12 in just about every way. But it’s not so much better if you are a smaller person for whom comfort and ease of use are a priority when choosing a smartphone. You shouldn’t sacrifice those things. The iPhone 12 Pro is much more manageable, and the cameras are almost as good.

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README

  • The 12 Pro Max has the best cameras in an iPhone, but the results aren’t so much better that you need to upgrade from a 12 Pro if you prefer a smaller size.
  • This screen is really great though, even if it fits in none of my pockets.
  • The battery life is impressive.
  • This really is a beautiful phone.

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