This year's iPhone lineup affords buyers more choice than ever before but for a lot of reasons, the iPhone 12 Pro Max may be the best of the bunch
By Alex Walker-Todd
Tech AdvisorDEC 19, 2020 10:15 am GMT
At a Glance
Best camera phone to date
Premium, elegant design
Superb battery life
Charging and MagSafe are a mess
iOS underutilises big screen
Display tops out at 60Hz
Heavy, unwieldy form
One of the greatest iPhones to date, packing in the best smartphone camera, outlandishly good performance and cutting-edge features like 5G and Dolby Vision, but a few too many issues undermine an otherwise excellent experience.
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Apple’s given us four phones to choose between this year – more than any previous generation – and in order to do so, it’s stretched its latest iPhone blueprint to accommodate the diminutive-yet-capable 12 Mini, right up to the gargantuan 12 Pro Max.
Perhaps even more so than last year’s Pro Max, this generation’s take is the definition of ‘peak iPhone’. It’s unapologetic in its defining characteristics, underpinned by the same A14 Bionic chip as the rest of the range but in every other facet, bigger, better or both.
Design and build
If you’re not in the market for a big phone, there’s little reason to read on; there’s no convincing anyone that the iPhone 12 Pro Max is anything other than on the wrong side of pocketable – for that, the standard
iPhone 12 Pro literally makes for a better fit.
This is the biggest, heaviest iPhone to date, which is unsurprising when you consider it also packs in the largest display and most sizeable rear camera module of any iPhone too. So long as you’re comfortable with these particular truths though, I’ll press on.
Its imposing scale set against Apple’s classic minimalist aesthetics makes for an impactful overall look, and I really mean ‘classic’ here. From an engineering standpoint, the return to flat sides – as last seen on the iPhone 4 and 5 series – gives Apple more room to work with internally, while visually, they add to the phone’s sense of power and precision – qualities that the ‘Pro’ moniker is undoubtedly designed to illicit.
While the Midnight Green of last year’s Pros was a little divisive, the four colourways that both the 12 Pro and Pro Max can be had in will likely appeal to a broader range of tastes, including this generation’s signature colour – Pacific Blue.
On first impressions, the polished stainless steel sides and camera accents serve as a nice contrast to the textured matt glass back, but functionally they come with a couple of trade-offs compared to the aluminium frames found on the
12 Mini and standard
iPhone 12, as well as last year’s iPhones.
For one, that mirror shine quickly gives way to fingerprints and smears, so either be prepared to live with a forever-marred finish, wear kid gloves (or actual gloves), keep a buffing cloth with you at all times or simply bite the bullet and
dress the phone in a case you deem worthy enough to complement the phone’s geometry and whatever finish remains visible.
This newly-squared form factor, paired with the Pro Max’s extensive dimensions also presents an ergonomic challenge. In essence, it’s harder to hold than the
11 Pro Max – with its rounded metal frame – and such an issue didn’t exist last time this particular design language was in play on an iPhone, as the devices that used it were leagues more compact.
One way to alleviate the feeling of discomfort that can come from the frame digging into the sides of your fingers or palms at all is, again, to clad the 12 Pro Max in a case, but in fixing this issue, you do also make the phone even bigger. If you can, try and get your hands on a device and get a feel for its proportions and shape before you buy (so long as you can do so in a safe, COVID-averse manner).
90% of the time the 12 Pro Max is a two-handed phone and only those with larger hands, a well-mounted pop socket or sheer brazen confidence should use it out and about without both mitts keeping its sizeable form in check.
Despite its size, the hardware controls (isolated volume buttons on the left and power/sleep/wake key on the right) are nicely-positioned for comfortable operation, while the alert slider is further up on the left side.
While our review sample didn’t take a dip, Apple also continues its promise of offering up some of the best water resistance in the business, with IP68 certification that is actually rated to withstand immersion in up to six metres of fresh water for up to 30 minutes, without issue. By comparison, Samsung’s IP68-certified smartphones are only tested to endure up to 1.5m metres of immersion within the same time frame.
Technically, the 12 Pro Max boasts the highest resolution display ever on an iPhone, but with the same 458 pixels-per-inch as its last two predecessors, sharpness isn’t actually any better here, despite this model’s unique bragging rights.
Much like this year’s
Sony Xperia 1 II, Apple chose to ensure the fundamentals of the 12 Pro Max’s Super Retina XDR OLED panel were rock solid before moving onto adding in high refresh rate visuals.
On the one hand, there wasn’t a lot to complain about with the similarly-specced screen used by the 11 Pro Max and the same is true here; the fact that the panel is even larger (and flatter), without a drop in pixel density, can only be a good thing for media lovers and mobile gamers considering the 12 Pro Max.
On the other, it’s hard not to argue that – at least on paper – 60Hz just doesn’t cut the mustard for a top-shelf 2020 device. In Android land, rivals sell phones with 90Hz, 120Hz and even 144Hz high refresh rate displays, and a flagship phone asking for flagship money with a display that tops out at 60Hz has to work particularly hard to justify such an omission (see the aforementioned Xperia 1 II).
Thankfully, through both software and touch responsiveness, the gap between 60Hz visuals and higher refresh rates on rival devices seems so much smaller where iPhones are concerned, so the absence of 90Hz (and up) doesn’t sting quite so much, particularly when every other aspect of the viewing experience on the Pro Max is so good.
Considering you’re paying Pro Max money, it’s frustrating that Apple didn’t implement its 120Hz ProMotion technology into this device but that’s perhaps a characteristically Apple move designed to showcase a more noticeable leap forward in next year’s iPhones. We’ll have to wait and see.
Beyond viewing experience, the Pro Max is also among the first generation of iPhones to feature what Apple is calling ‘Ceramic Shield’, which manifests as ceramic-impregnated cover glass that’s supposedly “tougher than any smartphone glass” and apparently four times more drop-resistant (when paired with the phone’s new flat-faced design).
While I wasn’t prepared to toss the Pro Max down a flight of stairs to find out, reports from those who have put the tech to the test suggest that – as you might expect – as shatter and shock resistance increases, scratch resistance concedes.
Apple makes mention of a “dual ion-exchange process” to combat such wear and tear but no matter how many ceramic nanoparticles sit within the phone’s glass front, it’s still partially made of glass and appears to scratch as you’d expect. As such, pick up a screen protector if you want to truly shield one of the most fragile parts of this premium purchase.
It should come as no surprise that in most markets the Pro Max comes without headphones or any form of audio adapter in-box. Be prepared to dig out your old Lightning-laden EarPods, invest in a 3.5mm adapter or splash out on Bluetooth cans or buds.
Apple makes some pretty compelling TWS (true wireless) Bluetooth buds which offer the tightest integration with iOS but if you’re out of moolah after picking up the Pro Max, the wider TWS market has matured greatly since the original AirPods first launched, meaning you can nab all-manner of alternatives at various sound qualities, feature sets and price points to suit your tastes.
There’s also the Max’s stereo speaker setup to praise, which offers outstanding clarity and – despite an intentional bass bias to the down-firing speaker – a pleasing consistency across both loudspeakers with surprisingly-defined stereo separation.
While they aren’t likely to replace a portable Bluetooth speaker, the 12 Pro Max’s sheer size, paired with such well-engineered components make for one of the best-sounding stereo speaker setups in a phone right now.
Software and features
Unveiled just ahead of the iPhone 12 line’s debut, iOS 14 – which the 12 Pro Max runs out the box – is, for the most part, an iterative update, but there are a handful of changes and additions worth shouting about.
Widgets have been properly implemented in this release of Apple’s mobile OS; able to be resized and offer up direct access to compatible apps’ features and functions on one of your home screens. Google’s search bar widget is a particularly useful entrant that complements both iOS’ light and dark themes, and should make for a more seamless transition for those moving over from Android.
The process to browse and add app widgets isn’t as seamless as on Android – which has had a lot more time to practice – what’s more, they behave differently to the old widgets that only lived on iOS’ Today View in the past.
App Clips are another new feature lifted from Android’s playbook, with snippets of apps that you may not have installed, running in self-contained instances to bring additional functionality, only as and when you need it. You’ll likely seldom encounter these whilst using the Max in the day-to-day but to know that it at least now supports the feature is enough of a benefit in its own right.
Perhaps the biggest departure is how apps reside on your home screens. While you can make a place for every app on each home screen and nest apps within folders of your own design – as before – that’s no longer a compulsory part of the iOS experience. Now, swiping right to left from your last standard home screen will uncover the App Library, which is populated by smart folders of apps, automatically grouped by iOS into logical categories.
This means you don’t have to make room for every app you’ve downloaded – resulting in a cleaner home screen and, potentially, a faster app-finding experience. You also have the option to view every app installed on your device in an alphabetised list that you can scroll through or search through using the dedicated field at the top of the screen.
There are a whole host of smaller tweaks, which our lead
iOS 14 article and
tips & tricks feature cover, including pinning chats in Messages and more, but the actual surface-level user experience of iOS shouldn’t feel markedly different to those coming from any home button-free iPhone, beyond the addition of App Library.
It should already be clear that most of the time, you’ll likely find yourself handling the Max with two hands but for those occasions when that just isn’t an option, iOS still doesn’t really make many concessions for comfortable one-handed use on across that 6.7in display.
Zoomed view – within the Display Zoom settings – will make icons and text a little bigger, and there are accessibility tools like Reachability and AssistiveTouch on offer to help with navigation, but with no proper one-handed mode at hand to shrink the entirety of the UI down temporarily, it’s not an enjoyable experience trying to reach the top of the display while balancing the phone precariously in one hand.
There’s also the fact that despite the additional screen real-estate the 12 Pro Max brings to the table, beyond bigger visuals when enjoying media and gaming, iOS doesn’t really go out of its way to capitalise on the Max’s mammoth screen.
iOS 14 may have already cribbed a few features from Android but it should probably have lifted a few more, with equally expansive phones like
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra making far better use of its big display by including resizable split-screen and floating window multitasking, a one-handed mode and stylus support (here’s looking at you Apple Pencil).
Speed is at the fore of the iPhone 12 line’s marketing, not least because it’s the first generation that benefits from support for 5G data speeds.
In the US, you’ll likely notice the whole range has what appears to be a side-mounted TouchID sensor, however, they still rely on FaceID just like the devices sold in every other market. Instead, this little pill-shaped insert is actually a mmWave antenna, in place to help leverage the upper limits of current 5G networking Stateside.
In most other markets, sub-6 5G infrastructure is more robust and faster, compared to what’s on offer in the US, so either way, every iPhone 12 model gets to browse, stream or download data faster than any previous-generation.
5G is perhaps more valuable on the 12 Pro Max over any other member of this year’s lineup as its bigger display facilitates productivity and media consumption on-the-go more readily than its siblings (provided you can actually ‘go’ anywhere, that is).
Alongside 5G connectivity, speed also manifests in the latest A14 Bionic chip. It’s the first of Apple’s mobile silicon (and one of the first mobile SoCs outright) to be built on a smaller, more energy-efficient 5nm process. It packs in six cores (two high-performance and four high-efficiency cores) and a quad-core GPU, both of which Apple claims deliver up to 50% greater compute and graphical capability respectively, compared to competing chips.
Doubling the number of cores in the A14’s Neural Engine (to 16) also means a huge uptick in AI and machine learning performance too. However, such a fundamental upgrade won’t make itself apparent until developers leverage the additional headroom Apple’s created.
Pulling back to performance in general though, if it isn’t clear by now, the A14 should be all the power you need, for a good few years.
Benchmarking the 12 Pro Max reflects this pairing’s speed and ability, with the highest Geekbench 5 score we’ve ever recorded, while the promise of top-notch GPU performance manifests as scores that are only really matched by other members of the iPhone 12 family (all of which have to drive less-demanding, lower-resolution displays, accounting for the Max’s fractionally lower frame rates in some instances).
The phone’s more efficient processor is countered by a slightly smaller battery compared to last year’s Max, however, the 3687mAh cell still offers superb overall performance.
Artificial benchmarking places the Pro Max’s longevity ahead of the rest of the iPhone 12 clan but somewhere in the middle of the pack compared to rival Android devices, while in real-world use a consistent 7.5 to 8 hours of screen-on time translates to up to almost two days of use per charge without worry; delivering on our hopes considering the sheer size of the phone and that new 5nm chip at its helm.
The more intriguing aspect of the 12 Pro Max is when it comes to recharging. Apple flexed its green credentials when it proudly announced that the 12 series would launch without a charger (cutting down of packaging and thus emissions) and, sure enough, despite this being the biggest iPhone to date, it comes in an impressively small box.
Aside from the phone itself and the standard gamut of paperwork (including bigger Apple stickers than you’d find in the 12 Mini’s box because, you know, ‘Max’) all Apple gives you is a USB-C-to-Lightning cable.
The conversation about why Apple refuses to move on from Lightning perhaps isn’t best situated within this review but what does seem odd is the choice of cable Apple chose to include in-box. The assumption is that you already own a Lightning-based charger and so the absence of one with the phone doesn’t really undermine your ability to charge it, however, the included lead will likely only serve the minority of those upgrading from newer phones, not the majority with older devices.
The older your existing iPhone, the more likely you are to upgrade and considering it was only last year that Apple chose to include PD chargers in-box that feature a USB-C port in place of USB-A, the included lead likely won’t be of any use unless you also possess a laptop with USB-C connectivity or something. Instead, those who want to make the most of the 12 Pro Max’s supported charging speeds or don’t have a compatible charger will have to fork out even more on top of the phone’s already high asking price.
With this conundrum in mind, I tested recharging the 12 Pro Max with the iPhone charger you’re more likely to have – a standard 5W adapter (mine came from an iPhone X box), as well as a more modern 27W PD charger, paired with the included USB-C-to-Lightning lead.
At 5W, the 12 Pro Max’s sizable battery refilled at an absolute crawl, reaching just 14% charge after half an hour (a rate at which it continued to charge at until about the 80% mark) with a full charge taking just over four hours to complete.
By comparison, the 27W PD charger, refilled the iPhone to full in 1 hour and 45 minutes, with the Max reaching a respectable 56% in 30 minutes and 88% after an hour. It’s important to note that whatever wattage of PD charger you plug the Pro Max into, the phone tops out at 20W – which is the fastest wired charging ever on an iPhone – even if it still lags behind the competition by several leagues.
MagSafe for iPhone
There’s also the matter of
MagSafe for iPhone to consider this year. iPhones already supported standard Qi wireless charging but now you can buy one of an assortment of MagSafe for iPhone wireless chargers, which magnetically align and attach to the back of the phone and offer up to 15W fast wireless charging (on all 12 models except the Mini, at least, which charges at a maximum 12W this way).
As wireless speeds go, that’s still notably slower than some of Apple’s biggest competitors but there’s an odd addendum to the MagSafe element of the iPhone’s feature set. Apple is making MagSafe on iPhone an accessory standard; so cases, wallets and mounts can already be had with MagSafe built-in.
The issue is that there’s no real benefit to this modular system – partly because the magnets just aren’t strong enough to reliably support add-ons like the card wallet, whike third-party accessory makers like Mous already offer alternative systems (such as AutoAlignPlus), which are arguably more robust and more reliable.
If you want faster wireless charging on your Pro Max though, for the time being, buying a certified MagSafe charger is your only option.
There’s was little distinction between last year’s Pro models beyond the obvious larger size and subsequent battery capacity and screen resolution bumps afforded to the Max model; this year’s pairing is differentiated with a little more nuance; with the most prominent divergence falling squarely to their camera systems.
Both 12 Pro and Pro Max feature rear 12Mp triple sensor setups; comprised of a wide, ultrawide and telephoto snapper. They’re the first iPhones to integrate a ToF 3D LiDAR scanner for depth-sensing and augmented reality (as first seen on
2020’s iPad Pro). They’re the world’s first phones to boast native 10-bit Dolby Vision video capture and also showcase Apple’s new ProRAW image standard, along with the latest take on Deep Fusion and Smart HDR 3. All pretty impressive stuff, to say the least.
Where the Max sets itself apart is with a physically larger, even more advanced photographic setup compared to the smaller 12 Pro. The ultrawide sensors are the same on both phones but the other two sensors differ in numerous ways.
The Max’s telephoto snapper opts for a fractionally dimmer lens (with an ƒ/2.2 aperture in place of the 12 Pro’s ƒ/2.0 aperture tele) but achieves an even greater 65mm focal length (compared to 52mm – an equivalent 2.5x optical zoom versus 2x on the 12 Pro). Then there’s the primary 12Mp snapper, which boasts a physically larger sensor with bigger pixels (1.7µm versus 1.4µm on the 12 Pro), supported by sensor shift OIS (optical image stabilisation); leading to the promise of significantly improved low light performance.
While practically every other OIS system in a phone currently, including the 12 Pro’s own telephoto sensor, shifts the lens to help stabilise a shot, the sheer size of the Max has allowed Apple to fit in a more robust sensor-shift stabilisation system, where the whole image sensor moves to counter image shake.
Stills and video quality
In a sense, reviewing the 12 Pro Max’s camera system is easy – it’s the best point-and-shoot smartphone camera you can buy right now, so if that’s what you’re after, you can stop looking. As for why it’s the best, that requires a little more explanation.
In essence, it takes the crown for its consistency across its three rear sensors, its excellent image processing – including outstanding noise reduction – and brilliant low light performance across both stills and video.
In well-lit environments, you’ll have a hard time picking the best image out of the iPhone 12 family and the best Android camera phones in the business: devices like
Google’s Pixel 5 and
Huawei’s Mate 40 Pro. Once the lighting drops down, however, the advantages of shooting using the 12 Pro Max’s camera system become clearer.
It consistently captures shots with more detail, greater dynamic range, better white balance and notably less noise than Android rivals, which have to rely more heavily on computational photography tricks to achieve similar results.
The 12 Pro Max’s camera isn’t infallible and sometimes the differences are so slight that it’s wholly down to a matter of personal taste over empirical image superiority, however, there’s a consistency to the high fidelity of the images that 12 Pro Max captures that other phones struggle to replicate.
As well as the aforementioned Deep Fusion and Smart HDR 3 tuning also being made available to the phone’s 12Mp front-facing TrueDepth camera, it’s its video capture capabilities that serve as the other notable highlight of shooting with the 12 Pro Max.
Apple already held the title for best video capture on a smartphone but qualities like superior detail, dynamic range and impressive noise reduction, as praised with its still shots, all carry over to shooting video too; especially when leaning on the new Dolby Vision 8.4 HDR standard.
Dolby Vision footage retains even more detail in the darkest and brightest areas of the frame when shooting with HDR switched off, at this early stage in the phone’s release, however, it’s important to bear in mind where you intend to work with your footage after capture.
Support for the iPhone’s Dolby Vision footage is growing, but right now – outside of a handful of specialist apps and software – you’re likely to run into compatibility issues if you hope to throw it straight from your camera roll to the likes of Instagram.
A more practical consideration to acknowledge is that the 12 Pro Max’s camera module is huge – probably the largest of any phone in the past few years, jutting out in a stepped fashion from the top left of the phone’s back. As one of the phone’s most precious assets, it’s yet another reason why I’d recommend adding a case to your shopping basket when picking up the Pro Max.
The large, flat sapphire crystal lens covers do a great job of protecting the delicate imaging components within but also contribute to notable glare and ghosting when shooting video; most prominently when point light sources come into frame; just something else to be aware of if you intend to use the 12 Pro Max for serious pocket videography.
Price and availability
Chances are if you’ve made it this far, you’re already aware of the demanding pricing that typically comes with Apple’s best and brightest smartphones; unlikely deterred by the four-figure asking price of this year’s Pro Max.
Despite the technical improvements made over last year’s model, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is actually marginally less expensive compared to its predecessor, starting at £1,099/US$1,099 for the 128GB SKU.
That’s only a £100/$100 step up from the standard iPhone 12 Pro and if you require more internal storage, the 256GB model will cost a further £100/$100 again (coming in at £1,119/$1,119), while the top-spec 512GB build is £200/$200 more on top of that (totalling £1,399/$1,399).
Despite a shared announcement, 2020’s iPhone line saw a staggered launch, with the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro arriving first on 23 October, while the contrasting 12 Mini and 12 Pro Max were made available slightly later, on 13 November.
You can, of course, spec your iPhone 12 Pro Max up directly from Apple’s (UK or US) site or buy one from any number of other retailers SIM-free. It’s available from the likes of Amazon, John Lewis and Currys PC World off-contract in the UK.
Stateside, if you don’t buy direct from Apple you’ll likely have to purchase the phone with a carrier plan, with offerings available via the likes of Amazon and Best Buy.
Apple no longer ships the iPhone with a wall charger, so we have rounded up the best iPhone chargers for you.
There’s a certain assumption that those considering buying an iPhone 12 Pro Max already know that, along with being the best and brightest Apple can muster in a smartphone, it also comes with a unique set of compromises and niche features.
It’s an undeniably powerful, expertly-finished handset, with the best camera in the business and performance that competing Android phones are yet to match, but at the same time, its size paired with iOS’ inability to make the most of that additional display real-estate undermines one of the main reasons for investing in a larger-screened device like this in the first place.
There are a collection of other niggles that detract from the 12 Pro Max’s otherwise clear appeal too. The current state of MagSafe for iPhone and the odd challenges the omission of an in-box charger present, the awkward ergonomics and underwhelming specs in the display’s pedestrian refresh rate and the battery’s lacklustre fast charging speeds all undermine the value the asking price otherwise justifies.
There are few phones that get as much right in a single package as the iPhone 12 Pro Max but there are equally a number of phones that will prove a better fit for a lot of people for one reason or another. From a usability standpoint, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a superior large-screened device, if you want a great camera without handing your money over to Apple then Google’s Pixel 5, the
OnePlus 8 Pro or the
Oppo Find X2 Pro are all suitable shoo-ins as well.