iPhone 12 Pro Max full review

Apple has four new iPhones for 2020. Normally the iPhone Pro and Pro Max models don't have a lot to separate them other than size and battery life, but in 2020 the Pro Max model has a number of features that the Pro lacks.

The question is whether these additional features are good enough to justify not only the additional cost, but the extra bulk of this much bigger handset. Of course the bigger handset may be what you are after, but it equally could be a disadvantage if you don't feel comfortable using it. In this review we will address these questions, as well examine some of the most impressive features in the iPhone 12 Pro Max - the flagship iPhone for 2020-2021.

We also have a comparison of the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max that might interest you.

Dimensions: A giant among iPhones

If, like me, you are initially sold on the impressive feature set of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, when you get the phone into your hands you may be shocked by how gigantic it is. Used to the size of the iPhone XR (which is a similar size to the iPhone 12 Pro), I didn't think that the iPhone 12 Pro Max would be a lot bigger. But placed side-by-side the Pro Max is a lot taller: 9.9mm taller than the XR, 14.1mm taller than the iPhone 12 Pro. Width-wise the difference is slightly less: 2.4mm for the XR. 6.6mm wider than the Pro. Note that the camera lens does still protrude, but that's not included in the measurement.

There is less difference between the iPhone 11 Pro Max and iPhone 12 Pro Max, the 2019 model is 2.8mm shorter and 0.3mm narrower than the 2020 iPhone. However, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, in fact all the iPhone 12 models, is thinner than last year's model.

These measurements matter if you want to be able to use the phone comfortably, and even more so if you want to use it one-handed. This isn't a phone you can use one handed because its unlikely your thumb will be able to reach a lot of the screen. To give you an idea, here's how much of the iPhone 12 Pro Max we can reach with our thumb. Your hands may be bigger than ours.

iPhone 12 Pro Max reach

This is hardly a problem unique to the iPhone 12 Pro Max - we couldn't reach the whole of iPhone XR's screen either - but it does mean that you'll need both hands to use it. This is the sort of thing that matters if you often have to stand on a commuter train or if you have a baby in your arms. If that sounds like you then you should probably consider the smaller iPhone 12 Pro: it gives you many of the same features without the bulk.

Of course there are people who want a bigger phone - for whom the large 6.7in display is the main selling point of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It's the biggest screen ever on an iPhone and the fact that Apple's achieved that without making the dimensions a lot bigger than the iPhone 11 Pro Max is astonishing.

If you want to watch video, look at photos, read books, or just see more of a webpage or your social media feed, the big screen will be a bonus. For example, when reading text in iBooks you will see about five more lines per page (alternatively you could make the text bigger, handy if your eyes aren't as good as they once were).

One last thing to say about the dimensions of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the weight. The iPhone 12 Pro Max weighs the same as the iPhone 11 Pro Max did (again, impressive considering its got a bigger screen), but in comparison to the other iPhones, at 226 grams it's 39g heavier than the 187g iPhone 12 Pro, 32g heavier than the 194g iPhone XR, and 64g heavier than the 162g iPhone 12.

Design: Modern retro style

Aside from the differences in dimensions, the design of the iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn't differ from that of the iPhone 12 Pro.

Both phones are available in standard issue gold and silver, as well as Graphite and Pacific Blue. Product Red (which includes a charity donation) is only an option for the iPhone 12 and 12 mini. The finish of the pro models is more metallic than the 12 and 12 mini.

iPhone 12 Pro vs Max

This is typically how Apple distinguishes the Pro models from the standard iPhones: you get a more 'Professional' look and more classy materials with the pro iPhones. The standard models offer more colour.

My colleague who reviewed both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro had this to say about the design differences - specifically the colour finishes: "The 12 and 12 mini are an interesting compromise between the garishness of the 11 and XR, and the sobriety of the Pro models." Adding that: "They've got more vibrancy than the silver, gold and black offered with the 12 Pro".

We have the gold model to review. The sides are shiny gold - well stainless steal with a gold finish - but from the back we'd describe it as beige. We wish we could give it a better name than that with the negative connotations of beige being something akin to being a Karen these days, but, it's an attractive pearlescent finish - we like it.

Back of iPhone 12 Pro Max

We are less sure about the glass finish back and front. The entire iPhone 12 series offers a new new Ceramic Shield glass on the front, which is supposed to increases hardness and resistance. So it should be tougher and less likely to smash, but the back of the phone is still Gorilla Glass. Gorilla Glass is supposed to be hardy, but we've smashed the glass on the back of an iPhone before and we're sure we will do so again, so a case is a necessity unless you are made of money. We have this round up of the best cases for iPhone 12 Pro Max

The fact that there is some more protection on the front is a reassurance give that many cases don't cover the front of the iPhone, but we'd still recommend a screen protector is you are particularly clumsy (of if children might get their hands on your device).

One other thing in favour of the iPhone 12 Pro Max (and in fact all the iPhone 12 models) is that the new design, which has straight rather than curved edges, is less likely to slip out of your hand. But be careful anyway.

iPhone 12 Pro Max edges

Those edges are reminiscent of the iPhone 4, which launched back in 2010 - that's ten years ago. Some have described the new design as retro for that reason. The iPhone has been curvaceous since the arrival of the iPhone 6 in 2016 so it's probably time for a change. It's not an unattractive design but we would say that, at least in terms of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the straight edges don't make it particularly comfortable to hold. If you are bothered by this then you should probably get a case.

Camera: Superior sensor

If you love photograph the camera will probably be what sells the iPhone Pro Max to you. As we said above, normally the camera in the iPhone Pro and Pro Max models is the same, but this time there is a difference between the capabilities of the two cameras, we'll summarise them below:

I'm really impressed by the camera in the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but I've been using an iPhone XR, which only offers a ƒ/1.8 aperture and a 5x digital zoom. If you are making a similar leap then the cameras capabilities will no doubt be a draw. But if you are moving up from the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which also offered three apertures and a 10x zoom, it's a much smaller difference - or so you might think.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max gives you a choice of three apertures - ƒ/2.4, ƒ/1.6 and ƒ/2.2 (the latter is ƒ/2.0 on the iPhone 12 Pro and on the iPhone 11 Pro Max). When framing a shot you'll see three indicators: 0.5x, 1x, and 2.5x, which allows you to switch between the three cameras with their apertures. The iPhone 12 Pro has a 2x zoom like its predecessor. 2.5 corresponds to 65mm focal length while a 2x zoom is 52mm. You can increase the zoom all the way to 12 while the 12 Pro only goes up to 10x.

iPhone 12 Pro Max zoomed

To the uninitiated switching between 0.5x, 1x, and 2.5x is like changing the zoom level, but there is more to it than that. The aperture also has an impact on how much light is let in when you take the shot - so it can result in better low light photos. Conversely when you choose 2.5x zoom the 12 Pro Max actually has a smaller aperture than the iPhone 12 Pro does, which in theory could mean less light intake, but my Swedish colleagues could not see any difference in terms of photo quality in low light.

iPhone 12 Pro Max photo birds

There are other features that only the Pro Max offers that should be a benefit for low light photography. Specifically, the main sensor in the iPhone 12 Pro Max is larger - 47 percent bigger in fact - and uses 1.7-micron pixels. With more area per pixel you get higher light sensitivity. The sensor may be 12MP just like the other iPhones, but it's not the same.

This sensor is one reason why Apple can claim an 87% improvement in low-light performance compared to the 11 Pro Max. I don't have a 11 Pro Max to compere to unfortunately (due to the complexities of everyone working from home in a pandemic), but our colleagues at Macworld Sweden did. They said: "According to Apple, the Pro Max should be 87 percent better at shooting in the dark than the other iPhone 12 models. What "better" means is shrouded in obscurity, but we can state that it is significantly faster in Night Mode. The end result is an image with more details in dark parts and a result that we think is more in line with what we see in reality."

There is also improved lens-based 'sensor shift' stabilisation on the Pro Max, which should provide faster and more stable autofocus akin to what you get from a DSLR. This stabilisation adjusts the position of the sensor itself, rather than just compensating for the lens movement, or compensating for motion digitally. This technology should be a real benefit for night photography.

That's not all: the iPhone 12 Pro Max also improves on the Night Mode feature introduced with the iPhone 11 models. For example, the Pro and Pro Max now offer Night mode portraits and Night mode on the selfie camera. I did find the Night Mode Portraits a bit hit and miss, but part of the problem was that I was taking photos of children who won't stay still.

The new Lidar sensor, which it shares with the 12 Pro, should also have an impact on your photography thanks to the addition of depth scanning. That Lidar sensor will come into its own with apps that will make it possible for you to scan real world items and make 3D copies of them, or map out a 3D representation of your living room. As for what it can bring to your photography, it should improve the accuracy and speed of focusing - particularly in low light when the Lidar's use of infrared to create a representation of what's in front of it will be of use. If you want to know more read: What is LiDAR, and what is it for?

I was impressed by the night photography, but as I've said before, as an iPhone XR user I'm getting a first taste of some of the feature that were already benefiting iPhone 11 owners. In comparison to the iPhone XR focusing was much faster, and there was less of a delay taking the photo, which was a real benefit. The only thing I'd say is that the resulting picture is a lot better lit than what I saw with my own eyes (the lights were off and the room was dark when I took the image below).

Christmas tree

This is all great, but is there enough of a difference in the camera of the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Pro model to warrant the upgrade? In theory yes, but in practice the images my colleagues around the world got from the iPhone 12 Pro were superb anyway - so it's not as if it's a big disadvantage. My colleagues at Macworld US noted that they couldn't get a better low-light photo out of the Pro Max, claiming that both phones produced good results.

There's so much more to say about the cameras on the 2020 iPhone, including the fact that you can record in Dolby Vision HDR. This isn't really a feature for the average consumer though.

In conclusion I'd suggest that you don't buy the Max just because the camera is officially better. On paper it all looks very impressive, but in practice it's not a huge difference, and if you don't want a huge phone it isn't worth it.

Display: Big, but not refreshing

Aside from the cameras the other significant difference between the two Pro handsets is the size of the screen. On the iPhone 12 Pro Max the screen is huge: 6.7 inches measured diagonally. This is the largest screen ever on an iPhone.

The gigantic display is great for viewing videos and photos and for playing games. As well as reading webpages and iBooks. I used to read books on an iPad, but for some time I've been doing so on an iPhone, and reading on this phone is great (my eyes aren't what they were, so being able to fit more text on the page at a reasonable size is great).

iPhone Pro Max book

Other than the size of the display (and the number of pixels as a result of that) there is not any difference between the 12 Pro Max and the 12 Pro display. The screen specs are the same as previously: DCI-P3 colour gamut, TrueTone, 800 nits max brightness (up to 1,200 nits max brightness HDR), 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio, and so on. These figures are better than the iPhone 12 though, which only sees 625 nits max brightness.

We've already mentioned the fact that the display has a Ceramic Shield front, which, according to Apple, will offer "4x better drop performance". We're not sure how Apple tested this and we're not going to test how many times we can drop the phone before it breaks. It should mean that the screen is less likely to get scratched or cracked though, which has to be a good thing.

There's been some criticism about the fact that the 2020 iPhones didn't introduce the higher 120Hz frame rate, sticking with 60Hz. Especially since some Android phones are already offering 120Hz displays. This is the refresh rate: a 60Hz screen refreshes 60 times a second, while 120Hz refreshes 120 times a second. A faster refresh rate could be a benefit for gaming, but there are disadvantages, such as decreased battery life. If you are really keen on getting a 120Hz iPhone the rumours suggest that it will arrive on the 2021 iPhones.

Battery life: Bigger and better

Here's another difference between the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max: the battery. One benefit of a bigger iPhone is that there is room for a larger battery can be larger. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro have a 2,815 mAh battery compared to the Max's to 3,687 mAh battery. The 12 Pro Max does need a bit more power for that large screen, but not a lot more, so the extra battery capacity extends the operating time. Apple claims up to 20 hours battery life for the 12 Pro Max (the same as the 11 Pro Max), while the iPhone 12 Pro offers 17 hours battery life.

Apple's measurement was based on video playback (where the video was stored on the device). You can expect more or less battery life under different circumstances.

To get a feel for how much better the battery is we tested using the Geekbench 4 battery test with the display set to 200 nits. It took 10 hours and 20 minutes for the battery to run down, which was considerably  longer than the 12 Pro managed and the best score we've ever seen on an iPhone.

Specs & Benchmarks

The processor inside the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the same as that inside the 12 Pro, 12 and 12 mini, however the share A14 Bionic processor doesn't mean that all four phones offer the same in terms of performance.

Compared to the 12 and the 12 mini the Pro models feature more RAM, which will have a benefit. But, in addition, the fact that the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a larger chassis should result in improved performance due to it being able to distribute the heat from the processor better. If you were really pushing the iPhone, with a heavy duty application or a graphics intensive game, you might find things slow down in order to avoid overheating. The bigger phone should be able to avoid this for longer.

We ran the Geekbench 5 benchmark to see how the new iPhones compare. In the CPU Multi-core test the iPhone 12 Pro Max scored 3,795 to the iPhone 12 Pro's 3,797, so pretty close. The iPhone 12 scored 3,746. To be honest these scores are all very close, what's more significant is that the iPhone 11 series scores were lower, so you can expect an improvement compared to any previous generation. The iPhone 12 series is blazingly fast, whichever handset you buy.

Do you need the speed? There's certainly nothing on the iOS App Store right now that would push the 12 series beyond its limits, but in the future new technologies will no doubt come in to play that will. For that reason we'd suggest that the processor in the iPhone 12 series is a future proofing exercise rather than something you need right away.

As for graphics, the results are below:

5G

Which brings us to the other aspect of the iPhone 12 series that is more about futureproofing than the here and now. 5G.

If you watched Apple unveil the 5G iPhones at its event in October you'd be forgiven for thinking 5G is a big deal and that you are missing out by not having a 5G capable device.

If you live in a major city, 5G might offer practical benefits right away. The tech will mean you can expect connection speeds around 50 to 100% higher than 4G LTE.

But the reality is that 5G is only just starting to arrive here in the UK (and for that matter around the world). If you are based in a big city you may have access to 5G on some networks, but if you are based in the countryside we don't like your chances. That said, 5G is rolling out around the country, so it's likely that 2021 will be the year when 5G starts to make an impact. If you are in the UK you can check your 5G coverage here.

If you want to be ready for when 5G arrives where you live then getting a 5G-ready phone is a good idea. In the meantime you'll be able to use it on the 4G network as you'd expect, but when 5G arrives you will need only upgrade your contract with your network provider (and maybe pay a little more for the privilege of having access to 5G).

Incidentally, those who do have 5G available locally are reporting that the new standard is likely to drain your battery faster.

For many of us this is a question of future-proofing, and anyone buying a new smartphone in late 2020 should really be looking for 5G support if they have any plans at all to keep it for multiple years.

Price

So, are all those features worth the price?

The iPhone 12 Pro Max costs £1,099/$1,099 for the 128GB model, £1,199/$1,199 for the 256GB model and £1,399/$1,399 for the 512GB model. In each case, the iPhone 12 Pro would cost £100/$100 less. This means that in many ways it's a choice between the extra features of the Max or the extra storage.

We'd always choose features over storage because we rely on iCloud for all our storage needs (we are only using 60GB of the 256GB available on our iPhone XR). Should you just save yourself £100/$100 and skip those extra features though?

If you don't mind the size of the handset and you are a lover of photography then this is the iPhone for you. When you are spending this much money £100 is a small price to pay for a superior iPhone. See how much you can save on the Pro Max in our round-up of the best deals of the month.

But if you are assuming that you would be getting second best if you save your money and avoid hand strain by opting for the iPhone 12 Pro you'd be wrong. The iPhone 12 Pro is still an excellent option for lovers of photography. Don't feel bullied into buying the big iPhone.

Verdict

On paper there is some impressive tech associated with the camera inside the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but the iPhone 12 Pro camera is so good though that unless you really want the bigger display and slightly longer battery life, I'd suggest that the iPhone 12 Pro would be more than satisfactory.

You either really want a big handset, in which case the camera improvements are a bonus, or you have to accept a handset that it bigger than you really want in order to benefit from the better camera. If you are in the latter group then I'm just not sure it's worth the disadvantage.

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