Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review: Better, not just bigger

Chris Velazco
·Senior Editor, Mobile
·14-min read

In the old days, before COVID, I didn't just review big phones — I used them almost exclusively. They're especially helpful here in New York, where you never knew when a train will get held up. There’s nothing like a big screen and some noise-canceling headphones to help you feel like you’re anywhere but a crowded subway car. Needless to say, things have changed. These days I spend nearly all my time at home, so the need to carry an enormous phone around isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be.

Going into this review, I was fairly sure I'd prefer the new iPhone 12 mini, which I was testing at the same time. I was wrong. Ultimately, the allure of the iPhone 12 Pro Max just proved too hard to ignore: It is far and away Apple’s best big iPhone, and well worth the splurge if you can handle its outsized dimensions.

Configurations

If you're considering Apple's iPhone 12 Pro Max, you have some decisions to make. The first has to be whether you need a phone this big, especially since the smaller iPhone 12 Pro already packs a 6.1-inch screen. Once you have that sorted, it's on to storage

128GB: $1,099

256GB: $1,199

512GB: $1,399

(It's worth noting that, unlike the regular iPhone 12, the Pro Max costs the same regardless of whether you want an unlocked model or buy directly from a carrier.)

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Design and display

Like the rest of the iPhone 12 lineup, the Pro Max cuts a striking figure next to the last few generations of iPhones. Inspired in part by Apple's redesigned iPad Pro, the Pro Max is sleek and angular with flat, stainless steel edges that, while eye-catching, are quick to pick up fingerprints. (They're especially noticeable on my gold review unit.) Not everyone will appreciate Apple's design choices this year, but the new look evokes fan-favorites like the iPhone 4 and 5 and gives the Pro Max a distinctive feel compared to the rest of the year’s premium smartphones.

It's also important to note that the iPhone 12 Pro Max is slightly thinner than last year's big iPhone. If you break out the calipers, the difference seems minimal, but trust me — every fraction of a millimeter counts when we're talking about large devices you're going to hold throughout the day. That said, it's also a little heavier than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, but not to the point where most people would make a fuss. On the whole, Apple's nipping and tucking means the 12 Pro Max is more comfortable to use than last year's model, and that’s a big deal.

Aside from that, the 12 Pro Max shares a lot with the iPhone 12 Pro. Its stainless steel body and frosted glass back repels grimy fingerprints and makes it less prone to sliding around. It has an IP68 rating for water and dust resistance, and the same shatter-resistant CeramicShield covering the display. Just remember, “shatter-resistant” is not the same as “scratch-proof”. At some point during my testing, the screen picked up a pronounced gouge right on the edge of the display, and I couldn't for the life of me tell you how or when it happened. In any case, I'm sure it won't be the last such accident.

The Pro Max also supports the full swath of MagSafe accessories, though most of them are forgettable. Apart from some neat cases, the most notable example is Apple's MagSafe wireless charging puck. Charging rates top out at 15W, or about double what you'd get from a standard Qi wireless charger. Honestly, though — and I'll probably elaborate on this in another story — wireless charging is still too inefficient for me to fully embrace. Yes, it's convenient, but there's a notable body of evidence suggesting that widespread use of wireless charging could have a negative effect on the environment. The jury is still out on the extent of the impact, but if rumors are true and Apple really does plan to make a portless iPhone, expect a lot more on this subject.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Apple also gets credit for managing to squeeze in an even bigger display. At 6.7 inches, this Super Retina XDR screen is the biggest that Apple’s ever packed into an iPhone, and it's both gorgeous and a little daunting. The gorgeous part is self-explanatory: It's plenty bright for outdoor use, and the OLED display ramps its brightness up even further to 1,200 nits when displaying HDR video.

The one real knock against it is that, unlike basically every half-decent Android phone, this screen only refreshes at 60Hz. Leaks published before Apple's big event strongly suggested that the 12 Pros have all the hardware they need to actually do this — they just don't. Maybe it's to prolong battery life in the company's first 5G phone, maybe it's something else. Apple bet that people wouldn't miss it and that'll largely be true, but if you have experienced faster screens, it's hard to go back.

As for why this thing is daunting, well, just look at it. A few people I've spoken to already think the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 has gotten too big, and the Pro Max offers even more screen to navigate. Yes, this thing is a little easier to handle because of its new design, but the Pro Max is obviously going to be way too much phone for some people.

On the flip side, Apple's continued insistence on flat screens means the Pro Max is less prone to accidental touches on the edge of the display when you're stretching to reach something with your thumb. This might be mostly a "me" problem, but it's very common on high-end Android devices with curved displays, and it's annoying. All told, unless you really care about camera performance (more on that soon), the smaller iPhone 12 Pro is more than enough for most people.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review

In use

The last and maybe most important thing the Pro Max shares with the rest of this year's new iPhones is Apple's new A14 Bionic chipset. This is the fourth time I'm testing a phone using the A14, and some of you might know the drill: Apple's new chipset packs a significantly faster CPU, GPU and Neural Engine compared to last year's A13, which itself was crazy fast. I should note that, like the smaller 12 Pro, the Pro Max also has 6GB of RAM, up from just 4GB in this year's non-Pro models. There’s not a huge performance difference compared to the regular iPhone 12, but the extra RAM gives the 12 Max headroom as iOS and apps grow more complex.

And that’s the point. Very little you do is going to throw this thing for a loop: gaming, multitasking, whatever. You're covered. As I said in our iPhone 12 review video, the level of performance you get here is overkill by 2020 standards, and it's saying something that Apple is reportedly using a souped-up version of this chipset for its first Apple Silicon Macs. It’s easy to take this phone's performance for granted now — what new iPhone doesn't run insanely fast in the beginning? — but you'll really appreciate it a few years down the road.

The Pro Max also plays nice with just about all US 5G networks, which I'm not going to dwell on here. High-end 5G phones aren’t terribly new, and how good your experience is will depend on who your carrier is and where you use it. I've tested the Pro Max on T-Mobile and Verizon's nationwide 5G networks, and with few exceptions, the performance wasn't dramatically different than what I noticed on non-5G phones.

There are, of course, a few exceptions: T-Mobile's mid-band 5G in Manhattan was noticeably faster than when I popped the same SIM into an LTE iPhone, and if you live in a city where Verizon has rolled out its mmWave 5G, you'll occasionally find pockets of extremely fast connectivity. For now, you might not see much improvement, but expect that to change over time as these networks mature and grow in reach. (Reminder: Verizon owns Engadget, but has no control over what we publish.)

Meanwhile, battery life is pretty great. In fairness, I've also been living with the iPhone 12 mini for a week, so anything better than that feels like an improvement. Overall, I've been able to use the Pro Max for full workdays and still have quite a bit left in the tank the following morning. Full disclosure: Rather than setting this phone up as new, I restored it from a backup the way many iPhone users do. Apple has said previously that background processes related to device restoration can continue for up to a few days after the fact, so it's possible that battery life could improve a bit in time. Anyway, I wouldn't sweat it: Even with a restore, the Pro Max will still get you through a long day with a little extra left over for the next one.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Improved cameras

So far, all of this — great performance, better battery life — feels typical for a big iPhone. What's more distinctive are the 12 Pro Max's cameras. For the first time in a few years, Apple didn't just use the same setup across both of its high-end iPhones. Because it had more room to play with — and possibly to justify its existence now that the regular 12 Pro is bigger — Apple got a little more ambitious.

The ultrawide camera is the same as on the 12 Pro, and the same goes for the LiDAR array; it makes AR apps run better and helps with focusing in low-light, but I don't think we've seen its full value yet. The two other cameras are a different story.

For one, the standard wide camera — i.e., the one you'll probably use the most — has a larger 12-megapixel sensor that actually moves around inside this body, for better image stabilization. Apple says this new system can make up to 5,000 micro-adjustments per second, for crisper looking photos and less shaky video. This is going to mean a lot more to some of you than others. Almost all of the photos I take are purely handheld, and I didn't see a huge difference compared to the regular iPhone 12s. The difference was a little more apparent when I was shooting video. You'll still see a telltale bob, but some of the natural jerkiness that comes with handheld shooting has been smoothed out.

This camera also has the same f/1.6 aperture as the smaller iPhone 12 Pro, which basically lets more light hit the sensor But there's a twist: The pixels on the sensor are physically bigger, so they capture even more light than on the smaller Pro phone. In daylight, I don't think you'll see much of a difference; this mostly means in some cases, the camera won't automatically fire up Night Mode as frequently, or that it doesn't need to run for as long when it does. I've been testing the iPhone 12 mini alongside the Pro Max, and I've seen that happen a few times. The resulting photos look surprisingly similar, which is impressive when you consider the mini had to combine multiple exposures into a single photo.

And then there's the telephoto camera, which still captures 12-megapixel stills, but offers a slightly longer range — it's about a 65mm focal length, which works to a 2.5x optical zoom, up from the 2x zoom in the smaller 12 Pro. I've said in the past that I'm not a huge telephoto person and that's still true, but these things obviously have their uses. My favorite shot so far has been this gorgeous sunset, which managed to keep this tiny plane looking relatively sharp as I tried to track it through the sky.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max camera samples
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max camera samples

The extra range you get with the Pro Max can definitely be helpful, though Samsung still has the edge — the Note 20 Ultra I've been shooting comparison shots with has a 5x optical zoom, plus more if you're willing to go into hinky Space Zoom territory.

As usual, the cameras themselves are only half of the story. Apple also made some under-the-hood improvements to its Smart HDR image processing, the most notable of which is the way it uses machine learning to selectively tweak different parts of the same photo. The resulting pictures here have a little more verve to them compared to last year. Colors are typically a bit warmer, skies look more dramatic, to the point where they can almost look Samsung-y — that is, nicer than what you actually see with your eyes.

Overall, though, Apple's image processing still skews toward the realistic. I really like the Pixel 5's contrasty photos and the Note 20 Ultra's super-saturated everythings, and the Pro Max is good at splitting the difference. Whether that yields exactly the photos you prefer is, well, up to you.

That's not to say everything is perfect here. You'll occasionally see big shifts in color temperature when you switch between the main camera and the others, and the way Apple tends to process colors can vary pretty dramatically if you're moving from subject to subject. Sometimes it even happens when you're just standing there. Check out these two photos, shot within moments of each other — I didn’t move or change settings but the vibe is completely different between them.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review

I also have to say, it would be nice if Apple introduced a specific Pro camera mode, like we've seen on plenty of high-end Android phones. I get that ease of use is Apple's whole deal, but if you're going to market something as a "Pro" device, there's nothing wrong with offering more control for the people who do want it. Apple sort of gets this, which is why the 12 Pros are getting support for the new ProRAW format later this year. I'll cover that update when it goes live.

We also have to talk about video, and for the most part, we're looking at the same great performance I noted in our iPhone 12 Pro review. By default, this thing is set to shoot Dolby Vision HDR video, which means two things: One, your footage is going to look fantastic, especially on this Super Retina XDR display. And two, working with or even viewing that footage is gonna be tricky sometimes. Some of our reviewer friends have noted elsewhere that it can be difficult to mix iPhone HDR video with footage taken with our cameras in some editing programs, and while many new TVs play nice with DolbyVision videos, older ones may run into compatibility issues.

All told, these updated cameras aren’t exactly game-changers, though I should stress I’m definitely not a pro photographer or video producer. I’ve learned how to take pretty good pictures of phones, but that's about it. With that in mind, I can still appreciate Apple's extra work here: The Pro Max's cameras give you some flexibility that just isn't available from other models, and it sets an important precedent for bigger camera differences between iPhones down the road. If you don't mind living with a big phone, this is well worth the $100 premium over the smaller 12 Pro.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Wrap-up

So, should you buy this thing? I can answer that a few ways. If you're a big-phone person, or you care about camera performance above all, the Pro Max is the one you should be looking at. It's a fantastic device, and the blend of power and battery life and cameras makes it easy to overlook some of the things Apple left out this year. Like I said earlier, I've turned into a small-phone guy during quarantine, but this is still the iPhone I'd buy for myself.