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Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Review: The Biggest iPhone Ever Might Just Be The Best Camera Phone For You

By: Vishal Mathur

Last Updated: November 17, 2020, 12:20 IST

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Review: The Biggest iPhone Ever Might Just Be The Best Camera Phone For You

You have four iPhone 12 choices, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the most imposing one. The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max really is a big upgrade. Do not mistake this for an incremental annual refresh. Because it is not.

This is the biggest iPhone ever. The biggest iPhone in the quartet that makes up the iPhone 12 series. The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max has grown up. Yet, it is not just about size. Till last time around when the new iPhones came circling around the bend, the only difference between the Pro phones was largely just the screen size with most other things that mattered remaining constant. This year, the iPhone 12 Pro Max gets that extra something as far as the hardware is concerned, which means you can draw even more out of the iPhone 12 Pro Max compared with the iPhone 12 Pro. Particularly with the cameras.

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro prices start at Rs 1,29,900—that is a Rs 10,000 premium on the iPhone 12 Pro, variant for variant. That’s for the 128GB storage option. If you want the 256GB variant, you’ll pay Rs 1,39,900 while the 512GB option costs Rs 1,59,900. Multiple colour options including Silver, Gold, the updated Graphite and the gorgeous new Pacific Blue. But what is the difference between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the iPhone 12 Pro, you may ask? Very valid question that, considering both are the “Pro” phones.

First and foremost, the difference that is immediately obvious is the screen size. The iPhone 12 Pro Max gets the 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR display as against a 6.1-inch display—the largest ever in an iPhone, comfortably succeeding the 6.5-inch real estate of the iPhone 11 Pro Max. That also means the larger iPhone gets a higher 2778 x 1284 resolution display whereas the iPhone 12 has a 2532 x 1170 resolution screen. What is not immediately obvious is are the differences with the camera. Since both iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max have triple cameras at the back, you might not realize the differences. Both phones get the 12-megapixel Pro camera system with the ultra-wide, wide and telephoto cameras. The iPhone 12 Pro Max gets the f/2.2 aperture for the telephoto camera instead of the f/2.0 aperture of the iPhone 12. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also gets 65mm focal length instead of 55mm which means 2.5x optical zoom instead of 2x (this is applicable for videos as well) and digital zoom up to 12x, instead of 10x. And since the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a larger battery, it is also rated with longer battery life on a single charge.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Sets A New Benchmark For Smartphone Cameras, Particularly For Low Light

While I have listed some of the headline differences between the Pro camera systems of the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the iPhone 12 Pro, you will come across some more fine differences we talk about the photography performance of the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max. For starters, the increased dimensions of the iPhone 12 Pro Max thanks to the larger display gave Apple the premium real estate inside to work with even larger sensors. And you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that larger sensors immediately, at least theoretically, mean good news for photography. More so because a larger sensor allows more light to be available every time you tap the shutter button in the camera app to take a photo. The comparative stats with the iPhone 11 Pro Max that I was using till now indicate that the iPhone 12 Pro Max has larger 1.7-micron pixels as compared with 1.4-micron pixels for the wide camera.

Because there are larger sensors at play, particularly for the wide camera, Apple has opted for what a lot of DSLRs use. The sensor shift optical image stabilization which is designed to keep the sensor stable inside the phone’s body instead of just correcting the sensor movements—that means you’ll get less share induced distortions, even on a very minor level, in photos. And if you like to be brave and take complicated low light or nighttime photos by challenging your hands to stay still enough, the iPhone 12 Pro Max will help you in that regard.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

When Apple says that the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s sensor is 47 percent larger than the predecessor and that it allows up to 87 percent more illumination in low light photos, they aren’t kidding. The iPhone 12 Pro Max, in my experience, delivers significantly sharper and better lit images in low light, than before. The microscopic detailing is very much there and details aren’t compromised either by attempts at noise reduction and shots are unnaturally lit in an attempt to make them brighter than they are. The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s camera really comes into its own when the natural light is fading away or you are taking photos in the dark. What I noticed was that the iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t go into the Night Mode as often as the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and that is because the larger sensor allows the image processing more light to play with. And that is why it doesn’t need to stitch together multiple exposures. The other advantage is that if you are photographing a moving subject, you’ll not get blurry sections in a photo and the results will be much sharper.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Daytime photos are a couple of notches ahead of the predecessor as far as the detailing and the overall balance is concerned. There isn’t any weird boosting of colours either, something a lot of phones in the Android space are doing with an increasing frequency. The photos are still on the warmer side, but much less so than before.

Lidar speeds up autofocus by 6x and also means that Night Mode portraits are now possible because it can now map the space around the subject. The updated and faster machine learning algorithms can now separate the subject and the background with even more accuracy—that is some upgrade considering the iPhones have always delivered close to perfect distinction in almost every frame.

The computational photography gets a big boost as well including Deep Fusion, and there is the new Smart HDR 3 as well that will improve the dynamic range in photos much more. Later this year, Apple will roll out the update that adds the ProRAW mode to the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max cameras—this basically gives you a RAW image for editing along with certain tweaks on noise reduction and exposure that the algorithms would have already done for you.

Last but not least is the ability to record videos in Dolby Vision HDR, at 4K resolution and 60 frames per second. This makes the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and the iPhone 12 Pro phones the first in the world of smartphones to be able to record in Dolby Vision. This is up 10-bit HDR recording with the ability to capture and reproduce as many as 700 million colours. And once you are done, you can even edit Dolby Vision videos on the device itself—from the Photos app.

But with Dolby Vision, you’ll have to be a bit careful at least for the time being. Not all video editing software, cloud storage services and even playback devices including TVs will be able to handle the Dolby Vision videos that the iPhone 12 Pro Max records and dishes out. At least till the editing software and apps get the updates. But there is nothing you can do about older Dolby Vision capable hardware if they haven’t received firmware updates to run the latest Dolby Vision profiles. Even Apple Mac users will have to wait until the release of macOS Big Sur to get the Dolby Vision compatibility. If you think apps such as Instagram and Facebook will offer Dolby Vision from the outset, forget it. That’ll happen in due course, not just right now. If you do share a Dolby Vision HDR video to an incompatible device or software, what you’ll see there is a standard dynamic range (SDR) video instead. This is what happens to early adopters—don’t feel bad about it.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Bigger Display Is Immersive And Impressive

The 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR display on the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max isn’t just bigger. I am someone who loves large screen phones (I am equally comfortable with the even larger display of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra) and have this preference for the larger real estate for the apps to spread their wings in. Everything is more immersive to view, you get more to view in one screen, and it is just easier on the eye. This also has the most pixels ever in an iPhone. That’s 2778 x 1284 pixels, more than the 2688 x 1242 that the predecessor packs in. It all just begins to make sense when you start to appreciate the advantages of the OLED display at work here, including the inky blacks, the really bright panel as well as all the tick marks you’d expect on the checklist including True Tone and HDR.

To be honest, all this would have looked even better if Apple had given the iPhone 12 Pro Max the ProMotion display tech from the iPad Pro series—that’s the 120Hz screen refresh rate. Yet, I have to say that the lack of 120Hz refresh rate support really doesn’t get in the way at any point—while gaming, watching something on Apple TV+ or browsing the web. Really, it doesn’t matter, unless the specifications sheet matters more to you than the experience. In which case, there really is no arguing with you.

Battery Life, Check. Fastest Phone In The World, Check.

Performance on an iPhone 12 Pro Max, or indeed any of the iPhone 12 series phones, shouldn’t even be up for discussion. Last year, the Apple A13 Bionic, the 7-namometer silicon blew everything that the Android smartphone ecosystem had to offer, out of the water. This year, it is the A14 Bionic that is designed on a 5nm manufacturing process, making it the first commercially available 5nm chip. The A14 Bionic also doubles the cores of the Neural Engine from 8 to 16 allowing it to quicken machine learning tasks. This chip can do 11 trillion operations per second. This is also the first time an iPhone gets 6GB RAM. There are performance boosts across the board, but how much of a difference you feel will depend on which iPhone (or Android phone) you are upgrading from. The iPhone 12 Pro, with the A14 Bionic, will be a delight to use for those who want to edit videos and photos on the device itself—particularly those Dolby Vision HDR at 60fps videos. Even then, and almost never, will you be able to use all of the A14 Bionic’s computing power. In fact, you won’t even get close. No point even trying.

While the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a slightly smaller battery than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, the updates on the hardware side with the new A14 Bionic chip and on the software side with iOS 14 mean that the iPhone 12 Pro Max is most certainly more frugal when it comes to battery consumption, all other things constant, compared with the predecessor. I have been able to draw a couple of hours more over an entire charge cycle before needing to reach for the charger again. That would, when you are out and about, make a lot of difference.

Speaking of the charger, Apple continues with not giving the iPhones the USB-C standard, even though the iPad Pro and the iPad air have made the switch already. Charging though is faster than before with 20-watt fast charging on wired and 15-watt fast charging when using the cool new MagSafe charger.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

The MagSafe is a magnet based clickety system is very cool and very useful. It is robust, both as a magnetic wireless charger and potentially as a mounting mechanism. This, you may point out, is pretty much a wireless charging system. But it isn’t. There are magnets in the Apple iPhone 12 Pro, and there are magnets in the MagSafe charger. These magnets align, with greater accuracy than stars do from time to time mind you, and its set for charging. This is rated a maximum of 15-watts of charging, which is quite fast by any stretch of the imagination, and faster than the 7.5-watts supported for the Qi wireless charging standard.
What the MagSafe and the magnet array does is open up a world of possibilities. It is only a matter of time before you have desktop docks, in-car mounts and photography accessories that use this mechanism. Apple’s own wallet case is just one example. It is only a matter time before third party accessories really take advantage of this and develop even more use cases.

There are certain things about the MagSafe though, at least in this iteration, that are somewhat limiting. There is just one variant of the MagSafe at this time. And it comes with 1-meter wire. If you need a longer wire, you’re out of luck. Secondly, the 20-watt USB-C power adapter is a separate accessory, because the MagSafe (priced at Rs 4,500 on the Apple India Online Store) does not bundle a power adapter. If you have one of those power adapters from a recent iPad Pro lying around, you are good to go. Else the 20-watt USB-C power adapter is an additional Rs 1,900 to have the entire setup in place. You’ll have to be a bit careful with the MagSafe charger. The cable at the charging dock end is non-removable, which means if you damage the cable, that’s game over for the MagSafe. I really would expect Apple to give us a MagSafe in the near future with a removable cable as well. And longer wire length options.

We are ever closer to the end of the road for the Lightning port, all indications considered. The iPad Air is the latest to switch to the USB-C, and it is only a matter of time before the iPhone line-up also makes the switch. Perhaps the Pro phones will do it first. The MagSafe developing an ecosystem will be critical for that.

The New Design Language Absolutely Works

The biggest design change in years has been totally worth it. And the larger footprint of the iPhone 12 Pro Max allows you to enjoy that to the fullest. You would be right if you say that the flat sides are inspired by the iPad Pro series as well as the new iPad Air. On the iPhone, this design makes even more sense.

There’s ceramic shield at the front and back, with a stainless-steel frame. Remember, the iPhone 12 series gets an aluminum frame. Everything is so well fused together that the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, for all intents and purposes, feels like a single piece construction. It is thinner than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, quite significantly—8.1mm compared with 7.4mm now. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is a bit taller and wider though, owing to the larger display you now get to work with. All those millimeters shaved off make a world of difference with ergonomics as a whole. And so do the flat sides. The ceramic shield is a mix of glass and ceramic, which has been made for Apple. This isn’t the Gorilla Glass that you may have already touched and felt on other phones, it is a different composition.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

The Last Word: Bigger Is Better. It Just Is. Holds True For The Biggest iPhone Ever

The thing with the 2020 line-up of the Apple iPhones is that you have more options than ever to pick. You have four iPhone 12 choices, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the largest and the most imposing one of them all. This means business when it comes to resetting the smartphone photography benchmark with the mix of hardware, software and machine learning really upping the game. This also has a top-notch OLED display, and the resigned lines with the flat sides make it all the prettier to look at and better to hold. The Pacific Blue colour may also have something to do with the good looks too. Everything is better with the performance too, as you’d expect from an annual iPhone refresh.

That being said, there are some omissions that stand out on the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max spec sheet. The lack of a 120Hz refresh rate display does nothing to hamper the user experience, but just feels out of place when rivals are making a lot of noise about it. The insistence on delaying the switch to USB-C is perplexing, particularly for power users who may also have an iPad Pro, an iPad Air and a MacBook to carry around—the Lightning port and cable make it one more thing to carry around and worry about. It’ll just stick out like a sore thumb in the sea of USB-C uniformity.

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max is a big phone. Yet, you’ll get used to it sooner than you perhaps expect. You get to enjoy the new design language to the fullest and the even larger display just is that much more immersive for apps, media and pretty much any usage scenario in general. And well, the camera indeed resets the benchmark that rivals will now spend a lot of energy trying to match up to. The iPhone 12 Pro Max really is a big upgrade. Do not mistake this for an incremental annual refresh. Because it is not.

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