iPhone 12 Pro Max: Bigger, bolder and undeniably better [Review]

By

iPhone 12 Pro Max: The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the biggest and best yet.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the biggest and best yet.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

The biggest and best version of iPhone 12 has finally landed. The iPhone 12 Pro Max takes everything that makes this year’s iPhone lineup so terrific and combines it with an even bigger screen and a better camera. Apple calls it “the photographer’s iPhone,” but really, it’s the best smartphone going for anyone who likes super-sized displays.

iPhone 12 Pro Max is Apple’s biggest smartphone to date, with a Super Retina XDR display that measures at 6.7 inches diagonally. It’s also the fastest handset on the market, thanks to an incredibly speedy A14 Bionic processor that’s coupled with 5G connectivity (where available).

However, the Pro Max is just one of four iPhone 12 options available this year —- and it’s the most expensive of the bunch. Is it worth it?

iPhone 12 Pro Max review

iPhone 12 Pro Max review: This is one gorgeous, and gigantic, iPhone
This is one gorgeous, and gigantic, iPhone.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

You’re likely already familiar with the iPhone 12 lineup at this point. The 6.1-inch iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro have been out for a couple of weeks now. The 12 Pro Max is largely the same as its siblings on the inside, but Apple has taken advantage of the extra space by adding some worthwhile extras.

It’s hard to appreciate just how big the 12 Pro Max is until you hold it in your hands. It’s noticeably larger than last year’s 11 Pro Max. And its straight edges, which are very attractive, don’t make it uncomfortable to cling onto —- even if you have smaller hands.

The biggest and best iPhone yet

The Pro Max measures 160.8 mm high by 78.1 mm wide, and it weighs 226 grams. That makes it more than 14 mm taller and almost 6 mm wider than the 6.1-inch iPhone 12. It’s also 64 grams heavier. It’s hefty and a little top-heavy. The weight of the cameras make the top part of the phone heavier than the bottom, and it can sometimes feel a little unbalanced when holding it with one hand. You will almost certainly feel it in your pocket as well.

Like the smaller 12 Pro, the Pro Max sports a frosted glass back, a rugged Ceramic Shield display, and a shiny stainless steel frame. Apple says Ceramic Shield, which is made by incorporating nano-ceramic crystals into glass, makes this year’s iPhone lineup the toughest yet.

I’ve been playing with the Pacific Blue phone, a new color this year. The blue is beautiful, and the frosted glass back feels great to the touch. The steel and glass construction is gorgeous.

However, it makes me mighty nervous. The Max Pro looks delicate. It looks like it’d smash to pieces when dropped on the floor. Obviously, this isn’t something I’m rushing to test. So when Apple calls the handsets in the iPhone 12 lineup the toughest yet, I hope the company is right. CNET did a drop test on the iPhone 12 mini and found it “nearly indestructible.”

MagSafe is another new addition to this year’s iPhone lineup. It uses magnets carefully placed in the back of the Pro Max (and other iPhone 12 models) to snap onto cases, wireless chargers, wallets and other accessories. I tested the MagSafe charger, which snaps onto the back of the phone in a most satisfying way. And no, you can’t pick up the phone without picking up the MagSafe charger, too, although it detaches easily enough.

Dazzling display, unparalleled performance

The industrial design will leave you breathless.
The industrial design will leave you breathless — in more ways than one.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s slightly ungainly form factor is quickly forgotten as soon as you start using it. Its gorgeous screen makes watching videos, playing games and editing photos a real pleasure. Browsing the web is brilliant, while reading books is better than ever.

And no matter what you do with the Pro Max, it’s always buttery smooth. Apple’s powerful A14 chip makes light work of multitasking, playing the latest games, and even editing movies on the move. It’s faster than a smartphone really needs to be, but I’m certainly not complaining. We’ve heard some complaints that the 60 Hz screen lags behind 90 Hz or 120 Hz screens found in some competing Android phones. (The higher the screen refresh rate, the smoother the scrolling.) TBH, I haven’t noticed any scrolling issues with the Pro Max (but I’ve also not used 120 Hz screens, so I might be ignorant to the advantages).

Face ID remains just as fantastic as always, and 5G connectivity can deliver blazing-fast downloads if you enjoy 5G coverage. (You’ll still get slower 4G if you don’t.) Wireless charging is also faster when you use Apple’s official MagSafe charger, which maxes out at 15W.

One advantage to choosing the Pro Max over its smaller siblings is its stellar battery life. Its massive form factor allows for the biggest battery you’ll find in this year’s iPhone lineup, and it doesn’t disappoint. I’ve easily been getting a full day of battery life (and more!) with typical usage.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: Apple’s best cameras ever

iPhone 12 Pro Max review: The industrial design will leave you breathless.
The cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro Max are fantastic.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

Apple has been doing wonderful things with smartphone cameras since the early days of iPhone. They get better every year, and camera performance is where the 12 Pro Max really shines. It gives iPhone 12 adopters a reason to splash more of their cash.

The high-end smartphone packs a familiar array of rear-facing modules, with Wide, Ultra Wide and Telephoto lenses. Each carries a 12-megapixel sensor. But in the Pro Max, Apple increased the sensor and pixel sizes, allowing it to capture significantly more light (with its Wide lens).

This not only makes the photos and videos you take every day even more spectacular. It also dramatically improves low-light and Night mode performance. What’s more, the Pro and Pro Max are Apple’s first handsets with the ability to capture images in the ProRAW format (currently available only in iOS 14.3 beta).

You can see some sample images below. I’m certainly no pro, but to my eyes, the colors and details look great. The three-camera setup makes it really easy to get a good picture. You can zoom in for more detail, or zoom out to capture more of the scene. At night, the camera (aided by the Pro series’ LiDAR Scanner) quickly focuses on subjects for tricky nighttime shots. As you can see in the sample images, the results aren’t perfect, but they’re darn good for a smartphone camera.

Up front, the Pro Max comes with an improved TrueDepth camera capable of capturing Night mode photos. It also boasts other photography features we’ve come to expect from iPhone, including support for Deep Fusion, Smart HDR and Dolby Vision.

So, you can see why Apple calls this the “photographer’s iPhone.” It’s absurdly good at capturing great images.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: The verdict

iPhone 12 Pro Max review: 5G is nice, if you're lucky enough to find some.
5G is nice, if you’re lucky enough to find some.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

It’s big and bulky and very expensive, but by golly is this a great iPhone. Front and center are the great cameras. It’s easier than ever to take good pictures, even for a doofus like me. Nighttime and low-light shots often look superb.

The industrial design is second to none. It’s reminiscent of the iPhone 4 and 5, one of my favorite designs. The fit and finish is outstanding.

The Pro Max is fast and responsive. I had trouble testing 5G (because, well, 5G), but I expect it to be zippy as the next-gent networks roll out. And I think the introduction of MagSafe for iPhone will inspire a host of cool accessories.

If you have the cash and don’t mind the bulk, the iPhone Pro Max is a superb phone.

Some iPhone 12 Pro Max sample photos

Not bad for a nighttime shot. San Francisco's SkyStar Wheel is a little blurred because the wheel was moving, and the lights themselves were constantly changing and pulsating.
Not bad for a nighttime shot. San Francisco’s SkyStar Wheel looks a little blurred because the ride was moving, and the lights themselves were constantly changing and pulsating.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
Just look at the detail in that rusted chain.
Just look at the detail in that rusted chain.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 Pro Max sample image woods
The Pro Max captured great detail in this shot of some woods in Marin County.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 Pro Max sample image Ilaria
Not bad for a low-light nighttime portrait.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 Pro Max sample image church
The church in Nicasio, California. The colors details are true to life.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 Pro Max sample image houseboat
Again, the colors and details look true to life in this shot of a houseboat in Sausalito, California.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 Pro Max sample image Victorian
The highlights are a bit blown out in this shot, but the Pro Max did a good job of capturing the details in the shadows.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac
"<yoastmark
There’s a bit of camera shake in the sky, but the lights of San Francisco’s downtown skyline look good.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac
"<yoastmark
Another nighttime shot of San Francisco’s Dolores Park.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 Pro Max sample image Devs house
Nighttime shots can sometimes look really artificial and grainy. Not this shot of an apartment building.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

Killian Bell contributed to this review.

See our reviews policy, and check out more in-depth reviews of Apple-related items.