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Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max - Review 2020


2020 is an anxious year. If that anxiety manifests for you in worrying that your smartphone will run out of charge, you might want to consider upgrading to the iPhone 12 Pro Max ($1,099 and up), a giant serving platter of a handset with the longest battery life of any iPhone, ever. It’s also the largest, heaviest iPhone to date, and one of the most expensive, which makes it hard to recommend over our Editors’ Choice award winners, the iPhone 12 mini ($699 and up) and the iPhone 12 Pro ($999 and up).

Before I continue, I should note that we also have reviews of the aforementioned iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro, as well the iPhone 12 ($799 and up). These phones are comparable in many respects—with similar screen technologies, the same processor, and iOS 14—so here I’ll focus on how the Pro Max is different from its siblings. If one of your questions about the iPhone experience isn’t answered below, see our main iPhone 12 review.

iPhone 12 Pro Max back

The iPhone 12 Pro line have matte backs; the 12 and 12 mini have glossy backs.

It’s a Big ‘Un

Apple has had big phones for several years now, but the 12 Pro Max is even bigger. At 6.33 by 3.07 by 0.29 inches (HWD) and 8.03 ounces, it’s slightly taller and heavier than the iPhone 11 Pro Max (6.22 by 3.06 by 0.32 inches, 7.97 ounces), and noticeably bigger and heavier than the iPhone XS Max (6.2 by 3.05 by 0.3 inches, 7.34 ounces). Like the 12 Pro, the Pro Max comes in your choice of dark blue, gold, gray, or silver, with a matte back and a shiny metal band around the edge.

The 12 Pro Max isn’t the biggest popular flagship on the market, but it might be the heaviest. For starters, it’s a whole 3.2 ounces heavier than the iPhone 12 mini. The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is taller at 6.49 by 3.04 by 0.32 inches, but lighter at 7.34 ounces. That said, the Note 20 Ultra has real differentiators from Samsung’s other phones in terms of stylus and camera capabilities. The Pro Max just isn’t far enough from the 12 Pro in terms of power to justify the chonk.

One thing you get from the grand size is immediately evident: a 6.7-inch OLED screen. It’s noticeably larger than the display on the other iPhones, and slightly brighter than the one on the iPhone 12 and 12 mini, at 800 maximum nits versus 625 for the lower-cost devices. All of the phones are quite usable in sunlight.

Close-up of the shiny edge of an iPhone 12 Pro Max

The gold model has a shiny band around the edge.

I use the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra as my primary work camera, as well as to test 5G bandwidth, so I’ve had my hands on a big phone a lot recently. Big phones are great for tired eyes and awful for tired hands. Text and icons on the 12 Pro Max’s screen can be bigger than on other iPhones, or they can be the same size and give you added real estate. The phone’s 2,778-by-1,284 resolution has over 200 vertical pixels more than the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, which makes for an additional readable headline on NYTimes.com, or a few more lines of a PDF.

But I just can’t use phones like this with one hand. My thumb doesn’t reach across the screen, no matter how I position the phone. This creates a considerable problem when trying to take pictures with one hand if I want to use tap-to-focus, because there’s just no way to reach the whole screen to tap. The phone fills up the pocket of my jeans entirely, and it’s really heavy. It feels like a powerful tool, to be sure, but it doesn’t feel like a handheld device.

iPhone 12 Pro Max in an adult's hand

I can’t reach my thumb all the way across the screen.

Big Phone, Big Sound, Big Battery

The Pro Max has the same Apple A14 processor, running at 3GHz, as the other iPhone 12 models. The Pro and Pro Max have 6GB of RAM; the 12 and 12 mini have 4GB. The Pro models come in 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB storage capacities, while the lower-cost phones come in 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB levels.

The phone scores almost exactly the same on the Geekbench benchmark as the other iPhone 12 series phones, with a single-core score of 1,600 and a multi-core score of 4,099. It also scores much like the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro on most graphics benchmarks. The Pro Max did better than the other iPhones on Basemark Web, with a score of 656 compared with 600 to 602 for the other models, possibly reflecting its bigger canvas. It did a little worse on the GFXBench Car Chase onscreen benchmark, at 44fps versus 52–56fps for the other models, reflecting that it’s harder to fill the bigger canvas.

The four iPhone 12 phones side by side

From left: iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max

In terms of connectivity, the Pro Max is on par with the other iPhone models. It can handle any form of 4G or 5G currently available in the US and Canada. Like the other models, it has dual-SIM capabilities with one SIM being an eSIM, so you can load a second subscription or number while traveling.

Tested with a very weak 5GHz Wi-Fi signal, the Pro Max didn’t do any better than the iPhone 12 or 12 Pro. A bigger phone in this case doesn’t mean better antennas; it just means better battery life.

It does mean slightly better speakers, though. I don’t have a decibel meter on hand, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max feels like it has slightly bigger sound than the 12 Pro does. The iPhone 12 series in general all have terrific speakers for phones; you’re not going to get a lot of bass, but they’re relatively rich on the treble.

The Pro Max’s greatest strength and major sales point is its battery life. At 3,687mAh, the 12 Pro Max’s battery is actually a little smaller than the 11 Pro Max’s, but the phone gets much longer battery test times because of more efficient hardware and software.

I primarily compared it with the other iPhone 12 models. Using our video rundown test, I got 10 hours, 37 minutes on the iPhone 12 mini; 12 hours, 24 minutes on the iPhone 12; 12 hours, 22 minutes on the 12 Pro; and a whopping 15 hours, 29 minutes on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. That’s a major upgrade.

Looking at battery usage in the background, I let each phone sit for 14 hours overnight. The Pro Max lost 6% of its charge while the Pro lost 8% and the Mini lost 9%. (While I ran this test, I was doing something else with the iPhone 12, but the standard 12 and 12 Pro have the same screen and battery sizes, so I’d expect them to have similar results.) That’s an advantage for anyone who forgets to plug their phone in.

Like all the other phones in the series, the iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t come with a charger. Here’s how to charge your iPhone 12.

High-End Cameras and Pro Photo Features

On paper, the Pro Max’s camera has some advantages over all the other iPhone 12 cameras. The Pro Max has three rear lenses: a 12-megapixel, f/1.6 main camera; a 12-megapixel, f/2.4 ultrawide camera; and a 12-megapixel, f/2.2 2.5x zoom lens. That’s a greater zoom than the iPhone 12 Pro’s 2x sensor, although it collects a little less light (the 12 Pro is f/2.0). The front-facing 12-megapixel camera is the same on all the iPhone 12 models.

The Pro and Pro Max support bokeh Portrait mode at night; the mini and 12 do not. The Pro Max is the only phone in the lineup with sensor-shift image stabilization, which moves the sensor when the phone jerks or is bumped. Combined with the phone’s LiDAR sensor (which is also on the Pro), that’s supposed to deliver superior night shots.

Perhaps I’m just not enough of a pro photographer for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but aside from the nominal increase in zoom, I just don’t see any advantage of the Max over the smaller and less expensive iPhone 12 Pro in the photos I took.

Setting aside zoom, I see two advantages of either Pro phone over the less expensive 12 and the mini: the Night mode with bokeh, and the LiDAR-aided focus lock, which helped generally in close-up shots and in Portrait-mode shots of non-human objects such as a mug and an apple. (I didn’t see any difference between the Pro and non-Pro phones in daylight, portrait-mode shots of humans.)

Our photo analyst Jim Fisher goes into more detail in Which iPhone 12 is Best for Photographers?

Two near-identical photographs of a wooden table on a patio

Can you tell the difference in this Night-mode shot between the iPhone 12 (left) and the Pro Max (right?)

Shots taken with the Pro Max in low light, at f/1.6, look the same as shots taken with the iPhone 12 or even the mini. Night mode shots are also hard to tell apart.

Three near-identical photographs of a clock

This shot was taken with low indoor lighting. The iPhone 12 Pro Max photo (left) once again doesn’t look noticeably better than the iPhone 12 photo (center).

The iPhone Pro line has some super-high-level camera features that the lower-cost iPhones don’t, specifically ProRAW mode and Dolby Vision video capture at very high resolutions and frame rates. And the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s large battery make it a good daylong companion if you’re putting it on a tripod and shooting a ton of 4K video. I don’t think of that as a tremendously common use for iPhone owners, though, putting the Pro Max’s camera improvements at the level of niche appeal.

Three near-identical selfies of a light-skinned person wearing glasses

The selfie cameras on the various iPhone 12 models are pretty much identical.

To give a counterexample of when a big, expensive phone does have a meaningful camera improvement, look back at the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. There, a 5x optical zoom camera, not available on the S20 or S20+, gives you an entirely new perspective on the world, and the autofocus is considerably improved over the lower-priced phones.

Three photographs of a person wearing sunglasses; the middle one is much darker, and the one on the right is much clearer and less grainy

The night portrait mode, used on the rightmost photo, is exclusive to the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max.

To some extent, this is a win for Apple: I’m saying that the cameras on the $699 iPhone 12 mini are so good that the $1,099 iPhone 12 Pro Max isn’t that much of a step up. But this doesn’t help sell Pro Maxes.

Do You Need to Go Max?

I come to this review with a strong bias. If you’ve been reading my phone reviews for the past 15 years, first of all, thank you, and second of all, you know I’ve never been a fan of very large phones. I like my phones to be usable one-handed, out in the world, while my other hand is holding a child’s hand or a shopping bag. For an exceedingly large, super-expensive phone to get my pick, it really needs to deliver groundbreaking features, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra does with its stylus and 5x zoom camera.

iPhone 12 Pro Max and mini side by side

Left: iPhone 12 Pro Max. Right: iPhone 12 mini.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t get there for me. It costs $100 more than the iPhone 12 Pro, and it’s less portable and easy to hold. Yes, it has very long battery life, but for the same price you can get an iPhone that actually fits in your hand and a supplementary battery to keep in your bag or your car. I find a stronger argument for the Pro Max for people who have very large hands and fingers, or people who have visual issues and find larger text and icons more usable. There’s nothing wrong with the iPhone 12 Pro Max; it’s just not the iPhone 12 with the broadest appeal.

Of this year’s four new iPhones, I recommend the iPhone 12 mini (which costs $400 less than this phone) as the best overall value, and the iPhone 12 Pro for people who see the 2x zoom camera as a must. But if battery anxiety leads you to this half-pound phone, do whatever helps you get through this very stressful year.

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