iPhone 12 Pro Max : One Month Review

A few weeks ago I gave my first impressions of the iPhone 12 series. I’ve been using the iPhone 12 Pro Max day to day since then and can confidently say this is Apple’s greatest generation of iPhone yet. Let’s take a look at why.

Design Language

Many smartphone makers like to change their product designs with major revisions to form factor year on year. In the Android world, design changes are one of the few ways of standing out. The smartphone is now a mature product category and with less to differentiate one product from the next in terms of features, design plays a vital role in grabbing the attention of consumers. Apple by contrast doesn’t like to change the design of the iPhone every year. Instead they gradually refine the design over time with a major overhaul only coming once every three or four years. The iPhone 12 Pro Max and the smaller members of the iPhone 12 family is one of those major overhauls and represents a new generation of iPhone design.

The immersive display and flat edges of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Image – JB, Pixel and Polygons

For anybody that owned either an iPhone 4, 5, 5S or SE (1st gen), the iPhone 12 Pro Max will look really familiar. The smooth and contoured edges of the iPhone 6 through 11 give way to flat, boxy edges that offer a more industrial design. The design now paired with the much larger display of the iPhone 12 Pro Max looks ultra modern, futuristic even and sophisticated. The phone feels dense is less slippy in your hand. The stainless steel band that runs around the edge of the phone (despite being a fingerprint magnet), looks gorgeous. It feels very durable and strong. And the flat edge not only looks amazing, it improves durability by enabling the display glass to sit flush.

The display on the iPhone 6 introduced a curved edge that met seamlessly with the chassis. That felt great for multi touch gestures but over time, this design trend has started to look a little dated. Apple stuck with the round edges and display glass from 2014-2019 and so the new flat display of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a really refreshing and welcome change. The glass on the back has a matte, frosted texture and is like the display, sits flush with the stainless steel band. Once again this improves durability but thanks to the matte coating, the back of the phone picks up less finger prints. The standard iPhone 12 and 12 mini feature glossy rear glass but do retain the flush design.

Around the back you’ll also find the camera system encased in a particularly large camera bump. I think the design of the camera bump is very marmite. You’ll either love it or hate. Personally I don’t mind it all too much. I think Apple did about as good a job as they could have done in presenting a triple array camera system, whilst also adding other sensors into the mix (more on that later). Do I wish the camera sat totally flush with the rear glass? Yes. Does it bother me that it doesn’t? Not really. The bump doesn’t inhibit use of the device in any way and if you choose to use a protective case, you may find this becomes a total non-issue. The only minor gripe I have with the design is the asymmetrical antenna lines. They serve an importunate functional purpose but I’d have preferred that they were symmetrical.

Display

The iPhone 12 Pro features the largest display ever on an iPhone at 6.7 inches across the diagonal. Some may find this phone to be too much to handle but personally, I really love the size. I don’t have too many difficulties in using the device with one hand for most tasks. For the record I have pretty small, almost child like hands! Reaching across the keyboard when texting can be a bit of a struggle but for me its a small trade off. I much prefer having a large display for enjoying content and on this screen, video in particular looks incredible.

With 10 bit colour support and 800 nits of sustained brightness (1200 when watching HDR video), all of your content looks vibrant and really easy on the eye. Fortunately if the larger size isn’t your thing, the rest of the iPhone 12 lineup features much of the same display technology. The main exception being the 12 and 12 mini feature a sustained brightness of 625 nits (1200 when watching HDR content). For indoor usage, this is unlikely to be noticeable.

The display offers rich, vibrant colours and has been expertly calibrated. Image – JB, Pixel and Polygons

One notable omission from the phones display is support for higher refresh rates. The iPhone maintains a 60hz display for another year. Many phones now support 90hz or even 120hz panels that can refresh their content more quickly than Apple’s latest iPhone. Anybody that hasn’t used a high refresh rate display on a phone won’t care. But for anybody that has or if you happen to have one of Apple’s very own iPad Pro’s, you might be left feeling a little disappointed. Is it a deal breaker? not by any means although it would have been nice to have. Rumours suggest that Apple was working on the feature but chose to omit it in pre-production. Then again, there’s always next year…..

A couple of other additional points to note include the shrunken bezels around the edge of the display. The bezels were already pretty thin on last years iPhone 11 Pro but Apple has shaved off a little more this year. They likely could have gone a tiny bit further but this might have come at the expense of cases potentially overlapping the display. Also the notch is sticking around for a while at least. Apple continues to push Face ID as the primary means of biometric security and personally I think that was the right decision. In normal times when face coverings are not required in public spaces, Face ID has proven to be easier to use, way more secure and just as a fast as a finger print sensor. It’s possible Apple might bring Touch ID back in the future as an addition to Face ID but anybody hoping Apple will kill off Face ID altogether is likely to be disappointed.

The notch is made out to be a more divisive topic than it really is by many other technology review outlets. It houses important primary technology that offers genuine utility and I (like almost anybody that owns an iPhone X or later) hardly ever notice it. In a strange way I actually have a fondness for the notch. It’s become symbolic of the iPhone, much in the way that the old school home button was in classic iPhone models.

Connectivity

The iPhone 12 series is the first iPhone to ship with 5G. You get the same Qualcomm X55 modem across the line including the iPhone 12 Pro Max. I’ll be the first to admit that I was sceptical about the performance of 5G and the alleged benefits it would bring. I have to say I was completely wrong. Not only did the speed of 5G exceed my expectations, do did the range. You see Apple released the iPhone 12 series in two varieties. The first is in the USA which supports the fastest possible type of 5G, often referred to a millimetre wave. The problem with millimetre wave though is that the range isn’t great. You need line of sight access to a mast and even then the signal can be blocked by trees, passers by and even rain!

In the UK where I’m from, we don’t get the version with millimetre wave and now I think I know why. You see in the UK and much of Europe, there is wide support for ‘mid-band’ 5G. The benefit of this is that it offers much of the speed potential of 5G but without the negative consequences of millimetre wave. In other words I’m getting speeds that come pretty close in some cases to that of millimetre wave but without the signal being impeded by environmental factors (anymore than 4G at least). In the USA mid frequency 5G barely exists. Most people in the USA will get low band 5G which does offer better bandwidth than 4G but the speeds are about the same. There is a small jump in speed but not significant enough for it to change how you use your device.

In my home I’m fortunate enough to get a couple of bars of 5G and I live in a suburban area away from the city. With two bars of signal I consistently get speeds of 300mbps. My home broadband over cable is only 100mbps! In my local town just a mile away from home, I’ve had speeds of 1.3gbps! 1.3 x the speed of gigabit internet on mid-band 5G! This kind of speed isn’t too far off the promise of millimetre wave. It perhaps explains at least partially why Apple didn’t include the extra radio in models that ship outside of the USA. They don’t seem to need it.

4G performance seems to be improved over my iPhone 11 Pro Max from last year too. I’m actually not too surprised as Apple shipped the 11 series with intel modems which just can’t compare to Qualcomm modems. Over 4G I’ve experienced faster download speeds by around 40% and I’ve found that signal strength is improved too. Some of this is likely down to additional testing and software optimisation that Apple did prior to mass production in addition to the new modems. Needless to say if you can’t quite get 5G yet, don’t worry too much as you’ll find some improvements to 4G at the very least.

Charging and MagSafe

This year has seen the return of MagSafe, Apple’s proprietary magnetic charging technology but updated for the 21st century and specifically for iPhone. Inside the phone is a ring of magnets that surround the wireless charging coils. These perfectly align to the magnets inside the MagSafe wireless charger (sold separately). MagSafe is designed to remove some of the pain points associated with wireless charging. Anybody that has used wireless charging has likely experienced the frustration that comes with traditional Qi wireless chargers. If the phone isn’t perfectly aligned, it might not charge or if it does it may charge very slowly. MagSafe fixes this problem by making it easy to lock the iPhone to the optimal charging position. Not only does this ensure high efficiency, it means if you accidentally bump your nightstand in the middle of the night, you won’t wake to find that your phone hasn’t charged. Apple has even built new cases with MagSafe built in to ensure optimal compatibility with the new charger.

MagSafe offers theoretical charging speeds of 15 watts which is pretty respectable compared to the normal 7.5 watt charging speed we expect on other iPhone models. It’s based on the open Qi wireless charging standard and is compatible with older iPhones for charging (or any other phone with wireless charging) but won’t magnetically attach to older phones. Of course if you don’t want to shell out the extra £39 for a MagSafe charger, you can still charge the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro with a regular Qi wireless charger. Or of course with a cable if you have the right power adaptor…..

Apple has chosen to remove the previously included power adaptor this year. Personally I agree with the decision. Most of us have chargers from our older iPhone models that will work perfectly fine. For those that don’t, the included lightning to USB C cable is compatible with any USB C power adaptor. If you don’t have either of these things then your choices are wireless charging, plugging into to a USB C port if you have a computer with USB C or…..buying a new power adaptor.

Now of course a big reason for doing this is the environmental benefits. The packaging is much smaller which means Apple can ship more phones in less space. That means less planes, trains and cars are required to distribute the phones. It also means Apple is contributing less to e-waste by encouraging us to reuse and recycle our older power adaptors. If you need to buy a new one then of course Apple will sell you one. Is this also a cost saving exercise for Apple? Sure. The cost of the 5G modems and other new components will undoubtedly eat into Apple’s margins. Apple picked this year intentionally to offset some of those costs and to keep the prices of the phones largely the same as last year.

Durability

Over the last couple of years Apple has really doubled down on durability in the iPhone. This year is no exception and represents a big leap forward. Apple has also increased the water and dust resistance rating of the iPhone 12 Pro Max to IP68. This means it can now withstand being fully submerged to depths of up to 6 meters for 30 minutes.

As mentioned earlier in this review, the glass on both the front and back now sits completely flush with the chassis of the phone. This helps to protect the display during accidental drops and there are tons of videos on YouTube that showcase this. In addition to making the glass sit flush with the display Apple has introduced a new material to protect the display that they call ‘Ceramic Shield’. Apple says they fused nano ceramic crystals with glass using an ion exchange process. This all adds up to what the company claims to be a 4x improvement in shatter resistance. According to the Company this means your device has a much greater chance of surviving a drop without the display cracking than in previous years. The rear glass doesn’t get the same treatment though but Apple does say it’s still the toughest ‘regular’ glass in a smartphone.

The iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max are a little more susceptible to scratching thanks to their stainless steel frames compared to the aluminium frames of the 12 and 12 mini. Whilst stainless steel is harder and stronger, Apple has polished it to a mirror like finish which is what makes scratches easier to come by. Apple has somewhat accounted for this by coating the metal using PVD (poly vinyl deposition) in the case of the graphite and pacific blue colour options. On the new gold model, they’ve used a new coating technique called magnetron sputtering. The silver steel as pictured in this review doesn’t get either of these coatings but unlike the former, the silver steel can be easily re-polished.

*Choosing to polish a silver steel iPhone should be done carefully, with caution and at your own risk. Apple doesn’t suggest doing this and it should never be attempted on the other colours as it may remove their coating.

Speed and Battery

Apple shipped this years iPhone models with the new A14 Bionic. The processor comes with 6GB of RAM on the 12 Pro Max and smaller 12 Pro, compared with 4GB on the 12 and 12 mini. The processor is also the first smartphone chip made with a 5nm fabrication process. By moving to 5 nanometers Apple can pack more transistors into the same space which reduces power consumption whilst significantly improving speed and performance. Needless to say the iPhone 12 is by far the fasted smartphone available. You probably won’t notice a big difference in day to day usage compared to last years iPhone 11 series or even the XS series from the year before. But the A14 chip means that your device should still feel fast and snappy for years to come.

In my testing I’ve found that apps launch faster than ever, games run at increased frame rates and the whole system feels more stable. I’ve even noticed that apps stay in memory seemingly indefinitely! Of course iOS has always managed resources well but even still the occasional app refresh would occur on previous generations. The extra 2GB of RAM in the pro models seems to be really helping in this respect. A concern I did have about the additional RAM was that it might draw more power but because the A14 chip is more power efficient than last years A13, it likely balances out as far as the chip is concerned.

One important point to note is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max does have a smaller battery than the iPhone 11 Pro Max it replaces. This is mostly down to the 5G modem which requires more space. Apple have done some excellent engineering to mitigate for that by stacking the logic board and shrinking the size of the Taptic Engine that creates haptic feedback. Still, with the larger display of 6.7” compared to last years 6.5” and paired with a smaller battery, their is a dip in battery life. Not enough to make a difference to how you use the 12 Pro Max but it does shave around 40-60 minutes of use off compared to the 11 Pro Max. I could probably stretch out the battery to a day and a half of use but I’d have to be more careful than I was with the 11 Pro Max. It isn’t a deal breaker as I tend to put my phone on charge when I go to bed. But still it is something to keep in mind and I’d like to see next years iPhone address this.

Camera

So I’ve saved perhaps the best till last. The iPhone 12 Pro Max features a new wide angle camera with a 7 element lens and a wider 1.6 aperture. It also has a 47% larger image sensor than the other phones in the 12 series. The sensor actually has bigger pixels too. But Apple didn’t stop there. This year they also added sensor-shift image stabilisation to the wide camera. This is huge because for the first time, the sensor itself is stabilised rather than the lens. It translates to cleaner, sharper shots and video, especially at night. All of these enhancements to the wide camera mean that 83% more light can be gathered for enhanced low light photography. If you’re a low light photographer, the 12 Pro Max is the way to go.

On the subject of low light, this year Apple added a LiDAR scanner to the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max. This enables the phones to capture much more accurate depth data but especially at night! As it turns out you can even capture portrait mode photos at night on the 12 Pro and Pro Max thanks to LiDAR. Night mode has clearly been a big focus for Apple as it is now supported across all of the cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro Max including the front facing camera and the ultra wide camera.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max also gets something else that the other phones don’t. And that is a new telephoto lens. The optical zoom range has improved from 2x to 2.5x which might not sound like much, but it makes a surprising difference. I’ll include some comparison shots to highlight this in a follow up piece.

The camera system has improved so much this year that it deserves its own separate review. But what I will say for now is this. The camera has improved in every way compared to last year and is regarded by many as the best camera in a smartphone right now. So I’ve decided to run more extensive testing and also fulfil a few follower requests!

In the camera review I cover:

  • Day time photography
  • Night time photography
  • Portrait mode
  • Video in both day light and low light situations
  • Dolby Vision and HDR
  • Image stabilisation

Come back on December 7th for the full and in depth review of the camera system with tons of photos and videos. You won’t want to miss it!

Summary

The 12 Pro Max is a fantastic phone. It offers a new and improved design language paired with meaningful new features such as 5G, MagSafe, huge camera improvements and better performance than ever. Crucially in most regions the price has been preserved. Is it perfect? Not quite. 120hz is still missing from the display. Battery life isn’t quite as good as last years and there a couple of tiny design quirks. While it doesn’t bother me personally, some will lament the absence of an included power adaptor. But overall the imperfections are easily overlooked when considering the phone as a package of well optimised and highly integrated features. Apple has set itself up for a blockbuster Christmas period and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of these phones in the wild as we enter 2021.

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