Straight up, the one thing that hits you hard even more than the massive size of the new iPhone 12 Pro Max, is its maxed out sticker price. It can top out at a ridiculous ₹1,59,900 if you have the means and aspirations. As the patriarch of the new iPhone 12 family, it has a lot riding on its broad shoulders and the bevy of lenses that dot its back, so everyone’s first thought is “it better deliver”. So does it?
Armed with the 5nm A14 Bionic, it’s clear by now that this Apple-made chip isn’t taking any prisoners. And while it does duty in every new iPhone 12 model (and the new iPad Air), it’s in the Pro Max where it is expected to do great things. But, I will leave the raw performance review to Khumail Thakur in his iPhone 12 Pro review (click on this link), which allows me to focus on what’s different on the 12 Pro Max. The biggest difference is, of course, the biggest screen ever on an iPhone at 6.7in and there’s a corresponding increase in resolution too to keep similar pixels-per-inch to the other devices in the range. The OLED display is a benchmark in colour accuracy and now with an incredible 1200 nits of peak brightness when required, it combines the richness of Dolby Vision HDR along with covering the P3 colour scale. The bezels have thinned out just a little bit but overall the effect is of total and complete immersion on an HDR movie clip. Pity that the gorgeous screen doesn’t get a 90 or 120Hz ProMotion refresh rate like on the iPad Pro as this would’ve undoubtedly made it the best portable display ever, beyond just colour and contrast.
Big win for build quality
Compared to the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the 12 Pro Max feels wider in the hand and takes a good grip to ensure the shiny stainless steel band doesn’t meet the floor anytime soon. A case would be almost mandatory and that in turn would make it even harder to fit into your poor pockets, so you see the genuine first-world problem here? But also, compared to the Note 20 Ultra, the Pro Max is easier on your palms for extended use since its curved corners don’t dig into your palms like the Note 20 Ultra. You do feel the substantial weight of the device but it’s evenly distributed so never gets overbearing or uncomfortable to use. Also, little things like reachability and one-handed keyboard on iOS come in handy now more than ever.
The flat screen and sides make for a unique hand-feel though and given its impeccable build and materials, feels definitely worth its asking price. It’s almost like using fine designer jewellery and the triple camera system with LiDAR is its crowning glory. Using a completely different camera system to the rest of the iPhone range for the first time, the Pro Max gets a bigger sensor, bigger pixels and to prove it, even bigger lens housings that look like they mean business. To tie it all together, it also boasts of a DSLR-inspired in-body image stabilisation, which Apple calls sensor-shift optical stabilisation. Now, the 12 Pro is no slouch at photography so how much better does the Pro Max really get?
Just like magic
The truth really is in the details and even then, it’s not a simple answer. Final results of our photography test get dangerously close to the placebo effect, where a lot of people tend to choose the Pro Max’s sample only because they knew it came from that phone. It is fun to see the myriad of steps being applied the moment you tap the shutter button. It takes half a second for things like Deep Fusion and Smart HDR3 to analyse the process every picture but miraculously, things get sharp even after a 2sec handheld Night Mode portrait shot! Even the 12 Mini rewards with outstanding results in bright to medium light but where the Pro Max clearly has an advantage over the other siblings is its 65mm focal length on the telephoto lens. Not only does this get you closer to the subject (2.5x as opposed to 2x on the 12 Pro), but it also allows you a wider overall zoom range from ultra-wide, letting you experiment with the crop that works best for you.
Night mode in Portrait shots changes the entire creative process and actually does allow you to compose differently as opposed to iPhone 11 Pro Max that came before it. There is visibly less noise in the evening skies and the bokeh has a more cinematic feel to it. Edge detection on clothes and well-defined objects is eerily good now but it does get caught out occasionally on finer elements like hair, plants, whiskers etc. Thankfully, being able to dial in just the right amount of aperture effect during editing smoothens out any aberrations. Usually, f/5.0 works best to keep things natural looking and avoiding smearing of finer objects in the focus area. Sharpness towards the edges of the frame has improved too, thanks in part to the new 7-element lens on the 26mm wide. The 12 Pro Max just enhances what the iPhone has always been good at - sharpness, even exposure and colour accuracy with natural skin tones. With LiDAR in the mix along with Night Mode on every lens (including front), this gets shockingly close to DSLR levels in terms of detail. It’s only when you transfer the pictures to a laptop and zoom 5x and beyond, will you start seeing any signs of noise and degradation. But, on social media or small display alone, it is unbelievable that 12 Pro Max comes this close or even betters many DSLRs! Overall, this is the best portrait cameraphone you can get in 2020, bar none. I could say that about the 26mm and 13mm wide and ultra-wide lenses too, with better HDR (think dramatic) than ever, slightly faster focusing, more detail and night mode on ultra-wide, the iPhone 12 Pro Max really has no equal, just different takes. The Note 20 Ultra which I happened to have at hand does a great job of capturing difficult highlights too, but you can tell that it’s applying processing even before you want it to. Whereas on the iPhone, the control is given to the user and with Apple ProRAW support coming soon, this will only become a more powerful tool.
The one thing I did notice is that heat is a real issue if you plan on switching between lenses a lot, especially in low-light and this could be an extreme case scenario, but I did manage to make the 12 Pro Max incapable of focusing at one point during a late-night shoot during Diwali. This brings me to the computational aspect of photography. Since HDR, LiDAR, machine learning and the neural engine are all working overtime to make one image look great, when you’re constantly mashing away on the shutter button, it can take a toll on even the world’s most powerful smartphone processor. There even is a toggle to prioritize faster shooting under the camera settings but since these phones take multiple frames of the same shot to select the best one for exposure, stability and depth, in reality, there really is a lot of background computing going on even before you tap on the shutter button. This isn’t to say that the 12 Pro Max isn’t for extended periods of use, but you may want to experiment with switching off Smart HDR or scene detection for certain conditions.
Video on the iPhone has been a no-brainer since many generations and with the 12 Pro Max, it only cements that reputation. The sensor-shift stabilisation is great and while not a game-changer compared to the already excellent iPhone 12 Pro, to know that its there allows you to get more creative with your moves. The naturalness of the colours in HDR and smoothness in motion is undoubtedly the stuff that content creators crave for and even filmmakers. Partnered with a mobile gimbal, the 12 Pro Max is capable of some epic footage, like we have already seen in demo videos but you can create your own just as easily. HDR and Dolby Vision compatibility is going to be an issue for a while until more devices support the particular kind that iPhone records in but the difference between HDR on and off is huge. Apple made a big deal about this in their keynote and results show that there was good reason to. Not only does HDR videos instantly look much brighter with better EV compensation across the latitude but a much richer colour palette that looks stunning on the phone screen itself. Transferring it to the 16in MacBook Pro didn’t have the desired effect both in terms of dynamic range and smoothness. Apple’s own apps like FCP, Clips and iMovie support this from day one though and there’s even possibility to upload an HDR video to YouTube.
Pros live with cons
Battery life keeps up with all that you’re planning to do through the day and I always had around 20% left in the tank even after incessant screen time with a mix of capturing, editing, social media, emails, viewing videos via the audio playback via the speakers and just ogling at the iOS14.2 wallpapers that need a special mention for just being drop-dead gorgeous!
In every other aspect, the Pro Max is similar to the Pro but the increase in screen size doesn’t come with any special iOS advantages like viewing the home screen in landscape mode and enabling a split-screen scenario. But, add a gaming controller and the Pro Max does make for an outstandingly capable gaming experience that will have you hooked for hours. Sure, a higher refresh rate would’ve garnered more uses than 5G at this point, but this is Apple’s world and we just gotta live in it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, too bad! Similar with the continuation of the Lightning port, even when all their other “Pro” devices have moved to USB-C, but mum’s the word and suck-it-up is the magic word if you want to reap all the other benefits of being in this draconian world.
Apple has really flexed its A14 Bionic integration with the ISP and iOS on the new iPhone 12 series and while all the four new devices offer amazing photographic capabilities, the truth is, how much better the Pro Max will make your photos look really depends on how good a photographer you are. The simple, twin-lens systems of the 12 and 12 Mini make them point and shoot no-brainers and even the 12 Pro to a large extent. But with the 12 Pro Max and its longer focal length, you will find yourself taking more time to frame a shot using the right lens for the right occasion and even physically moving around a lot more to accommodate for the Portrait mode on the 2.5x telephoto lens and also when you change the focal point at 2.5x. This makes the Pro Max the camera for those who want to put in the work and are ready to spend time with it. If you don’t wish to commit yourself to that extent, the 12 Pro might work better for you. The 12 Pro Max won’t make you a better photographer but if you are a good one, it has the tools to help you become a great one for sure!