iPhone 12 Pro Max review: Maximum display, maximum battery, maximum camera

If you don’t mind its enormous size, this is the iPhone 12 Pro to get.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is big. Just slightly taller and wider than the iPhone 11 Pro Max (which was already more than a handful), it is most certainly not for those who insist on one-handed operation.

If you're a big phone kind of person, you'll probably find the Max version of the iPhone 12 Pro to be worth its $1,099 starting price. While its new camera is only a tiny bit better, the expansive display and incredible battery life make it worth every penny of its price premium.

iPhone 12 Pro, only bigger

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is essentially just a larger iPhone 12 Pro. It's exactly the same phone in the same colors with the same thickness and style, same display, same A14 chip, same LiDAR, same MagSafe support... just stretched out to a beautiful 6.7-inch display.

It's a lot of phone. If you like really big phones, you'll feel right at home, but if you insist on one-handed operation you will be overwhelmed by this almost tablet-like slab.

iphone 12 pro max size Jason Cross/IDG

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is quite a bit larger than the iPhone 12 Pro.

Along with the larger size comes a larger battery, and it makes a really big difference. To measure battery life we calibrate the display to 200 nits and run the battery from full to empty using the Geekbench 4 battery test. In this test, the iPhone 12 Pro Max lasted 26 percent longer than the 12 Pro—over 8.5 hours! It's by far the longest battery life we've ever measured in an iPhone.

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The iPhone 12 Pro Max lasted considerably longer than any other iPhone we've ever tested.

Other performance metrics track right along with the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. There are some infinitesimal benefits to the larger size of the Max reducing thermal throttling of the A14 chip, but you'd never notice it.

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Outside of battery life, the iPhone 12 Pro Max performs just like every other iPhone 12—blazing fast.

A (very slightly) better camera

There is one small hardware change between the iPhone 12 Pro and the 12 Pro Max, beyond the obvious size and battery capacity. In a change from last year's iPhone model lineup, the Max version this year has slightly different camera hardware.

iphone 12 pro max cameras Jason Cross/IDG

The camera module may look the same as that on the iPhone 12 Pro, but two of these cameras are a little different.

The standard wide-angle lens is still 12 megapixels but the sensor is 47 percent larger. This larger sensor is stabilized with a more sophisticated sensor-shift image stabilization system rather than the lens-based stabilization of the other cameras. The result is supposed to be more detail and less noise in low-light environments.

In addition, the telephoto lens is just a little bit more telephoto. The iPhone 12 Pro has a 2x telephoto (equivalent to a 52mm focal length), while the Max variant is 2.5x (about 65mm).

There's been a lot of talk about the difference the new wide sensor will make for low-light photography, but try as I might, I could just not produce convincingly better shots than the iPhone 12 Pro. Apple's multi-exposure computational photography is so good that I have a very hard time distinguishing shots between the old sensor and the new one.

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I took a lot of low-light and Night Mode shots trying to get the iPhone 12 Pro Max to look a lot better. It just never really happened.

You can find some edge cases where it matters, but even then you'll have to zoom in and pixel-peep to spot the slight improvement in detail or texture from the Max's improved sensor. What I did notice is that the Max regularly takes Night Mode shots with shorter exposure times, and shots in low light without Night mode that have somewhat faster shutter speeds or higher ISO settings.

That means it's easier to hold steady, and you're more likely to get a good shot with a subject that's moving. Even so, it's not a night-and-day difference.

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The longer telephoto is useful, but produces slightly grainier shots in low light.

You'll immediately notice that the telephoto lens is a bit longer, though. When shooting Portrait Mode shots you have a choice between 2.5x and 1x, instead of 2x and 1x on the non-Pro model, and that closer crop creates a totally different feel. But in being longer, the telephoto lens has a narrower aperture, which means a bit more grain and noise when you use it in low light.

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The longer telephoto definitely changes the character of Portrait Mode shots. Charlotte has never looked more glamorous.

If you were considering the iPhone 12 Pro Max over Pro just for its superior camera, I wouldn't bother. There is a difference, but it's minuscule; Apple has done such an amazing job with iPhone 12 Pro photography that it's not worth lugging around a huge phone (if you don't want to) just to get a slightly better shot in some very particular situations.

The biggest and best

The iPhone 12 Pro Max costs $100 more than the iPhone 12 Pro. If you like really big phones, it's totally worth it. The expansive 6.7-inch display makes videos pop, games more immersive, and web pages easier to read. Most of all, the absolutely epic battery life alone is worth a 10 percent increase in price. That battery life alone could convince some users to carry around a bigger iPhone.

But the improved camera is not a reason to buy this model. Simply put, the improvements over the iPhone 12 Pro are so seldom seen, and usually so minute, that it shouldn't be a factor in deciding what to purchase. Think of the improved camera as a nice little bonus on top of a phone with crazy performance and battery life.