How well is it built? If you’re going to be doing all these things with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, then it better be built to last. And boy it is — there is so much performance that it will last you for years. Its screen gets a ceramic shield which provides 4 times better shatter resistance than any other phone. It now supports IP68 water and dust resistance and the stainless-steel frame looks sinfully beautiful. This phone feels expensive but also holds up. Sure, it is so expensive you will probably need a case, but that doesn’t mean it will get crushed like a cookie if you don’t.Okay, I have outlined some types of use cases that I was had been able to execute on this phone, let's dive deeper into what makes it tick.
A return of an iconic design
One of the most enchanting things about the iPhone 12 Pro Max is that its design is a cocktail of the geometric symmetry of the iPhone 5/5S design from 2012/13 fused with the edge to edge modernity of the iPhone XS Max and iPhone 11 Pro Max. It feels precise, massive and subtly brilliant thanks to the polished stainless-steel rails and matte back. It also looks astonishingly good in both pacific blue and the new gold finish.
It's very slim at 7.4 mm but substantial at 228 grams. You know you're holding something very sophisticated and beastly. It's not for everyone as it will not fit every pocket, and feel more like a table tennis racquet; impossible to use with a single hand unlike its antithesis the iPhone 12 mini. But if you're doing a lot of work on the go, this one will be the obvious choice for you.
On the back of the phone, you also get a magnet hidden behind the frame which is for the MagSafe charger.
Brains that are faster than most PCs
I listed out 12 things that this phone can do but everything and beyond is underpinned by the A14 Bionic which is the world’s first 5 nm chip. It packs in a massive 11.8 billion transistors in a 6-core design with a 4-core GPU coupled with a 16-core neural engine that can do 11 trillion operations per second. It also has dual machine learning accelerators and a brand-new ISP which propels the advanced camera system of the Pro Max.
Three cameras plus a LiDAR form the basis of the camera system on the iPhone 12 Pro Max
If you look at benchmarking applications the performance of this system on chip rivals that of a 16-inch MacBook Pro in single-core tasks and eclipses many computers in multi-core tasks. All this is achieved while being ruthlessly frugal on memory use and battery life. Teardowns have revealed the iPhone 12 Pro Max has 6 GB of DDR4x RAM which is the highest ever seen on an iPhone matching that on the iPad Pro. It's also fused on the processor die itself, unlike Android phones, albeit on one which is abnormally large for a phone at 88 mm. This makes the system inherently efficient.
The prodigious computational capability of the A14 Bionic gives the iPhone the ability to do things that simply no other smartphone can do. It gives the iPhone the ability to do things that most computers can't do that too in a form factor that it utterly mobile within a power envelope that's never been imagined before.
This is why the iPhone 12 Pro Max breezes through intense video editing at 4K. It is why, this gadget is the only gadget in the world to have the ability to shoot, slice and consume 4K HDR Dolby Vision content at 10-bit colour.
Its GPU also unlocks gaming potential that's perhaps not going to be seen for years as developers grapple to catch up. But some examples already shine a light on the serenity the iPhone can pack. Stela an Apple Arcade exclusive looks so cinematic, immersive with subtle touches all around giving one a glimpse of handheld gaming that could be possible in the future. For many, this point may be moot as cloud gaming would appeal more like Microsoft, Google and Amazon all prepare to get their platforms to iOS via the browser in one way or the other.
But this grunt always applies to the browser as it cuts through so many tabs like a ninja and on a fast Wi-Fi network can load webpage faster than Chrome than an AMD Ryzen powered desktop.
Its 5 nm manufacturing process and thermal management system are also one of the reasons why this phone just sips battery. Considering the size of the battery has gone down for the iPhone 11 Pro Max and yet, it can give you that 2-day battery experience — the gains in efficiency feel substantial.
The neural engine kicks in so many apps offloading processing for AI-based tasks which even include the sophisticated Face ID scanner on the front of the phone that Apple has been using since the iPhone X. And yes, it unlocks faster this time around thanks to the advances in iOS 14.
I can keep going on but just comparing the smoothness of the iPhone 12 with an iPhone 11 year-on-year isn't fully fair as the apps aren't there yet fully to leverage its potential. Part of the reason there is so much firepower is that Apple wants to ensure any iOS update it throws, this phone endures it gracefully so that it ages for you for more than 3-4 years, something you don't see on Android phones which operate more like appliances.
Pro camera system
Three cameras plus a LiDAR form the basis of the camera system on the iPhone 12 Pro Max but that's simplifying things to a great degree. For the first time since the iPhone XS Max, the iPhone big-boy iPhone has received a superior camera system to a more standard-sized iPhone Pro model.
To be precise, I'm talking about the larger 12-megapixel primary sensor at f/1.6 which is 47% larger than the one on the iPhone 12 Pro and takes in 87% more light. It gets massive 1.7um sub-pixels which is a big deal for low light performance. It also gets a new 7-element lens which Apple has designed.
It also gets a more sophisticated optical stabilisation system called sensor-shift which stabilises the sensor instead of the heavier optics. It can make 5,000 corrections in a second which gives it an almost gimbal-like quality.
The telephoto lens is also different if not superior. It gets a 62 mm field of view and peak optical zoom of 2.5x. It takes in slightly lesser light at f/2.2. This lens is also optically stabilised. Then there is the 120-degree wide-angle camera which is the same as the other three iPhone 12 models.
On the software side, Apple has improved its smart HDR processing, its deep fusion multi-frame tech for indoor or medium-light situations and night mode for ultra-low light situations. Apple will also be deploying Apple ProRaw through a software update soon. These updates are now trickling down to the selfie cameras too which makes it even more effective.
For video, Apple has elevated the stabilisation system and also added support for Dolby Vision in real-time at 4K 60 frames per second something high-end DSLRs can't do.
All of this also benefits with the LiDAR which enables faster autofocus in low light and elevates portrait photography computationally pipped via the ISP on the A14 Bionic chip.
A lot is happening and it is obvious Apple has thrown down the gauntlet when it comes down to photography more so than ever before in the history of the iPhone.
It is too simplistic to call the iPhone 12 Pro Max the best smartphone camera. It is classic and peak Apple — an interplay between measured hardware updates tuned precisely to the software.
In daylight predictably, this is an excellent camera — fast, easy to use and reliable. It always takes attractive photos but blends a better balance between the oversaturated look one gets from modern Samsung phones and the super contrast heavy look of the Google Pixel phones. The pictures from the iPhone look more realistic. They also leave heaps of headroom for editing, something Apple will extend further when it releases Apple ProRaw.
The magic happens in medium to low-light situations as most phones take great photos when given good light. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also pulls ahead of its other iPhone 12 siblings here thanks to the bigger sensor, the more accurate optical stabilisation system and also the LiDAR. But it pulls away in subtle ways — not very obvious ways. You'll need to do a side by side comparison to understand.
For example, in low light situations, the Pro Max will sometimes not engage the night mode while the standard Pro will. This is because it doesn't need it. It has the bigger sensor so it takes in the light naturally, not through computational pyrotechnics. And sometimes, it will engage the night mode for a shorter interval which is often the difference between a blurred shot or not especially when motion is involved. It pulls ahead in extreme conditions. When manually forced to do things from a third-party app like Halide then in the hands of a trained lensman it can do things that you'd expect range finder cameras to do?
For instance, the 62 mm crop for the telephoto lens is certainly the more attractive frame. Its 2.5x zoom is also more desirable considering it is a decent bump. What people don't much about is the digital zoom of the iPhone which admittedly is inferior to the super zoom tech of the Pixel but remains superior to the lossless zoom that is many Android manufacturers tout using oversampling techniques?
As for things like night mode — the iPhone 12 Pro Max certainly takes among the best low light photos that I've seen in 2020. It is likely the best in purely the terms of fidelity, ease of use and reliability. Apple has also extended this to the wide-angle camera which makes it even more delightful. This makes the iPhone 12 models have the best low light wide-angle camera.
It also now takes the best portrait photos I've seen on a smartphone, the Pixel 4a included. The Pixel 4a, however, remains better for taking portraits for product photography, a fringe use case that's of particular interest to someone like me who posts photos of the latest gadgets.
Interestingly, you also don't need to use portrait mode that often as the f/1.6 aperture of the main camera provides great natural bokeh. Add to this, the telephoto lens also provides great opportunities for macro photography.
As for the video, these phones are doing things that are beyond DSLRs computationally. Apple just extends its lead in the video. The audio capture from the iPhone is also quite spectacular though for any professional it is best paired with a Shure MV88 microphone kit. But if you're going to be bootlegging a concert in the future, the iPhone microphone will more than suffice.
No Pro Motion but who cares
The biggest controversy with the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max is the fact it doesn't have a high refresh rate screen which has been popularised by Android phones in the last two years. It's worth noting though despite its absence DisplayMate has rated the screen on the iPhone 12 Pro Max the best panel on a mobile phone today.
Apple was one of the first to adopt high refresh rate screens back in 2017 with the third-generation iPad Pro. Apple called it Pro Motion. And since then, for years there have been rumours that the tech would come to the iPhone. With its wide adoption by Android phones, Apple was expected to make the jump. But for several logistical and functional reasons, Apple avoided it.
And I think it was a good move because who cares. People love the tech on Android phones because those phones don't have very responsive user interfaces. iOS is silken in comparison. It flies. It wouldn't matter and simultaneously, it would suck a buck ton of battery.
Perhaps, some games would be able to utilise it but for the average iPhone customer, particularly the one who is buying the Pro Max, battery life would be a bigger concern especially in markets that have 5G connectivity.
When you throw all of that poppycock out of the window, you're left with a screen which is a visual treat. It has a peak brightness of upwards of 1200 nits and can ramp down aggressively depending on your needs. HDR video in Dolby Vision shines through viscerally with stupendous viewing angles. It is good for everything and on the Pro Max, you don't even notice the notch as much.
It even gets a ceramic shield, a technology that most people aren't even talking about. Apple’s claim of 4x better shatter resistance is the difference between buying a tempered glass or not, though admittedly on testing it didn't prove to enhance scratch resistance.
But it's almost perfect
There are things that the iPhone limits or just doesn't do as well — but these are minor quibbles. But quibbles they are as this is a phone that starts at ₹129,000.
Its size itself is a problem compounded by the gorgeous new design. On one side, it is too big of a phone for a case on the other side, the straight lines on the spine make it a little uncomfortable to hold even though the phone has become thinner.
Charging speeds aren't ideal by modern standards. It peaks out at 20-watts which can only be had through Apple’s new brick which you have to buy it you don't have an old iPhone USB type C to lightning brick. Yes, there is no charging brick in the box. MagSafe is a cool idea for charging, it works elegantly but again it is expensive and pretty slow at 15-watts. The iPhone still doesn't support reverse wireless charging.
A 120Hz screen even if it is not needed is going to be needed next year for sure. Aside from that the display looks dated because of the huge Face ID notch which should be reduced. Apple, in the wake of the virus, should've also considered a fingerprint scanner — as this phone wouldn't recognise your face when a mask is on. Perhaps something for next time.
iOS 14 is a lovely update. It makes the iPhone more adaptable and functional. It makes it customisable but the one thing it doesn't do is tune the operating system for a 6.7-inch screen.
And perhaps, the biggest deterrent in India is the starting price. ₹129,900, ₹159,900 for the unit I'm testing. This is a lot of money. This year the iPhone is even more expensive than last year that too by ₹20,000. But despite the increase which is more due to the inflation of the dollar against the rupee and increased taxation for fully imported smartphones in India, it is a steep ask.But for those willing, the iPhone 12 Pro Max comes as close to smartphone perfection as any smartphone can.