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Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Posted on Friday, November 13th, 2020

Dave!Back when my iPhone was mostly used as a phone, I didn't care so much about upgrading. But now that my iPhone is used mostly as a camera, getting the latest model has become increasingly important to me. The better my camera-phone gets, the less I have to lug around my "real" DSLR camera. And thanks to the Apple iPhone Upgrade Program I can actually afford to upgrade. This year, getting the best camera came with an added surprise... it's not available on the "Pro" model, it's only on the "Pro MAX" model. AKA Apple's "HUGE F#$!%@ PHONE" model. Knowing Apple has a two-week return policy, I decided to see if the MAX was something I could live with because I want that phone.

And today it arrived.

Let's just go straight to the elephant in the room... or, to be more accurate, the elephant in my hand. This phone is ridiculously huge. Almost bordering on comically impractically huge. And heavy. From a usability standpoint, Apple seriously should not have gone this large. Because there's simply no getting around the fact that this is a two-handed device. Even when Apple has features like a slim "side keyboard" for typing one-handed, you will still have way too many controls out of reach and end up using a second hand. Even when you have fairly large hands like I do.

But we'll get to that. We'll get to all of that
   

Packaging and Contents

The packaging for my new iPhone is a classy, minimalistic affair. Apple kindly has pull-tabs on everything so it's easy to unwrap and open...

The iPhone 12 Pro Max sitting in its box.

I bought the Pacific Blue color, which is very nice... though difficult to photograph. As has been widely reported, Apple does not include a charger or headphones. All you get is a cable. Apple says that this is because there are too many charger bricks out there already, but it's an absurd stance to take. The vast, vast majority of chargers are USB-A. Furthermore, even if you have a USB-C charger, it's very likely not the 20 watt brick which means you won't get fast charging. The brick I got with the 11 Pro is only 18 watt, so even last year's model isn't good enough. I guess I'm not too mad about it... my phone charges overnight so it can be slow... but it's still more than a little bit infuriating.
   

Stylings & Construction

My favorite iPhone of all time is the iPhone 4. Absolutely stunning construction with that classy metal band holding everything together like a glass sandwich. They more-or-less carried over the design to the iPhone 5, but the 4 remained my favorite. Everything that followed was a step down... until Apple decided to resurrect the design for the iPhone 12 Pro. And, let me tell you, it's gorgeous. The band is now tinted stainless steel and looks amazing...

The iPhone 12 Pro Max stainless steel band.

I deeply regret having to put a case on the thing because it's just so pretty, but I have to keep it in flawless condition for the Apple iPhone Upgrade Program. Oh well. When it comes to construction, the iPhone 12 Pro Max sure feels substantial and solid. The glass back is etched for grippability, but still feels a little slickery. The thickness seems the same as my old 11 Pro... with the exception of the camera bump which pokes out quite a bit more. So much more that the phone doesn't lay flat when you put a case on it and set it on a table. That's annoying, but it's the price you pay for the camera you get.
   

Jacked

I'm going to break this out in it's own space because it' just so idiotic... the iPhone 12 line still doesn't use a USB-C jack for charging or connectivity! They finally moved iPad and Macs to USB-C, but iPhone is still tied to Apple's proprietary "Lightning" connector. This is just inexcusably stupid. Apple says they keep it because there's so many Lightning devices out there, but that's a laughably weak argument to make considering they've abandoned absolutely everything in their recent history. You are trying to tell us that there were not a lot of USB-A devices out there? Go sell that crap somewhere else. Just move to USB-C and get it over with.
   

Setup

A hallmark of Apple products is their ease of setup and use. But that's not always the case, and it seems that setup complications keep getting more and more severe while happening more and more often. Sadly, my iPhone 12 Pro MAX experience was far from ideal. The concept is that you set your old phone next to your new phone when you turn it on and everything transfers over. That part was fairly smooth. My activation and settings magically popped up with no problem. Mostly. Some apps, like Amazon Alexa and Schlage, required a login to get started. Other apps, like Smart Life and Hue, were ready to go immediately. No big deal. What was a big deal was when I got to my Apple Watch. You are not allowed to just click on the Watch app and have everything working. Nope! First you have to unpair with the old phone. Which would be fine. Except I couldn't make it happen because nothing... and I mean nothing I tried work. Either nothing happened or I couldn't get verified by the Apple ID Server...

Verification Failed.

After trying over and over and over to get past this, I finally Googled to see if I could do it another way. Turns out I could unpair by remotely wiping it from iCloud. Jeez. That was a mess with a lot of trial-and-error that took 20 minutes of my time, but eventually it happened. But that was only the beginning. THEN I got this...

Reset your Apple ID message.

Which sucks because now I'm going to have to change the password on all my Apple devices. It's just so phenomenally stupid. YOU HAVE TO LOGIN WITH YOUR CURRENT PASSWORD TO CHANGE THE PASSWORD. IF SOMEBODY WASN'T ABLE TO GET IN TO BEGIN WITH, WHAT DOES THIS SOLVE?!? As it turns out, nothing. Because THEN I got this...

Pairing Failed message.

And this is exactly what I was talking about. Apple's ease of setup is only good when it works. When it doesn't work, the entire system is a massive barrier to getting anywhere. After nearly an hour-and-a-half of work, I finally got my watch to unpair, erase, pair and restore. But holy crap what a stupid ordeal. Do better, Apple. This is Microsoft-Windows-level pathetic.
   

Battery

My iPhone arrived this morning at 11:15am at about 75% full. It's now 10:00pm and it's down to 50% full. My guess is that it only dropped that much because of all the setup and playing around I've been doing. It seems likely that I won't ever have to worry about battery life seeing as how I charge it every night and never once had my iPhone X or iPhone 11 Pro run out of power. I expect that it will continue not being a problem with the 12 Pro MAX. The MagSafe charging puck I ordered hasn't arrived yet, so I can't comment how it works or how fast it is with my 18 watt charger instead of the brand new 20 watt charger you're supposed to buy in order to get fast charging. The phone is so huge that it's tough to position on my Qi wireless charger and I'm assuming the MagSafe puck will be easier. It better be for $30.
   

Display

The OLED Super Retina display is definitely pretty. It's bright and saturated and anything you put on it looks great, just like it did on my old iPhone 11 Pro. However... after having seen the new "ProMotion" display on my iPad Pro which refreshes at 120 Hz, the poky 60 Hz refresh rate on this phone seems almost primitive. Other manufacturers have gone to 120 Hz, so I don't know what the deal is with Apple. My guess would be battery life, but it seems weird that they haven't been able to figure it out so that the user can choose whether display or battery is important to them. I barely use 25% of my battery each day, so I'd absolutely click the preference for ProMotion. Because once you've seen the buttery-smooth optics of a high refresh rate, going backwards is really quite jarring. For Apple's sake, I hope iPhone 13 Pro has ProMotion, because anything less is pretty embarrassing.
   

Sound

For some reason I thought that massive size of the MAX would have better sound than the "standard" size iPhone Pro. This doesn't seem to be the case. Out of their respective cases, the sound is not noticeably different between my old phone and new phone. Not that this is disappointing... far from it. I still cannot fathom how Apple manages to get such phenomenal sound out of a frickin phone that's so thin. No, it's never going to rival what you can get out of a dedicated speaker, but what you do get is better than I ever expect.
   

Size

And so here we are. Remember how I was talking about how the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 were my favorite iPhone designs of all time? One of the things I loved about them was how beautifully compact they were. When I made the jump from iPhone 8 to the iPhone X, the size increase was tough to take. Jumping up again to the MAX is beyond tough to take. Just look at the iPhone 5 next to my new iPhone 12 Pro MAX...

The tiny iPhone 5 next to my new iPhone 12 Pro MAX.

The MAX is what's considered a "phablet," which is a hybrid phone/tablet. I never thought I would own one. Who wants a massive phone to lug around? The jump from 11 Pro to 12 Pro MAX looks like this...

The tiny iPhone 5 next to my new iPhone 12 Pro MAX.

After spending the day with it, I'm still not sure how I feel about the size. I really hate not being able to operate it one-handed. With practice I might be able to get some functionality back, but way too many controls are always out of reach. It's hugely frustrating. On the plus side, the other size-related drawbacks that I thought would be a problem ended up not being a problem at all. It fits in my pockets just fine (shirts, pants, jeans, and jackets). I can shoot with the camera one-handed. It's not uncomfortable to hold or use as a phone. And it doesn't seem to get in my way like I imagined it would.

When it comes to what I like about the size? That large screen is phenomenal for looking at photos. This cannot be overstated. The difference is not subtle. It may not seem like a massive change on paper, but the MAX feels more like looking at a photograph. I absolutely love that. I think back to all the times I've shown people images from my phone and how they have to squint and put their face up to it... and it's hard to imagine going back. And then there's gaming. Slow 60 Hz refresh rate aside, the larger size is SO much nicer for playing games. And watching movies. And reading. And just looking at... well... everything. The larger size allows for things to display a touch larger as well, so if you have aging eyes like mine it offers a slightly better experience to boot.

My guess is that I will be keeping the MAX rather than returning it for the "regular" 12 Pro. Even setting the superior camera aside, there are too many nice things about the large screen I'm enjoying which offset the inconvenience of having to use two hands sometimes.
   

Camera

The initial hot take from reviewers who got an advanced phone sent to them was that the photography difference between the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone Pro 12 MAX was not quite the leap everybody was expecting. The larger sensor does have slightly less noisy images in low-light... but it's nothing mind-blowing. You get more detail in the shadows... but not so vast that most people will notice. There's extra length on the telephoto at 2.5x vs. 2x... but it's not going to make a massive difference in the long run (so to speak). The sensor-shift optical stabilization reduces shake a bit... but not so much that you'll be able to get radically sharper photos while moving. It's all subtle degrees of change instead of some kind of revolution. And yet... I will take whatever advantage I can get, no matter how small. Most all I care about when it comes to my iPhone is the photos I can take. If the MAX is what it takes to get the best, then that's what I want.

Though the difference between 12 Pro and 12 Pro MAX cameras may not be huge, the difference between them and my 11 Pro very much is. The first photo I took was of Jake when he plopped down next to me after I got home. It was starting to get dark, so it wasn't especially bright. First I shot it with the 11 Pro, which dropped into 1-second Night Mode and got me this image (cropped to about 70%)...

Jake next to my on the iPhone 11 Pro.

Then the 12 Pro Max, which did not drop into Night Mode, got me this image (cropped to about 70%)...

Jake next to my on the iPhone 12 Pro MAX.

Now, I don't mind saying that I was a little disappointed. They both look similar, don't they? The 12 Pro MAX is a little bit more clear, but that's just because it didn't have to expose the scene for a full second. Then I zoomed in further and saw just how much more clear the 12 Pro MAX is. Here's the 11 Pro...

Jake next to my on the iPhone 11 Pro (close-up).

And here's the 12 Pro MAX...

Jake next to my on the iPhone 12 Pro MAX (close-up).

And... there it is. This is why I'm so grateful that Apple has an iPhone Upgrade Program which allows me to afford to upgrade every year. This is not a small difference. This is huge. The 12 Pro MAX has superior imaging which will allow me to zoom in tighter... print larger... and do more... with every shot I take. And this is just the first photo I took! I can't fathom what I'm going to see when I goof around with the camera over the weekend. I'm guessing I'm going to be blown away. I expect to be blown away.

One thing I'm dying to experiment with is Apple's new ProRAW photo image format. The file size is around 25 MB... each... but there's more information with less artifacts and a higher dynamic range. And the raw data you capture isn't touched as you adjust it in the Photos app, so the image doesn't degrade. You can always go back to exactly what you captured at any time. I won't be shooting ProRAW for casual shots, but I'm very excited at having it available when I'm shooting serious shots. Vacation scenery shots, portraits, photos for work... any time the bigger file is worth it. Alas, ProRAW isn't coming until iOS 14.3 which hasn't come out yet, so something to look forward to.

I'm sure early next week sometime I'll be posting photos I've been taking.
   

Accessories

I ordered the (PRODUCT)RED version of the silicone case along with my iPhone like I always do. The red color makes it easy to spot, it will look all Captain America with my blue phone, and the Apple-branded cases have always been quality. The fact that some of the profits go towards fighting AIDS in Africa is just icing on the cake. Now Apple has a new "iPhone Studio" tool where you can see what your iPhone will look like when paired up with various color cases and MagSafe wallets...

Apple iPhone Studio Options.

Apple iPhone Studio Options.

The new MagSafe that intelligently (and magnetically) attaches things to the back of your phone actually is pretty cool. My case is red, so when I pop it on the phone it is able to recognize that and give you a cool special effect that pulses across your display...

Apple iPhone Studio Options.

Had my case been green, the effect would be green, and so on. A nice touch.
   

Conclusion

Nice as the iPhone 12 Pro MAX is, it's not a foregone conclusion that I'm keeping this phone. There are times that I am not bothered by the massive size... there are times that it's just so overwhelming that I don't know if I can live with it. Maybe after a week it will seem "normal" but it sure doesn't now. I hate that it's so bad for working with one-handed. Part of that is just not being able to grip something so big. But a chunk of that is also Apple and 3rd party developers not doing a good job of adapting their apps to function well on a huge display like this.

But then...

...I pick up my old iPhone 11 Pro and it feels like a toy (I pick up my old iPhone 5 and it feels like it's fake). I love that bigger display so much that any time I drop back to a phone without it the thing feels wrong somehow.

I guess I'll have to wait and see.

Once thing I do know is that I can't wait to see what kind of photos I can get out of it.

Comments

  1. Cd says:

    Have you tried BackTap?

    Settings>Accessibility>Touch>BackTap

    It allows you to program shortcuts that activate when you tap the back of your phone two or three times.

    I use the double tap for reachability which helps with one handed operation.

    You can even have the taps activate a Siri shortcut

    • Dave2 says:

      Yes. I have double-tap as App Switcher and triple-tap as Accessibility. They help, but reaching parts of an app is still really tough. I may have to experiment with other accessibility options… but the easiest is just using two hands, I’m guessing.

  2. martymankins says:

    Great review of the 12 Pro MAX. I like the details of the photos you posted, showing the difference. And I completely agree with the Jacked rant. One of the main reasons I’ve not upgraded my iPhone 8 Plus is I am wanting the USB-C port on the iPhone. I will want to compare the size of the 8 Plus to the 12 Pro MAX

    A friend just bought the 12 regular. No power adapter in the box and she doesn’t have anything with USB-C yet. She ordered the 20W power adapter and is using a USB-A to Lightning cable to charge the phone via USB port on her laptop.

    • Dave2 says:

      Apple really didn’t think through their lack of a power adapter. They seriously should have waited at least one more cycle before the switch. Because right now, even if you get a new iPhone every year, you STILL end up having to buy a new adapter in order to take advantage of quick-charging.

  3. Ren says:

    Sorry about the trouble you had moving your watch. The last few upgrades I’ve done, at some point it asks if I want to move my watch and then it just does it without the unpair/repair step.

    I tried to move to the larger size back at the XS generation, but it doesn’t fit in the built-in wireless charger I paid way too much for in my car. I was a bit worried that the 12 Pro might be enough larger to be a problem, but thankfully not.

    I was going to skip the case this time, but I found the sharp edges uncomfortable to hold and got an Apple silicone case. The nice thing about a case with this iPhone style is that the case doesn’t add as much to the size.

    I think my favorite feature so far is Night Mode selfies.

    • Dave2 says:

      I’ve always used a case… even before joining the iPhone Upgrade Program… because I like that the silicone cases stop it from sliding off tables and such. What I was really, really hoping for was for Apple to bring back the “bumpers” that they had for the 4 and 5. I love love loved those as a very cool case alternative.

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