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The big boy

I believe that I am in good company when I say that I truly missed the design of the iPhone 4 ever since its disappearance four years after its release. The iPhone 4 design looked executive, and fresh, and it was sturdy as hell thanks to its stainless-steel border. Sure, a bit of glass stuck out on either side of that stainless steel, but it was quite the looker. I remember spending a few hours at a Best Buy with a friend who was getting a brand new iPhone 4 and being amazed at how easily the personnel put on a glass screen protector. Ah, the good old days.

I always felt like the subsequent design change made the iPhone look like a toy, or like a piece of candy. In general, I’m a big fan of boxy designs over rounded designs and that has been true for a big portion of my life. But the iPhone 6 was just, well, “meh” in design. The 7 didn’t look any better, the 8 was a joke, and while a full-screen display, notch and all, was exciting on the iPhone X, it was another six years after the design was released that it got the major overhaul that it so desperately needed, ushering in the age of iPhone 12.

If past performance is any indication, we’ll be stuck with this new design for at least four or five years, which I’m excited about. What I’m not particularly excited about, however, is iOS 14. Such amazing things came with the release of iPadOS that I still await arrival for in iOS. But, we’re stuck with that too, at least for a little while, and despite the shortcomings and underwhelming feature set of iOS 14, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is still quite a bit to get excited about.

The box is all phone

Much to the dismay of many, iPhones are no longer shipping with power bricks. Apple touts this as a means of helping the environment and reducing e-waste, which is noble, but still annoying to those who don’t have the means of connecting the still-included charging cable, which requires a USB-C power brick. And yes, while this is annoying, the dialogue surrounding it is far worse.

There are a few different realities to consider here: first, many people who buy iPhones already have other i-devices; for me, both my iPhone 11 Pro and my iPad Pro came with compatible USB-C chargers that work just fine for the job. I recognize that not everyone upgrades their phones or buys new tech at the rate that I do, however, I don’t think it’s really that big of a deal to exclude it here.

Second, the iPhone Pro Max starts at $1100. Sure, most people aren’t paying that out of pocket; they’re either taking advantage of trade-in opportunities with a carrier or spreading the cost of the device over a couple of years thanks to their carrier. Still, $1100 is no small amount of coin, and spending another $20 to get Apple’s 20W USB-C charger is just a drop in the bucket.

Even with that, some will still complain that the price tag indicates that a charging brick should be included. While I agree that Apple undoubtedly increased its profits as a result of omitting the charging brick, you should consider the sheer power of the device that is in your pocket. Plenty of people making comparisons to smartphones being more powerful than the computers that took us to the moon in the late 60s…more modernly speaking, this device is 100% computer and it fits in the palm of your hand, outperforms nearly every other phone on the planet, and does so without exploding, melting a hole in your purse or immediately giving you radiation poisoning. And, you enter into the arrangement already willing to spend $1100+ on it—so you already recognize the value it has. Short-changing it because it doesn’t have a plug seems trivial.

Otherwise, this unboxing is underwhelming on the scale of the unboxing of Apple products, and in that sense it is everything we’ve come to love and expect.

That blue, tho’

I started this review of the iPhone 12 Pro Max by recalling an earlier design that at this point is 10 years old—and one that is strikingly similar to the latest phones from Apple. And despite that, this is still a really good-looking phone. The candy/toy look of the previous design is gone, and this phone looks and feels as good as its $1400 price tag (if you go with the 512 GB model like I did, you’ll pay for it). The stainless-steel wrapping the phone gives it a sharp look and adds a significant amount of rigidity, although (like most stainless steel) it is quite the fingerprint magnet.

The rails themselves are painted blue to complement the phone’s glass back that is also blue, and that blue glass is really something special. Last year when the 11 Pro was released with its ‘midnight green’ color, I was impressed and fell in love—mostly because it somehow looked green and gray. Admittedly, I’m sure my relative colorblindness didn’t help matters much there, but I find it compelling that a layer of glass can do so much to make a color so unique. Similar is this year’s ‘pacific blue’ color, which seems to give off a different color depending on the lighting. Sadly, many people (me included) will cover this with a case, but there’s something special that I have just knowing that it lurks behind that case (clear Magsafe cases are available, but I’m not a fan of clear cases in general; more on Magsafe later).

Button placement on the phone is the same as past iPhones, as is the placement of the camera hump on the back. This 3-camera system is larger physically than the 3-camera system found on the 12 Pro, but performs very similarly. New on all iPhones this year, along the side with the power/Siri button, is a small black strip that is the 5G antenna, and while 5G is far from ‘prime time’ in 2020, there is some excitement in what is to come over the next couple of years as it develops further.

How big is too big?

You may already know me as a big fan of the Galaxy Note series of phones, and as such I’m no stranger to phones with big screens. I like them, for sure, but I don’t require it for a phone to be a ‘good phone’ by my standards. There are certain things that are part of the price of admission when it comes to buying a phone, and something like size or a lack of a headphone jack is a “known” part of the puzzle for most consumers. Surprises, on the other hand, are the things that I try to look out for, and accordingly, small phones can be good phones too—provided you know they are small and you are looking for that.

In many ways, my ideal phone size is what the iPhone 11 Pro is, or even the Google Pixel 5. It’s perfectly pocketable, and still gives you a decent viewing experience without being unwieldy. The regular iPhone 12 this year is close to ideal for me, although the proportions make it a bit tall and lanky for my liking.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is a huge phone. A screen of 6.7” makes it the biggest iPhone ever, and it has the weight to back it up. Slipping this into a tube sock would likely provide a decent amount of protection in a fight.

So, on the topic of ‘price of admission,’ I don’t think most people will buy this phone and be surprised by its size. Still, certain things—like pocket ability and one-handed-operation—become a trick the larger your phone is. The extra weight here makes one-handed operation even more complicated, as the risk of dropping it increases thanks to the extra heft. Still, I wouldn’t want to be a tile floor on the receiving end of a drop of this phone.

Smooth like butter

Every modern phone I review seems to take us closer and closer to the inevitable point of lack of progress. iPhones are fast, they have been for a long time, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max is no exception to that rule…but fast is such a relative term anymore, and really, most phones are fast in 2020.

What is not particularly fast with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, however, is the screen refresh rate. At 60Hz, it is definitely behind its flagship brethren, but as I said in my review of the Pixel 5, I don’t think that refresh rate is as important as much of the tech community thinks it is. Yes, a smooth scrolling experience is nice, but unless you’re reading while you’re scrolling oh-so-fast, it doesn’t make that big of a difference in the usability of the phone. So, while I recognize that it is noticeable, I don’t think it’s particularly valuable.

The other key entertainment components of the phone—its speakers and screen—deliver a great, immersive experience. The screen still has a notch, although the size of that notch is no different from those on smaller iPhones, and so in some sense is relateively smaller on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The speakers are great and continue to produce sound that is at the top of its class when it comes to cell phones; while most people will use some form of bluetooth speaker, earbuds or headphones while playing anything from the iPhone, it’s good to know that it has big speakers to back up its big size when they’re needed.

Battery performance of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is also very, very good. Last year’s iPhone 11 series saw a substantial increase in battery life from the prior generation, but that trend has not continued. My wife and daughter both use a regular iPhone 12, and my wife specifically has complained that the battery life is slightly worse than that of her iPhone X that she recently upgraded from. I’ve not had the same experience when comparing the 11 Pro to the 12 Pro Max, but I also don’t notice any significant differences. Generally, when the 12 Pro Max is charged to full, I can easily get a day of normal (and sometimes, slightly heavier-than-normal) use, and with some self-control, I could probably get most of a second full day as well. On average, a day- to a day-and-a-half is about what I can expect from the Pro Max, which is plenty good enough for my uses.

What seems to be weird, though, is that the 12 Pro Max seems to charge slightly slower than my 11 Pro does—and I don’t mean slower as a result of the larger battery, rather, the rate seems to be throttled just a bit more on the 12 Pro Max. This is something that my wife has also noticed in her iPhone 12 (when compared to the iPhone X), which either makes us lucky, or part of a bigger issue. This ‘slow’ charging isn’t a show-stopper by any means, but it is something that has caught my attention.

A thousand words

Some “prosumers” were excited when, during the iPhone event earlier this year, the camera system in the iPhone 12 Pro Max would be new—and different—from the rest of the lineup. Most notably, the Pro Max includes a LIDAR sensor (which helps with mapping depth in pictures), a 2.5x optical zoom on the telephoto camera (compared to the 2x optical zoom on the other iPhones), and a main camera that boasts sensor-shift stabilization over the more popular optical image stabilization that you see in most high-end smartphones.

But, when those same folks received the phones and began testing, not many could spot differences between the Pro and the Pro Max in any substantial ways. Keep in mind this is second-hand information, and not any that I’ve been able to test directly without an iPhone 12 Pro to compare results, but it is certainly worth noting that the output of these camera systems is somewhat indistinguishable. The only exception that I’ve found any consistent information on is low light performance, probably due to advanced capabilities provided by the included LIDAR sensor. Still, the photos and videos are incredible, and iPhone continues to provide among the best smartphone-produced pictures in the industry.

Magsafe

This ‘new’ concept was announced in 2020 along with the latest iPhones, and it has turned out to be one of the least-exciting products that I’ve interacted with this year. As a multi-year USB-C MacBook Pro user, I let go of Magsafe years ago, and while I was excited at its announcement, the products aren’t very compelling.

First up is the charger, which works like a…charger. It’s not amazingly fast, although the magnets are cool (I guess), and they do eliminate the alignment issues that are sometimes experienced with wireless charging. I am also slightly irritated that the Magsafe charger doesn’t come with a power brick, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising. And before you say it, YES, this is entirely different from the phone not coming with a power brick.

The Magsafe case for the iPhone 12 Pro (and for the regular iPhone 12—as my wife has one of those too) is nice, and it fits, but I’m not crazy about the material. I picked up a leather case for my iPhone 11 Pro last year and loved it; the silicone of the case on the 12 shows grease and fingerprints and dirt, not to mention being effortlessly scratched.

Some number of years ago, I started keeping a $20 bill under my phone in its case because you just never know when you might need it—and thankfully, I can still do that with the latest Magsafe cases from Apple without impacting charging speeds. But in general, the case which is supported by magnets and held in place by a small lip around the edge doesn’t feel very secure on the phone, even sans $20 bill. The leather case from last year, in contrast, securely holds my 11 Pro without concern. I’d like to see some leather cases released by Apple in the coming months.

I’m excited to see what Magsafe brings in general, but I really think the magnets need to be improved before that happens. The wallet case just looks like a great way to lose your wallet thanks to not-so-grippy magnets, but I also anticipate that maybe Magsafe doesn’t stick around for the long haul as a result of those limitations of sticking strong magnets in your pocket. What is clear, though, is that Apple is doing everything it can to finally create a port-less phone, which will be interesting for sure.

The Biggest Sturdiest iPhone ever

I consider the iPhone 12 Pro Max to be the most substantial phone I’ve ever handled, and that is exactly what you have to be looking for to buy it. It’s huge, it’s heavy, and perhaps even a status symbol of its own. And, at the low end, you’ll be paying $1100 for it.

Don’t do that if you want a great camera, though—because the 12 Pro, and even the 12 (and by definition, the 12 Mini) will get you a plenty good camera. I bought the biggest, baddest phone that Apple sells because it takes great pictures and I’d like to be able to say that I do too, along with being able to store those pictures (it’s interesting how having a website changes your purchasing decisions).

Undoubtedly, I didn’t need 512GB storage, or a 6.7” screen, or a slightly larger telephone lens. But if those are the things you want—and to spend $1400 on this particular phone, you have to want it—then the iPhone 12 Pro Max won’t disappoint. Would I like to see it a little cheaper? Sure. Do I want to see an actual difference in pictures given that I’m paying a premium? Yeah. But price of admission is powerful here, and these are all things I knew about this phone before I bought it, so it’s really hard to complain about it.

And accordingly, hopefully, these things won’t be a big surprise to you if you decide to take the mortgage payment-sized plunge that buying Apple’s best iPhone has become.

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