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iPhone 12 Pro Max review: Easily the best smartphone camera ever

Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributor

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

9.6 / 5

pros and cons

  • Long battery life
  • Strong performance
  • The camera is very impressive
  • Expensive, with a starting price of $1,099
  • 5G availability isn't widespread
  • It's big.
  • like really big
  • Editors' review
  • Specs

Apple's iPhone 12 Pro Max is the biggest and most expensive option in this year's iPhone lineup. In fact, it has the largest screen ever in an iPhone measuring 6.7-inches. But with a starting price of $1,099, it's not cheap. 

This phone is also the last of the four iPhone 12 models we'll have reviewed here at ZDNet, with previous reviews of the iPhone 12 MiniiPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro all coming to effectively the same conclusion: iPhone users have never had this many high-quality options. 

Instead of diving into the details of design and performance, I'll instead point you to my iPhone 12 Pro review or Matthew Miller's iPhone 12 review. The entire iPhone 12 lineup uses the same design, just with varying sizes of displays, and the same core components for performance. 

Below are some of the more nuanced aspects of using the iPhone 12 Pro Max on a daily basis. It's been fun, impressive, if not challenging at times. Let me explain. 


The iPhone 12 Pro Max versus the iPhone 12 Mini. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Would you like that super-sized?

I feel like that's the question that Apple should ask customers who are looking at the 12 Pro Max when shopping for a new phone. Apple claims the 12 Pro Max isn't much larger than last year's 11 Pro Max, and on paper, the differences are small. But when you hold the 12 Pro Max, it feels massive. Not too big that it's unusable, but it's big enough that there's definitely an adjustment to the small increase in size. 

I've used the Pro Max-sized version of the iPhone for the last few years, so the overall size is familiar. Yet, the increase also makes one-handed use (for me, at least) almost impossible. Reaching the top of the screen with my thumb to tap a button or swipe is impossible. Heck, the 12 Pro Max no longer fits on the wireless charging pad in my car. The only other phone that has happened to me with is the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

With a 6.7-inch display, you're able to see everything. Videos are clear and crisp, more cells of a spreadsheet are visible, and websites are easier to navigate. I truly enjoy the larger display, but it comes at the cost of usability for me. 

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The 11 Pro Max has a 6.5-inch screen, with an overall footprint that measures 6.22 x 3.06 x 0.32-inches and weighs 7.97 ounces. The 12 Pro Max and its 6.7-inch display measures 6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29-inches and it weighs 8.03 ounces. 

Again, the size difference is subtle, but it's enough that you'll likely notice it. Is it too big? That comes down to personal preference. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Battery life and camera

Battery life has been nothing short of phenomenal, but based on my previous experience using the biggest iPhone in each release cycle, that's to be expected. Over the past week, my daily use has ran from 6 a.m. to after 10 p.m., using the 12 Pro Max throughout the day for common tasks like texting or checking, as well as streaming video, listening to music or taking pictures. On two occasions, the battery fell below 50% at the end of the day, with an average of around five hours of screen time use. And in both of those instances, it stayed above 40%. 

It'd be a stretch, but only a small one, for me to get two full days of battery out of the 12 Pro Max. For someone who is constantly traveling, or lives on their phone, the Pro Max's battery is going to be a huge benefit. That is, if you can get over the size of the phone itself. 

On paper, the 12 Pro Max has the best camera out of the entire iPhone 12 lineup. The 12 Pro is close, but Apple added some features to the 12 Pro Max that are a boost to its overall capabilities. There are still three 12-megapixel cameras, wide, ultra-wide and telephoto, but there are subtle differences. For example, the telephoto lens has an f/2.2 aperture, compared to the Pro's f/2.0. The Pro Max has a 2.5x optical zoom, giving a total 5x optical zoom range (going from ultra-wide to telephoto), compared to 4x on the Pro. That also translates into a 12x photo digital zoom, or 6x video digital zoom, versus 10x and 5x on the Pro, respectively. 

The wide camera -- which is the main shooter -- has sensor-shift optical image stabilization. That means that the camera sensor itself is constantly being stabilized while you frame your shot, which should lessen the number of blurry shots you take. 

Most notably, the main camera benefits from a new sensor that's exclusive to the iPhone 12 Pro Max which is 47% larger, and therefore captures more light. If you take a lot of photos and capture videos in low light situations, the iPhone 12 Pro Max will undoubtedly provide the best results. 

My experience with the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max cameras have both left me in awe. Just this last weekend we went out and took photos to use on Christmas cards we plan on sending to family, and instead of packing my more expensive camera and lens, I opted to take just the 12 Pro Max. Truth be told, I haven't kept up on my photography skills in outdoor settings, and I really didn't want to have to make the kids stand around and wait while I fiddled with ISO, shutter speed and focus areas in order to get the best shot. 

I wanted something that was akin to a point and shoot, and I had confidence that the iPhone 12 Pro Max would be good enough. A few photos in, I decided to look at a few photos to make sure that would be the case. Here, look at this one:


It's a truly stunning photo, captured with a phone of all things. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

That's a portrait mode photo shot with zero input or tweaking on my part. I just switched to portrait mode, let it focus on my son's face, and tapped the button. If you zoom in and look at his curly hair, you'll see that the fake bokeh -- or blurred background -- isn't perfect, but it's vastly improved over the iPhone 11 line. 

The rest of the photoshoot had similar results, with me the entire time repeating to myself and my wife: People pay thousands of dollars for a camera that can capture this kind of photo. Simply unreal. 

For what it's worth, I borrowed my wife's iPhone 12 Pro and snapped the same photo as above and it was nearly identical. The colors look a little more life-like in the photo from the Pro Max, but at that point it comes down to personal preference. 

All of that to say: The camera on the iPhone 12 Pro Max is easily the best smartphone camera I've ever used. That includes Samsung's Galaxy phones and Google's Pixel lineup. Apple didn't just slightly improve the camera setup on the 12 Pro Max, it took a major leap forward. And that's without Apple ProRAW, a special mode coming to the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max in a future update that will give users access to the RAW, unaltered photo files. 

For most, the camera differences between the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max will be negligible, unless you take a lot of photos in dark environments. Then you'll benefit from the larger sensor on the Pro Max. 


The entire iPhone 12 lineup. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Bottom line

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best iPhone in 2020, but it's almost prohibitively big and expensive. The size and cost, however, are a trade-off for crazy battery life and a camera that professionals are sure to find truly stunning. 

After using all four iPhone 12 models, I've decided to order an iPhone 12 for myself. Blue, to be exact. I'm willing to give up the slightly better camera for a phone that's easily pocketable and can be used with a single hand. 

That said, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is an amazing phone. One fans of larger phones and photogs will surely love. Hopefully the new sensor and other camera features trickle down the iPhone 12S lineup next year.