Apple iPhone 12 Pro vs 12 Pro Max: the ‘which Chris is the best’ question

Size aside, what is the difference between Apple's flagships?

Share this Post:
Cover Image

Deciding between the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max may seem like a straightforward decision, but that’s if you know the key difference. But even so, I found myself wavering when having to decide. So clearly Apple is on to something here.

The Pro Max is not merely an iPhone with the most toys; a bigger screen, a bigger battery, along with a camera spec bump hardly makes a compelling sales pitch.

And in my opinion, the Pro would serve most better, and that’s just from picking up the phone and holding it in hand. The Pro will fit snugly in average-sized hands – the display doesn’t look big, but it does have enough space to display a fair bit of content. Your thumb can reach most of the lower half of the screen when held in one hand; both thumbs need not hunch up when typing two-handed. The not-so-new angular design is a throwback to iPhone 4 with the benefit of experience and tech to make a slimmer phone. This is a big plus in my book – the angular iPhones are my favourite. The sharp edges can make gripping uncomfortable, but then again, who uses their phones naked these days?

The iPhone 12 Pro has perfect proportions.
The iPhone 12 Pro has perfect proportions.

Then again, nobody knew that Apple would have the temerity to remove the power adaptor and headphones from the package and said that it was to save the environment as most people already have adapters and headphones, and packed a USB-C to lightning cable with the phone. If it’s about the environment, it would make more sense to include a standard USB to lightning cable, since those chargers are far more pervasive.

I don’t have any such complaints about the rest of the phone, thankfully. The new screen has more pixels than last year’s model, and the Pro has slightly better pixel density than the Max, which is the same as last year at 458ppi. Not that it matters, however, since most of this sharpness is overkill. You could say the same for the contrast ratio and brightness – 2m:1 and 800 nits respectively in typical with headroom to spare. I think it’s unfortunate they did not at least try to offer a display that refreshes at 90Hz or more at least, as it could certainly improve the gaming experience. And not to belabour the point, the competition is dropping in 120Hz displays left, right, and centre.

But as a multimedia device, it’s hard to beat this display. Dynamic, high-resolution photos look amazing, while HDR videos off Netflix are incredibly detailed and can do justice to the Directors of Photography who love their desaturated colour grading. I can imagine that some people might prefer the more vibrant treatment of other brands like Samsung (or the OnePlus 8T, which is surprisingly good), but I suppose that’s another kettle of fish altogether. The speakers are as good as they can be in a form factor like this – they generally hold up well even near-maximum volume, offering just enough clarity, so there’s no chance you’ll be missing out on any dialogue.

It’s hard to decide between the two if we’re evaluating merely the display. The Pro Max is bigger without seemingly any compromise, so that should be the automatic choice? For one thing, app icons and widgets look a lot tidier on the regular Pro – it feels like the layout was measured to perfection – but the Pro Max gives you that extra screen estate, making it great for viewing videos and photos. If the latter is a big part of your day-to-day experience with your phone, then the slight discomfort shouldn’t matter.

The edges on the iPhone 12 Pro are harder but the phone definitely looks cooler.
The edges are harder but the phone definitely looks cooler.

If there is one defining characteristic of the Pro Max, is that it is purpose-built. With the extra space, you get a ‘bigger’ camera module. The wide-angle camera (default) on the Pro Max uses a bigger sensor, which captures more light and gives it better performance especially a poorer lighting conditions. But that’s only if you are particular about your photos and enjoy tweaking them. Otherwise, the default output from both phones are virtually identical.

They both have 26mm (equivalent) wide lenses and 13mm ultra-wide lenses. The telephoto camera on the Pro Max also features a slightly longer zoom range: 2.5x (65mm) vs 2x (52mm) optical zoom and 12x vs 10x digital zoom. Will the lack of a, say, 5x optical zoom camera bother you? Perhaps, but in most practical cases, I simply could just walk; I’m not in the business of taking closeups of clock towers; but I can only speak for myself, obviously. It helps that the included kit performs so well. To expect more would make me feel like a total Karen asking for more managers and staff to berate.

But before we move on, I have to mention that the camera array also features a new addition: a LiDAR sensor. LiDAR is a depth scanner not unlike the camera used for Face ID. It will be primarily used in Augmented Reality apps, though it really still is early years despite the concept being introduced a few years back. AR implementation was spotty at best, with no real-world application that rendered the feature indispensable. AR seems to have an affinity with education apps for rendering 3D models in an interactive and engaging manner, but it often feels like you don’t actually need the AR aspect of the experience. Its most logical role seems to be supporting online shopping, at the moment it seems that only stores overseas are willing to spend the money to make it happen. I won’t blame you if you think that the LiDAR is a waste of time then, but thankfully Apple has incorporated its abilities for photo-taking.

The night photography crown used to belong to the Android camp but the Pro and Pro Max is sitting comfortably tight right now. The addition of the LiDAR sensor or time-of-flight camera helps the Pro and Pro Max focus more accurately and quickly in low light conditions, among other things, and this helps the experience tremendously. On paper, the differences between the cameras on the Pro and the Pro Max didn’t seem much. If you just stick to default – native iPhone algorithms for JPEGs – they are practically identical. If you like to shoot in RAW, it’s far easier to capture fine detail with the Pro Max when the lighting is less than ideal, thanks to the improved sensor which helps to capture more detail. Is it that much better that you should be willing to put up with the bigger size? Now, that is a question I can’t quite answer for you. It might only be a small difference, but it’s one of those things where you might not see it if nobody mentioned it, but once you see it you just can’t ignore it. YMMV, as they always say.

You need skills to take advantage of the superior camera on the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
You need skills to take advantage of the superior camera on the Max version.

Speaking of ‘can’t ignore it’, I’ve just been reminded of the annoying lack of a power adapter again, because we’re now discussing battery life. Anyway, Apple’s progressive approach when it comes to managing battery life – it has been sort of maintaining the status quo for a while – is brilliant; in my book, anyway. As its processors become more efficient, they don’t take this as a cue to stick a bigger battery in. On average they’re good for a day or a day and a half depending on how heavy a user you are. Any extra space is typically reserved for other goodies, be it a camera or a sensor or whatnot. That’s good thinking. But without a fast charging feature, you will need to charge a little more frequently and a little longer throughout the day to avoid binge charging. The Magsafe wireless charger and how it conveniently sticks to supported cases is quite a good addition to the line, but I generally don’t like the heat that wireless charging generates. And it’s pretty slow as well. So I guess I’d only use it in a cold office.

Apple says very little about things like memory capacity. I guess it doesn’t have to worry – reviewing the performance of every new iPhone has become a bit of a joke. It’s way faster than you need it to be, and every year Apple makes enough improvement, speed-wise, to maintain that buffer of expectation. Between the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, there is no difference, so when choosing between the two it comes solely down to the cameras; and to a lesser extent, the battery life. the 12 Pro has a slightly shorter battery life but in real-world use, you might not even notice the difference.

If anything, the Pro is far more likeable in terms of how it handles on a day-to-day basis. And as much as I love watching Netflix on the bigger screen I don’t enjoy using it as much for more mundane stuff like going through emails and replying messages. But it’s pretty close (if you don’t factor in the price).

It all comes down to this: if you are particular about your cameras then I think that uncertainty of giving up the absolute best in technical ability might just swing the decision for you to go down the Pro Max route.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro

  Features - 9/10

  Value Proposition - 7/10

  Performance - 9/10

  Design & Build Quality - 9.5/10

  Overall - 8.5/10

  Verdict

Size is the defining factor for the iPhone 12 Pro. It's probably the best smartphone with Goldilocks-like dimensions in the flagship category.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

  Features - 9.5/10

  Value Proposition - 7/10

  Performance - 9/10

  Design & Build Quality - 9/10

  Overall - 8.5/10

  Verdict

Get this if you like a bigger screen or if you enjoy tweaking your photos all the time.

Update: With the release of ProRAW, casual users will find it easier to mess around with RAW files as Apple’s version of RAW has its computational magic baked in so you only really need some minor tweaking to hone your images the way you want it. It’s especially useful for shots with harsh lighting where the AI might give you a result that’s not in line with what you had in mind. If you don’t like the interpretation, you can always get a third party app like Moment or ProCamera to shoot in pure RAW. Having options is good indeed.

Specifications

Price From $1,649 (Pro) and $1,799 (Pro Max)
Finish Silver, Graphite, Gold, Pacific Blue

Operating system iOS 14
Processor A14 Bionic with Neural Engine
Capacity 128GB, 256GB, 512GB

Display (Pro) Super Retina XDR 6.1" OLED, 2,532‑by‑1,170-pixel 460 ppi, DCI-P3 HDR, 800-1,200 nits, 2M:1 contrast ratio
Display (Pro Max) Super Retina XDR 6.7" OLED, 2,778‑by‑1,284-pixel 458 ppi, DCI-P3 HDR, 800-1,200 nits, 2M:1 contrast ratio

Camera (Pro) 12MP, f/2.4 (ultra wide), f/1.6 (wide), f/2.0 (telephoto), effectively 4x zoom (2x zoom in, 2x zoom out)
Camera (Pro Max) 12MP, f/2.4 (ultra wide), f/1.6 (wide), f/2.2 (telephoto), approx 5x zoom (2.5x zoom in, 2x zoom out)
Optical image stabilisation lens (Pro), sensor-shift (Pro Max)
TrueDepth camera (front) True12MP, ƒ/2.2, up to 4K at 60fps, slo-mo up to 1080 at 120fps, Dolby Vision HDR video up to 30 fps
Video recording Up to 4K at 60 fps, with HDR Dolby Vision up to 60 fps
Additional features Night mode portraits, ProRAW, FaceID

Connectivity 5G (sub-6GHz, mmWave), Gigabit LTE, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, Ultra Wideband chip, NFC, Express Cards with power reserve

SIM nano-SIM and eSIM
Water resistance Rated IP68
Battery life approx. video playback up to 17 hours (Pro), 20 hours (Pro Max)
Wireless charging support Qi (up to 7.5W) and MagSafe (Up to 15W)
Fast‑charge Up to 50% charge in around 30 minutes with optional 20W adapter or higher

Dimensions 71.5 x 146.7 x7.4 mm (Pro), 78.1 x 160.8 x 7.4 mm (Pro Max)
Weight 189 g (Pro), 228 g (Pro Max)