Long before Apple announced the details of its 2020 iPhone lineup, I was set on upgrading my iPhone 11 Pro to the new iPhone 12 Pro because I expected significant improvements to the camera system.
After all, the iPhone is my primary photo and video camera these days.
However, after watching the product announcement, I changed my mind and decided to get the larger iPhone 12 Pro Max instead.
In this blog post, I’ll talk about the important differences between the iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, and explain why I decided to make the jump to the larger screen size.
In a nutshell, I decided to go for the larger iPhone 12 Pro Max because of the following enhancements (over the regular iPhone 12 Pro):
- Better battery life.
- The larger screen makes typing easier (I have big fingers).
- A 47% larger sensor for improved low-light photography.
- Sensor-shift image stabilization system for better hand-held photos and videos.
- An improved telephoto lens with a 2.5x zoom factor.
Apple iPhone 11 vs. iPhone 12 Pro
One of the most obvious differences between last year’s iPhone and the 2020 version is the body of the device.
Gone are the rounded edges that sometimes made the iPhone 11 Pro difficult to hold. Instead, Apple used the same design language it introduced with the iPad Pro, including a stainless steel frame with sharp edges and glass on both the front and back.
I love the new design, which makes it so much easier to maintain a secure grip on the new iPhone. The only drawback to the flat and shiny sides is that they’re magnets for fingerprints. On the bright side, you can easily wipe them off with your shirt or a dry cloth.
Besides the usual color options of graphite (black), silver and gold, Apple introduced a “pacific blue” edition this year, and it’s the one I decided to get for my new iPhone 12 Pro Max. I think it looks absolutely gorgeous and I don’t regret giving the new color a shot.
Much like the camera system, Apple’s iPhone displays have always been among the best in the industry. The Super Retina XDR display in the previous and current Pro models is no different.
|iPhone 11 Pro||iPhone 12 Pro||iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Display||Super Retina XDR||Super Retina XDR||Super Retina XDR|
|Size||5.8‑inch (diagonal) all‑screen OLED Multi‑Touch display||6.1‑inch (diagonal) all‑screen OLED display||6.7‑inch (diagonal) all‑screen OLED display|
|Resolution||2436‑by‑1125-pixel resolution at 458 ppi||2532‑by‑1170-pixel resolution at 460 ppi||2778‑by‑1284-pixel resolution at 458 ppi|
|Brightness||800 nits max brightness (typical); 1200 nits max brightness (HDR)||800 nits max brightness (typical); 1200 nits max brightness (HDR)||800 nits max brightness (typical); 1200 nits max brightness (HDR)|
As you can see in the table above, the screens are technologically relatively similar — except for their sizes, of course. In fact, the screen of both iPhone 12 Pro models is actually larger than last year’s models. In other words, the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max’s screen sizes grew by 0.2” and 0.3”, respectively.
What’s worth noting is that the screen of each new iPhone 12 model is now made from a new type of glass that Apple calls Ceramic Shield. It’s supposed to be tougher than any other smartphone glass.
I have never cracked the screen of any of my previous iPhones, but I did manage to scratch the screen of my new iPhone 12 Pro Max within days.
I don’t think that’s because the Ceramic Shield is more prone to scratching (based on scratch tests I’ve seen, the opposite is the case) — I just shouldn’t have thrown my iPhone into a beach bag during our Mexico vacation without making sure there were no keys or other sharp objects in the bag.
My point is that better shatter resistance doesn’t necessarily mean better scratch resistance.
Size and Weight
I always had issues typing on my iPhone 11 Pro because either my fingers are too fat or there’s not enough spacing between the keys on the keyboard. That’s why I always went to my Mac or iPad if I needed to type something longer than a sentence.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is a pleasure to type on.
I love the extra screen real estate. But to be perfectly honest, I had reservations about the size and weight of the larger iPhone.
That’s because I used to have an iPhone 7 Plus, and it felt too big and bulky — which is why I went back to the smaller form factor when Apple released the iPhone X the following year.
|iPhone 11 Pro||iPhone 12 Pro||iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Weight||6.63 ounces (188 grams)||6.66 ounces (189 grams)||8.03 ounces (228 grams)|
|Height||5.67 inches (144.0 mm)||5.78 inches (146.7 mm)||6.33 inches (160.8 mm)|
|Width||2.81 inches (71.4 mm)||2.82 inches (71.5 mm)||3.07 inches (78.1 mm)|
|Depth||0.32 inches (8.1 mm)||0.29 inches (7.4 mm)||0.29 inch (7.4 mm)|
As you can see in the table above, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is obviously larger and heavier in every regard. But the good news is that I have never felt that it’s too heavy or too big. The iPhone still slides easily in and out of my pants pockets and it feels great in my hands.
I think one factor that helps with this is that the sharper edges of the new iPhone make it easier to maintain a secure grip on the device.
That’s particularly true if you’re like me and don’t use a case. If you slap a case on your iPhone, then factors like frame design don’t play much of a role in your experience.
Personally, I wouldn’t use a case with the iPhone 12 Pro Max because it makes the device unbearably thick and too bulky for my taste.
The only downside is that you won’t be able to reach all four corners of the screen with one hand (unless you have very large hands). While I can reach the top corners of the iPhone’s screen, I have to loosen my grip to do so. However, that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.
CPU and Performance
The silicone chips Apple uses in its iOS devices have always been several years ahead of their competition, and the new A14 Bionic chip is no different.
However, it’s worth noting that for the first time in several years, Apple hasn’t offered a detailed performance comparison between the new and previous-generation chip (the A13 Bionic).
|A13 Bionic (iPhone 11 Pro)||1,327||3,289|
|A14 Bionic (iPhone 12 Pro)||1,591||4,146|
That’s because the A14 is only about 20-26% faster than the A13, as you can see in the table above (based on benchmarks I ran in Geekbench).
That’s not bad by any means, but it’s not the massive speed improvements we have grown accustomed to with previous CPU upgrades.
Based on my experience over the past few weeks, the iPhone 12 Pro Max feels a bit faster than my previous iPhone 11 Pro. That said, I never had any complaints about the performance of my old iPhone.
Besides the camera system, another factor that made me decide to go with the larger screen size is the long battery life. Apple’s largest iPhone models have always had the best battery life due to the larger battery size.
|iPhone||Video Playback||Video Streaming||Audio Playback|
|iPhone 11 Pro||18 hours||11 hours||65 hours|
|iPhone 12 Pro||17 hours||11 hours||65 hours|
|iPhone 12 Pro Max||20 hours||12 hours||80 hours|
As you can see in the table above, the difference in battery life (while watching videos) between the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max isn’t massive, but the audio playback and standby times differ significantly.
I don’t watch a ton of videos on my iPhone, but based on my usage patterns (photography, FaceTime video, web browsing, email, etc.) I can tell you that the iPhone 12 Pro Max lasts forever.
Even when we went on vacation, and I was using my iPhone to take a lot of photos and videos, I never had any concerns about running out of battery before the end of the day.
With the introduction of the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, Apple has slightly improved the splash, water and dust-resistance of its phones.
Both the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro models are IP68-rated under IEC standard 60529. Despite having the same certification, there is a minor difference between the two iPhone models:
You can submerge the new iPhone models for up to 30 minutes at a depth of six meters without risking water damage. Last year’s models could only withstand being submerged for 30 minutes at a depth of four meters.
How much of a difference that makes in real-life scenarios, I don’t know — but it’s certainly a welcome improvement.
PS: I started taking underwater videos when I got my iPhone 7 Plus without any issues, but I might have just been lucky.
Rear Camera System
The iPhone 12 Pro Max camera system is the primary reason why I decided to upgrade and switch to the larger iPhone.
What’s interesting is that both the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max had the exact same camera system. In other words, it wasn’t a deciding factor for anyone who just wanted the best camera system Apple had to offer at the time.
With this year’s iPhone Pro models, Apple changed the dynamic by putting the best camera system in the iPhone 12 Pro Max only. In other words, the smaller iPhone 12 Pro got an “inferior” camera system.
Don’t get me wrong: the iPhone 12 Pro has a great camera. But it’s not much different from the one Apple put in the iPhone 11 Pro.
So let’s look at how the iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max compare, starting with the rear camera system:
|iPhone 11 Pro||iPhone 12 Pro||iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Lenses||Ultra-wide, wide, telephoto||Ultra-wide, wide, telephoto||Ultra-wide, wide, telephoto|
|Ultra-Wide||ƒ/2.4 aperture and 120° field of view||ƒ/2.4 aperture and 120° field of view||ƒ/2.4 aperture and 120° field of view|
|Wide||ƒ/1.8 aperture||ƒ/1.6 aperture||ƒ/1.6 aperture|
|Telephoto||ƒ/2.0 aperture||ƒ/2.0 aperture||ƒ/2.2 aperture|
|Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)||Wide and telephoto (lens-based)||Wide and telephoto (lens-based)||Wide (sensor-shift), telephoto (lens-based)|
|Lens Elements||Five (ultra-wide), six (wide, telephoto)||Five (ultra-wide), six (telephoto), seven (wide)||Five (ultra-wide), six (telephoto), seven (wide)|
|Night Mode||Wide||Ultra-wide, wide||Ultra-wide, wide|
|Deep Fusion||Deep Fusion (ultra-wide, wide, telephoto)||Deep Fusion (ultra-wide, wide, telephoto)||Deep Fusion (ultra-wide, wide, telephoto)|
|Night Mode Portraits||✘||✓||✓|
As you can see, both generations of iPhone sport a triple-lens camera system including an ultra-wide, wide and telephoto lens with a max resolution of 12 megapixels.
Ultra-Wide Angle Lens
As far as I can tell, the ultra-wide lens in this year’s Pro iPhone is exactly the same as in the previous model.
The only difference is that you can now use the ultra-wide lens to shoot in Night Mode.
However, that’s likely unrelated to improvements in the camera hardware but rather due to better image signal processing (ISP) made possible by software updates in iOS 14 and the new A14 CPU.
Wide Angle Lens
That said, Apple has improved the wide-angle lens (the main camera and the one most people use to take photos) by increasing the size of the aperture and adding a seventh lens element.
The wider aperture (lower ƒ-number) means that the sensor can capture more light, which leads to less noise and allows the shutter to remain open for longer.
Additionally, Apple decided to add an entirely new sensor to the iPhone 12 Pro Max that’s 47% larger than that of the iPhone 12 Pro (and iPhone 11 Pro).
That larger sensor could have allowed Apple to cram more pixels into it. But that’s not what the company did. Instead, it decided to increase the size of each pixel (to 1.7-microns).
Why did Apple do that?
Much like a wider aperture, larger pixels improve the light sensitivity (called ISO sensitivity in photography terminology). As a result, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has an 87% improved ISO sensitivity, leading to better low-light photos that are sharper and have less visible noise.
Additionally, Apple moved the optical image stabilization feature in the larger iPhone 12 Pro Max from the lens to the sensor. In other words, the sensor behind the lens can move left/right/up/down to mitigate camera shake during hand-held shooting. Apple calls this a “sensor-shift” system and it works better at stabilizing the image.
Besides the significant differences between the two iPhone 12 Pro models in the wide-angle department, Apple also decided to give the larger iPhone a better telephoto lens.
In other words, the iPhone 12 Pro Max now has a 2.5x optical zoom, instead of 2x. If you’re a DSLR shooter and are used to dealing with focal lengths, the new 2.5x camera would be the equivalent of a 65mm lens (up from 52mm in the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro).
While that’s not a huge difference, it allows you to get a little closer to subjects without using the digital zoom, and it makes portrait photos more visually pleasing, in my opinion.
Speaking of digital zoom, the larger iPhone has a 12x digital zoom, which is 2x better than that of the smaller iPhone.
However, the new telephoto lens in the iPhone 12 Pro Max isn’t better in every aspect. In fact, Apple had to use a slightly smaller ƒ/2.2 aperture instead of the ƒ/2.0 the telephoto lens in the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro have.
What that means is that iOS might actually use the much “faster” wide lens (paired with digital zoom) when there is not enough light and you try to use the zoom function in the Camera app.
iOS does that when it detects that the telephoto lens might take photos of inferior quality (due to the smaller aperture) than the wide-angle lens. You can test this in a low-light scenario when covering the telephoto lens (the lower one on the back) with your finger and selecting the 2.5x zoom in the Photo app.
Front (TrueDepth) Camera System
The iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max have largely the same TrueDepth camera system (i.e., the selfie camera on the front of the iPhone). In other words, they both feature a 12MB camera with an ƒ/2.2 aperture.
All the enhancements Apple introduced with the iPhone 12 Pro are based on the improved image signal processor (ISP). See below for more information on that.
Apple has also made some improvements to how users can record videos.
For example, both of the new iPhone 12 Pro models can now natively record HDR video with support for Dolby Vision HDR at up to 60 fps.
I’m not a professional videographer, so I don’t know how much value (if any) this feature adds for me. But I certainly realize that more and more pro filmmakers use the iPhone to shoot and edit their footage. So maybe being able to record directly in Dolby Vision is a killer feature for them.
The TrueDepth camera on the front of the iPhone can only record in Dolby Vision at 30 fps.
Beyond that, I don’t think Apple made any other significant improvements to the iPhone video recording experience.
That’s not a bad thing, because even videos recorded on the iPhone 11 Pro look absolutely stunning (especially in good lighting conditions).
Image Signal Processor (ISP)
If you’ve come this far in the article, you’ve probably realized that Apple hasn’t done much to improve the camera hardware in the new iPhone 12 Pro.
Some reviewers have even argued that the updates to the iPhone 12 Pro Max aren’t super exciting because it’s tough to spot the differences in photo quality between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and other modern iPhone models.
I’ll dissect that argument in a bit. But first, let’s talk about all the improvements Apple made to its ISP.
One of the most notable improvements is the ability to shoot in Night Mode with the ultra-wide lens. Previously, you could use Night Mode only with the wide lens. By lifting this limitation, you have much more creative control regarding nighttime photography.
Night Mode keeps the shutter open for several seconds when the camera detects a low-light environment. That enables you to take natural-looking photos at night without the use of flash.
Additionally, you can now also use Night Mode in combination with Portrait Mode, thanks to the additional LiDAR sensor in the lower right corner of the rear camera assembly. (Note that you can only take portrait shots in Night Mode using the rear camera, not the selfie camera.)
Smart HDR 3
Each new iPhone 12 model features Smart HDR 3, a technology that “balances the elements in a shot, bringing out detail in the subject and trees while retaining the rich color of the sky — even at high noon.”
The iPhone 11 Pro had an older version of HDR, and while I assume HDR 3 works even better, I haven’t yet performed a side-by-side comparison.
The other exciting feature that Apple introduced with this year’s iPhone 12 Pro models is a new image format called Apple ProRAW.
As the name implies, this is Apple’s attempt to establish a RAW image format that has several advantages over storing pictures in JPEG, HEIF or other formats that use compression and post-processing.
If you’re not familiar with shooting in RAW vs. JPEG, here’s the difference in a nutshell: if you take a photo and the camera stores the image as a JPEG file, then all the raw information the image sensor captured — such as the white balance, HDR and Night Mode settings — are baked into the photo.
That makes it incredibly difficult to make changes to the final image without negatively impacting its quality.
In other words, all changes are “destructive.”
When the image is stored in a RAW format, none of the data the sensor captured gets baked into the image. Instead, information like the white balance is stored as separate instructions that can be easily manipulated after the fact.
Think of RAW files as uncompressed digital negatives that contain all the image information captured by the camera’s sensor, along with the image’s metadata.
Besides being able to losslessly edit previously-taken images, shooting in RAW also bypasses all the processing the ISP usually applies to JPEG images, including compression, noise reduction, etc.
In other words, shooting in RAW gives you full creative control over how your final photo looks. It also enables you to see the differences in image quality between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and any other (i)Phone — something you might not see when shooting in JPEG because of how the ISP processes those images.
However, it’s worth noting that the Apple ProRAW format does some amount of processing. If you don’t like that, you have to shoot with a third-party camera app that supports plain RAW formats.
So if picture quality and control over the final image is your top priority, I encourage you to shoot in RAW using an app like Halide Mark II. Or if you want to continue using the native Camera app, then turn on Apple ProRAW in the camera settings.
To learn more about the new camera system, check out the excellent and in-depth analysis from Sebastiaan de With from the Halide team.
Cellular and Wireless
Besides the new camera system, Apple spent the most time during the product keynote talking about how the new iPhone supports the 5G wireless standard.
What’s important to understand is that there are different 5G technologies, and the fastest one is only available in fewer than a handful of cities across the United States.
Check out this YouTube video from Snazzy Labs that goes into the details of these various 5G standards and why 5G connectivity in the iPhone isn’t a big deal right now.
I appreciate that many people upgrade their phones only every couple of years, so buying an iPhone 12 Mini, iPhone 12, 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max could be considered an investment in the future (once super-fast 5G standards roll out nationwide).
Note: Assuming you live within a 5G coverage area, you won’t be able to use this service unless your cellular plan has it included. In many cases, 5G service is a feature that costs extra!
Personally, I usually upgrade every year. So having technology in my iPhone that might prove to be valuable in a couple of years means nothing to me.
Based on my use cases, I’m perfectly happy with a strong LTE signal and I have yet to experience 5G where I live (north of Atlanta) that is noticeably faster. Sometimes, I see 5G or 5Ge while driving, but during those times, the speed of my cellular data connection is usually not an issue.
From a Wi-Fi perspective, the new iPhone 12 models still support Wi-Fi 6, much like the previous Pro models did. So nothing new here.
Another feature that Apple (re)introduced is MagSafe. Originally, the trademark MagSafe was used for the MacBook’s magnetic power plug that, unfortunately, disappeared with the introduction of USB-C ports.
For the iPhone 12 launch, Apple re-introduced the term for wireless charging technology and magnetic gadgets.
I ordered the new MagSafe charger for my iPhone and the MagSafe Wallet at launch, and was super excited to give both accessories a try.
The charger arrived first, so I’ve had it for a couple of weeks now, but I have yet to use it. That’s because I’m not entirely sure what existing charging solution it could replace.
Every night, I dock my iPhone on a dual (Apple Watch + iPhone) charger from Twelve South that works perfectly fine. And during the day, I don’t charge my iPhone unless I’m in the car. In that case, I need to use a Lightning Cable for CarPlay to work.
So for now, it’ll stay in my drawer, waiting for its big day!
On the other hand, I’ve used the MagSafe wallet every day since it arrived.
I used to use a minimalist wallet that held only a handful of credit cards and some bills. So switching from that to another minimalist wallet wasn’t a big deal for me. What I love about the new MagSafe wallet is that it sticks to the back of my iPhone. Practically, that means I have to carry one less thing.
In other words, I went from three pieces (iPhone, car key, wallet) to two.
In case you’re wondering, the magnetic force between the iPhone and the wallet is relatively strong. That means the wallet is unlikely to come off, even if you pull on it lightly. However, it easily “slides” off, because magnetic forces aren’t equally strong in all directions.
In other words, you have to be careful when sliding the iPhone into your pocket because you might accidentally “scrape off” the wallet. I don’t wear skinny jeans with super tight pockets, but I’ve still had that happen a few times — even with loose-fitting pants (like sweatpants).
Each of the new iPhone 12 models comes in a slimmer package because Apple removed the 5W charging brick and the headphones from the box. So my iPhone 12 Pro Max only came with a USB-C to Lightning Cable.
I don’t mind that because I never used the 5W adapter or the EarPods (I have AirPods Pro). But I could see it being an issue for first-time iPhone users.
If that’s you, I highly recommend getting an 18W charging brick from Apple (or any of the other accessory makers) because it’s so much faster to charge your iPhone from 0 to 100 than with a 5W adapter.
Overall, I think removing those accessories from the box was the right move — in particular, from an environmental perspective.
iPhone 11 Pro vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max + What Hasn’t Changed
As I mentioned above, the main drivers that led me to upgrade my iPhone 11 Pro to the iPhone 12 Pro Max were the longer battery life, the camera improvements and the larger screen.
Plus, my wife had my old iPhone XS and was due for an upgrade too. Now she’s the happy owner of my old iPhone 11 Pro, and she loves it.
Overall, both the new and old iPhones have more features in common than you might think. For example, there are no additional sensors, no always-on display, no USB-C port, the same speakers and TrueDepth camera, the same flash and the same glass on the back.
They also have the same speakers even though some users have reported that the iPhone 12 Pro Max sounds louder. Maybe that’s because of the larger body of the iPhone or because the speakers are more spread out, thus creating a wider sound array.
Both the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro (Max) are also “world” phones that support various global cellular technologies. Both also have a dual-sim card, with one physical SIM and a virtual one. I used the virtual SIM for the first time last year when we went to Europe.
Using an app like GigSky (use code MKPU100 to get $5 off), you can easily add a virtual SIM card for any supported country. I used the app during our trip to Europe last year and it worked perfectly.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does the iPhone 12 Pro Max compare to flagship Android phones?
Honestly, I’m not an Android user and everything I know about Android is based on second-hand experience.
I won’t get into a discussion here about what’s the better platform, but I’ve noticed that Android tends to process the photos you take differently to make the final JPEG image look “better.” By that I mean you’ll get a photo that has more saturated colors, etc.
That approach has some pros and cons. On the bright side, you can often use the image as-is, without editing it or applying a filter. On the downside, that overprocessing limits your creative control.
Personally, I prefer more natural-looking images that I can edit the way I want. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to shoot in ProRAW, which results in minimally-processed images that I can process exactly the way I want to.
What’s the LiDAR sensor on the iPhone 12 Pro (Max) for?
The LiDAR sensor helps the iPhone see better in low or no-light situations, thus dramatically improving the speed of the autofocus sensor and low-light performance overall. Thanks to LiDAR, the iPhone 12 Pro (Max) can take beautiful portrait images with a blurred out background in low-light situations.
Is Face ID faster on the iPhone 12 Pro?
I haven’t noticed any significant difference between my iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max.
Does the iPhone 12 Pro Max have a smaller battery than its predecessor?
Yes, the new iPhone 12 Pro Max does indeed have a smaller battery than the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Apple has reduced the capacity from 3,969 mAh to 3,687 mAh, but apparently made up for that by improving the energy efficiency of the new iPhones. I assume the A14 Bionic chip plays a major role here.
Is MagSafe compatible with the Qi wireless charging standard?
Yes and no. While the new iPhone 12 models are fully Qi-compatible, the charging speed when using a Qi-compatible charger is still limited to the maximum power output of 7.5W — much like the iPhone 11 Pro. To use 15W charging, you have to use MagSafe, which is proprietary technology that doesn’t use the Qi standard.
I love my iPhone 12 Pro Max and I’m glad I made the decision to go with the larger iPhone this year.
I’m especially relieved that the larger iPhone doesn’t feel too large in my hands or my pockets, as this was my major concern before placing the order.
I absolutely love the longer battery life and the quality of pictures and videos I get from the new camera system, especially in low-light situations.
The big question is whether upgrading to the new iPhone is worth it. While I hope the information I provided above can help you make that decision, it ultimately depends on what generation iPhone you currently have and whether or not the new iPhone has any features you absolutely need (or want).
For me, the main upgrade driver is usually the camera because I want to be able to take the best photos and videos possible. So if camera performance is important for you and you currently have an older iPhone (iPhone Xs or prior), I’d consider upgrading to either the iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max.
If you have an iPhone 11 Pro already, I wouldn’t bother with the standard-size iPhone 12 Pro because the camera system is almost identical. Instead, I’d go with the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
If you own a new iPhone already, let me know in the comments what model you got and what you like and dislike about it!
I’m a healthy living and technology enthusiast.
On this blog, I share in-depth product reviews, actionable information and solutions to complex problems in plain and easy-to-understand language.