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iPhone 12 Pro Max Reviews: Apple finally has the best camera again

Though it’s not that big a victory..

This year’s iPhone line was topped off by the iPhone 12 Pro Max, a large phone with a full name that seemed as ostentatious as it is loud in design and principle. The phone’s reviews dropped a few weeks ago and we spent our time analyzing them since. And what’s our take on it? Well, if you want a great camera, go for it. Otherwise you’re not getting much else above the regular iPhone 12 Pro.
Now let’s be clear, I’m not saying the 12 Pro Max is a bad phone. Rather the opposite actually, because if you see the review above, or the one later on in this video, one thing is very clear: this is a great phone, with a huge screen and a crazy good battery. It’s also the only iPhone 12 to come with a significant camera upgrade over the iPhone 11 line from last year, and outside of the battery that’s probably the biggest reason to buy it. Its heft might also be a negative factor, but chances are if you’re buying a phone almost the size of a small tablet you already factored that in. This isn’t a phone you buy if you have small hands. That’s what the iPhone 12 Mini is for. The 12 Pro max is instead a mobile media powerhouse, made for creating and viewing content within the confines of Apple’s ecosystem, and if the starting price of USD $1100 (in the US) doesn’t somehow scare you, then yeah it’s probably a phone you’ll want to have, even though the normal 12 Pro pretty much does everything it does, and is only really beaten when it comes to the camera. So maybe it’s time we talk about that camera.
Last year we talked about how the iPhone 11 Pro was Apple’s shot at taking back its “best camera” title. A title it holds among popular culture and yet has rarely earned. We talked about this during the iPhone 11 Pro article as well but I’ll give you the long and short of it. Simple put, iPhones don’t have the best cameras, or at least they often times don’t. Arguably the only year Apple had earned that title was 2014 with the iPhone 6 and 6+. 2010 had the Nokia N8 , 2011 the Nokia 808 Pureview , 2012 the Lumia 920, 2013 the Lumia 1020, and 2015 had Sony’s Xperia Line dominating the camera space. 2016 had the Pixel come from out of nowhere and 2017 had the Pixel 2 asserting that smartphone line’s dominance through computational photography, 2018 still had the Pixel 3 on top with Huawei bringing some heat with the P40 and Mate 40’s hardware enhancements, and finally we had 2019 where Apple had seemingly had enough and brought the best of Huawei and Google approaches, with both improved hardware and software that could match Google’s image processing algorithms. Simply put, the iPhone 11 put Apple back in the fight, but Google still managed to defend their reign with the Pixel 4 and it’s increments which were just enough to be on par with Apple. This year though, Google took a step back with the Pixel 5, essentially bringing the same camera from last year with some slight tweaks and a wide-angle lens. And while the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra made an honest effort to crack the top 2, it still wasn’t enough as Apple seemingly capitalized on this opportunity and made the 12 Pro Max hands down the best smartphone camera of this year. And how did they do that? Well while the other iPhone 12’s simply added an incremental update to the main lens on their cameras , the Pro Max took it a step further and by adding a bigger sensor to the main camera, essentially allowing it to capture more light and process noise better. Which sounds like a minor change but combine this with Apple’s already top-notch image processing , the new sensor shift stabilization and honestly the best video cameras on a phone for years, and Apple’s built the best camera package for pretty much anyone who wants an easy to use, very reliable camera that produces top tier photos all of the time.

 

So why did I say the victory is not that significant at the top of this article? Well because all things considered, it kind of isn’t. The top tier of smartphone cameras has been competitive for the past three years now and it seems that this year since every huge player is at their peak, it’s near insignificant to say who the best is unless you’re a reviewer or camera nerd like me. The Verge’s video at the top points this out. You see the 12 Pro Max is competing with the Pixel 5 , Note 20 Ultra, The Pixel 4a 5G, technically the Huawei Mate 40 Pro and even the iPhone 11 Pro Max ,12 Pro and last year’s Pixel 4. Those are a lot of phones with some different perks and capabilities, but just based on multiple tests around the web, they tend to land at very similar points now. Barring Huawei’s specialized hardware based processing and Samsung’s very saturated colors, the Pixel and iPhone pictures (which are essentially the leaders of the pack) look almost the same with the 12 Pro Max only pulling ahead in edge cases such as night shots or details on really small objects. Everything else is relative to specialized features like the zoom lens on the Note 20 or Google’s special portrait mode features. And thus the victory of the 12 Pro Max is a little hollow, because this is the best camera you can buy yes but chances are if you buy any of these others you wouldn’t be found lacking either. It doesn’t mean some people won’t find use for this camera, after all camera nerds like me exist for a reason, but it makes the headlining feature on this phone a little more niche. And considering that everything else is just a bigger version of what you get on the normal 12 Pro, well it dampens the need for this phone too.
And thus that pretty much sums up my thoughts for the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It’s a great phone, and has a greater camera. But it’s also more of an outlier than perhaps almost any iPhone before it, something more niche than mainstream. People will still buy it of course, and I think everyone who will enjoy what they got (especially if they have big hands). But ironically enough it makes the previously criticized 12 Pro seem like a better buy now, or even better yet, still max the 11 Pro Max look like a bargain too. It’s an interesting point to be in if you’re an Apple fan, and how you respond to it is all up to you in the end.

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