apple,  iphone 12

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max First Week Hands On Impressions

Source: Apple, Inc.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is one of four new iPhone models that Apple has released as part of the new 2020 smartphone lineup. iPhone 12 Pro Max joins its smaller siblings, the iPhone mini, the iPhone 12, and the iPhone 12 Pro.

Who is the iPhone 12 Pro Max for? you might be asking. In my opinion, the answer to this question is a nuanced one. I feel that iPhone 12 Pro Max is for the person who is a heavy iPhone user and wants the largest possible battery without the need to power packs or add-on battery cases. It is for the person who wants the absolute best camera technology that Apple has to offer. It's for the person who prefers to use their iPhone for most computing needs without having to move to an iPad or Mac. And, in my case, it is for tech nerds who want an iPhone with the highest tech spec numbers.

In this blog post, I wanted to focus on my first impressions of the iPhone 12 Pro Max from launch day through my first week of use.

iPhone 12 Pro Launch Day

I like to think of iPhone launch day as my Apple community day. You often hear about software developers, journalists, bloggers and podcasters talking about the camaraderie and social networking of Apple's annual WWDC conference. I'm not a software developer and therefore cannot justify the expense of making the trip to California each year. Just as COVID-19 threw a bucket of cold water on this year's in-person WWDC, so too did it seriously dampen my mood about getting my new iPhone.

My pre-order went smoothly enough. The entire process lasted about one minute using the iOS Apple Store app. Gone are the days of trying to stay up or waking up at 3:00am EST to order a new iPhone for launch day. Gone are the stressful minutes, or hours, trying to verify your cellular contract information amid wireless providers web server meltdowns in the middle of the checkout process. Ordering my Pacific Blue 256GB iPhone 12 Pro Max was super easy in 2020 and I was able to get an 8:00am pickup reservation at my local Apple Store.

Dad and I waiting in the iPhone 12 Pro Max pre-order pickup "line".

On launch day, reservation windows had been reduced to 15-minute slots. Down from the 30-minute windows of previous years. Again, with COVID-19, this is understandable. My Dad, who placed his order a few minutes after mine, was bumped back to an 8:30am slot. We didn't know what that meant. Was Apple greatly restricting how many people could be grouped together into a time slot (probably) or were the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max, both of which went on sale at the same time, generating a lot of interest from enthusiasts for the smallest and largest iPhone 12? We didn't know.

We decided to arrive at our local Apple Store at 7:00am. The mall was like a ghost town, and not at all like previous launch days. Apple Store staff where there as was a regional manager. Extra security was present to take temperatures. And that was about it. It was just my Dad and I and a few people in the standby line. We did chat a little bit with the staff that we know and one of the staff brought over a small tray of tester iPhones to play with. It was a weird feeling being so excited that I was privileged enough to be able to buy a new iPhone while the party-like atmosphere was completely absent.

Left to Right: iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone (Original)

At 8:00am, we were called into the store. A few more people had gathered in both the reservations and stand by lines. I had my MacBook Pro with me in anticipation of being able to activate my iPhone while in the store. I unboxed my new iPhone 12 Pro Max with the energy of a child on Christmas morning. (Thankfully, there were no pink rabbit pajamas.) Any apprehensions that I had about getting the Pacific Blue iPhone over the Silver iPhone immediately disappeared. While I have a preference for Navy Blue - Grassia Standard Blue - went away. Because, you know, it's 2020, the Apple Store staff were having trouble with activating my new iPhone 12 Pro Max on Sprint, now part of the T-Mobile family due to some crazy back end problem that was out of their control. When I finally got home, I was able to activate my iPhone 12 Pro Max using the automated assistant on the Sprint website. Dad's iPhone 12 Pro Max activation on Verizon worked without issue. And so, while we both were able to get our phones, and my Dad and I were able to go into the store to get our new iPhones, this year's launch lacked much of the community aspect, which took something away from the day.

Colors

For the 2020 iPhone 12 family, Apple is offering their devices in two distinct sets of colors and finishes along their consumer and professional lines. What does it mean to be a professional smartphone in 2020? I don't know. I just chalk professional up to be marketing speak for more expensive.

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini come in five colors: White, Black, Blue, Green, and (PRODUCT)RED. iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max come in four colors: Graphite, Silver, Gold, and the new Pacific Blue, which replaces last year's Midnight Green. Where the non-Pro iPhones colors are bright and vibrant, the Pro models have more muted colors. The stainless steel bands on the Pro models are surprisingly shiny and add a nice accent flare to the phones.

When I had read the rumors the last several months that there would be new blue color, I was pretty excited about the idea of getting a Navy Blue iPhone. The blue colors we go are not the blue color that I had in my mind. This touched off a weeks long Silver vs. Pacific Blue internal debate running from the Apple event in October right up until pre-order week in November. I finally decided on the Pacific Blue model about 48 hours before iPhone 12 Pro Max pre-orders started. It is a nice color, even if it isn't my preferred Navy Blue. Part of my debating over the color had to do with the iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max looking different in every pre-release photo I saw. Apple's use of dark shades in this year's product pages on Apple.com were way to dark in my opinion. When I am about to spend the kind of money that Apple chargers for their Pro iPhones, I want to be able to clearly see the product they are selling. Throw COVID-19 distancing protocols on top, and for all practical intents, you couldn't get in the store to see the already shipping iPhone 12 Pro before iPhone 12 Pro Max pre-orders going live. The what-color-is-it game continues even after purchasing my iPhone 12 Pro Max. Sometimes I look at my iPhone 12 Pro Max and it looks like a slate grey. Other times, under different lighting conditions I feel like it looks more like a darker blue. It's weird. In the end, am glad that I picked Pacific Blue. The big color question now is: what color leather case should I get? Baltic Blue isn't Pacific Blue and Navy Blue is only available in the silicone case.

iPhone 12 Pro Max Physical Design

Left to right: iPhone 4, iPhone 5s, and iPhone 12 Pro Max

The iPhone 12 Pro Max, as the name implies, is physically the largest iPhone on sale this year. I had been a member of the "Plus Club" (#MykeWasRight) having purchased the iPhone 6S Plus and the iPhone 7 Plus, so I knew what I was going to be in for with the Pro Max. If you are looking for an iPhone that you can use one-handed, look at one of the other three iPhones 12 models. Having returned to the larger iPhone, there has been a lot of iPhone gymnastics going on this past week; a potentially risky situation especially for me since I do not buy AppleCare+ for my iPhones. I refuse to sully the aesthetics of iPhone with a PopSocket. At best, with the iPhone 12 Pro Max resting on my pinkie finger, I can reach to about the middle of the screen with my thumb. In the hand, iPhone 12 Pro Max feels taller than iPhone 11 Pro, the phone I'm upgrading from, but does not feel top heavy.

Over the last three years, I have been using the iPhone X-style Pro model iPhones with their 5.8-inch diagonal screens. That was larger than the 5.5-inch screens in the Plus models. Thanks to Apple's edge-to-edge OLED displays, the iPhone X-series iPhones were able to deliver Plus size displays in a smaller handset which I have really come to like. With the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Apple was able to deliver an iPhone with a 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR display, with a screen resolution of 2778 x 1284 and 458 pixels per inch. All of this is to say that Apple has developed a larger display while keeping the same approximate footprint as the iPhone 7 Plus. (There are other Plus and Max sized iPhones, however, I am using the iPhone 7 Plus as a reference because it is the one I have in my collection.) I find the larger display in the Pro Max to be more immersive than that of my iPhone 11 Pro. During the day, I find that the iPhone 12 Pro Max's screen is both bright and crisp in both outdoor and indoor lighting conditions. I feel that reading content like newspaper articles on iPhone 12 Pro Max is a better experience. Normally, I wind down at the end of the day watching some of my favorite video content in bed with my 10.5-inch iPad Pro. For the past week, I have been using the Pro Max. In a darkened room, the OLED display really looks good in my opinion. Colors look brighter and the blacks look inky black. Regardless of whether I'm watching an archival NASA video or a recent superhero movie, the display on iPhone doesn't disappoint. I am looking forward to a future iPad Pro model that has a Micro LED screen which will more closely replicate the color contrast without the light bleed through of OLED displays.

With the introduction of the iPhone 12 product line, Apple has returned to the class, perhaps retro, look of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5-series iPhones. Together, I used the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5S as my daily carry iPhones for about three years. I really enjoyed their straight lines and sleek look. While I enjoyed using the iPhones in between the iPhone 6 and iPhone 11 Pro Max, I really disliked the rounded edge sides. My iPhones have gone flying off of desks, tables, and nightstands more times than I care to admit. I am really excited for the return of the peace of mind that flat sides bring while picking up my iPhone. I think the iPhone 12-series has a refined look and feel that builds on the design of the iPhone 4 and 5. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has the same flat sides as its predecessor iPhones. Unlike the earlier iPhones, iPhone 12 Pro Max has front and back glass that are flush with the stainless steel band around the iPhone. iPhone 4 has more of an ice cream sandwich where the front and back glass rise above the metal antenna band. iPhone 5 got closer to the flush design of the iPhone 12 by using a chamfered antenna band. With iPhone 12, Apple rounded the steel band, so it doesn’t feel sharp in the hand while keeping metal and glass flush with one another. iPhone 12 replaces the round volume control buttons with rounded rectangles which I think makes them easier to find and press in such a tall iPhone when I am not using my AirPods. Rounded sides vs. flat sides as the true iPhone design debate aside, in my personal opinion, I prefer the look and feel of flat sides and am looking forward to this design for the next few years to come.

iPhone 12 Pro Max Camera System

My decision to move up to the Pro Max this year included a few different factors. Screen size was one. OLED was another. The larger physical battery definitely makes the list; however, I don't consider myself a heavy iPhone user. I think that the single technical specification that drove me to the iPhone 12 Pro Max over the iPhone 12 Pro is the new camera system. I am no camera nerd. By spec lists, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the best camera system Apple has to offer in their lineup. The iPhone 12 Pro Max camera system is by no means the best camera system out there. Arguably, the computational photography and machine learning that Google packs into Android is better than Apple's. If you are looking for the best optical zoom, you will want to look at the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra with its 5x optical zoom or the 50 optical zoom on the Huawei P40 Pro Plus. For advanced as these niche flagship phones are, they don't run iOS, and therefore are deal breakers.

iPhone 12 Pro Max photo, cropped, without color correction.

iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 2.5x optical zoom on the telephoto lens and optical image stabilization on the sensor. Previous OIS was done by floating the lens, but in iPhone 12 Pro Max, it is the sensor itself that floats. The camera specs listed on Apple's website for the iPhone 12 Pro Max's camera system sound impressive to the uninitiated camera user like me. For me, I just want the best possible camera that I can carry around with me in an iOS device.

Battery Life

With a larger iPhone comes a physically larger battery. The energy needed to drive a physically larger screen is one reason for using a larger battery. According to a blog post written by Joe Rossignol for MacRumors, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 3,687 mAh battery. iMore's Joe Wituschek notes that the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro share the same 2,815mAh battery. For comparison, Rossignol reports that the iPhone 11 Pro Max's battery was rated at 3,969. In a separate post for MacRumors, Rossignol writes that the iPhone 11 Pro has a 3,046 mAh battery on board. The battery rating break down like this:

These look like the kind of stats that you would expect to find on the back of a baseball card. But what does all of this mean for everyday usage? I am not a heavy iPhone user by any stretch of the imagination. When I am home, I prefer my 10.5-inch iPad Pro. For the past week though, I have been using the iPhone 12 Pro Max almost exclusively, spending about four hours a day on iPhone, which works out to be about 185% increase according to Screen Time. I have a typical usage pattern. My usage primarily consists of browsing the web with Safari, reading newspapers (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a local paper) in their native iOS apps, listening to locally stored and streaming podcasts and music in Overcast and the Apple Music app, respectively, with and without AirPlay 2 or my AirPods. I use Tweetbot to check in on Twitter. You get the idea. Setting aside that the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a brand new battery which is operating at peak performance, I was getting about 2.5 - 3 days of battery life out of the Pro Max. I didn't get anywhere near the 20% mark to shift into low power mode. Obviously, our usage patterns will vary and so will our results.

iPhone 12 Pro Max Accessories

I am not a fan of the massive camera bump, or should I say, camera plateau, in an iPhone to date. There is no way that iPhone 12 Pro Max will lay flat on a desk when it is face up. With previous iPhones with a camera bump, the first-party Apple cases leveled out the iPhone so it would lay flat. Not true with the iPhone 12 Pro Max Apple cases. I purchased the Apple Clear Case with MagSafe for launch day. I was saddened to see that there is a plastic ridge that extends up above the camera lenses. The iPhone XR Apple Clear Case also suffers from this same affliction. I'm sure that there are other third-party cases that offer a case that sits flush with the camera bump, but I am disappointed that there does not appear to be a first-party case option that allows iPhone 12 to lay flat on my desk.

Unfortunately, the ridge around the camera cutout is not my only problem with the Apple Clear Case with MagSafe. The bottom edge of the case has a protrusion that extends out beyond the stainless steel antenna band. If you were to try to stand the iPhone 12 Pro Max up along the bottom edge with the Clear Case with MagSafe on, the phone would tilt toward you. This is no doubt for added drop protection for the bottom corners and bottom edge. When holding the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the grip I have settled on is one such that I hold the edges with my thumb, middle, and ring fingers, with my index finger providing support on the back and my pinkie finger is left at the load balancing finger. Which is fine for short periods of time, but for that plastic ridge along the bottom starts to irritate my finger. This isn't simply a case of Apple arrogance and customers holding their iPhones wrong. The iPhone XR Clear Case has a much smaller ridge that doesn't cause discomfort while holding it. For the sake of argument, I will grant you that the iPhone XR's aluminum body frame helps make it lighter than the iPhone 12 Pro Max and it's stainless steel frame. That said, I would have much preferred if the Clear Case with MagSafe bottom ridge sat flush with the bottom edge of the iPhone.

This ridge can dig into your load bearing finger.

This are nit-picky details to be sure. For the cost of iPhone 12 Pro Max and upscaled pricing for accessories, I feel that iPhone 12 Pro Max should not leave me with these grating annoyances that remind me of a table with an uneven leg. If you are the kind of person who will find these details annoying also, Nomad and Spigen have some handsome looking cases without the annoying ridges.

Starting with iPhone 12 is a new line of accessories using the new MagSafe system. Long time Apple followers will recall the beloved and now discontinued MagSafe and MagSafe 2 MacBook charging system. While the two charging systems share the same name, they are not the same thing. MagSafe accessories for the iPhone 12 family do more than just charge your phone. MagSafe now includes a family of products including chargers, cases, and accessories such as wallets and mounting accessories.

As the name implies, MagSafe works by embedding magnets in the iPhone 12 body and in the accessories. Along with the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Clear Case, I also purchased an Apple MagSafe Charger to use with my MacBook Pro USB-C charging brick that I keep on my desk. There is a satisfying thunk sound when the MagSafe Charger mates up with the iPhone 12 Pro Max with or without its case on. The key takeaway when reading about the MagSafe Charger is that the charging pad will always properly align to allow inductive charging to begin. iOS 14 now has a large animated graphic that popup on screen to show that charging has begun. I personally haven't experienced any alignment problems charging my Qi compatible iPhones on my Mophie Wireless Charging Base, but I can see how this could be problem for people who use their iPhone caseless or get a lot of notifications when vibration is turned on. For these folks, MagSafe is clearly the answer. I should also note that MagSafe is not compatible with Apple Watch. My biggest complaint with the MagSafe Charger is that the permanently attached charge cable feels thin and flimsy compared with the USB-C charging cable that comes with the MacBook Pro and the Apple USB-C to Lightening cable. For $39 for a charger without a power brick, I expect a better cable.

The AirPower charging mat, which was ultimately killed between announcement and becoming a shipping product would have solved the dream of having one first-party charging solution for iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods. The unfortunate reality for AirPower was that thermals and physics kept it from existing. Apple's new MagSafe Duo Charger will charge an iPhone or AirPods and a Watch, but not all three at the same time.

MagSafe accessories are stackable, meaning that you can put your iPhone 12 into a MagSafe case and then attach a second MagSafe accessory such as the MagSafe Charger or the Leather Wallet with MagSafe. Obviously, you can't use a MagSafe Charger through the Leather Wallet Case. Your mag stripe cards will thank you.

While the magnets used in the MagSafe system for iPhone 12 is strong enough to hold a case or MagSafe charger in place, I am not prepared to trust important cards like a driver's license or credit card to the Apple Leather Wallet with MagSafe. The wallet case is shielded from the magnets, so there is practically no risk of demagnetizing your cards. However, with testing on my MagSafe Charger puck, I am easily able to disengage the magnets with a small amount of force on the edge of the puck as I pick up my iPhone. There are also lots of videos on YouTube of reviewers shoving their iPhone 12 into jeans pockets and having the wallet case slide right off. if I ever get back to a point where I am wearing dress pants or suits to work on a regular basis, I might revisit the wallet case for my business ID card with a company issued iPhone 12. Until then, my cards will remain in my traditional wallet.

5G Cellular Service

Source: Apple, Inc.

Have you heard? With Verizon 5G and the iPhone 12, 5G Ultra Wideband cellular data just got real?! If you watched the Apple "Hi, Speed" keynote presentation, you know how over the top Apple and Verizon were about promoting the benefits of 5G. On Verizon. And others. But mostly Verizon 5G Ultra-Wideband. Only from Verizon.

Of all the technical features of iPhone 12, from the new industrial design, the new Pacific Blue color, the incredibly powerful A14 Bionic system on a chip, cameras, and MagSafe, high speed 5G cellular networking from Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile/Sprint just doesn't get me out of bed in the morning. Or any other time of day, really. Look, if you have a new iPhone 12 - all of which have 5G radios in them - and you happen to be in precisely the right spot, you can get incredibly fast download speeds. There are a lot of caveats to getting the kinds of download speeds that wireless carriers, and Apple, are shamelessly promoting, in my opinion. Don't take my word for it. Just watch Joanna Stern's comical video on 5G for the Wall Street Journal. Marques Brownlee also has a fantastic 5G explanation video. You will note that both reviewers claim that under perfect conditions, download speeds can be well over 1,000Mbps. Upload speeds and battery life can be subpar. Also, sustained use of the 5G radio will cause the 5G phones to potentially heat up depending on how hard they are working to maintain that super-fast connection. In my limited testing near my house, near my office, and at my daughter's college campus dorm, I was getting SpeedTest results of 181Mbps, 132Mbps, and 144Mbps respectively. Clearly, the best days for 5G are still ahead of us. All complaining about 5G aside, I have noticed that I am now usually getting 3-bars of 4G LTE signal where I was only usually getting 1-bar of coverage on my iPhone 11 Pro. Naturally, your mileage will vary based on your location and use cases.

Buying Advice

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the new iPhone 12, starting at $629, is the iPhone that most people should by. Apple's 2020 line up of iPhones offer customers seven different handsets and price points to choose from. Add in zero-interest monthly payment options from Apple and wireless carriers, and most people who would like a new iPhone this year can find one that will fit their budget. If you know you want an iPhone 12 Pro Max, you can place an order today on Apple.com. Pricing starts at $1,099 for the 128GB version, $1,199 for the 256GB model, and tops out at $1,399 for the max-ist Max model. Unlike previous year's iPhones, Apple no longer packs a charging brick in the box and has changed the included charging cable from Lightening to USB-C. For nerds, that will be fine as a lot of us have USB-C charging bricks and cables already. If you haven't purchased a new iPhone in a while, you will want to plan to get a $19 20W USB-C Power Adapter too. A MacBook Pro or iPad Pro USB-C power adapter seems to work fine too if you have one handy.

2020 iPhone Family line up pricing, Source: Apple, Inc.

If you have a 2018 iPhone XS Max or 2019 iPhone 11 Pro Max, there are very few reasons to upgrade to the iPhone 12 Pro Max outside of a desire to have the newest of new iPhones. If you have iPhone 8 Plus or older iPhone, and you don't mind making the move from Touch ID to Face ID, now is a great time to upgrade. If you feel that a 6.7-inch diagonal screen is just too much iPhone for you, then consider the physically smaller iPhone 12 mini or iPhone SE (2020). If 2020 is your year to upgrade to a new iPhone, I suggest that you get the best iPhone you can afford and enjoy it for all it is worth for as long as you can before upgrading again without regret.

For a tech nerd like me, the siren call of what's new and what's next is too strong to ignore. I am already looking forward to my Dad and I standing in line next year.