Apple makes a big leap with the iPhone 14 Pro Max

When Apple unveils the annual iteration of its flagship smartphone, the company’s honchos tout it the same way: It’s the best iPhone, ever.

That’s actually an easy claim to make. The iPhone advances by inches and feet most years, and it’s always at least a little better than its predecessor.

But occasionally, there’s a leap. Sometimes, that leap is unexpected.

I bought an iPhone 14 Pro Max, the flagship device in the 2022 lineup. I was expecting the usual incremental improvements over the 13 Pro Max, but as I have used the new phone, I’ve come to realize that this is one of those years when the whole of its updates is greater than the sum of its parts.

Apple has long insisted that controlling both the hardware and software makes for a better experience. Its critics and competitors claim that as a “walled garden,” discouraging users from diverging from the Apple Way.

Both statements are true; which you embrace depends on what you value about technology and how you use it.

After living with the 14 Pro Max for a while, I’m comfortable saying that this year’s model is the best example in years of Apple’s strategy firing on all cylinders. This is a great smartphone, largely because of the way its improved hardware works with iOS 16, the recently released version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

Yep, this Pro Max looks a lot like last year’s. Yes, the chips inside boast low-double-digit-percentage performance gains. Sure, the cameras in the Pro line have been beefed up with four times the number of pixels, but for day-to-day photography, they’re conservatively employed. And the new operating system gives you more control over the lock screen and transforms the Pro iPhones’ display notch into a fluid, pulsing Dynamic Island.

Individually, these things elicit a “well, OK, that’s cool” kind of reaction. Together, though, they give the iPhone 14 Pro models a different feel from the previous versions.

In this review, I’m not going to outline each feature of the phone – there are dozens of online reviews that will give you a blow-by-blow – but rather I’ll focus on how this confluence of hardware, software and design results in a better product.

the lineup

The Pro Max model I own is one of four released this month. Two are considered “standard” iPhones, while the other two are Pro models. This year, the Pros see the most improvement, effectively forking the lineup.

The plain-vanilla 14 starts at $799, has a 6.1-inch display and is not all that different from the iPhone 13. The 14 Plus has the same 6.7-inch display as the Pro Max, along with the internals of the standard 14, but costs substantially less. It starts at $899.

The two lower-end phones get some improvements to the two-camera array on the back and the selfie camera up front. Like the Pros, they also have car-crash detection and the ability to communicate via satellite in an emergency.

The iPhone 14 Pro is the same size as the standard 14 and starts at $999. The Pro Max starts at $1,099.

This review focuses on the 14 Pro Max; except for screen size, it also applies to the 14 Pro.

The design

This is the third year for Apple’s current iPhone design, which has flat, squared off sides and rounded corners. The Pros come in four muted colors, wrapped in a stainless steel frame: Silver, gold, space black and deep purple, the color I chose. Depending on how the light hits it, it either looks very purple, more like lavender or sometimes a steely gray.

The 14 Pros look a lot like the 13 Pros, but the main difference is the camera array. Because of a larger sensor in the main camera and an improved optical telephoto lens, the cameras are noticeably taller. Cases for these phones include a deep lip around the camera bump to protect the lenses.

The speed

One of the most surprising things about the iPhone 14 Pro Max is that it feels faster than the 13. When the 14 lineup was announced, most analysts expected the new A16 Bionic processor in the Pros (the standard 14 models get a tweaked version of last year’s A15 chip) to be a modest update.

But everything on this phone feels noticeably zippier and smoother, from scrolling to launching apps to snapping photos to playing games. The performance leap feels greater than that of the 12 Pro Max to the 13 Pro Max.

Speed ​​boosts extends to the phone’s connectivity, with one exception. The 14 line uses the latest 5G modem chip from Qualcomm, and I’m seeing faster cellular speeds even with minimal bars on T-Mobile’s network. But the 14 lineup, unlike competing phones from Google and Samsung, doesn’t support the latest version of Wi-Fi, which is Wi-Fi 6E. While its Wi-Fi 6 is no slouch, it surprises me that Apple has passed on 6E, given that Samsung’s Galaxy S line has had it for two years.

The display and the Dynamic Island

I wrote about the Dynamic Island shortly after the iPhone 14 launch in early September (see, so I won’t go into detail about it here. But this conversion of the much-maligned notch at the top of iPhone screens into a, well, dynamic component that morphs as needed for notifications, status reports, alerts and applets is the perfect example of Apple’s ability to integrate hardware and software.

For now, not a lot of third-party apps take advantage of it, and it feels a little underwhelming. But that will change, and soon.

As with the previous Pro line, these new iPhones have a 120-Hz ProMotion display for smooth scrolling. The screen is brighter and more fluid on the 14 Pro Max, and scrolling is more responsive. That refresh rate is adaptable, slowing to as little as 1 Hz to save battery life, which is used with the new, always-on lock screen, complementing iOS 16’s customization and widgets.

Some Android phones have long had an always-on display on the lock screen, though with Apple’s custom fonts and widgetry, it’s a more dynamic fire. And so far, I am happy to report that I’ve seen no impact on battery life. Based on what I’ve seen so far, the 14 Pro Max is getting a solid two days worth of charge based on my normal usage, which is better than the 13. The always-on display doesn’t seem to be a factor.

The cameras

Though all four cameras on the iPhone 14 Pro models – three in the back, and the selfie-cam up front – have all been improved, and the image processing hardware (now called the Photonic Engine) makes powerful computing tweaks to images sooner when you take a picture.

The main or wide camera gets the biggest change. For years, iPhones have had 12-megapixel main cameras, but with the 14 Pro models that jump to 48 MP. But in most cases, when you snap a photo, you’re still only using 12 MP – the iPhone, as do a lot of competing smartphones with many megapixels, combine four of them into one larger megapixel, a trick known as pixel binning. This lets in more light, improving the overall quality of photos, particularly in darkness.

Indeed, the low-light photos in the iPhone 14 Pro Max are excellent. Apple’s Night Mode, which uses a slow shutter and computational photography to create stunning night images, is much improved. And often the Night Mode process is not needed at all. The bigger sensor takes in enough light that it isn’t triggered, when it would have been on the 13.

The only time with Apple’s Camera app that you can take a photo using all 48 MP is if you save files in the ProRAW format. This is a version of the RAW format used by pro photographers to capture as much digital information as possible. But other camera apps available for the iPhone will let you use all 48 megapixels at will, even for JPGs. Check out the Camera+ and Halide Mark II apps, which give your iPhone’s camera professional-level control.

For video fans, the new iPhone can shoot in 8K resolution – but again, the resulting files will take up a lot of space.

Should you upgrade?

So if you’re a current iPhone user, should you get an iPhone 14 Pro Max? First, read the column I wrote in August about who should (and shouldn’t) upgrade (see Much of that advice still stands.

In the past, I would have said that folks who own very recent generations won’t notice much difference when using the current iPhone. With the 14 Pro Max, that’s not the case. So if you’ve got an 11, 12 or 13, this is now an upgrade worth considering, if your budget allows. That comes as a surprise; indeed, I am surprised to find myself writing it.

But really, it’s that good.

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