iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12 Pro Max hands-on: How they compare with the 12 and 12 Pro

November 13, 2020 by No Comments

Two weeks ago, we published a double-review of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro—but those two phones were only half of Apple’s new lineup. The extra-small iPhone 12 mini and extra-large iPhone 12 Pro Max are out today, and we’ve spent some time with both of them.

We’ll go over the key differences between these two models and the phones we already reviewed—and only those key differences. Consider this a short supplement to the previously published iPhone 12 review; unless otherwise noted here, everything we wrote about the 12 applies to the 12 mini, and the same goes for the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max.

For the most part, size is the only difference between these phones and the two 6.1-inch devices that shipped before. But there are some other differences—most notably, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has some camera improvements, which we’ll talk about.

Let’s start with a phone I’ve been personally anticipating for a long time: the iPhone 12 mini.

iPhone 12 mini: A smaller iPhone 12—no less, no more

If you’ve read any of my other iPhone reviews in the past few years, you know I’ve been wishing for Apple to add a one-handed phone to its lineup. And while the 2020 iPhone SE is a very good midrange smartphone, it wasn’t what I and so many other people really wanted: a flagship phone in a one-handed form factor, like the iPhones of yore. (Well, if 2013 counts as “yore,” anyway.)

That’s exactly what the iPhone 12 mini is. It has the same OLED screen (just a little bit fewer pixels close to proportional to the smaller screen) and camera system as its larger cousin. In fact, all the specs are the same. All the features are the same. It’s the same phone, but smaller.

It helps the 12 mini’s appeal that the distinction between the 12 and the 12 Pro is so small. Yeah, if you wanted to nitpick, you could complain that you can’t get all the high-end features of the most expensive iPhones in this smaller package—features like the lidar sensor, the telephoto lens, or… well, that’s about it, really. But the iPhone 12 mini is all the more attractive because the Pro phones don’t offer that much of an edge for most users.

You really are essentially getting the best of what the iPhone has to offer in a smaller phone that starts at $699. When I wrote about small iPhones in detail before, I posited that you don’t see a lot of tiny phones because people aren’t willing to sacrifice the two things they name in surveys as the most important factors in buying a phone: battery life and camera quality.

Well, amazingly, the 12 mini does not sacrifice camera quality at all. It does, however, sacrifice battery life. Judging from my time with the phone, battery tests that have been done, and Apple’s own claims, the iPhone 12 mini performs more similarly in terms of battery life to an iPhone SE (albeit a smidge better) than the iPhone 12. It simply has a smaller battery, so that’s unavoidable.

And look, battery life was something all of us were complaining about back when iPhones were reasonably sized, and it was something Apple made a priority to address in subsequent phones—partly by making bigger phones (SoC efficiency was also a big part of the equation, and those benefits do show here). Now we’re rolling back the clock, and the problem is back. But as a great engineer once said, you cannot change the laws of physics, Captain. A smaller phone must mean smaller battery life. For a lot of people, it’s absolutely going to be worth the tradeoff.

If you feel (as many do) that Apple’s phones peaked with the iPhone 4 or 5, the iPhone 12 mini is the phone for you. It almost feels like it’s an iPhone from an alternate universe where the obsession with bigger screens never even happened—like this is just the next iteration of an unbroken chain of lost links since the iPhone 5.

For what it’s worth, this is the iPhone model I plan to buy when I’m next in the market. I’m sure I won’t be alone.

iPhone 12 Pro Max: Big screen, big cameras

The iPhone 12 Pro Max buyer has almost the opposite priorities of the iPhone 12 mini buyer. If you’re in the market for an iPhone 12 Pro Max, you’re prioritizing a big, beautiful, content-consumption screen and getting the best cameras possible. Cost and ergonomics are not much on your radar. Just as the iPhone 12 mini serves its niche well, the iPhone 12 Pro Max serves its own—it’s just, well, really pricy. (It starts at $1,099).

Last year, the difference between the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max was pretty much just screen size, but there’s a bit more to it this time: as was the case with the Plus-branded iPhones a few years ago, the Max offers a notably improved camera system.

It still has a lidar sensor alongside three lenses: a wide-angle, a telephoto, and an ultra-wide angle. But the sensor on the wide-angle lens (likely the most commonly used) has a 47-percent larger sensor, which Apple claims almost doubles low-light performance. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro should take very similar photos with the wide-angle lens—there’s no difference between the two—but the Max ups the ante a bit.

Additionally, Apple has changed its approach to optical image stabilization (OIS) by adopting sensor-shift optical image stabilization. Apple says this is going to mean better stabilization overall.

Finally, the 12 Pro Max ups the optical zoom level from 2x on the iPhone 12 Pro’s telephoto lens to 2.5x. It’s not a huge change, but it’s nice to see. At the same time, the aperture for the telephoto lens in the larger phone is now f/2.2 as opposed to f/2.0 in the 12 Pro.

Apart from zoom, I didn’t notice any difference in quality with the telephoto lens. But the wide-angle lens should provide better low-light pictures in theory, while offering close to the same performance as the 12 and 12 Pro in well-lit environments. Here are some comparison photos between the iPhone 12 mini’s wide-angle lens (remember: the same as the 12 Pro and 12) and the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s wide-angle lens with the larger sensor.

If you can see a big difference, good on you. I can’t, really. Once your smartphone cameras are this level, we’re kind of going into micro optimizations, but some people want the best. The other good news, though, is that I found that the iPhone 12 Pro Max has to spend less time capturing to deliver great Night Mode photos. To me, that’s the real appeal here. Night Mode makes a huge difference in low-light situations, but that multiple-second exposure time during which you have to hold the phone steady is a real inconvenience. I was able to get similar-quality photos while spending less time holding the 12 Pro Max steady in some cases.

As I’ve noted before in my reviews, photography is not very high up in my personal priority list when I buy a smartphone, but I know it’s enormously important to a lot of people. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has the most robust camera system Apple has ever made, though its advantage over the smaller iPhone 12 or 12 Pro is slight. To me, it’s not worth the bulkiness, but I know a lot of people will disagree—and that’s great. I’m glad Apple is making a phone for them. I just wish it was a little less expensive.

And I may be alone, but this phone is too big for me, no matter the features. I don’t even feel I can always hold it securely with one hand—never mind typing one-handed. I have a feeling even those who like big phones to begin with will feel this one is, well, pushing it. I’d recommend trying it out in an Apple Store if that’s possible and safe for you given pandemic conditions in your area, but on the bright side, Apple’s return policies are pretty generous if you order one online but decide it’s too much phone for you.

The iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max have totally different priorities and are for very different users. The former is all about ergonomics. The latter doubles down on camera quality and screen size for media consumption—and it doesn’t hurt that the large body means a larger battery, so it offers better battery life.

In general, though, the entire iPhone 12 lineup is pretty similar in terms of specs and features. If you’re in the market for an iPhone (obviously, there are plenty of good Android phones out there), you’re not going to be tripped up by any of these choices. Pick the size that works for you. The Pro additions are just gravy.

Beyond what we’ve said here, everything we wrote previously about the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro applies to these phones. So if you want to dig deeper, read our initial review.

One more thing: Performance

The iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max have exactly the same silicon inside as the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, so there’s not much to talk about as far as performance goes. But here are a few quick benchmark results anyway.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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