NEW Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review

In previous years the iPhone Pro Max model has always offered extra features - such as image stabilisation or a greater zoom lens - to help set it apart as the ultimate iPhone. But for 2021 it's a more level playing field, the only difference over the Pro model being the Pro Max's bigger screen and longer battery life.

That will certainly be useful for various tasks, but not all: the sheer size and weight of the device mean it's not something you can easily slip into your jeans pocket. So the big question is does the Pro Max's "bigger is best" philosophy make best sense, or does the scaled-down iPhone 13 Pro instead deliver everything you'd need?

Design & Display

  • 6.7-inch 'Super Retina' XDR OLED, 2778 x 1284 resolution (458ppi), 1200nits max brightness
  • Apple ProMotion display technology (adaptive 10-120Hz refresh rate)
  • Four colour options: Graphite, Gold, Silver, Sierra Blue
  • Dimensions: 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.65mm / Weight: 240g
  • Stainless steel and glass materials

The iPhone 13 Pro Max features a near-identical design to the iPhone 12 Pro Max from 2020. There are some differences when you look closely, but you'll have to look very closely to spot them.

On the rear you still get the frosted glass design that comes in four grown-up colours: Graphite, Gold, Silver, and new-for-2021 Sierra Blue.

The phone still features three raised camera lenses in an enclosure, but both the enclosure and the lenses are physically bigger than before. Thanks to the bigger size of the phone itself, the setup doesn't look as dominating as it does on the iPhone 13 - even though they are the same size on both devices - but they are still bigger and more protruding than those found on the previous iPhone 12 Pro Max. If you're upgrading, you'll need a new case as a result.

Those subtle changes mean that the iPhone 13 Pro Max is just as solid and weighty a design as it's ever been - complete with water- and dust-proofing (to IP68) - and somewhat 'blunt' in its design. There are no soft edges, no whimsical details to appeal to fuffy consumers. Like the company's MacBook Pro range, this is about getting the job done with little room for anything else.

On the front, the big change is that the notch - which perforates the display - is now much narrower. Present since the iPhone X, it hasn't been retired for a punch-hole or under-display camera yet, as it still houses an array of sensors (including Face ID) in addition to the front-facing camera. The new design does afford more space for a full-screen experience, but the space to either side of it isn't fully utilised by 2021's iOS 15 software - icons are simply bigger rather than the newfound space being used better.

Trust us when we say you'll want to see as much of this screen as possible. Thanks to the inclusion of Apple's ProMotion technology - as first seen on the iPad Pro range in 2017 - the faster refresh-rate technology comes to the Pro Max model for the first time (it's also in the Pro, but not the 'standard' iPhone 13 or iPhone 13 mini variant). 

This technology allows the display to automatically adapt the refresh rate to match the content on the screen. It starts at 10Hz and goes all the way up to 120Hz, just like you'll find in most Android phones from the last couple of years, adapting based on the kind of content that's on the display. Older screens would typically be 60Hz only, so you're getting a potential doubling of frames for enhanced smoothness.

That's not only good for smooth playback, though, it means better battery life potential too - as the software can determine how much power the screen needs for the task at hand and adapt accordingly.

And those efficiencies make a big difference. Apple claims the iPhone 13 Pro Max can now offer up to 28 hours of video playback on a single charge. That's like all of the Mission Impossible movies played back to back - including the one that's still not out yet. 

It certainly makes for a smoother experience, although just as some people can't see the benefits of Ultra-HD over HD until it's pointed out, some possibly won't notice the upgrade they are enjoying.

We're in Pro territory here and Apple is clearly aiming the display at those who care about these things, but we can't help feeling that we would have liked Apple Pencil stylus support, especially given the size of the screen here. It's just screaming out for you to take notes on.

Of course the iPhone 13 Pro Max features many of the usual Apple display tech buzzwords: wide colour (DCI-P3 gamut), True Tone, a 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio, and up to 1,200 nits maximum brightness for those high dynamic range (HDR) playback moments.

Hardware & Performance

  • 128/256/512GB/1TB storage sizes
  • Wireless charging and MagSafe
  • A15 Bionic processor
  • 5G and Wi-Fi 6

A flagship phone requires a flagship processor - and the iPhone 13 Pro Max has the A15 Bionic. It's the company's fastest processor to date - as is typical of Apple's year-on-year updates - although improvements over the A14 chip found in the 12 Pro Max aren't as forward-leaping as you might imagine.

Benchmarking results suggest it's around 15 per cent faster than the previous generation, and while we are all for more speed and power don't expect to notice a difference in the same way we've seen in previous upgrades.

Regardless of how the processor fairs against previous models, it's still damn fast. Apps load without you thinking about it, photos and videos process without you really having to wait, and you aren't going to see it fuss over any task you throw its way.

Storage sizes see the options stretch to 1TB and that move is clearly aimed at the videographer keen to capitalise on new recording features like the yet-to-be-released ProRes (Apple's high-quality video compression format). This footage needs around 6GB for a single minute of footage, which is bound to fill up your storage quickly. So quickly, in fact, that if you opt for the 128GB model then Apple won't let you shoot ProRes in 4K.

Having gone 5G in 2020, that connectivity is clearly here to stay, and it joins Wi-FI 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth, and Apple U1 chip for spatial awareness. MagSafe support allows for wireless charging or attaching various accessories like a card wallet.

Perhaps surprising for the iPhone 13 range is that Apple hasn't opted to go USB-C for the wired connection. It's still the Lightning port, although we suspect this might go for the iPhone 14 model, we'll just have to wait and see...

All that tech requires a big battery and the iPhone 13 Pro Max features a monster that's unlikely to run out in a single day. It's one of the big differences over the standard smaller iPhone 13 Pro model.

Battery life is always hard to determine, especially at the start of a phone's life, but it's clear that the bigger battery will afford you a more carefree lifestyle compared to other models within the 2021 iPhone range.

Apple quotes that you should get a further 2.5 hours of battery life over the iPhone 12 Pro Max - which easily gets us into the early hours after a full day, even with considerable camera and 5G usage.

Of course with a big battery comes longer charging times, especially if you are opting to charge wirelessly, so it's definitely worth investing in the optional 20W charger (a 15W wired charger is featured in the box).

Cameras

  • Quad rear cameras:
    • Main (26mm): 12-megapixels, f/1.5 aperture, 1.9µm pixel size, dual pixel autofocus (PDAF), sensor-shift stabilisation (OIS)
    • Ultra-wide (0.5x; 13mm): 12MP, f/1.8, PDAF
    • Zoom (3x; 77mm): 12MP, f/2.8, PDAF, OIS
    • LiDAR scanner
  • Macro mode, Night Mode, Cinematic Video mode, Photographic Styles
  • ProRes support 'coming soon'

Apple's iPhone 13 Pro Max cameras are the main meat of the experience, especially given that you've got a 6.7-inch display on which to enjoy the fruits of your shooting labour.

There are three main lenses on the back, packed in next to a LiDAR sensor and flash unit. All three sensors' deliver 12-megapixel resolutions, just as before, but where things differ over the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the introduction of new lenses and a new macro shooting mode.

Ultra-wide, standard wide, and tele zoom deliver a total 6x zoom - optically speaking the tele is only 3x though - and as we've come to expect from the iPhone range everything works as seamless as possible.

The only noticeable switch occurs between the standard and macro mode as you get closer to a subject - which can be quite jarring at first. What can be even more frustrating is that at a certain distance that automatic switching can get confused, causing the camera to constantly try and switch between the two in an endless loop. 

There is currently no way of turning it off, but when we spoke to Apple about the issue it's clearly something the company is aware of: "A new setting will be added in a software update this fall to turn off automatic camera switching when shooting at close distances for macro photography and video." Thank goodness.

When the lenses aren't jumping between each other, however, the macro mode allows you to shoot from just 2cm away from your subject. As you can imagine that opens up a world of photographic potentials - if that's your cup of tea. The results are incredible, but we suspect for all but a few, it won't be the mainstay of why they are getting an iPhone in particular.

Meanwhile, the addition of that 3x optical zoom gets you just that little bit closer to far-away action - which is ideal for portrait photography and certainly gives you more options when framing the shot.

We've found that the newly improved apertures - they're a little wider than before, meaning more light can enter - translate to a quicker shutter response, which can help in reducing image blur. That's especially true in lower-light conditions, but as Night Mode is now available for all three lenses, including the ultra-wide for the first time, our night-time test shots have delivered some stunning results.

Aside from those minor issues with macro mode, the iPhone 13 Pro Max's camera arrangement makes it almost effortless when shooting, which is one of Apple's big strengths against the competition.

New for 2021 is something Apple calls Photography Styles. They are like advanced filters that look at the "image pipeline" and apply the style - Rich Contrast, Vibrant, Warm, and Cool - to elements of the picture rather than bulldozer its way across everything as you would an Instagram filter.

The results are subtle to say the least, but look carefully and they are noticeable. The catch is that once applied you can't retrospectively remove or add, but if you're the type of photographer who wants to apply a style to everything you take then it works really well. It's a shame Apple hasn't yet applied the same approach to image crops beyond 1:1 square, 4:3, or 16:9 yet. We would love a 3:2 ratio option that would allow us to emulate 35mm film, for example.

If you're getting the bigger Pro Max model, video is likely an important part of your wants list. Just as the bigger screen works well for photographers, it feels even more useful for videographers.

The list of supported formats and modes reads like an award-winning cinematographer's ultimate checklist. There's HDR video recording with Dolby Vision up to 4K at 60fps, 4K video recording at 24/25/30/60fps. ProRes video support is coming in a future update. And that's before you start adding in things like Night Mode Time-lapse, Slo-mo video support for 1080p at 120fps or 240fps.

Also new is Cinematic mode. Best thought of as Portrait mode but for video, it applies a blur effect to both foreground and background to give your subject a greater depth of field. The feature automatically locks on to a subjects' face, your pet, or key object in the scene, and no matter where you move it does its best to keep focus. Like Portrait mode, the system does everything automatically - but you can change the focus as you shoot, or edit afterwards via a complex interface, which is made slightly easier to use here thanks to the Pro Max's bigger screen.

The feature is certainly clever and adeptly shows off the iPhone's processing power - there's not even any wait time for processing everything - but it can be prone to being overconfident at times, especially if left to its own devices. When it gets it right the results are very impressive, but like Portrait mode was at the start, it's still very much a hit-and-miss mode. 

Software

The Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max runs on iOS 15, which is available for all iPhone devices (from the iPhone 6S and later). There are a few extra features on the iPhone 13 series that you won't find on older models, however, like the Cinematic video mode and the Photographic Styles in the camera app, but otherwise the experience is a familiar one.

You can read about all the changes that the software build brings in our separate feature, but the one thing we would say is that we're pleasantly surprised by how much we like the slimmer and more timely delivered notifications on the lock screen, plus how quickly we've got used to the Safari browser's URL bar moving. Give it a chance - sometimes change is good.

Verdict

In previous years the iPhone Pro Max model had always offered extra features - such as image stabilisation or a greater zoom lens - to help set it apart from the pack. For 2021 it's a more level playing field, the only difference over the Pro model being the Pro Max's bigger screen and longer battery life.

That big screen and battery are certainly useful for various tasks, but not all: the sheer size and weight of the device mean it's not something you can easily slip into your jeans pocket. Still, we've enjoyed using it to shoot video and photos more than any other iPhone 13 model because of the larger-scale visuals.

Although the iPhone 13 Pro Max doesn't move the experience along hugely over its 2020 predecessor - much as we love the smoothness provided by ProMotion faster screen refresh - it's still the ultimate choice if you want all the features and all the stamina.

Also consider

Apple iPhone 13 Pro

The smaller sibling brings all the same tech as found in the Max - but in a much smaller, more manageable form factor. And this year the devices are identical in terms of camera and speed performance, making the decision about screen size and battery rather than anything else.

Apple iPhone 13 

If the Pro sounds a bit over the top, then you could easily opt for the more consumer-friendly iPhone 13. It has many of the same features, but loses the ProMotion screen refresh rate and one of the cameras (that zoom-capable telephoto).

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