Apple makes a giant leap with the iPhone 14 Pro Max

When Apple introduced the annual version of its flagship smartphone, the company’s bigwigs touted it the same way: It’s the best iPhone ever.

This is actually an easy claim to make. The iPhone has progressed in inches and feet most years, and it’s always been at least a little better than its predecessor.

But there are occasional leaps. Sometimes, the leap is unexpected.

I bought the iPhone 14 Pro Max, the flagship device in the 2022 lineup. I was expecting regular incremental improvements from the 13 Pro Max, but as I got my hands on the new phone, I started to realize that this was one of those years where the overall update was greater than the sum of its parts.

Apple has long insisted that controlling hardware and software makes for a better experience. Its critics and rivals denounced it as a “walled garden” that prevented users from straying from the Apple Way.

Both statements are true; which technology you employ depends on how seriously you value technology and how you use it.

After using the 14 Pro Max for a while, I’m happy to say that this year’s model is the best example of Apple’s all-out strategy for years. It’s a great smartphone, largely because of the way its improved hardware works with iOS 16, Apple’s most recently released version of its mobile operating system.

Yep, this Pro Max looks a lot like last year’s. Yes, the chip inside boasts a low double-digit performance boost. Of course, the cameras in the Pro series have been boosted by four times the pixel count, but for everyday photography they are used conservatively. The new operating system gives you more control over the lock screen and turns the Pro iPhone’s display notch into a smooth, pulsating dynamic island.

Individually, these things elicit an “okay, okay, that’s cool” response. Together, though, they give the iPhone 14 Pro models a different feel than their predecessors.

In this review, I won’t outline every feature of the phone — there are dozens of reviews online that will give you a hit and miss — but I’ll focus on the fusion of hardware, software, and design to produce a better product.

line-up

The Pro Max model I own is one of four released this month. Two of them are considered “standard” iPhones, and the other two are Pro models. This year, the pros saw the biggest improvement, effectively bifurcating the lineup.

The regular 14 starts at $799 and features a 6.1-inch display that’s not too different from the iPhone 13. The 14 Plus has the same 6.7-inch display as the Pro Max, as well as the internals of the standard 14, but at a significantly lower cost. Pricing starts at $899.

The two lower-end phones feature some improvements to the dual-camera array on the back and the selfie camera on the front. Like professionals, they also have the ability to detect crashes and 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; aside from the screen size, it also applies to the 14 Pro.

the design

This is the third year of Apple’s current iPhone design, which has flat, square sides and rounded corners. The Pros come in four muted colors, wrapped in a stainless steel frame: silver, gold, space black, and deep purple, which is my color of choice. Depending on how the light hits it, it can either look 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. The camera is noticeably taller thanks to a larger sensor in the main camera and an improved optical telephoto lens. The cases of these phones have a deep lip around the camera bump to protect the lens.

speed

One of the most surprising things about the iPhone 14 Pro Max is that it feels faster than the iPhone 13. When the 14-series was released, most analysts expected the new A16 Bionic processor in the Pros (the standard 14 models got a tweaked version of the latest A15 chip in 2019) which was a modest update.

But everything on this phone feels smoother and smoother, from scrolling to launching apps to taking pictures to playing games. The performance leap feels bigger than the 12 Pro Max to 13 Pro Max.

The speed boost extends to the phone’s connectivity, with one exception. The 14 lines use Qualcomm’s latest 5G modem chips, and I’ve seen faster cellular speeds even with low numbers on T-Mobile’s network. But unlike competing phones from Google and Samsung, the 14 series doesn’t support the latest version of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6E. While its Wi-Fi 6 is no slouch, I’m surprised that Apple has ditched the 6E since Samsung’s Galaxy S line has been around for two years.

Display and Dynamic Island

I wrote an article about Dynamic Island shortly after the iPhone 14’s launch in early September (see houstonchronicle.com/dynamic), so I won’t cover it in detail here. But this transformation of the much-maligned notch at the top of the iPhone’s screen into a dynamic component that can change as needed for notifications, status reports, alerts and applets is a perfect example of Apple’s ability to integrate hardware and software.

Right now, there aren’t many third-party apps that take advantage of it, and it feels a little overwhelming. But that will soon change.

Like the previous Pro series, these new iPhones feature 120-Hz ProMotion displays for smooth scrolling. The screen on the 14 Pro Max is brighter and smoother, with more responsive scrolling. The refresh rate is adaptive, dropping down to 1 Hz to save battery life, and it works with the new, always-on lock screen, complementing iOS 16’s customizations and widgets.

Some Android phones have long been showing on the lock screen, albeit a more dynamic flame with Apple’s custom fonts and widgets. So far, I’m happy to report that I see no impact on battery life. From what I’ve seen so far, based on my normal usage, the 14 Pro Max gets two days of reliable power, which is better than the 13. Always-on display doesn’t seem to be a factor.

camera

While all four cameras on the iPhone 14 Pro models (three on the rear and the front-facing selfie camera) have been improved, the image processing hardware (now called the Photon Engine) makes powerful computational adjustments to images faster Photograph.

The main camera or wide-angle camera will see the biggest changes. For years, iPhones had 12-megapixel main cameras, but the 14 Pro models jumped to 48 MP. But for the most part, you’re still only using 12 MP when you’re taking a photo – the iPhone, like many competing smartphones with many megapixels, combines four of them into one larger megapixel, This trick is called pixel binning. This lets in more light and improves the overall quality of the photo, especially in the dark.

Indeed, low-light photos in the iPhone 14 Pro Max are excellent. Apple’s Night Mode, which uses slow shutter speeds and computational photography to create stunning nighttime images, has been greatly improved. And often the night mode process isn’t needed at all. The bigger sensor picks up enough light that it won’t trigger when it’s supposed to be on 13.

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

For video enthusiasts, the new iPhones can shoot at 8K resolution — but again, the resulting files take up a lot of space.

Should you upgrade?

So, if you’re a current iPhone user, should you buy the iPhone 14 Pro Max? First, read my August column on who should (and shouldn’t) upgrade (see houstonchronicle.com/14buy). Most of the advice is still valid.

In the past, I’d say people with recent generations wouldn’t notice much of a difference when using the current iPhone. That’s not the case with the 14 Pro Max. So if you have an 11, 12 or 13, now this is an upgrade worth considering if your budget allows. This is surprising. Indeed, I was surprised to find myself writing it.

But actually, it’s just that good.

dsilverman@outlook.com
twitter.com/dsilverman

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: