Apple takes a big leap forward with the iPhone 14 Pro Max

Apple takes a big leap forward with the iPhone 14 Pro Max

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

This is actually an easy statement to make. The iPhone advances in inches and feet most years, and it’s still at least a bit better than its predecessor.

But sometimes there is a leap. Sometimes this leap is unexpected.

I bought an iPhone 14 Pro Max, the flagship device of the 2022 lineup. I was expecting the usual incremental improvements over the 13 Pro Max, but as I used the new phone, I realized that this is one of those years where all of its updates are greater than the sum of its parts.

Apple has long insisted that controlling hardware and software makes for a better experience. Critics and competitors denounce this as a “walled garden”, discouraging users from deviating from the Apple Way.

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

Having lived with the 14 Pro Max for a while, I’m comfortable saying this year’s model is the best example in years of Apple’s strategy firing on all cylinders. It’s 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.

Yes, this Pro Max looks a lot like last year’s. Yes, the chips inside offer low double-digit percentage performance gains. Sure, the Pro range cameras have been beefed up with four times the pixels, but for day-to-day photography they’re used conservatively. And the new OS gives you more control over the lock screen and transforms the display notch of iPhones Pro into a smooth, pulsating dynamic island.

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

In this review, I’m not going to describe every feature of the phone – there are dozens of reviews online that will give you a shot-by-shot – but instead I’ll focus on how this confluence of hardware, software and design gives a better product.

Programming

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 improvements, effectively forcing the lineup.

The plain-vanilla 14 starts at $799, has a 6.1-inch display, and isn’t all that different from the iPhone 13. The 14 Plus has the same 6.7-inch display as the Pro Max, plus the internals of the standard 14, but costs significantly less. It starts at $899.

Both low-end phones get some upgrades to the dual-camera array on the back and the selfie camera on the 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 the screen size, this also applies to the 14 Pro.

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 understated colors, wrapped in a stainless steel frame: silver, gold, space black, and dark purple, the color I picked. Depending on how the light hits it, it either looks very purple or more like lavender or sometimes a steel gray.

The 14 Pros are very similar to the 13 Pros, but the main difference is the camera array. Due to a larger sensor in the main camera and an improved optical telephoto lens, the cameras are significantly larger. The cases for these phones include a deep lip around the camera bump to protect the lenses.

Speed

One of the most surprising things about the iPhone 14 Pro Max is that it feels faster than the 13. When the 14 line was announced, most analysts were expecting the new A16 Bionic processor in the pros (the standard 14 models receive a modified version of the last A15 chip of the year) as a modest update.

But everything about this phone feels noticeably smoother and smoother, from scrolling and launching apps to taking photos and playing games. The jump in performance seems greater than that of the 12 Pro Max to the 13 Pro Max.

The speed increases extend to phone connectivity, with one exception. Line 14 uses Qualcomm’s latest 5G modem chip, and I see faster cellular speeds even with minimal bars on T-Mobile’s network. But the 14 range, unlike competing phones from Google and Samsung, does not support the latest version of Wi-Fi, which is Wi-Fi 6E. While its Wi-Fi 6 is no slouch, I’m surprised Apple ditched the 6E, given that Samsung’s Galaxy S line has had it for two years.

The display and the dynamic island

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

So far, few third-party apps take advantage of this, and that seems a little disappointing. But that will change, and soon.

As with the previous Pro line, these new iPhones feature a 120Hz ProMotion display for smooth scrolling. The screen is brighter and smoother on the 14 Pro Max, and scrolling is more responsive. This refresh rate is adaptable, slowing down to just 1Hz 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 had an always-on display on the lock screen for a long time, but with Apple’s custom fonts and widgets, it’s a more dynamic fire. And so far, I’m happy to report that I haven’t seen any impact on battery life. From what I’ve seen so far, the 14 Pro Max gets a solid two-day charge based on my normal usage, which is better than the 13. The always-on display doesn’t seem to be a postman.

Cameras

Although the iPhone 14 Pro models’ four cameras — three on the back and the selfie camera on the front — have all been improved, and the image processing hardware (now called the Photonics Engine) brings powerful computing tweaks to earlier images when taking a photo.

The main or wide camera gets the biggest change. For years, iPhones have had 12MP main cameras, but with the 14 Pro models bumping up to 48MP. But in most cases, when you take a photo, you’re still only using 12MP – the iPhone, like many competing smartphones with many megapixels, combines four of them into one larger megapixel, a trick known as pixel binning. This lets in more light, improving overall photo quality, especially in the dark.

Indeed, the low-light photos of the iPhone 14 Pro Max are excellent. Much improved is Apple’s Night Mode, which uses a slow shutter and computational photography to create stunning nighttime images. And often the night mode process is not necessary at all. The largest sensor captures enough light not to trigger, when it would have been on 13.

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

Do you need to upgrade?

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

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

But really, it’s so good.

dsilverman@outlook.com
twitter.com/dsilverman


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