Better in most ways than its predecessor, but most improvements to the iPhone 13 Pro Max are marginal
- Longer battery life
- Macro mode is great
- 120Hz display makes a difference
- Most improvements marginal
- Lens flare still a problem
Update: Six months following the initial release of the iPhone 13 Pro Max, Apple has added a brand-new colour option to the range. Called ‘Alpine Green’, this new paint job is the fifth colour now available for the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, retaining the same glass-topped textured matte finish and colour-matched reflective stainless steel sides – but this time, in dark green.
It’s a particularly swish look, especially since this moody colour isn’t something we come to expect from Apple’s otherwise brightly coloured finishes of recent launches. None of this changes our initial opinion of the phone, of course (especially since it costs the same as the other colours), but having a new colour option to mull over is always welcome. Doubly so if you weren’t initially sold on the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max’s original launch colours.
If you’re curious as to what the phone looks like outside of Apple’s official press shots, we’ve spent some time with the new Alpine Green iPhone 13 Pro Max recently – it complements the lime green carpet in our office quite nicely, don’t you think?
Our original iPhone 13 Pro Max review continues below…
The iPhone 13 Pro Max is a very different proposition to its predecessor. That’s not because it’s all that different from the iPhone 12 Pro Max – far from it – but rather the gap has closed significantly between the Pro Max and the rest of the new range.
This year, the only difference between the iPhone 13 Pro Max and its smaller counterpart is the size and the battery life, whereas last year’s Pro Max also had a superior camera system. In 2021, everything else is precisely the same.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review: What you need to know
If you’ve read our iPhone 13 Pro review, then you’ll already know the lay of the land. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is just larger, with a 6.7in display and a 4,352mAh battery versus 6.1in and 3.095mAh on the regular Pro.
It retains the same flat-sided, slab-like design as the 2020 iPhone range – although this year it’s a mite fatter and heavier and has a bigger camera bump – and Apple has reduced the size of the True Depth camera notch at the front.
The cameras behind that bump have been improved, too, both in terms of the hardware and the software. There’s a larger sensor for the main camera, with a brighter aperture than last year for better performance in low light. There’s also a longer 3x optical zoom on the telephoto camera (up from 2.5x).
Apple has also added macro photography to this year’s Pro phones (alas, not to the regular iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini), as well as Photographic Styles that affect the look of your photos, plus a portrait mode for video called Cinematic Mode. This adds fake blur to the background of your videos and even allows you to change the focus point after you’ve captured your footage.
The only remaining changes consist of the upgrade to the A15 Bionic processor, which boosts performance and gains a graphics core over the A14 Bionic from last year, and a new 1TB storage model is available, too.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review: Price and competition
With prices starting at £1,049, the iPhone 13 Pro Max also happens to be £50 cheaper than last year, which is a nice bonus, although at this level what’s £50 between friends? That money secures you the model with 128GB of storage, with prices rising to £1,149 for 256GB, £1,349 for 512GB and £1,549 for the new 1TB variant.
Most potential customers for the iPhone 13 Pro Max are going to be weighing up whether to go with this phone or the iPhone 13 Pro and, for a difference of £100 (£949), I think the Pro delivers better value for money. It has the same set of cameras and features, has inferior but still decent battery life and the display is 0.6in smaller. That’s a compromise I wouldn’t mind making, all things considered.
If you’re platform-agnostic then you have a wider choice, but the obvious rival and our pick of the high-end flagships right now is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, which has the same size screen (6.7in), twin telephoto cameras at 3x and 10x optical zoom and a higher-resolution 108MP main camera that can also shoot in 8K. You can pick one of these beauties up from Samsung for £1,149, which surprisingly makes the iPhone 13 Pro Max look comparatively good value.
On the flip side, there’s the Google Pixel 6 Pro. With a 6.7in 120Hz display, and three cameras – including a 4x optical telephoto camera and Google’s AI camera smarts – on board, it could well provide this year’s strongest challenge to the iPhone 13 Pro Max. And it costs £200 less at £849.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max: Design
I was going to skip this section as the phone is so similar to its predecessor ,but there are a few smaller changes worth speaking about. The first is that there’s a new colour available this year – sierra blue – in addition to the silver, gold and graphite colours available last year. The second is that the front notch is now 20% narrower. Both are superficial changes, however – despite the reduction in size, Apple isn’t displaying any extra information at the top of the screen.
The 13 Pro Max is 0.3mm thicker than the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the camera housing is both wider and thicker as well. These are small differences, though, and you wouldn’t notice them even with the phones right next to each other unless you looked really carefully. The one practical difference this makes is that cases for the iPhone 12 Pro Max won’t fit this one; if you’re upgrading, you’ll have to buy a new one.
That’s it for differences, which is no bad thing, really. I was a fan of the design of the iPhone 12 and, a year on, it still looks good. Plus, everything that was great about the design of that phone remains in place here. In particular, it has IP68 dust and water resistance (you can submerge the phone in up to 6m of water for up to 30m), and it has Apple’s Ceramic Shield glass on the front, which I’ve found to be remarkably resistant to scratching.
I won’t tell a lie, I was disappointed that Apple didn’t move away from Lightning to USB-C with the iPhone 13, but that’s really the only negative thing I have to say about the look and durability of the phone.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max: Display
One thing that definitely doesn’t disappoint is the display. Like last year, Apple has endowed its largest smartphone with a 6.7in OLED display, which has a resolution of 2,778 x 1,284. That’s good enough for a pixel density of 458ppi, which is so sharp that your eyes won’t see the pixels at any distance.
There are two main upgrades, the first of which is increased brightness in day-to-day use. The display will now reach a peak of 1,000cd/m² when the sun comes out instead of the 800cd/m² of last year’s phone. This is a difference you might spot in super bright conditions but for the rest of the time, it will be invisible to you. Peak brightness in HDR is the same as last year at 1,200cd/m².
As usual, the display measured up extremely well in our testing. Peak brightness in regular use hit 815cd/m², where last year I measured 512cd/m², and in HDR playback that rose to an eye-searing 1,176cd/m². Versus sRGB in a browser, meanwhile, I found that the average colour variance Delta E score reached as low as 0.88, which is stupendously good, whichever way you cut it.
This is typically what I’d expect from an iPhone display, though. The biggest upgrade lies elsewhere: the adaptive 120Hz refresh. This enables not only higher frame rates in games that support it but also smoother user interface animations, web page scrolling and transitions from screen to screen.
That might not sound like much and you’d be right to question if you’d even notice the upgrade, but this is one I can confidently say is a big plus. Once you’ve experienced a high refresh rate display on a phone, it’s very noticeable when you go back to 60Hz.
The other potential benefit of 120Hz is that it’s adaptive. In other words, it should change the refresh rate depending on what you’re doing at any one time. If you’re just reading an ebook, it will drop down to 10Hz, thus saving power over fast scrolling through Twitter or email.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review: Performance and battery life
The high refresh rate display means that, at last, gaming frame rates are no longer capped at 60fps, and that fully unleashes the full power of the A15 Bionic and its new 5-core GPU. Alas, the gaming benchmark we normally use hasn’t yet been updated for high refresh rate displays, so the native resolution test still shows it capped at 60fps.
However, the offscreen numbers, which the benchmark runs at 1080p resolution, demonstrate there’s plenty of headroom for reaching higher frame rates.
There’s also a decent notch up in regular CPU performance, as you can see by checking out the Geekbench 5 numbers in the graph below. As with every iPhone update, the performance ratchets up a notch, keeping the phones a decent step ahead of the Snapdragon and Exynos-powered opposition. This is one phone that will stay feeling fast for many years to come.
Perhaps even more important than performance is that Apple has yet again improved the battery life on the iPhone 13 Pro Max. In our video rundown test, which we carry out with the screen at a predetermined brightness level and the phone in flight mode, the iPhone 13 Pro Max lasted a whopping 23hrs 30mins, which is nearly three hours longer than the iPhone 12 Pro Max and more than three hours on top of the iPhone 13 Pro. That’s quite a difference and, for those who value battery life above all else, it makes the Pro Max worth considering over the smaller model.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review: Cameras
So it’s a fairly big step forward when it comes to overall performance, but as for the camera setup, that’s slightly less of an upgrade. Yes, Apple has increased the sensor size and the aperture a tiny bit, allowing for more light-gathering ability than before. And that does improve performance in low light slightly, but we’re not talking earth-shattering differences here.
The telephoto has 0.5x more reach than before and is now a 3x zoom with an f/2.8 aperture, but it still looks a little weedy compared with the 10x optical zoom in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Even the 4x optical zoom in the £849 Google Pixel 6 Pro is more powerful.
Finally, the ultrawide camera benefits from a wider aperture of f/1.8 (versus f/2.4 in the 12 Pro Max), which means it’s a slightly better performer in low-light situations. The quality of images from the ultrawide camera still can’t match those captured with the main camera, however.
The most important thing about this year’s iPhone 13 Pro Max camera setup is that it’s exactly the same as the smaller iPhone 13 Pro. I’ve popped in some camera samples from the Pro Max below, but my conclusions on it are the same (you can read about it here).
In summary, the cameras are ever so slightly better than last year’s 12 Pro Max cameras, but not by much, and they suffer from the same weaknesses as well in that bright light sources can cause distracting and noticeable internal reflections and lens flare that detract from image quality in low-light situations.
What makes more of a difference than the hardware, however, are the various computational photography features Apple has added this year. First among these is macro photography, which allows you to snap subjects from distances as close as 2cm using the ultrawide lens.
You can get some superb shots with this and the best thing about it is that you don’t have to switch it on or off. Just approach your subject and the camera switches into macro mode automatically.
Next up is something that only photography geeks will really appreciate: Apple’s new Photography Styles. These deliver subtle tweaks to the overall tone of your photos, and Apple uses machine learning algorithms to identify important parts of the image, such as skin tones and sky, and leaves those largely alone. You have five of these looks to choose from: Standard, Rich Contrast, Vibrant, Warm and Cool, and you can see the difference these make in the image below:
Last, but by no means least, there’s the much talked about Cinematic Mode. In addition to the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s 4K, 60fps Dolby Vision video capabilities – which is just as ludicrously good as last year, by the way – you can now add a fake blur to the background of videos, just as you might with a photograph shot in portrait mode.
There’s even an automatic mode where it identifies faces in the scene and switches focus from one face to another when the face in focus turns away from the camera. You can also go in after the fact and change the focus points in the edit and adjust the amount of blur as you would in a portrait image.
All this works okay but, in my view, it’s a bit of a gimmick that you’ll use maybe once or twice and then forget about. For starters, due to the computational complexity of what it’s doing, Cinematic Mode is limited to 1080p at up to 30fps. And the automatic focus switching relies on a bit of scene setup to work without a hitch – if your subject doesn’t face completely away from and towards the camera, focus switching can be a little unpredictable.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review: Verdict
The iPhone 13 Pro Max isn’t a huge upgrade over its predecessor. It’s an iterative update that keeps it abreast of the competition at the high end of the smartphone market, and it will keep Apple fans satisfied, especially those who are upgrading from an iPhone 11 Pro Max.
And although the improvements are small, Apple must be applauded for making those small improvements in pretty much all the most important areas, with faster performance, a brighter, smoother display, superior cameras and longer battery life than the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The big question is, do you buy this phone or the regular iPhone 13 Pro in 2021? My answer to that question is that, for most people, the iPhone 13 Pro is the Apple smartphone to buy this year. However, if you absolutely must have the best battery life (the 13 Pro’s is still perfectly good) and a bigger screen, then you should consider paying £100 more.
Better in most ways than its predecessor, but most improvements to the iPhone 13 Pro Max are marginal