You know the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Apple doesn’t believe in that. Even though the tech titan is usually years late in introducing existing smartphone features to the iPhone, Apple can’t just take what is already working very well in an Android phone and apply it to the iPhone. No, Apple has to “reinvent it” the Apple way.
I’ll admit, Apple’s remix version of an existing feature usually is better executed and better synergized. Night mode, for example, had been around for a few years before the iPhone 11 started using it, but it was a separate shooting mode that required a few swipes from the camera app. Apple took it and made it just part of the default shooting mode, kicking in automatically, and by using clever animations, made night mode feel seamless. The same can be said for homescreen widgets, which Android had for nearly a decade before iOS 14 adopted them, but iOS did it better. There are a half dozen more of these examples.
The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max attempt to “reinvent” at least three more things that have been on Android phones for years: the hole-punch cutout housing the front-facing camera system, the Always-On Display, and using a higher megapixel camera for pixel binning purposes. I’ve been testing the iPhone 14 Pro Max for the past 24 hours, and while this is not enough time for a conclusive opinion on how the iPhone 14 Pro phones fare, I have a general idea of what works and what doesn’t.
By the way, I tested the iPhone 14 Pro Max model, but other than display and battery size, the 14 Pro Max and standard 14 Pro are identical, so you can take most of what I say in this article (other than battery life) and apply it to the smaller 14 Pro phone.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max Specifications
|Apple iPhone 14 Pro||Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max|
About this hands-on: This article was written after one full day of testing the iPhone 14 Pro Max provided by Apple Hong Kong. Apple did not have any input in this article.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max: Design and Hardware
Other than the new hole-punch cutout which Apple has dubbed “Dynamic Island,” there really isn’t that much to talk about in terms of design aesthetics and in-hand feel. The iPhone 14 Pro Max basically look and feel like an iPhone 13 Pro Max. Other than that new cutout, the iPhone 14 Pro Max mostly look and feel identical to the iPhone 13 Pro Max. Yes, the 14 Pro Max is 2mm thicker and the camera module protrudes slightly more, but if you handed me both phones with my eyes closed I would not be able to tell them apart.
This is both good and bad to me. I think the iPhone 12/13/14 Pro Max phones have ultra-premium build quality that looks mature and professional — those stainless steel frames are really durable and confidence-inspiring and less like a cutesy gadget than a powerhouse machine. But this same design is not comfortable to hold, because of the flat sides with hard corners and Apple’s wider-than-Android aspect ratio. Using a case does fix matters a bit for me.
The 6.7-inch OLED display is noticeably brighter this year — it is in fact the brightest smartphone display yet. And yes, you do get ever so slightly more screen because the notch has switched to a pill-shaped cutout. The cutout only gains a tiny tiny bit of screen space compared to the notch, but for me, the aesthetic is cleaner. Videos that stretch full screen will fill around the cutout.
The Dynamic Island is technically a software feature — Apple has essentially built UI elements that blend into the cutout to give off the illusion it changes in size. So I’ll talk about it in the software section. But spoiler alert: I like it a lot.
The literal “always on” display
Instead, let’s talk about the new Always-On Display. On Android, the Always-On Display (first introduced to modern Android phones in 2016’s LG G6 and Samsung Galaxy S7) is almost always a black screen with text for time, notification icons, and maybe a bit more information like the next event on your calendar. Oppo’s ColorOS 13 has added some flair to the Always-On Display by giving it a more colorful layout with full music player controls, but fundamentally, it’s still a minimal black screen with only bits of crucial information on display.
Apple’s take on this? It is to take the “Always-On” part literally: your entire lockscreen just dims a bit when the phone is locked and not in use. You can still clearly see the wallpaper and whatever widgets you’ve chosen for the lockscreen.
That Apple can do this without completely draining the iPhone 14 Pro phone’s battery is an impressive technical feat — Apple used an LTPO (low-temperature polycrystalline oxide) panel whose screen refresh rate can get as low as 1Hz, and also dedicated a small part of its processor to just handling the Always-On Display so it can refresh in the background while using minimal power. Apple even built-in smart features that will automatically turn off the screen entirely if the iPhone owner is wearing an Apple Watch and has left the room in which the iPhone rests. It’s all super smart, high-tech stuff, and to give fair credit to Android OEMs, they employ many of these features too. But so far, after one day, I’m not sure I like Apple’s Always-On Display showing this much information. It’s distracting and doesn’t really get dim enough in my opinion. If I leave my iPhone face up in a dark room while watching a movie, I would still be able to see my wallpaper and lockscreen widget. Maybe this will grow on me, I’ll report back if my mind has changed in the full review.
Amazingly, despite having such an aggressive Always-On Display, and apparently a slightly smaller battery than the 13 Pro Max’s, I have seen no significant dip in battery life compared to last year’s big iPhone. In other words, the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s battery endurance is great. It’ll be an all-day phone easily for most people. Whether it is better than the 13 Pro Max’s battery life is something we will need to see.
Getting back to hardware: the iPhone 14 Pro Max runs on the Apple A16 Bionic, and what more needs to be said? Even the A15 Bionic still beats any silicon in Android, including the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1. This is the most powerful chip in mobile, though you’d really only enjoy the benefit if you do really intensive tasks like render 360 or 4K videos, use AR applications, or other graphic work. If your smartphone usage is Gmail, Instagram, NetFlix, and Fruit Ninja, the chip upgrade doesn’t matter much. It’s nice to be future-proofed though.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max: Software
The iPhone 14 Pro Max runs iOS 16 out of the box. So far on day one, I have encountered nothing out of the ordinary with the iPhone 14 Pro Max: animations are smooth as ever, and setting up the phone and transferring all my iPhone 13 Pro Max files was simple and took only 40 minutes. Our own resident Apple expert Mahmoud Itani has written a full breakdown of iOS 16 features, so please check that for now. I’ll have more thoughts of my own in the full review.
Ever since Apple introduced the iPhone X with the notch, it has been a topic of much, much debate. Most people hated it at first, and other brands poked fun at it, but guess what? Within a year, almost every Android phone released post-iPhone X had the notch. And while hardcore Android fans still crack jokes about the notch, the tens of millions of notched iPhones out in the real world prove the average consumer doesn’t care.
To Apple’s credit, it never wavered on the notch. Instead of trying to hide it via a digital bezel the way some Android phones offered, Apple went the other way and told developers not to try to hide it, but to leave it alone. With the new island cutout, Apple has taken it another step further by asking everyone to look at it.
Within 30 seconds of setting up the new iPhone 14 Pro Max — when I got to the Face ID registration screen — the island had already caught my eye. In past iPhones, the page to scan my face just shows up as the next page in a series of setup screens. Here on the 14 Pro Max, a rectangular box drops from the cutout. The animation is buttery smooth, the drop of the face scan box feels like it has gravity, as if the island was a tired traveler dropping a suitcase on the ground.
Once the iPhone is set up, the Dynamic Island will often shift in size depending on the task you’re doing. Anytime Face ID needs to kick in, for example, the island expands horizontally. When I start a song on Spotify, as I swipe out of the Spotify app to do something else, the app flies into the island, which then expands slightly to show the album cover art on the left side and a small music wave bar that thumps along to the tunes. As a former hipster music geek who collected records and attended Coachella before it went mainstream, seeing a tiny album art on a personal device brings a smile to my face.
Tapping on the album art of the music bar opens up Spotify again in full. I reckon this is because Spotify engineers haven’t had time to design for the new iPhone yet, give it another few weeks, and that tap will likely open a floating music control box, just like many first-party apps already do now. When the iPhone’s native recording app is recording, for example, tapping on the island expands a floating menu that lets me pause or stop recording.
Right now, only a small handful of third-party apps support Dynamic Island. But given this is Apple, I have no doubt we will see widespread support within months, if not weeks.
Does Dynamic Island fundamentally change how we use the iPhone? No. Is it a gimmick? Possibly. But I love it anyway. Though admittedly, I am a sucker for aesthetics in my gadgets, I care more about animation fluidity and slim bezel sizes more than wireless charging speeds or if a phone’s bootloader can be unlocked.
Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max: Cameras
Apple gave its main camera a big upgrade this year, to a 48MP sensor that’s then used to shoot pixel-binned 12MP shots. As mentioned, this is nothing new in the Android space, as every phone from awesome premium flagships to $200 phones does pixel binning. Did Apple “reinvent” this? It’s too early to tell for me, as I’m still on day one, but I have snapped 30 some shots already and I’m not confident the cameras bring major improvements. At least not by my standards, having tested literally all the best smartphone cameras.
The first question to answer is if the 14 Pro Max’s new 48MP sensor and pixel-binning tech improve it over the 13 Pro Max’s cameras. So far from limited testing, it’s been almost impossible to spot differences between a 14 Pro Max and 13 Pro Max shot unless I zoom in to pixel peep (that’s when the 14 Pro Max’s shot is slightly sharper).
Even in low light conditions, I was unable to really find any meaningful improvement in the iPhone 14 Pro Max’s shots. And if we compare it against the Xiaomi 12S Ultra with the 1-inch sensor, it doesn’t look good for the new iPhone.
I must stress this is very limited testing so far, and perhaps my personal preferences for shooting (night city shots) favor Asian Android brands. The iPhone does tend to do better in skin tone and shots of animals. And there’s also video recording, in which the iPhone has always excelled. I’ll do a more thorough and balanced test later.
One change to the iPhone 14 Pro phone’s camera system over the 13 Pro series is there’s a dedicated 2X zoom button now. This is technically digital zoom, but Apple uses the full resolution 48MP image from the main sensor and punches into the middle portion for a somewhat “true” 2X zoom. The new Pro iPhones will use this 2X lens as the default portrait lens while the 13 Pro uses either the 1X main camera or 3X telephoto for portraits. For the most part, portraits remain a strong point on iPhones, and arguably the best in the business.
Early Thoughts: It’s an iPhone
The iPhone 14 Pro Max has not positively or negatively impacted the opinion I’ve had on iPhones for years. I think Apple is a very original company that comes up with cool ways to do things, and Dynamic Island is one of the first hardware/software tandem UI interfaces we’ve seen.
There are also all the little things that make the iPhone feel super, super polished, like how transferring things from an older iPhone to a newer one just takes a scan of a circular code, and after 40 some minutes, my new iPhone was ready to go with all my old photos, contacts, and even apps automatically logged into without needing me to retype passwords. The whole package feels cohesive and refined.
But in specific niche areas like the camera? I have long thought the best Android phones have surpassed the iPhone in still photography years ago, and the iPhone 14 Pro Max doesn’t look like it will change that.
In a way, I feel bad for Android brands like Xiaomi, which pump out so much amazing hardware — the 12S Ultra’s cameras are so, so good — and it almost doesn’t matter. In a year or so, I can walk into any coffee shop in any major city and I’ll see Dynamic Islands everywhere. Apple is the biggest and most mainstream phone brand and it’s too entrenched in that spot to be knocked off. Everyone else is clawing and scratching for the rest of the crumbs. The iPhone 14 Pro Max is probably a much smaller improvement over the 13 Pro Max than Apple marketing would have us think, but does it even matter? Most people will be on Dynamic Island eventually.