iPhone 13 Pro Max review: Living up to its name
Does it warrant the premium over the already premium iPhone 13 Pro? Let’s find out
Take a wish list of practically every feature iPhone users have been clamoring for since the past few years - including but not limited to high refresh rate displays, better battery performance, and a dedicated macro shooting mode – and you begin to see the appeal of the iPhone 13 Pro series. As good as the iPhone 13 Pro is, it’s the iPhone 13 Pro Max that’s the iPhone where the most superlative of adjectives apply –biggest new ProMotion display, best battery life and well, most expensive iPhone! Does it warrant the premium over the already premium iPhone 13 Pro? Let’s find out in our iPhone 13 Pro Max review.
Now, if you’ve come here after reading my review of the iPhone 13 Pro, you’ll already have caught up with the basics of what sets the 13 Pro series apart from their iPhone 12 Pro counterparts. A 20% smaller notch, bigger camera bump to accommodate the revamped camera setup, Apple persisting with the Lightning port, and that all-new Sierra Blue colorway which is the color of this year’s lineup. The one thing that you absolutely cannot deny is that this is a massive phone, and the flat sides don’t help with the ergonomics and in-hand feel. Even for folks coming from big phones on the Android side of things, the 13 Pro Max is a bit unwieldy and it’s a good idea to hold it in your hand first at a store before committing to the purchase. If you’re coming from an iPhone 12 Pro Max (as I was), the size is pretty standard though, even as the heft sees a bump to accommodate the larger batteries. The Ceramic Shield protective later on the display and the IP68 certification ensure some insurance from mishaps, and while the stainless-steel frame is premium to look at and helps with structure rigidity, it smudges faster than you can slap a case on it!
Around the front, there’s the large 6.7-inch display that’s, as Apple labels it, an HDR display, which means it’s HDR10 and Dolby Vision compliant with the added goodness of higher peak brightness. Of course, the switch to the 10Hz-120Hz variable refresh rate ProMotion display was a long time coming, and as with the iPad Pro, the iPhone 13 Pro Max ratchets the refresh rate up or down depending on the content on the screen. So static content will be shown at 10Hz, games can go all the way up to 120Hz and the UI/navigation will run at 120Hz to save battery when fluidity is not the priority. Not all apps support the higher refresh rate though, as Apple has mandated apps update to optimize for the new mode instead of running at 120Hz all the time, ostensibly to keep battery life in mind. As I mentioned in the 13 Pro review, the full potential of the ProMotion panel is likely only to be realized over time as more apps are updated, since iOS animations were slick and snappy to begin with, even on past iPhones. One thing I’d have liked for Apple to have snuck in in this version would have been an always-on display to show the time, notification icons and the like even when you weren’t using the phone.
Unlike last year’s models, the iPhone 13 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro Max have exactly the same cameras, and so the results from the larger Pro Max camera matched the shooting experience of the 13 Pro. One would have hoped for the bigger chassis of the Pro Max to have afforded a longer reach telephoto lens, but save for that one use case, the iPhone 13 Pro Max proves to be the most complete photo plus video experience across the premium flagship category. I continue to be impressed with cinematic mode as can be seen in our ever-expanding gadget videos coverage, and having played around with Apple’s ProRes video format in the iOS 15.1 release, I’ve found that it tends to preserve dynamic range far more than the standard video modes, but one that will really find use primarily in professional applications – for most folks, standard video by itself is exceptional and won’t be worth the extra file sizes. For reference, file sizes are several magnitudes of regular videos and will eat through your iPhone 13 Pro/Pro Max’s built-in storage space. It’s for this reason that Apple is limiting whether you can shoot in 4K30p and 1080p60 ProRes (256GB models and above) or are limited to 1080p30 (128GB models).
Speaking of iOS 15.1, I got to sample some of the big-ticket features that had been shown off at the iPhone launch but, like ProRes, only made it into consumer devices with the latest version launch. I started with SharePlay, a feature that allows users to watch movies and TV shows, listen to music and play games with friends and family while on a FaceTime call. Start the FaceTime call, open the supported app and stream your content to your FaceTime contact. Shared shows on Apple TV+ are streamed rather lag-free via the call, even showing a picture-in-picture view of the callers which does get a wee bit tight even on the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s expansive display. It works rather intuitively, as long as everyone you're SharePlaying with has the relevant apps installed, although in some cases, they’ll need to have a subscription active as well. So, at least for media content, it’s a lot like the watch parties we’ve seen previously on Netflix and Prime Video – of course, SharePlay goes a step further since it’s enabled at a system-wide level. Among the popular streaming services, only Apple TV+ and Apple Music currently offer SharePlay support, so it’s too early to say when Hotstar, Netflix or YouTube will roll out support. There are a few compatible games as well, like Heads-Up, which is insanely fun over FaceTime (try it!). But beyond SharePlay, FaceTime has also gotten way more accessible, with the recent ability to call anyone on just about any device with a web browser. There’s also spatial audio, which makes each person on the FaceTime call sound as if their audio is coming from a particular direction, or the voice isolation mode which blocks off some amount of background ambient noise.
Performance on the A15 Bionic is ace, as it to be expected from Apple’s continuing multi-year dominance on the mobile processor segment, and games like Genshin Impact or Project RIP (the latter running at 120fps) fly on the iPhone 13 Pro Max. The big gains this time around aren’t so much on year-on-year performance improvements, but on battery life. The increased heft is somewhat on account of the bigger batteries, and the Pro Max expectedly has the biggest of the family (4352mAh, as per third-party teardown reports). Android users may scoff at the seemingly small battery (by Android standards), but a combination of software optimization plus an efficient A15 Bionic chip and the ProMotion variable refresh rate panel allows the Pro Max to go nearly two full days or about 8-9 hours of screen time with moderate use! Even with the regular testing cocktail of streaming, videos, social media, email and some games, the phone lasted well past a day with none of that battery anxiety that would typically creep in past 9pm. Overnight, there is little to no drain, and the battery gains alone could tempt folks coming from as recent a phone as the 11 Pro Max to upgrade. Battery charging on the other hand is still limited to 20W charging (though it can go up to 27W with specific charger models), which is rather slow by 2021-flagship standards.
As with the iPhone 13 Pro, there are many significant and perceptible improvements across the board in the iPhone 13 Pro Max even when you compare it to last year’s Pro models, particularly in the battery life and camera departments…with the 120Hz panel rounding it off nicely. This is a great phone for those with the cash or the creative needs to write this off as a business expense – the screen is gorgeous; the chip is top-notch, and the cameras are the absolute gold standard for video recording…and takes some pretty incredible photos to boot! If anything, the ergonomics may limit the Pro Max to the super committed of video production and creative professionals who need the bigger screen – for the rest, the 13 Pro is just as good while still retaining a convenient form factor.
iPhone 13 Pro Max
Pros: Exceptional battery life, fantastic camera performance, A15 Bionic is still leagues ahead of the competition, iOS15 software features are handy, ProMotion display
Cons: Heavy and economically challenging for most average-sized hands, fast charging isn’t flagship-grade, the notch (albeit smaller) still exists, no always-on display, USB 2.0-speed Lightning port, pricey
Price: Rs. 1,29,900 (128GB) onwards
Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar