By Jason Snell
December 22, 2020 10:42 AM PT
iPhone 12 mini & iPhone 12 Pro Max: Enjoyable extremes
It finally happened. I picked up a regular iPhone 12 the other day and recoiled at how large it was. My month-long inculcation into the cult of the iPhone 12 mini had done its job. I had learned to love little brother.
Apple’s one-size-fits-all approach to the iPhone worked for a very long time. But eventually the company realized that the iPhone needed to be more than a product—it needed to be a product line. And over the past few years, it’s been building out that product line—leading to late 2020 and its release of four distinctly different models in three distinct size classes.
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro share a size, if not features. But bracketing them are the two outliers, each sharing a set of features with one of the 6.1-inch phones back at home base.
Back in 1989 “Late Night with David Letterman” did a comedy bit that imagined a clichéd sitcom about a mismatched couple, “Big Tex and Little Rhody.” Big Tex was a Texas cowboy played by seven-foot-six NBA center Manute Bol, while Little Rhody was from Rhode Island and played by diminutive actress Charlene Tilton.
I don’t know why that bit has stuck with me for more than 30 years, but I’ve been thinking about it this fall for some reason. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is Big Tex. The iPhone 12 Mini is Little Rhody. Can these two star-crossed kids make it work in this kooky world?
Let’s get small
The iPhone started out small. And while it grew a little bit longer with the iPhone 5, Apple was extremely conservative when it came to iPhone design. The company’s famous commitment to keeping its laptops as thin and light as possible might have made it unwilling to envision a product category where users might want a bigger, heavier object.
Samsung had no such qualms, and it (along with other Android phone makers) discovered that a lot of people considered phones with bigger screens preferable to the ones with small, iPhone-sized ones. Apple finally got the message and released the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and was met with a record-breaking surge in sales. Message received: the primary iPhone model has kept getting larger, while Apple has introduced several alternative models that were even larger.
But that moment of triumph for Apple, the release of the larger iPhone 6, was a little tragedy for a lot of iPhone users—the ones who didn’t feel that when it came to phones, bigger was better. Apple’s response was to keep the iPhone 5S around for a while, then upgrade its internals as the iPhone SE. Eventually, Apple moved along—and left people who didn’t really want a phone bigger than the iPhone 5S behind.
At last, the iPhone 12 mini is here to address this corner of the market. Though making a smaller phone is clearly a low priority for Apple, one advantage of turning the iPhone from a product into a product line is that there’s room to serve the edge cases. The 12 mini isn’t quite as small as the iPhone 5—it’s 23 grams heavier, 5.6 millimeters wider, and 7.7 millimeters taller. But it’s as close as Apple’s ever going to get, and it brings with it all the modern conveniences, including Face ID and a nearly bezel-less 5.4-inch diagonal OLED display that puts the old model’s 4-inch display to shame.
Thanks to the new 2020 iPhone design language, itself a throwback to the iPhone 4/5 era, holding an iPhone 12 mini in my hand sure brings back all those iPhone 5 feelings. When I started using it full-time, though, I wasn’t convinced that I’d want to use a smaller phone. Unlike the iPhone SE die-hards, I had upgraded to the iPhone 6 size class, then the iPhone X, and just accepted the trade of a larger display in exchange for a phone that felt less comfortable to hold. After years of putting up with an awkward phone grip and basking in the glow of a big screen, would a smaller phone feel like coming home? Or would I have been so changed by the last six years that the phone I had desired would end up being a disappointment?
I’ll say this: I never felt disappointed by the iPhone 12 mini. Using it never made me feel like I had compromised in order to go smaller. After a month using the iPhone 12, moving to the 12 mini was easy—it’s the same phone, just in a smaller package. The question was, as I used the phone over weeks, would I end up in a situation where I suddenly regretted having the smaller model?
I kept waiting for this to happen, fully expecting to crash into the proverbial wall and expose some way that I had adapted to using a larger phone. I knew there would be an instructive moment when I’d miss having the bigger model, giving me perspective about the dividing line between choosing an iPhone 12 mini or its larger counterpart.
With the possible exception of the moment that I realized the iPhone 12 mini had rotated in my jeans pocket so that it fit sideways, it never happened. There were never any regrets.
My only real complaint about the iPhone 12 mini is shared with the larger iPhone 12: I think Apple made a mistake in making the second rear camera on these phones an ultrawide rather than a telephoto. The vast majority of the photos I take on my phone are using the standard “wide” lens, but I find myself very rarely using the ultrawide, which can take some strange distorted photos—and I miss having the telephoto lens that’s now standard only on the iPhone Pro models.
Do I miss it enough to opt for a phone that’s larger than the 12 mini, more expensive, and with a different design aesthetic that I don’t find a pleasing? No. But if these non-Pro phones can only use two lenses, I still feel like Apple omitted the wrong one.
The rugged slab of photography
But what about Big Tex? The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the biggest iPhone ever made, by pretty much any measurement. And after I’ve spent a thousand words rhapsodizing about Apple’s tiny phone, you’d probably imagine that all I can do regarding the iPhone 12 Max is shrug and roll my eyes.
But no. I admire the iPhone 12 Pro Max for a lot of the same reasons I admire the iPhone 12 mini. The place of the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro at dead center in the iPhone product line gives the outliers the freedom to move confidently to the edges. The 12 mini is great because it doesn’t need to please everyone, just people who want a small phone.
And the iPhone 12 Pro Max is great because it is a phone designed without any real fear that it will be considered too big, too heavy, too bulky, or even too expensive. It’s an enormous slab of a device, dense and substantial—which is exactly what it should be. When I carry it, I feel like I’m holding a camera rather than a phone. If there ever was a phone that deserved to be called Pro, it’s this one.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is an outlier in another way: It’s got a better camera than even the iPhone 12 Pro. The standard “wide” camera has an additional optical image stabilization system, and the telephoto camera has a bigger optical zoom. You buy more, you get more.
I think Apple should continue down this path with the Pro Max. Yes, it’s frustrating to have to decide between models, but why should Apple’s most expensive and largest iPhone be held back by the limitations of the other models? If there are improvements Apple can make in terms of camera hardware or just about anything else, and if they just don’t fit (literally) in smaller phones, it should make them to this dense slab and allow it to be the best it can be.
In practice, it seems like the improvements the 12 Pro Max has over the 12 Pro are extremely subtle, however. I recommend Austin Mann’s iPhone 12 Pro Max camera review, which shows off some improvements in low-light performance to go along with that extended zoom.
I am not much of a photographer, and in my experience the cameras on all the iPhone 12 models are excellent. HDR video is something to behold—and to play back on the phone displays. And ProRAW, available on both iPhone 12 Pro models, has huge potential to improve the workflows of pro photographers who use iPhone.
Perhaps the biggest improvement for photographers offered by the iPhone 12 Pro Max is its screen. It’s a 6.7-inch diagonal OLED display with 2778 by 1284 pixels. It’s huge, and that means you can see more of what you’ve got, or what you’re about to shoot, right there when you’re in the field.
Truth be told, the thing I miss most in using the iPhone 12 mini is the ability to get a big look at the pictures or video that I’ve shot. It might be obvious to say that the best thing about a big phone is that it’s got a big screen, but… there it is.
Separate ways, worlds apart
So can Big Tex and Little Rhody make it work, despite their huge differences? The truth is, the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max are at remote ends of an ever-expanding iPhone product line. What makes them both great individually is that they’re free to be themselves, to appeal to people who demand the most—or the least—from their iPhone.
Most people will opt for the iPhone 12 or the iPhone 12 Pro. But anyone who has found themselves craving a smaller phone will be thrilled by the iPhone 12 mini. That’s definitely me—but I have to tip my cap to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, too. If it were just a big and ungainly duplicate of the iPhone 12 mini, it wouldn’t impress me much. But it embraces its size and density and offers the most of everything the iPhone has to offer.