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I leave my smartphone sitting face down on my desk most of the day. I hear it vibrate. I pick it up and it shows me my notifications. I didn’t realize quite how ingrained this whole process is in my psyche before I started testing the iPhone 14 Pro Max and its always-on screen display. Now my phone sits face-up so I can see those tantalizing notifications without having to lift the device. I like it.

I’ve been living with Apple’s flagship iPhone as my main device for roughly a week now. And while its new features don’t profoundly shift the overall experience, it feels like a different phone in many small, but impactful ways. Some of that comes from iOS 16, the new iPhone operating system, but the device itself offers a few hardware tweaks that ripple throughout the entire iPhone experience. So far, I like them. And combined with a substantial leap in camera hardware, Apple’s flagship phones offer a bigger upgrade than you might expect based on what you can see on a feature list or spec sheet.

Stan Horaczek

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Welcome to the Dynamic Island

The iPhone 14 Pro Max’s overall shape and industrial design haven’t changed much since the iPhone 12 ushered in a return to flat edges and glass faces. Apple has, however, made a big change to the sensor array found at the top of the screen. Instead of a notch that fades into the screen’s bezel, the front-facing camera and Face ID sensor now reside on a thin, pill-shaped area called the “Dynamic Island.”

While the overly dramatic name inspires hard eye rolls, it’s more than an aesthetic update to the previous models’ notch (which I will now call the “Lazy Peninsula”). The Island can display app-specific information that you can expand and interact with by pressing and holding on the Island. 

For instance, if you’re listening to music on Apple Music or Spotify, the Island will display a tiny thumbnail of the album art and a small moving icon to let you know that music is currently playing. If you tap and hold the Island, a set of basic audio controls expand out from it. 

That space also displays information about other typical activities. You’ll see the little unlocking icon every time Face ID works. That’s where you’ll see the connection notification when your AirPods sync with the device. The space doesn’t feel wasted the way it did with the notch. 

Making the Island useful prevents it from feeling like an eyesore. I find the Island hard to ignore. That thin band of screen between the Dynamic Island and the bezel makes the black space more noticeable. It has only been a week with the device and I’m sure it’ll fade from my attention over time. For now, I still see it even when it’s not providing mildly useful information. 

Always on

The iPhone 14 Pro Max and iPhone 13 Pro Max brightness comparison
Both phones next to each other (with the 14 Pro on the left and the 13 Pro on the right) show the difference in max brightness. Stan Horaczek

As I mentioned earlier, the new iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max offer an always-on screen similar to what you’ll find on an Apple Watch. Even if you’re not touching the phone, a quick glance at the device will reveal all of the notifications piling up at the bottom of the display. Apple claims it can enable this feature by dropping the screen’s refresh rate all the way down to 1Hz, which means the screen only updates once every second as opposed to the typical 60Hz or 120Hz modes. 

As with other always-on phone screens, I find myself picking up the device less often. With previous iPhones, I was prone to picking up my phone to see what kind of notifications were waiting for me. Then, because I’m already holding the phone, I might as well just check my apps. Then it’s 20 minutes later and I’ve accidentally watched 13 TikToks about how to go hunting for rare action figures at Target stores in my area. It’s easier to avoid distractions when I can let the phone lie. 

On the downside, iOS 16 and the always-on screen have tricked me into thinking my phone was ringing on several occasions. The notifications stack near the bottom of the lock screen where the “swipe to answer” slider would have previously shown up. 

Again, it has only been a week, so I may slide back into my same habits after a while, but only time will tell. For now, I’m opening my phone less, which I consider a plus. 

Refresh and so clean

The screen’s always-on nature isn’t the only screen upgrade present in the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max. When you pick between the two, you’re essentially deciding between a 6.1-inch screen on the Pro or a 6.7-inch screen on the Max. I prefer the larger Max model because I figure a flagship should be a flagship, and if I’m going to watch YouTube videos reviewing obscure Russian camera lenses until 2 a.m., I want to do it on the biggest screen possible. 

Both the Pro and the Pro Max offer up to 120Hz refresh rates, which I consider one of the most tangible reasons to upgrade over a standard iPhone 14 or 14 Plus (though you could also get it in the 13 Pro and Pro Max). Smooth scrolling spoils eyeballs for paltry 60Hz devices with their jutter-laden on-screen motion. Games that support 120 fps also look great. Psychedelic rhythm racer Thumper looks impressive even with tons of wild colors, shiny surfaces, and inexplicable tentacles waving all over the screen. 

Compared to the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, the 14 Pro and Pro Max offer higher overall brightness. Apple says it’s more than twice as bright, with a maximum output of 2,000 nits, which is the same as its Studio Display. I compared the 13 Pro Max directly to the 14 Pro Max and found that the newer phone is, in fact, brighter. It’s not a huge difference, however, at least under normal settings. It does improve visibility in bright settings, though, so you’ll reap the benefits if you spend a lot of time staring at your phone outdoors.

A16 Bionic chip

iPhone 14 Pro Max
I tested the phone a lot with Lightroom Mobile, including on this large film scan. Stan Horaczek

A brand new chip typically makes for a great marquee selling point when companies announce a new phone. With the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max, Apple has introduced its new A16 Bionic chip, while the A15 Bionic has moved down into the standard iPhone 14 models.

New smartphone chips always promise faster performance than their predecessors. You can likely easily find in-depth benchmarks online to tell you exactly how much faster the new chip really is but those numbers hardly ever translate directly into your real-life experience. I edit video and huge raw photo files on my iPhone 13 Pro Max without issue. Unless you’re really pushing the iPhone hard with elaborate games, computing power likely hasn’t been an issue for you. 

In terms of real-world performance, the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max feel snappy and didn’t stutter even under heavy tasks. I tried editing some 8K video shot with the phone and used Adobe Lightroom to process a few of the phone’s native 48-megapixel raw files. The processes were quick and lag-free. The new chip does provide some advantages that you may not even notice, however, like upgraded image processing, which powers Apple’s revamped HDR process. 

I’m not worried about the A16 Bionic’s ability to handle any commercial app I can throw at it. At least not yet during my testing.

Camera upgrades

iPhone 14 Pro Max vs iPhone 13 Pro Max
The camera arrays of the iPhone 14 Pro Max (top) and the iPhone 13 Pro Max (bottom) look similar. Stan Horaczek

Hardware updates in new camera phone models make it tough to get excited. Companies typically make the lenses a little brighter and the sensors a little bigger to help their overall performance. The software updates and the image-processing upgrades usually make a more tangible difference on overall image quality. For the first time in a while, that isn’t the case. With the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max, the hardware matters.

We’ll start with the lenses because they’re simpler. You still get three individual camera modules with their own lenses, but the focal lengths have changed a bit. The 48MP main camera is now slightly wider-angle than previous models. If you’re familiar with lens focal lengths, it’s now a 24mm equivalent compared to a roughly 28mm equivalent before. The ultra-wide camera stays around 13mm, as it was before, and the telephoto is still around 77mm, so not much has changed there. 

The sensor, however, looks much different. It now relies on a feature called pixel binning to create highly detailed 12-megapixel images with a brand new 48-megapixel sensor. This isn’t a new concept. In fact, Nokia first brought it to smartphones a full decade ago with its Pure View devices and it often shows up in modern Android phones. It’s popular for good reason. By essentially combining groups of four pixels into larger photon receptacles, the sensor collects light more effectively. That’s especially handy in low-light situations.

This new sensor structure fundamentally changes the way the iPhone’s camera works, at least behind the scenes. When you press the 2x zoom button, the camera can now simply crop into the high-res sensor and deliver a full-resolution final image without having to rely on computational photography to fill in details that might otherwise get lost. 

If you want to shoot in raw, you can also now get a full 48-megapixel image out of the iPhone. That’s useful if you’re the type of photographer who edits images later. 

Camera performance

iPhone 14 Pro max sample image
Look! Shadows! Stan Horaczek

I’m working on a much more in-depth camera-specific review for our sibling publication, PopPhoto.com, because of the considerable hardware change. For now, I can say that the 14 Pro and Pro Max introduce some tangible differences when it comes to camera performance. 

Moving to a slightly wider lens on the main camera may not feel like much of a shift, but I find it fairly noticeable. It can fit more of the subject in the frame now, which is good for capturing sweeping landscapes without introducing the distortion that comes with the main camera, or group photos in tight spaces. The overall image quality has also noticeably improved. I typically use the high-contrast picture style in the camera menu because I think the default style typically washes out black areas and shadows too much. I found that the 14 Pro and Pro Max handle that noticeably better, at least in my early testing. 

That wider viewing angle comes with some quirks, though. Try to get close to a subject and you’ll likely find that the phone switches into its dedicated macro mode before you get as close as you wanted. Because the macro mode relies on the ultra-wide camera, you don’t get the full image quality you wanted out of the main camera. Switching focal lengths also fundamentally changes the field of view, so the background will suddenly look farther away from your subject and you’ll notice some perspective distortion. I quickly turned off auto macro mode because I found the switching very annoying. 

iPhone 13 vs iPhone 14 angle of view
The iPhone 13 Pro Max image (left) appears slightly more zoomed in than the iPhone 14 Pro max image (right). Stan Horaczek

Overall image quality, however, has improved in both photos and videos. The main camera captures tons of fine detail—in fact, sometimes it’s a little too much. The edges of objects can start to look a little crunchy. Still, it’s better than I’ve seen on some other high-end smartphones. 

Images shot in dark settings also seem improved simply because they’re more likely to let shadows look like dark shadows. 

I admittedly haven’t shot many videos with the 14 Pro or Pro Max just yet, but it looks solid in my early impressions. The new Action Mode provides impressively smooth footage while walking or riding in a vehicle. I considered the iPhone 13 Pro one of the very best smartphone cameras for video before and that hasn’t changed in this generation. 

The cool stuff I can’t test

Apple announced a few very interesting new features that I can’t really test. The new Car Crash Detection feature relies on a series of built-in sensors (which includes everything from the microphone to the barometer) to sense when you’ve been in a wreck so it can notify emergency services and your chosen emergency contacts. Apple has a solid track record with its Fall Detection feature, so I’m inclined to believe the Car Crash Detection will work as well. I hope I never find out. 

The new SOS feature allows the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max to communicate with emergency services via a satellite connection that will work in many places typical cell service can’t reach. It’s a very clever system that relays text-based messages to rescuers using an aggressive compression technology that minimizes required bandwidth to cut down on transmission times. 

These are both very cool and novel features, and I hope they work in case I need them someday. 

The rest of the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max experience

I have been using the Pro Max for about a week and I find that the always-on screen really doesn’t have much of an effect on overall battery life. I typically finish the work day with more than a third of my battery life left—half if I didn’t use the device all that much. That’s still plenty of juice to go to the gym, watch a bunch of random videos, fall asleep without putting my phone on the charger, and waking up to a device that’s not even in the red yet. That’s one of the benefits of carrying a giant phone. Overall, it’s extremely similar to the iPhone 13 Pro Max under regular usage.

It’s worth pointing out that all of the iPhone 14 models have ditched the SIM card tray and now rely solely on Embedded Sim cards, or eSIMs, in the US. This made my activation process a little more involved as my T-Mobile service needed a nudge from the company before I could get it working on this device. If you’re used to simply swapping SIMs into your new phone without having to do much in the way of logging into your account or talking to customer service, there might be a hiccup. 

So, who should buy the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max?

Once again, the highest-end iPhone is the best iPhone. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise at this point. If you’re already using an iPhone 11 or later, there probably isn’t quite enough here in terms of features to make it worth rushing out and dropping at least $999 on a new 14 Pro or Pro Max. If you’re coming from an older device, though, this is likely the move if you can stomach the cost because it’s going to offer you the most future-proof performance.

If you’re trying to decide between the Pro and the Pro max, just get the screen size you prefer. The Pro Max offers a battery advantage due to its sheer size, but the hardware is basically identical otherwise. There’s no difference in camera hardware like there was in earlier models.

It seems likely that the new quad-pixel camera will eventually trickle down into lower models and Apple will refine it over time. More and more apps will likely support integration for the Dynamic Island, which older phones won’t be able to take advantage of. That will leave you on your own smartphone version of a lonely island. Nobody wants that.