mini vs Max: an iPhone 12 Battle Royale (with cheese)

Too much or not enough?

Do you remember in Casino Royale when Vesper Lynd gave James Bond a tailored suit? He exclaimed that he already had a dinner jacket, and she replied, “there are dinner jackets and dinner jackets; this is the latter.”

Well, that’s kinda how I’m feeling as I hold the iPhone 12 Pro Max in my hands.

I’ve been using iPhones for quite a long time. I’ve used numbered models, S models, the original SE, and a few Pluses. But I’ve never before used an iPhone Pro.

There was a time when there weren’t “pro” iPhones. Because of that, I’m hesitant to say that I’ve never used a “premium” iPhone before, because arguably every current iPhone I’ve ever used was the “premium” model of its time (and I never owned the singular plastic iPhone). But I have to say, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the most premium feeling iPhone I’ve ever used.

It isn’t, however, the first iPhone 12 I’ve used. I started my iPhone 12 journey with the iPhone 12 mini, and I fully intended to stick with that. And I would have, too, if it hadn’t been for a crippling camera issue that I experienced with that device (you can read about that here).

I’d intended to just order a replacement 12 mini, but then I got to thinking that it wasn’t too much more to get the full size 12 instead (and I considered that for one very specific reason I’ll get to later). And if I was considering the regular 12, it wasn’t too much more to get the 12 Pro with its third camera. And it wasn’t too much more than that to get the 12 Pro Max with its better camera and tablet-sized screen. And so I did. And so here we are.

Naturally, since I’ve now held two of the latest iPhones in my hands, I’m inclined to compare them. So compare them I shall.

Ready? FIGHT!!!

Price

Ok, so the 12 mini is obviously going to be the cheaper option. I mean, it is the smallest iPhone available right now, and that size is fittingly $300 less than the iPhone 12 Pro. But that money saved may come with a few compromises.

For $699, you get the iPhone 12 mini with 64gb storage. It comes in black or white, minty green or a nice, deep blue, and, of course, (Product)Red, the purchase of which contributes to combatting COVID-19 (though I’d call this color Product Salmon instead, as it isn’t nearly as rich as the red on previous iPhones). Apple doesn’t advertise it, but the iPhone 12 mini also has 4gb ram to go with the brand new A14 processor inside. If you want, you can spend up to $849 to get up to 256gb storage, but you can’t increase the ram.

There is a somewhat hidden cost with that starting price, however; according to Apple’s website, you only get that price when you pair it with one of the main carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Spring, or T-Mobile. If you opt for an unlocked version, you’re going to have to spend an extra $30, so let’s say the starting price, really, is $729.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1,099. That is, admittedly, more money than I ever wanted to spend on a phone. I mean, I never even spent that kind of money on a computer until last year. And had I looked at it just as that, I would have never taken the plunge, but seeing as how it was only $300 more than I was already planning on spending, it just didn’t hit me as bad as it would have otherwise.

That cost gets you the 12 Pro Max with 128gb storage (and you can spend up to $300 more to get up to 512gb). It also pairs 6gb ram with the same A14 processor, and, as mentioned, gets you an extra camera and some other camera improvements that we’ll talk about in a bit. It comes in graphite, silver, gold, and a beautiful Pacific Blue. Oh, and there is no up-charge to get the device carrier-free, either.

Winner: As always, we’ll need to see how the phones hold up in the next sections, but for now, the iPhone 12 Pro is looking pretty nice with that extra ram and third camera. It is damn expensive, but if you were already going to be buying an iPhone, $300 isn’t really a whole lot extra to ask for.

Design

As far as I’m concerned, iPhones have always been aluminum and glass. No matter which iPhone I had, those were the main materials that I was handling.

That is still true of the 12 mini. The phone is glass front and back, with a flat, aluminum rail along the edge. Let’s stop there for a moment.

The 12 series brought back one of my very favorite iPhone aesthetics: the flat edge. Having lived with the rounded “slippery bar of soap” iPhone style through five different iPhones (for me personally, the 6 Plus, 6s Plus, 7 Plus, XR, and 11), it was a welcome change to get back to the style of my personal favorite iPhone, the 5s (or the original SE, whichever you prefer). Honestly, Apple, what took you so long to get back to this?

The biggest design feature with the 12 mini is, in fact, its miniature design. Unlike the original iPhone SE, which was Apple’s last tiny phone, the 12 mini has all the same new bells and whistles that come with the main iPhone 12. It has 5G, it has the same powerful dual-camera system, it has an OLED screen, it has MagSafe charging, the whole nine yards. It is, in no way, diminished in its abilities simply because it is a smaller handset.

Ok, it is diminished in a couple of areas. Most obviously, the battery is smaller in the 12 mini than it is in any other version of the iPhone 12. I’ll get to that more in another section, but it is definitely something that this smaller form factor has affected. Likewise, because the display is smaller, and yet the FaceID camera is not, the notch at the top of the screen is quite big. Ok, the notch is the exact same size as it is on any other iPhone, but it just looks bigger on this smaller screen.

My favorite thing about the 12 mini was how small and light it was. For once in a long time, I had an iPhone that I could easily hold in one hand and use one-handed. It was so light that it was easy to forget it was in my pocket. It is a good phone for someone who doesn’t always want to be reminded that they have a phone in their pocket.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is, frankly, the opposite. The 12 Pro Max is properly heavy. As soon as I picked it up, the first thing I noticed was the weight. At 8.03 ounces, the 12 Pro Max is almost double the weight of the 12 mini (4.76 ounces). But on most days it doesn’t feel too heavy; in fact, it feels solid. It feels unlike any other iPhone I’ve ever held. This iPhone feels premium in every way. It makes the 12 mini feel almost cheap by comparison.

That feeling comes from the materials. The glass on the bag is frosted instead of glossy, and I cannot describe how nice that feels in my hand. Ever since the iPhone went returned to an all-glass back, I’ve loathed it, deep down. I missed the feeling of smooth aluminum of phones like the 7 Plus. The glass always gets smudgy and needed to be cleaned. But this is simply not so with the frosted back on the 12 Pro Max.

What does get smudgy on the 12 Pro Max is the rail on the side, which the iPhone’s ever-present aluminum with stainless steel. But honestly, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much if the edge of my phone has fingerprints. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t irk me like the glossy glass backs of previous iPhones did. I was always quick to put a case over those phones, but I just can’t see myself putting a case on the 12 Pro Max.

My new aversion to cases is also due to the new glass screens, which are reinforced with ceramic. The 12 mini has this too, so this isn’t exclusive to the 12 Pro Max, and it is just nice that, for once, I don’t have to worry so much about protecting my phone with a case.

For my comparison, I was looking at the Pacific Blue iPhone 12 Pro Max, which is absolutely beautiful (I nicknamed my device T.A.R.D.I.S. because of this color, which was much nicer than my originally intended moniker, Slab). Originally, I did have the (Product)Red 12 mini, but as I mentioned, that color turned out to be more salmon/pink than red; it was still beautiful, but when I decided to give the 12 mini a second chance, I went for the classic black model, which I kinda think looks like the old iPhone 4s sitting on my desk. I thought the black would be boring, but it is actually very nice, though it looks almost blue in some lighting (like the lighting I took these photos in; also, I nicknamed it Fun Size).

Winner: I love both phones so much, and I especially love the feel of the 12 Pro Max’s stainless steel and frosted glass finish. But in terms of design, well, I’m giving this to the mini. Apple’s made big phones like the 12 Pro Max before, but this is the first time they’ve made a miniature without compromising the features it brings to the table, and I think that the mini is absolutely stunning.

Cameras

One of my favorite shots taken on the iPhone 12 mini.

The biggest reason I chose to test out the 12 Pro Max was the camera. So much so that for once, I decided to give the camera its own category. Plus, besides the size of each device, there’s not really a whole lot else to compare; they both have excellent OLED screens (though one is obviously smaller and the other obviously bigger, but I think you probably knew that going in), they both run on the snappy A14 chip (although the 12 Pro Max does get 2gb more ram, but that’s not really noticeable in day-to-day use), they both have 5G, and they both run the same versions of iOS. So, yeah, camera comparison.

Now, I know a lot of people have done camera comparisons between these phones and literally every other phone in existence, so I’m not going to put up any side-by-side photos and ask you to spot the minute differences. Instead, let’s just talk about each camera and what I loved and didn’t love.

Firstly, there are several major differences between the cameras on paper. The 12 Pro Max has 50% larger sensors, which means they should do better in lower light. The main camera lens trades optical image stabilization for sensor-shift, which means the whole camera sensor can move, which should create even better stabilization. It has a LiDAR sensor for improved night photography. And of course, it has a 2.5x optical zoom.

I really grew accustomed to having a zoom lens on my iPhone. I had one on my iPhone 7 Plus and I missed one on my XR (and my SE), and I was honestly really bummed when I got my 11 and discovered that the second lens was an ultra-wide rather than a telephoto. Now, don’t get me wrong, the ultra-wide is nice, but I just didn’t use it nearly as much as I used my zoom lens. So that was, honestly, the main reason I went for the 12 Pro Max.

And the 12 Pro Max has an excellent telephoto camera. It doesn’t quite match the distance of Samsung’s latest phones, but I’ve always been more impressed with photos from my iPhone than from any Android device. And I really don’t need my iPhone to zoom all the way up to the surface of the moon (NASA provides much better moon pictures than I will ever be able to take from the surface of the earth).

But… once I had the telephoto lens on my iPhone again, I realized something; I’d grown accustomed to not having it. Over the last couple of years of not having a telephoto lens, I had learned to cope without it. And though I now had it back on my phone again, I was barely using it.

I did find some good uses for it; I took a very up-close shot of a grasshopper without having to get too close to it (I wish I’d had that camera when I was taking close-up pictures of zipper spiders over the last summer). And I’ve used it on a couple of other occasions to get closer shots of something far away. But I’m realizing now, to my horror, that I just don’t need the telephoto lens as often as I once thought I did. I’ve spent the better part of two years building up its usefulness in my head only to find it was only useful to me in niche situations.

Behold, the grasshopper (taken by the iPhone 12 Pro Max with the 2.5x telephoto)

And the 12 mini has a not-so-secret secret power: its camera is damn good. I mean, in the past, Apple’s smaller iPhones have always been saddled with lesser cameras. First, Apple only gave optical image stabilization to the Plus version of the 6 and 6s. Then, they only gave the telephoto lens to the Plus models of the 7 and 8. And each SE came equipped with the lesser cameras of whichever era they came out in. So the fact that the iPhone 12 mini is the smallest iPhone in a long time and doesn’t sacrifice any of the camera features of the larger iPhone 12 is spectacular.

And aside from the extra telephoto lens, I have found that the 12 mini takes photos that are nearly identical to the 12 Pro Max, despite the latter’s larger sensors and other bells and whistles. And even though the 12 Pro Max has that telephoto lens, I found that in many cases, the 12 mini took excellent shots zoomed in to 2x; confusingly, Apple’s technical specifications mention that the 12 mini has 2x optical zoom as well, but I’m thinking this is a reference to the ultra-wide, as it calls it zoom out where the 12 Pro Max calls it zoom in. But that doesn’t change the fact that shots manually zoomed in at 2x on the mini still look very good, so unless you really need that 2.5x telephoto lens (or the added digital zoom range up to 12x vs the 12 mini’s 5x digital zoom), the telephoto camera on its own may not be worth shelling out the extra bucks over the 12 mini (or even the regular 12).

The only areas where I’ll say the 12 Pro Max truly stands out at all, in fact, are low light and Raw photography. In low light, that’s mostly because the 12 Pro Max can take more photo modes in Night Mode; specifically, it can take Portrait photos with Night Mode, thanks to the LiDAR sensor. In most night shots, the 12 Pro Max also doesn’t require as long of an exposure; in situations where the 12 mini might recommend a 3-second exposure, the 12 Pro Max may only recommend a 1-second exposure. That doesn’t sound like much, but that means you don’t have to hold the phone still for quite as long so therefore you stand less of a chance of messing up the shot by moving your hand. It also means that moving subjects should appear a little less blurry. And that, in turn, should mean better night photography. Personally, I was still able to take night shots that looked just as good on the 12 mini, but I definitely have to hold the phone still for a second or two longer.

Both phones can technically take pictures in Raw format (the 12 mini will require a third-party app, as it is not available in Apple’s camera app), but the 12 Pro models can utilize Apple’s ProRaw, which blends Apple’s photo optimization with the Raw format to get the best of both worlds. I’m not one to take photos in Raw myself, but if you rely on this format, the 12 Pro Max is the obvious choice.

Winner: The 12 Pro Max clearly wins this one because it has a whole extra camera. And for professional photographers, it is definitely the one to go with, as it will be more capable and can take photos in Apple’s ProRaw format. But the best camera is always the one you have, and for that sentiment, the 12 mini shouldn’t be overlooked; its “fun size” form factor can simply get it into more pockets than what the 12 Pro Max would fit in (and more nooks and crannies for getting that perfect angle), and its cameras leave absolutely nothing to be desired.

Battery Life

Ok, so we need to get to the elephant in the room. Or rather, the tiny, little mouse. The iPhone 12 mini does not have the best battery life.

While Apple didn’t compromise on features with the 12 mini, they couldn’t make it bigger on the inside, even if the blue color is extremely reminiscent of the Doctor’s police box.

Granted, battery life isn’t atrocious. I remember how poor the battery life was on my iPhone 5s; that phone lived in a Mophie battery case. And in most cases, I’ve been able to get through my day with the 12 mini still ticking. But there have been some close scrapes, and I’ve gone to bed some nights with the battery down to 15–20%.

By comparison, the 12 Pro Max has rarely seen a day below 50%. In fact, I’ve never had my 12 Pro Max recommend low power mode to last me through the day.

Now, those numbers aren’t bad for either device, but right now, I’m also spending most of my time at home. I have chargers at the ready if I need them, and I’m probably not using as much battery life as I would normally (or who knows, maybe I’m using more, since phones have become an escape during this pandemic). So I don’t really know how either will stack up when I’m back out in the world, going places, taking lots of pictures, etc., and so forth.

But what I do know is that the 12 Pro Max definitely stands a much better chance at lasting throughout whatever kind of day I throw at it. If you are a heavy user, there is no decision to make here: get the 12 Pro Max.

There is a saving grace for the 12 mini, however. And that is MagSafe. Right now, MagSafe is really only supporting Apple’s own MagSafe chargers, a few cases and wallets, and some car mounts. But already, third-party manufacturers are making MagSafe battery packs, which will attach to the back of the phone through the built-in magnets and charge wirelessly. Apple is even working on their own version of this, and it is honestly something I expected to see from the day the iPhone 12 was announced. I’ve never liked carrying around battery packs (having a wire is often a bit unwieldy) and though I’ve used battery cases in the past, I hated leaving my beautiful, slim phone in such a bulky case.

But a MagSafe battery pack would kinda be the best of both without the drawbacks; it isn’t a case that stays on the phone all the time, and yet it does attach to the phone and doesn’t use a cable, so it removes the cumbersome nature of regular battery packs.

Winner: The iPhone 12 Pro Max definitely has better stamina. The upcoming MagSafe battery packs will probably allow the 12 mini to last just as long- if not longer- than the 12 Pro Max, but since the 12 Pro Max also has MagSafe, it will also benefit from this option to have even longer battery life.

Using the mini and the Max

I think it is worth talking about how it feels to use these phones, and I don’t mean the operating system. I’m referring to their drastically different sizes.

I mean, the 12 Pro Max has a 6.7-inch screen and the 12 mini has a 5.4-inch display. You’re gonna be holding them differently.

When I first reviewed the 12 mini, I determined that it was the perfect size for me. I’ve always preferred smaller phones like Pixel 4a or the iPhone 5s or, way before that, a tiny HTC phone that I remember fondly but really was a piece of crap. Coming from the iPhone 11, the 12 mini felt like a breath of fresh air.

The 12 Pro Max, on the other hand, is big. It is massive. And I’ll tell you what, I didn’t hate it.

Ok, I hated it. Sometimes. While I found the 12 Pro Max replacing my iPad in many situations (you can read about that here), in others, I found it was simply too big. This is most apparent when I’m trying to use the phone with one hand. Even using a Popsocket on the phone (with a handy, magnetic Popsocket attachment I found on Amazon; you can read about my experiences with that here), which was always my go-to for larger phones, I found that I simply cannot reach all four corners with my thumb. Not even to toggle the one-handed keyboard function. I’ve found myself doing a sort of hand-dance with the phone that reminds me of Wanda Maximoff gearing up to use her powers just to reach everything I need to on the device, which means I’m probably going to drop it at some point since even with the flat edges, the iPhone can still feel like a slippery bar of soap at times. And I can’t even imagine the phone with a case on it (at least, nothing bulkier than Apple’s own silicone or leather cases).

Ok, but I knew going in that the 12 Pro Max was going to be a two-handed phone for me. What I didn’t realize, however, was just in how many situations in my day-to-day life using two hands would be difficult. I apparently use my phone one-handed way more often than I realized, and at times it became a very real struggle to use the 12 Pro Max in the ways that I wanted or needed to.

More than anything, when I’m trying to use the 12 Pro Max in one hand, I feel like I’m either juggling with an $1100 piece of technology or straining my thumb to try to reach things, which brings back painful memories of using the old plus-sized phones; literally, I remember how my thumb would ache over time using those devices, which makes sense because physically the 12 Pro Max isn’t that much bigger than the iPhone 7 Plus.

By comparison, this is a type of stress that the 12 mini simply does not bring. I can easily use the phone in one hand all day without feeling any type of strain on my fingers. The 12 Pro Max is definitely the biggest iPhone I’ve ever used, and though I love the extra-large screen, I found that I primarily loved it at home, when I wasn’t trying to multi-task or carry things. Out in the real world (as few and far between as those journeys are right now), I started to notice how cumbersome the iPhone 12 Pro Max really was. It will definitely be a 2-handed phone for many users, and there are plenty of situations where that may not be feasible (seriously, try using your iPad while carrying shopping bags at the mall, or school books, or literally anything else you can think of that you might be carrying while using your phone).

Now, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows with the 12 mini, either. There were a few times I found the smallness of the device difficult to deal with as well. I mean, the screen is tiny. But when you think about it, it really isn’t that small; compared to the iPhone 4 or 5, which it is most physically similar to, the screen is huge. In fact, it is only slightly smaller than the screen on the 7 Plus. Amazing what we can do with technology these days. That said, I did find that I usually had the 12 mini closer to my face than I did with the 12 Pro Max because everything was smaller. There were times with the 12 mini that I found myself reaching for a bigger screen- like my iPad- where I would have instead just used the 12 Pro Max; for example, watching YouTube in bed, or editing a photo.

But more often than not, I found the 12 mini to be a more comfortable phone to use in most situations. And despite the bigger screen, better camera, and better battery life that the 12 Pro Max brought to the table, I found that these things simply weren’t as useful to me as a phone that was easy to hold.

Winner: For me, the 12 mini wins this round. Anyone should be able to comfortably use this phone. People with larger hands may find the 12 Pro Max more comfortable, but even for my large hands, it was too big to use comfortably day in and day out. But honestly, if you think the 12 mini is too small and the 12 Pro Max is too big, you should probably consider the middle children in the 12 family, the iPhone 12 or 12 Pro.

MagSafe

Ok, so I want to talk about what I think is one of the greatest features of the iPhone 12 line-up: Magsafe.

Granted, both phones benefit from this feature, so I’m not going to declare a winner or loser in this section. But there’s still something I want to talk about in relation to these two devices, which primarily boils down to their sizes.

Outside of cases (obviously), most MagSafe accessories that are available right now are designed to work with all models of the iPhone 12, meaning that they are small enough to fit onto the back of the 12 mini (whose MagSafe connector is closer to both the edges of the device and the camera bump). And the ones I’ve tried- a third-party Popsocket adapter and a third-party battery pack- fit snuggly on the back of the 12 mini like they were made for it specifically. I’ve seen other reviews of the 12 mini saying the same about Apple’s MagSafe wallet.

Right now, the same can’t be said for the 12 Pro Max. Put the same battery pack on the 12 Pro Max and it feels poorly designed like it is going to slide off (or at least, it doesn’t stay centered because the magnets are towards the top of the pack and not the middle). Likewise, the Popsocket connected to the MagSafe spot on the 12 Pro Max puts the Popsocket a little too high up to make it useful (at least, too high for my preferences). And back to those other reviews that have used the MagSafe Wallet; while it fits perfectly on the 12 mini, it looks awkward on the 12 Pro Max and is prone to slipping off in the pocket because it isn’t flush with the edges of the device.

Right now, the 12 mini definitely has a leg up on a lot of MagSafe accessories, and it will continue to do so as long as manufacturers make their accessories “universal”. And if I left it at that, the 12 mini would win this section. But remember, I said there wasn’t going to be a winner here.

That’s because the tide could easily turn against the 12 mini, and quickly. I definitely expect manufacturers will start making accessories that are specific to the size of the iPhone; for example, larger battery packs for larger phones, or some sort of camera attachment that has to be designed specifically with the distance between the MagSafe magnets and the camera bump in mind. And as soon as that happens, the 12 mini could get left behind, as either manufacturers will have to decide to make versions of their accessories for each model of the iPhone 12 or they’ll focus on one or two specific models. And with sales of the 12 mini not being the best out of the 12 line-up, and Apple reducing their manufacturing of the 12 mini in favor of the 12 Pro, companies may end up viewing the 12 mini as an afterthought.

Now, that last paragraph is purely speculation, but I could easily see it going down that road. And that’s why I’m not assigning a winner here, because it really just depends on how companies adapt to MagSafe and which directions they go in. If they make the accessories universal, then the 12 mini is probably going to be the most comfortable option. But if they start catering towards specific iPhone sizes, I fear the 12 mini could easily get left behind.

Just food for thought.

Too Much or Not Enough

If Vesper Lynd was describing iPhones rather than dinner jackets, she might have said that there are iPhones and iPhones. And in Vesper’s comparison, the 12 Pro Max is the latter.

With stainless steel and frosted glass, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is undoubtedly the nicest iPhone I’ve ever held. It doesn’t sound like a huge difference compared to the premium design of the 12 mini, but dammit, the difference is real, and tangible. Seriously, if you’ve never held a “Pro” iPhone, you may not know what you’re missing.

And honestly, before my replacement 12 mini arrived, I thought the decision was made. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best iPhone I’ve ever used.

But then I held the 12 mini again, and despite its poorer battery performance, and despite its lack of sensor-shift or telephoto lens in the camera, I found myself falling for form over function.

The 12 Pro Max may be the best iPhone I’ve ever used, but the 12 mini is the most comfortable iPhone I’ve ever used, at least in a long, long time. And at the end of the day, I want to use a phone that doesn’t feel like a burden to use, even if I may have to charge it more often or buy Apple’s rumored magnetic battery pack.

It seriously does hurt to send the 12 Pro Max back to Apple- I’m really going to miss that frosted glass back more than anything- but for the foreseeable future, the iPhone 12 mini will be the iPhone for me.

I am just clever enough to get myself in trouble…

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