iPhone 14 Pro Max review: More Dynamic than ever

The iPhone 14 Pro Max doubles down on a few new tricks to convince you to buy it, but looking past that, it's really just another iPhone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the iPhone 14 Pro Max, Apple’s latest high-end iPhone that starts at $1,099. It’s the bigger version of the standard 14 Pro, and neither device does something that would ruin their respective experiences for virtually any user. In fact, these are some of the best smartphones you can buy, flat-out. They have excellent specs, cameras, and designs, and they’re as good (if not better) than other phones in their price range. But I definitely get it if you can’t bring yourself to buying one.

The big new feature is the Dynamic Island, Apple’s software experience that’s built into the redesigned notch at the top of the phone. It’s the most obvious indicator that, yes, you have the new iPhone. But it’s also perhaps the most basic new feature Apple could include to drive sales. Sure, it’s cool to look at and use, but it’s literally the only new feature most users will notice about the latest Pro-grade iPhones. You won’t notice the new 48MP camera on the outside, for example, and you certainly won’t notice Crash Detection or Emergency SOS via satellite without actually using the phone.

Everything else about the 14 Pro Max is about the same as the 13 Pro Max (the same goes for the regular 14 Pro and 13 Pro). You won’t notice a difference in performance, camera quality is about on par with last year (at least generally speaking), and battery life has seemingly taken a hit this year. Because of that, I can’t imagine anyone with, say, an iPhone 12 would find reason to make the jump, especially if they couldn’t justify the 13.

It’s a weird year for the iPhone. Apple’s kind of just repackaging the iPhone 13, pinning a few new features to it, and calling it a day. Is that a bad thing? No, not really (and you can’t really blame them since the current state of supply chains around the world is as miserable as it is). But it’s another iterative year for the iPhone, and the features the 14 Pro and Pro Max bring to the table are more niche-appealing than Earth-shattering. You have to care about a higher resolution camera, a faster refresh rate on your screen, or a notch that gives you quick controls and looks a bit prettier to justify an upgrade.

If you buy this phone, you’ll love it because it’s a great phone. It just won’t feel new unless you’re coming from an iPhone 11 or earlier.

Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max
The iPhone 14 Pro Max is one of Apple's best iPhones yet, with great performance, camera quality, and battery life. But the features they tacked on this year - Dynamic Island, 48MP camera, always-on display - aren't compelling enough to justify an upgrade for a lot of users.
Design
9
Display
10
Performance
9.5
Camera
8.5
Battery
9
Reader Rating0 Votes
0
Pros
Beautiful display
48MP camera adds a ton of versatility
A16 Bionic adds excellent performance
Long battery life
Cons
Dynamic Island is cool, but not life-changing
Always-on display drains battery
No fast charging
9.2
A great iPhone, but a so-so upgrade

The Dynamic Island is certainly… dynamic

The Dynamic Island feels like a feature Apple tacked onto the iPhone 14 Pro series because it realizes there wasn’t a killer feature that would entice non-pro smartphone users to buy iPhone Pros. It’s slick and cool to look at, sure, but it’s a little gimmicky and basic at the same time.

It sits atop an “I”-shaped notch at the top of the iPhone which, other than the slightly larger camera bump on the back, is the only you can tell a 14 Pro from a 13 Pro. It’s no wonder that Apple poured so much time and effort into making the new notch an actual feature and not just a cheap way to make the new iPhone look a little different.

Apple’s doing a lot of software work to make the Dynamic Island feel as natural to use as possible. They’re using some custom pixel restructuring to make the sides as round as possible, and each animation has been crafted meticulously for (presumably) quite some time. The end result is a pill-shaped cutout at the top of your phone that almost magically comes to life when you play music, use Face ID, start a timer, and more.

Touching and holding the island will spring quick controls to life for whatever app you’re using (I’ve found music playback and voice recordings to be the most convenient to access here), while a simple tap will open whatever app is powering the island at that moment. If you fire up actions in two separate apps that use the Dynamic Island, it’ll split in two and act like a second multitasking interface.

It’s all very fun to play with, without question. But its usefulness is definitely up in the air. The number one way I use the Dynamic Island is to control my music, and I can already do that in Control Center with a swipe down from the corner of the screen. The island doesn’t improve or hinder this experience – it’s kind of just sitting there, another method of pressing pause or skipping a track.

Other apps like the voice recorder and timer will be far more useful thanks to the Dynamic Island, but you really have to use either app a lot for the island’s presence to mean anything. If you don’t regularly need quick access to controls in apps running in the background, you might not be touching the island all that much. That’ll at least save your selfie camera from getting all greased up with fingerprints.

For those who don’t interact with the island by touching it, Apple’s got you covered. In iOS 16.1, Live Activities are supported, which will show you continuously-updated information like sports scores and ETAs for ride sharing services. This will make the island a lot more useful, I think, but I wasn’t able to test it.

The Dynamic Island is also the new home for UI elements like Face ID verification and volume adjustments, eliminating their presence from the middle of your screen. This, my friends, is what we call in the business “excellent UI design.” Face ID expanding from the notch to verify your identity, then shrinking back to its original size feels incredibly natural and obvious, in a way you can only appreciate once you’ve seen it in real life. The only thing missing is notification support – please Apple, get rid of the current notification UI and integrate it with the island. It would look so freaking good.

No, the Dynamic Island isn’t a gimmick. I actually think it’s genuinely useful and has a lot of potential. But for me, it falls in that category of “nice to have” instead of “must-have” like Apple would lead you to believe. It’s by no means a reason to upgrade, but it’s great that it’s there.

Display: Super bright and always-on

The Dynamic Island sits atop a screen that hasn’t changed all that much year-over-year. The 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR display on the 14 Pro Max looks a lot like the 13 Pro Max, and that’s because it’s essentially the same panel. It has a few extra pixels thanks to the lack of a larger cutout, but beyond that, a lot of the specs are the same.

Am I complaining? Not one bit. The last few iPhones have had some of the best displays I’ve ever seen, and the 14 Pro Max is no different. It displays some of the most accurate color you’ll find on a phone, it’s completely flat, viewing angles are a non-issue, and the 120Hz refresh rate keeps everything silky-smooth.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s the best screen I’ve ever used on a phone, all for one reason in particular: brightness. The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max can get up to 2,000 nits bright, which is pretty insane. Apple reserves the peak 2,000 nits for times when you’re playing HDR content, so there’s no real way to get it that high manually. But even the extra headroom the increase affords the display is enough to make a difference in day-to-day usage. I can see this screen far easier in direct sunlight through my sunglasses than I could my 13 Pro, for instance.

Of course, the extra brightness isn’t the new screen feature that Apple is pouring marketing dollars into – it’s the always-on mode. For the first time on an iPhone (and five years after it switched to OLED), Apple is including an always-on display, a feature that’s been shipping on Android phones for more years than I can count.

On the iPhone, it works the way you’d expect it to. You can view the time, date, notifications, and more by simply glancing at your screen while it’s sleeping. Apple makes their always-on mode fancier than others with a darkened version of your lock screen wallpaper and some nice fade-out animations.

The final product is an always-on display that, oddly, takes some getting used to. If you’ve used an always-on display in the past, you’re probably used to it fading to black before a simple white clock appears with a few other tidbits of information. The iPhone does this a lot differently: it just darkens your lock screen, keeping things like notifications and widgets perfectly visible.

It’s pretty jarring compared to something like the Pixel 7 Pro’s always-on display which is just a clock, the date, and weather. If your iPhone’s sitting on your desk, it’s easy to get tripped out and think it never went to sleep and the lock screen is still active. There’s also no way to customize it without making changes to the lock screen itself. There’s a single toggle in the Settings app to turn it on or off, so you can’t ask it to avoid showing your wallpaper or notifications if you want.

The worst part is it drains your battery. It’s a difference of about 5-10 percent depending on how much time it spends out of my pocket (it turns itself off when inside your pocket or bag), and that’s way to much for me to keep it turned on. For a vast majority of my testing period, I had AOD disabled. It’s just not worth the battery sacrifice.

It’s nice that the feature is here after years of Apple neglecting to include it, but it’s far from perfect. I’m crossing my fingers that Apple lets us customize it in the future so I can just have a simple clock or something.

Cameras: Do 48 megapixels matter?

The iPhone 14 Pro series is getting the biggest jump in camera technology that the iPhone has seen since the iPhone 6S in 2015. The phone is finally switching away from 12-megapixels to 48-megapixels for its main lens. That’s four times the amount as before, but with any new hardware comes the obvious question: does that actually mean anything in terms of quality?

The answer is unsurprisingly complicated. Apple made not one, but two bold shifts with the camera setup on the iPhone 14 Pro series: it boosted the resolution of the main lens and re-engineered its entire photo processing pipeline. It’s now called the “Photonic Engine,” which I guess is meant to spark feelings of serious camera capabilities packed inside these phones.

With each sensor, Apple’s doing a similar level of processing compared to the 13 Pro last year. It’s taking a bunch of shots, lining them all up, and picking the best bits from each one. What’s different is when it kicks in Deep Fusion, the technology that’s built to pull out more details from your shots. Depending on how dark it is in your environment, Apple is flicking Deep Fusion on earlier and earlier, which it says helps to achieve better overall low-light and nighttime photos.

The 48MP main lens ties right into that same idea of using the technology at hand at appropriate times to make each photo look nicer. Like every other large megapixel smartphone sensor, Apple is using pixel binning to make the most of each photo. Instead of 48MP pictures, the iPhone 14 Pro captures 12MP pictures by default. Those 12MP are far larger than the ones on the 13 Pro, however, since each is concocted of four individual megapixels instead of one. The result is the phone’s ability to capture a lot more light, detail, and color in each photo captured.

So, did Apple do it? Has it created the best camera system ever on a smartphone with these changes?

No, they haven’t. Each photo I take on the main sensor is delightful, mind you. It’s as high quality as the past two iPhone Pros have been, with excellent detail and sharpness. At night, it’s the same experience, and if you stand still long enough, the extra processing the camera does can result in some truly amazing shots. But the quality here isn’t an improvement, I’d say. It’s more of a side-step compared to the 13 Pro.

It comes down to how the Photonic Engine processes each picture. It’s solid and reliable, of course, but sometimes it kicks out a photo that’s just a little off. Pictures that need heavy HDR processing is an example of this. On the 14 Pro, Apple’s far more willing to let highlights blow out before trying to artificially reduce them. That didn’t happen on the 13 Pro, at least as far I can remember.

Left: iPhone 14 Pro Max | Right: iPhone 13 Pro

Contrasts are also tweaked over last year. The 13 Pro tended to process things a bit software and blended in, while the 14 Pro wants to draw a much starker contrast between bright and dim areas of your picture. Neither of these practices are wrong or bad, they’re just different.

Left: iPhone 14 Pro Max | Right: Pixel 7 Pro

Compared to phones like the Pixel 7 Pro, you’re looking at pictures that will appeal to different users. Yet again, there’s no clear winner in terms of quality here. Google phones take Google photos, Apple phones take Apple photos, Samsung phones take Samsung photos. It’s all a matter of preference (although I will say, it’s a bit of a shame we don’t have an obvious contender for the best camera you can get on a phone).

While the look of photos hasn’t taken a jump in quality, the amount of things you can do with iPhone’s camera have. That 48MP camera is certainly capable of taking 48MP photos – you just have to flick on ProRAW. I like doing that when I’m gonna take a photo into Lightroom so I have extra detail to mess with.

iPhone 14 Pro Max 12MP 2x photo

Speaking of which, the extra detail from the 48MP camera can be used to crop in at 2x without losing any quality, since it just uses the middle 12MP of the sensor for the photo. Apple’s still limiting zoom capabilities to 15x (the 3x telephoto lens didn’t get any neat tricks this year), but I didn’t find that to be a big deal.

Portrait mode got an upgrade with the ability to use a 1x or 2x crop instead of strictly 3x like before. In addition, both the 12MP ultra-wide and telephoto cameras can capture more light and detail thanks to improved sensors.

On the video side of things, Apple is still the king. There’s no 8K video support despite the 48MP camera, but you can still capture great-looking 4K 30fps clips. Cinematic mode, the company’s special faux-blur effect to make videos feel like they were shot on larger sensors, can now be used at either 4K 30fps or 24fps (the latter being my choice since it looks the most cinematic). It seems to work a lot better than it did last year, which is nice to see, although it’s still not perfect and fails to focus on the right subject sometimes.

There’s a new Action mode this year which does exactly as you’d expect: stabilize video to the point where you can run around with your iPhone without it coming out all shaky. The problem is it actually sucks to use. It crops really far into the frame and maxes out at 2.8K instead of 4K. Plus, you can only use it during the day since at nighttime, it freaks out and simply doesn’t work. You’re better off getting some sort of tripod or gimbal to stabilize your iPhone if you plan to be running around.

The iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max have excellent camera systems, but so did the 13 Pro. They shake things up with a few new capabilities and features, some of which do feel like nice reason to get a 14 Pro. But by no means would I recommend upgrading to this phone simply because of the camera (unless you’re coming from an iPhone 11 or something). Maybe next year, Apple will redo everything and give us something truly spectacular to use. Until then, just know that it’s as good as any Pixel or Galaxy phone, and it exceeds both in video quality.

Safety: Emergency SOS and Crash Detection are great for piece of mind

Apple has taken a pretty aggressive stance that its devices could save your life one day, hence giving you a reason to buy them. They’ve had that pitch with the Apple Watch for a while with its fall detection and heart rate monitoring, and now, it’s taking a similar approach with the iPhone.

On the iPhone 14 series, Apple includes a new Emergency SOS via Satellite system which can give you a cellular signal when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and need assistance. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work here – each text message sent goes to a communication center employed and operated by Apple, then transferred to the necessary emergency service center based on your location and conditions – but it seems relatively easy to use. Your iPhone will point you in the direction of the closest satellite to give you the strongest connection possible, then allow you to make emergency communication with someone.

There’s also Crash Detection, which can automatically alert emergency services if it thinks you’ve been in a crash. It takes in a lot of different factors to make a determination like the status of the sensors on your phone, how fast you’re going, cabin pressure, sounds, and more. If it’s triggered, you’ll have 20 seconds to disable it, otherwise emergency services will be contacted.

I haven’t tested either of these features, but I’ll take Apple’s word that they’ll work reliably once enacted. In the mean time, they’re both good for peace of mind in case – God forbid – you find yourself in a situation where either is needed.

Performance and software: Basically the same

“They’re both good. Moving on…”

That’s what I wanted to write for this section because, well, it’s true. The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max get the new A16 Bionic chip, but using the 14 Pro Max and my 13 Pro side-by-side, I couldn’t notice any performance difference. You’ll only see that in benchmarks which the 14 Pro will rank higher on (because of course it does). Other than those rudimentary numbers, you’ll have a hard time finding a performance increase on this phone unless you’re coming from a four-year-old iPhone or a semi-recent Android device.

iOS 16, the latest version of Apple’s operating system for the iPhone, is sort of the same way. I like the added flexibility of the new lock screen, editing messages in iMessage, sharing pictures in the iCloud Share Photo Library, and typing with haptic feedback flicked on. But it’s iOS, and it’s exactly what you’d expect: heavy on Apple’s ecosystem and the apps available through the App Store, light on everything else. If previous versions of iOS weren’t enough to sway you from Android, this one won’t be either.

Battery life was gone for a minute, but it’s back now

Quick side note: sorry for the Logic reference in that headline, but it’s too perfect a way to sum up my experience with battery life on the 14 Pro Max.

For context, I’ve been using this phone since launch day (a.k.a. September 19th), so I’ve seen this battery go through the ups and downs of Early Adopter-ship. I was among many early adopters who complained that battery life wasn’t up to par with that of the 13 Pro Max, with some users noting that the 14 was lasting anywhere from one to six hours less in comparison. I didn’t have a 13 Pro Max to compare it to, but I can tell you that it was only marginally better than my 13 Pro, which came as a shock to me.

However, it looks like that was a simple software issue. After Apple released iOS 16.0.3, I noticed my 14 Pro Max was lasting much longer on a full charge. On lighter days, the device could have as much as 65-70 percent left in the tank after being unplugged 16 hours prior. On heavier days, I would regularly have 50-55 percent left, which would be enough to get me through an entire second day.

Without a 13 Pro Max to compare it to, I can’t say whether it’s any better or worse. But I can tell you that Apple must’ve identified some issue with iOS, patched it up, and got the phone back to lasting a really long time on a full charge.

When it comes time to juice back up, you’ll be sad to hear that the 14 Pro Max only supports 27W charging. I’d really like to know what’s stopping Apple from upping the ante to 30W, let alone something actually fast like 45W. From zero to 100 percent, it takes the phone around an hour and a half to recharge. That’s nearly unacceptable in this day and age where we literally have phones with 125W charging and can recharge completely in under a half hour.

Forget the USB-C port, as nice as it would be. If Apple’s gonna stick with Lightning, at least give us faster charging.

Wireless charging remains capped at 15W, in case you were wondering, and you still have to use a MagSafe charger to get there. There’s still no reverse wireless charging on the iPhone 14 series which is kind bizarre, because it’d be really convenient to charge my AirPods Pro on the back of my phone while I’m using it. Maybe one day we’ll get it.

eSIM kinda sucks, kinda doesn’t

It wouldn’t be an iPhone 14 review without mentioning the lack of a physical SIM slot. For the very first time in the iPhone’s existence, Apple is using electronic SIM cards exclusively in place of physical SIMs. This is only in the United States, but it’s widely assumed that the change will affect other markets over the coming years.

When setting up an iPhone 14 or 14 Pro, you’ll be asked to convert your physical SIM card to an eSIM. Apple provides easy ways to do this if you’re on a big carrier, but if you’re not, you’ll need to go through that process beforehand. I have T-Mobile and was able to do it in under two minutes. Afterward, the eSIM downloads to your iPhone, activates, and you’re ready to go. You can then download up to seven additional eSIMs and use two of them consecutively.

The main concern around this change isn’t whether eSIM works as good as a physical SIM – it’s whether moving an eSIM to another phone is as easy as moving a physical SIM.

From iPhone to iPhone, that process is easy. There’s an option in the Settings app that lets you request a move to another iPhone, and that process couldn’t be any easier. But from iPhone to Android and vice versa, it’s a bit more complicated.

At least on T-Mobile, you have to go through the app and punch in the IMEI of the device you’d like to activate. Then, go to the second device and request to download an eSIM. I did this a handful of times and only got stuck once: I transferred my eSIM between my iPhone 14 Pro Max and Pixel 7 Pro about three or four times in a day, and the eSIM kept trying to send itself to my Pixel (where it already was) after I requested to move it to my iPhone. I had to get in touch with T-Mobile support to get it resolved.

That was the only time I broke it, mind you. Ohter than that, using eSIM has been an effortless process. Does it suck that you can’t just pop the SIM out and move it to a new phone in 20 seconds? Yes. Does it feel like another way Apple is keeping you locked into its ecosystem? Yes. But is it that big a deal? No, and I don’t think normal people (a.k.a. those who don’t switch their phone every week) will have any real issues with it.

Speakers, call quality, and cases

The speakers on the iPhone 14 Pro Max definitely continue the reign of the best speakers you can get on a phone. They sound full, crisp, clear, and offer a good amount of bass. Android phones are starting to inch up – the Pixel 7 Pro, in particular, sounds excellent – but Apple is still the best at this.

Call quality was solid. I didn’t experience any issues with placing calls over cellular or Wi-Fi, and everything sound as clear as it could be. In other words, eSIM makes absolutely no difference.

Finally, I’d like to talk about cases. The 14 Pro Max, despite its massive size, demands a case thanks to its slippery edges and glass enclosure. I try to not bulk the phone up too much with a case since it’s already a behemoth, and I found some that I’m super into. Here’s five I’d recommend.

  • Nomad Sport case: It’s slim, it’s sporty, and the Marine Blue is awesome.
  • Nomad Rugged case: Not too thick or bulky, but still adds all the protection you’ll need.
  • Totalee Thin case: A really nice low-profile case that’s helpful if you just wanna add some grip to your iPhone.
  • Spigen Mag Armor case: A solid go-to case if you just want a case for your iPhone.
  • Spigen MagSafe clear case: My personal favorite clear case. It doesn’t get very yellow like a lot of other cases over time, and it includes MagSafe compatibility.

Should you buy the iPhone 14 Pro Max?

Apple is introducing a lot of new stuff with the iPhone 14 Pro Max: Dynamic Island, a 48MP camera, a brighter screen, eSIM-exclusivity. That’s all interesting to sit and ponder about, but these are all iterative updates to an iPhone formula that we’ve had since 2020.

That doesn’t make the iPhone 14 Pro Max a bad phone. I love this device, and anyone who buys it will too. But like the past couple generations of iPhone, the 14 Pro Max (and 14 Pro, for that matter) is geared toward those who have iPhones older than three years or don’t have iPhones at all. If you have an Android phone, want to grab an iPhone, and need the best iPhone experience possible, this is the phone to buy. It’s expensive, but you’ll dig it.

Everyone else is probably fine with their current phone. If you have an iPhone 12 or 13, wait it out until Apple releases a phone that’s a larger upgrade in comparison. Plus, you may as well let Apple figure out what it’s doing with all the new features it’s introduced on the 14 Pro. The Dynamic Island needs a little work, the cameras will likely morph into something better next year, and maybe Apple will alter the design a bit more (otherwise we’d be looking at year four of the flat-side look).

The iPhone 14 Pro Max is a great phone without any huge reason to upgrade. These are all nice-to-have’s instead of game-changers, and that’s okay. So long as you’re coming from an older iPhone, you’ll dig it.