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iPhone 12 might be good enough. How to know if you really need the Pro or Pro Max model

If you're perusing the iPhone 12 lineup, these are the features that might convince you to go pro.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
7 min read

Don't pay for more phone than you need. The premium iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max might just be money down the drain.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are among the highest-rated phones  CNET has ever reviewed. With features including 5G , a super-fast and powerful processor and fantastic rear cameras, the iPhone 12 line will likely be a top choice for anyone in need of a phone. But Apple released four iPhone 12 variants, including the iPhone 12 Pro Max and a whole new model called the iPhone 12 Mini. The company is splitting these devices into two distinct categories: the regular iPhone 12 line and the Pro models, aimed at people who love photography and have more money to spend. (One difference between the two? Only the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini come in Apple's new purple hue.)

To see which phone is best for you and your budget, I compared the iPhone 12 with the two Pro devices, the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, taking into account their design, cameras, performance and other features. Read on to see which one is right for you.

Read more: iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max vs. iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max: Apple's premium phones compared

Patrick Holland/CNET

Starting at $829 (£799, AU$1,349), the iPhone 12 isn't the cheapest of Apple's new iPhone 12 variants. That title would go to the iPhone 12 Mini, which costs $729 (£699, AU$1,1999). But the iPhone 12 has a bigger screen and is the most affordable of all three phones in this comparison. And while it still features the A14 Bionic processor and dual rear cameras, it doesn't have a telephoto lens. The device's base memory option starts lower, at 64GB instead of 128GB, as well.

Read our Apple iPhone 12 review.

Read more: Best eco-friendly iPhone 12 and 12 Pro cases

Patrick Holland/CNET

Get the iPhone 12 Pro if you want nearly all of the hardware benefits of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but in the smaller body of the iPhone 12. These goodies include the aforementioned telephoto camera, a brighter screen, lidar sensors and camera tools like ProRaw.

Read our Apple iPhone 12 Pro review.


The iPhone 12 Pro Max basically has all the latest and greatest features from Apple. Its 6.7-inch display means it's the biggest of all the new models and its camera setup, while similar to the iPhone 12 Pro, allows for more close-up zooming. Whether you like to binge-watch a lot of video on your phone or want to take the absolute best photos and video, the Pro Max will satisfy. Unfortunately, this also means it's expensive. At its largest memory capacity, it costs a whopping $1,399 (£1,399, AU$2,369).

Read our Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review.

Watch this: Our in-depth review of the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro

Design: Polished, signature Apple look across the board

In general, all three iPhone 12 models look similar. All have OLED displays, are IP68 rated for water-resistance, have magnetic backings that work with new MagSafe chargers and accessories and they have more durable screens strengthened by ceramic. And like past iPhone models, they don't have headphone jacks.

But the most notable difference is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the biggest screen. Get the 6.7-inch Pro Max if you're sure you want to have the most immersive experience you can watching movies, playing graphic-intensive games and video conferencing with your friends and family.

If you'd rather get something smaller, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro have 6.1-inch displays with the same resolution and pixel density, so images will look equally sharp no matter what device you choose. But the iPhone 12 Pro's display is brighter -- its screen features 800 nits of brightness compared to the iPhone 12's 625 nits. While I don't anticipate any issues with the iPhone 12's display, the iPhone 12 Pro's additional brightness is likely to come in handy when you're looking at your phone outdoors on a sunny day.

Though the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are the same size, the 12 Pro is heavier thanks to its extra hardware and the fact that, like the iPhone 12 Pro Max, it's made of stainless steel. The iPhone 12, meanwhile, is made out of aluminum. It's strong in its own right and lighter than steel, but it's not as tough.

The iPhone 12 comes in six color variants: a deep blue, a minty green, red, purple, white and black. Though the choices aren't as fun as the previous year's iPhone 11 pastels (with the exception of purple, which didn't arrive until 6 months after the iPhone 12 launch), it's more vibrant than the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, which have four colors. Apple offers the familiar grey, silver and gold as well as a grayish-blue it calls Pacific blue.

Read more: The best phone to buy for 2021

iPhone 12 has perfectly flat sides and it's wonderful

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iPhone 12 Pro models have telephoto camera, Night Mode portraits and ProRaw

All phones have identical wide and ultrawide cameras to take photos with a wide field of view. But the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max have a third telephoto lens, which allows for optical zoom and improved portrait photos, though the iPhone 12 can still take portraits.

Note that the Pro models' telephoto lenses have different apertures. The iPhone 12 Pro has an f2.0 aperture while the iPhone 12 Pro Max's aperture is f2.2. They also have different zoom ranges. The 12 Pro has a digital zoom up to 10x and an optical zoom of 4x. The iPhone 12 Pro Max can go in even closer: it can digitally zoom up to 12x and it has a 5x optical zoom.

The Pro models also have two more things the iPhone 12 doesn't: lidar and ProRaw. Lidar sensors use infrared lasers to scan for depth, dimension and distance. It's similar to the technology that Face ID uses to scan your face to unlock your iPhone, but it has a longer range. Now that it's included in a rear camera, lidar is great for low-light photography, specifically portrait photos in Night Mode. (Lidar also can be used for AR, which I will go into detail later.) 


The iPhone 12 Pro (right) and Pro Max have a third telephoto lens.

Patrick Holland/CNET

ProRaw is a feature aimed at photography enthusiasts. Saving photos in raw allows for greater control and editing after you capture an image because the file format is uncompressed. But since raw images are also unprocessed, you don't get the benefits of Apple's image processing. ProRaw aims to give you the best of both -- these images are processed for noise reduction and dynamic range, but not other things like white balance. 

You also get more options with video if you choose one of the Pro models. Though all iPhone 12 devices have HDR video recording with Dolby Vision, the iPhone 12 captures this video at 30 frames per second. But on the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max you can capture it at the much faster rate of 60fps. Digital zoom is different across the iPhone 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max as well. For video you can zoom up to 3x, 6x and 7x, respectively.

One thing the iPhone 12 Pro Max has that none of the other iPhone 12 handsets have is a different type of image stabilization for video called sensor-shift image stabilization (also known as in-body image stabilization. Usually seen in premium mirrorless cameras, it means that the stabilization system is located inside the camera itself, on top of other stabilization methods like  digital and electronic techniques and the phone's gyroscope. Whether or not this means the iPhone 12 Pro Max is noticeably better at stabilizing video than the iPhone 12 or 12 Pro remains to be seen.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro has a bold, striking no-frills look

See all photos

iPhone 12 and 12 Pro battery life and processing speeds

The three iPhone 12 models are equipped with Apple's A14 Bionic chip. We haven't tested the iPhone 12 Pro Max yet, but we did test the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. Both netted comparable scores on benchmark tests and actually scored the highest numbers on any phone we've ever tested. We expect the iPhone 12 Pro Max to get similar marks and I'll update the piece when those numbers come in.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Apple iPhone 12 10,988Apple iPhone 12 Pro 11,494
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 single-core

Apple iPhone 12 1,591Apple iPhone 12 Pro 1,605
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 multicore

Apple iPhone 12 3,847Apple iPhone 12 Pro 4,107
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Apple doesn't disclose the battery capacity of its phones and public knowledge of how big iPhone batteries usually come from unofficial, third-party teardowns. We did, however, conduct preliminary tests for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. We ran a single battery test for continuous video playback on Airplane mode and the iPhone 12 lasted 17 hours, 14 minutes while the iPhone 12 Pro drained a bit faster at 15 hours, 56 minutes. Due to its size, it's likely the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the biggest battery of the three. But runtime may remain relatively similar, so we expect its numbers to be around 15 to 17 hours. Check back with this piece though when final results are in for all three phones.

Other features to consider: Lidar scanners and memory capacities

I already mentioned the benefits of the lidar scanners in the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max in relation to photography. But the sensors can enhance augmented reality features too. It can carry out AR tasks faster (think: building out a detailed 3D map of a room within minutes) or execute much more complicated tasks like occlusion, which is when you place a virtual object behind a real one. We'll learn more about the full scope of the iPhone 12 Pro's lidar capabilities when more developers use the technology, but apps and services like Snapchat are already updating their software to take advantage of it.

The iPhone 12 starts at a lower base memory capacity and comes in 64GB, 128GB and 256GB options. The Pro models' tiers are 128GB, 256GB and 512GB. Only you can determine how much memory you need and if your budget allows for more. But if you plan on capturing a ton of photos or shooting a lot of high-resolution videos, you'll need more memory if you want to save them locally. If you plan on subscribing to Apple's iCloud storage service, onboard memory shouldn't be much of an issue.

Watch this: Everything Apple announced at its iPhone 12 event

iPhone 12, 12 Mini, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max specs

Apple iPhone 12Apple iPhone 12 MiniApple iPhone 12 ProApple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Display size, resolution 6.1-inch OLED; 2,532x1,170 pixels5.4-inch OLED; 2,340x1,080 pixels6.1-inch OLED; 2,532x1,170 pixels6.7-inch OLED; 2,778x1,284 pixels
Pixel density 460ppi476ppi460ppi458ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.78 x 2.82 x 0.29 in5.18 x 2.53 x 0.29 in5.78 x 2.82 x 0.29 in6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4 mm131.5 x 64.2 x 7.4 mm146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4 mm160.8 x 78.1 x 7.4 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.78oz; 164g4.76 oz; 135g6.66 oz; 189g8.03 oz; 228g
Mobile software iOS 14iOS 14iOS 14iOS 14
Camera 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultrawide)12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultrawide)12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 12-megapixel (telephoto)12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 12-megapixel12-megapixel12-megapixel12-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor Apple Bionic 14Apple Bionic 14Apple Bionic 14Apple Bionic 14
Storage 64GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB
RAM UndisclosedUndisclosedUndisclosedUndisclosed
Expandable storage NoNoNoNo
Battery Undisclosed; Apple lists 15 hours of video playbackUndisclosed; Apple lists 15 hours of video playbackUndisclosed; Apple lists 17 hours of video playbackUndisclosed; Apple lists 17 hours of video playback
Fingerprint sensor No (Face ID)No (Face ID)No (Face ID)No (Face ID)
Connector LightningLightningLightningLightning
Headphone jack NoNoNoNo
Special features 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) Lidar scanner; 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) Lidar scanner; 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM)
Price off-contract (USD) $829 (64GB), $879 (128GB), $979 (256GB)$729 (64GB), $779 (128GB), $879 (256GB)$999 (128GB), $1,099 (256GB), $1,299 (512GB)$1,099 (128GB), $1,199 (256GB), $1,399 (512GB)
Price (GBP) £799 (64GB), £849 (128GB), £949 (256GB)£699 (64GB), £749 (128GB), £849 (256GB)£999 (128GB), £1,099 (256GB), £1,299 (512GB)£1,099 (128GB), £1,199 (256GB), £1,399 (512GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,349 (64GB), AU$1,429 (128GB), AU$1,599 (256GB)AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,279 (128GB), AU$1,449 (256GB)AU$1,699 (128GB), AU$1,869 (256GB), AU$2,219 (512GB)AU$1,849 (128GB), AU$2,019 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB)