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swadeadday magazine 😄😪😥 Apple iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max Review: Great iPhones, Small Upgrades | WIRED
Apple iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max
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Rating:

7/10

WIRED
Powerful phone with a bright screen, daylong battery life, and great build quality. Features are the same across both sizes. Dynamic Island is fun. Finally has an always-on display. The camera system is great overall.
TIRED
Camera enhancements aren't as huge as Apple suggests. eSIM doesn't easily transfer to Android phones.

Apple loves nothing more than using the word best. The new iPhone 14 Pro is the “best iPhone yet,” with a 48-megapixel camera system that lets you capture the “best photos and video.” It's usually easy to validate these claims after some real-world testing, especially with cameras. Newer, larger image sensors often outperform the old. But this year, the results are … complicated. 

I've snapped more than 250 photos with four phones over the past few days, and last year's iPhone 13 Pro occasionally bested the brand-new model. Even where the iPhone 14 Pro came out on top, the improvements were so marginal that I'm left wondering if Apple just overhyped its product. Don't get me wrong, the 14 Pro has wonderful cameras—some of the best you can get in a smartphone, particularly when it comes to video—but the improvements aren't as dramatic as the company suggests. 

A few other features overshadow these cameras, like the insanely bright display, which can now always stay on, so you never have to tap the screen. The Dynamic Island, which replaces the infamous Face ID notch, is a smart and fun way to make use of dead space. But I'd go so far as to say that, more than anything else, it's iOS 16 that makes this iPhone feel new. Go ahead. Update the iPhone you currently own. With all the new perks the software brings, you might not feel the need to upgrade the hardware. 

Apple Island

The blank space at the top of the screen taken up by the Face ID sensor array now expands to show notifications and controls.

Photograph: Apple

The iPhone 14 range consists of the iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro, and iPhone 14 Pro Max. I've mainly been testing the latter two (in black and “grandma purple," as my friend calls it) for the past week, but I'll be able to write up my thoughts on the cheaper iPhones soon. For what it's worth, most of the new upgrades announced this year are largely exclusive to the Pro models. At the top of the list? Dynamic Island. 

No, it's not a button that transports you to the balmy Caribbean. It's the name for the module that houses the selfie camera and Face ID sensors. Gone is the notch in favor of a smaller pill-shaped cutout, like on a lot of Android phones, but Apple smartly makes use of this space as a second screen of sorts. (LG V10, anyone?) If you play some music, the pill expands slightly to show album art and a music visualizer. Tap it to hop into your music app, or press and hold it to access playback controls. It's the same when you get a phone call, start Maps navigation, or track a Lyft ride. 

The Dynamic Island interactions are animated.

Photograph: Apple

It's nice that you don't need to swipe down on the Notification Center to quickly access these live activities; like the name, it's just playful and fun. It's worth noting that not every app works with the Dynamic Island just yet. YouTube Music worked perfectly well, whereas Google Maps did not. I expect this feature will feel a little richer in a year's time. 

Next, there's the always-on display. It's been a staple feature on Android phones for years, but it's now finally an option (if you want it!) on the iPhone. Apple says it saps very little battery, since the screen runs at a power-sipping 1 Hz, and that seems to track. Put the phone upside down, in your pocket or bag, and the screen shuts off, so you never have to worry if it's drinking your precious battery's juice.

Speaking of the buttery smooth 120-Hz screen, it gets brighter than ever before. Honestly, I'm not sure it's necessary, as I've never found the iPhone's screen lacking in brightness, but I will say that at these extreme brightness levels, the iPhone 14 Pro maintains really fantastic colors, whereas some phone displays tend to wash them out.

In an unusual move, these are the only two iPhones with the latest and greatest A16 Bionic processor (usually the whole range gets the new chip). My benchmark tests show that they are indeed some of the speediest mobile chips out there, and that's reflected in every task, especially gaming. I had flawless performance throughout a 45-minute session playing Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm and Rocket League Sideswipe with my BackBone One controller, and the iPhone didn't get uncomfortably hot. However, are you going to notice a dramatic difference day to day over the A15 Bionic in the iPhone 13 or iPhone 14? Probably not.

OK, it's time to talk about the eSIM. In the US, all iPhone 14 models ship without a physical SIM tray, which means you'll have to set up an eSIM to connect it to your carrier's cellular network. This tech has been around for some time, but this is the first phone that completely ditches the physical SIM system. I'd never used an eSIM before, and I found the process very simple. When I was setting up the iPhone 14 Pro, it asked if I wanted to transfer my number from my iPhone 13 Pro. I obliged, and within a few minutes, my number was on the new phone. No little SIM tool needed! I transferred the number to the iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Pro, and iPhone 14 Pro Max one after the other with no issues.

Until … I decided to transfer my number to an Android phone with eSIM support—the Google Pixel 6 Pro. I wasn't able to get far, because the Pixel just asked me to scan a QR code from my carrier, which I didn't have. That inevitably meant I'd have had to call my carrier if I wanted to move my number from my iPhone to the Pixel. How this is supposed to be easier than just popping a physical SIM in and out, I have no idea. (You're likely not switching to multiple different phones all the time, so this is more of a headache for me.) Yes, eSIMs are more secure. But here it introduces a substantial amount of friction for anyone who doesn't want to stay locked into Apple's ecosystem. I really hope this experience will get better over time with improved interoperability between devices.

Perhaps the best news this year is that once again there's feature parity between the Pro models. They're both made of stainless steel (more durable than the aluminum iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Plus), and they only differ in size and battery life, so you won't feel left out by going with one or the other. I'm partial to the 6.1-inch iPhone 14 Pro—I'm a little tired of nearly dropping the unwieldy Max a few times per day.

With heavy use, the batteries in both Pro iPhones comfortably lasted me a full day, though the iPhone 14 Pro Max has a bit more capacity to tide you over to the following morning (and maybe afternoon). Is it too much to ask for two-day battery life though?

Sea Change

Here's lookin' at you.

Photograph: Apple

The last time Apple changed the megapixel count of its main camera was in 2015 with the iPhone 6S. Now, the main camera takes another leap. The photo sensors on last year's models captured 12 megapixels of image data, but the cameras on the iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max grab 48 megapixels. More megapixels doesn't mean a better photo, but it does mean the ability to capture more detail (and print your photos in larger sizes). It, along with a new image-processing pipeline called the Photonic Engine, is supposed to represent a sea change for the iPhone camera. Unfortunately, I'm not noticing a big upgrade in any meaningful way over last year.

It's important to note that the photos you get by default are all 12-megapixel images. Apple is using a common process called pixel binning to merge the sensor's pixels together to make them larger and thereby absorb more light and produce a brighter image. If you want to utilize the full 48-megapixel sensor (and deal with the larger image file sizes), then you just have to tap the “RAW” button at the top of the camera app. This nets you greater flexibility when editing, as you have more control over the saturation, contrast, brightness, and shadows of the image. I generally felt like I had more to work with in 48-megapixel mode, which often produced cleaner images with more detail. 

But most of my tests were with the default 12-megapixel mode. I took the iPhone 14 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro, iPhone 14, and Google Pixel 6 Pro everywhere I went and compared the results on a color-accurate monitor. They're not clear-cut. There's hardly a bad photo to be found, but when studying the 14 Pro's images, there were too many times when I could barely see what the new upgrades were doing. It can snap slightly sharper and brighter images than its predecessor, especially when shooting some motion, but you have to really look to tell the difference. That's also not always the case; the 13 Pro sometimes took better photos with less noise. I was more surprised to see how often the Pixel 6 Pro kept up.

Apple touted a big upgrade for the ultrawide camera, with a larger sensor to improve low-light capabilities. But a photo I snapped at the Radio City Music Hall in somewhat dim lighting was nearly identical to one from the iPhone 13 Pro, except the predecessor had a leg up on sharpness. Generally, I found the Pixel's ultrawide camera produced sharper photos. 

In addition to a reliable 3X optical zoom, Apple is now using the middle 12 megapixels of the 48-megapixel sensor to enable a 2X zoom that produces really sharp results. This gives you four zoom levels despite three cameras, and I'm all for it. It's more versatile, especially since you can also use it in Portrait mode. Speaking of, one of my favorite additions is foreground blur to Portrait mode, so now it's not just the background that gets blurred out behind a subject, but some part of the foreground as well. It's a nice touch with good results. 

Photograph: Apple

The front camera can capture some mighty clear selfies in good lighting. But its new trick is autofocus. This is supposed to keep your selfies and groupies (ugh) in focus at differing distances to the camera, but I honestly haven't noticed much of a change in the photos I've snapped alongside the iPhone 13 Pro. A few selfies I snapped with my partner were less noisy on the older model. 

Apple still produces some of the best video footage out of a smartphone. I love that Cinematic Video now lets you shoot 4K at 24 frames per second, so I can channel my inner cinematographer. Apple's new Action mode also lets you capture more stabilized footage. To test this, I ran around in a parking lot (as you do) while filming. This mode delivered smoother shots, but the sacrifice is a slightly lower resolution (2.8K), and it also needs a lot of light to work. 

Even if the upgrades feel minuscule, the iPhone 14 Pro still has one of the best mobile camera systems out there. It makes me feel creative; I want to take photos and videos with the iPhone. It's something you only feel with a handful of devices, like the Pixel 6. At a Phoenix concert, when Thomas Mars walked up to the mezzanine right in front of me, I captured it all on video and smoothly cycled between the varying zoom levels as he drifted further away. It just felt so fluid, which plays a big part for me when using a phone camera. 

S.O.S

There are two new features I can't quite test: Crash Detection and SOS Emergency via Satellite. The iPhone will use an array of sensors and algorithms to detect when you've been in a car accident and will contact emergency services if you're unresponsive (like on Google's Pixel phones). It's a similar story when you're in a remote location with no cellular service and need assistance. The iPhone can connect to Globalstar satellites in orbit, allowing you to chat with emergency responders or Apple's own Relay Center. In a demo, I followed onscreen directions to point the iPhone at a satellite overhead; the phone connected and sent my location. It's really cool, and perhaps a little reassuring, but I hope you never have to use either of these features. 

Lastly, Apple says the iPhone 14 has a new internal design that makes it easier (and cheaper) to replace the back glass in the event of an accidental drop. I'm happy to hear that, but I'll wait to see what the folks at iFixit have to say about it. 

At the end of the day, what I find myself liking the most are the new features in iOS 16, many of which aren't restricted to this specific iPhone model. I love the new lock screen, the ability to copy the subject out of a photo and paste it anywhere, and you can finally edit messages! If you have a recent iPhone, you can probably skip the iPhone 14 Pro and just upgrade to the new version of the software. It'll feel brand-new.