Tick TOCK: The iPhone 12 Pro Max Max

My new camera has arrived and I bought it in gold.

Two years ago I had an iPhone 6s Plus, which I got only by pressing the manager of a local Apple retail store when my version 6 Plus phone died and they were out of stock of that model—Apple has strict rules about replacing a phone with an exact copy, color and everything. They had the 6 available in every color but mine but for reasons I don’t recall they were thinking about giving me a 6s rather than one of the other colors. When they tried, the computer said no, and I had been there for over an hour at that point.

The solution? The manager filled out a form that they use for sales during blackouts, somehow bypassing their computer safeguards. That’s what good managers do, and I have long been a buyer of Apple products, from my first purchase in 1986 of a Mac Plus to this iPhone 12 Max Max (the second “Max” my informal additional suffix reflecting the maxed-out memory).

If I think of just the Apple products in my house right now it does surprise: One iMac, six MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, five iPads, three Apple Watches, two Apple TVs, three AirPod Pros, and a HomePod. Not to mention the iPads and watches I’ve given as gifts in the past and the stuff I have sold and the boxes in my office to be given this Christmas and all of the Apple products people have purchased on my recommendation, even during the dark years of Apple’s history. It’s a little insane when you count it all up.

Last year I upgraded to the iPhone 11 Pro Max and did so entirely for the camera. The jump from the regular 6 to the 6s was noticeable and the jump to the 11 Pro Max was astonishing. The colors were so much better, the camera so much smarter at thinking about what it was seeing and adjusting exposure and processing to get so much out of that little sensor chip. The three lenses were great, although I didn’t think the ultra-wide was sharp enough for serious work. The week I bought it I remember telling people that I might be upgrading again in 2020 as I suspected we had entered a period of rapidly-paced improvements to the camera that would justify successive upgrades, just for the photography technology.

There’s an accounting category in my head labeled “phone” and here I am stingy. What does a new phone do that really benefits my life? I primarily text and use the web on my phone, with a few phone calls. My 6s Plus would still be fine for me if that is all iPhones were. In my head there is another category labeled “photography.” That category has experienced a lot of churn in the past ten or fifteen years as I have switched over from film to primarily digital and upgraded my cameras and lenses again and again to take advantage of the steep curve of innovation in digital photography. I call it the hamster wheel. But with traditional digital cameras the hamster wheel is slowing down, all lenses are quite good, some spectacular, and even cheap cameras are perfectly adequate to produce images technically superior to most anything produced in the film days.

With iPhones the hamster wheel is starting to speed up, making up for the inferior size of their sensor chip with seemingly magical capabilities allowed by their fast processors and advanced software.

In biological evolution things move forward in a process called punctuated equilibrium. That is to say, rapid change (e.g. in response to some change in the environment) followed by relative stasis (as the environment stabilizes). Apple does the punctuated part well enough but not so much with the equilibrium part. They make big changes in one year followed by incremental improvements in following years. The iPhone 11 Pro was the big jump and the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the incremental improvement. But the word “incremental” has the flavor of “unimportant” to it when in fact the changes are better described as relentless innovation.

Sometimes, in the tech world, this is referred to as the Tick-Tock cycle, where the Tick is the jump and the Tock is the incremental improvement. Really, though, it should be Tick-Tock-Tock-Tock as that better fits the pattern.

The specs for the camera system of the iPhone 12 Max don’t offer anything that screams at you, no “must-have” killer app feature that will delight non-photographers. But as a tool to create images it offers those relentless improvements and offers them everywhere. It is the first “Tock.”

The ultra-wide lens is said to be sharper, though still fixed focus. The wide lens—the regular lens—now has a larger sensor at the same resolution. That means that each of the little photosites on the sensor is larger and should be happier in low light. The long lens is a bit longer, now equivalent to 65mm vs 52mm, which is probably just enough of a difference to be meaningful.

The regular lens has an improved anti-shake capability for handheld images, the camera’s ability to shoot in the almost-dark has improved in a variety of ways, including a kind of radar technology that assists focusing in low light and will also make the fake bokeh processing more accurate with, hopefully, no weird transitions at edges.

It’s moving almost too fast now, I’m not even sure I fully understand which lens does what anymore nor all of the changes in the software. There’s a lot that is new, more and more the more I look.

In my formative years I understood the photographic process. I understood how the shutter worked, I understood how the lens formed the image, how the negative was affected by processing, I understood how to print the image. I was on the inside of the machine so to speak, moving the controls, guiding it all to my destination. Maybe now I need to accept that, with the iPhone at least, I’m essentially driving the car, with little understanding of what is really going on deep down, but I have these controls I can manipulate in various ways, and I can understand the things they might do, and I’m more indicating to the machine the direction I want to go rather than turning the gears inside the car’s engine myself.

I like the gold color. I bought the California poppy-colored case, a change from the green I had before.


Update

I’ve never had a defective-out-of-the-box Appel product but I did this time. The side button–the one you use to put the phone to sleep, to invoke Siri, with a double-click, and to confirm Apple Pay charges (again, a double click) was faulty. It was sticking out much less than the volume control buttons of the other side and when I tried to click it there was no obvious moment or sense of pressing a button, nor any sort of click. Trying to press it did not cause the iPhone to go to sleep, nor anything else, though, quite oddly, it did work in conjunction with a press on the volume button to call up the SOS/Power-off screen.

The big problem for me was that I wanted to use the iPhone on a photography trip and I was leaving the next morning (more about this later) and I wondered–if the phone ran out of power or if I shut it off for some reason, how would I turn it back on without the side button working? I was concerned. A chat with an Apple expert didn’t resolve anything, other than my phone really was defective and that if I was in a hurry maybe I could stop by an Apple Store and hope for the best.

And so I did. The iPhone 12 Max had launched only a few days earlier but the store at Hillsdale Mall had one of mine still in stock–the 512GB models probably are not the top sellers due to the cost. The employee who helped me switch the phone for the new one had worked for Apple for eight years but had never seen a defective-out-of-the-box phone either. He asked for my phone number and whether it would be okay for an Apple engineer to call me if they had additional questions about the unit.

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