By Jason Snell
October 27, 2020 9:00 AM PT
iPhone 12 & iPhone 12 Pro review: Family resemblance
For all the sound and fury about how iPhone updates are boring and incremental—and make no mistake, incremental improvement year over year is how Apple plays this game—it’s important to note that it’s a rare moment when Apple restyles the exterior of the iPhone. You could even say that the iPhone has had only four distinct design eras: the original model, the plastic-backed 3G/3GS models, the Braun-inspired flat side design of the iPhone 4 and 5, and the curved edges introduced in the iPhone 6. That basic design prevailed for six years—nearly half the iPhone’s total life.
Viewed through this lens, the iPhone 12 series is the start of an era—or perhaps the return to a previous era. While Apple has continued its grind of continuously improving the iPhone’s internals, the outside of 2020’s iPhone models has been refreshed with a look that harkens back to the design introduce ten years ago with the iPhone 4. When I first held the black iPhone 12 I was instantly taken back to the day I took the black iPhone 5 out of the box. That was my favorite iPhone design ever, and I’m glad it’s back in favor.
Two of a kind
Design is subjective, and if you preferred the curves of the iPhone 6 through 11 I won’t argue with you about it. But I felt that the curvy design contributed to the iPhone feeling slipperier, like I was constantly holding on to a bar of soap. I went from being the kind of person who never uses an iPhone case to being an inveterate case user. The iPhone 12 feels far more solid to me, especially aided by those matte anodized aluminum sides and the grippy, glossy glass back.
The iPhone 12 Pro feels the same, of course—and that brings me to the other major change this time around, which is that Apple has unified its base-model iPhones into a single size and shape. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are identical cousins, so much so that they can share the same cases. The iPhone 11 was a lot larger than the iPhone 11 Pro, but that distinction is gone. Even better, though both of these iPhone 12 models have a 6.1-inch diagonal screen—which is a larger number than the old 5.9-inch screen from the iPhone X, XS, and 11 Pro—that expansion has mostly been achieved by narrowing bezels and slightly lengthening the phone.
What this means: Both of these phones feel almost identical in the hand, and are not really larger than the models from the past three years. So if you’re comfortable with that size, you can forget about the screen and choose between them based on price, features, and aesthetics.
Speaking of the screen, this is another big step forward for Apple, because it’s brought the OLED display introduced in the iPhone X to the lower-end iPhone models for the first time. Last year’s iPhone 11 had a (very good) LCD-based display; this year’s iPhone 12 is OLED all the way. It looks great, with deep blacks and lots of available dynamic range, so if you’re considering a move from an iPhone X or XS to an iPhone 12, you won’t feel like you’re taking a step back in terms of display. (The iPhone 12 Pro offers a little bit greater “typical” brightness than the 12, so it’s fair to say it’s a slightly brighter display—though both displays can reach the same level of peak brightness.)
Apple has also upgraded the surface that covers that OLED display. Both models are using Corning’s Ceramic Shield process for the front glass, which uses a lattice of crystals to improve shatter resistance. This technically means that the iPhone’s front covering is no longer glass, because a material with crystals in it isn’t considered glass. You can call it glass if you like, but the point is that it’s an engineered surface that’s less likely to break if you drop it. (Apple says it’s “4x better drop performance” than last year’s models, but what that really means is that Ceramic Shield-bearing phones were 25% as likely to shatter when dropped than last year’s iPhones.)
Beyond the ceramic shield layer, there are no changes to the underlying ion-X reinforced glass being used on the front and back of these phones—and no improvements to scratch resistance. If you get upset by iPhone screen scratches, I have no good news to tell you. I feel your disappointment, but I agree with Apple’s prioritization of reducing the likelihood of catastrophic events rather than preventing limited cosmetic damage.
Which brings me to Apple’s other continued attempt to keep your iPhone from breaking, its upgraded resistance to water and dust. This year Apple’s upped its water-resistance claims to up to six meters of water for up to 30 minutes, so there’s even less chance that your iPhone will be ruined if you drop it in water. But just as with Apple’s glass shattering claims, it’s important to keep in mind that this is all about reducing the probability of destruction. Apple still won’t replace your phone under warranty if you drop it in a swimming pool and it leaks—it’s just less likely to leak if you do. Apple still says you shouldn’t intentionally place an iPhone 12 in water. Water resistant is not waterproof. Knowing is half the battle.
The accessory story
Apple introduced support for wireless charging three years ago with the iPhone 8 and X models. With the iPhone 12 generation, it’s placed its own spin on wireless charging with the (re)introduction of MagSafe, a familiar old Mac name reincarnated as a magnetic ring on the back of the iPhone that aids in attachment of a magnetic charging puck. (Regular Qi charging is still supported, but Apple has reserved the highest-power charging rate for MagSafe.)
Apple’s MagSafe charger is well made, an aluminum paddle with a white cord that looks like the big sister to the Apple Watch charger. It attaches to the iPhone with a pleasing magnetic snap, and removing it is easy—you can even do it with one hand, using a finger to flick it off.
Of course, this means that Apple has a whole new set of MagSafe-related accessories, and a zillion more will come from other companies over the next few months. I have had a chance to use Apple’s Silicone case, and it’s nice—the magnets attach on the back for an added snap (though the tension of the case is still doing most of the work of holding it in place) and there’s even a hidden NFC chip in there that allows the iPhone to know what color of case has been attached and respond accordingly. Clever Apple.
I haven’t used any of Apple’s other accessories for these models, though a leather case is apparently coming next month. That’s the case I’d buy, but I’m holding out hope that I won’t need one at all.
As for the iPhone now having magnets inside it, it remains to be seen if those magnets are actually strong enough to attach to accessories like PopSockets or a car charger. Maybe? But I wouldn’t count on it. Every accessory maker in the world is figuring that out right now.
It’s worth also mentioning the accessories that Apple no longer includes in the iPhone box: There’s no USB plug charger and no set of wired Lightning EarPods. I believe Apple that these items are an enormous source of electronic waste, and it’s better to not include them in the box. (I also believe that in addition to reducing waste, it’s saving Apple a ton of money.)
Including the earbuds seems like the biggest waste to me—though apparently France disagrees?—and so I’ll applaud that decision. As for the charging plug, well… I do own an awful lot of USB-A charging plugs. But I am a bit puzzled that Apple has switched to a default USB-C-to-Lightning cable in the box, given that USB-C charging plugs are far less common. At least you can use one of your many USB-A chargers with one of the many USB-A to Lightning cables you probably have. The situation on the MagSafe charger is even worse—it also comes without a plug, and is USB-C, making it far more likely that buyers of the MagSafe charger will also need to buy a charging plug.
Power and its price
When Apple introduced an OLED display to the iPhone, the price shot up. So it’s not surprising that bringing OLED to the lower end of the iPhone line has resulted in a price increase—but it is disappointing. Last year, you could buy a “mainstream” iPhone—the iPhone 11—for $700. This year the mainstream choice, the iPhone 12, is $830 ($30 less if you’re on a major U.S. carrier). The new iPhone line does still start at $700 (actually $730), but it’s for the iPhone 12 mini.
That’s a downer for people looking for the best price on a mainstream phone. The good news is that if you’re in the market for an iPhone Pro, Apple has boosted the base storage on those devices to 128GB, so you’re getting twice the storage as last year for the same price. As John Gruber wrote in his excellent piece on iPhone 12 pricing, the result is a more smooth continuum of iPhone prices. I wish the mass-appeal iPhone model started at $700 and not $830, but the act of adding an OLED screen to those models probably sealed that decision. I hope that price creeps back down over time. (Apple did cut the price of the iPhone 11 to $600, which makes it a great option for people who want to save money and might like a larger phone than the iPhone 12.)
Powering every iPhone 12 model is the A14 processor, Apple’s latest processor and likely the core of the next year’s worth of Apple devices. I covered the general characteristics of the A14 in my iPad Air review, but suffice it to say that it’s fast. However, I did discover that the iPhone 12 models scored lower at GPU-related Compute tests in Geekbench 5 than the iPad Air did. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on here, but my guess is that the iPhone is a little bit more thermally constrained than the iPad Air, at least on the GPU. Still, the A13 chip on last year’s iPhone was the fastest smartphone chip ever made—until the A14 came along. iPhone users won’t hurt for processing power.
The looks and feels
As it did last year, Apple differentiates between the pro and non-pro iPhone models by offering different variations on material, finish, and color. The iPhone 12 is ringed in anodized aluminum with a glossy glass back and matte camera bump, and comes in black, white, blue, green, and red. The iPhone 12 Pro’s ring is stainless steel with a matte glass back and glossy camera bump, and comes in gray (Apple calls it “graphite”), silver, gold, and a blue-gray Apple calls “Pacific Blue.”
Honestly, I prefer the aesthetics of the iPhone 12. No company in existence is better at anodized aluminum than Apple, and the matte black aluminum on the iPhone 12 Apple provided me for review is exquisite. The glossy deep black back is gorgeous. Photos I’ve seen of the other colors of the iPhone 12 suggest they’re vibrant and attractive.
In contrast, the iPhone 12 Pro is—well, it’s fine. It’s pretty much the playbook Apple has been using on the iPhone for years—a shiny metal band (that really picks up fingerprints) and a muted back color. Last year Apple finally added some color to the black/silver/gold trinity with the addition of Midnight Green, and this year that choice has been replaced with Pacific Blue.
While it’s nice to see color, Apple’s choices are still incredibly restrained. Apparently bright colors aren’t professional. Personally, I think it’s a shame that you have to choose between an iPhone with a fun personality and an iPhone with a better camera. But as long as Apple insists that pro equals boring (with the possible exception of a little fingerprint-mottled stainless steel bling), that’s where we’ll be. I look forward to next year’s Moonlight Brown or Deep Tan iPhone Pro.
After the iPhone 12 series was announced, I began to prepare myself to give up pro features and looks in case I wanted the iPhone 12 mini. I didn’t expect to prefer the straight-up iPhone 12 to the iPhone 12 Pro, but that’s what happened. It looks better, feels better, and is appreciably lighter than the pro model. Your mileage may vary, but I hope the future of the iPhone looks more like the iPhone 12 than the iPhone 12 Pro.
Pro is for cameras
So if I prefer the iPhone 12’s aesthetics, what will I be forced to give up in exchange for those sweet aluminum sides? Two sensors on the back of the phone: the new Lidar sensor (which first appeared on the 2020 iPad Pro) and the telephoto camera.
Unlike the Lidar sensor in the iPad Pro, which was designed to enhance augmented-reality applications, Apple has tasked the iPhone Pro’s Lidar sensor with some additional functionality. The photography subsystem uses it to assist with range-finding, allowing faster focus in low light situations and the shooting of Portrait Mode shots in Night Mode.
The iPhone Pro also has the capability to save shots in Apple’s new Pro RAW format, which lets pro photographers use the raw sensor data from the iPhone’s cameras as the basis for photo editing, and can shoot HDR video at 60 frames per second compared to the iPhone 12’s 30 fps cap.
These are real features, and if you’re truly a pro (or a hobbyist who likes to work like a pro), these features are going to make the iPhone 12 Pro the better choice—as they should. When Apple dared to suggest that a smartphone could be “professional,” it was mocked—but here it is, adding actual professional features to the iPhone Pro. Yes, most people who buy an iPhone Pro won’t need these features, but that doesn’t always matter—it just matters that the thing you bought is so good that even the pros can use it.
Both models do benefit from an upgraded “wide” (1x) camera that performs better in low light. And of course, neither of them have some extra features that will only be available in the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
I’ll be honest: Apple’s Night Mode is really, really good—but I almost never use it. I’m sure that’s due, at least in part, to the pandemic leading to me very rarely being out anywhere in low-light situations. In any event, this seems like a year with subtle but real camera improvements—again, it’s how Apple plays this game.
If you’d like some very detailed samples of the changes in iPhone cameras this year, I can’t recommend Austin Mann’s iPhone 12 camera review enough.
The outlier alternatives
The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are Apple’s mainstream iPhones. Since they share a shape and size, it’s really down to the preference of the potential buyer to decide which one is the right one. I have a strong preference for the aesthetics of the iPhone 12, and the additional camera functions aren’t enough to sway me, but reasonable people can differ. It’s great that Apple is offering both, and together they form the core from which the bulk of iPhone sales will come.
But here’s the funny thing: the most interesting iPhones of the year may be the ones at the extremes, the edge cases, the two models that won’t arrive until November. The iPhone 12 mini may be the phone that a whole slice of the iPhone buying public has been pining for since Apple started cranking up the size with the iPhone 6. (Though I suspect that at least some of the people who profess interest in the iPhone 12 mini—and I may be in this group myself—will hold one in their hands and realize that they’ve adapted to larger phones and would miss the extra screen size if it went away.) And the iPhone 12 Pro Max will offer the largest iPhone screen yet, coupled with camera improvements that aren’t available on any model—thrilling fans of huge phones and those who prioritize camera features above all others.
Without those devices in the mix, the iPhone line remains incomplete. But the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are a good start.1
- The iPhone 12 line also offers 5G cellular networking. I wasn’t able to test it, and 5G is more a marketing vehicle for the wireless industry than something that will have a big impact on how people use their phones in most cases. In terms of all the new features of the iPhone 12, it’s really a footnote. ↩
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