Apple iPhone 12

Hard-edged phones for a hard-edged year, Apple’s iPhone 12 series brings a solid feel, excellent screens, better low-light camera performance, and improved network connectivity to America’s most popular smartphone line. If you have an iPhone more than a year old, one of the four new iPhones is worth your money. The trick is figuring out which one.

I’m the 5G guy, and during the iPhone 12 launch, Apple talked about 5G a lot. The iPhone 12 is the best 5G phone so far, but Verizon’s and AT&T’s so-called “nationwide” 5G aren’t worth your time. T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G does deliver improved performance, but T-Mobile doesn’t have a map for that system, which makes it hard to find. That said, as I’ll detail momentarily, the iPhone 12 series improves 4G performance enough that it’s worth buying just for that.

There are four new iPhones; and they’re not all that different from one another. You’re reading our main review of the iPhone 12 (starts at $799 for 64GB), which overlaps our review of the iPhone 12 Pro (starts at $999 for 128GB)—the two models available in October. When the iPhone 12 mini (starts at $699 for 64GB) and iPhone 12 Pro Max (starts at $1,099 for 128GB) arrive in November, we’ll update this review with more comparative analysis. (Pre-orders start on 11/6.)

The iPhone 12 and the 12 mini look to be very similar. According to Apple’s spec sheets, they’re identical except for price, screen size, and battery size. If all other things are equal, I think that a slightly less expensive iPhone that is closer to the size of the beloved iPhone 6, 7 and 8 models sounds like an absolute winner. So we’re going to hold back the Editors’ Choice award here in anticipation of the 12 mini. If the mini turns out to be a bust, we’ll reconsider.

The iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max have more advanced features for photo buffs: telephoto lenses, a Night Portrait mode, better Dolby Vision handling and Raw photo handling. I think that’s worth the extra money for photography enthusiasts, but only for them. So the iPhone 12 Pro gets an Editors’ Choice award for camera phones since it packs all that fantastic image capability into a manageably sized phone. The Pro Max, with it’s 6.7-inch screen, is just too large for most people.

Apple iPhone 12 FamilyiPhone 11 but noticeably wider than the iPhone 8 series at 0.29 by 5.78 by 2.82 inches. They’re surprisingly relatively small for flagship phones nowadays, but people looking for a phone that feels more like their iPhone 6, 7, or 8 should get the 12 mini. The iPhone 12 Pro is noticeably a little heavier than the 12 (6.66 versus 5.78 ounces). Both are lighter than the 11, but heavier than the 8.

The new iPhones have the glowy, saturated OLED screens which have become de rigeur for high-end smartphones in the past few years. They measure 5.4 inches and 2,340 by 1,080 pixels for the iPhone 12 mini; 6.1 inches and 2,532 by 1,170 pixels for the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro; and 6.7 inches and 2,778 by 1,284 pixels for the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The displays are all higher resolution, and denser, than their iPhone 11 predecessors; the 12 and 12 Pro are about the same resolution as the 11 Pro was.

The iPhone 12 and 12 mini’s screens are slightly brighter than the iPhone 11’s LCD at 625 nits max brightness. The Pro and Pro Max are each 800 nits, but I couldn’t see a visual difference between the 12 and 12 Pro (and our screen-testing lab equipment is still in our COVID-abandoned office). All of the panels have a 60Hz refresh rate, while leading Android phones often have 90Hz or even 120Hz screens now. While you can see the frame-rate difference when filming screens in slow motion, it’s not really visible in everyday use because scrolling smoothness has always been much better on iPhones than on Android phones. Apple’s 60Hz might very well be as good as Android’s 90Hz.

iPhone 12 Pro colorsAllstate performed some drop tests, and found that the new material “improved durability,” although both the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro cracked when connecting with a sidewalk from six feet above. Dropped face down, the iPhone 12 “suffered only small cracks,” which was better than the Galaxy S20, the iPhone 11, or the heavier iPhone 12 Pro. But Ceramic Shield doesn’t seem to protect against scuffs and scratches. Overall, it’s more of a Way Station between you and your favorite screen repair shop than a guarantee against needing to get your screen fixed. And if you go to Apple, a screen replacement will set you back $279, if you don’t have AppleCare. (Ouch!)

The new iPhones rely on Face ID for authentication, which has become really annoying in 2020 because it doesn’t recognize the same face with and without a mask. This year’s iPad Air pivots to a fingerprint scanner in the power button, which I love and wish Apple was using here. The phones also still have Lightning ports, but no headphone jack, of course.

iOS 14 is installed here and runs nearly identically on every iPhone back to the iPhone X, and probably a bit sluggishly on the iPhone 8. Check out all the new OS capabilities in our full review of iOS 14.

iPhone 12 in navybenchmarking: 1,599 in Geekbench single-core; 4,006 in Geekbench multi-core; around 9,350 in Geekbench Compute, and about 600 in Basemark Web. That’s a 16% lift over the iPhone 11 series in Geekbench and a similar speed-up when it comes to Web browsing. The bump in Geekbench Compute, which measures GPU computing power, was a startling 48%.

Oddly, I had trouble running graphics benchmarks on both phones; GFXBench and 3DMark came up with inconsistent and sometimes nonsensical numbers. Apple tried to help me figure it out and we were both stumped.

Apple phones never feel slow when they’re launched. The processor speeds are more about future-proofing than anything else—preparing for applications that are three or four years down the road. (New CPUs are also, generally, why Apple ends support for new iOS versions after four or five years.) So although the iPhone 12 has a speedy CPU, I wouldn’t buy it over the iPhone 11 specifically for that—there are plenty of other reasons to do so.

Both the 12 and the 12 Pro pack 2,815mAh batteries. That’s smaller than the iPhone 11’s 3,110mAh cell, yet these iPhones last longer on a charge; that’s the effect of the OLED screens combined with the more efficient A14 processor. The 12 mini has a smaller battery, and the 12 Pro Max a larger one.

Apple doesn’t put a power adapter in the box this year, and that’s trouble. The new iPhones charge at up to 20 watts. They’ll take that wattage at 9v, 2.22a. Your old iPhone charger will not charge the new iPhone at that speed, so you’ll probably have to get a new charger. I used the Anker Nano 20W ($19.99), an adorable little box of a charger which got my iPhone 12 to 20% in 10 minutes, 58% in 30 minutes, and 100% in 100 minutes.

Your new iPhone will charge with your old iPhone’s lightning cable and adapter, but it will do so very slowly. The older USB-A Lightning cables only support charging up to 12 watts, and the older iPhone power adapters are a mere 5 watts. The new phones do ship with a Lightning-to-USB-C cable, which works with USB-C adapters at up to 20 watts. If you have a recent iPad or MacBook, you’ll have a USB-C power adapter; otherwise, you probably want to pick up that Anker Nano. Still confused? We have a full charging explainer to help.

Apple MagSafe ChargerMacRumors asserts that MagSafe’s charging speed is dependent on what adapter you plug it into, even if all your adapters are 15W or greater. Plugged into the 20W Anker Nano, I got to 11% in 10 minutes and 52% in an hour. But plugged into a 22W Samsung charger, it only gave me 9% in 10 minutes and took 80 minutes to get to 50%.

I saw somewhat different battery results on the two iPhone 12 units, but they were both in line with other flagship smartphones. The iPhone 12 managed 10 hours and 8 minutes of video streaming on Wi-Fi. The iPhone 12 Pro hit 12 hours and 34 minutes.

More Than Just 5G

All four members of the iPhone 12 family use Qualcomm X55 modems. It’s the first all-Qualcomm iPhone lineup since the 6S, and after years of uneven performance, I’m happy to say iPhones are back on par with leading Android phones in terms of network performance.

The iPhone 12 series has a single physical SIM slot and software support for a second line via eSIM. Voice-wise, it checks out just fine with all of the standard high-end features—the best EVS voice codec, Wi-Fi calling, and relatively solid Bluetooth 5.0.

If you have an iPhone 11 or earlier, you’ll see a significant improvement in data speeds in poor-signal areas thanks to 4×4 MIMO. This feature was in the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone XS, but not the iPhone 11, XR, or earlier iPhones. I compared iPhone 11 and 12 devices side by side in weak-signal areas in LTE-only mode on T-Mobile, and saw a considerable difference.

In one very weak-signal area, the iPhone 11 had trouble completing a speed test at all, while the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro scored 6 to 9Mbps. That isn’t fast, but it certainly beats the 11’s failure to perform.

iPhone speedsSamsung Galaxy Note 20 and iPhone 11 on the Verizon and T-Mobile networks. The 12 and 12 Pro use the same Qualcomm X55 modems and same Qualcomm and USI antennas, and they have the same network performance.

Verizon’s “nationwide 5G” got an average of 84.6Mbps down in locations where my iPhone 11 on LTE got 93.7Mbps down and the Galaxy Note on LTE got 117Mbps down. This jibes with our tests of the Google Pixel 5, where we got lower speeds on Verizon’s “nationwide 5G” than on 4G. Our Fastest Mobile Networks results this year show similar issues with AT&T’s “nationwide 5G.” While the carriers aren’t technically lying about 5G here—they are using the 5G encoding system—they’ve managed to create a 5G system that has absolutely zero immediate consumer benefit whatsoever.

T-Mobile is the exception. If you’re in a place with T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G system, which is swiftly expanding around the country, you will see an immediate improvement in performance. My iPhone 12 averaged 266Mbps down on T-Mobile 5G, similar to the Galaxy Note’s 261Mbps down.

The most striking differences came when I toggled T-Mobile 5G on and off in an area which didn’t have great 4G speeds. Oh boy. At that point, the iPhone 11—without 4×4 MIMO—got 2.8Mbps down, the iPhone 12 Pro in LTE mode with 4×4 MIMO got 48Mbps down, and the iPhone 12 with mid-band 5G got 261Mbps down.

Verizon’s ultra wideband, short range 5G system is the fastest of all, but has very limited coverage. We got an average of 554Mbps down on the iPhone 12 Pro and 783Mbps down on the Galaxy Note with Verizon UWB. The difference widened when signal was extremely good—I peaked at 1.7Gbps down on the Galaxy Note but only 875Mbps down on the iPhone. At speeds like that, the difference might actually be in the way the speed-test software is coded on the two platforms, or something else in the OS. Both are screamingly fast.

Ultra wideband range on the iPhones isn’t materially different from the Galaxy Note, but the way the operating systems appeared to handle the edge of the coverage area was different. I only saw about a 10-foot difference between the two phones in terms of when they entirely dropped 5G signal, but when the Samsung dropped to LTE, it would wait a little longer after starting to establish a connection to pop up to 5G again.

Camera: Night Mode Begins to Shine

I am not the camera guy. Yes, I’ve reviewed a lot of phones, and a lot of phone cameras. But a lot of other reviewers I respect have a better grasp of things like “naturalism”; I just like my photos sharp, clear, saturated, and not grainy. In that, I’m probably more like the average phone user than the Instagram obsessive or semi-pro photographer. Here’s what the actual camera guy has to say about the iPhone 12 line and which one is best for photographers. Still, here’s my experience with the cameras.

The new iPhones have sets of 12-megapixel cameras. The iPhone 12 and 12 mini each have a 12-megapixel front-facing camera, along with 12-megapixel wide-angle and standard cameras. The 12 Pro adds a 12-megapixel 2x zoom and a LiDAR scanner, while the 12 Pro Max has 2.5x zoom and LiDAR.

LiDAR bounces light pulses off of objects to determine distance. It makes augmented-reality applications more fluid; in terms of taking photos, it speeds up and improves autofocus in low light and enables the 12 Pro’s striking low-light portrait mode.

On Apple’s spec sheets, you’ll see a claim that the iPhone 12 offers “2x optical zoom” and that the 12 Pro has “4x optical zoom.” That is only true if you reinvent how everyone in the phone world has used the word “zoom” for a decade. Apple is counting its x’s from the 0.5x of the ultrawide camera, which nobody else in the phone industry does. Nobody uses the ultrawide camera by default; it’s a special mode, because it tends to make subjects pretty small. So counting from the most-used camera as 0.5x and 1x, rather than pretending that the ultrawide is the default 1x camera and the main camera is some kind of zoom, is more sensible.

Alas, Apple’s Night mode absolutely kills most of its competition. I tested the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro against the iPhone 11 and Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (the best Android camera IMHO). Outdoors in good light, you’ll be hard pressed to find a difference between top-of-the-line cameras. In the shots below, maybe you could argue that the sky is a slightly different color in each camera, but all of the pictures are beautiful.

Zoom in and the iPhone 12 Pro wins out; it’s the one with a dedicated zoom lens, after all. The 12 Pro’s 2x zoom gives you a clarity that’s impossible with the digital zoom on the iPhone 12 and iPhone 11, and oddly is even a bit better than the Galaxy Note 20. Go higher, and the Galaxy reigns supreme. The Note 20 has a true 5x optical zoom lens, and at 5x all of the iPhones are blurry but the Note 20 is still razor sharp.

2x zoom imageSamsung Galaxy S20 FE and the OnePlus 8T. Both are very good. The iPhone 12’s low-light camera is distinctly better than either of those, and I like its more compact body.

But speaking of compact, the iPhone 12 mini is on its way, and from Apple’s spec sheet it seems to be just like the 12 but with a slightly smaller screen and battery in a smaller body. While I won’t be able to get my hands on one for a few weeks, I have very high hopes for it. Especially for fans of the iPhone 6 through 8, I suspect the 12 mini will hit the spot.

We’re also getting the iPhone 12 Pro Max in November, which is similar to the 12 Pro but with a 2.5x zoom lens. If you’ve seen any of my reviews this year, you’ll know that I’ve been skeptical of super-expensive phones in 2020. I’ve also never been a fan of big phones for big phones’ sake.

Put all of that together and our recommendations this year will likely be the iPhone 12 mini for the vast majority of folks and the iPhone 12 Pro for serious photographers who understand what ProRAW and Dolby Vision are and why you would want to use them. We’re not going to argue that Android or iPhone owners should switch in either direction this year; the iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S20 FE are both terrific choices, and in the horror show of 2020, you should at least be able to stay in your phone comfort zone.

October 31, 2020
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