Apple iPhone 12 Review

Posted on November 3, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Apple, Hardware, iOS, Mobile with 31 Comments

Apple significantly improved its best-selling iPhone model this year with a new design, a superior display, and 5G connectivity. Unfortunately, it also raised the price, kept the base storage at a too-small 64 GB, and didn’t go far enough with its iOS 14 improvements to woo this Android fan. Still, it’s the best mainstream iPhone ever, and good enough to pull some upgraders away from the Pro models.

Design

OK, maybe “new” isn’t the right word for the design that Apple bestowed on its iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro models this year, given that it first debuted in 2010 with the iPhone 4. But the curved display edges from the past several years were, above all, bland. And the return to this iconic design, with its flat edges and classic Leica-like look, just feels right. Literally: The one improvement Apple did make was to eschew the chamfered corners that made the older iPhones cut uncomfortably into your hand. The iPhone 12, by comparison, has a subtly curved transition to its flat aluminum sides that nicely solves that problem.

The new/old design isn’t the only difference between the iPhone 12 and its two most recent predecessors, the iPhone 11 and the iPhone XR. It’s also a bit smaller, lighter, and thinner, despite having a more impressive display that’s described below. Not small enough? Apple now sells an iPhone 12 Mini too, which should satisfy anyone looking for the perfect combination of the smaller, old-school iPhones of the past and Apple’s modern design and internals. I’m not reviewing the iPhone 12 Mini, but aside from the display and general size—and the price—the two handsets are identical.

Aside from the body, other key design elements haven’t changed. The iPhone 12 still has an almost comically large notch at the top of the display and semi-large bezels, both of which are at odds with how the rest of the market went long ago. There is still a clicky power button on the right and a volume rocker and alert slider on the left, and there is still a Lightning port, microphone, and speaker on the bottom. Likewise, the “squarcle” dual-camera array on the back continues forward unchanged. At this point, the whole thing is very familiar and not unattractive.

Unique to the iPhone 12, however, are five bright color choices, some of which are new: White, black, blue, (a very light) green, and (Product)RED. I wish there were some matte choices, but I went with black based on my previous experience with the iPhone XR: This color helps hide the bezels, which are also black, and since it’s such a basic color, it should look good with any case. (I chose a black silicon case for now.)

Overall, I really like the look and feel of this handset, and while the move back to a classic design will raise eyebrows in some circles, I think it was the right choice.

Display

The display is one of the biggest upgrades in the iPhone 12 this year. Where the two previous iPhone models featured a 6.1-inch LCD display—which was admittedly fantastic, given the dated technology—with a 1792 x 828 resolution at 326 PPI, the iPhone 12 steps up to the same display that’s now found in the iPhone 12 Pro as well: It’s a 6.1-inch OLED panel with a 2532 x 1170 resolution at 460 PPI, so it exceeds 1080p. (The iPhone 12 Mini also uses an OLED panel, but at 5.4-inches and with a resolution of 2340 x 1080 at 476 PPI.) I believe it has slightly smaller bezels as well.

This display, which Apple calls Super Retina HDR, is impressive. As an OLED display, it has deep, inky blacks, and it features HDR and True Tone capabilities, of course, with wide color support and a 2 million to one contrast ratio. It belts out 625 nits of brightness typically, with a maximum brightness of 1200 nits when viewing HDR content … And it’s also blocked by an anachronistically large notch, which is unfortunate: I don’t understand why Apple can’t move past this like the rest of the industry has.

As for the display’s size, yes, these things are subjective. But I find that the iPhone 12’s 6.1-inch panel cuts a nice compromise between the ludicrously large displays found on some phablets and the tiny displays of yesteryear. It would be even better without that notch.

The display is also protected by Gorilla Glass 6 and a new nano-ceramic crystal and glass coating that Apple calls Ceramic Shield that allegedly offers up to 4 times resistance to cracking when dropped. What other reviews have noted, however, is that this coating is less impervious to scratching, so if you plan to pull it in and out of your jeans pockets a lot, you should consider a screen cover. I’ve not noticed any scratches yet. (Note too that Ceramic Shield only protects the display, not the all-glass back of the iPhone 12.)

What’s missing, of course, is the high refresh rate that we see on flagship Android handsets. So instead of a 90 or 120 Hz display with super-smooth scrolling and animations, the iPhone 12 provides the same 60 Hz experience it’s always offered. And I have to be honest here: It doesn’t bother me. High refresh displays are one of those things you either appreciate or don’t even notice, and for whatever reason, I fall into the latter camp. And yes, I’ve used several smartphones with high refresh displays this year alone.

That said, if this is a sticking point for you, I’ll just point out that this feature will likely make its way to Apple’s iPhone Pro long before it appears on a mainstream iPhone. So it wasn’t going to happen this year regardless.

Hardware and specs

Unlike other smartphone makers, Apple doesn’t introduce new models with older or less capable processors and other internals. That means that the iPhone 12 arrives with top-of-the-line specifications that are, for the most part, equal to what we see with the Pro models. This reality, combined with Apple’s proven record of software upgrade support, means that the iPhone 12 is future proof and should provide several years of service if required.

The iPhone 12, like all late 2020 iPhones, is powered by Apple’s A14 Bionic system on a chip (SoC), 4 GB of RAM, and 64, 128, or 256 GB of internal, non-expandable storage. Performance is impressive, as you should expect, but I don’t see any real-world differences between my iPhone 11 Pro Max and the iPhone 12, despite Apple’s claims of 15-20 percent performance gains. That’s fine: Everything happens with great alacrity and there are no slowdowns, hitches, or pauses.

Connectivity

I’m not sure if you heard about this, but the iPhone 12 comes with 5G connectivity, a first for the iPhone line. (Just kidding, it’s marketed rather heavily.) Unfortunately, that doesn’t amount to much more than the pleasing presence of “5G” text in the status bar, as the connection speeds you’ll typically see don’t exceed what’s possible with previous-generation 4G/LTE connectivity.

I’ve been testing the 5G performance in my area since I got the iPhone and the best results I’ve seen were 33.4 Mbps down and 3.44 Mbps up. By comparison, a local LTE connection gave me even faster speeds of 63.2 Mbps down and 6 up. I’m sure it will get better over time. It’s not like the entire industry would hype something that didn’t work, right? Right?

Beyond cellular connectivity, the iPhone 12 ships with support for gigabit LTE with 4×4 MIMO, Wi-Fi 6 (802.ax) with 2×2 MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0, Ultra-Wideband (UWB) for reasons Apple hasn’t revealed yet, and NFC capabilities.

Put simply, don’t upgrade to an iPhone 12 just for 5G. Not yet.

Cameras

Apple didn’t change its camera hardware all that much between the iPhone 11 series last year and the iPhone 12s this year, but it did make some software-based computational photography improvements that help make the new crop of iPhones better than ever for photo fans.

For the iPhone 12 specifically, we get a dual-lens camera system with a 12 MP wide (main) lens with an f/1.6 aperture, optical image stabilization (OIS), and 2x optical zoom/5x digital zoom, and a 12 MP ultra-wide lens with an f/2.4 aperture and a 120-degree field of view. Both lenses support Smart HDR 3, Night Mode, and Deep Fusion technology, the latter of which works in tandem with the Apple Silicon’s neural engine provide better photos with improved contrast and lower noise. The ultra-wide lens also sports a lens-correction feature that’s supposed to help overcome the skewed effect often found at the edges of ultra-wide shots, but I’ve not noticed any improvements in that area.

This camera system is impressive, though it took me a while to come down from the over-saturated, ultra-colorful HDR pop effect that I enjoyed previously on recent Samsung and Huawei flagships. Instead, what Apple delivers is perhaps the best “what you see is what you get” experience in smartphone cameras today, where the resulting shots very closely match the scene you’re shooting. Whether you want that or not is a matter of taste, but the iPhone camera app at least lets you apply filters, like Vivid, at the time photos are taken. And with iOS 14, it will even remember the setting so you don’ have to keep applying it.

The Vivid filter in action

My only real complaint with the camera system involves Night Mode: You can’t manually enable or disable it as you shoot, as you can with other smartphones. Instead, Apple decides whether it’s needed based on the scene and then does what it wants to do. And all too often, the resulting shot is not what I wanted. I prefer to focus on a light source until I get the effect I’m looking for and then take that shot.

What’s missing, of course, is a telephoto lens, and you’ll need to move up to an iPhone 12 Pro if you want such a thing and its slightly improved 2.5x optical zoom and 10x digital zoom capabilities. But I’m not complaining: I’ll pick an ultra-wide lens over a telephoto lens any day, as this is a setting I use quite often. I suspect that’s true for most people.

And as an enthusiast of smartphone photography, I tend to stick to still shots and mostly to landscapes, food, and the like. But if you enjoy taking portrait shots or video, the iPhone is the way to go: In both cases, Apple has advanced the state of the art well beyond what I see on the many Android handsets I’ve used this year.

Security

Apple continues to rely on the fast and reliable Face ID for sign-ins, and while I’d normally celebrate this as the industry’s best facial recognition system, it’s 2020, and Face ID doesn’t work very well when you’re using a mask. Given that the firm just added Touch ID to the power button on the new iPad Air, I’m surprised it didn’t offer this option on the iPhone 12 line-up as well. But it didn’t.

To be fair, it’s not that annoying, except when I’m at the gym, since I need to check which weight to set as I move from machine to machine, and tapping and re-tapping my PIN can get a bit tedious.

Apple bills iOS as the most secure mobile platform, and while Google would beg to differ, I think it’s fair to say that iOS does a great job in this regard. That said, I was very disappointed by the number of (non-election) spam phone calls and text messages I received since I switched to the iPhone, many of which were clearly phishing attacks. I hadn’t received such a thing for so long with Android that I had forgotten it was even a problem, but I get one or more of each every day now. I’m as disturbed by how difficult it is to block the offending numbers, which is semi-useless anyway. And by the fact that there’s no way to even report spam phone calls or texts. Come on, Apple.

Audio/video

Despite the notch, the iPhone 12 provides a pleasing audio-video experience, thanks to both the excellent display and the terrific, evenly-balanced stereo speakers. I found myself listening to music and audiobooks and watching videos at home far more often than I normally do with most smartphones as a result. And under the harsh lighting at the gym, the display was easily seen, providing a great experience that distracted me from my efforts on the elliptical.

Apple’s ecosystem support also afforded me with an interesting and unexpected advantage, thanks to the fact that my Sonos smart speakers are AirPlay 2 compatible. On Android, I need to use the ponderous Sonos app to access my playlists and other music in YouTube Music. But with the iPhone, I can simply use the superior YouTube Music app and then change the sound output from the internal speakers to Sonos via the iOS Control Center. Nice!

Battery

The iPhone 12 includes a small 2815 mAh battery, but I had no issues at all making it through a day.

It supports up to 20-watt fast charging, but I’m surprised it can’t go higher than that. Apple claims that such a charger—not included with the phone—can charge it up to 50 percent in 30 minutes. But I experienced much slower charge rates using Apple’s 20-watt charger. It took me almost an hour to charge from 38 percent to 92 percent (54 percent) in one test.

The iPhone 12 also supports wireless charging at up to 15-watts. I didn’t test that.

Unique hardware features

Despite Steve Jobs’ disdain for buttons, the iPhone has always included an alert slider, and while useful, it’s always had the same problem: It’s too easy to engage by mistake. Multiple times in the past two weeks, I’ve picked up the iPhone 12 and was surprised to see a missed text or phone call. And then, sure enough, it was because I had mistakenly switched the alert slider to mute. OnePlus has a better alert slider, and it doesn’t ever engage by mistake.

Beyond that, the iPhone 12 offers IP68 water resistance, which means it should survive in up to 18 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. It should survive the accidental toilet dunking just fine.

The iPhone 12 also supports a new magnet-based feature called Mag Safe that lets you connect compatible accessories—some cases, a wallet add-on, and a wireless charger are currently supported—to the bottom of the handset. I didn’t test Mag Safe.

Software

Apple brought some important functional improvements to iOS 14—including support for widgets on the home screen and the new App Library view—plus a pretty new look and feel that I really like.

But iOS continues to trail Android when it comes to both functionality and customization, and these issues make the experience of using the iPhone 12 a lot less pleasant, given my Android experience. It’s more than kind of silly that we have to even discuss the fact that Apple won’t let its users put app icons wherever they want on-screen, but they won’t.

This is a bigger issue than you may realize. On Android, you can place the app icons you use the most on the bottom of the screen, where they can more easily be reached, especially with just one hand. But because Apple fills in each home screen from the top left, the only alternative is to fill up space with widgets. But I still have empty space at the bottom of the screen. That’s where I want the icons to be, an ergonomically speaking, that’s where they should be. Ah well, maybe that will happen in iOS 15.

Beyond these complaints, iOS gets the job done, and I find that iOS apps are generally better and better looking than their Android counterparts. Even Google’s own apps are often better on iOS. As I’ve noted in the past, Google Maps takes advantage of the system-level ability to bold text, making it easier to read locations as you’re driving in the car, a feature I really appreciated last weekend. I wish the Android version was this legible.

Lots of bundled apps

While I wouldn’t describe most of this as crapware per se, Apple does bundle literally dozens of applications on the iPhone. The good news? You can delete most of them, so if you’re not interested in Apple’s lock-in practices, you can bypass a lot of it right up front and simply install the apps you prefer.

Pricing and availability

Apple raised the price of the iPhone this year by $130, no doubt to accommodate the costs of the improved display and Qualcomm’s expensive 5G chipsets. That brings it closer to the price of the iPhone 12 Pro, but because the iPhone ships with a paltry 64 GB of storage in the base configuration, any comparison of the two gets a bit complicated.

The iPhone 12 starts at $829 unlocked (or $799 through a carrier), which would be reasonable if the base model was configured with 128 GB of storage. But the upgrade to 128 GB costs another $50, bringing the price up to $879.

The iPhone 12 Pro, meanwhile, starts at $999 (unlocked or via a carrier), and that lineup does start with a base 128 GB configuration. So, for an additional $120, you get the Pro’s superior three-lens camera system with additional capabilities, a stainless-steel surround (as opposed to aluminum in the non-Pro iPhone 12), and more RAM (6 GB vs. 4 GB). And while the displays are the same for the most part, the iPhone 12 Pro display is a bit brighter, at 800 nits (for non-HDR content). The iPhone 12 Pro can also be configured with up to 512 GB of storage, compared to 256 GB on the iPhone 12.

The iPhone 12 Mini also throws another wrench in the decision-making process: That handset is basically identical to the normal iPhone 12, but with a smaller display and form factor, and it starts at just $729 unlocked (or $699 through a carrier), again for a 64 GB base configuration. So you can save $100 if you prefer the smaller version. (Moving up to 128 GB adds another $50, as with the iPhone 12.)

I should also mention that you’re going to need to spend another $20 to purchase Apple’s 20-watt USB-C power adapter, since it’s not included in the box. The firm claims this was because of environmental reasons, but if that was true, it would include a normal Lightning cable in the box instead of a USB-C to Lightning cable that requires a special power brick. Yes, you can use your 5-watt Lightning power adapter and cable from a previous iPhone, but your charging speeds will be much slower.

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are now available. The iPhone 12 Mini (and iPhone 12 Pro Max) will be available for purchase starting Friday, November 6.

Recommendations and conclusions

The iPhone 12 is an excellent smartphone, with a premium look and feel, superior performance, and an excellent dual-camera system. Yes, Apple raised the price this year, but I feel that the new display, form factor, and 5G connectivity justifies the price hike, and with its high-end internal components, it will provide a great experience for years to come.

As to whether one should buy the iPhone 12 vs. the iPhone 12 Mini and its smaller display, or even vs. the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, both of which offer camera improvements and slightly better specs, well that’s up to the individual. I feel that the iPhone 12 is the sweet spot of this year’s iPhone lineup, and it’s the model that provides the best value. I’m honestly surprised that Apple didn’t differentiate the Pro lineup more than it did.

The iPhone 12 is highly recommended. If you’re a fan of Apple products, you can’t go wrong with this smartphone. And if you’re on the fence about moving in that direction, the iPhone 12 makes a compelling argument for doing so.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Gorgeous OLED display
  • Beautiful design
  • Impressive performance
  • Superior apps ecosystem
  • Great camera system

Cons

  • Huge notch covers a significant portion of the display
  • 64 GB is an unacceptably small amount of storage in 2020
  • iOS is still not as customizable as it should be
  • No charging brick is included
  • iOS has no spam phone call or text message blocking or reporting capabilities

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