Apple iPhone 12 First Impressions

Posted on October 23, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Uncategorized with 40 Comments

My Apple iPhone 12 arrived today, as expected, and so I’ve begun the arduous process of installing apps and configuring the new handset. Yes, I could make this easier on myself. But I like to start fresh, and I’ve been experimenting with different home screen layouts for the past few days.

In the box, you’ll find a USB-C to Lightning cable, a SIM tool, and an Apple sticker. But no USB-C power brick, which costs $20 extra

To be clear, this is the normal, non-Pro variant of the iPhone 12, the successor to the iPhone XR (2018) and the iPhone 11 (2019). I normally buy/use Pro/Plus-class iPhones, like the iPhone 11 Pro Max (2019), but I feel that they’ve gotten too big, wide, and heavy and I didn’t want another giant brick. And while this year’s iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max both have some unique photographic advantages over the iPhone 12 I purchased, I still feel like the normal iPhone 12 will meet my needs.

We’ll see. For now, here are a few first impressions of the hardware and the early onboarding process.

Unlike its predecessors, the iPhone 12 doesn’t look or feel like a cost-reduced version of Apple’s more impressive iPhones. Instead, it features the same physical design and OLED display as the more expensive iPhone 12 Pro, giving it a decidedly upmarket vibe.

That display is gorgeous: It’s bright and colorful, but the bezels are still quite noticeable, as is the enormous notch. I’m surprised Apple has stuck with this design for so long, but I suspect whenever it finally moves to a notch-less design, it will trigger yet another wave of mass upgrades.

It’s still aluminum and glass like its predecessors, however—whereas the Pro models feature stainless steel and glass—and that gives it a glossier look. I do like the matte look of the iPhone 12 Pro better, but then I’m putting it in a case regardless, so that issue will disappear.

That case will help with the sharpness of the old-is-new-again iPhone 4-style form factor, with its hard edges replacing the curved iPhone sides that debuted with the iPhone 6 oh so many years ago. I’m kind of torn on this one, as I like the look but find the sharpness somewhat painful to hold. But the case pretty much solves this problem too.

From a size perspective, I feel like the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 is a nice middle-ground between too big (Pro Max) and too small (Mini). Compared to my previous iPhone 11 Pro Max, it’s about one notch shorter top to bottom. I think it will work.

iPhone 12 (left) vs. iPhone 11 Pro Max (right)

Getting up and running is little changed from previous iPhones. There are still many, many setup steps to work through, and then of course I added some pain of my own by choosing to manually install all of the apps I need. Tied to this process, I also decided to take advantage of iOS 14.x’s new App Library feature to remove apps I only sometimes need from the home screen. We’ll see how that goes, but my goal is to use only a single home screen.

The default home screens are a tad busy

One thing that really did surprise me—and I saw no mention of this in any of the first iPhone 12 reviews—is the sheer number of apps that do not display full-screen but instead show black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. I kept double-checking my iPhone 11 Pro Max, but those apps all appear normally on that handset—that is, they occupy the entire screen—so I can only guess that it has something to do with the unique new combination of this device’s screen size and resolution and that app makers will fix it. I hope it happens quickly: The display is already smallish and these truncated apps make it worse.

This is one of many of my apps that doesn’t fill the whole display

There is kind of an insidious number of things I need to configure still, including contacts, authenticator apps, and notifications, the latter of which will be an ongoing process for the next week or two as I settle in with it. But even after just a few hours, I’m in a pretty good place. I’ll be sure to back this thing up so I don’t need to do all this again.

I haven’t had a chance to test the camera yet either, so I’ll report back soon with my first thoughts on that crucial component.


Join the discussion!


Don't have a login but want to join the conversation? Become a Thurrott Premium or Basic User to participate

Comments (40)

40 responses to “Apple iPhone 12 First Impressions”

  1. behindmyscreen

    I have been upgrading every year since the 10s. I am not sure I see a reason to upgrade this time. I might just wait for the 13.

  2. lezmaka

    Arduous? Meaning you're not restoring from a backup?

  3. pwrof3

    This is the first year since the iPhone 7 Plus that I will be getting the “cheaper” version of the iPhone. Apple really stepped up the lower model iPhone this year. The only differences between the 12 and 12 Pro (not counting Max) are the telephoto lens, Lidar, aluminum vs stainless steel, and the Pro has 6gb ram whereas the 12 has 4. That’s it! No other difference this a time around. I love being able to save $175 and still get a premium iPhone experience. I don’t really do a lot of night photos, so the lidar wasn’t really worth the extra cost. I also love that Apple has made all the screens LED. No more settling for LCD on the base model.

  4. rosyna

    Getting up and running is little changed from previous iPhones. There are still many, many setup steps to work through, and then of course I added some pain of my own by choosing to manually install all of the apps I need.”

    This is not something any other iPhone user coming from an iPhone will experience as they’ll use either the transfer from iPhone option (wireless or cable) or the restore from backup option (iCloud or iTunes).

    You’ve added additional pain during setup seemingly solely to add additional pain. Have you ever used either feature? (There’s also a transfer from Android feature that’s covered in the instructions)

    • rbgaynor

      In reply to rosyna:

      I use the quick start option and it truly is painless, even migrating my Apple Watch.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Guys. The assumption here is that every single person buying an iPhone is just upgrading, but many people will be new to this process as well, and setup is lengthy with many steps. There's no reason to take umbrage at this. It's just the way it is. If you're upgrading from a previous iPhone---I'm not---yeah, I'm sure it's shorter.
    • j5

      In reply to rosyna:

      I'm one of those that chooses pain when moving to a new phone. It's like you're doing a Windows format. It also gives you a chance to reconsider if you really need to install specific apps when you rarely used them. Yeah it's a longer process but I like taking my time setting up new tech devices.

      • angusmatheson

        In reply to j5:

        I too often wipe things and start fresh. But I do think for the average user the ability to simply clone their iPhone or their Mac with their new one is amazing amazing feature. My Mom got a new phone that sat in the box until I came over set up the transfer from her 8. She was so delighted. With a Mac it is also so simple. When you turn it on it just as asks you, and you put them near each other and you come back with a computer that is basically set up with your files and with the way you are used to it. I know there are ways to do this with PC - but they are in tue realm of the IT professional, not tie average user. I know there is lots of reasons to start fresh and not carry your kruft with you to your new computer. But normal people usually buy what they already have - Samsung, iPhone, Mac, PC - and want it to work and look like the old one. Those of us who read this site are different because we love the technology and the exploration and find it hard to understand the average user who wants a reliable too do the simple tasks in their life and don’t want anything to change with their new phone or computer.

  5. jbinaz

    I'm looking forward to setting up my new iPhone 12 Pro when it arrives sometime between 10/30 and 11/4 (my pre-order experience is documented in the Apple forum here on I'm switching from Android, and have never had an iPhone before; it's always been Windows Phone or Android. That's said, I have had an iPad before, so I'm not completely new to iOS, but it's been years.

    I considered an iPhone 12 (not the Pro)

    despite Paul's comments about the 12 being the sweet spot. I'll likely have this phone for at least 2 years, so I spent the extra money.

    My sister said I should document the experience; we'll see if I have the desire or the time.

  6. retcable

    I received my new standard iPhone 12 yesterday, popped it straight from the box into its new case, and I have to say, I love the feel of the new design. I was always a huge fan of the iPhone 4/5 design, the edges are not sharp enough to hurt or even be uncomfortable at all. I find this design to be MUCH more secure in my hand, as the rounded edges of the past few years just invited the thing to spring from my hands to the ground.

    As for setup, I had done a fresh backup on my iMac of my old iPhone and it only took about 30 minutes for everything to be back up & running on the new phone just like it was on the old one. A very simple process. The OLED screen is SO much better than the old LCD. I don't miss not having a high-refresh-rate screen like on some Android devices. The only real time that refresh rate is noticeable is when you are flicking the screen rapidly up and down through application lists or side to side randomly, like the YouTubers do, but in reality, who does that all the time? I sure don't, so I don't care if this iPhone has it or not. I will gladly take the better battery life in exchange.

  7. cecoleman

    Are you sure you are not in the zoom mode on the display? The icons look larger than they should and if you are having some apps letterboxed then it makes me really think you were in zoom mode in the iPhone mini screen resolution.

  8. blue77star

    Being on iPhone 8 Plus, expecting to run it another 5 years. Paying more than $200 for phone is waste of money.

  9. Jorge Garcia

    The Magsafe design is a huge deal as it will become THE standard moving forward. Furniture, restaurants, hotel rooms, automobiles, bikes, etc. will all have places to "snap" your phone on and charge it. I am really hoping that all (or most) future phones can be designed to somewhat work with the standard (and I don't mean simple magnetism, but the ring alignment as well) without violating some BS patent or something. I don't want a repeat of the 30-pin adapter showing up everywhere, but unusable to half the smartphone-bearing population.

    • wright_is

      In reply to JG1170:

      The problem is, Magsafe is an Apple proprietary connector (and has a hefty licensing fee associated with it) and Apple accounts for around 16%-18% of smartphone market, worldwide. The rest of the market has standardized on USB-C going forward.

      • Jorge Garcia

        In reply to wright_is:

        The Macbook one, yes, but this one is just a magnetic ring. I know there's a chip in it that limits the charge if it's a third-party connector, but the magsafe charger itself will indeed charge a non-Apple phone, as evidenced by MKBHD. So, let's say Volkswagen starts releasing cars with a magsafe ring built into the dashboard...could not any android handset maker place magnets in their device that "just happen" to be compatible with "magsafe" charging stations/furniture/etc? As of right now I think they could (and should, and better!)...but who knows what machinations Apple went through to prevent that. I don't see any physical limitations, maybe just patent issues.

  10. scovious

    I hope you consider also reviewing the iPhone mini; people once laughed off phablet size phones, but I have a feeling compact phones will make a big comeback.

    • Paul Thurrott

      No need, it's the same phone with a smaller display. This one is already on the edge of being too small for me, especially since most of the apps I'm using aren't even full screen right now.
  11. yoshi

    So it looks like the Apple branded case finally covers the full bottom. Is that right? I always use Apple cases on iPhones, and while I've had no issues with the open bottom, I've always wondered why they didn't cover the entire device. Well, they haven't since my iPhone 5s at least.

  12. Aaron44126

    ...Bought the iPhone 12 (non-Pro) because it is smaller? iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro have the exact same dimensions...

  13. Chris_Kez

    I wonder how many people set up as a new device and how many people just transfer everything over; I'm Team New. I like the idea of starting with a clean slate and revisiting what I do and don't need.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Yeah, not sure. I assume most existing iPhone users just upgrade. But I put myself through this on purpose. I have different goals than the average user.
      • mclark2112

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        I usually just let iCloud handle the restore. But for my next phone, which may or may not be this one, I plan on starting from scratch. I do it with PCs, why not my phone. A clean slate is always a good idea.

        • nine54

          In reply to mclark2112:

          In the days where a backup/restore meant tethering your device to your computer, yeah no--I would just start fresh. But if you use apps that back up their data to iCloud (Apple Photos, Notes, etc.), then it doesn't really matter whether you "start fresh" or restore from a backup--once you log in, the data will be synced to the new device.

          But for apps and what-not, does the iCloud backup process backup actually binaries or is it just App Store metadata so that, when you do a restore, it just automatically downloads the apps?

    • rmlounsbury

      In reply to Chris_Kez:

      Same, I always setup my new devices clean w/o transferring anything. It's a good time to re-evaluate all my apps and even services I'm using and decide if I still need them or not.

    • anthonye1778

      In reply to Chris_Kez:

      I used to start fresh every time, but I've grown hardened in my ways and I now transfer everything over, keeping the same apps and setup as my previous phones. It's just so much easier.

  14. RobertJasiek

    Whom is this for? iPhone 5, 6, 7, 8, X or 11 users?

    • michael_goff

      In reply to RobertJasiek:

      I think we're way past the point where upgrading every year makes sense.

    • Paul Thurrott

      I can't imagine anyone with an iPhone 11 would upgrade this quickly, there's just no need. X is kind of on the line. But if you're using an old-school, pre-notch iPhone, and have been for over two years, you're in the market.
      • RobertJasiek

        Thanks both for explaining the likely schedule of flagship users (which, AFA smartphones are concerned, I am not)! Those despising notches won't be convinced though (but might have considered SE (2020)).

  15. wunderbar

    Apple's backup/restore is so good there is no need to set up a device like new. Don't even need to set up accounts in apps again. It just works.

    This is one of those things that Apple just gets right and is so good. I literally moved my mom from an iPhone 6S with a dying battery to an iPhone 8 this morning and The process took 10 minutes, and all the apps were there and ready to go. It normally takes me days to get a new Android phone set up. This was 10 minutes.

    For as much as I dislike a lot of things Apple does, my god they nail the details.

    • Chris_Kez

      In reply to wunderbar:

      Okay, you’ve piqued my interest. Assuming they don’t transfer Other Storage maybe I’ll give it a try.

    • Daishi

      In reply to wunderbar:

      Right? It’s kind of weird how much of a big deal Paul seems to make of the “arduous process” with “many, many setup steps” and “an insidious number of things I need to configure...which will be an ongoing process for the next week or two” when he admits that he has deliberately made it difficult for himself.

      When I got new phone 6 months ago it was a painless 15 minute process from opening the box to walking out of the room with a fully functioning phone. But he makes it seem like the labours of Hercules.

      • Paul Thurrott

        How dramatic! You misunderstand. There are steps you always have to go through, and then there are the additional things I've done to myself on purpose. I'm not complaining about the latter. iOS/iPadOS devices have crazy-long setup processes.
  16. Sir_Timbit

    Looking forward to your review. I have an iPhone 11 and have been very happy with it, plus it will get updates for years. I'm sure the OLED display on the 12 is nice, but it seems to me the main feature of this gen of phones is 5G support. Where I am (Canada) we don't have 5G mmWave support. It will likely be a few years before I see any real-world benefit to that here, and I've read elsewhere that the 5G support has meant a hit in battery life. Will be interested to see if you notice a difference that way.

    These days, the one thing I'm still missing from my older iPhones is TouchID. FaceID is not so useful with masks.

    • angusmatheson

      In reply to Sir_Timbit:

      I gave my Face ID phone to my son and am using an old iPhone SE just to get the fingerprint reader. I think my surface laptop 3 sometimes gets windows hello right when I have a mask on. I have t done anything scientific to compare them - but am delighted when it recognizes me and I don’t have to type in my pin.

    • jbinaz

      In reply to Sir_Timbit:

      I was listening to What the Tech today while driving, and I thought I heard Andrew say the latest version of Face ID worked with masks. That would be great, and amazing if true.