12 : the bar

Dieter Bohn

More , are a lot of things that are new in the iPhone 12. Apple has loaded in the usual upgrades like a faster processor and improved camera, but that’s something we’ve come to expect. In addition to all of that, there’s a new design, a new OLED screen, an entirely new charging and accessory ecosystem with MagSafe, and, of course, 5G.

It seems obvious that both Apple and its carrier partners are trying to align to make this a supercycle for upgrades. All of that new stuff is also paired with both a higher price ($829 for the base 64GB model) and discounts and heavily marketed carrier trade-in and installment plans. In the midst of a pandemic-induced economic downturn, it could be a hard sell.

It’s easy to recommend the default iPhone for the times when you need a new phone anyway, but it’s much more difficult to say whether all of this new stuff adds up to something that could compel you to upgrade earlier than you’d planned.

Nilay Patel is reviewing the iPhone 12 Pro separately, here. Both the smaller iPhone 12 mini and the iPhone 12 Pro Max with its better cameras won’t arrive for a little while. There’s reason to consider all of them, but the standard iPhone 12 is the one I think most people who need a new iPhone will want to get.

The iPhone 12, in blue.

iPhone 12 design

I love the new design for the iPhone 12. In addition to being smaller and lighter than the iPhone 11, it has flat sides and a flat screen. We’ve been living with curved edges on iPhones for six years, since 2014’s iPhone 6. So part of my affection might just be that the iPhone 12 feels new. But it’s also that it feels like a throwback to the iPhone 4 and 5 models, which were the last iPhones whose design I truly loved.

Despite all of those flat edges, the seams and the corners are beveled just enough to make it comfortable to hold. The rails on the iPhone 12 are matte finish aluminum, and I prefer them to the glossy steel on the Pro models. Unfortunately, the rear glass is super glossy, super prone to picking up fingerprints, and as susceptible to picking up tiny little micro-abrasions as ever. Most people will put a case on their phone anyway.

The front of the iPhone 12 isn’t technically glass at all, but a glass-ceramic hybrid Apple has branded “Ceramic Shield.” It uses ceramic crystals within the glass itself to improve drop resistance over the iPhone 11. Apple says it’s four times better, which is a good thing because screen repair costs have gone up this year. I can’t test that with our review unit (at least, not intentionally), but I did have a totally accidental drop to concrete from three feet that stopped my heart but only put a barely perceptible ding in the aluminum. Scratch resistance should be about the same as last .

If you look at the aluminum rail, you’ll see a bunch of antenna lines and even a small plastic section on the side for the Ultra Wideband (UWB) mmWave antenna. They break up the symmetry a bit (especially on the bottom), but it doesn’t bother me. I’ve also become notch-blind at this point, but I should note that Face ID still requires a very big cutout at the top of the screen.

There’s no fingerprint sensor, and though I didn’t really expect one, during the pandemic, it is a frustration. I suppose the one silver lining for Android manufacturers mostly whiffing on Face Unlock is that their phones are easier to get into when you’re wearing a mask.

Overall, though, this design just feels more elegant and confident than the past few years of iPhones, including even the big iPhone X redesign. And the smaller size is the best part; the iPhone XR and iPhone 11 always felt just a little too big. If this is the design we’ll be living with for the next six years, I won’t complain.

The iPhone 12’s OLED screen is excellent.

iPhone 12 screen

One of the reasons Apple was able to reduce the size of the iPhone 12 is that it has switched over to an OLED screen. That helps reduce the bezels and also keeps them perfect even all the way around the phone, while at the same time keeping the actual viewable screen the same 6.1 inches as the iPhone 11. I prefer the look of OLED to LCD because of its blacker blacks, so I’ve been waiting for this change.

Along with the switch to OLED, Apple has also increased the pixel count to 1080 x 2340. If you haven’t been immersed in smartphone tech discussions, you have blessedly avoided the complaining that previous iPhones didn’t even technically hit 1080p. Now they have, and those complaints can finally cease.

The large FaceID notch is still there, but it eventually feels normal.

But they’ll be replaced with another argument: whether the iPhone ought to have a high refresh rate screen. Many Android phones at this price point (and nearly all of them that cost more) have a 90 or 120Hz refresh rate, which makes scrolling and animations smoother. The iPhone’s is locked to the same 60Hz it’s always been.

This is a tech spec argument, but it is something that you can feel when you scroll or navigate around a phone. Apple ships such a screen on the iPad Pro. I think the iPhone 12 gets away with leaving it out for two reasons: one, iOS already feels smooth and fast natively, and two, this is the lower-cost iPhone, so it isn’t a surprise to see a standard refresh rate. The iPhone 12 Pro models lacking 120Hz is a little more jarring.

The iPhone 12 Pro does have one screen advantage over this phone: it can reach a higher level of brightness in regular use. I didn’t have any complaints about screen brightness on this iPhone 12, however, even outdoors. And when watching HDR content, both phones can still reach peak brightness of 1,200 nits.

Overall, the OLED screen is a noticeable improvement for me mainly because of its improved contrast and HDR, not the pixel count. I’m also happy to report that Apple hasn’t compromised on its color science either — colors are as accurate as ever.

The MagSafe charging puck is thin, light, and can power the iPhone 12 at 15W.

MagSafe

Of all the new things on the iPhone 12, I think MagSafe is the most interesting. It’s an entire system for attaching things to the back of the iPhone via magnets: wireless chargers, cases, car mounts, wallets, and eventually, other things like gimbals or something I haven’t thought of yet.

The premiere accessory is the MagSafe charger, a $39 puck that snicks onto the back of the phone with a satisfying clap and then wirelessly charges it. The iPhone has a second NFC chip for MagSafe that identifies what’s been attached to it. When it’s a MagSafe charger, it will allow the phone to power up at 15 watts instead of the usual 7.5, provided you have at least a 20-watt power brick. (The MagSafe charger doesn’t come with one. Apple will sell you a 20-watt USB-C charger for $19, or you can use one from another device such as a laptop.)

It’s the difference between wireless charging being annoyingly slow and being acceptable. In my testing, I would get around 40 percent charge in an hour. That’s slower than the fastest wireless charging systems out there and much slower than a cable, but it’s also easy and convenient.

Apple’s puck is thin and light and attaches firmly enough that you can pick up the phone and use it without it getting disconnected. If anybody else wants to make a charging puck, they’ll need to use Apple’s “Made for iPhone” (MFI) program. Other fast wireless chargers still charge the iPhone at the usual rate; new ones will need to use that NFC handshake as necessary for the faster charging. (And no, apps can’t access this NFC chip directly, so payments and other uses are still more locked down than on Android.)

NFC also lets Apple do cute little things like light up a ring on the screen when it detects that an accessory has been attached. There’s a blue ring for a blue case, for example. Apple is selling a series of MagSafe cases that it claims are easier to snap on and off, but they’re not appreciably different than the silicone cases from prior years. There’s also a wallet that can hold three cards with special shielding to keep them from getting de-magnetized. It’s nice enough for what it is, but you have to take it off to get a card out or to wirelessly charge the phone.

I’m excited to see what third-party companies come up with for these magnets. They don’t need to participate in MFI to simply make magnetic accessories, and car mounts are already on the way. I’m hoping to see a bunch of photography and video accessories, too. The magnets are strong enough to hold the phone up against light jostling, but stuff like bike mounts will still need a sturdier attachment.

One last word about charging while we’re on the subject. Apple has indeed taken the AC adapter out of the box and included a USB-C to Lightning cable, so if you don’t have a USB-C charger, you’ll need to get one. Even though the environmental benefits may not be huge, I am still in favor of this decision.

I’m less in favor of the decision to stick to the Lightning port for charging. A major redesign is an opportunity to switch over to the more common USB-C port, the same port that Apple’s own computers and tablets use along with every other Android phone and many, many other gadgets. The fact that Apple didn’t have the courage to do so tells me that its long-term plans may have more to do with MagSafe than anything else. I don’t love Lightning, but I have to admit it’s better than literally nothing when it comes to wired charging.

5G is great if you can find it.

5G on the iPhone 12

Apple has joined the 5G Hype Industrial Complex. It is promoting 5G as the flagship feature on all of its new iPhone models and promising incredibly fast download speeds. The reality in the US is that getting those speeds is a matter of being in the right city and sometimes the right city block. Heck, the ultra-fast millimeter-wave (mmWave) version of 5G requires being literally on the right street corner.

The networks simply aren’t built-out yet, and despite lofty promises from carriers, I don’t know how long it will be until they are.

In my testing in Oakland and San Francisco on both T-Mobile and Verizon, I found myself with an LTE signal as often as I did 5G — if not more. When I did get 5G, my download speeds varied from just barely better than LTE to about two times faster. But when I consciously sought out the sidewalks where Verizon’s mmWave network is live, the speeds were mind-boggling.

All of which is to say that your experience with 5G is completely dependent on where you are, what network you’re on, and how lucky you are in finding the right signal. Getting 2,400Mbps and using it to download an entire Netflix season really is awe-inspiring. Walking half a block and seeing speeds drop down to plain old LTE speeds is not.

As far as the iPhone itself goes, it performs as well or better than 5G Android phones. It can certainly handle the speed, and it appears to pick up signal without issue. It does get hot on mmWave, and it does impact battery life significantly if you overdo it. Apple is, however, doing a lot of work under the hood in iOS to tweak the 5G experience.

By default, every 5G phone will have a “Smart Data mode” enabled. It drops the iPhone 12 down to LTE speeds unless Apple’s software believes you really need them. It’s a little unclear what circumstances will trigger a bump up to 5G speeds, but it’s some combination of what kind of data you’re downloading and perhaps what app you’re using.

What’s weird is that when the iPhone is limiting you to LTE speeds, it will still display the 5G icon in the status bar. It’s now an indicator of the best speed available to you, not the actual type of connection that’s actively in use. You can turn Smart Data off if you like, but I left it on and honestly never really felt like I was being throttled.

(As long as we’re talking about inaccurate status bar icons, I will point out that AT&T’s deceitful “5G E” indicator for its LTE Advanced network is sticking around. Shame on AT&T for this branding and on Apple for enabling it.)

There are other nuances with 5G. Although Apple has done a remarkable job ensuring the iPhone 12 will work on any US network, there are some band differences internationally (where mmWave isn’t necessarily included), so double-check if you move or ever get to travel again. And if you use both the physical SIM and the eSIM on your iPhone, it turns out that the Dual SIM Dual Standby spec can’t handle having 5G lit up on both networks at the same time. If you have them both active, you’ll get 4G. But you can get 5G on either on its own.

Some networks — including Verizon — require you to get a new 5G-compatible SIM card. So if you’re not getting 5G and you think you should be, that may be the issue. You may also need to adjust your plan.

The iPhone will also try to be aware of your data plan, and if it knows you have unlimited, it will use 5G more freely for certain things. Apple will even allow it to download full iOS updates over 5G if you’re on unlimited. If you change your plan or don’t want it to do that, you might need to go diving through various settings.

Apple also says that you might get faster tethering speeds over Wi-Fi than tethering over a wired Lightning cable, thanks to optimizations it has made. Wi-Fi tethering could be as much as four times faster than before in optimal conditions (including, perhaps Wi-Fi 6 on the tethered device). Since it’s a hassle for me to even find an mmWave signal, I haven’t had a chance to fully test this.

Finally, 5G won’t work on your iPhone if your carrier doesn’t directly work with Apple to light it up. Unlike previous networks, you can’t go in and just manually set an APN and MMS settings and be good to go on 5G. That shouldn’t be a problem for the vast majority of people, though. Apple has worked with over 100 carriers in 30 markets to enable 5G on the iPhone, including all three major carriers in the US — but if you use an MVNO, you should double-check that 5G will work before you buy.

You really shouldn’t have to worry about most of these 5G details. If you happen to get 5G speeds where you live and work, bully for you. If you don’t, they will hopefully come to you soon, and hopefully the networks will continue to be fast even after all these 5G iPhones start filling up the channels. Either way, right now, it’s not a good idea to buy an iPhone just because it has 5G. It’s a nice bonus, but not more than that yet.

The dual camera system on the iPhone 12.

iPhone 12 camera

The most important changes to the camera in the iPhone 12 aren’t in the sensors or the lenses. They are completely unchanged except for the main wide-angle camera going from an ƒ/1.8 aperture to ƒ/1.6 to allow in slightly more light. Instead, the bigger differences come from software and from unlocking new capabilities, thanks to the new A14 Bionic processor that runs everything on the phone.

If you’re comparing iPhone 12 models, the key things to know is that the regular iPhone 12 and the 12 mini have the same camera system. The iPhone 12 Pro adds telephoto, LIDAR for low-light focusing and depth calculations, and some more encoding options for photo and video. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a bigger upgrade with a larger main camera sensor and improved image stabilization.

Nilay Patel’s review of the iPhone 12 Pro has details on some of its distinct features and also goes more in-depth on video quality. Apple is making big claims around HDR, dubbing this a Dolby Vision camera. I’ll let Nilay give you all the nitty-gritty details on that. For my part, I’ll just say that video quality continues to be excellent and is challenged only by the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, but I give the edge to the iPhone.

But back to the A14 Bionic. It has unlocked night mode for all of the cameras on the iPhone 12 (including the front selfie camera) and even a night portrait mode. Apple has also made some tweaks to its system for combining multiple frames into a single image, called Smart HDR 3. That system should also be better at recognizing things like faces or the sky and tweaking the photos to optimize their appearance. In fact, there’s even a new setting called “Scene Detection” if you want to toggle it.

In general, the iPhone 12 does a better job on fine detail in regular lighting conditions. Apple says this might be because it is applying its Deep Fusion algorithms in more situations this year. I still like the Pixel’s signature, contrast-y look, but Apple seems to be moving in its direction just a little. The iPhone 12’s photos seem to finally be stepping back from over-brightening shadows on faces. But it’s a minor tweak, the bigger changes come in more extreme conditions.

Compared to the iPhone 11, the iPhone 12 needs to drop into night mode less often, thanks to that faster lens. And even when it does, I’m getting clearer, brighter shots. In the very darkest conditions, the Pixel 5 still handles itself a little better, but it’s much, much closer than it’s ever been.

Night mode portraits mean you can try them in more conditions, but the quality is best in good light.

Even in low light, the iPhone 12’s portrait mode passes the “glasses test,” properly keeping them in focus instead of blurring them.

Night mode portraits are one of the major new features, and they’re worth a try, but the range of lighting conditions where they’ll look good isn’t massively bigger. One nice thing is that the iPhone 12 passes the glasses test with flying colors; they never seem to get accidentally blurred. I’m less impressed with night mode selfies portraits. There’s no way to turn the screen flash off in this mode, which is a problem if you wear glasses.

Many of those software enhancements have also come to the ultrawide camera, and so its quality is also improved. However, it is still a fundamentally worse sensor and lens combo, and you can see grain in the details if you look even a little closely. It’s good for landscapes, though.

Apple’s algorithms for its ultrawide camera are improved, but there’s only so much software can do.

Apple says that it has done more tuning to compensate for lens distortion at the edge of ultrawide shots, especially for faces and architecture. I do think it helps but only a little. This photo of the Golden Gate bridge still has a clear bend to it.

For me, the bottom line on the cameras is I definitely see a marked improvement over the iPhone 11, but they’re not enough to compel an upgrade. That doesn’t mean the iPhone 12 isn’t a massively good camera. It is, and the combination of performance, simplicity, and just plain good quality continues to impress.

The rear of the iPhone 12 is glossy and it picks up both fingerprints and micro-scratches fairly easily. Use a case.

iPhone 12 performance, battery life, and software

It should not come as any kind of surprise to you that the iPhone 12 is blisteringly fast. The new A14 Bionic chip is built on a new 5nm process — one that we expect will also power upcoming Mac computers. Games load fast and there’s no lag, webpages render without hassle, and I’m seeing fewer apps need to reload when multitasking.

But in actual day-to-day use, I suspect nobody will see an appreciable difference from the iPhone 11, which was and is very fast, too. The importance of the iPhone 12’s speed isn’t that it’s fast today; it’s that it’s likely to still be fast in three or even five years.

Battery life is good but does seem to be a small regression from the iPhone 11 (an absolute battery champion). The fact that Apple felt the need to create a special mode for silently turning off 5G is a little worrying in terms of battery life. Luckily, I don’t think the battery life on the iPhone 12 is bad at all. I can get through a full day without much issue. On the other hand, I have to admit that it’s easier to kill this thing with a full day of heavy use than the iPhone 11.

As for iOS 14, I’ll point you to Chris Welch’s review as his thoughts mirror my own. I really like having widgets on the main home screen, although I wish there was a wider selection from my favorite apps. Speaking of wishes, I wish Apple would put much more effort into making Siri a little more competitive with the Google Assistant.

The iPhone 12.

The iPhone 12 is the first iPhone in several years that really does feel like something new. But I can’t point to any specific single feature that makes it feel that way. The 5G is fine. MagSafe is convenient, but we’ll have to see if there’s a real ecosystem there. The OLED screen is lovely but also kind of table stakes for smartphones these days. The new design is elegant and modern, but it’s hard to tell you to buy a phone because it’s pretty.

The iPhone 12 is going to be the default choice for a lot of people buying an iPhone over the next year, and it’s frankly fortunate that the default iPhone is so good. I think most people should get this instead of the iPhone 12 Pro. But I also think if you have an iPhone that’s working for you just fine, there’s not a must-have gotta-get-it feature here to compel you to upgrade. That’s how default phones work: when you need one, get one, and it will be way better than what you were using. When you don’t need one, don’t.

But when the time comes for you to get a new phone and if you end up with this iPhone 12, I think you’re going to love it.


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Author: Dieter Bohn {authorlink}
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