At its “Hi, Speed” announcement, Apple did what industry watchers were expecting and introduced not one, not two, not three, but four iPhone 12 models. In addition to the expected iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max, Apple unveiled a diminutive iPhone 12 mini that at long last acknowledges that not everyone has large hands or pockets.
Apple’s pre-recorded event was jam-packed with hero shots and technical specs, all edited with such quick cuts that taking notes was nigh-on impossible. The details are all now available, but when managing editor Josh Centers and I talked it through, we didn’t see any way that we could convey that information as well as Apple. So, instead of a traditional “speeds and feeds” article, we’re going to take a slightly different tack.
First, let’s get you the numbers you’ll want to pore over to evaluate the four models. Check out these pages:
- iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro main pages
- iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini tech specs
- iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max tech specs
- iPhone comparison tool
- Apple trade-in values
Now, here’s what you need to know about the iPhone 12 lineup.
Industrial Design: It’s Hip to Be Square
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the iPhone 12 lineup is that it passes the Goldilocks test: you can finally choose from three different sizes. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the Papa Bear, with a 6.7-inch screen. That’s a hair taller than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which had only a 6.5-inch screen. In the Mama Bear spot, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are identical twins, featuring a 6.1-inch screen that’s the same size as last year’s iPhone 11, but in a case that’s a bit shorter. But the gold star goes to the new Baby Bear model, the iPhone 12 mini, which shoehorns a 5.4-inch screen into a case that’s just 8 mm taller and 6 mm wider than the first-generation iPhone SE that had a 4-inch screen and was the last truly small iPhone.
With the iPhone 12 models, Apple has also returned to the squared-off industrial design last seen in the first-generation iPhone SE. That’s a huge deal in its own right, since that industrial design was widely praised for being easier to hold and less slippery. I never used an iPhone case during that era because the design made me so much less likely to drop my iPhone. If you do drop one of these new iPhones, it will be up to four times more likely to emerge with the screen intact thanks to a Ceramic Shield glass that Apple developed with Corning.
The similarity in materials ends there. The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini have a glass back and aluminum design, and they come in five colors: black, white, green, blue, and Product(RED). The iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max sport a textured matte glass back and a stainless steel design. Their colors include silver, graphite, gold, and a snazzy new Pacific Blue.
Finally, it’s worth noting that all the iPhone 12 models have the notch on the screen and rely on Face ID for authentication. The notch isn’t a big deal—you get used to it quickly—but Face ID isn’t a win when you’re wearing a mask. We had hoped that Apple would bring the Touch ID sensor that it integrated into the top button of the recently announced fourth-generation iPad Air to the iPhone 12 (see “Apple Redesigns iPad Air, Updates Base-Model iPad,” 15 September 2020). It may not have been technically feasible, or Apple may not have had time to revamp the internals once it became clear that we’d be wearing masks while out and about for the foreseeable future.
5G: Bandwidth Game Changer or Spectrum Snake Oil?
Apple made a big deal of the fact that all these models support 5G wireless connectivity, even bringing in Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon Communications, to talk about how wonderful it will be. The specs are impressive, with up to 4 gigabits-per-second download speeds under ideal conditions, although Apple admitted that typical conditions would see only 1 gigabit per second. Upload speeds could be up to 200 megabits per second. Verizon claimed that “5G just got real,” in part thanks to its 5G Ultra Wideband service and its use of millimeter-wave spectrum. Plus, the company said it is now turning on its 5G Nationwide Network (which presumably doesn’t use the millimeter-wave spectrum), claiming that it will reach 200 million people across 1800 cities and towns.
Color us skeptical. We have doubts that 5G will produce the kind of real-world performance that Verizon is touting. Coverage is also a question—Verizon says 5G Ultra Wideband is in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and will be expanding to 60 cities around the US by year-end. We’re not sure what Verizon’s 5G Nationwide Network entails in terms of technology—is it something real or just rebranded LTE? Regardless, what are the 5G plans for AT&T and T-Mobile in the US, or for carriers throughout the rest of the world? And given the short range of 5G, which requires more base stations, we strongly suspect it will be a long time in coming to people who don’t live in dense urban areas. No 5G service, no 5G benefits.
Even if you can get 5G, will you care? More bandwidth is always welcome, but apart from those who stream video regularly, we’re betting most people won’t notice. Don’t misunderstand—we’re always in favor of better networking, and there will undoubtedly be uses for it in the future, like augmented-reality glasses, but for now, we’d suggest that most people shouldn’t upgrade for the 5G alone. Regardless of its networking utility, 5G won’t give you cancer (see “Worried about 5G and Cancer? Here’s Why Wireless Networks Pose No Known Health Risk,” 6 December 2019).
Cameras: Pro Means Pro
We’ll admit to glazing over somewhat during Apple’s explanation of just how amazing the cameras are on the iPhone 12 models. So many numbers, spoken so quickly! The practical upshot is that the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini have a dual 12-megapixel camera system with ultra wide and wide cameras with 2x optical zoom. They have optical image stabilization and support Night mode and Deep Fusion, which are essentially Apple marketing terms for computational photography features that provide better photos, particularly in low-light situations. Night mode and Deep Fusion are also now available on the front-facing camera. For video, they offer 1080p and 4K recording at up to 60 frames per second and introduce HDR video recording with Dolby Vision at up to 30 fps. Again, that just means higher quality video, particularly in challenging lighting.
We’re feeling intimidated by the iPhone 12 Pro model cameras. Like last year’s iPhone 11 Pro, they feature a triple 12-megapixel camera system with ultra wide, wide, and telephoto cameras. Along with everything the plain iPhone 12 models can do, the Pro cameras boast a better optical zoom: the iPhone 12 Pro has a 4x zoom range from 0.5x to 2x, whereas the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 5x zoom range from 0.5x to 2.5x.
A new LiDAR Scanner gives the iPhone 12 Pro models faster autofocus in low light, Night mode portraits, and improved AR experiences. They also support a new Apple ProRAW format that provides professional photographers with the benefits of Apple’s computational photography combined with the flexibility of a raw image format. In terms of video, the Pro models bump that HDR video with Dolby Vision to 60 fps. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also features something Apple calls “sensor-shift optical image stabilization for both photos and video—which is supposedly better than the regular optical image stabilization in the iPhone 12 Pro.
Finally, I’m going to slip another significant fact in here—all the iPhone 12 models use Apple’s new A14 Bionic chip, which the company announced with the fourth-generation iPad Air last month (see “Apple Redesigns iPad Air, Updates Base-Model iPad,” 15 September 2020). Apple geeked out on its many capabilities, but in the real world, I suspect the main utility of the A14 comes in powering the computational photography capabilities behind every image taken by a modern iPhone. It’s probably good for fancy gaming too, if small-screen games without physical controllers float your boat, or for editing those snazzy HDR videos with Dolby Vision.
So let me put all that in context. The iPhone 12 Pro model camera system is almost certainly the best iPhone camera ever. If you’re a pro or want pro-level photos and videos from your iPhone, buy one right away. The harder questions come if you’re not a pro and need to choose between models, with some attention paid to cost. How does the iPhone 12 camera compare to the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max cameras? And how do they stack up against the iPhone 11 Pro? We’re not pro photographers, so we’re not even going to attempt such an evaluation. We’re sure photo sites and photography-involved Mac sites like John Gruber’s Daring Fireball will be publishing side-by-side comparison images soon enough.
Magnets and Batteries, Oh My!
Magnets feature heavily in the iPhone 12 with the return of Apple’s MagSafe name. Previously, MagSafe referred to the magnetic break-away charging cables Apple laptops relied on before the move to USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. (We will all now pause for a minute of silence to mourn the passing of MagSafe in laptops.)
The new MagSafe is a magnetic coupling and charging technology built into the back of each of the iPhone 12 models. It’s a ring of magnets inside the case, coupled with a magnetometer and an NFC sensor. An Apple MagSafe Charger (sold separately for $39) snaps onto the back for wireless charging at up 15 watts. Qi wireless charging is still supported as well, at up to 7.5 watts. Ironically, MagSafe could eliminate the positioning problems that caused Apple to cancel its AirPower wireless charging mat (see “Apple Cancels AirPower, Can’t Take the Heat,” 29 March 2019).
On the wired charging front, all the iPhone 12 models have Lightning ports and are fast-charge capable, which means they can achieve a 50% charge in 30 minutes with a 20-watt or higher charger. But don’t expect that 20-watt charger in the box. The new iPhones will include a Lightning to USB-C cable, but say goodbye to included wall chargers and earbuds. Speaking from the rooftop of Apple Park (and looking just a touch nervous about the height), Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives Lisa Jackson spun this as an environmental change that will spare the world from some electronic waste and make shipping more efficient, which is undoubtedly true and good, but it also saves Apple a lot of money that it’s not passing on to the customer. A win-win for Apple, if not the rest of us.
The MagSafe technology also enables an entire ecosystem of accessories. Apple sells several cases that rely on it, along with a leather card wallet that just snaps onto the back. If I left the house more frequently these days, that would be compelling. We expect to see lots of other accessories—Apple previewed a MagSafe combination charger that could charge an iPhone 12 and an Apple Watch at the same time and noted that Belkin has several MagSafe charging accessories in the works as well. We hope MagSafe is a huge hit and Apple builds it into the iPad and MacBook lines in the future.
Finally, it’s worth noting that although we expect all the iPhone 12 models to have decent battery life in real-world use, the iPhone 12 mini has the shortest estimated battery life, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max the longest. Apple’s benchmarks give only relative impressions, since it’s unhelpful to know that the iPhone 12 Pro Max could play video for up to 20 hours, whereas the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 could do so for only 17 hours, and the iPhone 12 mini for only 15 hours. If you regularly binge the full 15.5-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz in one go, I apologize for my presumption.
Pricing and Availability
Here’s where numbers matter, since everyone understands dollars and cents. It’s worth noting that the second-generation iPhone SE, iPhone XR, and iPhone 11 remain for sale to provide an even ramp-up on price points, so we’ve included them for comparison’s sake.
|Model||64 GB||128 GB||256 GB||512 GB|
|iPhone 12 mini||$699
|iPhone 12 Pro||–||$999||$1099||$1299|
|iPhone 12 Pro Max||–||$1099||$1199||$1399|
What’s the deal with the two prices for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini? It turns out that Apple has swung some sort of deal—initially with AT&T and Verizon, and shortly after launch with T-Mobile (which merged with Sprint)—such that the price is $30 less if you activate the iPhone with one of those carriers. Apple says that all iPhones are still unlocked, except for those sold on AT&T installment plans. Nevertheless, this is being widely seen as a sneaky price increase, especially since there’s no word on whether the $30 discount is a limited-time offer or permanent.
It’s worth noting that the iPhone 12 is $100 more expensive than last year’s iPhone 11—the iPhone 12 mini has taken over the $699 price slot. Nevertheless, we like the 128/256/512 GB storage levels for the iPhone 12 Pro—they’re more sensible than the iPhone 11 Pro’s 64/256/512 GB approach and mean that the base-level iPhone 12 Pro has twice the storage as the equivalently priced iPhone 11 Pro Pro from last year.
Pre-orders for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro started at 5 AM Pacific on 16 October 2020, with delivery and in-store availability beginning on 23 October 2020.
The iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max will be available for pre-order at 5 AM Pacific on 6 November 2020, with delivery and in-store availability on 13 November 2020.
Based on what we could see during Apple’s announcement, along with the published specs, I can confidently say that the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max are the fastest, most capable iPhones ever. This is an unsurprising assessment, given that it has also been true of every top-of-the-line iPhone model Apple has ever announced. But if you want the best, buy one of those two, with the choice between them based on physical size, optical zoom, battery life, and price.
For those for whom small size is the key variable about an iPhone, it’s an easy decision to get the iPhone 12 mini, which at long last fills the hole left by the first-generation iPhone SE as a phone for those with smaller hands and pockets. Thank you, Apple!
It’s harder to provide upgrade advice from other older iPhones. For instance, what about the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro? There’s no question the new models are more capable, but are they enough more capable for the price? Neither Josh nor I currently plan to upgrade from the iPhone 11 Pro because there just doesn’t seem to be enough bang for the buck. The iPhone XR and iPhone XS might fall into the same category, although the iPhone X could be old enough for an upgrade to be attractive.
The iPhone 8 and the second-generation iPhone SE certainly don’t have the processing power or camera capabilities of the iPhone 12 models, but they have one key advantage that might give some people pause when pondering an upgrade: Touch ID. Given that the earliest estimates I’ve seen for widespread availability of a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus are the middle of 2021, people with Touch ID-based iPhones might want to stick with them until mask-wearing is no longer necessary in public spaces.
Nevertheless, everyone’s decision will be driven by combinations of variables, and I sincerely doubt that anyone who can afford the upgrade will feel let down by any of the new iPhone 12 models.