The reviews are in! Well, some of them. Pundits favored by Apple with early review access have started to publish their initial impressions of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. It will be a few more weeks before we see reviews of the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max—we suspect those will appear on 13 November 2020.
Here are some highlights from the reviews, which had a surprising amount of consensus. We’ll focus on the key aspects of the new iPhones and share reviewer opinions about each.
Of course, no single feature defines the iPhone experience. The combination of materials, shape, and other factors make up the gestalt of each iPhone.
Overall, though, this design just feels more elegant and confident than the past few years of iPhones, including even the big iPhone X redesign. … 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.
Where the iPhone 12 Pro is jewel like, the iPhone 12 is fun, bright and utilitarian. … The blasted aluminum sides of the iPhone 12 welcome you to grab and go … The 12 Pro is likely the most premium feeling piece of consumer electronics I’ve ever touched.
The main criticism of the industrial design of these new models was that they show fingerprints. Talk about a first-world problem.
Panzarino called out the stainless steel coating in particular.
The PVD coatings of the stainless steel are deep and rich on the Pro—but they gather fingerprints like they were in the business of collecting evidence.
John Gruber of Daring Fireball concurred.
The shiny steel band of the 12 Pro is a fingerprint magnet — they wipe away easily, but the aluminum band of the 12 never shows any signs of having been touched,” Gruber said.
Bohn also agreed.
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.
5G and Battery Life
Much has been said about the new 5G capabilities of the new iPhones. The general consensus is that the fastest 5G speeds are amazing… if you can find one of the few exact spots where they’re available.
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. … 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.
Matthew Panzarino summarized the situation well.
The fastest flavors of 5G are available only on a few blocks of a handful of major cities at the moment and though the speeds are absolutely incredible there, that will have very little to do with the wider experience of buyers over the next 6 months. And, of course, millimeter-wave 5G is not live for customers outside of the U.S. currently.
John Gruber had trouble finding 5G service, but once he did he was amazed by its speed.
Basically, Verizon claims to offer ‘5G Nationwide’ — a.k.a. Sub-6GHz 5G — across the whole metro region except for the most densely populated area right in the heart of Philly. Which is where I live. I walked into areas that are red on Verizon’s map, but I never saw any regular 5G service. Only LTE. I pretty much live my life in Verizon’s pink zone.
And — I’ll repeat — holy s–t is Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband fast. Using Ookla’s Speedtest app for testing, my LTE service here in Philly is generally in the range of 50-120 Mbps down, 10-20 Mbps up. Not bad. With 5G Ultra Wideband, I typically saw 1,200-1,800 Mbps down, 25-70 Mbps up. At a few spots I consistently saw 2,300-2,700 Mbps down. Wowza.
On the downside, using 5G appears to have a significant impact on battery life. Tom’s Guide ran tests that produced alarming results.
The regular iPhone 12 lasted just 8 hours and 25 minutes over AT&T’s 5G network. Last year’s iPhone 11 lasted a whopping 11 hours and 16 minutes over 4G. To compare, we switched the iPhone 12 to 4G-only, and it endured for 10 hours and 23 minutes.
It’s also worth noting in those results that, even with 5G turned off, the iPhone 12’s battery drained almost an hour faster than the iPhone 11’s. That may be due to having smaller batteries.
Dieter Bohn saw a less dramatic decrease in battery life from last year’s iPhone 11.
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.
Nilay Patel, who reviewed the iPhone 12 Pro for The Verge, believes the battery life reduction will largely depend on how much you use 5G.
In the end, I think iPhone 12 Pro battery life is going to vary widely for people depending on how much they use 5G—especially mmWave 5G—so this is something we’ll have to track over time. But I would definitely not expect the “try and stop me” battery life we saw on the regular iPhone 11.
The battery life reduction wasn’t universal, however. Panzarino saw similar performance to the iPhone 11 Pro.
Battery usage seemed to be much in line with the iPhone 11 Pro. I typically clone all of my test devices off of my current devices and then do testing on performance once indexing has settled down. I got around 15 hours of heavy usage on the iPhone 12 Pro every day. The iPhone 12 seemed similar but it’s hard to say because I had to focus on one main device.
Finally, Gruber has concerns over what 5G will do to data caps.
Data caps are another practical concern. Anything you do that can make use of these insane speeds can chew through 15-30 GB of data pretty quickly. Download Xcode once and boom, there goes 11 GB. But 5G will help you blow through your data cap really fast.
However, Bohn said iOS tries to regulate usage based on your data plan, which could prevent some problems.
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.
Bohn also mentioned some interesting technical aspects of 5G on the iPhone 12:
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.
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.
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 a mmWave signal, I haven’t had a chance to fully test this.
…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.
As always, Apple put a huge amount of effort and emphasis on the camera improvements in the new iPhones, but the actual differences may not be worth an upgrade. Dieter Bohn saw an improvement over the iPhone 11, but not enough to justify an upgrade.
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.
Similarly, Nilay Patel found the improvements in the iPhone 12 Pro to be minor compared to the iPhone 11 Pro.
Last year I said the iPhone 11 Pro had the best camera on a smartphone, and it’s not like the iPhone 12 Pro went backward. But it’s only a small step forward—enough to stay just ahead of the competition. Most of the improvements are fairly minor.
Unless you are extremely committed to either AR gimmicks or night mode portrait photos, I don’t think you’ll get much value out of the iPhone 12 LIDAR sensor. When you take photos in regular light, the camera focuses just like always; the LIDAR sensor isn’t active. In many ways, it feels like LIDAR is mostly on the phone so that Apple and other people can figure out what to do with it in the future.
However, Matthew Panzarino was impressed by the improved Portrait Mode.
The portrait mode on iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are greatly improved in one major respect: they do a much better job of segmenting images along the border of things like leaves, hair, fur and other areas of fine detail.
But what about the new HDR video capture capabilities of the iPhone 12 Pro? Panzarino doesn’t think most users will take advantage of it.
I’m going to be flat out honest with you: the vast majority of iPhone users will never even be able to access HDR footage or workflows, and will never ever need this. If you do most of your video shooting on an iPhone and then share directly to social networks or in Messages, HDR will likely bring you no major benefit. The iPhone 12 shoots pretty amazing right out of the camera 4k footage in 30 and 60 fps.
Patel agrees, but he thinks it will become more useful over time.
Dolby Vision video on the iPhone is a little complicated, and there will be some compatibility goofiness at the start. But over time, I’d expect it to fade away. TV manufacturers and social platforms have a lot of incentives to figure out how to play back people’s iPhone videos well, after all.
If you want to learn more about the iPhone 12 Pro’s support for HDR video capture, I highly recommend reading Patel’s full review, which goes into great detail about its technical details.
MagSafe is the iPhone 12’s new magnetic charging and accessory attachment system. For Dieter Bohn, MagSafe was the most interesting of all the new features of the iPhone 12.
But how does MagSafe compare against charging with a Lightning cable? Qi wireless charging is notoriously slow and inefficient, but Bohn noted a marked improvement over Qi.
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.
Bohn noted other advantages MagSafe has over Qi.
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.
If you’ve been frustrated by trying to line up your iPhone correctly on a Qi charger, Matthew Panzarino said MagSafe is a lot easier.
This process is way faster than fiddling with a Qi charger, and way less frustrating. Though I have had some luck with upright Anker chargers, the pad style chargers have always been crap at this. You have to fiddle to get them on right and often wake up realizing that you didn’t get it quite centered and your phone hasn’t charged at all.
John Gruber pointed out that MagSafe is more akin to Lightning than Qi.
I dig MagSafe charging. But it definitely is not a dock or a charging mat, like tabletop Qi chargers are. It sticks to the iPhone, so if you just pick up the iPhone while it’s charging, the MagSafe puck stays attached. It’s best thought of as a magnetic replacement for a Lightning cable, not a magnet charging pad.
The signs seem to point to Apple eventually dumping Lightning in favor of MagSafe. Panzarino even said so point blank.
And yes, it’s quite obvious that the MagSafe charger is paving the way to a portless iPhone altogether. Apple will be contributing many of the “enhancements” it is making to the Qi standard back to the consortium so you may see more aligned magnetized stands in the future. This is not a “pay us dearly to license this tech” situation, Apple wants this standard to proliferate.
Bohn suspects the new focus on MagSafe is why Apple hasn’t switched from Lightning to USB-C.
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.
Display and Ceramic Shield
Finally, the reviewers raved about the iPhone 12’s OLED screen, except for its 60Hz refresh rate, which lags behind Android competitors.
Dieter Bohn harped on the relatively slow refresh, but excused it for the base iPhone 12 due to the smoothness of iOS.
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.
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 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.
Nilay Patel was much more critical of the lack of 120Hz on the iPhone 12 Pro.
There are excuses to be made about Apple’s sales volumes and available display panel supply, but in the end, a 60Hz display is simply not very… pro. Indeed, Apple’s own iPad Pro has a ProMotion high refresh rate display. If you’ve only ever had iPhones, you will not really notice this because it is the same as ever. But if you have used a 120Hz display, the difference in smoothness when scrolling is certainly noticeable.
As for the new Ceramic Shield screen, it seems to work! Bohn accidentally put it to the test.
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 year.
iPhone 12 Versus iPhone 12 Pro
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are the same size and, apart from the camera, aren’t that different. There seems to be some consensus that the iPhone 12 is more fun than the iPhone 12 Pro.
John Gruber preferred the blue of the iPhone 12 to the blue of the iPhone 12 Pro.
Subjectively I think the glossy glass iPhone backs look better too. Both of these blue iPhones look great, and I think both colors will prove very popular, but there’s no question to my eyes that the blue iPhone 12 pops in a way the staid pacific blue iPhone 12 Pro does not.
Matthew Panzarino made a comparison to watches.
Overall, the iPhone 12 feels like the Timex to the iPhone 12 Pro’s Rolex. It’s a great daily driver that feels light and fun. The iPhone 12 Pro leverages refinement as a category differentiator projecting a solidity that plays into the “Pro” posturing.
Nilay Patel addressed the question of whether the iPhone 12 Pro was worth the extra money directly, and came down on the side of the iPhone 12.
So the real question for the iPhone 12 Pro is whether the small list of extra features justifies a roughly $200 price bump from the standard iPhone 12. And if you’re spending that much more, it might be worth it to wait a little while longer and spend another $100 on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which will add a bigger display and a larger main camera sensor with a very intriguing new sensor-shift stabilization system that could offer a huge jump in picture quality.
That leaves the 12 Pro in a weird spot, and really, I think it comes down to how much you might use the telephoto lens or shoot portrait photos at night.
This year, quite a few of the early reviews are on video, so if you’re doing your due diligence on the new iPhone 12 models, these three are worth watching.
The ever-amusing Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal filmed her review at MetLife Stadium to comment on the supposed utility of 5G in large public venues. Her video is just under 7 minutes long and has been seen more than 120,000 times already.
Rene Ritchie, formerly of iMore and now an independent YouTuber, posted a mega 45-minute review of both the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro that has racked up over 377,000 views so far. Make popcorn first.
After Marques Brownlee did an unboxing of the iPhone 12 and offered a demo of MagSafe, he published a full review of the iPhone 12. His video clocks in at 18:17, and, to give you a sense of the power of a YouTube star, it already has over 4 million views.