Another year, another iPhone. For many, the new iPhone 12 is going to be the baseline smartphone to consider. With a starting price of $799 for the 64GB model, the iPhone 12 is a bit more expensive than last year’s iPhone 11, leaving room for the iPhone 12 Mini to fit in at the $699 price point (though it’s $729 unlocked). A few upgrades to the iPhone 12 do help justify the increased price, but let’s see if the new phone can earn its keep.
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Design and Features
The iPhone 12 will look fairly familiar with a design that’s largely reminiscent of last year’s model. Apple has changed the aluminum frame of the phone, giving it a flat edge that harkens back to the iPhone 4. The phone feels wide in my hand, a bit wider than the Samsung Galaxy S20 or Sony Xperia V II, but the boxy edges make for a more secure grip than I expected.
Apple has actually managed to trim down the size of the iPhone 12 from its predecessor. It narrowed the bezels around the display slightly and used that extra space to shrink the chassis. The screen remains 6.1 inches diagonally, but Apple has packed in the Super Retina XDR display, which increases the resolution to 2,532 x 1,170 and uses OLED technology, making for a considerable upgrade that helps merit the price hike.
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The new screen looks delicious, with more than enough brightness for sunny days and rich colors. But, anyone coming from an iPhone 11 Pro won’t find much different.
Regrettably, the iPhone 12 continues to feature the prominent notch at the top of the screen. It’s still a bit of an eyesore, as I’ve found it much harder to overlook than the small camera cutouts found on many competing Android phones. I find the amount of information I’m able to get squeezed in at either side of the notch isn’t worth much. While many smartphone manufacturers have gone through several iterations of their display cutout, it’s disappointing to see Apple stuck with the same design it introduced three generations ago with the iPhone X. On the plus side, the sensors in that notch are quick to recognize my face, even in dark conditions.
Some of Apple’s design upgrades aren’t visible to the naked eye. For one, the new line of phones all feature 5G connectivity. In major metropolitan areas, this can be a considerable perk. For most, it won’t mean much. Even with the prevalence of 5G in Chicago, I rarely find myself in an area that offers speeds above those I can get with 4G LTE. Still, it doesn’t hurt to have on a phone that for many customers may last several years, especially as 5G coverage continues to roll out across the country.
Another hidden change are the materials. The display is now covered in “Ceramic Shield,” which Apple claims is tougher than any smartphone glass. I haven’t dropped the phone onto the ground, but other reviewers have tested it and found it more robust than at least the previous iPhone glass. The back glass doesn’t get this upgrade though.
Hiding inside the iPhone 12 is a MagSafe magnetic ring. There’s little I can say about this, as all it did in my review was detect when I had put a plastic case on. Additional accessories and wireless chargers will make better use of this feature though, allowing accessories to easily snap into place. Oh their own, though, the magnets don’t change much about the phone in general use. They are relatively weak and won’t let you stick your phone to every metal surface in your home.
There are two things Apple has done (or not done) that are hard to forgive. With 64GB of base storage, there’s not a lot of room. I’ve only used my review unit for a couple weeks and I’m already using 25.9GB of space. Some 4K videos, a few large games, some downloaded Netflix movies, and a large photo collection, and I’d be in real trouble at 64GB. It’s only an extra $50 to move up to 128GB, and it’s probably worth it, but that feels like a high price when I can get a 64GB microSD card for $9.
The second thing Apple did was remove the charging brick from the box. That much is forgivable, but Apple also switched from a Lightning-to-USB-A cable to cable that terminates in a USB-C connection. So, while you can plug the iPhone 12 into any of your old cables, you can plug the new cable into exactly none of your old iPhone charging bricks. Either the new cable is kind of useless or all the old charging bricks are kind of useless. As an environmental effort, Apple’s move feels ill-conceived. (Never mind the push toward wireless charging with MagSafe, a power delivery method that will use more energy to charge your phone than a wire would).
The iPhone 12 ships with iOS 14. Having not used Apple’s mobile operating system in a long time, I was curious to see how well I could adjust. iOS 14 proved fairly easy to adapt to coming from using Android phones.
Swipe navigation makes sense and works comparable to Android’s own implementation, and I found some familiarity in the Notification Center and utilities page. iOS 14 gets tedious with how particular it is about where on the screen I swipe from and how far I swipe. It makes one-handed navigation difficult. Availability of swipe navigation is also inconsistent, as some pages require use of a back button instead (which isn’t always easy to find). Aside from this shortcoming, navigation is quick and fluid.
Though Apple hasn’t introduced a 90Hz or 120Hz refresh rate with the latest phones, I’ve heard many of my fellow reviewers comment on Apple’s notable fluidity even at 60Hz. I’m inclined to agree that everything feels smooth, including scrolling, and is fairly responsive. Though I think some of that sense stems from something of a speed limit in iOS. Many times while trying to scroll up and down a page, the rate of scrolling felt much slower than I was aiming for.
iOS 14 has come with a number of new features and tweaks that aim to improve the overall experience. Those include an App Library, more compact UI elements (particularly Siri and ongoing calls), upgraded Widgets, and App Clips.
The App Library is meant to offer a convenient place to look for all of your apps. Apple automatically groups apps into collections on the last page of the home screen. This is sensible in theory, but Apple’s grouping isn’t. In my case, Gmail and Google Voice show up in a box called “Productivity and Finance.” Meanwhile, all my other communication apps were in “Social.” Chrome and Safari were in “Utilities” alongside Watch, Measure, and the App Store. Books, Pocket Casts, Tips, and Translate were maybe reasonably in “Information & Reading,” but Weather felt like an odd inclusion. I love app folders and use them extensively on Android. Having a screen dedicated to them on iOS could be handy, but Apple’s implementation is weak and lacks any way to re-organize apps or re-name folders – surprising, since the home screen allows those folder customizations.
The new widgets could also be good in theory. They can now provide more data, and they can be placed on the home screen. But, I’ve found they don’t take much advantage of the ability to offer more data. Most of the widgets I’ve seen are little more than shortcuts to perform an action within an app, and they almost all take up more space than they need. My widget to play the newest release in Pocket Casts takes up the space of four apps on the home screen, but most of the space is blank. Another widget I have for App recommendations takes up eight slots to show eight apps, and once placed it simply blended in with the home screen, so it’s no longer apparent that those app shortcuts are actually in a widget.
These are all features that could prove handy with further revision, but coming from Android, I feel like this is a game of catch up and Apple has just started running. iOS 14 is still capable, and I’ve found it less prone to odd behavior than Android, albeit not immune (one day the screen shifted its brightness levels so the max brightness was fairly dim and its minimum brightness was nearly black. A reboot sorted it out).
App Clips are a feature that comes with iOS 14, and they sound promising, but I haven’t been able to test them out. They offer a way to run a small portion of an app without having to download the whole thing. I could see this being useful in some of Apple’s suggested use-cases, such as at retailers or restaurants, as having a full app for everywhere I go would quickly become a mess.
Gaming and performance
The iPhone 12 shares the same Apple A14 Bionic chipset found across all four phones in the line. Apple has long managed impressive performance out of its chips, and there’s no lack of muscle in this case.
Whether I was scrolling a large page of animated GIFs or gaming, the iPhone 12 didn’t show any signs of slowing down. The GIF scrolling was actually impressive, as I’ve often seen this kind of task hit some devices hard, as loading in new GIFs while continuing to play loaded ones takes a toll. That said, compared to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 running in the Samsung Galaxy S20, I see more or less similar performance.
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Gaming does set Apple apart though. I played through the opening portion of That Game Company’s Sky, a game I like to use for phone reviews as it’s perhaps one of the most visually impressive smartphone games I’ve seen. The iPhone 12 managed to make it even more stunning. It was incredibly smooth through my testing, with the iPhone 12 never getting more than a bit warm.
The game looked great in its battery-saver mode, and the phone easily ran it with 60fps performance mode and 30fps quality modes. I occasionally noticed frame rates dropping in the performance mode, but they generally stayed high. Still, it’s not quite the “off the charts frames per second” for “console-quality gaming” that Apple suggested during its launch presentation.
Even though the Galaxy S20 had an easy time running the game as well, in a side-by-side comparison, the game visuals on the iPhone in all modes appear sharper, with better anti-aliasing and clearer surface textures.
Only the iPhone’s storage and memory seemed to be weak points. Sky launched and levels loaded quicker on the Galaxy S20. Switching from the same point in the game to the home screen, opening one app (HBO Max), and then switching right back to the game also required the iPhone to relaunch the game while the S20 was able to resume from where I’d left off.
Fortunately, Apple’s small battery isn’t as much of an issue. I am not a heavy phone user from day to day, but do regularly check notifications, scroll Twitter, take photos, and listen to podcasts. I averaged over two hours of daily screen time in my last week of testing. With that level of activity, I easily could make it through two full days, and I even made it through three just to see if I could. It even managed two days when I did more extreme testing, like a number of 4K video tests, a 45-minute-long video call, and about 40-minutes of Sky gameplay (which only drained about 14% of the battery). Every user will have their own experience, but I’d feel confident in the iPhone 12 surviving a whole day even if I was using it far more regularly.
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The cameras haven’t fundamentally changed this time around. Apple has claimed improved low-light performance, perhaps thanks to a wider aperture on the main wide-angle sensor, and I’ve seen it perform well in that department. I snapped one photo at night on a dark street trying to capture a crane in the distance while a neon sign was lit up, and the camera did an excellent job handling that shot, adding a lot of extra visibility to what was a much darker scene in actuality.
The iPhone 12 cameras also make great products with strong lighting, offering life-like colors that often were a very close match for what I was seeing with my own eyes. From the main sensor, the images are wonderfully crisp. The ultra-wide camera isn’t nearly as good. In the same setting, it produces much noisier and softer images. In low light, it gets even worse. Even though the camera proves capable of handling slight hand movement during long exposures, a quality shot on the primary sensor loses much of that quality when taken with the ultra-wide instead.
The main sensor’s performance in both high- and low-light scenarios is a knack that it carries over into scenes with both. It handles a high dynamic-range thoroughly well, even capable of capturing all the detail on my poorly lit desk, outside my window during the daytime, and on my computer screen in one shot – a scenario many cameras would struggle with.
As in photos, so too in video. Basically, the strengths of the main sensor and the weaknesses of the ultra-wide are echoed in video. The iPhone 12 can record in up to 4K at up to 60fps, though it can quickly toggle between 1080p and 4K, and 24, 30, and 60fps. It can also record HDR video with Dolby Vision encoding and a 10-bit color depth. This is perhaps what lets it record HDR footage that looks just as good as its HDR photography.
The phone’s stabilization makes for surprisingly smooth handheld video, even when I tried to be (or failed to be anything but) fairly amateurish with my hand movements. That said, the image shifts rather quickly as lighting in the shot changes, and that can make for some jarring footage even if the motion is smooth. This issue is slightly diminished when shooting in 4K/30 instead of 4K/60.
That brings us to another issue: settings. The iPhone 12 cameras behave differently depending on their settings. In testing I discovered that I could transition from the ultra-wide camera to the main camera and back in a single recording, but not if I was recording in 4K60. No settings indicated this would happen, and 4K60 still allows zooming in and out, but it restricts it to underwhelming digital zoom on the sensor you start the recording with.
That said, the transition when the recording switches sensors is so jarring, it’s best avoided altogether (that goes for the Galaxy S20, too). I also noticed switching from 4K to HD video recording actually crops the image slightly, but this isn’t so much a concern as it is an oddity.
All told, the main iPhone 12 camera is among the best I’ve used, especially when it comes to point-and-shoot. I’d rank it above the Galaxy S20 because of that phone’s struggle to get the right things in focus, but perhaps not as highly as the Sony Xperia V II. It takes great photos and videos with little fuss on my part. The ultra-wide – not so much. It’s too bad there’s only one great sensor, as the many Android phones offering multiple decent sensors wins out in versatility.
Aside from actual visual issues, the biggest fault of the iPhone 12 camera is that it’s so capable of doing all the heavy lifting that Apple has left out most user control. Anyone who wants the least bit of control over white balance, shutter speed, ISO, or anything else will find the iPhone 12 camera app lacking. I’m sure there’s an app for that, but those controls in the default apps could have made it easier to capture pictures of my roommate’s cat rolling around or record a video around my living room without the white balance shifting several times during the shot. Some of the settings that actually are user-adjustable, like toggling HDR, are sadly buried in the Settings app rather than appearing within the camera app itself.
Spinning around to the front, the selfie camera offers up clean and clear images. Next to the Galaxy S20 selfie camera, the iPhone easily offered a more realistic photo with better detail and less noise. Meanwhile, other features like slo-mo and portrait mode may be nice to have, but don’t offer compelling quality. The portrait mode feels like someone who’s good at Photoshop was in a hurry, and I would have expected my bald head to be fairly easy to separate from a background. The slow-mo is capable, shooting at up to 240fps, but it gets dim and grainy.
The iPhone 12 is available from Apple for $799 with carrier activation ($829 unlocked) for the 64GB model. We’d recommend jumping up to the 128GB for an extra $50, as 64GB would get tight quickly.
At $849 ($879 unlocked), the iPhone 12 may feel a bit lacking in features next to the competition. The price for the extra storage even puts it closer to the $999 iPhone 12 Pro, which does expand functionality a little by adding an extra camera, even if the screen and processor are the same. But, of the Pro models, the $1099 iPhone 12 Pro Max is the better choice.
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The Samsung Galaxy S20 may have started at $999, but it’s not hard to find Samsung phones at a discount, and the versatility of the S20 gives it an edge. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S20 FE offers an even more value at $699.
Unless you really want the extra screen space, the iPhone 12 Mini is the more enticing entry into the iPhone 12 era. It comes in $100 cheaper at $699 for the 64GB model, and the only difference is size: It’s much smaller and features a 5.4-inch display.