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Most people who take a look at the iPhone 12 will see a very familiar phone. Its shape hasn’t changed much since the iPhone X was introduced three years ago. The back is basically identical to the iPhone 11. And the sides are a clear callback to the iPhone 5.
But to use the iPhone 12 is to experience a phone that’s the epitome of 13 years of iPhone evolution. There might be a general feeling that Apple’s smartphone innovation has stalled in the wake of a shift toward services and wearables, but the iPhone 12 is filled with smart, meaningful improvements and subtle iterations that make it feel as fresh and new as the iPhone 4 or iPhone 6 once were.
You can point to things like the lack of a 120Hz display or high-res zoom or its very small battery as deficiencies, and there’s certainly points to be made there. But you won’t find a better combination of power, performance, and price in another smartphone. And it’s not bad to look at, either.
Easy on the eyes
The biggest change to the iPhone 12 is its screen. Even if you don’t know what the LCD and OLED acronyms stand for, you will immediately see the difference between the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 11, XR, or SE. The display is richer, brighter, and more vibrant than any LCD Apple makes, including the iPad Pro. Blacks are incredibly deep and no longer look washed out. Brightness is significantly improved as well, topping 900 nits in my testing and touching 1,100 nits with auto-brightness on.
The iPhone 12’s Super Retina XDR display is identical to the one on the iPhone 12 Pro, which eliminates one of the biggest deficiencies between the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. Specs don’t really do it justice, but you get a 6.1-inch Full HD+ HDR OLED (2532×1170) with a 1,200-nit max brightness and 460 pixels per inch. That might seem like a downgrade over a phone like the Samsung Galaxy S20, which offers a Quad HD+ 3200×1440 display and a 120Hz refresh rate, but the fact of the matter is, the iPhone 12’s display is a pleasure to look at and touch.
The only thing I really miss is an always-on option. While it would certainly be nice to have a 120Hz ProMotion display for super-speedy scrolling and video playback, Apple does such a stellar job optimizing iOS 14 for the new chip and hardware, and the display feels as fast as the 90Hz display on the Pixel 5. The impact on battery life is enough where it makes sense that Apple chose to wait, especially with such a small battery inside the iPhone 12.
An ambient or always-on option, however, is noticeably missing, especially for anyone coming from an Android phone. Even with energy-efficient OLED tech, the iPhone 12 still needs to completely light up to show the time, date, music controls, or notifications, which is both annoying and inconvenient. That shouldn’t deter you from buying one, however. Apple could add an always-on toggle to the Display & Brightness settings at any time, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it make an appearance as one of the signature features of iOS 15.
Brand new you’re retro
While the front of the iPhone 12 has a similar design to the iPhone 11, there is a noticeable slimming of the bezels around the screen, bringing it ever closer to a true edge-to-edge experience. The screen-to-body ratio may be a bit lower than the Note 20 Ultra (87 percent to 92 percent), but that’s largely due to the notch, which is still necessary to house the TrueDepth camera for Face ID. A hole-punch camera might look cleaner, but it’s a worthy trade-off for the security and ease-of-use that Face ID brings.
The most obvious change is with the sides of the phone, which are flat for the first time since the iPhone 5. It’s wonderful to look at and just as nice to hold, and the colored aluminum looks fantastic flush against the glossy black. Otherwise, the iPhone 12 looks a lot like its predecessor, with a slightly bumpy square camera array in the upper left corner housing two giant lenses and a centered chrome Apple logo. The new dark blue color is very nice and a bit more elegant than the sky blue iPhone XR, but for the most part, the iPhone 12 is a variation on the theme established years ago with the iPhone X.
But still, the iPhone 12 is the nicest phone I’ve used all year despite its general sameness to the prior year’s model. Apple’s design ethos is so effortless, it doesn’t need to resort to gimmicks like waterfall displays or pop-up cameras to add curb appeal. Samsung and OnePlus fans will disagree, but Apple’s focus on uniformity and simplicity makes the iPhone 12’s competitors seem like they’re just trying too hard.
Performance: Running away with the lead
The iPhone 12’s good looks might draw your eye, but it’s more than just a pretty face. Much more, in fact. Apple’s silicon is far and away the best in the business—so much so that it’s soon going to be powering Apple’s Macs—and the iPhone 12 only solidifies its position at the top of the heap.
No other phone controls the whole stack as Apple does and it pays off. Even on the Pixel 5, you can feel the slight disconnect between the system and the software, but on the iPhone 12, everything is harmonious and optimized to work together. For example, the display feels as fast as the Pixel’s 90Hz Smooth Display despite having a traditional 60Hz refresh rate.
The A14 Bionic chip that powers the iPhone 12 is about 40 percent faster than the A13 in the iPhone 11. That’s no small feat, and while you’ll never actually need even half of the power inside the iPhone 12, the marriage between the chip and the system feels fully realized. It never gets as hot as Snapdragon 865+ phones, everything is noticeably faster and more responsive, and it feels like the iPhone has reached a point where Android and Qualcomm will simply never catch up.
Those aren’t just numbers. The iPhone 12 truly feels that much faster than the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, even with a third of the RAM. Android fans will look at the spec sheet and laugh, but it’s truly remarkable how much Apple can do with such pedestrian specs. Every flagship and mid-range Android phone has better all-around specs than the iPhone 12, but thanks to Apple’s in-house wizardry, the iPhone feels as stacked as the highest-end Android phones.
You might have heard that the iPhone 12 is 5G-ready, but that probably shouldn’t be the feature that compels you to upgrade. Most likely you’ll need to upgrade to a more expensive unlimited plan to get it, and even then, you probably won’t be using it very much. I don’t have Verizon 5G in my immediate area, but when I tested mmWave last year, it was extremely fast but also very limited in range. And T-Mobile’s sub-6GHz network is truly nationwide, but speeds topped out at around 100Mbps. But simply by including a 5G modem that supports both sub-6Ghz networks and mmWave, Apple has nicely future-proofed the iPhone 12.
All that’s to say 5G is still in its infancy. I fully support Apple’s decision to include a 5G model in the iPhone 12—even if I question the relentless carrier push—and if you buy one now you’re essentially ensuring that your phone will be able to access the fastest networks as they arrive.
Doing more with less
Based on teardowns, we know that the iPhone 12 has a paltry 2,815mAh battery, smaller than the one inside the $100 Samsung Galaxy A01, and nearly half the size as the 5,000mAh monster in the S20 Ultra. If this was an Android phone, I’d expect to be looking for a charger by mid-afternoon, but like the rest of Apple’s more-with-less mentality, the numbers don’t tell the story.
While it’s a little frustrating that the OLED display doesn’t bring a leap in battery life over the iPhone 11 or that Apple refuses to compromise on thickness to add a bigger battery, the iPhone 12 is rated for roughly the same 17 hours of battery life as its predecessor. Your mileage will vary, of course—especially if you’re connected to a 5G network for a significant amount of time—but for the most part, you won’t experience any charging anxiety during a typical day.
Even heavy days shouldn’t be an issue. Only once did I need to charge my phone before I went to sleep and that was after a good deal of streaming, navigation, and benchmarking. And even then, I made it more than 15 hours without needing to dip in for a charge.
When you do need to charge, Apple has a novel new way to do it with MagSafe. Apple has built a magnetic circle into the iPhone 12’s rear case that firmly attaches to a new $39 wireless charging puck. It’s a neat idea, though it’ll be more useful once Apple and others start shipping stands and docks. As it stands, the 1-meter plug is too short and not really conducive to operating while charging, at least not comfortably.
I also didn’t love the clear MagSafe case. It’s a little too slippery and trickier than I thought it would be to put on and off, and the giant white MagSafe ring that shows you where to put the charger is a little too attention-grabbing. I did, however, love the convenience and satisfaction of popping on the charger, but it feels very much like a first-gen product. I can definitely see the potential, especially once Apple integrates it into its other products.
Small steps bring big leaps
The iPhone 12’s camera isn’t a big leap over the iPhone 11. Both phones have a dual-camera system that pairs a 12MP ultra-wide camera with a 12MP wide camera. You’re getting a new 7-element lens as well as a slightly faster f/1.6 aperture on the 12’s wide lens (up from f/1.8 on the iPhone 11), however, to help with low-light photos.
The biggest changes are happening behind the scenes. The iPhone 12 has amped up its Deep Fusion algorithm so it can work on all three cameras now, including the TrueDepth selfie cam, and Night mode has been enhanced to deliver brighter photos with better contrast. Additionally, the new Smart HDR 3 uses machine learning “to intelligently adjust the white balance, contrast, texture, and saturation of a photo.” And video buffs can now shoot HDR video with Dolby Vision, a big breakthrough but one most people are unlikely to care about, especially since YouTube doesn’t event support the format yet.
But as always, videos look amazing. Thanks to its proprietary silicon, Apple is extremely far ahead of its competitors when it comes to shooting video, and you won’t have to worry about lag or dropped frame, even when shooting 4k at 60 fps or Dolby Vision HDR at 30 fps. You might never need a feature like Night mode Time-lapse, which requires a tripod and lots of planning, but you should be happy that it’s there. It means Apple is doing things with its video camera that other smartphones simply can’t do.
Even if you never shoot cinema-grade or light-trailing nighttime videos, however, the iPhone 12 camera will excel at documenting your life. Even without any major new features or hardware, the iPhone 12 is on par or better with the latest Android cameras from Google, Samsung, and OnePlus. Like a Pixel phone, the magic of the iPhone 12 is going on behind the scenes, leading to some subtle and some spectacular changes versus the iPhone 11.
The biggest change is with Night mode. Having it on all three cameras is very impressive and makes ultra-wide shots shine, as seen above. Even standard shots have been improved thanks to both hardware and software improvements. While it won’t be a tremendous improvement over the iPhone 11, especially if you’re comparing images side by side, you’ll be able to snap low-light lights faster and with better results.
Apple’s enhanced Deep Fusion algorithm also makes photos taken in regular light better. As you can see in the photo of a rose above, the iPhone 12 captures a bit more detail in the droplets and the petals than either the iPhone 11 or Google Pixel 5. And in the photo of the leaf, below, the iPhone 12 perfectly handled both the color and the edge detail even against a tricky background.
It’s a bit of a bummer that Apple still reserves the telephoto lens for the Pro model, but even without one, the iPhone 12 is a stellar smartphone for taking photos. In a race that’s increasingly becoming about results rather than gimmicks, Apple is at or ahead of its competitors in every area, a remarkable turnaround from just two years ago when the Pixel was comfortably in the lead.
Should you buy an iPhone 12?
If you made it this far in my review, you already know that I’m very happy with the iPhone 12. For $799 or $829 (unlocked), there’s no greater value out there, and anyone who’s looking at the $699 Galaxy S20 FE or Google Pixel 5 should give the iPhone 12 a serious look first. And that’s without even talking about how good Face ID or the vast improvements of iOS 14.
Even Pro buyers might want to consider a downgrade this year. By giving the iPhone 12 the same display and speedy 5G modem, the only reasons to jump to the Pro are the telephoto lens and a smattering of camera enhancements, including a LiDAR scanner. But for the most part, the iPhone 12 is very much a pro-level phone for $170 less than the iPhone 12 Pro (or $200 less if you take in account the somewhat sleazy carrier “special offers.” And you’re still saving more than $100 if you opt for 128GB of storage for an extra $50 (which I recommend).
Rather than increase the gap between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, Apple has significantly closed it by upgrading the screen, enhancing the camera, adding full 5G, and refusing to compromise. And whether you’re a pro user or not, the iPhone 12 will make you feel like one.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.