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iPhone 12 rumors: 'Refreshed' Face ID system and time-of-flight sensors

Here's everything we think we know about the iPhone coming this fall.

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The 2019 iPhone models haven’t even been officially announced yet, and we’re already starting to see reports about what will be in the 2020 iPhones. We’ve compiled the most notable ones here, but take these with a big grain of salt. Even if these reports are accurate representations of what suppliers are saying, or come from moles within Apple itself, the company’s plans can and do change. There’s still plenty of time before the design and features have to be totally set in stone.

Update 01/16/20: An analyst from Barclays (via CNBC) predicts the iPhone 12 will have “refreshed” Face ID and a time-of-flight 3D sensor. He further states that the iPhone in 2021 might ditch the Lightning port in favor of exclusively wireless charging.

Refreshed Face ID

CNBC has a summary of a new report from a Barlcays analyst that corroborates some of the rumors we’ve already heard about the iPhone 12. But there’s one sort-of-new nugget in there: The analyst says the iPhone 12 will feature a “refreshed” Face ID system, but offers no clues on what that might mean.

The Face ID system has gone through a few minor upgrades already—with iOS 13 it got a little faster, and the iPhone 11’s TrueDepth module has an improved standard color camera, but not an improved depth-sensing system. The faster processor in the iPhone 11 helps make Face ID unlocking faster, too.

The report also says the high-end “Pro” models will feature a time-of-flight depth sensor on the rear camera array, which we’ve heard several times before. Finally, it furthers the claim that Apple might ditch the Lightning connector on the 2021 iPhone in favor of exclusively wireless charging. That idea seems a little dubious, to us: It would nearly kill the entire CarPlay market, as very few vehicles support wireless CarPlay and even if support for that feature improved dramatically, people don’t upgrade their cars that often. Apple would have to ship wireless chargers in the box, and let’s face it, as convenient as wireless charging is, it’s still too slow to be the only means of charging one’s phone. Apple would have to make wireless charging a lot faster.

New A14 processor

a14 preview 3dmark IDG

We predict a significant bump in graphics performance on the A14.

All models of the iPhone 12 are all but certain to have a new application processor, which Apple will likely call the A14. It is well-known that this processor is being produced by TSMC on its new bleeding-edge 5nm EUV manufacturing process. 

We've done some of our own analysis on Apple's recent A-series processors and the capabilities afforded by the new manufacturing process to predict what we might expect from the A14.

Disputed 5G iPhone release schedule

If there’s one thing we’re certain of with the iPhone 12, it’s that it will be packing a 5G modem. The next-gen network will be much more robust than it was at the end of 2019, and the next iPhone will be ready for it.

Just how ready is up for debate, however. While previous rumors have suggested that 5G might be limited to the “pro” models, a new report says that the 5G iPhones will launch in phases. As reported by MacRumors, Susquehanna analyst Mehdi Hosseini “expects 5G-enabled iPhones to launch in two phases, including sub-6GHz models in September 2020 and mmWave models in December 2020 or January 2021.”  That means people who want the best possible iPhone 12 might have to wait months to get it.

Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, on the other hand, expects there to be four 5G models, all with both sub-6GHz and mmWave support, all launching at essentially the same time: late 2020. He said as much in a research note in December, and followed up with another note in January to say they’re still on track.

Kuo expects 5G support in iPhone models to vary by region/country. Some would get only sub-6GHz support, others sub-6GHz and mmWave, and some countries where carriers don’t offer significant 5G support might see the feature disabled entirely.

While millimeter-wave networks are significantly faster than their sub-6GHz counterparts, mmWave is also extremely limited in scope. Verizon is leading the way with some two dozen cities, but the coverage is extremely limited, with some areas barely extending past a block or two. 

As it stands, 5G has had a very confusing rollout, and it would be up to Apple to simplify things for consumers. Selling a 5G iPhone but promising an iPhone with better 5G a few months later won’t do that. If mmWave isn’t going to available at launch, it might be better to just cut it completely from the iPhone 12 and stick to sub-6GHz rather than give consumers a choice they don’t understand.

Thinner, more efficient OLED

A report from Korean publication The Elec states that LG is upgrading its OLED production lines at the E6 facility where the displays for the current iPhone 11 Pro are made, and from which we assume the iPhone 12’s high-end models will get their OLED displays.

The upgrades we can expect are twofold. First, the touch sensors will be integrated into the display itself, rather than requiring a separate touch layer. This makes the entire display-and-touch assembly in the phone thinner, and less expensive to manufacture. 

Second, the backplane responsible for turning the individual OLED subpixels on or off is said to be switching to low-temperature polycrystalline oxide (LTPO) technology. This uses a little less power (about 15 percent less) than the LPTS technology currently used on iPhones. Apple recently switched to OLED displays with LTPO technology in the Apple Watch in order to help prolong battery life.

Sensor-shift image stabilization

A new report from DigiTimes (which has a spotty record on future iPhone predictions) says that the 5G iPhones due in 2020 will implement image stabilization via sensor-shift technology.

Current optical image stabilization in iPhones uses a gyroscope to move an entire camera array—sensor and lenses—in order to reduce small shakes and vibrations. In addition iPhones employ electronics image stabilization when recording video, using the phone’s motion sensors to shift the recorded area on the sensor in order to counteract vibrations.

Some sites are reporting that sensor-shift stabilization would bring image stabilization to the ultrawide camera on the iPhone, where it does not currently exist in the iPhone 11. This is not necessarily the case; the “lenses” the back of the iPhone (Wide, Ultrawide, and Telephoto) are not merely lens arrays that point at a single sensor. They are entire camera modules, with their own independent sensors and lens arrays.

For sensor-shift technology to apply to the ultrawide camera on an iPhone, it would need to be independently applied to that camera’s sensor, just as the current optical image stabilization and could have been, if Apple chose to. 

The main benefits of a sensor-shift technology for image stabilization is that a fixed nonmoving lens array is subject to fewer compromises and could be of higher quality, and that the iPhone could make deliberate sup-pixel shifts to the sensor to take multiple exposures that are combined to provide higher resolution photos.

Sensor-shift technology is fairly common in higher-end mirrorless and DSLR cameras.

Larger batteries due to new circuitry

After rumors of a new design, new models, and new displays, this rumor is decidedly ho-hum: The 2020 iPhones are tipped to have bigger batteries due to new battery protection circuits. According to the Korean publication The Elec, the iPhone 12 will use customized Protection Module Packages circuits instead of the Protection Circuit Modules used in the iPhone 11. That will reportedly free up more space inside the phone, which could be used to make the battery bigger. With the presumed launch of a 5G modem inside all 2020 models, the iPhone will need as much battery life as it can get, as those modems generally use more power than LTE ones.

The Elec reports that supplier ITM Semiconductor is building two new plants to handle the capacity, which is expected to reach 110 million per month. Officials say work on the plants should be completed by the end of the year. ITM also supplies battery protection circuits for the AirPods Pro.

5 new iPhone models in 2020

Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo issued a research note where he predicts that Apple will release five new iPhones in 2020: 5.4- and 6.1-inch models each with a dual-lens camera; 6.1- and 6.7-inch models with triple-lens cameras and “time of flight sensors”; and a 4.7-inch model. (Kuo also has thoughts on the 2021 iPhones.)

All of the 2020 iPhones will have OLEDs, except for the 4.7-inch model, which will have an LCD. Also, the OLED-based phones will ship in the fall, while the 4.7-inch phone could be available earlier in the year.

Kuo also said that the four fall-release phones will have 5G support, with mmWave available in the markets where it can be used.

The 4.7-inch phone (considered a follow-up to the iPhone SE) will be modeled after the iPhone 8. It will have a Home button, an A13 processor, and a single-lens camera.

This follows a J.P. Morgan analyst report that says that Apple could release four new iPhone models in the fall of 2020.

The J.P. Morgan report says that the new iPhones will support 5G, with two high-end models (one 6.1-inch and one 6.7-inch) with support for mmWave, as well as a triple-lens camera and “World facing 3D sensing.” Two low-end models (one 6.1-inch, one 5.4-inch) will not have mmWave or World facing 3D sensing, and will have a dual-lens camera.

All four iPhone models will have OLEDs. In late November, ETNews reported that Apple will be using OLED displays from Samsung that are thinner than the displays currently being used. How that will affect the overall thickness of the iPhone remains to be seen. While Apple could make the iPhone itself thinner, it’s also possible that Apple could use the newfound space to be able to implement some other new technology, or to increase the size of the battery.

The J.P. Morgan report also says that in 2021, Apple could change how it releases iPhones. The company could decide to release phones twice a year, instead of the single release in the fall.

Say goodbye to the notch

Just a day after Ming-Chi Kuo teased an iPhone 4-style look for the next handset, Twitter leakster Ben Geskin, who has a solid track record for rumors, has posted an image of what he claims is “one of the 2020 iPhone prototypes.” The post doesn’t have a ton of information, but Geskin says the image is of a phone with a “6.7-inch display with Face ID and TrueDepth camera system housed in the top bezel.”

gesking iphone rumors @bengeskin

Twitter leakster Ben Geskin has posted an image of what he claims is a notch-less iPhone that could be coming in 2020.

The size of the phone matches up with a previous Kuo rumor, but that’s not what caught our eye. You don’t need to look closely to see that there’s no notch on this render, meaning Apple would need to shrink the TrueDepth camera system into the bezel at the top of the screen. That’s not implausible—especially if the bezels are slightly thicker than they are now. Plus, that would certainly qualify as a “significant” design overhaul as Kuo has said is coming. Granted, Geskin says the image is “one of the 2020 iPhone prototypes,” which means this one might never see the light of day, but color us intrigued.

iPhone 4-style redesign incoming

We’ve still got a long way to go until the iPhone 12 makes its debut, but there’s already a reason to be excited. Analyst Ming Chi-Kuo says that whole next year’s iPhone will be getting a serious design overhaul. He’s light on specifics, but he compares it to the iPhone 4, which just so happens to be one of the best iPhone designs of all time. Specifically, Kuo says “the front and rear 2/2.5D glass are still used, but the metal frame surface will be changed to a similar design to the iPhone 4, replacing the current surface design.”

That means the 2020 iPhone could look like a tiny iPad Pro, which would be quite a change from the current curved look. Kuo doesn’t say whether the notch would be going away, but we have to assume it will at least be getting smaller, especially since he notes that the “2H20 (second half of 2020) iPhone design will change significantly.” So if you were bummed that the iPhone 11 looked a bit too much like the XR, you might want to wait another... checks calendar... 11 months.

5G for all

While 5G is practically a certainty for the 2020 iPhone, the first round of rumors claimed that the next-generation modem would be limited to the flagship models, meaning the XR (or whatever it’s called by then) would still slum it with LTE. Following the acquisition of Intel’s smartphone modem team for a cool billion dollars, those expectations have changed. Now, Ming-Chi Kuo believes that all three models will have a 5G modem on board.

The reason is simple: Apple doesn’t want to miss the boat. While 5G is limited to a few models of high-end Android phones this year, Kuo sees 5G becoming much more commonplace among Apple’s peers, leading the company to ramp up development of 5G. Specifically, he sees the prices of 5G Android smartphones “will decline to $249-349 USD in 2H20,” which will put pressure on Apple to deliver support for the speedy network in all three of next year’s iPhones. Kuo also feels that the new team of some 2,000 members of Intel’s smartphone modem division will facilitate Apple’s development of 5G.

For more on 5G and what it means for you, check out our 5G FAQ.

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