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iPhone 12 rumors: Coronavirus pandemic could lead to months-long delays

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

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Reports about what will be in the 2020 iPhones are hitting the wire. 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 3/26/20: The Nikkei Asian Review reports that the current global crisis could push the iPhone 12 launch into 2021.

Coronavirus fallout could delay the iPhone 12 launch by months

Even if the coronavirus pandemic has ended by September, the launch of Apple's iPhone 12 might still be affected. While reports out of China are that manufacturing plants are beginning to return to normal, a source told the Nikkei Asian Review review that "Apple is concerned that the current situation would significantly lower consumer appetite to upgrade their phones, which could lead to a tame reception of the first 5G iPhone." That could have disastrous results for Apple's roadmap, as both 5G and, obviously, the iPhone key heavily into whatever future products may be on the way. Nikkei says Apple will make a final decision about the phone's launch in May and "the fall launch is not completely off the table," but it's possible that we don't get a new iPhone until 2021.

iPhone 12 Pro Max to receive “sensor-shift image stabilization”

It’s all but certain that the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s screen will grow from 6.5 inches to 6.7 inches this year, but now we’re starting to learn a bit more about it. As reported by Macrumors, Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo is predicting that Apple’s flagship will include sensor-shift image stabilization, which could be a solution for the ultra-wide camera.

According to What Digital Camera, sensor-shift image stabilization in a DSLR camera “works by moving the camera’s sensor around the image plane using electrical actuators. If any shake motion is detected by the camera’s accelerometers, it calculates in real-time the direction and speed to move the sensor, so that it remains stationary in relation to the image being projected onto it by the lens.” On the iPhone 11 Pro’s triple-camera system, only the wide and telephoto cameras have optical image stabilization, so sensor-shift image stabilization could be a way to stabilize all three cameras. 

Kuo notes that Apple would look to bring the feature to other iPhone models in 2021. It’s not clear why Apple would limit the feature to the Max phone and not include it on both Pro models, though Apple could be trying to give buyers an additional reason to move to the higher tier.

Production on track for September

Despite earlier reports that the iPhone 12 could see delays that push the release into October or even 2021, a new Bloomberg report says that the struggles Apple and the rest of the world is facing due to the coronavirus “have yet to severely derail the 5G iPhone launch in the fall.” As Mark Gurman and Debby Wu explain, Apple generally shores up its next iPhone design shortly after the release of the current model and eyes April as a start date for mass production of the new cases. The report notes that Apple has already built “a limited number of test versions of the new models.” However, with so much uncertainly, it’s still possible that the timeline “could slip,” Bloomberg cautions. 

3D Time-of-Flight rear camera

A report in Fast Company says Apple will incorporate a 3D depth-sensing camera in the iPhone 12, citing “a source with knowledge.” 

We’ve heard this rumor before, both from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and Debby Wu, and in a research note from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.

VCSEL stands for Vertical-Cavity Surface-Emitting Laser. It’s a type of semiconductor that emits a low-power laser (usually infrared, so humans can’t see it). It’s used in a lot of consumer devices today for simple range-finding; to assist in augmented reality, Apple would use a more complex chip that fires a big grid of lasers, then measures the time-of-flight for that light to determine distance. Effectively, this would produce a low-res “image” where each pixel has depth info rather than color.

It’s an efficient way to get a much more accurate 3D representation of the scene in front of the camera, which is useful in computational photography and especially in augmented reality.

Delayed ship date

2020 is the year of the coronavirus and how it is affecting everything, including the shipment of the new iPhone. DigiTimes reports that the next iPhone could see a ship date in October, about a month later than the usual September time frame. Apple recently put travel restrictions on its employees, which in turn affects production schedules. A report from Bloomberg states that a Bank of America analyst also believes the iPhone will be delayed.

Given the circumstances, a delay seems totally plausible, though a Reuters report says that there’s still time for Apple to get back on track with its iPhone schedule.

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.

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