Thirteen years after the first model hit stores, there’s no question that the iPhone is a massive success: hundreds of millions of active users, unit sales measured in the billions, and a sprawling app economy are just a few of the more obvious signs. Regardless of how much has changed from prior models, every new iPhone matters to an audience of millions, and thus is automatically worthy of attention.
Apple has billed this year’s iPhone 12 family as a big step forward, marking a “leap year” in the company’s words, or a “tick” on the “tick-tock-tock” upgrade cycle Apple has followed with recent iPhones. The marketing focus this time is on new 5G cellular capabilities — “O-M-G-G-G-G-G” speeds — with secondary emphasis on new chip and camera improvements. Yet when you use the most representative model of this year’s four somewhat different configurations, the flagship iPhone 12 Pro, you’ll see that the $999 to $1,299 smartphone looks and works so much like last year’s iPhone 11 Pro that many users will struggle to justify the differences, even if they can identify them.
As you decide whether or not to jump in this year, the executive summary is simple: From the outside, Apple’s latest flagship phone feels like it’s coasting rather than disrupting. But the technologies inside the iPhone 12 Pro collectively constitute a new technological floor that developers, enterprises, and executives need to understand today, as either Apple or its rivals will soon leverage them to create the next wave of major innovations.
iPhone 12 Pro: The 30,000-foot picture
Apple announced four different iPhone models in October 2020, shipping two in late October and two in mid November. They are:
- iPhone 12 mini ($699 and up): Aluminum frame, 5.4″ screen, 2,227mAh battery, and two rear cameras.
- iPhone 12 ($799 and up): Aluminum frame, 6.1″ screen, 2,815mAh battery, and two rear cameras.
- iPhone 12 Pro ($999 and up): Steel frame, 6.1″ screen, 2,815mAh battery, three rear cameras, and Lidar 3D scanner.
- iPhone 12 Pro Max ($1,099 and up): Steel frame, 6.7″ screen, 3,687mAh battery, three rear cameras, and Lidar 3D scanner.
These phones are far more alike than they are different. Each boasts an OLED screen with over 450 pixels per inch of resolution and 1200 nits of maximum brightness for HDR video playback. Apart from metal, camera, and Lidar differences, the first two phones have slightly dimmer screens in normal use, but otherwise all of the same chips and 5G capabilities. Generally speaking, you pick an iPhone Pro if you want more and better cameras, and a non-Pro if you want a smaller screen and/or price tag. Each model comes in three storage capacities and multiple colors.
5G: A mess today, hopefully better tomorrow?
Abbreviated “5G,” the next-generation cellular standard can be confusing, so if you want details, look back to my prior definitions and low/mid/high band guides. Over the next decade, 5G will deliver cellular data speeds 10 to 100 times faster than 4G, which dominated the last decade. Downloads that previously took 600 seconds (10 minutes) will, depending on the speed of your nearby 5G towers, take as little as 60 or 6 seconds, a step change that will enable 4K video streaming, mixed reality experiences, and yet-to-be-imagined future applications.
Every iPhone 12 model has the same basic 5G hardware within a given country: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 modem, which debuted in 2019 and will soon be leapfrogged by the faster and more power-efficient X60. Consequently, every iPhone 12 supports low and mid band (“sub-6GHz”) 5G; U.S. models also support high band (“millimeter wave”) 5G. This year’s models can achieve multi-gigabit per second (Gbps) speeds on a single band; next year’s models will be able to use sub-6GHz and millimeter wave 5G at the same time for even faster speeds. Given how long Apple waited to embrace 5G, it’s unfortunate that the iPhone 12s showed up late with the X55 instead of arriving first with the X60.
Verizon launched the world’s first 5G network two years ago, and has since hyped multiple Android 5G phones by promising download speeds from 1 Gbps (April 2019) to 2Gbps (June 2019) and even 4Gbps (April 2020). Based on our Verizon 5G network tests last week and T-Mobile 5G tests this week, it’s clear that very few users will see even 1Gbps typical speeds on 5G networks right now.
Speedcheck.org‘s “first weekend of iPhone 12” speed chart illustrates that U.S. iPhone 12 users should expect average 5G speeds slightly above or below 100Mbps where they can get 5G signals. In our tests, speeds generally fall to sub-40Mbps in 4G areas, and approximate 1Gbps only in comically modest parts of major cities. With the new iPhones, users should also expect to see 5G icons even when they’re actually using 4G networks, and whipsaw-class variations between downloads from block to block when walking or driving. 5G hype has made it critically important to understand the difference between “peak” and “average” performance,
In my neighborhood, iPhone 12 Pro peaked at 132Mbps down and 50Mbps up on T-Mobile’s 5G network. That’s around 30% better for downloads and the same for uploads as what I was getting one year ago with T-Mobile’s 4G network on my iPhone 11 Pro; I’ve intermittently seen 4G speeds similar to this “5G” performance in past years, well before the iPhone 12 existed.
Put simply, the iPhone 12 has the necessary 5G capabilities to succeed, but is depending on carriers to live up to their end of the 5G standard’s promise. Until then, the biggest change should be the percentage of times users get faster than 100Mbps connections, and we’ll have to wait and see how that actually pans out.
Cameras and Lidar: Differences most people will only spot at night (for now)
Nearly every major Android smartphone maker used 2020 to introduce higher megapixel counts and stronger zoom capabilities — Samsung already offers 108-megapixel cameras in multiple models, and 200-megapixel sensors are just around the corner. But Apple went in the opposite direction, keeping the iPhone 12 Pro’s cameras at 12-megapixel resolutions and preserving the 0.5x to 2x zoom range.
Consequently, you’ll have a hard time distinguishing the new model’s output from the iPhone 11 Pro’s, except in low light situations: Lens and software improvements help the iPhone 12 Pro gather and process light better than before, so night time and dim interior shots are noticeably cleaner and more colorful, as if they were taken at dusk rather than in utter darkness.
For creative professionals — at least the subset who shoot using iPhones rather than higher-end dedicated cameras — Apple has also added Dolby Vision HDR video recording and ProRAW photo recording, which will eventually improve the quantity of visual data being recorded by these cameras, as well as the ways their output can be edited later for optimal color and brightness on supported displays. Some videographers will begin using these features now, but most end users won’t see the impact for months if not longer, as only TVs with Dolby Vision Profile 8.4 or newer will fully support the video functionality, and ProRAW photo tools are just beginning to become available.
The iPhone 12 Pro also adds a rear-mounted Lidar 3D scanner, a feature introduced earlier this year in the 2020 iPad Pro. Jammed into the camera block, the iPhone Lidar circle is smaller than the iPad one, but has the same general functionality: It uses invisible lasers to create dynamic 3D maps of whatever you point at. For now, these maps can be used to improve the speed and accuracy of augmented reality compositing of digital imagery atop live rear camera video, as well as superior rear camera autofocusing in low light conditions.
Lidar could wind up being the iPhone 12 Pro’s biggest advantage over competitors. For now, Apple barely supports the feature in its own apps, but a third-party app called Polycam demonstrates how Lidar can be combined with cameras to create 3D scans of objects and spaces — people, not so much. I used Polycam this weekend to import entire rooms into digital form in less than 3 minutes of total scanning and processing time, then rotate and zoom around them with finger gestures. Despite the novelty of making nearly instant 3D scans with a phone, everyone who saw my Polycam models said the same thing: “This is cool, but what are people supposed to do with these models?”
Yes, it’s great to add new hardware, but most people want actual software and use cases for it. Your move, Apple.
A14 Bionic: Laptop-class power in your pocket, but to what end?
The A14 Bionic CPU and GPU inside every iPhone 12 model was inevitable — in the works for years with global chip manufacturing powerhouse TSMC, and the first consumer chip featuring bleeding edge 5-nanometer fabrication technology. Without getting overly technical, the A14 nearly shrinks the computing performance of a modern laptop down to pocket size, nearly rivaling the speed of the larger A12Z chip found in Apple’s latest iPad Pro tablets. Most iPhone apps won’t take advantage of all that horsepower, and if they did, they would eat the phone’s battery at two or three times its normal rate, but the capacity’s there when it’s needed.
I benchmarked the iPhone 12 Pro using Geekbench 5.2.5 and got single/multi-core scores of 1583/3688. That’s up roughly 6-18% compared with the same app’s iPhone 11 Pro scores of 1336/3484, but mixed versus the current iPad Pro: 41% faster in single-core (1125) and 20% slower in multi-core (4444). Similarly, Metal GPU test numbers shot up from the iPhone 11 Pro’s 7525 to 9079, a nearly 21% improvement for the iPhone 12 Pro, though it was notably 32% lower than the A12Z’s iPad Pro’s 12023 Metal result.
In numbers and in practice, the iPhone 12 Pro feels a little faster than its predecessor and the latest iPad Pro for common tasks, but doesn’t match the flagship Apple tablet for the most demanding applications. My question is whether anyone cares.
Years ago, Samsung and others offered docks to transform smartphones into desktop or laptop computers, making better use of the pocket devices’ increasing speed, storage, and networking capabilities. Unfortunately, Apple ignored these initiatives, and the result is a family of palm-sized supercomputers shackled by the size of their screens.
It’s also worth noting that Apple isn’t shipping any iPhone 12 apps that are exclusive to this family of devices — there are barely even app features with enhanced functionality this year. So if you’re hoping to show off your new phone, there’s currently little more than a faster, more accurate update to the oft-forgotten Measure app or scant third-party apps to do it.
MagSafe: Unwieldy but thoughtful wireless charging
It would be easy to ignore or skip over one of the iPhone 12 family’s tentpole additions — support for new magnetic wireless chargers — because Apple’s MagSafe is somewhat confusing and not incredibly impressive. For $39, the brand new MagSafe charger combines an oversized two-inch charging puck with a three-foot USB-C cable. You’ll still need to buy a new 20-watt wall adapter to refuel at MagSafe’s full “15-watt” speed.
If charging speed is really important to you, you’re better off skipping MagSafe by plugging the iPhone 12 Pro directly into that wall adapter using its included Lightning cable: Doing so restores 50% of the iPhone’s battery power in 30 minutes. Using MagSafe with that wall adapter, you’ll restore only 23% of its battery in the same amount of time, and in my tests with a 2020-vintage MacBook Pro laptop and MagSafe, the iPhone 12 Pro recharged only 16% in the same 30 minutes.
Between its speed and its size, MagSafe only delivers a so-so charging experience. It’s faster than prior and device-agnostic Qi wireless chargers, but there is a gigantic ecosystem of those chargers, now including reasonably priced batteries with both wireless and high-speed wired charging, and Qi car mounts with nearly as much convenience, minus Apple’s gigantic circular magnets.
After testing MagSafe, I’ve decided to return both the charger and Apple’s ugly, overpriced iPhone 12 MagSafe clear case until there’s some really compelling reason to have them; the existing Qi-based docks and Lightning cables that worked with the iPhone 12 Pro’s predecessors all work properly with this model. We’ll have to see if Apple ups the ante for MagSafe over the next year or so.
Battery: The compromise that will force your next upgrade
Millions of iPhone owners know firsthand that their devices just don’t work as well after two or so years of daily use. Between natural battery degradation and related processor slowdowns, an iPhone that’s good on day one can become marginal on day 700. Ideally, you’ll buy a phone that starts with more than “good” initial battery life, so when it falls short later, it will still be acceptable.
Correctly anticipating higher battery drain due to 5G, most Android smartphone makers picked larger batteries than prior 4G models, but Apple again went in the opposite direction, using smaller iPhone 12 batteries than comparable iPhone 11 models. Independent test results unsurprisingly suggested the iPhone 12s deliver fewer hours of run time when used on 5G networks, though A14 chip improvements enable the smaller batteries to last at least as long — sometimes longer — when they’re being used on 4G.
Anecdotally, the iPhone 12 Pro benefits more from mid-day recharges than the last two or three flagship iPhones I’ve owned. After becoming more or less comfortable with my iPhones’ longevity, the 12 Pro’s smaller battery is inducing some range anxiety, and I’m not sure that I’d universally recommend this model to prior iPhone XS or 11 Pro users as a result. Based on Apple’s track record of battery and device size compromises — as well as ignoring years of user pleas to make thicker, longer-lasting devices — I’m nearly 100% certain that the company doesn’t care.
My suspicion is that Apple’s already working on a MagSafe external battery pack for the iPhone 12 family that will “fix” the problem it created by shrinking this year’s batteries. And that it will happily offer to sell you a $99 replacement internal battery or $999 replacement phone two or three years from now if you’re concerned about iPhone performance. That’s the Apple way.
- With watchOS 7 and iOS 14, Apple has quietly streamlined the process of bringing an Apple Watch over to an upgraded iPhone. You’re automatically prompted to move the Watch pairing from one device to another, and don’t need to do much beyond authorizing the switch, which then takes place in the background with minimal inconvenience.
- Much has been made of the iPhone 12 Pro’s ‘fingerprint magnet’ stainless steel frame and more shatter-resistant Ceramic Shield front glass. In my personal testing with a graphite model, I found fingerprints to be no worse than they were on the space gray iPhone 11 Pro, and have greater confidence in the screen’s natural resilience than before. While I still plan to use a case at all times, the iPhone 12 Pro’s durability has come a long way from early models.
- Apple’s claim that the iPhone 12 family now omits wall adapters and earphones for environmental reasons is at best only partially true and at worst specious. In every country save France, where phones are legally required to bundle earphones to mitigate cellular radiation concerns, the company has passed $60 in added accessory expenses on to consumers without offering free alternatives to those who need them. It’s going to be interesting to watch how this plays out, particularly given overblown concerns over 5G radiation.
Having waited two years for the first 5G iPhone — a period that has seen plenty of compelling 5G Android phones — I’m not entirely thrilled with what Apple delivered in the iPhone 12 Pro: It’s wrapped in plenty of 5G hype, but otherwise doesn’t offer much in the way of added user-facing functionality. For those of us who once bought into Apple’s claim that it holds back on adopting new hardware until it can deliver valuable new software and/or services, the iPhone 12 Pro feels like yet another example of an Apple device sold on potential rather than practical benefits. A larger concern for long-time iPhone fans is that Apple seems to have moved past “tick-tock” and “tick-tock-tock” evolution strategies into something else, such that even the “leap year” iPhone doesn’t feel as visionary or disruptive as any new Samsung S-series flagship.
But despite the fact that each new iPhone looks like a retread of Apple’s prior greatest hits, Apple does more than just fine when it’s merely iterating, and it technically doesn’t need a big redesign to keep selling tens of millions of iPhones every year. Moreover, a superficial focus on form does injustice to the raw capabilities of the hardware inside: As 5G networks, Dolby Vision TVs, and Lidar-dependent applications evolve, the iPhone 12 Pro will be ready for them. Ditto with laptop-class apps, assuming they can be effectively downscaled to a 6.1-inch screen. Apple’s huge user base and profitable app ecosystem guarantee that developers will flock to iOS and these new devices with great ideas.
Appreciating the iPhone 12 Pro’s possible future isn’t enough to prevent it from feeling somewhat disappointing today. In my hand, on its dock, and in my pocket, it doesn’t feel like it’s yet worthy of an upgrade, an issue exacerbated by Apple’s decision to reserve several of this year’s major camera improvements — sensor size, zoom lens, and optical image stabilization upgrades — for the larger iPhone 12 Pro Max. Like many people, I’m not thrilled to have to accept a physically larger and more expensive iPhone to add these capabilities, particularly when so many other smartphone cameras took huge steps forward this year.
Constant iteration may work as a business model for Apple, yet with every new iPhone release, I find myself increasingly longing for one of those big, disruptive leaps forward the company used to be known for. As competent as it is, the iPhone 12 Pro makes me wonder whether those days are now behind us, or just in the hands of hungrier, more foolish companies than today’s Apple.
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