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iPhone 12 Pro review: Does it get any better than this?
Apple is taking a different approach with the launch of its latest iPhone this year. The company is releasing a total of four different models, with the first two -- the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro -- currently available to order right now. The iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max will be available through pre-orders on Friday, Nov. 6, with in-store availability and shipments starting on Nov. 13.
For the past week, I've been testing Apple's iPhone 12 Pro. Using it as my main phone, replacing the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Apple also sent me an iPhone 12 to test, which I've been using off and on for the camera and 5G comparisons. With a new design, the addition of 5G (a first for Apple), and other notable improvements in performance and to the camera, it's clear to me that Apple has once again set the bar for smartphones over the next 12 months.
All four models of the iPhone 12 lineup use the same design but in varying sizes. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are the first two models to launch, and both feature a 6.1-inch display. The iPhone Mini has a 5.4-inch display, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 6.7-inch display.
Apple returned to the flat-edge design we first saw with the iPhone 4, and that had remained in use on the iPad Pro line. It's a familiar design, but it's not an exact replica of the old design.
In addition to varying display sizes, the volume buttons on the left side of the phone are long, flat buttons, instead of circular buttons. The mute switch is on the left side, as well. It's taken some adjustment on my part to get used to the new volume buttons — they don't stick out all that far from the iPhone's housing, and I've found myself turning the volume up or down when I meant to do the opposite. Over time I'm sure I'll adjust, but a week into use, and I'm still hitting the wrong button.
On the right side is the side button used to wake and lock the phone. The side button is similar in size to the top button on the iPad Air, which features Apple's fingerprint tech Touch ID. Prior to the iPhone 12 launch, there was some hope that Apple made a last-minute switch to add Touch ID in the side button on its new iPhones in an effort to make it easier to lock/unlock phones while wearing a face mask during the pandemic. That speculation was, of course, wrong, and we're left with using Face ID to unlock our phones, sign in to apps or approve Apple Pay transactions.
When you are wearing a mask, Face ID should prompt for your phone's passcode right away, instead of failing first and then asking you for it.
With Face ID, that of course means the iPhone 12 Pro has a notch cutout at the top of the display to make room for Apple's True Depth camera system. The bezels around the OLED display are thinner when compared to last year's iPhone 11, making it possible for Apple to increase the display size without drastically increasing the overall size of the phone.
I find that the iPhone 12 Pro is easier to hold and manage than my previous iPhone. Granted, coming from an iPhone 11 Pro Max, that's to be expected. But what I didn't expect is to not miss the larger display, in favor of being able to use gesture typing or one-handed use.
Just below the side button is a small area that looks different than the rest of the iPhone's housing. At first glance, it looks exactly like the Apple Pencil's magnetic charging spot on an iPad Pro. Alas, the iPhone 12 Pro isn't getting Apple Pencil support. Instead, that small spot is where Apple put the mmWave antenna for 5G.
There's still no headphone jack, and Apple once again put its Lightning port on the bottom of all iPhone 12 models. This year, inside the box you'll find the iPhone and a USB-C to Lightning charging cable. Apple is not including its wired earbuds or a wall adapter with the iPhone 12.
For me, it's not a huge deal. I have countless wall adapters, Apple or otherwise, around my house. I'm sure most of us do. But the part that's frustrating some customers is, depending on the last time you upgraded your phone, by including a USB-C to Lightning cable, not everyone will have a USB-C compatible wall adapter. So, you'll have to spend some extra money in order to charge the phone you just bought.
I'll dig into his a bit more in the MagSafe section below, but the frustration is understandable.
Speaking of MagSafe, you'd never know it by looking at the back of any iPhone 12 model, but there's a ring of magnets and other components built into the back of the phone that help line up Apple's new MagSafe wireless charger or interact with compatible accessories.
Lastly, on the back of the iPhone 12 Pro is a triple-camera array, with a wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto camera setup. There's also a new Lidar sensor on both iPhone 12 models. The sensor is used to scan and create 3D images of the real world, and will arguably have a big impact on augmented reality apps, as well as allow users to scan items, create an STL file, and then print it on a 3D printer.
With the iPhone 12 design, what's old is new again, and you won't find me complaining about the new design at all. I've missed the flat-edge design.
Performance and battery life
Inside the iPhone 12 Pro is Apple's new A14 Bionic 5nm processor. It has six CPU cores, two of which are dedicated to performance, while the remaining four handle the more common and routine tasks (like checking your email). There's also a 16 core Neural Engine inside Apple's latest chip, giving it an 80-percent boost in machine learning performance.
Apple doesn't provide memory or battery size on its spec sheet, but thanks to iFixit, we know the iPhone 12 Pro has 6GB of memory and a 2815mAh battery. The Pro models forgo 64GB of base storage like the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini offer, starting at 128GB, doubling to 256GB and again to 512GB. The increase in base storage is something that should happen across the entire lineup, but it's one point of differentiation between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro.
With fear of sounding like I fell for the marketing, I have to say, this is the fastest iPhone I've ever used. I mean, of course, it is. Every year, Apple releases the fastest iPhone the company has ever made. But some years, it's not as obvious. This year, the iPhone 12 Pro feels faster from the quick response of Face ID, to opening apps, to taking photos or when playing games. There's a fluidity to multitasking or opening large files that isn't there on my iPhone 11 Pro Max, a device I had zero performance issues with prior to testing the iPhone 12 Pro.
As far as battery life is concerned, I've been able to get through an entire day, both during the week and over the weekend, and have yet to see the 20% battery warning pop up. One thing worth pointing out here is that I don't have 5G coverage, and some anecdotal testing has shown that 5G may lower battery life by a couple of hours. I can't speak to that because, again, no 5G.
What I can say is that Apple built a Smart Data feature into iOS 14 that's specific to the iPhone 12. Essentially, if a 5G network is available, your phone will always show that it's connected to 5G. But when your phone is sitting idle, say in your pocket or on a desk, it'll use the underlying LTE network to do things like receive push notifications, check for new messages, and the like. Then when you start using your phone to stream a video, for example, it'll switch back to the 5G connection. The goal is to allow for 5G connectivity without sacrificing battery life.
You can force your phone to use 5G all the time, leave it on this automatic mode, or turn off 5G altogether in the settings app.
Every iPhone 12 model supports both Sub6 and mmWave 5G networks. You don't have to worry about deciding between a model that has mmWave or not, as is the case with some Android handsets.
Admittedly, I've been skeptical of the benefit that 5G brings to our daily lives, but for good reason. I personally live in an area where only Verizon offers some sort of 5G service. According to Verizon's coverage map, my entire town is covered in its 5G network.
T-Mobile has 5G here, as well, but the coverage map looks more like someone splattered pink paint over a map, and as long as you live where one of the droplets landed, you might have a 5G connection. In order to connect to AT&T's 5G network, I need to drive about 25 miles.
Verizon Wireless sent me a SIM card with a temporary service. I put it in an iPhone 12 and have been carrying it around with me. Even though Verizon's 5G map shows broad coverage here, I think the iPhone 12 spent more time showing an LTE connection than it did 5G during my review period.
At my home, which is included in that 5G area, I have yet to see 5G show up as the connected network. I have enabled "5G On" in the phone's cellular settings to ensure it will use 5G connections whenever available, to no avail.
When I did have a 5G connection, the speeds weren't much better than standard LTE, but that's to be expected on the broad-reaching Sub6 network that Verizon just turned on, which it's calling 5G Nationwide. However, the carrier's faster 5G UW (ultra-wideband) network is what delivers the 5G promise we've been hearing from tech companies and carriers for the last few years.
In order to test Verizon's 5G UW network, I had to drive 108 miles, or 1 hour and 41 minutes, to the nearest parking lot with coverage. To be more specific, it was a Wendy's parking lot. When I arrived, I was disappointed to find that the iPhone 12 wasn't picking up the 5G UW signal. So I drove across the street to a different parking lot, where after a reboot of the iPhone, 5G UW showed up in the status bar.
Holy moly is mmWave 5G fast. The screenshot above shows a handful of speed tests I ran on the iPhone 12. I ran Speedtest on the iPhone 12 Pro, connected to AT&T's non-mmWave 5G network at the same time, and there's no comparison.
But you can see the problem, right? Faster, more impressive 5G network connections are few and far between unless you live in a major city, and even then, you have to find just the right spot and make sure you're facing the right way in order to take full advantage of the connection.
To be clear, this isn't a problem that's limited to Verizon, it's a shortcoming of mmWave 5G technology. Until mmWave and mid-band 5G networks -- such as what T-Mobile is currently deploying -- are more prominent, it's best to view the 5G as a slightly faster, potentially more reliable connection for your phone. But it's not worth upgrading to the iPhone 12, or any smartphone for that matter, right now.
Apple including 5G in the iPhone 12 is a way of future-proofing your investment in a new phone. If you don't have 5G coverage, or refuse to upgrade your wireless plan to work with 5G, you can force your iPhone to use LTE by going to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Voice & Data > LTE.
Putting the "Pro" in iPhone 12 Pro
Apple made some fairly significant improvements to the camera system on the iPhone 12 Pro. It still has a three-camera setup on the back, but with the addition of a Lidar sensor, and expanding features like night mode to all three lenses, I found the camera to be more versatile.
The iPhone 12 Pro clearly earned the "Pro" aspect of its name due to its camera. Something that becomes more obvious when you compare it to the non-Pro models and realize just how little of a difference there is between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro.
The main camera -- or, as Apple calls it, the "wide" camera -- has an f/1.6 aperture, with a 27% performance boost in low light performance. The 13mm ultra-wide camera offers a 120-degree field of view, while the telephoto is 52mm. In total, the camera array is capable of 4x zoom from the ultra-wide to telephoto.
Also included in the array is a Lidar sensor that is used to measure and map real-world objects. The benefits are two-fold: Lidar can be used to improve augmented reality apps by providing more precise measurements and mapping of your environment. This gives businesses the ability to create app experiences for their employees or customers. Be it instruction manuals or educational games.
I've used a couple of apps to scan items in my house — including an entire room — which I then created a 3D picture of. The apps haven't been fully optimized for the iPhone 12 Pro, but seeing an entire room laid out in 3D on my iPhone has been fun.
Apple also added the ability to record 10-bit HDR video Dolby Vision at up to 4K and expanded its Deep Fusion feature to all of the 12 Pro's cameras.
You can even take night mode shots, portrait mode selfies, and capture HDR Dolby Vision video with the 12-megapixel front-facing camera.
I've shot several photos and videos over the last few days with the iPhone 12 Pro, and come away impressed. Having night mode available on all of the cameras adds more options when taking pictures, and HDR with Dolby Vision video — something you can watch directly on the iPhone 12's HDR display — was one of those rare moments when I actually said "whoa" while testing.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a slightly better camera setup, and I can't wait to get one in my hands to compare performance with the standard iPhone 12.
If you buy smartphones based on the camera, you will not regret getting the iPhone 12 Pro. It's fast, reliable, and capable of taking some truly impressive shots with minimal effort on your part.
As I mentioned earlier, built into the back of the iPhone 12 is series of magnets that help align Apple's new MagSafe charger. It looks like a giant Apple Watch charger but made specifically for the iPhone 12. Magnets ensure proper alignment, and when you use the $39 MagSafe charger, your iPhone 12 will wirelessly charge at 15W. That's double the speed of previous iPhone models, which were limited to 7.5W wireless charging speeds on Qi-compatible pads. You can still use those pads, but the charging speeds will fall back down to the same 7.5W as before.
You'll want to buy Apple's 20W USB-C wall adapter to take full advantage of the 15W charging speeds, but don't stress about it. You can use the 18W charger Apple included with the iPhone 11 Pro last year if you have one. Third-party USB-C chargers will, of course, work with MagSafe. If you're leaving your phone on a wireless charger overnight, even the 7.5W charging speeds will get the job done. For those times you're in a hurry, use the USB-C to Lightning cable that came with your iPhone and the 20W adapter (or similar) to charge your phone.
What is more intriguing about MagSafe, however, is the bevy of accessories we're sure to see released in the coming months. Apple has released its own cases and even a wallet that magnetically attaches to the back of the iPhone. Using NFC, the iPhone is able to identify the color of the case and show a fun animation on the screen, matching the color of the case. Only Apple accessories will be able to interact with the iPhone 12 in that manner, but the fact that Apple has built magnets into the iPhone 12 and is openly encouraging accessory makers to get creative will surely open up doors and spur ideas.
TechCrunch, for instance, confirmed that PopSockets will soon attach to the back of the iPhone 12 using magnets instead of a sticky pad or case.
iPhone 12 vs. iPhone 12 Pro
So, which do you buy? The iPhone 12, which lacks some of the fancier camera features, but is no slouch in terms of performance and design? Or the iPhone 12 Pro, that has the superior camera setup?
We'll have to wait to see how Matthew Miller's iPhone 12 review ends up, but from my experience, I would venture to say that the iPhone 12 is more than enough phone for most people. It looks nearly identical to the iPhone 12 Pro, has an OLED display (for the first time), and a lower price tag.
Still, the iPhone 12 Pro's camera setup and Lidar sensor make for a compelling upgrade if the $999 price tag doesn't scare you off.
If you're truly undecided, wait until the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max are out in a couple of weeks. We'll have more coverage and will break down the differences, as well as help with buying decisions. Plenty more to come.