Finally, after what seemed like an endless run of rumours, leaks and predictions, Apple finally announced the iPhone 12 series. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro were unveiled along with their smaller and larger cousins, the 12 Mini and 12 Pro Max. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro shipped on October 23rd and here are my first impressions.
The 12 series pay homage to the iPhone 4 and 5 design language. Boxy, industrial and utilitarian. In fact the 12 and 12 Pro share the same design for the most part albeit with different material choices. Flat edges make it easier to grip at the expense of the comfort provided by the curved edges of the iPhone 6 through 11 series. Whilst this trade off does reduce comfort, it offers enhanced durability. The display now sits flush with the chassis on both phones for example. The 12 is constructed with an aerospace grade aluminium frame and a glossy glass rear plate. The camera bump is enclosed with a frosted, matte glass. By contrast the 12 Pro is built with a stainless steel frame, a frosted glass rear plate and the camera bump is instead a glossy enclosure.
The iPhone 12 is available in five colours including red, black, white, navy blue and green. The iPhone 12 pro comes in silver, graphite to match Apple Watch series 6, gold and an all new pacific blue. The pacific blue replaces last years midnight green and graphite replaces space grey, both of which are coated using physical vapour deposition (PVD). The gold has a bright lustre and is coated using a process called impulse magnetron sputtering (HiPIMS). This process creates a hard, dense arrangement of pigment that closely mimics the appearance of stainless steel.
Apple has partnered with Corning to create a new display cover material. Apple calls this ‘Ceramic shield’. While it has the appearance and feel of glass, it actually has a different chemical composition. Scientifically speaking this isn’t glass. Instead it is an optically clear sheet of nano ceramic crystals. Ceramic offers significant benefits for durability. It is much more resistant to shattering than glass. Apple claims that this is 4x more resistant to fracturing than last years phone whilst being totally transparent. Apple makes no claims of enhanced scratch resistance so you may still want to invest in a screen protector. On the back, the rear glass (yes regular glass) offers a 2x improvement in drop protection compared to last year. The flat edges of the phone further serve to enhance the impact resistance to both the display and the rear glass and reduce the risk of hairline fracturing.
Both of the new phones offer IP68 water and dust resistance. This allows for up to 6 meters of submersion for 30 minutes. This is significant and means for any of those accidental spills and splashes, your iPhone will be just fine! Apple doesn’t encourage total submersion as water resistance is a temporary state that naturally degrades over time. Still, any accidental drops in a bath, the pool or the sea and your phone should be just fine.
The softer aluminium frame of the iPhone 12 is more resistant to scratches but is more susceptible to nicks and dents. The harder frame of the iPhone 12 Pro is made of surgical grade stainless steel. This is much less susceptible to dents and gouges but is more prone to scratching. As it turns out the silver steel is the raw colour of the metal which means you could actually buff out and polish away scratches though Apple doesn’t suggest that you do this. The coated steel colours should not be polished as you could risk exposing the silver beneath.
Speed and Performance
The 12 series ships with the A14 chip. This new processor is based on a 5 nanometre design and is the first smartphone to ship in volume with this technology. By moving to 5 nanometers Apple can pack more transistors into the same space which reduces power consumption whilst significantly improving speed and performance. Needless to say the iPhone 12 is by far the fasted smartphone available. You probably won’t notice a big difference in day to day usage compared to last years iPhone 11 series or even the XS series from the year before. But the A14 chip means that your device should still feel fast and snappy for years to come.
Apple doesn’t officially announce RAM in iPhone or iPad models but this years iPhone 12 ships with 4GB and the 12 Pro with 6GB for the first time. Initial testing does show that the 6GB helps to keep more apps paused in memory for you to quickly resume where you left off. That being said, iOS is very well optimised with Apple’s custom hardware so most people will never notice the difference between these two phones as far as performance is concerned. Graphics are also excellent and class leading. Gaming has always been a strength of the iPhone and this year is no exception.
Connectivity and Battery
If you watched the announcement event, it would be impossible to miss that the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro now support 5G. Apple made a big deal of this and some of the carrier partnerships they’re doing. The true promise of 5G is blazing fast download speeds with significantly improved bandwidth. The congestion and subsequent reduction in speed you might experience in a busy area should be a thing of the past thanks to 5G. The problem is that 5G isn’t widely available in most countries yet. Certainly you’ll find built out networks in larger city’s and some towns but realistically it’ll take a few years for coverage to be wide spread.
5G also comes in three different varieties and all three are supported by the iPhone 12 series depending on your country. The low band 5G is the most common variety and doesn’t really offer much more in the way of speed compared to 4G LTE. Mid frequency 5G offers much better speeds but is also much harder to come by, particularly in the US. In Europe and other parts of the world the mid band 5G is more widely spread and has been better built out. Both the low band and mid band are available in all models in all countries.
Finally the high frequency, truly next gen 5G, often referred to as millimetre wave is only available in the US on Verizon. Unfortunately whilst incredibly fast, millimetre wave 5G is crippled in the sense that it is easily blocked by buildings and relies on line of sight to your device. That means unless a 5G node was inside the same room as you, you can forget it. Fortunately for those of us outside of the US, the mid band 5G doesn’t suffer this pitfall and this is much more widely available.
Battery life remains about the same as last years 11 series. Although the capacity of the batteries has shrunken a little this year, the A14 chip and more power efficient ram help to maintain similar battery to last year. The one exception to this that comes into play is when using 5G. 5G modems are battery hogs right now. Apple mitigates this with a smart data mode. When you truly need those 5G speeds the device will switch to 5G. For simpler when doing simpler tasks like music streaming, the phone will use 4G to save battery. You can always turn this off and always use 5G but keep in mind battery life will be reduced.
Camera and Video
The iPhone 12 features a new wide angle camera with a 7 element lens and a wider 1.6 aperture. This allows for 27% more light to hit the sensor for enhanced low light photography. You’ll also find an ultra wide lens that now benefits from night mode just like the wide camera for significantly improved night shots. As it happens night mode is now supported across all of the cameras in iPhone 12 including the front facing camera. In addition to the same wide and ultra wide camera, the iPhone 12 Pro sports a 2x telephoto lens. The wide and telephoto lens offer dual optical image stabilisation (just the wide on the 12).
All cameras across the lineup offer support for Apple’s deep fusion photo processing tech for the first time. Previously this was reserved for just the wide angle camera. Deep fusion offers enhanced details, greater contrast and improved shadows by creating a composite of multiple exposures. In addition to this the new phones support Apple’s Smart HDR 3 which will make highlights pop and provide a more even exposure across an entire image.
Apple has doubled down on video recording and has added the ability to shoot in 10-bit Dolby Vision HDR. As it turns out the iPhone 12 series are the first camera to be able to shoot in this format in the world. That’s pretty impressive. Both devices also feature OLED displays with 1200 nits of maximum brightness. That means you can shoot in Dolby Vision, edit it on device and play it back in full quality. That’s pretty impressive for a smartphone! The 12 Pro can also shoot in Dolby Vision at 60 frames per second compared to 30fps on the 12 thanks to the extra RAM.
The iPhone 12 Pro also includes a LiDAR scanner. This new sensor is located in the camera housing and enables the 12 Pro to sense depth. This means you can take portrait mode photos in low light and auto focusing is instantaneous. Adding LiDAR also means developers can take advantage of this in their own photography apps as well as for augmented reality. iPhone 12 Pro will also receive a software update in the future to add support for a new photo format that Apple calls ProRaw. This will enable non destructive editing with extreme quality and offers up a number of options for creative professionals.
MagSafe and Power
This year has seen the return of MagSafe, Apple’s proprietary magnetic charging technology but updated for the 21st century and specifically for iPhone. Inside the phone is a ring of magnets that surround the wireless charging coils. These perfectly align to the magnets inside the MagSafe wireless charger (sold separately). MagSafe is designed to remove some of the pain points associated with wireless charging. Anybody that has used wireless charging has likely experienced the frustration that comes with traditional Qi wireless chargers. If the phone isn’t perfectly aligned, it might not charge or if it does it may charge very slowly. MagSafe fixes this problem by making it easy to lock the iPhone to the optimal charging position. Not only does this ensure high efficiency, it means if you accidentally bump your nightstand in the middle of the night, you won’t wake to find that your phone hasn’t charged. Apple has even built new cases with MagSafe built in to ensure optimal compatibility with the new charger.
MagSafe offers theoretical charging speeds of 15 watts which is pretty respectable compared to the normal 7.5 watt charging speed we expect on other iPhone models. It’s based on the open Qi wireless charging standard and is compatible with older iPhones for charging (or any other phone with wireless charging) but won’t magnetically attach to older phones. Of course if you don’t want to shell out the extra £39 for a MagSafe charger, you can still charge the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro with a regular Qi wireless charger. Or of course with a cable if you have the right power adaptor…..
Apple has chosen to remove the previously included power adaptor this year. Personally I agree with the decision. Most of us have chargers from our older iPhone models that will work perfectly fine. For those that don’t, the included lightning to USB C cable is compatible with any USB C power adaptor. If you don’t have either of these things then your choices are wireless charging, plugging into to a USB C port if you have a computer with USB C or…..buying a new power adaptor.
Now of course a big reason for doing this is the environmental benefits. The packaging is much smaller which means Apple can ship more phones in less space. That means less planes, trains and cars are required to distribute the phones. It also means Apple is contributing less to e-waste by encouraging us to reuse and recycle our older power adaptors. If you need to buy a new one then of course Apple will sell you one. Is this also a cost saving exercise for Apple? Sure. The cost of the 5G modems and other new components will undoubtedly eat into Apple’s margins. Apple picked this year intentionally to offset some of those costs and to keep the prices of the phones largely the same as last year.
Pricing and other tidbits
- The iPhone 12 series starts at £699 in the U.K., the same as last year with the iPhone 12 Mini. £799 for the larger iPhone 12 and both ship with 64GB of storage. The iPhone 12 Pro starts at £999 in the U.K which is £50 cheaper than last year and includes double the storage at 128GB compared to last year too! That’s not too shabby considering the additional cost of components. Although you might need that £50 saving to buy new charging accessories. The 12 Pro Max starts at £1099, also £50 less than last years 11 Pro Max.
- The maximum brightness on both the 12 and 12 Pro is 1200 nits when watching HDR content. In normal day to say use the 12 maxes out at 625 nits compared to 800 on the Pro.
- Both phones are the same dimensions in terms of size and thickness so cases are interchangeable. The 12 Pro is a shade heavier thanks to the stainless steel construction and additional camera but not enough to be detrimental to use.
The iPhone 12 series represents a new design paradigm for the iPhone. In some ways the features matter less than a normal year because most users will want to upgrade just because of the new design. It lets other people know you have the latest iPhone and that in of itself will mean these phone sell like hot cakes.
That being said Apple has included some meaningful new upgrades. 5G, the 5nm A14 Bionic processor, more RAM, ceramic shield, MagSafe, LiDAR, a new camera system, more photography and video recording options and a bunch more. For most people this will be a great upgrade. If you have last years phones you probably don’t ‘need to upgrade’ but I’d be willing to bet the Apple loyal will want one for the new design anyway.
I’d have liked to see further leaps in battery life, a slick 120hz display would have been nice but honestly this is nitpicking. Besides…Apple needs things to add for next year! Do I recommend the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro? Absolutely.