iPhone 12 Review: Narrower, Lighter and Faster!

Where last year’s iPhone 11 series introduced a step-change in capability – battery, imaging, speakers – without changing the design, 2020’s iPhone 12 series changes the design with merely an iterative improvement in what the phone can do. This sounds a little luke-warm in terms of recommendation, but in fact, there’s still a lot to like, not least the use of OLED in the ‘cheaper’ iPhone here, taking it remarkably close to ‘Pro’ territory but saving £200 (UK prices).

iPhone 12 Review

Design

So, that design – reminiscent of the iPhone 5 (and later SE 2016) – there’s an aluminium band around the perimeter, with flat sides (in theory for an easier grip, though precisely no one is going to carry a £800 phone without a TPU case or similar) – it looks and feels great. But then I was a fan of the design first time round!

iPhone 12 flat side design

Partly rolled up in the new/rediscovered design is a size change, the ‘12’ is 4mm shorter and 4mm narrower than last year’s ‘11’ – yet the display real estate is identical (a 6.1” diagonal), which is a pretty neat magic trick and shows that the move to flat sides but with similar bezels has a rather significant practical benefit too.

iPhone 12 review - display

Apple’s new colour for 2020 is blue, with the Pro models being marketed as ‘Pacific Blue’, definitely more muted than the brighter blue on offer with the iPhone 12, although rather curiously the Product Red edition of the review iPhone 12 isn’t quite as vibrant as that of previous Product Red iPhones. I’m sure the contribution to third world emergencies is still there, but the striking colour isn’t. Though again, if a case is going to be used then the exact colour isn’t that important, I suggest.

Product RED

Hardware

Front and centre is a far better screen than on the iPhone 11 – instead of a good IPS LCD, here it’s the same full HD, HDR10-capable, Dolby Vision-capable, Wide Color Gamut OLED display as the more expensive 12 Pro. This is a massive step forward for the ‘default’, mainstream iPhone and the slight cost increase is utterly worth it. The display is gorgeous.

iPhone 12 in hand

The Face ID and speaker notch hasn’t changed in size, but it’s fine, we’re used to it now after four generations and it rarely gets in the way. Most notably, the iPhone 12 was past the design stage before Covid-19 took over the world, so there was never any question of Apple reverting to more mask-friendly Touch ID in some form. That’s just wishful thinking by some other reviewers. (Google’s Pixel 5 going ‘back’ to fingerprint recognition was just a stroke of luck for Google, as that phone was also well past the design stage before the pandemic hit.)

The stereo speakers themselves are identical to those on the iPhone 11 range, i.e. pretty good, not too imbalanced, plus there’s the usual Apple octave-shifting trick for sub-100Hz frequencies, meaning that the deepest bass at least gets heard, even if not 100% authentically. Plus the inimitable punch that comes from Dolby Atmos processing. Love it.

Around the back are the same two cameras as on the iPhone 11, with just a small increase in aperture on the ‘wide’ (i.e. main) lens – but more on imaging below. The front ‘selfie’ camera is also identical to the 11’s, at least physically, though it’s evident that newer software and better image processing help create superior results, as you’ll see later.

iPhone 12 review - camera

Inside, the iPhone 12 has the latest A14 Bionic chip, more powerful than ever and based on 5nm technology (the iPhone 11’s A13 was 7nm) – the smaller the chipset die, the lower the power needed to run it and the faster it can run. I don’t expect chip die size to reduce beyond 5nm anytime soon, but the A14 is patently more than fast enough for any game, any video processing – and, as usual, the same chip sits inside all four members of the iPhone 12 range.

The standard ‘12’ here has 4GB RAM, the same as the ‘11’ before it. iOS 14 runs just fine inside this and I suspect the only reason the ‘Pro’ has 6GB is because of the extra RAM needed for 4K60 Dolby Vision capture and perhaps for greater future proofing with LiDAR-using applications. 

In terms of 5G, it’s purely for future-proofing, since the technology (which itself is a mish-mash of existing technologies) is still in its infancy across most of the world, both in terms of implementation and rollout. But the frequencies are there on all the 2020 iPhones, so that when your town starts up 5G transmitters your device will be ready. (And if your town does have a 5G mast, knock yourself out running a speed test underneath it – just don’t expect that very often until well into 2021!) 

Imaging

Technically, as mentioned just now, the camera systems on the iPhone 12 are identical to those on its predecessor, not a bad thing, with just a bump to f/1.6 (from f/1.8) on the main lens. This lets in 26% more light and helps with low light shots, of course. But there’s more to imaging than physics, with the new A14 chip having an enormous capacity for advanced image processing. From 10-bit HDR to low light multi-frame analysis, and from night mode portrait shots to low light selfies, this is the year when computational photography really kicks in on the iPhone – across all three cameras on the phone.

iPhone 12 cameras

Both rear cameras are 12MP, as before, meaning a smooth transition from one to the other when zooming out (or in). See the gallery of example photos here, along with 1:1 crops where appropriate – the ‘12’ is a decent camera phone, aside from two caveats arising from the lack of telephoto lens:

  • it’s effectively limited to 2x zoom (which is done in software here), ignore what Apple says about interpolating ‘in’ further, since results degrade in purity quickly after that!
  • ‘Portrait’ shots use the main camera by necessity (with the ultra-wide providing depth information). This compares to the telephoto camera being the base image on the Pro range, with the result that to get good portrait shots here then you have to get a lot closer to your subject. See the example in the gallery below to see what I mean.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
Example photo from the iPhone 12, the image processing is cranked up somewhat from the 11 series, providing more immediate ‘punch’. But not distractingly so.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, Apple is balancing edge enhancement and sharpening right on the edge of what’s acceptable, without stepping over the line.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
This is shot at 2x zoom – with no telephoto lens, it’s all in software and very usable. Best not zoom in too much further though, as things quickly degrade.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, you can already see that detail is somewhat artificial. But you have to look very closely to see! Taken as-is, the photo is fine for most purposes.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
Lovely colours and detail here, its hard to take a bad snap with the iPhone 12
Example photo from the iPhone 12
A still life shot of some painted pebbles. Plenty of actual detail here, even in indoor lighting. Impressive.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing delightful texture and detail…
Example photo from the iPhone 12
Looking up! Sunlight and immense foliage don’t cause the iPhone 12 to stumble.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
More greenery, often a death sentence for camera phone image processing…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, with evidence of more edge and contrast enhancement than on the iPhone 11 series. So minus a few points for purity, but the photo works as a whole when sharing, etc.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
A ‘Panorama’ shot under intense HDR conditions, i.e. into the sun. The result was splendid, both on the phone screen and here under further analysis.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
A typical snap where it’s not possible to get the whole of the building in the photo without stepping in the road and getting run over!
Example photo from the iPhone 12
…which is where the ultra-wide angle lens steps in, here’s the default output, shot from the same vantage point as the photo above.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
Shot on the main lens, a sunny landscape scene with loads of detail to crop (and then zoom) into…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing (again) the increased edge enhancement from the new algorithms and A14 processor.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
The same scene, zoomed in software by 2x…
1:1 crop from the photo above
I was a bit disappointed by the zoom algorithms used – I have test results from past years where Apple’s software did better. But a) there will be updates, and b) you can always buy the 12 Pro with a proper telephoto lens!
Example photo from the iPhone 12
Although this shot looks light enough, it was taken in low light indoors with just gloomy illumination from a window on a cloudy day. But it’s come out beautifully.
1:1 crop from the photo above
Apple is proud of its ‘Deep Fusion’ routines to get ‘textures’ just right as soon as they’ve been identified. In this case, just look at the detail on this teddy scarf!
Example photo from the iPhone 12
Shot at dead of night, I was trying to confuse the phone by having bright light at the centre of the frame. Aside from a few blown out light points, the scene is accurate to what my eyes saw.
Example photo from the iPhone 12
Ditto this scene, though note the various flare effects from the lens used. Fairly arty, though do also note the bright blue dot just below the centre of frame – this is an artefact of internal reflections in the lens system and is common in this sort of iPhone 12 shot, it seems.
Example night photo
Another night shot with lights and – again – each light source has a green-blue reflection in the resulting image (though in this case you have to look very closely). This isn’t something Apple can easily fix in update – it’s the physics of their new lens system.
Portrait
Typical Portrait mode shot – note the apparent distance, even though the photographer (my daughter) was less than 1m away! Now compare this to the exact same Portrait mode shot taken on the iPhone 11 Pro below…
Portrait
…Quite a difference! I realise that many people say they ‘never zoom in’, but everyone should note that the ‘portrait’ system popularised by Apple three years ago was based on a telephoto lens. Having just an ultra-wide really doesn’t help here! Just something to be aware of…

Although we don’t have the budget and scope to do video testing here, that A14 chip’s power is used well in video mode, with the iPhone 12 supporting (optional) encoding with Dolby Vision 10-bit HDR, up to 4K/30fps (the Pro goes up to 4K/60). Essentially, frames are colour graded and analysed in real time, to keep the HDR consistent – no more patches of random pixels in areas of constant colour in dim conditions. And better handling of true HDR conditions with bright sun and deep shade.

iMovie and Photos on the phone have been upgraded (as part of iOS 14.1) to handle the video tweaks. Apple’s software stack from capture to editing to production and sharing is often underestimated, but I contend that it’s utterly compelling. Just as with the iLife suite on the Mac, whose handling of video (especially) has always been more complete than that of Windows. 

In theory, you can shoot (optically and) digitally stabilised Dolby Vision 4K video, handheld, then sit down on a park bench and edit them together with professional transitions, overlays and titles, then upload to YouTube. All on your smartphone, no Desktop needed. Very impressive.

Magnets

Ah yes, not a review heading we’ve used before! All the iPhone 12 models have a ring of over 20 tiny magnets (plus a couple of bigger ones below to aid the alignment of certain accessories) under their back glass and around the Qi wireless charging coil. The idea is that the latter lines up more precisely with Apple’s new MagSafe charger, which turns on its head the usual concept of a large Qi pad on which you try to guess how to place a phone so that the coils line up. Here the phone ‘snaps’ to the pad in perfect alignment, to deliver up to 15W.

It’s a good idea and one which could become an industry standard in time. I do have some concerns though – the change in the Qi coil system to accommodate MagSafe has meant that the iPhone 12 range is a bit fussy about charging from third party Qi chargers. For example, the iPhone 11 range will charge on multi-coil Qi ads every time, in every position, while the iPhone 12 required a particular placement until I beefed up the power supply to the pad. (“More power, Mr Scotty!” etc. In addition, charging older smartphones with Qi on a MagSafe charger apparently only delivers a paltry 2W – this really doesn’t seem right.)

In addition to the MagSafe charger, Apple has a range of MagSafe cases and other accessories. The jury’s out on these and (disclosure) I didn’t have these to test for this review. Having magnets in the cases isn’t essential for alignment, of course, since the case itself is physically attached to the phone, but the extra magnetic layer means that if you then pop a cased phone on the MagSafe charger you still get the same alignment ‘force’. With a third party (non-magnetised) case on, you’ll still get some alignment with a MagSafe charger, i.e. through the TPU or plastic or leather, but obviously not as strong.

There’s also the MagSafe wallet. Which. Is. A. Terrible. Idea. For so many reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, keeping valuable ID or payment cards physically attached to your phone means that if you lose one then you lose everything. I see so many young people with their ID and debit cards tucked in the back of phone cases and I shudder. Lose the combined package and how are you going to phone in quickly to the bank (or use your authenticated app) to freeze a payment card? And you’ve also lost both means of paying for things to get you back home. 

But even those youngsters currently have their cards physically attached in some way to their phones – the cards won’t just fall out or come off. Whereas the slightest knock or pressure will see the MagSafe wallet falling off the back of the iPhone 12 range. And possibly then being lost completely. 

Battery and charging

The battery in the iPhone 12 is 2815mAh, several hundred mAh less than in the physically larger iPhone 11, which is as expected. Apple quotes identical music/video/standby times for each generation, so the smaller battery is in theory compensated by the more power efficient chipset. In theory.

I’ve been using the iPhone 11 Pro for the last year, so I’m very used to how it performs in terms of battery longevity (it’s at 98% ‘Health’, by the way). In practice, the 12’s battery was lower after a heavy day of use than my 2019 iPhone 11 Pro under similar conditions by around 20%. Which sounds about right, given the larger physical cell on the older phone. But I do feel that, despite the A14 chip’s 5nm efficiencies, the iPhone 12 range won’t see quite the same ‘hero’ battery life as on the 11 Pro series. Don’t get me wrong, the new iPhones aren’t battery wrecks, they hold up very well to everyday life, but expect last year’s 11 Pro and (especially) 11 Pro Max to retain the battery crown.

Having only had the review iPhone 12 for a matter of days, and not weeks, it’s hard to be definitive here. The battery life is fine though, especially given the possibility to wirelessly top-up through the day.

In addition to Qi charging, there’s wired charging through the Lightning port at 20W, so 4A at 5V, at which rate the recharge time from empty is around an hour and a half, with 50% around the hour mark. Yes, you can get dramatically faster charging times in the Android world, but at the expense of having to use proprietary charging techniques and possibly seeing battery degradation. I’m very happy with a 20W wired ‘fast’ charge.

iPhone 12 profile

Verdict

Starting at £800 (all UK prices here including VAT) for the mass market 64GB iPhone 12 seems high, but you do get quite a few improvements for the money. The same top-rated OLED screen and battery as the ‘Pro’, the same faster chipset, 5G support, MagSafe, and so on. And if money is an issue then this is the 2020 iPhone to get, I’m sure.

However… if you can spare the cash then the value starts to swing as you equalize capacity. The iPhone 12 Pro (remember, same size, same screen, same chip, same battery) starts at 128GB for £1000, while if you match capacity and go for the 128GB iPhone 12 then it’s £850. At which point it’s definitely worth paying the extra £150 and getting a much tougher stainless steel frame, 2GB more RAM, the super-useful telephoto camera (more imaging flexibility and far better portrait shots), plus LiDAR (to help with low light focussing and, no doubt, interest applications in the future).

So it’s one or the other at this size, I contend. Get the ‘cheapest’ 64GB iPhone 12 or ‘level up’ and go for the starting 128GB iPhone 12 Pro, which will let you do more.

Regardless, I like the iPhone 12 range’s new design, I love the extra durability. In 2019, we had the step-change in capability with the old design language – 2020 sees a better, more efficient design, plus interesting extras like 5G and MagSafe. 

Watch this space for much more, including a full review of (and extra features around) the iPhone 12 Pro Max in November!