If loving the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro is wrong, then I really don’t want to be right.
My favorite thing about the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro is that there is no one feature that outshines any other. Apple may have talked up 5G like it’s the second most revolutionary thing to ever happen in the history of phones, but the truth is everything has been upgraded in the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. Everything.
I love how the phones are easier to grip because of their flat edges. I love how much better wireless charging is with a MagSafe charger. I love that the Super Retina XDR display is less likely to shatter when dropped thanks to its Ceramic Shield technology. I love how the A14 Bionic outperforms other smartphones by a huge margin.
I love that the main rear camera takes even better low-light photos and that night mode now works with the ultra-wide camera and portrait mode. I also love the increased IP68 water resistance and the Pacific Blue color that the iPhone 12 Pro comes in. Hell, I even love that the phones support all flavors of 5G (mid-band and ultra wideband) even though 5G deployment in the U.S. is a hot mess.
I have been testing the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro for about a week and it is apparent to me (and the lucky few who I’ve shown it to) that Apple has set a new standard for smartphones. These phones are the ultimate expression of a beautiful and versatile modern multi-tool. And with iOS 14 — a free software update that basically makes everything fresh again with widgets and the App Library — the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are, I dare say, virtually flawless.
I could spend all day waxing poetic about the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro’s gorgeous homage to the iPhone 4, but no amount of words or photos can replace the experience of holding them in your own hands. More than any iPhone in recent years, you really have to touch the materials to appreciate their balanced elegance. Making them thinner and shrinking their volume (compared to the iPhone XR/11) only adds to their luxurious look and feel.
The iPhone 12 sports a flat aluminum band, glossy glass back panel, and matte glass camera bump. Meanwhile, the iPhone 12 Pro is the yang to the 12’s yin. The metal band is made of polished surgical-grade stainless steel, the matte glass back is more fingerprint-resistant, and the camera bump has a shiny gloss finish. Of all the camera bumps, the ones on the iPhone 12 lineup are now the least offensive; they're practically flat compared to the huge rectangles on phones like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The iPhone 12 is also perceptively lighter than the 12 Pro. The buttons on both phones are flatter than on previous iPhones, but no less tactile.
Apple sent me the blue iPhone 12 for review and though it is a rich color, I much prefer the Pacific Blue on the iPhone 12 Pro. Mainly because it’s matte, but also because there’s more depth to it when light reflects off it. Sometimes the Pacific Blue looks like Space Gray, sometimes a marine blue/green, and sometimes navy. It’s stunning, but never gaudy.
Both the 12 and 12 Pro have the same 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR displays with 2,532 x 1,172 resolution and 460 pixels per inch. The screens are fantastic. They’re big (but not too big) and flush with the metal frame (no 2.5 curvature this time). I had concerns the size would be too large for my comfort, but because they’re thinner and smaller in volume compared to the 6.1-inch iPhone XR and 11, they actually have dimensions only slightly larger than the 5.8-inch 11 Pro.
Like the 11 Pro’s displays, the 12 and 12 Pro’s OLED screens get very bright (sometimes uncomfortably so) and display vibrant colors and deep blacks with a 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio. Viewing angles are terrific as well. One thing I should note: despite both displays being capable of dialing it up to 1,200 nits of brightness when displaying HDR video, the iPhone 12’s display actually operates at around 625 nits versus the iPhone 12 Pro’s 800 nits for regular use. It’s weird, but not a deal-breaker. 625 nits is still absurdly bright for stuff like reading, playing games, and sending messages and email.
Notably missing on the screen is a high refresh rate. Flagship Samsung and OnePlus phones have displays with 120Hz and even Google's Pixel 5 has a 90Hz screen. Why is Apple still saddling the iPhone 12 series with a 60Hz display? At the very least the 12 Pros should have 120Hz, right? I think I know the reason: battery life. A 120Hz display would require a larger battery, which would have meant a thicker profile. Also true: normies don't care about high refresh rate.
Three of the best new features on the 12 and 12 Pro are invisible to the naked eye. First, the displays are reinforced with what Apple calls “Ceramic Shield.” Apple says it’s added “nano-ceramic crystals” into the glass to make it tougher, claiming “4x better drop performance” over the 11 series front glass. I’m not some crazy YouTuber doing drop tests for kicks, but I did have several unexpected-and-completely-accidental drops where the phones slipped out of my jacket pockets and landed face down on a wet sewage grate (yikes!), grass (fine), and asphalt (also fine).
Three of the best new features on the 12 and 12 Pro are invisible to the naked eye.
Fortunately, I had a case on them when they slipped out so there was no damage to the body. I'm extremely impressed that even from a 2-3 foot drop, the screens were virtually unscathed. I wish the tougher glass extended to scratch-resistance, but sadly, Apple only improved scratch-resistance on the rear with a “dual ion-exchange process.”
Second, Apple has increased the IP68 water resistance from 4 meters to 6 meters. This is great if you hang near pools or bodies of water. (I don’t know, maybe you’re a boat person!)
Third, MagSafe wireless charging is awesome and solves the problem of improperly aligning your iPhone on a wireless charging pad. With the MagSafe Charger, magnets within the 12 and 12 Pro attract to magnets inside of the charging disc for a perfect alignment. It’s brilliant and it’s shocking that it took this long for Apple to come up with it considering its history of using magnets in inventive ways (old MacBooks, Apple Pencil, Magic Keyboard, etc.). The only downside is that the MagSafe Charger is sold separately for $39 (and you need to bring your own power adapter). It’s a reasonable price and it's compatible with other Qi-based devices like Android phones and AirPods Pro, but I would have loved for it to be included in the box (even if it were just for the 12 Pro models). Something should have replaced the EarPods and power adapter that are no longer included. Make no mistake, though: MagSafe is great, but it's also a harbinger of a completely wireless, port-free iPhone.
At this point, it’s not even newsworthy that the iPhone is powered by the fastest and most powerful chip in any smartphone. Apple’s decade of designing its own mobile silicon has afforded it a performance advantage that Qualcomm and other mobile chipset makers can’t keep pace with.
If raw performance is what you crave, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro has it. The A14 Bionic chip is so powerful, no Android phone even comes close.
During Apple’s virtual event, the company said the A14 Bionic’s CPU and GPU are up to 50 faster than other smartphones. That may have been a major understatement. Comparing Geekbench 5 cores with the Galaxy S20 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are a whopping 75 percent faster on the single-core test and 20 percent faster on the multi-core. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro’s performance underscores how far ahead Apple’s silicon is. (It also bodes well for the company’s transition away from Intel chips to its own silicon for Macs.)
In real-world applications, the A14 Bionic speeds up everything. iOS 14 is snappier, apps open up quicker, and loading and rendering times for graphics-intensive games like NBA 2K21 and Sky: Children of the Sky are faster. Little iOS things like preparing a batch of hundreds of photos and videos for AirDropping to another device (yes, I am this guy), cropping and making adjustments to 4K video without long rendering times, and processing long time-lapses all benefit from the extra power.
The A14 Bionic chip is so powerful, no Android phone even comes close.
CPU and GPU performance are only half of the performance story on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. This year, speed also means 5G. Yes, the 12 and 12 Pro are the first iPhones to support 5G, but I wouldn’t get too excited for it.
Here in the U.S., 5G deployment and education have been nothing short of a disaster. (Don’t even get me started on AT&T’s fake 5G Evolution, which was really just faster 4G LTE.)
In most cases, the new iPhones are going to connect to “sub-6GHz” 5G (also commonly referred to as “regular 5G” or “mid-band 5G”). This flavor of 5G is only marginally faster than 4G LTE. In three separate tests on Verizon in New York and New Jersey, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro’s regular 5G averaged around 6-8 Mbps faster download speeds than LTE on my 11 Pro. I saw average downloads of about 30Mbps on 5G versus 22Mbps on LTE — not exactly blistering fast if you ask me. 5G upload speeds were strangely worse on regular 5G than LTE; I saw 5G uploads that were 10-30 percent slower than LTE.
Millimeter wave/ultra wideband 5G has the potential to be a game-changer because it can deliver ridiculously fast gigabit speeds. These are speeds that would enable large file downloads in seconds and reliable cloud gaming on the go. However, reality isn't the same as marketing. As the Wall Street Journal put it: millimeter wave 5G is crazy fast, but a hot mess. Its many flaws include a signal that can’t penetrate through building walls, which limits its usefulness to outdoors that are in direct line of sight with a mmWave cell tower; it drains battery life like there’s no tomorrow, and coverage is few and far between.
In a week of spending time in three New York City boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens) and New Jersey, neither the iPhone 12 or the 12 Pro ever connected to mmWave/Ultra wideband 5G. Not even once. And that’s the problem right there: if you need to find a cell tower with mmWave 5G, it’s not very useful or convenient.
Adding 5G to the iPhone will no doubt nudge carriers to build out better 5G networks faster. However, it’s really important to understand that it could be years before anyone gets speeds that live up to the kinds of 5G experiences carriers are promising.
Naturally, 5G does take a small toll on battery life. Just a small bit. The 12 and 12 Pro don't last quite as long as the 11 and 11 Pro because they've got smaller batteries and 5G. But they should still last nearly a full day.
We already know that the iPhone 11 Pro has the best camera system in any smartphone. Even with smaller image sensors, the iPhone 11 Pro is able to outshoot Android phones like the S20 Ultra that have larger image sensors and more resolution.
The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro’s cameras are yet another lesson in restraint. Rather than chase high megapixels and excessive zoom, Apple has chosen to fine-tune its 12-megapixel cameras. There are so many upgrades, I’ll just list them for clarity, starting with still photos:
- Better image quality across all cameras with Smart HDR 3
- 27% better low-light performance (versus 11 and 11 Pro) with larger f/1.6 aperture on the main camera
- Night mode support on the main camera and the ultra-wide
- Night mode for portrait photos using LiDAR Scanner (12 Pro)
- Deep Fusion on all rear and front cameras for extra clarity in medium lighting
- Faster autofocusing in low light using LiDAR Scanner (12 Pro)
- Lens correction for the ultra-wide and selfie camera (you can turn this on/off in the Settings app)
- Scene Detection (also a toggle in the Settings app that "automatically improves photos of various scenes using intelligent image recognition")
For video, there’s a list of respectable upgrades, too:
- 4K 10-bit Dolby Vision HDR video recording at up to 30 fps (12) and 60 fps (12 Pro)
- Night time-lapse
- Improved video stabilization
The iPhone 12 Pro has the upper hand with a 2x telephoto lens and extra features like Night mode portraits, faster autofocusing, and higher frame rates for Dolby Vision HDR recording, but the iPhone 12’s cameras aren’t that far behind. Aside from the 12 Pro’s extras (which many people may consider unnecessary), the iPhone 12’s got just as much of a pro camera system in my opinion. As always, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
First up are the close-up tests. Details look great on all four photos with good sharpness corner-to-corner, but the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro has slightly more dynamic range compared to the iPhone 11 Pro and noticeably more than the Pixel 5.
In this second set, we can see how the larger f/1.6 aperture affects the depth of field on the 12 and 12 Pro. While Apple has done a better job processing images so that they are nearly as sharp as the iPhone 11 Pro's f/1.8 aperture, there is a slight bit of fringing (glow) that can affect sharpness. (See the text and numbers on the iPhone 12 Pro image.) For better corner-to-corner sharpness, you're going to want to shoot wider or else you're going to get shallower depth of field aka more bokeh around subject edges.
Portrait photos are interesting. In my tests, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro do a much better job at subject segmentation than the iPhone 11 Pro, particularly with hair and clear objects like glass. The below comparison says it all. Note how the right side of my hair is blurred in the 11 Pro shot and not in the 12 Pro.
I occasionally noticed some inconsistencies with image processing when taking portrait photos. Check out the below four-way comparison. For some inexplicable reason, the iPhone 12 Pro sucked out the contrast (see hair, shadows on the hat, and highlights in the face) and flattened out the image's tones. It's not necessarily a worse image per se, and there's clearly better hair segmentation, but it's still strange that it performs slightly different compared to the 12 Pro's portrait mode.
It's still unclear to me whether the iPhone 12 Pro's Scene Detection which "automatically improves photos of various scenes using intelligent image recognition" may have kicked in. Apple tells me Scene Detection autocorrects certain parts of an image like lighting and white balance to help produce a more true-to-life photo. It's very possible that Scene Detection identified something in the background that told it to lower the shadows and contrast. I saw no such discrepancy on the iPhone 12, which looks very similar to the iPhone 11 Pro shot, but has a smidge more dynamic range.
And because we all love to take portrait photos of our furry friends, here's how portrait mode performs on non-humans. Whereas the above shots were taken with the main camera on all four cameras, in the below set, I used the 2x telephoto (52mm) lens on the iPhone 12 and 11 Pro, the main lens (26mm wide) on the iPhone 12 because it doesn't have a tele, and the Pixel 5's main camera punched in to its default 1.3x secondary setting.
I'm still in awe by the Pixel 5's machine learning-based portrait photo processing. Its photo has good sharpness and contrast. But I have to dock it for processing speed. The Pixel 5 took significantly longer to process the image after it was taken due to its mid-range chipset. The iPhone was able to process it in real-time. This is yet another way the A14 Bionic's power flexes all over Android.
Low-light photography is where the iPhone 11 Pro pulled ahead of the Pixel last year. Even without any night mode (or Night Sight as its called on Pixels) turned on, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro take the more life-like photos with less image noise and better darkness preservation. This scene was dark. The darkness in the scene should be black, not blue like in the Pixel 5 photo. Needless to say, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro nailed the shot.
With night mode set to auto, the iPhone 12 and 12 just barely edge out the iPhone 11 Pro in clarity. The Pixel 5's slower processing shifted the center framing of the tree. And if you look closely, you can see there are more stars in the sky in the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro photos than the 11 Pro and Pixel 5. I'm going to have to give this round to the new iPhones.
Ultra-wide photos appear to be a few ticks sharper, too, especially in the corners. When taking photos with straight edges, the automatic lens correction un-warps the image so it looks less like a fisheye. Again, you can see the iPhones have more dynamic range than the Pixel 5.
I'm not much of a selfie taker, but since others are, I can confirm you'll see more detail in your face than you may be comfortable with, especially at closer distances and indoors. As always, the iPhones do a much better job with skin tones compared to Pixels, which tend to skew more red.
I'll save the in-depth video comparisons with 10-bit 4K Dolby Vision video recording to the filmmakers/YouTubers/creators who are way better at distilling the differences of video than me, but I will humblebrag about the below night timelapse for a second. A long exposure time-lapse like this used to require expensive camera gear. On iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, all you need to do is set the camera to time-lapse mode and attach it to a tripod. As soon as the iPhone recognizes that it's still and the scene is below a certain luminance, the night time-lapse mode automatically kicks in. It's that easy.
We could sit here all day and scrutinize the details, but I don't think that's a good use of anyone's time. So rather than drag these camera comparisons out, I'll leave you with this gallery of shots that I took with both the 12 and 12 Pro. It is by no means the most comprehensive gallery, but rather, I want it to give you a sense of the quality of the cameras in different scenarios. Is there something more specific you want me to test? You can always find me on Twitter at @raywongy or Instagram @sourlemons. I'm known for taking my phone photography quite seriously and I'd be more than happy to share more comparisons with other phones (provided I have them). Let's make this a two-way conversation!
Confession time: I was genuinely concerned that Apple would not be able to top the iPhone 11 Pro. What more could Apple add when the iPhone 11 Pro already has top performance, the best camera system, killer battery life, and iOS 14?
Turns out, there’s still a lot more.
But not more in the sense of different with experimental features like a foldable display, dual screens, or even a display that swivels. I mean more in terms of taking the fundamentals to the next level. Weird tech is fun and fresh (and often more expensive) and what we think we want, but powerful and reliable and accessible tech is what we all need.
There is no singular reason that makes the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro stand out because Apple has relentlessly leveled everything up. All of the fundamentals — the design, the display, the cameras, the performance, the cellular connectivity, the wireless charging, the water-resistance etc. — have been elevated to new heights that go above and beyond previous iPhones.
Apple has relentlessly leveled everything up.
With price points at so many levels — the iPhone 12 starts at $799 and the iPhone 12 Pro at $999 — there's no way to go wrong with either the 12 or 12 Pro. Unless you want a smaller or bigger display, in which case, you’re going to have to wait a few more weeks for the 12 Mini and 12 Pro Max, which rightfully cost less and more than the 12 and 12 Pro.
Which iPhone 12 is right for you comes down to personal preference. Whether it’s price, materials, cameras, or storage, there are more ways to choose than before. If you’ve got an iPhone 11 or 11 Pro, you can probably hold off unless you’re a power user or absolutely must have the new design or MagSafe wireless charging. If you've got an older iPhone or you're thinking about switching from Android, you’re in for a massive leap forward in every direction.
It’s such a cliché to say that the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are the best iPhones ever. Because, of course, they are. Every new iPhone is better than its predecessor in some way. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro may not have any flashy gimmicks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have enough new to offer. If anything, the new iPhones further widen the gap between it and Android with just the basics — an increasingly difficult challenge that Apple continues to ace. An iPhone is an iPhone and there’s no phone that’s quite like an iPhone when it comes down to the hardware and software mixing harmoniously together into a slab of metal and glass.