Apple’s new iPhones can be considered major or minor upgrades depending on how you look at it. To those who care about night time photography and videography, or those who’ve bought into the 5G hype, the new iPhone 12s bring major improvements. But to more general consumers whose smartphone usage habits consists mostly of texting, surfing the web, scrolling through Instagram and taking the occasional photo, this year’s phone will feel familiar with the iPhone 11. There isn’t a single immediately tangible upgrade, like Apple getting rid of the home button from the 7 to the X, or adding an ultra-wide angle camera from the XS to the 11.
At least not so far with the iPhone 12s I’ve tested. That’s because Apple released four models this year, and the most powerful one, the Pro Max, with a larger image sensor and better optical image stabilization, is not ready for review yet. Instead, I’ve been testing the middle two phones, the standard iPhone 12 and the 12 Pro.
Last year, there were major differences between the iPhone 11 and the 11 Pro. This year, they’re much more similar—so much that a single review can cover both devices.
Hardware and design
All four iPhone 12s this year has a new boxier design that’s completely flat on all four sides. If you’ve held an iPhone 4 or 5, you’ll remember this feeling. I’m not sure the boxier build with harder corners is easier to hold than the soft rounded edges of the past few iPhones, but it looks more mature, sophisticated—like a machine.
Last year, the 11 and 11 Pro used different screen technology and screen sizes. This year, both 12 and 12 Pro use OLED panels (which Apple calls “Super Retina XDR”) and are the same 6.1-inch size. This makes the two phones identical in footprint, and from the front, you can’t tell the two apart.
Flip them around and you’ll see the differences: the non-Pro has a pair of 12-megapixel main and ultrawide cameras, while the Pro has both plus a LIDAR (light, image detection and ranging) sensor. The latter is basically a radar to map your surroundings.
There’s one more, hard-to-notice difference: the Pro’s chassis is crafted out of stainless steel, while the standard 12’s frame is aluminum. Stainless steel is harder so it should protect the phone from drops, but the aluminum chassis is lighter. That, coupled with having one less camera, makes the iPhone 12 lighter at 162g to the Pro’s 184g.
But what does that bring in the real world? Apple uses all these random metrics like “the A14 Bionic launches apps at XX percentage faster” but the reality is the A13 Bionic powering the iPhone 11 are fast enough. Instead, the A14 Bionic really shines in helping the iPhone 12’s complicated camera hardware-software synergy to work.
I usually cover photography first in my camera section, but I’m focusing on video first this time because this is where the 12 shines above the rest. The iPhone 12 phones are the first mobile devices in the world to shoot in Dolby Vision, a HDR (high dynamic range) tech that’s used by Hollywood studios and Microsoft’s next-gen gaming consoles. Essentially, Dolby Vision stands out from previous HDR standards in that it dynamically adjusts its visual metadata so every scene can be optimized on its own. Older HDR standards, like HDR 10+, applies the same enhancements across an entire video.
That the iPhone 12 can shoot in Dolby Vision—meaning the camera is filming and adjusting metadata on-the-fly is a jaw-dropping flex of processing power. That’s not all, users can edit said Dolby Vision clip afterward within the iPhone’s own photo app, and there’s no lag, no waiting for the clip to load.
Now, Apple being Apple, this Dolby Vision used in the iPhone 12 differs slightly from the usual Dolby Vision, in that footage shot with the iPhone 12 uses a special codex that may make it incompatible with some smart TVs, even if it is supposedly Dolby Vision supported (thankfully, the iPhone 12 clips do show without issues on recent Apple devices, like iPads and MacBooks).
And right now, if you upload a Dolby Vision iPhone 12 clip to a third party video software, it won’t even show properly. The good news: Apple products are so mainstream, everyone else will adapt and add support for Apple’s specific format.
Apple’s iPhone has been the best video recording phone for several years running now, and the iPhone 12 pushes the lead further. See the video below for some Dolby Vision samples.
Now, being able to shoot in Dolby Vision is great, but that extra oomph you get in colors and dynamic range will really only show itself if the real-world scene is dynamic enough. Hong Kong’s neon lights-drenched city streets is a great place to show off Dolby Vision, as is a sunny California day with blue skies. However, if you’re shooting more generic footage, inside a dull white room or on a bad weather day in London, don’t expect to see much difference.
The still cameras are very good. Apple improved hardware in the 12 and 12 Pro phones with a slightly larger image sensor that takes in 27% more light. That’s larger by Apple standards, but it’s still a relatively small image sensor compared to what Huawei/Xiaomi/Samsung have been doing—and you can see that in raw photography power, those phones still win—but it’s a step in the right direction for Apple. Plus, the Pro Max will increase that sensor size even more, so that’s the phone to do real camera tests against Huawei’s and Samsung’s best.
Still, Apple has improved its computational photography even more by bringing night mode to all its cameras. Last year, night mode was only available for the main camera, leaving the ultrawide camera struggling badly in low-light situations. This year, low-light images improve drastically in dark scenes.
But if we’re talking purely pulling in light in really dark places, recent Huawei phones still top the iPhone easily. As is zooming capability—it’s hard for me to be excited about the 12-megapixel, 2x lossless zoom lens on the 12 Pro when I’ve been using Huawei phones that can do 10x lossless zoom.
But Apple wins in consistency and fluidity. Where Android brands’ main camera and wide-angle lens sometimes exhibits different color temperatures, they’re all consistent on the iPhone 12s. And switching between lenses on the iPhone 12s is a seamless experience. This is particularly noticeable in video if you’re zooming in and out.
As for camera differences between the 12 and 12 Pro, they’re minimal. Sure, you’ll see the Pro has better zoom shots, particularly at night, but for most standard photos they’re identical.
I’ll let more photo samples do the talking, but in general, my view on the iPhone cameras vs Android rivals has not changed: if we’re talking about the highest ceiling in specific situations, the best Huawei can still grab more impressive shots. But the iPhone 12 camera system is still the most trusted, with the most accurate colors, more fluid lens-switching, and images that are consistent. And of course, it’s way better in video shooting.
That I’ve waited this long to talk about 5G should show what I think of it. The tech just isn’t ready. This isn’t Apple’s fault, which has built more 5G bands into the iPhone 12s than any other phone right now.
Instead, it’s the fault of mobile carriers and telecoms: 5G networks in their current state are barely faster than 4G LTE, and unless you live in a major metropolitan city you’ll rarely find reception. Even in Manhattan in New York City, people have joked that you have to walk five blocks and stand still in a particular corner just to get true next-gen 5G speeds.
In Hong Kong, I’ve been testing the iPhone 12s on CSL’s 5G networks, and they’re fine. Connection is stable, and every now and then I’ll experience noticeably faster connection speeds. But these times are rare—if you cover up the 5G logo at the top of the screen I wouldn’t be able to tell you if I’m on 5G or 4G.
But Apple adding 5G is still important because now that Apple is on board, it should force telecoms to work harder to actually put out real 5G. But the reality is, you’re not going to feel the benefits of 5G until at least another year, maybe two.
Battery life and general performance
Unfortunately, 5G has hurt the iPhone 12’s battery life. On both my Pro and non-Pro models, if I’m running on 5G and using the phone heavily that day, they will not last an entire day out—likely running out of juice around dinner time. Turning 5G off increases battery life to well over a day again. So on weekends when I know I’m going to be out all day, I just turn 5G off.
Charging is easy, via Lightning cable, Qi wireless charging, or this new MagSafe charging Apple introduced along with the iPhone 12s. It’s basically another wireless charging pad that magnetically attaches to the back of the iPhone 12s. It sounds simple in theory, but I do enjoy using it more than typical wireless charging, because it allows me to pick up the phone and still continue to keep the charge going.
However, charging speeds for iPhones are very slow compared to what Chinese Android brands have been offering. For example, using a MagSafe charger will add just about 60% of battery in an hour. On my Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra with a 120W fast charger, I can add 60% to the battery in 12 minutes.
General performance is very similar to previous iPhone experiences, meaning it’s very good most of the time. If you’re immersed in Apple’s ecosystem, it is highly satisfying to be able to use the iPhone as an Apple TV remote control, or beam images and videos from an iPhone to a Mac, iPhone to an iPad, easily with just one tap. Being able to respond to your incoming text messages by just speaking into an Apple Watch on your wrist is something Android smartwatches still can’t quite do consistently.
And no, there isn’t any noticeable real world performance differences between the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro in terms of launching apps, playing games, watching videos.
Conclusion: a worthy upgrade
The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are excellent phones that are easy to use and without any real flaws other than just okay battery life. If you’re really into shooting videos and night-time photos, the improvements here are worth an upgrade even from the 11. If those things don’t matter much to you and you have the 11 already, then perhaps wait another year.
For other people looking to jump to the 12 phones from an iPhone older than two years, you’ll notice the immediate performance boost and camera performance.
You can also wait for the Pro Max and see how much better that is over the standard Pro. But no matter what you do, don’t buy this just for 5G.