With spring almost here, thoughts turn inevitably to the year's big tech launches. And it doesn't come much bigger than a new batch of flagship iPhones.
In this article we look ahead to the iPhone 12, pretty much guaranteed to launch in autumn 2020 with (hopefully) 5G connectivity. We analyse the latest rumours concerning its release date, design, new features, tech specs and price, and help you make sense of all the speculation.
A leaked 3D mockup of the iPhone 12 has been obtained by a Japanese blog, and it indicates a major redesign for this year; that includes a mysterious connector on one side that appears to suggest that a smaller version of the Apple Pencil is going to be released for smartphone users.
An analyst, meanwhile, warns that the coronavirus could affect the production schedule of the next iPhone and damage Apple's position in the global market. We've also heard that Apple will replace the Midnight Green colour finish with navy blue, and embed a fingerprint scanner in the iPhone 12's display.
The next set of iPhones will almost certainly be announced in September 2020, and go on sale shortly after. Apple's release schedule is extremely predictable, and every autumn since 2011 there has been at least one new model.
The only slight disruption to that schedule came in the spring of 2016, when Apple gave us the iPhone SE as a bonus. (We still got the iPhone 6s the autumn before that, and the iPhone 7 the autumn after.) So it's possible - albeit a long shot - that some kind of small-screen or budget handset will be released around March or April of 2020. For more on that theory, see our guide to the latest iPhone SE 2 rumours.
We expect at least three different models in September, to match the iPhone 11/11 Pro/11 Pro Max rollout in September 2019. Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has predicted, however, that there could be as many as four, as Apple caters for multiple versions of 5G.
Delays to the iPhone 12 launch
Apple always unveils iPhones in September, but the gap between that event and the phones appearing in stores sometimes varies. If the company faces production difficulties it's possible that pre-orders and the actual onsale launch could be delayed until October or even later, as happened with the iPhone X.
Analysts have predicted that the coronavirus outbreak which originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 is likely to affect Apple's release schedule for this year because so much of its outsourced manufacturing is based in Asia: Ming-Chi Kuo has warned that the iPhone SE 2, 2020 iPad Pro and new MacBooks are likely to see delays.
Whether this will affect the iPhone 12, which won't arrive until autumn anyway, is a matter of debate. The consensus is that it shouldn't push back the announcement, but may mean there is a shortage of supply at launch. DigiTimes (via MacRumors) reports that Apple has decided to stop engineer visits to China for iPhone 12 development tests, which means production is unlikely to begin in June as planned; but the site think the September launch schedule should nevertheless proceed as usual.
"The coronavirus outbreak led to the quarantine of production facilities owned by Johnson & Johnson, Samsung, and Foxconn near Wuhan. That alone was enough to threaten the iPhone SE 2 world premiere planned for March, as well as the launch for a number of other products," Arganov said.
"It is remarkable enough that a quarantine around a single city in China can delay Apple's release of a new smartphone, and if the quarantine continues, it will seriously hinder Apple's production and greatly damage the company's position on the global market."
Apple revamped the rear cameras on the 2019 handsets (with three lenses for the first time, and even the twin lenses of the iPhone 11 arranged in a new square housing), but left the rest of the design largely untouched for the third generation in a row. The full-screen/notch look of the iPhone X in 2017 was kept for the XS - although a new, larger Max screen option was added - and the 11 Pro.
There's only so many times you can offer the same design and expect people to keep upgrading - although Apple has tested this theory at times in the past. Many Apple fans feels that, by rights, 2020 ought to be a year of significant design change, but they may have mixed feelings about the current rumours.
Macotakara's sources in the supply chain state that the iPhone 12 will have the same casing as the iPhone 11 generation, with slightly more rounded edges. That's not too exciting, and goes against previous rumours that we'd be looking at a completely new design. But there could be more significant changes in other areas.
We could see the shrinking or total elimination of the notch, for example. The latter is probably more likely; the notch is an imperfect arrangement but it has become, perhaps accidentally, a signature part of the design, and we can't see Apple changing this until it's ready to remove it entirely.
The notch contains a number of important sensors - those for Face ID, for example - and removing it would raise design problems, of course. Apple may go for a punch-hole design, which is a compromise of its own. But we feel that would be the worst of both worlds: an admission that the notch was a misstep, the loss of an iconic piece of design, and a failure, still, to actually provide a seamless all-screen design.
For us, then, the decision to get rid of the notch is dependent on the technology to embed the sensors in the screen (since we can't imagine Apple going for a gimmicky-looking flip-round camera, a la ZenFone 6) becoming affordable at scale. That way your iPhone 12 would be nothing but screen - which is a tough ask, design-wise, but might justify the overused adjective "magical".
PhoneArena has posted concept illustrations showing an iPhone with four camera lenses on the rear. This is madness, surely... Although it does fit the square housing rather neatly. (The flash is placed in the centre.)
Our feeling is that Apple already offers too many screen sizes across its iPhone and iPad ranges. (Altogether now: 4.7in, 5.5in, 5.8in, 6.1in, 6.5in, 7.9in, 10.2in, 10.5in, 11in, 12.9in. Confusing, right?) However, it's rumoured that yet another size is about to be added to the portfolio: 5.4in.
Max Rudberg, a Swedish graphic designer, has created a concept illustration of how this might look. And if it seems like an arbitrary number, it's not: he's taken a chassis roughly halfway between the iPhone 8 and the (much-missed) iPhone SE, given the result an iPhone X-style notch-screen layout, and ended up with a superbly pocketable device with a bigger screen than either.
These rough, but gives you an idea of what Apple could be going for with a 5.4” device - something in between an iPhone 8 and an SE, but with a much larger screen.— Max Rudberg (@maxrudberg) June 24, 2019
I would guess they would scale down the UI of the XS, even if screen would be narrower than that of an 8. pic.twitter.com/EFR88i1hEb
Honestly, based on the emails we read all the time from iPhone SE fans who feel abandoned by Apple, this would sell like mad.
The Macotakara report linked above supports this, and adds that there will be a larger-screen option at the top as well. The site predicts that iPhones in 5.4in, 6.1in and 6.7in sizes will be launched in late 2020.
It's a recurrent rumour, but will 2020 be the year Apple finally gives in and replaces its proprietary Lightning port with USB-C, as it did on its iPad Pro models in 2018? We think probably not, since that was a special case - fast data transfers to and from cameras being a requirement of many digital creatives. And owners of Lightning-based headphones and other accessories would be pretty ticked off.
The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max come in silver, gold, Space Grey and Midnight Green colour finishes; the iPhone 11 is available in white, black, green, yellow, purple and red. That's a lot of choice, but what do we expect from the late-2020 generation?
The plain iPhone 12 will follow the 11 in the main, but Apple will tweak the offering depending on which colours were most popular. The XR from the year before came in white, black, blue, yellow, coral (reddish-pink) and red, but Apple dropped blue and coral in 2019 and replaced them with purple and green. If one of those hasn't performed, it'll get dropped in turn.
As for the iPhone 12 Pro handsets, we expect a new colour: navy blue. The leaker Max Weinbach has predicted (on the YouTube channel Everything Apple Pro) that this will replace Midnight Green - which we like, but provoked mixed reactions when it was announced. Here's what a navy blue iPhone 12 Pro could look like, in a mockup created by the site:
We've already seen PhoneArena's mock-up of what the iPhone 12 would look like with four rear-facing camera lenses, and EverythingApplePro's mockup of a navy blue colour finish, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. In this section we will post the best iPhone 12 images and concept illustrations as they appear.
First up we've got photos and video of a leaked prototype from within Apple's supply chain, posted by the Japanese blog Macotakara. The site claims it's a 3D mockup obtained from "Alibaba sources", although it cautions that the leak's credibility is unknown.
You'll note that the iPhone 12 depicted here has a far more squared-off edge than the iPhone 11 Pro Max (which it's compared to in the righthand image above). This design brings the 12 closer to the 2018 iPad Pro.
Most intriguingly, the site spotted a mysterious connector on one edge of the device:
It looks like the magnetic connector that the iPad Pro 2018 uses to attach and charge the second-gen Apple Pencil, but as Macotakara points out, that particular stylus is too large to fit on a smartphone. It speculates about the possibility of a new, petite version of the Apple Pencil being released to suit the iPhone 12.
For a closer look, here's a video of the same mockup unit being examined.
Next is this concept video of the iPhone 12 Pro, from Concept Creator. It depicts the new handset with a slightly different arrangement of camera lenses on the rear, and assumes 5G will be included, although that obviously doesn't affect the external design.
The German design studio Hasan Kaymak has created a concept video of the iPhone 12 Pro Max with an astonishing cluster of rear-facing camera lenses and sensors. It also ditches the notch and Torx screws - since apparently the display is stuck on to the frame - and adds a 45W charger and fast wireless charging. (It's easy to add features when you just have to decide what the device looks like, rather than actually manufacturing and shipping it.)
Up next is this stunning effort from Miloš Toman, which also goes for a quad-lens design but arranges them in a more elegant vertical formation:
Toman came up with this back in March 2019, but there are now lots of Android phones on the market with vertically aligned rear cameras, including the OnePlus 7T Pro and (with five lenses!) the Xiaomi Mi Note 10. Indeed the twin lenses on the iPhone XS and 11 are arranged vertically, and we feel that it's a slightly more attractive approach than the big square deployed on the 11 Pro and many concept images of the 12.
Toman has also created a video showcasing this design:
A new iPhone needs a flagship feature - something an announcement event can be built around. In 2019 it was all about the cameras (triple lenses and night mode). In 2020 we think it will be 5G, if Apple can pull it off in time.
Android phone manufacturers have been widely offering 5G for some time - since before the iPhone 11 launched, in fact - but Apple is behind the curve in this department. Why the delay?
The problem is getting someone to supply the modems. Apple used to partner with Qualcomm but the two firms had a major falling-out over patents; later a relationship was set up with Intel, but that company has since quit the 5G arena... and sold most of its smartphone modem business to Apple.
So Apple could now make its own modems, but that won't be feasible until 2021. In the meantime, it's believed that deals with other suppliers (or with Qualcomm again, since legal matters have been resolved) are on track for a 5G launch in the second half of 2020. By which time, incidentally, Three will have finally started offering 5G and it will therefore be available to everyone in the UK... in theory, and depending on geography.
The other potential reason for Apple's late entry to the 5G party could be that it wants to do the thing properly. There are multiple versions of the technology, and the one everyone really wants - referred to as millimetre wave, or mmWave - isn't widely available yet. Most people are offering a mid-band version of 5G, operating at sub-6GHz frequencies, and this is slower than mmWave (although still a lot faster than 4G).
One analyst, Mehdi Hosseini of Susquehanna, has predicted that Apple will release the iPhone 12 with only mid-band 5G capabilities, then follow up with a mmWave-ready model a few months later - which sounds to us like a recipe for customer discontent. But Ming-Chi Kuo is reasonably confident that Apple will be ready for mmWave in time for the September 2020 launch. Indeed, he thinks that catering separately for mmWave and sub-6GHz 5G mean the company will actually announce four different handsets in September, the largest number of iPhones it has yet rolled out in a single launch.
Keeping on the technical side of things, Kuo has warned that Apple's 5G-ready handsets probably won't offer 2×2 MIMO uplink as had previously been predicted, and rather than six amplifier they will have only one or two. This may only affect theoretical upload speeds, however, at least at launch: the carrier infrastructure is unlikely to support 2x2 immediately.
We discuss this subject in far more detail in a separate article about 5G iPhone rumours.
Before the late-2019 event, Bloomberg was predicting the imminent launch of an iPhone with a more powerful 3D camera, as part of Apple's continuing push into AR. This now seems likelier than ever.
Current iPhones already feature 3D cameras, used for Face ID facial recognition, which makes it harder to market this as a breakthrough or flagship feature. But Bloomberg reckons that the 2020 version will be transformatively more powerful: it will have a range of around 15 feet, the site predicts, compared to just 25-50cm on the iPhone X series and 11. It will be used to scan the environment, whereas current 3D scanning is deployed on the user's face.
This reintroduction of an old feature (one that's still offered on the 8 and 8 Plus, of course) would be new in the way it's applied - because to achieve it on the iPhone 12 Apple would need to embed the sensor somewhere other than in the Home button.
The sensor could be embedded under the glass of the screen: we've known for years that this is possible, but it's not been logistically feasible to do so at scale and for a manageable price. By late 2020 we should have reached the point where that's no longer the case.
Indeed the Chinese-language site Economic Daily News believes Apple will be ready to deploy an under-display fingerprint sensor in its late-2020 handsets, based on Qualcomm's ultrasonic scanning tech. Qualcomm already supplies this technology for use in Samsung phones, so the capabilities are there; but the site claims this will be a second-gen version that's faster and has a longer range.
Patently Apple, meanwhile, has spotted a patent grant that would allow the company to place a fingerprint sensor under an OLED screen.
A less exciting but potentially more practical option would be to embed the fingerprint sensor in the power/side button, a method which is currently used on Samsung's Galaxy S10e. Sure enough, in a late-January report Ming-Chi Kuo has predicted that Apple will launch a lower-cost iPhone with power-button Touch ID in the first half of 2021.
This is an interesting prediction, particularly because it raises the uncomfortable idea of a cheaper product boasting a new feature that hasn't yet been made available to the flagship models... always a no-no. But it makes more sense if you assume that the top-end iPhone 12 will get under-screen Touch ID in autumn 2020, opening up space for the lower-end power button version the following year.
It's a little early to offer an accurate prediction of the iPhone 12's full specs list, but there are some things we can be reasonably sure of.
- A14 Bionic processor - the next iteration of Apple's proprietary system on a chip
- 4GB of RAM - most likely, although many rivals offer 6GB or even more
- 64/256/512GB - will Apple offer its first terabyte phone in 2020? We think not
- 5.8in/6.1in/6.5in Super Retina XDR display - the more expensive models at least will be OLED, and by 2020 Apple may extend this to all new models. We also hope for ProMotion displays
- Triple 12Mp rear-facing cameras
The iPhone 12 is likely to start at around £700/$700.
Here's the pricing on the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, as of 3 February 2020:
- iPhone 11 Pro Max: from £1,149/$1,099
- iPhone 11 Pro: from £1,049/$999
- iPhone 11: from £729/$699
Apple has been ramping up its phone prices for a while now, particularly in the UK, and we're hopeful it can stabilise things for the late-2020 launches.
That's all the iPhone 12 rumours for now. But if you'd like to read about Apple's current offerings, can we recommend our Best iPhone buying guide? And check out our iPhone deals for the latest bargains.
If you'd like to know more about Apple's plans for the year, read our guide to the new Apple products expected in 2020. Those who are interested in the current smartphone lineup should instead focus on our iPhone buying guide, or our roundup of the best iPhone deals.