Things move fast in the world of phones, and yesterday's news is tomorrow's chip paper. The iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max launched in September 2019 and remain slick, powerful handsets, but Apple watchers are already demanding to hear what Apple's got for an encore.
In this article we look ahead to the iPhone 12, expected to launch in late 2020 with (hopefully) 5G connectivity. We gather and analyse the latest and most intriguing rumours about its release date, design, new features, tech specs and price, and help you make sense of all the speculation out there.
The latest rumour is that Apple will embed a fingerprint scanner in the iPhone 12's display, allowing for the return of Touch ID. (Don't worry, Face ID will be offered as well.)
The next set of iPhones will almost certainly be released in the autumn of 2020. Apple's release schedule is highly 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 iPhone SE 2 release date rumours.
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. On the whole, however, we suspect that 2020 will be a year of significant design change.
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 in both 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.
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.
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.
That might sound weirdly pessimistic, given that Android phone manufacturers were widely offering 5G at the time the iPhone 11 launched. What's the delay, Apple?
The problem is getting someone to supply the modems. Apple used to partner with Qualcomm on components of this sort, but the two firms had a major falling out over patents. Later a working relationship was set up with Intel, but that company has since quit the 5G arena... and sold the majority of its smartphone modem business to Apple. So Apple could now make its own modems, but that won't be feasible until 2021.
It's believed that deals with other suppliers (or with Qualcomm again, since the legal matters have been put to rest) are on track for a 2020 5G launch, but 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.
Touch ID? A new feature? Are you joking?
Yes, yes, I know. But this reintroduction of an old feature (one that's still offered on the 8 and 8 Plus, of course) really would be new because to achieve it Apple would need to embed the sensor in the screen - it isn't about to bring back the Home button on a new device.
This has been a stumbling block for a few years: we've known that it's possible to put a sensor under a display, 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.
"It is very likely to supply Apple's next-generation iPhone," the site concludes, although it concedes that we cannot be certain at this point.
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 18 November 2019:
- 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.