iPhone 12 mini full review
Size matters, and for the past four years Apple fans with small hands have been crying out for the company to make an iPhone they can hold comfortably. The SE (2016) was the last 4in iPhone - most likely last in the sense of 'final ever', rather than just 'most recent' - and nothing since has come close to that device's combination of portability and ease of use.
But this is the year of plenty, as far as iPhones go, and there's now something for everyone: like a 20th-century rugby union team, Apple's smartphone department welcomes all shapes and sizes. And the prop-forward iPhone 12 Pro Max has a scrum-half scurrying along behind it.
The 12 mini certainly isn't a 4in phone - its screen measures 5.4in, very nearly as large as that of the iPhone 8 Plus - but the chassis that screen is nestled in is the shortest, narrowest and lightest since the cherished 2016 SE. To those of us who've been using mid-size iPhones for the past few years - in this reviewer's case, XS, 11 Pro, and most recently iPhone 12 and 12 Pro - this is a surprisingly petite package.
The question, of course, is what compromises have been made for the sake of miniaturisation? Is battery life shorter, or screen usability weaker? In our iPhone 12 mini review, we're going to find out.
Design: Small things, beautiful packages, etc
We'd better start with the 12 mini's obvious quality, which is its small size. If you're used to the Face ID phones Apple has been releasing in recent years the dimensions (131.5 x 64.2 x 7.44mm) and weight (133g) will feel almost strange in the hand, as if something is missing. But you'll quickly grow accustomed to the delightful convenience of a truly portable iPhone.
I'm not one of those who've demanded the return of the 4in iPhone, and don't consider my hands especially tiny. But I do think that smartphone owners in general, not just Apple fans, have been press-ganged into getting used to a size of device that isn't entirely user-friendly.
We find ourselves using them two-handed, or find that our thumbs can't reach the far corners of the screen, or that they won't fit in some pockets. Perhaps the screen space and battery capacity make this process of relentless expansion worth it, but when I think of the ease with which my faithful old iPhone 4 would slip into a pocket, and compare that to a current Max model, I wonder if the SE nostalgics might have a point.
At risk of undermining my review - indeed the entire premise of reviewing - there's no substitute, when it comes to evaluating size, for holding a phone in your hand, and I'd suggest a visit to an Apple Store if you can manage it. (Creating a cardboard cutout using the listed dimensions is a reasonable workaround.) But I might be able to give you an idea by saying that I can just hold the 12 mini's top and bottom corners with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. That's not something I've been able to do with an iPhone in a long time.
For another visual aid, here's the 12 mini with the considerably larger 12 Pro Max:
Moving away from size, we must address the angular design: the curved edges Apple has been turning out since 2014 are gone, and a squarer look, reminiscent of the iPhone 4, is back.
The square edges are one of those good news, bad news type deals. They look undeniably smart, and fresh after so many years of samey curvedness - presumably at some point Apple will switch back and we will all praise the fresh curved look - but they don't fit in the hand quite so ergonomically. A few early buyers have gone so far as to claim that 12-series handsets have cut them, and that seems a little far-fetched; but I might concede that it's a trifle less comfortable.
I do also worry about the robustness of such pronounced edges, which will take the full brunt if the 12 mini gets dropped, rather than spreading out the force like a curved object. Apple has been at pains to talk up the new phones' toughness, claiming for example that the Ceramic Shield screen feature makes that component four times more drop-resistant than the previous generation (a claim backed up by drop tests), and a colleague has cleverly observed that those sharp edges, while less palm-friendly, create a more secure grip and make drops less likely in the first place. But I'd still use a case.
New colour options
The last word on design goes to the updated range of colour finishes. In this respect the 12 and 12 mini are an interesting compromise between the garishness of the 11 and XR, and the sobriety of the Pro models.
You can get the 12 mini in white, black and (Product) Red, which is fairly standard, but there's also a stunning midnight blue and a delightful soft green. Neither of these yell "I am either 19 years old or 32 and trying a bit too hard" the way the XR's Coral did, for example, but they've got more vibrancy than the silver, gold and black offered with the 12 Pro. (To be fair, the 12 Pro also comes in blue, but it's a much darker and greyer blue.)
Screen: Big enough, and definitely good enough
If you're worried that a 5.4in screen isn't big enough for playing games on, don't worry, it's fine. If you're worried that it isn't big enough for watching TV, it's fine - not quite the same experience as a big-screen telly, of course, and less immersive than an 12 Pro Max, for sure. But it's fine.
You have to remember that screens like this used to feel big. When the iPhone 6 Plus came out, it was the biggest thing Apple fans had ever seen, and that was 5.5in. In a sane world this would still be regarded as a big phone screen.
What's more, this is a really high-quality screen. The 12 mini has a great resolution: 2340 x 1080 at 476 pixels per inch (ppi). And it's OLED. In previous years Apple has held back OLED technology for its elite phones only - the X, the XS, the 11 Pro - while the XR and the 11 had to make do with LCD. But this year OLED has been opened up to all the new models.
There are pros and cons to OLED and LCD, but most of the pros are on OLED's side. It offers blacker blacks, more vibrant colours, greater contrast, improved energy efficiency and the ability to make the device thinner.
All of this means that while the Pro screens largely offer more of the same this year, there's been a major leap from iPhone 11 (326ppi, LCD) to iPhone 12 and 12 mini (460ppi/476ppi, OLED).
In subjective terms, the 12 mini's screen is sharp and bright and colourful. It doesn't offer the 120Hz that was hoped for at one stage, but this is more of a disappointment for Pro buyers; it was never likely to reach this far down the range.
Cameras: Almost Pro
The 12-series iPhones have great cameras. The 12 and 12 mini are slightly less well equipped than the Pro models - for one thing they have only two lenses on the rear, rather than three lenses plus LiDAR - but the gap in photographic performance between the two tiers has never been so narrow.
Specs-wise we're talking dual 12MP wide and ultra wide lenses on the rear (f/1.6 and f/2.4 apertures), with a 2x optical zoom and 4K video recording up to 60 fps. The front camera is also specced at 12MP, with an aperture of f/2.2 and 4K video at 60fps.
But Apple tends to focus less on specs, and more on features. The central plank of Apple's iPhone photography strategy is currently Smart HDR, a feature that uses computational power to examine multiple exposures of a single shot and select the best outcome for each part of the photo.
In the 12 mini (as on the three other 12-series handsets) this feature has reached version 3, which Apple claims is capable of operating on a pixel-by-pixel basis.
The principle advantage of Smart HDR is the ability to handle mixed lighting conditions without underexposing the shaded areas or overexposing the bright spots. Take this shot, which I took on the 11 Pro, the 12 mini and the 12 Pro:
Two immediate observations. There's not much to choose between them (even though the 11 Pro is on Next Gen Smart HDR, while the others are on Smart HDR 3, and the 12 Pro has more RAM to apply to the image-processing task). And all three devices have done an excellent job with what is a deliberately challenging shot, which I arranged to have a low autumn sun directly behind the subject.
In the past such shots would end up with the subject as a silhouette, but here we have a respectably well-lit and detailed rendition of the subject's face. The 12 Pro, as you'd expect, does best, while the 12 mini's background is a touch misty - the Pro models both manage more contrast on the leaves and bench. But this is about as tough as daytime photography gets and I can't stress enough how impressive this is.
Let's try another:
There's no sign of the mistiness this time, which suggests to me that the mini just got a bit unlucky on the first test - sometimes a particularly fierce ray of light emerges from a cloud between test shots. It's also produced an excellent rendition of the righthand log, which I'd even say I prefer to that of the 12 Pro.
That we can make out colour and contrast and detail on these pieces of wood stacked directly in front of the light source is highly impressive.
Let's try the front-facing camera. Test selfies with the light source behind the subjects (to test out Smart HDR 3, which is on the selfie camera too) show good detail on faces and a vibrant, faithful rendition of colour.
Now here's a Portrait Mode selfie, complicated by the inclusion of three subjects:
It's not perfect: the A14 managed to grasp that the rogue arm in the middle belongs to (one of) the subjects, but has failed to blur out a section of grass below this, while some locks of hair have dropped into the bokeh effect rather than remaining in focus. But overall, considering that this is based on software rather than glassware, it's an excellent effort. The bokeh effect is strong and striking, and you really have to zoom in to find any inaccuracies.
And leaving aside the qualities specific to Portrait Mode, take a look at the way the mini has captured the light and colour of that autumn morning. We've seen that it does an able job coping with difficult conditions; but in friendlier conditions, it simply takes lovely pictures.
This isn't a new feature - Night Mode was launched in 2019 - but it has been expanded. Unlike the iPhone 11, the 12 mini can use Night Mode for front-camera selfies and time-lapse videos. (The 12 Pro goes further still, offering Night Mode portraits, although we've found these rather hit and miss.)
Before we get on to the new functions, let's remind ourselves of how effective Night Mode can be. The following shot was taken late at night, with the iPhone 8 showing what it looks like without Night Mode.
I've written elsewhere about my qualms about this from an artistic point of view - that photo is not what it looked like through my eyes; it's an original creation, as far as I'm concerned, rather than a documentary record - and the length of the exposure means camera shake can be an issue if you don't use a tripod or at least brace on a knee. But just look at the difference it makes to the grass, the sky and the houses in the background. It's astonishing.
Now here's what Night Mode looks like on a selfie:
I can't say I love the effect, which is rather unflattering, and the casual way selfies tend to be taken means camera shake/blur is more likely to be a problem than on rear-facing Night Mode shots. But again, look past the subject and check out the background: that's where you're really seeing the benefit.
Getting ready for 5G
Apple has pushed 5G as this year's breakthrough feature, but I'm going to warn right away that you'd be better off regarding it as something for next year instead. Right now getting access to 5G is a tricky process that requires more than just a 5G-ready phone - you'll need to upgrade the contract with your network provider, which may involve paying more, and be in a part of the country that's lucky enough to have good 5G provision. And using the new standard is likely to drain your battery faster.
If you live in a major city, 5G might offer practical benefits right away: check a coverage map - such as those provided by EE and O2 - and speak to your provider about contract changes. But for many of us this is a question of future-proofing.
And it is absolutely true that anyone buying a new smartphone in late 2020 should really be looking for 5G support if they have any plans at all to keep it for multiple years. The tech will mean you can expect on-the-go connection speeds something like 50 to 100% higher than current 4G LTE, and that's a big deal.
Speed tests: As fast as you could wish for
The iPhone 12 mini comes with the A14 Bionic processor, which is an absolutely state-of-the-art component. No Apple mobile device has a faster or newer chip - the 12 Pro Max gets an A14 too, and the 2020 iPad Pros are on the A12Z, which is based on a chip family that's two years older (albeit seriously souped up, as designated by that Z).
Where you might expect to see a difference in performance between the 12 mini and the 12 Pro is in the RAM allocation. Here's what the various 12-series handsets get, memory-wise:
- iPhone 12: 4GB
- iPhone 12: 4GB
- iPhone 12 Pro: 6GB
- iPhone 12 Pro Max: 6GB
So it would be reasonable to expect the Pro models to pull ahead in tests where the extra memory is required. But that didn't really happen, at least in Geekbench 5. The 12 mini and 12 Pro were about evenly matched, and each showed an increase of around 19% in single-core and 21% in multi-core on the A13-equipped iPhone 11 Pro from last year.
Here are our benchmark results:
Here, meanwhile, is how the mini got on in the GFXBench graphics tests. Again, we struggled to discern any improvement here on the previous generation, which is a disappointment. Our colleagues on Macworld US managed to spot some small increases from A13 to A14 in certain graphics tests (such as the "unlimited" versions of 3DMark's Wild Life) but on the whole it would be best to regard this generation as a plateau, graphically.
Both sets of speed scores should be taken with the caveat that these tests are looking for theoretical power rather than real-world performance, and that in both general-processing and graphical terms the iPhone 12 mini is far more powerful than it currently needs to be. In general use it is fast, slick and smooth, and it is easily able to handle any app on the App Store right now.
In other words, like 5G, the mini's considerable processing muscle is best regarded as an exercise in preparing for the future. Switching from an iPhone XR to a 12 mini, for example, is unlikely to produce dramatic and immediate improvements in speed; but while the XR will fall off in performance in the medium term, the 12 mini is good for the more demanding apps that will be written for years to come.
Battery performance: Could do better
The 12 mini is rated by Apple as capable of up to 15 hours of video playback, or 10 hours if that video is streamed. That's lower than any of the other late-2020 phones, and indeed only the SE is rated with less battery life:
- iPhone 12 Pro Max: 20/12 hours
- iPhone 12 Pro: 17/11 hours
- iPhone 12: 17/11 hours
- iPhone 12 mini: 15/10 hours
- iPhone SE (2020): 13/8 hours
- iPhone 11: 17/10 hours
- iPhone XR: 16 hours/no estimate
This is to be expected. The bigger a phone, the more energy it will need to power its screen, but the bigger the battery it will be able to accommodate; and the sophistication of battery technology is such that the second one has more of an effect than the first. Big things last longer, as a general rule.
Our subjective experiences of the mini's staying power were okay. Not amazing, not horrible, just okay.
In day-to-day usage power levels proved durable, but particularly demanding tasks really zapped it. A single run-through of GFXBench Metal would reliably knock off 15%, and gaming sessions generally resulted in an alarming dip in power reserves.
The mini never failed to last a full day, but pretty much always proposed Low Power Mode at some point in the evening. Its lowest power reading at bedtime was 7%, and that was after 15 hours of use; more commonly it would be somewhere between 10 and 20% at lights out.
That's not a million miles away from the other 12-series handsets I've tested this autumn: the 12 ended a day of intense testing on 18%, and the 12 Pro on 11%. In all three cases I'd say battery performance is among the weaker suits, but not deal-breakingly bad. Lasting a day between charges is the bar you absolutely have to clear, and the 12-series phones all manage that - even if lots of Android handsets out there will last far longer.
Big batteries may offer longer life, but they also take longer to charge up... and here we hit one of the mini's controversies.
Like all of the 12-series handsets - and no other iPhones - the 12 mini supports Apple's new MagSafe standard. This enables compatible charging accessories (such as Apple's own MagSafe Charger and MagSafe Duo Charger, but also a range of third-party offerings that should expand in future) to attach magnetically to the sweet spot, and I really like it.
You no longer have to worry about placing your phone on its charging pad in fractionally the wrong position and waking up with it totally drained of battery (which happened with my iPhone 11 Pro, sinisterly, the night before I started testing the 12 Pro). It also means you can continue to use your phone, reasonably conveniently, while it's charging wirelessly, and even attach non-charging accessories such as a wallet.
The only downside to MagSafe that I can see is that it means you can't take the phone off the charger one-handed, as some may habitually do bleary-eyed in the morning; lifting the phone from the puck is now a two-handed job. But that's not the controversy.
The controversy is that the 12 mini is slower at charging than all the other MagSafe phones. For some unspecified reason, the 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max all support 15W charging through MagSafe, but the 12 mini is limited to 12W.
This has ruffled some feathers, but in practice it doesn't seem to make much difference. I put a drained 12 mini and a drained 12 Pro on the MagSafe charger for 30 minutes apiece and they reached 35% and 18% respectively. The 12 mini's battery is so much smaller that it fills up more quickly, even though the charge is coming in more slowly.
Price & availability
As well as being the smallest of the late-2020 iPhones, the 12 mini is also the cheapest - but cheapness here is very much a relative concept. Here's the full price list:
- 64GB: £699 / US$729 / AUD$1,199
- 128GB: £749 / US$779 / AUD$1,279
- 256GB: £849 / $879 / AUD$1,449
Quietly, sitting at the cheapest end of the new generation, the 12 mini is the most revolutionary of Apple's late-2020 phones. This is because it combines, at long last, the all-screen design of the post-iPhone 8 handsets with the petite chassis of the pre-6 ones. And the result is the best of both worlds, and the question "Why didn't they do this before?"
It's a brilliant design that achieves the feat of not just being exactly what I wanted, but what I didn't even realise I wanted: it reminds me of the convenience of small phones, a convenience that's somehow been forgotten in a world of phablets and 6.5in screens. And it does this while offering a far larger screen than those small phones every managed.
But size isn't the only weapon up the mini's sleeve. It's just a brilliantly featured and specced phone, with superb cameras, a secure and user-friendly operating system, and processing power to burn. When 5G becomes more widespread, the mini will be ready to take advantage. It matches or almost matches the Pro models in every key area, at a far lower price.
The main downside is the mediocre battery life, and that's been a persistent complaint through my tests with the 12-series handsets. But it's not terrible, and it does pass the all-important hurdle of reliably lasting a day between charges. I don't think it's a deal-breaker, but if battery life is your top priority, look elsewhere.