Apple iPhone 12 full review
There used to be a theory that you should always order the second-cheapest wine on the menu, on the basis that it offers the best balance of value for money and not tasting awful. The second-cheapest wine on Apple's menu this autumn is the iPhone 12 - but is it vintage, or has it corked?
In our iPhone 12 review I evaluate the device's camera performance, run speed, graphics and battery tests, discuss its new-look design and help you decide if this is the right phone for you.
Design: Sharp look, sharp(ish) edges
Since 2014, every iPhone except one (the original SE) has followed largely the same curvaceous design. But those days are over.
The iPhone 12 is simultaneously groundbreaking and old-fashioned. Its square-edged design is strongly reminiscent of the iPhone 4, yet it combines this retro-feeling angular chassis with a modern all-screen layout, its 6.1in OLED screen absolutely dwarfing anything from that long-ago era.
This blend of old and new is a likeable combination, and a much-needed freshening-up for a design language that was starting to feel slightly stale. But while it looks nice, there are some potential worries about the practicalities.
One is that sharply edged shapes are more susceptible to damage than curved ones, because the edges themselves will always take the brunt; the curve spreads the force across a wider area. Sure enough, shortly after the phones went on sale, one tweeter posted photos from a Chinese Apple Store that appeared to show the colour finish flaking from the frame of the handsets, particularly around the edge, after presumably vigorous handling by customers.
I wouldn't worry about this too much, not least because of my long experience with Apple's high standards of quality control and thoughtful approach to design (with a few, ahem, exceptions), and haven't noticed any such issues with my iPhone 12 and 12 Pro review samples. But I'd still recommend either putting the phone in a case, or refraining from dropping it, or preferably both.
Another often ignored aspect of curved designs is how naturally they slip into a hand. While I'm bemused by the (again, isolated) reports that people have somehow managed to cut themselves, it's fair to say that it's not quite as comfortable to hold as an iPhone 11. Conversely, the edges make it less likely to slip out of the hand too, so drops should be rarer.
Screen: A big jump forward
To continue the theme of drop damage, the 12's screen has a new form of protection that Apple calls Ceramic Shield. The firm claims the use of nanoscale crystals in the glass improves drop protection by a factor of four; I'm never comfortable with that sort of scientific jargon, but it suggests good intentions if nothing else.
I didn't want to test this too thoroughly - aside from not wanting to smash the screen of my borrowed sample, I was conscious that breaking or not breaking a single unit would not constitute a statistically valid test. But other testers have had no such qualms, and they conclude that the claims stand up: EverythingApplePro, for example, dropped an iPhone 12 and 12 Pro from head height on to a concrete floor, and neither showed any cracks.
Hopefully, then, your iPhone 12's screen will be able to withstand the rigours of everyday life. Which is good, because the screen itself is excellent: bright, sharp and vividly colourful.
It's a big step up from the iPhone 11. We've jumped from LCD to the greatly superior OLED tech (which gives deeper blacks, greater contrast and improved power-efficiency, although it can lead to burn-in if you're not careful) and from a resolution of 1792x828, with a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch, to 2532x1170 and 460ppi.
It's a shame Apple wasn't able to squeeze in 120Hz ProMotion screens this year, with all of the 12-series models capped at 60Hz, but that probably would have been restricted to the Pro models anyway.
This big improvement in screen quality from 11 to 12, which isn't apparent in the Pro line - since the 11 Pro already had OLED and a 400ppi+ pixel density - is one of the reasons why there's a sense that the 12 is this year's One To Watch.
The most visible difference between the 12 and its costlier 12 Pro sibling is the number of camera lenses on the rear. The 12 Pro has three of them back there, plus the new LiDAR scanner; the 12 has just two.
Of the 12 Pro's three lenses, the 12 misses out on telephoto. (Both 12-series handsets get wide and ultra-wide lenses.) This means, among other things, a reduction in optical zoom capabilities.
The LiDAR scanner, meanwhile, is a slightly mysterious new component that may find its true calling when AR features - its speciality - are more widespread. But it also enables 12 Pro owners to combine Night and Portrait Modes, allows for faster autofocus in low light, and generally helps the phone to construct an accurate 3D model of the surrounding environment - something that should come in handy when assessing where objects end and begin when applying bokeh.
Much as I said in the iPhone 12 Pro review, the 12's camera performance in the majority of shooting conditions is impeccable. It offers excellent detail and colour reproduction, along with intuitive, user-friendly auto settings that help the non-expert to get good shots without especially knowing what they're doing.
But the same could be said of the iPhone 11, and of the XS before it: we have to seek out difficult shots in order to see the differences between 11 and 12, and between 12 and 12 Pro. If you just want to take easy snaps in pleasant light you're unlikely to get your money's worth, at least photographically speaking, from the 12-series handsets.
The most common of those difficult shots is when you have multiple lighting conditions in the same frame. When shooting a subject with the sun behind, for example, which on a less sophisticated camera would result in either a lack of detail on the shaded subject or overexposure on the light source.
iPhones of recent vintage have Smart HDR, a feature that uses their processors' power to analyse multiple exposures and combine the best aspects for each area of the photo. On the 12-series handsets Smart HDR has reached version 3, which offers the finest analytical processes yet, and uses machine learning to deduce what a photo is of and apply the appropriate settings.
That's a lot of words to say that the iPhone 12 makes unwisely or recklessly composed photos look good. Here's a shot I took against diffuse but bright sunlight, and you'll notice that the colour and detail of the tree trunk is handled with great sensitivity without blowing up the exposure on the sky.
The 12 does a great job - although it's worth pointing out the greater contrast and depth the 12 Pro draws from the tree, making the 12's tree look flat by comparison. (You'll have to take my word for it on a lot of these comparisons. The difference is far more obvious when viewing the photos at full size on the phones' own screens.)
Let's take the lighting challenge a step further. Here's a shot of a child with the bright unclouded sun directly behind them (a handy option to have, incidentally, based on how hard children find it to pose for pictures with the sun in their face). You'll see that both phones managed to achieve an admirable amount of detail on the face, although the 12's effort is a touch darker, losing some of the sunniness. Still, a great effort.
Shooting against bright light is one of the challenges the 12 is designed to deal with; another is when there's almost no light at all. This is when Night Mode, which debuted last year on the 11-series iPhones, comes into its own.
Night Mode, which activates automatically, warning you with a small number in a yellow circle that it's going to extend the exposure for multiple seconds, is frankly miraculous in its ability to turn night into a sort of uncanny half-day. Elsewhere I've speculated about its honesty as a photographic form, given that the results rarely look anything like the scene as viewed with a naked eye, and you're likely to see some shake during the longer exposure if you don't use a tripod or brace against a wall; but it's indisputably impressive from a technical point of view.
The following shots were taken at roughly 10.30pm, and I don't remember it looking like this at all. The 12 Pro seems inclined to lighten the sky more than the 12, but in this case I feel that's the wrong decision; I prefer the 12's effort, very slightly.
Night Mode on the 12 is slightly less versatile than on the 12 Pro, which this year gains the ability to combine it with Portrait Mode, even on selfies. I'm not sure that's a huge miss for 12 buyers; my experiences with the more expensive phone suggest that Night Mode Portraits are rather hit and miss, especially when using the front camera.
One final challenge I set for the iPhone 12's rear camera was a Portrait Mode shot with a busy background. I wondered if the LiDAR scanner would make this job easier for the 12 Pro, but both models got confused about the same thing, misjudging the line around the subject's hand.
The 12's front-facing camera, meanwhile, is by all appearances specced identically to that of the iPhone 12 Pro - the only question is whether the 12's lower allocation of RAM could have any bearing at all on the processing capabilities of Smart HDR 3.
Here's a Portrait Mode selfie that the 12 and 12 Pro both handled extremely well, with none of the malfunctions we saw around the edge of the previous test subject. Subjectively I think the skintones look nicer in the 12 Pro's shot, but the 12's colours are probably more realistic.
On the video side, my experience with the 12 was pleasing, achieving crisp, smooth footage with a minimum of effort and expertise. Just like last year's 11-series phones it can record 4K video at up to 60fps, but a new addition is the ability to capture 4K Dolby Vision HDR video up to 30fps. (The 12 Pro makes another effort here to justify its higher price tag by offering Dolby Vision up to 60fps.)
Dolby Vision is a relatively niche but technically sophisticated proprietary video format that the iPhone 12 also supports for playback; it uses metadata to tell a screen how best to show the video. The iPhone 12's presence on the market should ensure that Dolby Vision becomes significantly less niche over the coming months.
5G is here! Sort of
The iPhone 12's flagship feature is support for 5G, but I've left it until now to discuss because it's likely to affect your day-to-day experience with the device less than the updated design, improved screen and Smart HDR 3 camera feature. There simply isn't the coverage yet for this to be a game-changing feature for most customers.
If you're giving this serious thought as a factor in the buying decision, it's worth doing your research. Look up your location on a coverage map - such as those provided by EE and O2 - and speak to your network about the practicalities. You will probably have to upgrade your contract, and may have to pay extra.
But a lack of current excitement doesn't mean it isn't important: this is about future-proofing (and, through Apple's market clout, making the future happen sooner). When more of us can access 5G coverage it will be essential to own a 5G-ready phone. If you can get past the obstacles - aside from finding coverage and upgrading your contract, you'll have to live with higher battery drain - you can expect connection speeds in the region of 50 to 100% higher than current 4G LTE.
That's not a small thing, and I don't want to minimise the effect of achieving something closer to Wi-Fi speeds away from home. But it's worth managing expectations about how much of a change you can expect right away.
Speed tests: A seriously fast phone
The iPhone 12 gets the new A14 Bionic processor, the latest and fastest (and, thanks to the 5nm process, one of the most power-efficient) of Apple's proprietary chips. In this respect it exactly matches the 12 Pro, although the Pro accompanies the A14 with 6GB of RAM, to the 12's 4GB.
It would have been nice to have that extra RAM up your sleeve for the more demanding apps and tasks of the future, but for now you won't notice a difference between this and the Pro. In our speed benchmarks, in fact, the 12 matched the 12 Pro in single core and slightly outperformed it in multi-core - an unexpected victory.
The iPhone 12 was up around 19% and 21% on the 11 Pro in the two tests respectively.
Benchmarks are all about establishing the limits of a device's theoretical speed, but you won't need anything like this power in your day-to-day phone use. Subjectively we didn't notice any difference, in fact, between performance on apps and games with the 11 Pro, 12 and 12 Pro: all three devices remain uniformly quick, slick and smooth.
Again, we have to use that phrase 'future-proofing': you're not paying for performance now, you're paying for performance in 2021 and 2022, when the apps will be more demanding.
A strong showing in the general-speed tests, then, but graphical benchmarking was less conclusive about the gains from the previous generation. Our GFXBench Metal tests showed no improvement at all, in fact, although our US colleagues were able to detect small gains in 3DMark's Wild Life and the Ice Storm test.
Battery life and charging
Apple claims the iPhone 12 is good for 11 hours of streamed video playback, or 17 hours of non-streamed. That's the same estimate the company gives for last year's iPhone 11, despite battery capacity having dropped from 3,110mAh to 2,815mAh.
Lasting 6 hours and 36 minutes in the battery segment of the Geekbench 4 benchmark, the iPhone 12 performed pretty well for an iPhone - somewhere between the 5:33 of the iPhone 11 and the 7:22 of the 12 Pro - but is well behind the average for an Android handset. One Android phone, the Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro, lasted more than 14 hours in that test.
Bear in mind that the Geekbench test is designed to push phones to their limit, and real-world usage will be far less demanding. As ever with battery estimates, it's important to stress that Your Mileage May Vary, depending on whether you spend most of your phone time browsing the web or playing graphically demanding games. But you ought to expect the iPhone 12 to comfortably last from wake-up to bedtime without having to be topped up.
In one fairly busy day of testing, I took the 12 off its charger at 7.15am and used it for photography, speed benchmarking, music, web browsing and a variety of apps and games. By the time I went to bed at 11pm it was still on 18% - pointing to a total projected span, based on that day's level of use, of something in the region of 19 hours. That's not outstanding, and of course battery life will worsen as the components age, but it's decent enough.
The iPhone 12, like the 12 Pro, is compatible with Apple's new range of MagSafe charging accessories. I tested charging speed with the basic MagSafe charger and a 29W USB-C plug and it went from 0 to 21% in 30 minutes: not exactly lightning-quick.
Price & availability
The iPhone 12 is available right now, and as mentioned above it's the second-cheapest of the new generation of Apple phones, starting at £799/US$829/AUD$1349. That doesn't mean it's cheap in an objective sense, only cheaper than the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max.
Here's the full price breakdown:
- 64GB: £799/US$829/AUD$1,349
- 128GB: £849/US$879/AUD$1,429
- 256GB: £949/US$979/AUD$1,599
The iPhone 12 is a compromise choice for those whose budgets don't stretch to the Pro models, and it can be difficult to get excited about compromise. But you should try, because there's a huge amount to like here.
The biggest step forward is the screen, which brings the standard iPhone closer than ever to its Pro equivalent. OLED and the substantially higher resolution make this an elite display that's a pleasure to use.
The camera setup is superb too, capturing colourful, detailed shots in some of the most difficult conditions I was able to find. You're missing out on the 12 Pro's superior optical zoom and more versatile Night Mode, but the photographic differences between the two devices are minor.
Like the Pro, this is a phone with one eye on the future, and those of us who buy an iPhone with the expectation that it will last us two years or more will appreciate its 5G readiness and the processing power that feels like overkill on today's apps. MagSafe compatibility, too, will become more valuable as the third-party accessories market grows.
The only fly in the ointment, really, is the relatively disappointing battery performance, but it suffers only by comparison with the market-leading Android phones. Battery life is solid, rather than dazzling, and it should get you through a day of typical use without any worries.
If money is no object, then of course you should buy one of the Pro models and good luck to you. But money is very rarely no object, and considering how close the 12 comes to the 12 Pro in the key areas (design, speed, camera performance) while costing £200/$170 less, we'd recommend this as the best choice for most iPhone buyers right now. This year it's all about the inbetweeners.