iPhone 12 Review: Striking the right balance

The new iPhone 12 series is Apple’s widest range release ever, with a total of four new iPhones: the compact iPhone 12 mini, the default iPhone 12 as well as the Pro models in the form of the iPhone 12 Pro and the big screen 12 Pro Max.

While the iPhone lineup has grown to four models, the iPhone 12 feels like the most significant upgrade from the other three and is arguably Apple’s most compelling handset in years, writes Krishan Sharma.

Design: Mixing the old with the new

The iPhone 12 retains the same front and back look of the iPhone 11, but reintroduces the squared off edges of the iPhone 4 and 5, which is a refreshing departure from the last consecutive years of rounded iPhones. The result is something that looks nicer and is less likely to slip out of your hand. What’s more, the boxy design improves the iPhone 12’s durability in tandem with Apple’s new “Ceramic Shield”, as the rounded frames of previous iPhones actually made them a bit more fragile.

Apple claims that the front of the display is four times harder to shatter than the iPhone 11 and while we weren’t brave enough to put Apple’s claims to the test ourselves, EverythingApplePro’s torture test on YouTube showed that both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro did not crack at hip or shoulder height when dropped. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Ceramic Shield glass does not extend to the back of the phone and, as such, is less likely to survive a fall.

Sadly, the Ceramic Shield material doesn’t appear to be any better at handling scratches with both my iPhone 12 and 12 Pro review units somehow managing to accrue a few light scratches on the front despite being very careful with the phones.

iPhone 12 blue

Something to also keep in mind is that the iPhone 12 uses a regular aluminum frame, whereas the Pro uses one made of stainless steel which is stronger and doesn’t dent as easily. On the plus side, I found that the aluminum frame does a much better job at keeping dust and fingerprints at bay.

Rounding out the package is FaceID which is still the best smartphone biometric unlocking system in the business and it even feels a little faster to use on the iPhone 12 while the stereo speakers sound great.

Apple isn’t including a charger or headphones in the box which is a first for any smartphone manufacturer but it won’t be the last with Samsung having followed suit with their Galaxy S21 lineup. This is unlikely to be an issue for most people since they’ll likely have a charger lying around. Unfortunately, Apple still uses a lightning port on their iPhones as opposed to the industry standard USB-C but there is at least a lightning to USB-C cable included in the box.

iPhone 12 Series Phone Plans

iPhone 12 Plans

The following table shows a selection of 24-month 64GB Apple iPhone 12 plans on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of standard cost, from the lowest to highest and then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our comparison tool to compare phone plans from a wide range of telco providers. This is a selection of products with links to referral partners.

iPhone 12 Pro Plans

The following table shows a selection of 24-month 128GB Apple iPhone 12 Pro plans on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of standard cost, from the lowest to highest and then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our comparison tool to compare phone plans from a wide range of telco providers. This is a selection of products with links to referral partners.

iPhone 12 Pro Max Plans

The following table shows a selection of 24-month 128GB Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max plans on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of standard cost, from the lowest to highest and then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our comparison tool to compare phone plans from a wide range of telco providers. This is a selection of products with links to referral partners.

Display and performance

The ageing 720p LCD display of the iPhone 11 has finally been replaced with a new higher resolution OLED screen on the iPhone 12 and it’s a noticeable step up. The bezels have also been reduced which makes content pop that much more.

Interestingly, it shares the same 6.1″ OLED display as the 12 Pro although it technically doesn’t get quite as bright with the 12 topping out at 625 nits peak brightness versus the Pro’s 800 nits, though both can hit high as 1200 nits when watching HDR content. In practice, I didn’t really notice the difference in brightness in regular day to day use and most crucially, content on screen remained visible when used outdoors in direct sunlight.

Disappointingly, Apple decided to forgo high refresh rate displays on the entire iPhone 12 line, a feature that has become standard on competing Android handsets. Coming across from the 120Hz display of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Oppo Find X2 Pro and the OnePlus 8T, I found going back to a slower 60Hz display on the iPhone 12 to be quite noticeable. While iOS 14 runs incredibly fast on the iPhone 12, the lack of a high refresh rate display means scrolling doesn’t feel quite as smooth and animations lack that extra bit of fluidity.

The new A14 Bionic powering the iPhone 12 is the most powerful chip found inside a smartphone to date but the reality is that outside of a handful of video and photo editing apps, there’s precious little that is going to take advantage of all that extra performance. What it does ensure is that the iPhone 12 will continue to feel fast in 3 or even 5 years time which is the type of longevity that no other Android handset can match.

iPhone 12 charger

Battery life: Average

Apple doesn’t disclose battery capacity figures for its devices but a recent teardown suggests the iPhone 12 is working with a 2815mAh battery which is actually smaller than last year’s iPhone 11 and most Android rivals. Apple claims that the iPhone 12 has the stamina to last 17 hours of video playback, however, in regular day to day use where I bounce between email, navigation, camera, web browsing and a few social media apps, I struggled to get through a full day before needing to recharge (around 5 hours of screen on time). More moderate usage should get you through to the night but if you’re a heavy user than consider the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Also keep in mind that 5G taxes the battery more and in my testing where I would upload and download large files from Dropbox, I found the battery diminished almost 20% faster compared to performing the same task on 4G. The phone also ran noticeably hotter.

Thankfully, 5G will only turn on when you really need it thanks to Apple’s ‘Smart Data Mode’ which automatically drops down to 4G to conserve energy when performing less bandwidth intensive tasks such as streaming music with the display switched off. Downloading shows from Netflix or attempting to make a FaceTime call in HD will see the phone automatically kick back up to 5G (provided you’re in a 5G coverage area). This feature is enabled by default and it worked as advertised.

iPhone 12 all colours

Magsafe: Cue accessories

Apple’s obsession with magnets continues with the company incorporating a ring of magnets on the back of the iPhone 12, opening the door to a whole new ecosystem of accessories from wireless chargers to cases and wallet attachments. I tested out Apple’s $65 MagSafe charging puck and the benefit here is that unlike other wireless chargers where finding the sweet spot can be a cumbersome exercise, the MagSafe instantly aligns itself perfectly to the charging coil on the iPhone 12.

Wireless charging speeds are limited to 15W using the Magsafe Charger but that also requires a 20W USB-C power adapter which Apple don’t include in the box (sold separately for $29). If you don’t want to pay that much, you can use any regular Qi wireless charger but that will cut charging speeds down to a painfully slow 7.5W. For the fastest possible charging speeds, you’re still going to want to use a wired charger.

That said, the potential for MagSafe is pretty exciting as the magnetic connection also incorporates a special chip that tells the phone what’s been connected. This means we could see some interesting accessories down the line such as game controllers, external microphone and lenses, car mounts, tripods, or extra large batteries all of which could snap on magnetically and don’t require fiddling to attach.

iPhone 12 camera

Camera: Slight improvement in stills, a league of its own in video

The rear camera setup on the iPhone 12 isn’t much of an upgrade over the iPhone 11 with the same dual lens arrangement consisting of a 12-megapixel standard and ultrawide shooters. The capability of these sensors has been bumped up slightly with the main shooter now boasting a larger f/1.6 aperture coupled with some improvements to image processing. I didn’t notice any visible difference in regular day time shots when comparing the same pictures taken by last year’s iPhone 11 side by side. However, night time shots were a touch brighter, pulling in a bit more detail and more lifelike hues. The likes of the Huawei P40 Pro and Google Pixel 5 still produce cleaner shots at night with far less overall noise.

What I do appreciate with the iPhone 12 is its consistency and the realistic treatment of colours and contrast, particularly with skin tones. While a lot of competing handsets tend to over-process images, giving them an exaggerated look, the iPhone aims to keep things looking as true to life as possible.

There’s no optical zoom on offer with the iPhone 12 – for that you’re going to have to step up to the iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max. Even then optical zoom is limited to 2x which pales in comparison to the 5x optical zooms of competing Android handsets.

Where the iPhone shines head and shoulders above the rest is with video and this year Apple has added the ability to record in 4K HDR (high dynamic range), allowing for a broader palette of colours and greater ranges of light and dark than standard dynamic range (SDR). While HDR video recording won’t be new to Android users, the iPhone 12 is the first smartphone to offer Dolby Vision which offers a more nuanced picture thanks to its ability to apply tone mapping on a scene by scene or even a frame by frame basis. The net result is that you should get a more accurate representation of what you captured.

Dolby Vision recording is limited to 30fps on the iPhone 12 while the Pro and the Pro Max can shoot up to 60fps. Dolby Vision is enabled by default but you also have the option to turn it off in the settings, though you shouldn’t really need to as the iPhone 12 will automatically convert the file to regular SDR if you share it with an app or device that doesn’t support Dolby Vision.

Recording video in Dolby Vision with the iPhone 12 generally looked more colourful and punchier while also doing a better job at bringing out the details in more challenging settings where you might have bright and dark elements in the same scene. The results should be even better on the iPhone 12 Pro Max which uses a slightly larger sensor for better performance in low light recording as well as a more sophisticated optical image stabilization for even smoother looking video.

The only real qualm with the video recording is that shooting at night results in distracting white dots darting all over the scene which appears to be caused by light sources such as headlights coming directly into the lens. This is an issue that also occurred with the iPhone 11 so it’s a shame to see the issue not rectified in this year’s models.

Apple’s own iMovie and Clips apps support editing of Dolby Vision video and the process is incredibly snappy. Being able to record and edit such high quality video all from your iPhone is a feat that no other smartphone has been able to pull off before, so hats off to Apple here. The downside is that Apple is using a new version of Dolby Vision which isn’t currently supported outside of Apple’s own ecosystem of products. For example, while I could AirPlay my Dolby Vision recorded video to my Apple TV 4K box, my new LG CX 2020 OLED TV, which supports AirPlay 2, would only playback my recorded Dolby Vision video in SDR.

Verdict: The pick of the bunch

With a gorgeous new display, sleek new design, more durable build and a camera that takes video recording to a whole new level, the iPhone 12 marks Apple’s most significant upgrade since the 2017’s iPhone X. It’s also the best value iPhone out of the lineup particularly when compared to the iPhone 12 Pro which doesn’t offer enough to justify the $350 premium over the iPhone 12.

The lack of a high refresh rate display, middling battery life and a base storage of just 64GB is disappointing and it’s something that Apple should surely attempt to rectify with the next iPhone. If you have an iPhone that’s more than a year old, the iPhone 12 is a worthwhile upgrade.

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