iPhone 12 review: new standard

iPhone 12 review: new standard
19 min read

 It is new iPhone time. And there is a lot that is new this year. New design, MagSafe, OLED screen, processor, camera capabilities, and, of course, 5G. It has been a long time since Apple has made this aggressive of a pitch to try to get you to upgrade. But think of this as a new iPhone, not just a few small updates over last year's phone.

But we need to see if all this new stuff really works. And you know, this might be a more important question, how much this new stuff really matters?


See the regular iPhone 12 costs a little bit more this year. iPhone 12 review: new standardSo this new stuff, it better be good. It's $829 for the base 64 gig model. But I think most people are probably gonna wanna spend the extra 50 bucks for the 128 gig model. On the other hand, there are discounts galore from U.S. carriers from special installment plans to $30 discounts right off the bat.

Like I said, everybody really seems to wanna make this a big upgrade year. So let's see if it should be. 

The most obvious new thing is this new design. It is smaller than an iPhone 11 and it has flat sides and a perfectly flat screen. I think of it as kind of a modern throwback. It looks much better than the rounded sides that we've been living with since the iPhone six. But despite those harder corners it still feels really comfortable to use.

There's also new colors. iPhone 12 review: new standardBlue,  white, black, red, and a really nice light green. The rails on the side are aluminum with a matte finish and the back is still regular glass with a glossy finish. iPhone 12 review: new standardThe front is something Apple calls, Ceramic Shield. Where they put a ceramic crystalline structure in the material to make it more drop resistant. Apple says that it's four times more drop-resistant than the iPhone 11, but I can't test that on the review unit, sorry. As for scratch resistance, there shouldn't be any change from before.

If you want to gripe about the design, there's really only two things to complain about. There are a bunch of antenna lines and cutouts on the rail that make things a little bit asymmetrical and there is still a big old notch for the Face ID camera. Neither one of those things are a big deal to me.

Face ID still works great, as long as you're not wearing a mask. Which makes me wish that they had found some kind of way to put a fingerprint sensor somewhere on here.

I am really happy that Apple found a way to reduce the size of this phone compared to the iPhone 11. I always felt like the 11 and even the XR were just a little bit on the big side, so this helps. If you want an even smaller phone you're gonna have to wait for the iPhone 12 Mini. And if you want an even bigger phone you're gonna have to spring for the iPhone 12 Pro Max. But the regular iPhone has always been the default phone for most people. And from a design and size perspective, this is a better default than we've had in years. I really love the look and feel of this phone.


Other new thing on the iPhone 12 is the screen. Apple has switched it over to OLED, and I'm really glad I think, OLED looks better. Blacks are blacker. And Apple's dedication to keeping colors accurate remains. OLED is also what allowed Apple to reduce the size of the bezels here and make the phone smaller overall. Other nice thing about the screen is that there are more pixels. It's a proper 1080P panel now. 

I wasn't really that unhappy with the panel on the iPhone 11 and the XR before it, but more pixels are better, can't argue with that.

It also gets bright enough for me, but I have to admit that the iPhone 12 Pro can get slightly brighter in regular use. However, in HDR the regular 12 can still hit 1,200 nits of peak brightness. And I think that the combination of HDR and OLEDs contrast ratio is the real upgrade here, not the pixel count.

I do have one small complaint. The screen has a refresh rate of 60 hertz, and I know that that's like a spec nerd thing, but listen, I've reviewed dozens of Android phones and I've used the iPad Pro which has a 120-hertz refresh rate, and I can just tell you that scrolling looks better when you have a high refresh rate. I think the iPhone 12 can get away without having it since it's the less expensive option, and because iOS has really smooth animations and great touch response, but it is a little weird that it's not here.


Here is the new $39 MagSafe wireless charging puck. iPhone 12 review: new standard It works with magnets. The design means that you can use the phone while it's wirelessly charging and the magnets are strong enough to hold the phone up, but I'm sure a ton of bouncing would be enough to knock it off.iPhone 12 review: new standard When you use a MagSafe Charger instead of capping out at 7.5 watts of wireless charging speed, the iPhone 12 can charge at up to 15 watts, but you're gonna need to have a strong USB-C adaptor to do that, and the MagSafe doesn't come with one in the box.

It's also not the fastest wireless charging speed that we've seen, and it is definitely slower than a cable, but it's good enough to go from having wireless charging times be kind of annoying to being pretty okay. I got a little less than 40% of charge in an hour in my testing.

Apple's also taking these magnets and using them to create an ecosystem of attachable accessories.iPhone 12 review: new standard It's got its own MagSafe cases that are supposed to click on, but they don't really click on. In theory, though, it's possible somebody else could make something like that.

There's also a shielded wallet that is designed to keep your credit cards from demagnetizing, but it only fits three cards and they're hard to get out of there.iPhone 12 review: new standard There's gonna be car mounts and a bunch of other accessories coming.

All of this works via an NFC chip that's in the MagSafe ring and that's used for identifying accessories, but not much more. So when you attach the blue case, you get a blue ring. When you attach the MagSafe Charger the NFC is what identifies it and allows it to do fast charging. But no, the NFC chip is not gonna be available for other apps to use, it's just for MagSafe.

But there is good news, nobody needs Apple's permission to make something that connects to the magnets. The slightly less good news is that anything that does more than just attached to the magnets needs to work with apples Made for iPhone Program.

One last thing, as long as we're talking about charging, the iPhone uses a Lightning port and it comes with a USB-C to Lightning cable in the box, but no AC adapter. And I know there are a lot of feelings about both of those things, so here are mine real quick.

No AC adapter is good. It might not be a huge benefit for the environment, but every little bit helps. Sticking with Lightning though, I think is bad. I wish Apple would have just had the courage to switch to USB-C, like every other gadget, including many of Apple's own gadgets. The fact that Apple didn't is a sign to me that this little puck right here is probably the future of how Apple wants us to charge the iPhone. I don't like Lightning, but it's literally better than nothing and that might be the plan someday.


5G is the new feature that Apple is hyping the most and Verizon is hyping it and everybody in the 5G hype industrial complex is hyping it.  But the truth is that in a lot of countries 5G is substantially better in terms of speed and latency. In the U.S. though, well, it's going okay.

In my testing, in both Oakland and San Francisco, on multiple carriers, I got results that were all over the map. I mean, literally all over the map. I would have to travel to certain parts of each city to get a good 5G signal. On Verizon and T-Mobile standard sub-6 5G networks I got 40 megabits down in good areas. That's about twice what I could get on LTE in the same area. But just as often I would be stuck on LTE.

Verizon has this millimeter-wave network which is also referred to as ultra-wideband or UWB, but you have to literally be on the right street corner to get it. When we were shooting this video I suddenly saw that I had it and I got all excited and I called Vjeran over to get the shot. iPhone 12 review: new standardWe pulled down 1,400 megabits. That's 35 times faster than regular 5G. So I did the thing that's in all the demos where you download a whole Netflix season right there in the short time it took to get this shot. It's fast.

But that excitement only existed because it's also so rare. Millimeter-wave isn't a real cellphone network. It's the cell phone network equivalent of a concept car. It's only on certain streets.

Anyway, the iPhone 12 itself handles 5G just fine, as well, or better than any Android phone that I've tested. 5G also doesn't seem to have a big impact on battery life. I'm getting through a day or more with normal use. 

I did manage to kill this phone by the evening after a long day of riding my bike with a screen brightness set to max and the GPS running. But I think that would have happened to pretty much any phone.

To keep battery life good, Apple is doing some weird tricks with 5G on the iPhone. It has a default mode called data saver, which drops you down to LTE speeds unless the phone decides you really need 5G for something that you're doing. How does the phone decide? Well, lots of factors, like what kind of data you're downloading, is what Apple tells me. It's a little bit unclear, but look, you can turn that off and just lock it to 5G if it's available when you want to.

Speaking of unclear, the status bar will show you 5G if you have 5G available, even if the phone happens to be using an LTE network instead. You just won't know. When there is ultra-wideband you will see a special icon for that. And also, if you're on AT&T you're gonna see a 5GE icon, which means LTE because AT&T is awful.

The iPhone is also going to be aware of your carrier plan. So if you have unlimited it'll be more willing to switch things over to pulling down more data. Like going into FaceTime HD or even downloading full-on iOS updates automatically.

That's a lot of weird details, and there's more. If you have both a physical and an eSIM active in the phone at the same time, you can't use 5G because of the limitations of dual-SIM, dual-standby in that spec, but you can turn one of them off and get 5G back.

Also, international iPhones don't have the ultra-wideband stuff, so you should pay attention to what bands are on your phone if you travel a lot.

Basically, 5G is complicated, and Apple can't abstract away all of the details entirely like it likes to do. Mostly, you can just ignore this stuff and use whatever network pops up on your phone when you see it. And honestly, that is the bottom line with 5G. If you see it and it's better, you can do a little dance and be happy. If you don't, don't sweat it. Just don't buy a phone only because it has 5G. Not right now.


What's new in the camera this year is that Apple has updated and improved its software for processing photos, and the main camera now has a slightly faster aperture. It's 1.6 instead of 1.8. That lets more light in which helps with low light photos. It's still the same wide-angle camera, the same Ultra Wide camera, and the single selfie camera. You don't get the telephoto lens or the LIDAR that you get on the iPhone 12 Pro, but they still take excellent photos in normal conditions.

The new A14 Bionic processor and the new software, lets Apple extend Night Mode to every single camera lens. Let's it do Portrait mode in low light. And it also applies better semantic processing to things that the phone can recognize, like faces or the sky and so on.

In my testing, compared to the iPhone 11, I'm seeing less noise and sometimes better colors in photos. In challenging spots, the iPhone 12 beats out the 11 in every single shot. In extremely dark places the Google Pixel 5 still has an edge, but in good light, I think the iPhone 12 often does a better job with fine detail than either the Pixel or the iPhone 11.

Apple's also putting more effort into the quality of it's Ultra Wide camera, but you can only do so much with the software. It is a clear step down from the main camera.

Apple is trying to fix distortion on the edges of the Ultra Wide for faces and buildings and things it can recognize. And there is a slight improvement but it's also pretty easy to break. Just look at the Golden Gate Bridge here. iPhone 12 review: new standard

Selfies on the iPhone 12 are about the same as they've always been. Although you can try to take them in lower light than before, but it's not like a night and day difference. It's night. You could see that it's night and the camera's having a hard time with that.

Overall, the cameras on the iPhone 12 are great. I'm talking about edge cases among flagship phones and in some places the iPhone 12 might not win, but in a lot of cases, it will. And in almost every case the iPhone is maintaining its lead in video quality.

Apple's also making some big claims about video this year with HDR and saying that this is a Dolby Vision camera, and I care way more about HDR than I do 8K video or whatever.

But the truth is if we're talking about video standards, we really should be talking to Nilay Patel who reviewed the iPhone 12 Pro.

Dolby Vision works. It looks great on the iPhone screen and other Apple device screens, but it's a new version of Dolby Vision, which is the most Apple thing ever, and other Adobe vision devices like my TV and I checked, your TV, might not work with the files. And the Apple TV is really weird and you have to have it in a weird mode. Look, it's just very complicated.

There is a new processor in the iPhone 12, and guess what? Just like every iPhone processor for the past however many years, the new A14 Bionic processor is a very fast and it beats the pants off anything Qualcomm can make for an Android phone. But it's also true that the iPhone 11 is very fast. So mainly what you get out of this new processor are those photo improvements.

The real reason to care isn't that the iPhone 12 is fast now, it's that it will still be fast in three or even five years. That's the kind of longevity that no Android phone can really match.


As to the rest of iOS 14? What can I say? It's an iPhone. I like using it. I love having widgets on the main home screen but I do wish were more of them from my favorite apps. Really, my biggest gripe with iOS continues to be Siri. Which does nail the basics pretty well but still lags behind the Google Assistant. I mean, let's be real, you still can't set multiple timers with Siri. How hard is that? But at the end of the day, if you compare overall app quality on an iPhone to the equivalent app on Android, the iPhone apps just tend to be nicer to use.

The iPhone 12 is the first iPhone in several years that really does feel like something new, but I can't point to any specific single feature that makes it feel that way. The 5G is fine. MagSafe is convenient, but we'll have to wait to see if there's a real ecosystem there. The OLED screen is lovely but it's also kind of table stakes at this point. The new design is modern and elegant but it's hard to tell you to buy a new phone just because it's pretty. Which makes this iPhone the new default.

I think most people should get this instead of the iPhone 12 Pro. But I also think that if you have an iPhone that's working for you just fine, there's not a must-have, gotta get it feature here to compel you to upgrade. That's how default phones work, when you need one, get one, and it will be way better than the one that you were using when you don't need one, don't. But, when the time comes for you to get a new phone, and if you end up with this iPhone 12, I think you're gonna love it.

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Jacob Enderson 4.2K
I'm a tech enthusiast and writer, passionate about everything from cutting-edge hardware to innovative software and the latest gadgets. Join me as I explore the...
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