Updated 9 March 2022
Apple updates everything
The fact that Apple are reusing designs is nothing new. In fact they took doing so to pretty extreme levels when the iPhone looked virtually identical for four years, from iPhone 6 through the 6S and 7 to the iPhone 8. All the same, it might sound a bit odd that the iPhone 12 has taken a lot of its design from the iPhones 4 and 5. But perhaps it’s a good thing?
We’ll come back to that in a bit, but those design features aside, the iPhone 12 is actually the biggest update of a normal iPhone for many years. And in all areas bar one, there are real improvements.
All iPhone 12 models are based on the same design, from the mini up to the Pro Max. The difference between the iPhone 12 Pro and the normal iPhone 12 (tested here) lies in the choice of material used. The edge around the normal phone is made of aluminium rather than stainless steel. That makes for a relatively light phone, despite its size, although aluminium is more sensitive to scratches than steel. Consequently we recommend you use a shell on the phone. The iPhone 12 also comes in a whole range of fun colours that should suit most people.
One feature of the design, copied from the iPhones 4 and 5, is that it has straight edges rather than rounded ones. Despite this, we find the phone more comfortable to hold than the rounded variant. The edges aren’t sharp in any way, they just give a slightly better grip.
Otherwise, the shape feels like a bit of a magic trick. At 6.1 inches the screen, which dictates the size of the phone in general, is as big as last year's model. At the same time, the frame around the screen has become smaller, which is because the whole phone is actually a little bit smaller in all directions than last year’s iPhone 11.
If we had to say something negative about that, it would be that the new phone is about a millimetre thinner than the last model. We’d have preferred Apple to look at earlier models and increase the thickness of the phone a bit rather than the reverse. That would make room for a larger battery and, maybe once and for all get rid of the camera lump on the back. While that lump more or less disappears as soon as you put a case on your phone, we’d still have liked to see it completely flush with the back even without a case.
The back itself is made of glass, coloured to match the aluminium frame. The choice of glass, rather than the metal used in the iPhone a few generations ago, is to make space for wireless charging. We’ll come back to charging, but it should be mentioned that the back is “only” made of rugged Gorilla Glass.
One of the many new features of the screen is that it’s covered by something Apple calls Ceramic Shield. At the risk of sounding like a bad science fiction film, this means the glass has been mixed with nanoparticles of ceramic material. Technical mumbo jumbo that may be, but in practice it means you get screen glass that can withstand much more wear than previous types of glass.
We didn’t dare abuse our test version of the iPhone 12 to see exactly how much of a beating it can withstand, but some [others](https://www.macrumors.com/2020/10/23/iphone-12 -ceramic-shield-test/) have done this for us. The result is that at least the front of the phone is much more durable than before against both scratches and cracks.
The edges are the most sensitive parts of a screen, but these should also withstand significantly more wear than before.
But what about the screen itself? Finally, buyers of a normal iPhone no longer have to yearn for the feel of the Pro models. Because it’s the same screen on the iPhone 12 as on the iPhone 12 Pro. Not only is it a 6.1 inch screen, but you also get the enormously beautiful colour that OLED technology offers. The resolution has been increased by a lot as well, which actually means that this year’s standard model of iPhone for the first time goes beyond full HD in resolution – 1170x2532 pixels, to be specific.
You also get support for HDR and significantly more brightness than before. The latter comes in at 625 nits as standard, with maximum levels up to 1200 nits. However, you won’t reach maximum levels during normal use, but more when viewing HDR material such as films. The higher overall brightness, on the other hand, makes it easier for you to see what’s happening on your screen in bright sunlight.
Apple call this Super Retina XDR OLED. We’d rather call it ‘about time, too’.
If there’s one thing missing, it’s that the refresh rate is still 60 Hz, while many competitors offer 90, 120 and 144 Hz for their screens. Of course a higher refresh rate consumes more battery, but we don’t really see much difference on a screen in 90 Hz as opposed to 120 Hz. On the other hand, there is a quite real difference between 60 Hz and 90 Hz in terms of how text flows on a screen when you scroll on a website, for example.
Apple already achieves 120 Hertz in its iPad Pro models, so we hope they’ll do the same with their mobiles next year.
Another thing all iPhones this year can boast of, is support for 5G. Apple even want to claim that they support the most 5G frequencies just now. But this doesn’t really mean much at present. The main network operators are still far from covering the whole of the UK.
So the fact that the iPhone 12 supports 5G doesn’t really mean very much in practice today. On the other hand, the iPhone is almost the only mobile today which is built to last a long time, so 5G support will become increasingly interesting in another year or two.
Here again we felt that a slightly thicker phone would have been sensible, to make room for a larger battery. Because every time a new mobile technology appears, the first models are very power hungry at first – and that’s true here too. Most competitors that offer 5G have resolved this by adding a larger battery. Apple has approached it by having the iPhone 12 drop down to 4G when the very highest speeds aren’t needed. In this way, it’s only when you play intense online games or stream really high-resolution videos, for example, that it kicks off the 5G bit for the fastest possible connection.
On the other hand, tests have shown that the battery life drops alarmingly fast when using 5G.
Let’s talk about the battery in iPhone 12, while we’re about it. Yes, the battery is smaller. Yes, the new chip is more energy efficient. Yes, the screen is higher resolution. Yes, 5G draws more power.
So the bottom line is that the iPhone 12 has a worse battery life than its predecessor. However, we wouldn’t claim that it’s absolutely terrible. You’ll definitely get through a day of normal use. But if you use the phone more intensively, you’ll be looking for your charger sooner than before.
As for the charger… it isn’t included. Apple have decided to supply neither headphones nor USB adapter in the box. A charging cable with a Lightning connector at one end and USB-C at the other is included, however.
According to Apple, the reason for this is to save on electronic waste and thus make the phone more environmentally friendly. Less rubbish in your cable drawer means less rubbish going to the tip. At the same time, the box is smaller, which means more phones can be carried on the same amount of fuel. A good thing, of course. At the same time, we understand that this is a golden opportunity for Apple to increase sales of both chargers and headphones.
If you already have an iPhone, on the other hand, you probably have a whole bunch of chargers and cables, so there’ll probably be no need for this immediately. If you have a charging plate for wireless charging, it works just as well as before. If you have a newer computer with a USB-C connector, you can also use the included cable to charge the phone.
At the same time, we think that if Apple are going to make this change, they could just as easily have given the phone a USB-C port too. The “new” USB connector has the same advantage as the Lightning connector when it arrived, meaning you can plug it in either way up and it’s still the connector Apple uses on all its Macbooks. And now on most of their iPads too. The world is ready for iPhones with USB-C.
Especially since Apple have now revived MagSafe. Nostalgic Macbook users will surely get a tear in their eyes when they hear that name. And now Apple have brought it to the iPhone 12.
MagSafe for the iPhone 12 is essentially wireless charging plus magnets. On the back of the iPhone 12 is the receiver for wireless charging, and around it are a bunch of magnets. If you buy a MagSafe charger, you can easily click the charger onto the back of the phone to start charging. The big problem with wireless charging so far has been that many charging pads (and phones) are incredibly sensitive to how they are placed during charging, which has made it quite difficult to get it right. This has often meant that you put the phone on the charging pad overnight, only to notice in the morning that the phone hasn’t been charged at all because it wasn’t in the right position.
MagSafe for the iPhone 12 fixes this problem, and we’d actually dare to say that it’s the best solution for wireless charging we’ve seen.
Apple may profess to ignore the race about who can offer the fastest charging, both wired and wireless, but they provide the best wireless charging in any case.
MagSafe is also a clever first step towards the completely portless iPhone that we’ve heard rumblings about for several years. At present, Apple says that MagSafe is only for charging. An NFC chip is included to identify what accessories have been connected, but more than this hasn’t yet been officially announced. However, other people have dug further into the technology and come to the conclusion that it is possible to send data at a speed of at least 12 megabits per second via MagSafe. That’s hardly super fast as it stands, but it is a first step. This will allow Apple to switch to USB-C, or get rid of ports completely, and still be able to offer a proprietary charging solution that’s unique to the iPhone.
We also checked out how all this plays with existing wireless charging. MagSafe’s wireless charging is based on the same QI standard in use today. This means that the iPhone 12 also works with standard wireless chargers without a magnet. This also means that other phones and accessories (such as Airpods) can be charged wirelessly on a MagSafe pad but without the magnetic mount.
If we set charging to one side for a while, but stay on the back of the phone, we find what at first glance looks like the same camera package as last year.
Two lenses; one wide angle and one ultra wide angle of 12 megapixel apiece. The difference lies in the fine details. Both cameras have been refined considerably, particularly on the aperture front to be able to take in more light. This in itself should make the cameras perform better at night and in the dusk.
At the same time, Apple have added night mode to all their cameras nowadays, not just the main lens. This gives you significantly more opportunities to take good pictures in dark environments, even with the selfie camera.
What we immediately notice is also how much better the pictures get overall, not just at night. Last year, Apple launched their Deep Fusion technology, which uses the phone’s enormous computing power to enhance images at pixel level. At first we only got to see the technology in the Pro models, but now we also get it in normal iPhone 12.
The iPhone has always been the mobile phone that, regardless of environment, gives the most consistent results. Even though the competitors have improved over the years, they can still produce rather strange colours sometimes, which the iPhone has always avoided. That alone has made the camera a joy to use and now Apple have seriously started to use the power of their own processors to produce really good photos. Many competing manufacturers have had better cameras and image processing overall, but with the iPhone 12, Apple are taking big steps towards being at the top again.
When it comes to video, it still looks good and even here there’s extra help from the image processing system. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for new features when it comes to video, you need to look at the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max.
And the camera is also where you find the biggest differences between the normal iPhone 12 and the Pro model. Primarily in that the iPhone 12 lacks the third lens for a little extra zoom capability, and also the LiDAR sensor for better autofocus and depth vision.
A14 Bionic. There, now we’ve said it. So far, we have deliberately chosen not to mention the processor in the iPhone 12 by name, because it actually requires a whole section of its own.
Because the A14 is a real improvement from last year as well, even though this may not be noticeable on performance figures alone. In the example above with the camera, however, it all really comes into its own.
The thing with the A14 isn’t that it’s lots faster during normal use or when you’re playing games. It’s a bit faster than last year’s A13 Bionic on those things, but not remarkable. Nor does it matter, because the iPhone 11 was the fastest phone on the market until the iPhone 12 came along. Competitor phones using Android are consistently slower, and surprisingly often the A14 chip is twice as fast in synthetic performance tests than the top models with Android.
But this isn’t where Apple have put in the effort this year, because they didn’t need to. Instead, the parts of the processor that handle machine learning and artificial intelligence have received the biggest upgrades. It’s partly due to this that the camera could be improved as much as it has.
It also means that the facial unlocking Face ID system works noticeably faster than last year. The artificial intelligence aspect is harder to measure than traditional performance, but where we can see differences, it’s clear how much faster the iPhone 12 is than last year’s model.
This year’s iPhone edition has received a lot of attention. The standard model iPhone 12 has finally received the substantial upgrade we’ve been waiting for ever since Apple introduced the iPhone X. Now it has nothing to be ashamed of in terms of the screen, you get 5G support for when that becomes relevant, and you get more power under the bonnet than you know what to do with.
The big advantage of iPhones compared to all other phones today is how long they last. It’s only in the last year that the Android camp has started to promise upgrades for at least three years (one year has long been the standard) while iPhone owners have been able to use their phones for at least five years without missing out on too much. They may have had to hand in the handset for a battery change after two years, but that's all.
The same goes for the iPhone 12, which with the crazy fast A14 and 5G support has all the things it needs to last for many years to come. We would have loved to have seen a bigger battery in the phone, but otherwise it’s ideal upgrades across the board for the iPhone 12! Even owners of iPhone 11s would find it worth upgrading, because the difference this time really is that big.