Updated 9 March 2022
Minor update on the professional side
What exactly makes the iPhone 12 Pro, Pro? Actually, that’s not an easy question to answer. So in our big test we take a detailed look at the iPhone Pro and check out that and other things besides.
What does a “Pro” model do, when compared with a standard model? The usual answer is that “Pro” means better hardware. For Apple, this was always pretty clear. The Macbook Pro always had a better screen and, in many respects, better hardware than the standard Macbook (when the Pro model existed) and a more solid design than the Macbook Air.
In terms of Pro in the iPad world, that meant faster system chips, smart keyboard solutions and a really good pen. In latter days it also meant a USB-C connector and significantly better screen. In the case of the iPad, however, those differences have diminished recently, with the latest iPad Air taking most things (except fast screen refresh) from the Pro models, but at a lower price.
And the iPhone? Last year we got the first Pro models in iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. An extra camera lens, a case with steel elements instead of aluminium, and a much better screen. In terms of pro functions, it was actually the camera that stood out compared to the iPhone 11, while the other features were really just more in the way of added frills.
This year, there’s even less of a distinction between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro models – at least on paper. The screens are just as big, just as good and the designs are very similar. And that – the design – is really the only thing that distinguishes them.
Like its cheaper cousin, the iPhone 12 has a significantly updated design. Rounded edges have given way to straight ones. The screen and glass on the back sit together with a steel frame. The whole thing is very much based on a refined variant of the design seen in the iPhones 4 and 4S, and even the iPhone 5.
The steel frame fulfils several functions. Our test copy in silver is so shiny it almost sparkles, something aluminium models just don’t do. Steel as a material is significantly more durable and also more scratch-resistant than aluminium. At the same time, it also weighs more, which adds 20 grams to the Pro weight compared to the standard iPhone 12. That gives the phone an additional feel of quality in a way the normal model doesn’t even come close to.
The weight would probably have increased too much if we’d had our main wish fulfilled, namely the thickness of the phone. A protruding camera package has always been irritating, even though all phone manufacturers do this nowadays. On the other hand, a slightly thicker phone would have allowed for a larger battery, which is always a good idea. But that would have meant the steel frame became thicker too, which would have made the phone much heavier... and perhaps too heavy.
Otherwise, the only external differences from last year are the dimensions. The edges around the screen have become thinner, which has allowed the screen to grow from 5.8 to 6.1 inches without making the device any bigger. Along with the upcoming iPhone 12 Mini, the iPhone 12 Pro is also a really convenient phone to carry. At the same time, the sharper edges make it feel much more comfortable to hold.
On the back of the phone is the unseen change, MagSafe. Charging with a magnetic connector, just like how it used to be on Macbooks. Here it isn’t a physical connector, but a wireless charger.
The wireless charging is based on the normal QI standard that everyone uses now. This means your iPhone 12 Pro still works with all wireless chargers already out there. The difference with MagSafe is that the charging plate is surrounded by magnets, which means you can always physically feel when the charger is in the right place. Otherwise you get problems with wireless charging when you try to put the phone in exactly the right place for charging to start.
MagSafe, on the other hand, is more than just a convenient way to charge. Apple and third-party developers have a range of cases and accessories for the technology. Through a small NFC chip, the phone knows when an accessory is connected, such as a case. The magnets will also make things like car mounts significantly more convenient, regardless of whether they contain wireless charging or not.
So this really is the future for Apple. MagSafe supports transferring data, which means it could also become a way to completely remove ports from the iPhone. It could also be a way to easily transfer data from memory to the phone and vice versa, or to connect a keyboard.
Just like with last year’s iPhone 11, there’s a secret in the wireless charging bit. Reverse wireless charging technology is in place, but isn’t activated. Rumour has it that the next generation of Airpods will support MagSafe and that the reverse wireless charging feature will also be turned on in Apple phones, so you can charge your headphones using the phone’s battery if you need to.
While MagSafe itself is a convenient technology, this also shows that Apple is ready to leave behind its Lightning connector for charging. When that first appeared it was revolutionary in that you could plug the connector in either way up and it still worked. Today, USB-C does the same thing and Apple itself uses that connector in all its Macbooks and most iPads. This would have been a golden opportunity for Apple to start the transition to USB-C by giving the Pro models the same connector, but instead they still have Lightning this year as well (the other end of the Lightning cable that comes with the phone is USB C).
With MagSafe, Apple can continue to have lucrative licensing of accessories while also moving across to the universal standard USB-C for charging. Sadly, none of that has happened in time for this year.
As we mentioned above the screen has grown, being 6.1 inches instead of 5.8 inches. Since the standard iPhone 12 also has that screen size, this means an end to the illogical situation where the cheapest model has the medium screen, while the professional models have the smallest and largest screens in the range.
Apple calls the screen Super Retina XDR OLED. This means OLED with fantastic colours, good resolution and a few little extras like True Tone to always give good colour regardless of the environment. Brightness has also been increased to 800 nits with a maximum of 1200. However, the latter is only used in HDR situations.
The brightness is actually the only thing that distinguishes the iPhone 12 Pro from the iPhone 12 in terms of the screen. The cheaper model has to settle for 600 nits and so doesn’t work quite as well in bright sunlight compared to the Pro model.
But it’s actually still the same screen. In no way is this a bad screen, but perhaps this was one area where where we could have got more than just the brightness to distinguish the Pro from the normal model.
The iPad Pro, for example, has a refresh rate of 120 Hz, something many competitors also offer. The screen on the iPhone 12 Pro is only 60 Hz, and whilst it’s true that a higher rate uses up the battery faster, a higher refresh rate is a very nice feature. So we’d have liked to have seen at least 90 Hz in the iPhone 12 Pro.
Speaking of Pro features, the phone has 8 bit colour depth, while the camera films at 10. To us that feels a little odd.
The really obvious difference between the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro is on the back, in the form of the camera package.
Like last year, you get three lenses: wide angle, ultra wide angle and telephoto. The latter is the difference and is translated in the camera app to 2x zoom. The technology for wide angle, or “0.5” as it’s called in the camera app, has also been improved to almost completely eliminate the distortion that sometimes used to occur.
The lenses themselves have been updated since last year. They now allow in more light, which improves photos in the dark. Night mode in particular has also been improved, as it’s now active on all cameras, both front and back.
It’s also during filming that the Pro aspects of the iPhone 12 Pro really emerge. By default, the phone films in Dolby Vision HDR, which gives a real boost to the overall quality of your filming. At the same time, it does set demands on the device you use for playback. iPhones with HDR support will display videos in HDR, as will TVs and monitors with Dolby Vision support. But a version of the filmed material is also saved in SDR for those devices that don’t support Dolby Vision.
But back to photos. The iPhone 12 Pro gives fantastic pictures with really consistent results. The new A14 chip has primarily been developed with improvements in machine learning and AI functions. That bit is very obvious in the photos, and in the image enhancement technology Apple calls Deep Fusion. The iPhone 12 Pro may not be the best camera out there, but it’s not far off.
This is further enhanced by the big new feature in the camera field – LiDAR. This is an advanced sensor for measuring depth using both laser and light. We last saw this feature in the iPad Pro and now it’s in the iPhone 12 Pro as well.
In the first place, the sensor helps with what’s become one of Apple’s favourite topics in recent years – augmented reality, or AR for short. This simply means displaying what the camera sees on the screen and then applying a layer of effects to it. With LiDAR, that technology becomes more accurate, so the software can see and measure the space in a room, for example, allowing you to see what a new bookshelf would look like if you were to refurnish that room. Or if you want to add a computer-animated animal to the screen, it will appear life size and be able to avoid table legs and the like. It’s an interesting and fun technology, but one that lacks any real practical areas of use so far.
On the day when we can buy AR glasses or similar, and be able to see the same effects with our own eyes, this technology could become hugely important – and it’s probably that thought which is driving Apple to put in the groundwork today.
But LiDAR also has areas of use when it comes to photo and video. This becomes clearest in the camera’s portrait mode, which has been significantly improved when it comes to fine details such as hair and so on. It has even been possible to reduce the distance a little. Where you used to have to be a few metres away from the subject, now you only need about half the distance.
The same applies to videos. Depending which app you use, distance data can be used to separate a moving person from the background, so you can achieve the effect of the person jumping out from it, for example.
LiDAR isn’t dependent on daylight to the same extent as the camera's standard light sensor. This means that portraits can be taken in darker environments than before and also that the autofocus will now work more easily and faster even in those dark environments. The upgraded lenses and technologies in the A14 chip are thus only two-thirds of the story behind the improved night images, while the LiDAR sensor is the third.
The A14 chip is, unsurprisingly, still the fastest chip on the market. So far there isn’t an Android phone with a Snapdragon chip that’s come close to last year's A13 chip. And the A14 is even faster in everyday use, though not dramatically so. By using a manufacturing technology of 5 nanometres, Apple have found space for more transistors and thus been able to stuff more power into their chip.
Most of this extra power has been put into the processors that handle machine learning and AI functions – the NPU or neural processing unit, as it’s commonly called. We’ve already mentioned that this is most evident in the camera's performance. The same goes for Face ID, the technology for unlocking both the phone and security features in apps with your face, which now works noticeably faster than last year's model.
With the A14, Apple is also introducing 5G across the range of its models for this year. With support for more frequencies than anyone else, if we’re to believe what Apple says. However, 5G network operators aren’t yet covering the whole of the UK. Bearing that in mind, the 5G feature is pretty uninteresting at this point in time, but in the near future that’s definitely going to change.
At the same time, as always with a new mobile system, 5G means power consumption goes up. All iPhone 12 models should automatically switch between 4G and 5G depending on how much data speed is required. At the same time, tests have shown that power consumption is alarmingly high for the iPhone 12 on 5G networks. Because of that a larger battery would have been nice, which would also have allowed for the improvements in the screen that we’ve mentioned above.
But the battery hasn’t been made any bigger. In fact, even running only 4G, the battery experience is slightly worse than with last year's iPhone 11 series. Without 5G, on the other hand, there’s no dramatic deterioration, but if in everyday use we ended the day with 40% battery with an iPhone 11 Pro, it’s 25-30% with an iPhone 12 Pro and the same amount of use.
Apart from the zoom lens and camera enhancements provided by the LiDAR sensor, there’s actually less difference between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro than there was between last year’s models.
Most users will be happy with both the performance and the camera experience of the iPhone 12. And you need an understanding of and use for the extra features the iPhone 12 Pro provides.
This means, it’s also a little squeezed between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro Max. In addition to having the same functions as the Pro model, you also get an even better camera with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which features, among other things, a new type of image stabilisation. If you’re someone with the knowledge and desire to use all the camera functions, you might therefore be wondering whether the iPhone 12 Pro would be right for you, or whether you should invest in the larger Max model.
But the advantage of the iPhone 12 Pro compared to its big brother is that you get most of the functions in a smaller and much more convenient format. The iPhone 12 Pro is an almost consistently fantastic phone, but we would have liked to see a clearer demarcation between normal iPhones and the Pro models.