Coming away from Apple's recent “Hi, Speed” event, I found my thoughts travelling back ten years to being in line to buy my first iPhone, when the only decision needed before reaching the front of the line was whether I wanted the 16GB or 32GB model. With Apple releasing five new iPhone models this year - the SE, 12 mini, the 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max - it was hard not to feel some nostalgia for the purity and simplicity of that first iPhone purchase.
‘Simplicity’ isn't something that now comes to mind when shopping for a new iPhone, as Apple in 2020 offers the widest ever selection of iPhones at an equally wide range of price points.
Apple's new iPhone models offer potential buyers four choices of screen size. Colour choices are aplenty, and vary across models, as does storage capacity - where you can choose from 4 options across the model range. Four models offer Face ID, one Touch ID. Two iPhone models sport a LiDAR Scanner for the first time. Battery life may be good for nearly two days of medium use on some models, on others you may struggle to last a single day. The regular iPhone 12 models have an aluminum frame , while the Pro models sport stainless steel.
Add in to the mix that Apple is still selling the iPhone 11 and iPhone XR, and you get even more size, feature, and performance levels to select from.
As for prices, a new iPhone will cost you from $399 to $1399. With so many models and their available storage capacity options fitting between those two prices, the price differences can feel so relatively small that it's easy to find yourself constantly looking up to the next model or configuration option.
Consequently, unless you simply want the cheapest or most expensive iPhone available, choosing the right one for you is likely to require time and thought.
What follows is my own journey through the decision making process. In a break from my past posts about new iPhone models, I don't dig deep in to technical specifications or comparison of features. Instead, I share how I chose the iPhone which I believe to be the best fit for my personal circumstances and use case; share some early impressions of that iPhone; and hope that this insight assists you with your own decision making. I also hope that you will share your own decision making journeys and resulting experiences below in the comments section.
The Decision Making Challenge
Choosing the right iPhone for me wasn't made much easier by the fact that I was able to make a strong argument for all but one of the 2020 iPhone models.
If I want the best battery life; the largest and brightest available screen to get the most benefit from my residual vision; a camera that offers the best chance that I will capture and share the best possible photos; and I want to buy in to the hope that developers will be quick to exploit the potential added value that a LiDAR Scanner can offer to the blind, then my choice has to be the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
If I admit to myself that my residual vision doesn't actually bring much to the party and check how many photos and videos I typically take, then the iPhone 12 Pro makes more sense. It's even more tempting when I reflect on the fact that I have not enjoyed the physical size of the iPhone XS Max that I've been using for the past two years.
If I accept that it may be some time before the full potential of the LiDAR Scanner is exploited and that the additional screen real estate of the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Pro offers me nothing over a 5.4 inch display, then saving some money whilst still getting the same performance and features as the iPhone 12 makes the iPhone 12 mini the best choice. It also has in its favour that it's the model on this list which excites me the most.
If I want the best ‘bang for one's buck’; aren't concerned about having FACE ID and the latest design; but still have an iPhone that will serve me well for several years, then it has to be the iPhone SE.
You will have noticed that it's the iPhone 12 which failed to make the cut. This has essentially the same internals and features as the mini, but offers better battery life. That's simply not worth an extra $100 to me, particularly as the trade-off would be missing out on the form factor which for me makes the iPhone 12 mini the most exciting model on my shortlist.
Narrowing Down my Decision
Shortening the list to just two models proved easier than I expected.
I had spent most of my two years with the iPhone XS Max wishing for a smaller phone; the battery life of any of the iPhone 12 range should equal or better that of the XS Max; and I simply don't shoot enough photos or videos to gain any significant benefit from the iPhone 12 Pro Max having the best camera on offer. So, off my list it went.
Just as easy to remove was the iPhone SE. There's no question that it's tremendous value for money. Or, at least is when talking about an iPhone. But, having owned an iPhone X and an iPhone XS Max, I simply could not imagine switching to a iPhone design that predates both of these by several years. More fundamentally, in terms of performance and features, there are no compelling reasons to replace my current iPhone XS Max with an SE. So, off my list it went.
This left me with two iPhone models on my shortlist - the iPhone 12 mini and the iPhone 12 Pro.
Making my Final Decision
Because I anticipated size and feel in hand to be a major factor in my decision and it's not possible yet to compare these two models in an Apple Store, I spent some time handling my wife's iPhone X and an old iPhone 6s we had tucked away in a drawer, as their physical sizes roughly match those of the iPhone 12 Pro and the 12 mini.
The result was somewhat surprising, as I came to this exercise expecting that the iPhone 12 mini would be the clear winner of my mock tactile head-to-head..
However, my main takeaway from this exercise was that the iPhone 12 mini might not be ‘mini’ enough.
Although hardly scientific, my test suggested that there are likely to still be plenty of times when it would simply be quicker and easier for me to use an iPhone 12 mini two-handed.
If this does indeed prove to be the case, and attempting to use the iPhone 12 mini with just the one hand requires frequent adjusting of grip for complete reachability and exploration of its screen, then gone for me is much of the appeal of its small form factor. Consequently, what that smaller form factor means for battery life becomes more significant in my decision making process.
Apple says the iPhone 12 mini has a shorter battery life than the standard iPhone 12 when watching video and listening to audio, raising concerns that this will translate in to similar disappointment in day-to-day use as has been many in our community's experience of the newest iPhone SE.
The prospect of having to think about whether my phone's battery is going to last the day does not excite. There are battery-hungry apps that I rely on to know and navigate the world around me. There are situations where I would not want to find that my phone is out of power and I need access to those apps; or, I simply need to make a call for a cab or assistance.
If everything else was equal - in that both models had a LiDAR Scanner and similar battery life - then the iPhone 12 mini would indeed have been the clear first choice.
However, with my test suggesting that the smaller form factor of the iPhone 12 mini may not be all that I hope for, , then the better battery life and the potential of its LiDAR Scanner was enough for the iPhone 12 Pro to narrowly edged it out as the model that I believe will prove to be the best fit for my circumstances and use case.
Why All the Fuss about LiDAR?
Before moving on to my early impressions of the iPhone 12 Pro, it's probably worth mentioning why its LiDAR Scanner played such a significant part in my decision making.
For those unfamiliar, a LiDAR Scanner sends out laser light and measures how long it takes to bounce back. Because light travels at a constant speed, the round-trip time can be translated into a precise distance estimate. By Repeating this process across a two-dimensional grid the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max are able to generate a three-dimensional map of objects around you.
For now, Apple is primarily using this technology to improve focusing and low light performance of the iPhone camera, but it's easy to imagine applications for LiDAR that would be of significant value to the blind. For example, imagine standing in the doorway of an unfamiliar hotel room, and be given a detailed and accurate description of the room, the objects in the room, and their relative locations.
That's not to say that LiDAR on an iPhone will be a complete game changer for blind users. In no small part this is due to the effective operating range of the iPHone's LiDAR Scanner being only approximately 5 meters. That's going to be enough for your very immediate environment and situations such as the example above, but don't expect it to offer much when walking outside or in large rooms or venues.
Despite this, I am excited and hopeful for the applications that people a lot smarter than me will identify and develop for blind iPhone users. And, as I will probably be using the iPhone 12 Pro for 2-3 years, it feels like I am future proofing myself for what's to come.
Early Impressions of the iPhone 12 Pro
In a year that can at best be described as “challenging”, there's something cathartic about unboxing and setting up a new iPhone on a quiet fall afternoon. It's a reminder that life ‘normal’ still continues around us.
However, the box itself is an immediate reminder that things have changed. With new iPhones no longer shipping with a power adapter or EarPods, the box is a lot smaller. One reason given by Apple for no longer including these items is that most buyers will already have one or more of these. In my case, I would have no use for the EarPods. However, although I do indeed have many power adapters, none of them are the USB-C variety needed for the USB-C to Lightning cable that Apple now ships with iPhones. It's a minor gripe, and one alleviated somewhat by Apple having recently reduced by $10 the price of its 20W USB-C wall adapter.
Lifting off the lid of the box, you are greeted by a far more significant change - the iPhone 12 models have a completely new design. Gone is the ‘soapbar‘ look that's been the design of iPhones since the iPhone 6. Now we have the flat side design first introduced with the 2018 iPad Pro and subsequently the 2020 iPad Air. Perhaps it was nostalgia again, as it was another reminder of the iPhone 4 that was my first iPhone, but I was immediately happy with this new design.
The flat sides of the iPhone 12 make holding it feel much more secure in your hand than the the soapbar design iPhones, which gained that moniker not just because of their shape, but also because some people found them slippy to grip.
Although I do find the flat sides make for a firmer feeling grip, I do also feel that they make the iPhone 12 feel somewhat ‘chunky’ and more substantial than it actually is, and I fear for what this will mean if I end up going with one of the bulkier and more protective cases that I typically favour. Even in the relatively slim Apple silicon case that I'm currently using, the iPhone 12 feels as bulky in my hand as the iPhone XS Max in its far from svelte OtterBox Symmetry case.
Having mentioned that Apple silicon case, I will put on record here that this is the first version of this case that I actually like. This is because the lip extends all the way around the iPhone, unlike versions of this case for other Face ID iPhones which have a cutout on the bottom.
Those of you who find a cutout makes it easier to perform the Home and App Switcher gestures that require you to swipe up from the bottom edge of the iPhone' display will probably be less taken by this silicon case.
I, however, have always preferred to have the bottom edge of my iPhones protected: both before and since those gestures were introduced. I am also relatively happy with the fit of Apple's silicon case, as it's just about close enough to the snug fit that I like iPhone cases to offer.
Apple’s new clear case for the iPhone 12 still has a cutout. So, if you prefer using Apple cases and want one with a cutout, this one is probably worth checking out.
But, back to the iPhone 12 Pro itself.
Triple clicking the side button of a new iPhone for the first time is always a great experience. Instantly, a flat sheet of glass is transformed in to something accessible without sight. It still thrills me after ten years.
What has improved over those ten years, is the process of transferring settings and apps from an old iPhone to a new one. Gone are the days of needing to connect to iTunes. Gone is the need for a recent iCloud backup. Now, you simply bring your old iPhone close to the new one; tap on each screen a few times; point the camera of your old iPhone to an image displayed on the screen of the new iPhone; enter a passcode, and a couple minutes later your new iPhone is up and running.
Once the iPhone 12 Pro was up and running and had downloaded the Alex voice, I was immediately struck by something that I had not expected - there appears to be a noticeable performance improvement over my iPhone XS Max.
All of the iPhone 12 models have the A14 processor which boasts a 6-core CPU and 4-core GPU in a 5 nanometer process. Apple said during the launch event that this made them “50% faster than other smartphone processors," whilst early Geekbench benchmarks report that Apple improved the overall processing by at least 20% year-over-year compared to comparative iPhone 11 models.
I didn't expect these claims and benchmarks to translate in to something that I would notice in my regular use of an iPhone. I won't claim that the difference is significant, and quite possibly it's actually a placebo effect from expecting a new iPhone to be better than your older one, but VoiceOver performance does feel a fraction snappier, probably most noticeably when using the onscreen keyboard.
Ahead of its launch, it was rumoured that the iPhone 12 would bring an improvement to the speed of Face ID due to a new “dynamic zoning algorithm”. I'm not aware of Apple saying anything to confirm this, nor of there being any confirmation elsewhere since launch. But, my own subjective experience has indeed been faster Face ID performance. Again, this could be a placebo effect from reading those rumours, but regardless I am very happy with the speed and reliability of Face ID on the iPhone 12 Pro.
Something that is new to the iPhone 12 range, is MagSafe.
Before Apple made the switch to USB-C, the power cables for Apple's MacBooks had a MagSafe connector which allowed it to connect magnetically. If somebody tripped over the power cable, the cable would simply and elegantly disconnect from the MacBook, rather than risk having the MacBook crash to the floor. It was a neat feature that many people claim saved their MacBooks from disaster, and its demise triggered much lamenting.
But, MagSafe is back. Now in the form of a small magnetic coil in the back of the iPhone 12 that allows for precise wireless charging and easy-to-attach magnetic accessories.
Apple’s own cases have MagSafe built in. This helps to hold the case more firmly in place, but the magnets are primarily there to ensure that Apple's new $39 MagSafe charger connects as easily and firmly as when the iPhone isn’t in a case.
The MagSafe charger is a circular ‘puck’ approximately 5mm thick and 56mm in diameter, and with a 1m USB-C integrated cable.
For now, I am delaying a final judgment on the MagSafe charger. It removes the friction point of finding the precise position to place my iPhone on the Qi wireless charging mats I currently have sat on my nightstand and on a ledge next to my armchair. It also doubles the charging power to 15W. However, it introduces the friction point of needing to use two hands to remove the iPhone from the puck. Yes, I know that it sounds petty, but being able to reach across and lift your iPhone single-handed from its charger is a user experience that I would miss.
Another reason to not be too excited by Apple's MagSafe charger, is that early independent tests report that it Only Charges at full 15W speeds when used with Apple's 20W power adapter.
In these tests, Apple's older 18W power adapter was able to charge the iPhone 12 Pro using the MagSafe Charger at up to 13W, but Apple's 96W MacBook Power Adapter and third-party power adapters that support more than 20W were not able to exceed 10W when used with the MagSafe Charger.
If you are still thinking of getting the MagSafe charger, you might first want to visit its support page on apple.com, as that lists a few warnings and limitations. One of these is that “if you keep your iPhone in a leather case while charging with your MagSafe Charger, the case might show circular imprints from the contact.” It doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that the same may be true for other cases.
I will personally need more convincing before the MagSafe puck replaces either of my Qi charging mats. Until then, I will think of and occasionally use it as a magnetic alternative to a Lightning cable.
For an in-depth look at what MagSafe on the iPhone 12 is; how it works; and what it can do, AppleInsider has you covered.
During the launch event, Apple took every possible opportunity to flag up the 5G support introduced with the iPhone 12. There are lots of well informed commentators stating that 5G currently offers little due to poor coverage and current limitations of the 5G technology and its implementation. In short, the consensus appears to be that you should not buy an iPhone 12 simply because of 5G support. Even if you think that you are future proofing yourself, this may not actually be the case, as it may be some time and require some changes to the current implementations before it reaches its full potential.
For me, the issue is moot, as my carrier currently does not support 5G locally. Consequently, I was straight off to disable 5G in the Settings app so as to avoid my iPhone wasting effort and possible battery life in vainly seeking a 5G connection.
For a good primer on 5G and the iPhone 12, MacRumors has you covered.
Apple introduced a new “Ceramic Shield” front cover on the iPhone 12 display that it claims has four times the chance to survive a fall from your pocket without cracking the screen. I can't comment on this, and hope never to be able to from experience.
Early drop tests of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro by insurance company AllState are encouraging in that they found “the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro […] performed better than any previously tested smartphone.” However, this was followed by the caveat:
“The Ceramic Shield front is a huge improvement. That said, both phones were damaged when dropped on a sidewalk. Given their hefty repair costs, we encourage everyone to use a protective case and treat their new iPhone 12 with the care you would give an expensive camera.”
Consequently, despite its Ceramic Shield, I won't be handling the iPhone 12 Pro any less carefully than previous iPhones.
Two final observations for now.
Firstly, I've yet to detect any noticeable difference in performance or results between the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone XS Max when using object and text recognition apps such as Seeing AI, Envision AI, and Voice Dream Scanner. I would be surprised if the same were not also true for any other recent iPhone model.
Secondly, I've also failed to notice any discernible change in audio quality of the speaker of the iPhone 12 Pro compared to that of the iPhone XS Max. But, I do have a tin ear for most things audio, so your own experience may vary.
If you are wondering why I haven't commented on my experience of the battery life of the iPhone 12 Pro, it's because for typically the first week of use a new iPhone is running tasks in the background, such as indexing your photo library, which make it unfair to draw any conclusions on how battery performance will be in routine daily use.
Overall, the iPhone 12 Pro feels a solid update over the iPhone XS Max. In terms of performance and features, most of the changes are iterative rather than revolutionary. However, I welcome the new design, and hope that my expectations of fast and useful adoption of LiDAR in to apps such as Seeing AI and Envision AI are justified.
If you're thinking of upgrading from an older device, like an iPhone 8 or earlier, then I am confident that you'll find that VoiceOver is snappier and apps faster to open. If, however, you have an iPhone 11 and are less confident that LiDAR will bring any value in the immediate future, it's likely that you will see few compelling reasons to upgrade.
I have no doubt that at the very first opportunity I will be at my local Apple Store to go hands-on with an iPhone 12 mini. Despite everything said above, it's still the new model that excites me the most. Even with an iPhone 12 Pro sat on the table next to me, my thoughts still regularly stray to the form factor of the 12 mini, the fact that it offers most of the performance and features of the iPhone 12 Pro, and that it costs a lot less. If it proves to be easier to use one-handed than I’m imagining, then I will no doubt be sorely tempted.
Accordingly, if you haven't already taken the plunge and bought an iPhone 12 or 12 Pro, I would strongly recommend that you now wait a couple more weeks until iPhone 12 mini reviews become available.
If you are in the market for a new iPhone, I have no reservations in recommending any of the four models that made my initial shortlist. Choose the one that best fits your own personal circumstances and use case, and I am sure that you will be extremely happy with it. Considering their performance levels and features, I also expect that your choice will serve you very well for several years.
For a more in-depth review of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, here are some that I recommend as good starting points:
Daring Fireball: The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro
Mashable: iPhone 12 and 12 Pro review: Smoke and mirrors, and not much else
The Verge: Apple iPhone 12 Pro review: ahead of its time
The Verge: Apple iPhone 12 review: raising the bar
Wired: Review: Apple iPhone 12 Pro
Engadget: iPhone 12 and 12 Pro review: Apple enters the 5G era