Apple iPhone 12 full review
The iPhone 12 is a massive leap forward for the iPhone range, offering not only a brand new design reminiscent of the much-loved iPhone 4, but improved durability, Apple’s new ultra-detailed Super Retina XDR display, 5G connectivity and an upgraded camera offering, making it harder than ever to justify the extra cost of upgrading to the Pro models.
Simply put, the iPhone 12 is all the iPhone you’d ever need, and it's now available in a new shade of purple too.
Design and build
The iPhone 12 is a step away from the iPhone 11 not only in features and spec, but design too. Gone are the curved edges of last year’s iPhone range, with the iPhone 12 sporting a sharp 90-degree angle at its sides in a similar vein not only to the iPad Pro and iPad Air, but the beloved design of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5. It’s completed by an aluminium band that runs around the edge of the smartphone, with near-flush volume and power buttons mounted on the sides.
The angular design is striking, and as a fan of the iPhone 4’s industrial design, it’s great to see it make a return to the iPhone. It is a different experience in the hand though; it’s sharper in the hand than curved smartphones despite slightly chamfered edges, although the flipside is that the iPhone 12 feels way more secure in my hand than a curved alternative, and it feels less likely to slip from my grasp as I’m using it.
There are a few improvements compared to the iPhone 4 design though. Most notable is the display, which fits seamlessly around the aluminium frame with no gap or bump, and that’s true of the rear too. It’s also 11% thinner than last year’s option, with slightly slimmer bezels and a smaller overall footprint, without impacting on the size of the display.
That flush 6.1in display is coated by what Apple calls a Ceramic Shield. The company worked with Corning, the company behind the ultra-tough Gorilla Glass, to offer a glass display infused with nano-ceramic crystals to make it tougher and less shatter-prone. It’s a totally new manufacturing process that’s unique to the iPhone 12 range, and Apple seems very confident in its capabilities.
In fact, Apple claims that the iPhone 12, complete with Ceramic Shield and new aluminium frame, offer a 4x improvement in drop performance compared to the iPhone 11. That’s pretty hard to quantify, and I’m not about to destroy an iPhone in the name of a drop test, but it should mean fewer trips to the Apple Store to replace your broken display. It’s certainly not drop-proof though, and will still likely smash from a significant impact.
But while the Ceramic Shield offers an upgrade in drop durability, it’s important to note that it doesn’t include scratch protection. In fact, it’s just as scratch-prone as its predecessor, and after a week’s use, there is already a fine scratch on my review sample, so this isn’t the perfect replacement for a glass screen protector that many had hoped.
It’s worth pointing out that while Ceramic Shield is available on the front of the iPhone 12, that doesn’t extend to the glass on the rear. That offers a smaller 2x improvement in durability compared to last year’s iPhone thanks to the industrial design, but it’s the same glass, which means that while your display may not shatter if you drop your iPhone, there’s a chance the glass back will.
Still, if you are one of those brave enough to use the iPhone 12 without a case, this should bring you some peace of mind at least.
The IP68 rating, although not technically different to that of the iPhone 11, has been improved with the iPhone 12. Apple claims that the latest iPhone can survive a dunk in up to 6 meters of water for 30 minutes before water will begin to seep into its components. That’s a pretty niche use case, but what it does mean is that your iPhone will more than likely survive from day-to-day water damage.
Oh, and you’ve got plenty of colours to choose from this time too, with Blue, Product Red, Green, Black and White options available on the standard iPhone 12, and following the Spring Loaded event in April 2021, it's also available in a lovely shade of purple.
Wait, where’s the charger gone?
You might notice that the iPhone 12 packaging is significantly thinner than that of its predecessor, and that’s because Apple took the decision to ditch the charging brick and EarPods this time around. Apple addressed this during its iPhone 12 announcement, highlighting the fact that there are millions of charging bricks and EarPods in circulation and that it doesn’t want to contribute to that, and it makes sense – on paper anyway.
The problem is that, in the same breath, Apple decided to ship the iPhone 12 with a Lightning to USB-C cable in place of the USB-A cable shipped in previous years, making those millions of charging bricks referenced in the announcement immediately obsolete.
Apple has only shipped USB-C chargers with fairly recent products like the iPhone 11 Pro, iPad Pro and iPad Air, meaning you’ll likely have to shell out an additional £19/$19 for Apple’s charging brick if you don’t have a USB-C plug nearby, therefore continuing to contribute to the environmental charging brick issue.
So, while the idea is admirable, the execution is deeply flawed and likely to cause frustration for most new iPhone owners.
One of the biggest upgrades over the iPhone 11 is the display, and it’s immediately noticeable when you fire up the smartphone for the first time. In previous years, the standard iPhone has shipped with a standard LCD display while the Pro counterparts featured a superior OLED display, and it was historically a big reason to pay the extra for the Pro models.
But, with so Android smartphones boasting OLED displays – and not just flagships either – it’s a trend that Apple couldn’t keep up if it wants to remain competitive in the wider smartphone market. That being said, Apple took the decision to roll out the brand-new Super Retina XDR display across the entire iPhone 12 range, and it’s an absolute beauty.
At the heart of the Super Retina XDR display is a custom OLED panel, offering an impressive 2,000,000:1 ratio for blacks and a maximum 1200nits brightness when watching HDR content. The main draw of the OLED panel is the blacks it displays; they’re deep and dark, a stark contrast from blacks that look almost grey on LCDs, and that’s even more evident when using iOS 14’s Dark Mode.
It also supports HDR10 playback with support for Dolby Vision, and while Dolby Vision content is limited at the moment, the fact that the iPhone 12 can record Dolby Vision HDR video should increase the amount of content available in the coming months.
It’s not just a jump from LCD to OLED either, with the 6.1in Super Retina XDR display of the iPhone 12 offering double the pixel capacity of the iPhone 11, and that translates to a noticeable improvement to overall detail. Text seems clearer than ever, and it’s a similar story with photos, videos and graphics in high-end mobile games like Call of Duty Mobile too. For reference, the iPhone 11 had a resolution of 1792 x 828, while the iPhone 12 boasts a 2532 x 1170 resolution.
But while the Super Retina XDR display is a great update in most respects, there is still a notch sat at the top of the display. It’s not any thinner or narrower than that of previous generations, although like with all Face ID-enabled iPhones up until this point, it’s something you’ll stop noticing within days of use.
There’s also the elephant in the room; it’s still capped at 60Hz, while the Android competition is full steam ahead with 90Hz, 120Hz and even 144Hz displays. It’s not much of a downside for iPhone users, as many won’t have experienced the 120Hz ProMotion technology available on the iPad Pro range, but it’ll make it hard to tempt an Android user that has had access to a high refresh rate display.
The buttery smoothness of a high refresh rate display is hard to let go of once you’ve experienced it, but considering the battery performance of the iPhone 12 (which I detail below), I’m not surprised it didn’t make the cut this year. But hey, there’s always next year, right?
Regardless of refresh rate, the Super XDR OLED display of the iPhone 12 is phenomenal and could be enough to tempt even iPhone 11 owners to upgrade.
MagSafe for iPhone
Remember the beloved MagSafe technology from the MacBook range? Apple has resurrected the technology, this time for the iPhone, utilising built-in magnets to offer a new way to use iPhone accessories.
On the rear of the iPhone 12, you’ll find a circular magnet surrounding the wireless charging coil embedded beneath the glass, complete with an NFC chip and other tech that’s smart enough to detect not only when an accessory is magnetically connected, but which accessory it is too. It’s not a new concept – Motorola’s Moto Mods were arguably ahead of their time, and there are plenty of third-party cases with magnet accessories – but integration with iPhone and iOS opens up a whole new world of options.
The offering is admittedly limited at launch, with Apple shipping a MagSafe charger, a MagSafe wallet accessory and a bunch of MagSafe cases that offer compatibility with accessories while protecting your iPhone, but that’ll likely expand in the coming months as third-party retailers get their thinking caps on.
The MagSafe charger, supplied for review, doesn’t look dissimilar to the wireless charger supplied with the Apple Watch, albeit larger and encased in an aluminium frame. It works in a similar way too; the charger will snap into place when near the Apple logo on the rear of the smartphone, and it’ll charge faster than standard Qi wireless charging at 15W.
The key thing is that once snapped on, the charger is securely in place, and it won’t move unless pulled off with quite a bit of force. That negates the issue of finding the sweet spot when using standard wireless chargers, and you can rest assured that it won’t slip and stop charging mid-way through the night either.
However, it’s not quite the same pick-up-and-go experience as a standard wireless charging mat as you’ll still need to remove the charging puck from the rear, and is that really any different to simply unplugging your iPhone from a wired charger? Still, it’s a cool bit of tech and the uses for MagSafe will likely expand in new and exciting ways as the months go on.
Performance and battery life
At the heart of the iPhone 12 you’ll find Apple’s new A14 Bionic chipset, one of the first in the smartphone market to be built on the 5nm process to provide not only improved performance, but a boost in energy efficiency too. Last year’s A13 Bionic was one of the most powerful on the market, and I expect the same to be true of the A14 Bionic over the course of the next year, with the iPhone 12 able to handle just about anything I could throw at it without breaking a sweat.
There’s no stutter or lag when scrolling through media-heavy apps like Twitter, games run flawlessly despite the increased resolution on offer from the iPhone 12 and it’s rapid when it comes to exporting video too. That’s backed up by our benchmarks, with the iPhone 12 besting much of the Android competition in CPU tests, although the iPhone 12’s GPU benchmark results are capped due to the inclusion of a standard 60Hz display.
It’s not just about speed though; the A14 Bionic offers a huge 80% increase in its Neural Engine performance, jumping from an 8-core to a 16-core design to provide 11 trillion operations per second. It’s not something you’ll notice straight away, but the increased machine learning capabilities available on the A14 Bionic power some of the camera upgrades on offer – but more on that later.
Apple has come a long way in the past few years with regards to the battery life of the iPhone range, with the iPhone 11 Pro Max able to last more than a day on a single charge with average use in my experience. That’s not quite what you’ll get from the iPhone 12, with a smaller battery than the 11 Pro Max, but it is similar to what you’d get from the standard iPhone 11. Interestingly, Apple actually quotes a slightly worse battery – offering 17 hours of video playback compared to 18 last year – but that isn’t too noticeable in everyday use.
Generally speaking, the iPhone 12 can last a day without needing a top-up, but it will depend very much on what you’re doing and whether you’re connected to battery-hungry 5G networks. I’ve got comfortably through the day while texting, tweeting and calling, but more power-intensive actions like FaceTime video and will drain the battery pretty quickly.
It’s important to note that while that is good for an iPhone, it’s not that great compared to the Android competition, and that’s shown in our benchmarks. The iPhone 12 managed to last 6 hours and 36 minutes during our battery test, miles behind alternatives like the Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro that lasted well over 14 hours in testing.
And, without a charger in the box, the charging speed will very much depend on the wattage of the charging brick you use. It’s worth investing in Apple’s USB-C charging brick if possible, offering the maximum 18W fast charge speed possible on the iPhone 12, but any USB-C charging brick should do the job.
5G comes to the iPhone
Of course, I couldn’t talk about the iPhone 12 without mentioning 5G, one of the key features of this year’s iteration. The iPhone 12 is the first Apple product to boast 5G support, and in true Apple fashion, the company has gone all-in on integrating the upgraded connectivity into the hardware and software of the iPhone.
One key area Apple was keen to focus on was compatibility, with the iPhone 12 offering compatibility with more 5G bands than much of the competition via custom-designed 5G components, meaning you should be able to access 5G in many countries around the world, not just the country of purchase. There’s even support for the lightning-fast, truly next-gen mmWave 5G connectivity, but that’s limited to certain cities in the US… for now.
The improvements on offer from 5G aren’t to be sniffed at, offering a huge increase in download and upload speeds, improved latency that could usher in an age of cloud gaming on-the-go and less network congestion, meaning you’ll stay connected even in busy signal areas like a football match or concert, but it’s not available everywhere just yet.
In the UK, at least, 5G connectivity is limited to big cities and is yet to become available in rural areas where you’d arguably get the most benefit from ultra-fast connectivity, but it is a great futureproofing option as 5G coverage expands over the next few years.
5G connectivity comes at a cost, not only to space inside the smartphone due to more components, but battery life too. Apple was well aware of this and has baked a new Smart Data mode into iOS 14 to help alleviate the issue, allowing the smartphone to automatically switch between 4G and 5G connectivity depending on when it’s needed.
If you’re streaming a movie on Netflix, for example, you’ll get the full effects of 5G connectivity, but it’ll drop to 4G when in your pocket to save on battery life. It’s a small feature, but one of many automated time-saving features that improve the iPhone experience overall.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the iPhone 12 packs the same camera setup as the iPhone 11 because, on the surface, not much has changed. There’s still a main 12Mp wide snapper and an 12Mp ultra-wide, but the former has an upgraded f/1.6 aperture and a new 7-element lens to further enhance low-light photography.
For the most parts, that’s true; images taken using the main rear camera are bright, detailed and vibrant with great colour reproduction, and there’s a noticeable improvement in low-light performance compared to the iPhone 11. It’s a versatile snapper that can produce truly incredible results, especially when combined with the various software-powered features on offer.
The hardware in the 120-degree ultrawide might not have changed compared to last year, but that’s not to say there aren’t any improvements on offer. The most noticeable is automatic lens correction, which aims to reduce the fish-eye distortion present around the edges of images taken on the ultra-wide, giving shots a more natural look.
Importantly, images taken in ideal conditions on the wide and ultra-wide don’t look all too different, aside from the fact that the ultra-wide can capture 4x the scene of the main lens. The colours generally match up, making it not immediately obvious which lens has been used, and that can’t be said about many alternatives. It is a little muddier in low-light conditions though, due to the comparatively inferior f/2.4 aperture.
One of the most exciting features of the iPhone 11 was Night Mode, and Apple has boosted its capabilities on the iPhone 12. Not only do you see improvements to overall quality and the amount of light captured thanks to the upgraded main lens, but you’ve now got the option of using the ultrawide and front-facing selfies cameras too.
The results from the main sensor are at times startling, capturing more of a scene than you can see with your own eyes, taking a shot of a garden at night and making it look like it was taken at dusk. You do need to get the framing right, and you’ll have to keep your phone very still during the (up to) 15-second exposure for the best quality, but it is possible to capture genuinely impressive night shots on the iPhone 12.
It’s certainly best on the main sensor though. While you can use Night Mode on the ultrawide, and it does make a noticeable difference to the amount of light captured compared to a standard shot, images often lack the detail and clarity of images taken with the main snapper. It’s one key area where the performance of the lens differs.
I’d recommend investing in a cheap smartphone tripod for the best results, partly because if you do opt for a tripod, you’ve also got the option of shooting Night Mode Timelapse video – another new feature of the iPhone 12.
Night Mode aside, the iPhone 12 features Apple’s new Smart HDR 3 technology, which uses the machine learning capabilities of the A14 Bionic to detect and understand scenes and tweak the capture accordingly. That could come in the form of highlighting the foreground subject in a backlit shot, or simply capturing detail in both the sky and land in scenic shots. The end result is often detail in both bright and dark areas in shots taken in challenging light conditions.
Part of the reason why images taken on the iPhone look so detailed is Deep Fusion. Introduced last year on the iPhone 11 Pro, Deep Fusion uses machine learning to enhance the image on a pixel-by-pixel basis to adjust lighting and sharpen images without losing detail, and it works impressively well, making images truly pop.
If you’re quick enough in the Camera preview, you can actually see the before and after as the iPhone does its thing, helping showcase just how much the software makes a difference.
The front-facing 12Mp snapper remains unchanged from the iPhone 11, complete with the same f/2.2 aperture and ability to digitally switch between wide and ultrawide modes with a single lens, but the added Night Mode support brings a little more light to selfies in dark environments.
Arguably the best feature of the front-facing camera is Portrait mode, because despite no change in hardware, the iPhone 12 seems to better differentiate between the subject and background, with noticeably fewer blurry blobs around the subject of the image – even with challenging hair outlines.
There are also improvements to the video offering, with the iPhone 12 range able to shoot in 10-bit Dolby Vision HDR on-the-fly alongside its standard [email protected] and [email protected] slow-mo recording capabilities.
It does provide a noticeable improvement to videos shot on the iPhone, especially when combined with the Dolby Vision support of the Super XDR display, but it’s not a reason for the average consumer to pick it up. The difference isn’t that startling, and more importantly, you’re capped to 30fps on the standard iPhone 12 – for buttery-smooth 60fps HDR recording, you’ll need to go for the iPhone 12 Pro.
Overall, the iPhone 12 camera system may be more of a refinement than a redesign, but I think there’s a lot of improvements here – especially in low-light conditions – that fans will enjoy.
Pricing and availability
The iPhone 12 is available to buy now, following a release on 23 October 2020. You’re able to pick it up directly from Apple alongside key retailers like Amazon and John Lewis in the UK and Amazon in the US, but those on the hunt for the smaller iPhone 12 mini have a little longer to wait, with the smartphone not going up for pre-order until 6 November.
The iPhone 12 will set you back £799/$799, which is actually a £70/$100 increase on the iPhone 11 range. That’s likely down in part to 5G connectivity, which does come at a premium, but it’s more than likely to do with the fact that the aforementioned iPhone 12 Mini will be taking the iPhone 11’s original £699/$699 price. That’s with 64GB of memory, and you’ll have to pay more for 128- or 126GB of storage.
The iPhone 12 represents a jump forward for the iPhone, not only in terms of design but functionality too. The industrial angular design of the phone may take some getting used to, but there’s a charm to it, and it feels much more secure in the hand than curvier alternatives too. The combination of glass and aluminium is gorgeous, and the variety of vibrant colour options available mean there’s something for everyone.
It’s also the first standard iPhone to get the same display as its Pro counterparts, with the iPhone 12 sporting the same Super Retina XDR display as the iPhone 12 Pro models. It’s an immediately noticeable upgrade, going from the LCD tech of last year’s iPhone to the vastly superior OLED tech, with more vibrant colours and deeper blacks than ever before, but it does lack the high refresh rate of many Android competitors.
5G connectivity is a huge plus for the iPhone 12 too, finally allowing iPhone fans to jump on the 5G bandwagon that Android fans have been enjoying for some time – wherever 5G is available, anyway. MagSafe is just as exciting in my opinion, offering a new way for accessories to connect and communicate with your iPhone, even if the MagSafe charging is about as convenient as plugging it in.
Then there are the various camera upgrades, including the new 7-element lens and improved f/1.6 aperture of the main sensor on the rear, resulting in improved low-light performance and generally more detailed images. You’ve also got the option of using Night Mode on any of the iPhone 12’s cameras, not just the main rear snapper, and there’s Dolby Vision HDR video recording available too – albeit at 30fps.
There’s a lot to love about the iPhone 12, and with so many similarities to the iPhone 12 Pro, it’d be hard to justify the £200/$200 price hike. The iPhone 12 is the iPhone for most people right now.
Related stories for further reading
Price comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwide