Added benefits amplify the largest iPhone 12 model; Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Review
Between the unchanged screen size and familiar, Face ID-housing notch sitting at the top, it’s clear that the iPhone 12 isn’t a massive reinvention of Apple’s modern smartphone. Yet the myriad enhancements collectively make this a bigger upgrade than expected.
What We Like
- Eye-catching design
- Incredibly powerful
- Full 5G support
- Beautiful screen
- Excellent cameras
What We Don’t Like
- Only 60Hz screen
- No external storage
- No included power brick
From the addition of 5G support to a higher-resolution OLED display and attractive design refinements, the iPhone feels properly refreshed with this edition—and more importantly, the core, non-Pro iPhone no longer feels like a “lesser-than” model, unlike the last couple versions. In fact, given the similarities between them and the $200 price gulf, the iPhone 12 might be the better pick than the iPhone 12 Pro for many users this time around.
Design: Thinner, flatter, bolder
While the iPhone 12 still feels very much like a successor to the revolutionary iPhone X design philosophy, it sees Apple looking back even further for inspiration from some of the all-time best iPhone silhouettes. Gone is the rounded, bulbous shape of the sides, now replaced by a properly flat aluminum frame akin to that of the iPhone 5 and 5s.
Call it a mash-up of some of Apple’s best phone design elements, but it makes the iPhone look distinctive again after seeing a lot of competitors produce their own takes on the aesthetic. Apple has also refreshed the color selection this time around, adding the deep blue option seen here along with a lighter lime green, as well as keeping the familiar black, white, and (Product)RED options. The backing glass color matches that of the aluminum frame, delivering a bold and enticing look.
Between the flatter sides and some other trims and tweaks, Apple has managed to keep the same 6.1-inch screen size within a slimmer overall package. It’s 11 percent thinner, 15 percent smaller, and 16 percent lighter compared to the iPhone 11, making a relatively large-screened phone feel surprisingly svelte and manageable in the hand. It sits at just under 5.8 inches tall and just over 2.8 inches wide, with a thickness just under 0.3 inches. And if you want something even smaller, the iPhone 12 mini drops down to a 5.4-inch screen with otherwise nearly-identical components for $100 less than the standard iPhone 12.
As before, the iPhone 12 has an IP68 water and dust resistance rating, and should survive being submerged in water at up to 6 meters for up to 30 minutes. There’s still no 3.5mm headphone port here, which Apple axed a few models back, but also no 3.5mm-to-USB-C adapter for plugging traditional headphones into the device. You won’t find USB-C headphones in the box either, and for the first time, there’s no power adapter. That’s part of why the packaging is about half the usual size, and while many of us probably already have a few USB wall adapters kicking around, you’ll probably be very annoyed if you spend $799+ on a new phone and have to drop another $20 just to charge it.
It’s 11 percent thinner, 15 percent smaller, and 16 percent lighter compared to the iPhone 11, making a relatively large-screened phone feel surprisingly svelte and manageable in the hand.
The iPhone 12 does have a new unseen benefit: compatibility for MagSafe accessories. Essentially, Apple packed in a circular magnet beneath the backing glass, which means that you can attach a fast wireless charging pad with ease, as well as a magnetic wallet attachment for the phone. Apple’s own cases also let you connect MagSafe accessories through them, so you won’t have to go case-less to use them. It’s a brand new feature for the iPhone line, and we’re sure to see some interesting add-ons in time. Hopefully, it proves more worthwhile than Motorola’s magnetic Moto Mod attachments for some of its Android phones.
The 64GB of internal storage in the base iPhone 12 model is still a bit thin. True, we’re all streaming a lot of content these days rather than storing it all locally, but you’ll still need a solid chunk of storage for apps, games, photos, and local media like music and videos. You can bump up to 128GB for $50 more or 256GB for $150 more, and as ever, there’s no option for external memory cards with an iPhone.
Setup Process: Easy does it
Setting up the iPhone 12 is a pretty painless process. If you’re upgrading from an iPhone running iOS 11 or newer, then you can use your existing device to speed up the process via Quick Start, or otherwise set up the new phone manually. You’ll activate the device via a cellular network or Wi-Fi, set up Face ID security by rotating your head in view of the front-facing camera a couple times, and decide whether or not to transfer data from another device or a backup. There’s a few other quick options to choose from during setup, but otherwise it’s very straightforward and should only take about 10 minutes to get up and running.
Performance: It can’t be beat
The iPhone 12 feels super smooth and responsive in action, with no noticeable lag or delays in accessing apps and games. That is the norm for Apple phones, as the company’s harmonious pairing of its own hardware and optimized iOS software consistently delivers strong performance.
However, in recent years, Apple has pushed past solely reaping the benefits of optimization: its smartphone chips are now the fastest on the market by a solid margin, and it keeps growing. The new A14 Bionic is a hexa-core processor that packs in 11.8 billion transistors into its tiny footprint, delivering ample speed across all needs and demands. And it handily beats the top Android phone chips in both single-core and multi-core performance.
The iPhone 12 is Apple’s best sub-$1,000 smartphone in years, delivering a premium, polished handset that is packed with power and style alike.
Using the Geekbench 5 benchmark app, the iPhone 12 recorded a single-core score of 1,589 and a multi-core score of 3,955. I put that up against the $1,300 Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G and its Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+, today’s most powerful Android chip, and it gave scores of 975 and 3,186 respectively. The iPhone 12 was 63 percent faster in single-core speeds and 24 percent faster in multi-core testing, and this is on a phone that costs $500 less than the Note20 Ultra 5G. Against the $749 OnePlus 8T and its standard Snapdragon 865 (no Plus) chip, the gulf was even wider thanks to scores of 891 and 3,133 respectively.
The A14 Bionic chip is generations ahead of Android phones, and even if those top Android handsets feel just as smooth in action, that extra oomph could help the iPhone 12 stay lively and capable for a longer span of time, handling demanding apps and games with ease.
No surprise, it’s also a powerhouse with games: everything I played ran smoothly and 3D games looked crisp and detailed. Meanwhile, the GFXBench score of 56 frames per second on the Car Chase benchmark is the best I’ve seen on any phone, with the 60fps score on the less-demanding T-Rex benchmark pretty common amongst high-end phones with 60Hz displays.
Connectivity: Ride the 5G wave
All of the iPhone 12 models are equipped with support for both sub-6Ghz and mmWave 5G networks. The former is more broadly available as of this writing but provides only modest speed gains compared with existing 4G LTE networks. The latter, meanwhile, can be incredibly fast but is sparsely deployed as of now and centralized in high-traffic, mostly urban areas.
For example, on Verizon’s Nationwide 5G network, I typically saw speeds between 50-80Mbps, with a maximum reading of 132Mbps. On the high end, that’s 2-3x what I’d typically record via LTE in my testing area just north of Chicago. But when connected to the mmWave-powered Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband network, I saw a top reading of 2.88Gbps, or more than 20x the top speed seen on the Nationwide network. It’s also the fastest mmWave 5G score I’ve recorded on a phone to date, beating both the Pixel 5 and Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G on that front.
That’s truly incredible, but here’s the hitch: I recorded that speed on the only four-block stretch with Ultra Wideband coverage in a nearby town. That said, it was one block of coverage a few weeks prior, so there’s progress being made in the deployment. Still, those dazzling speeds are sparingly available for now, but your iPhone can handle them when you’re in range. And if you’re curious, the little cutout on the right side of the phone that looks like a button (but isn’t) is actually an mmWave antenna window.
When connected to the mmWave-powered Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband network, I saw a top reading of 2.88Gbps, or more than 20x the top speed seen on the Nationwide network.
Display Quality: It’s a beauty
The screen is perhaps the biggest year-over-year upgrade on the iPhone 12. For both the iPhone 11 and iPhone XR, Apple opted to use a 6.1-inch LCD panel at a resolution of 1792×828—a fair bit below 1080p, which you’d find on most Android phones at half the price. They were still colorful and bright screens, but the subpar crispness was baffling on phones priced at $699+.
Luckily, the iPhone 12 rights that wrong with not only a big bump to 2532×1170 resolution at the same screen size, but also using OLED display technology instead. Not only do you get a sharp screen at 460 pixels per inch (ppi), but it also boasts the bolder contrast and deeper black levels that OLED provides over LCD screens.
It’s an excellent display with beautiful coloring and very good brightness, although note that the Pro models get brighter—up to 800 nits in typical use versus 625 nits on the iPhone 12. I put the iPhone 12 side-by-side with last year’s incredibly bright iPhone 11 Pro Max and there was a clear advantage for the Pro Max. Still, the iPhone 12 should be plenty bright for most users.
One hitch, however: it’s a regular 60Hz screen and lacks the smoother 90Hz and 120Hz refresh rates introduced by many top Android phones over the last year-plus. Those phones feel extra-swift thanks to the lightning-quick animations enabled by the faster refresh rate, and the iPhone 12 doesn’t have anything like that. Truth be told, even though I love that feature on other phones, I didn’t really notice the omission when using the phone. Still, this great screen would have been even better at 90Hz or 120Hz.
The iPhone 12’s screen is protected by what Apple calls a Ceramic Shield, a new ceramic-infused glass that’s said to provide 4x the drop protection over the iPhone 11 or any other phone on the market. I thankfully haven’t dropped the iPhone 12 in any meaningful way, and after a week and a half of usage, the screen still remains pristine. My last couple iPhones have both seemed especially prone to scratches, so I’m hoping that the Ceramic Shield also prevents everyday nicks and scratches as well as it does hard drops.
Sound Quality: Sounds sharp
The iPhone 12 delivers surprisingly strong sound coming from its bottom-firing speaker and earpiece, which collectively provide stereo output for music, podcasts, videos, and other media. Considering the small size of the speakers, I was pleasantly surprised by the fullness of the soundscape when bumping streaming tunes, for example. You’re still better off connecting to dedicated, external speakers, but you can get quite good playback in a pinch for tunes using the onboard speakers.
Camera/Video Quality: You’ll be snap happy
While some rival phones have captured greater detail or allowed for more fussing and tweaking via pro shooting modes, iPhones have long been my preferred point-and-shoot smartphone cameras. Apple’s camera app makes it easy to grab a great shot in nearly any scenario, including automatically enabling the night mode in low light, and that’s still true with the iPhone 12.
Here you get a pair of 12-megapixel back cameras: wide-angle and ultrawide. The wide-angle is your everyday shooter, and the results are consistently strong in my testing: loads of detail, well-judged colors, and effortless adaptability to all scenarios. Even night shots turn out well, maintaining a surprising amount of detail without looking washed out in the process of brightening up a dark moment.
When you need a wider view, such as with a landscape, simply switch to the ultrawide camera. I think a telephoto zoom camera would’ve been a more useful second camera since the 5x digital zoom feature diminishes image quality with each step, but you’ll have to bump up to an iPhone 12 Pro model to add that option. In any case, the two cameras you do get with the iPhone 12 are among the best out there for still images and 4K-resolution video shooting alike.
And on the front, the Face ID camera is still very adept at recognizing your mug to unlock your phone, along with taking strong selfies. There’s just one issue right now, given the world we live in: it won’t recognize your face with a mask on. I can’t blame Apple for that one, but it does add a hitch when you’re using your phone while out and about.
Battery: Go MagSafe?
You’ll get a solid day’s usage out of the iPhone 12’s battery pack, which is apparently a 2,815mAh cell (Apple never discloses these details). That’s slightly smaller than the iPhone 11 packed, but I still found it robust enough to get through an average day with roughly 30 percent left by the time I hit the pillow. More demanding days may warrant an afternoon top-up or packing a backup battery, though; this isn’t one of the most resilient smartphone batteries out there.
You can fast-charge at up to 20W with the included Lightning-to-USB-C cord with a powerful-enough wall adapter, or charge wirelessly on a Qi pad at up to 7.5W. And there’s a new middle option with the aforementioned MagSafe anchor: a 15W wireless MagSafe Charger cable that snaps onto the back of the phone.
In my testing, the MagSafe Charger brought the phone to 27 percent in 30 minutes and 47 percent in 60 minutes—not blistering speeds, but still faster than a typical wireless charger can handle. Using a standard Qi wireless charger, I hit 14 percent in 30 minutes and 30 percent in 60 minutes, by comparison. You’ll pay $39 for the MagSafe Charger, though, which feels a bit expensive given that it doesn’t come with the necessary 20W-or-higher power brick. Still, it’s a handy tool that can also wirelessly charge AirPods cases.
Software: Widgets, finally
As ever, iOS is a very smooth and easy-to-use mobile operating system that’s packed with polish, and the App Store has the best selection of apps and games of any mobile marketplace. The recent iOS 14 update brings modest tweaks and enhancements, some of which are more noticeable and beneficial than others—such as customizable home screen widgets (finally) that take up multiple icon spaces.
Other benefits such as picture-in-picture FaceTime calls, pinned conversations in Messages, and enhanced smart home integration in the Home app are great, but overall there’s nothing too revolutionary in the mix. And let’s be honest: widgets in iOS are many, many years overdue.
Price: Feels like a good value
At $799, the iPhone 12 is $100 more expensive than the previous model, but I think it’s well worth the additional investment for a phone with a significantly better screen, 5G support, an eye-catching design, and the fastest mobile processor on the planet. The smaller iPhone 12 mini still sits at the $699 price point for those who want (or can tolerate) a compact screen.
The $699 price point has become more competitive lately with phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G and Google Pixel 5, but the iPhone 12 offers a more powerful and more premium-feeling package to warrant the extra spend.
Curiously, the unlocked version sells for $829, or $30 more than the model sold for each of the major US carriers. All but the AT&T version are actually already unlocked and can be transferred between carriers, but it is odd to see a premium required for the flexibility of a fully unlocked device.
Apple iPhone 12 vs. Google Pixel 5
The Google Pixel 5 is a unique offering this year in that it’s no longer a full-fledged flagship phone. Google opted to shave down the price by using a mid-range processor instead, and while it still provides a smooth experience, benchmark testing reveals a phone that is less than half as powerful as the iPhone 12 for only $100 less. The Pixel 5 is also much blander-looking than the iPhone 12. On the upside, it has the same kind of robust 5G compatibility and it has one of the most resilient batteries I’ve seen on any recent smartphone, which could be a key selling point for users who consistently push their phones to the brink.