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Apple iPhone 12 review: The best iPhone for most people

There are few smartphones more iconic than the iPhone. It’s a phone that’s dominated the tech landscape since it first appeared back in 2007, evolving continuously over the ensuing years to become the thing I’m looking at today: the iPhone 12. Having reviewed almost every single iteration, I can safely say it’s a product that’s changed beyond all recognition since its inception.

Apart from making me feel old, this helps put the iPhone 12 in a bit of context. Back in 2007, the first iPhone had a 3.5in, 320 x 480 screen and a 2MP camera that, at the time, seemed a novelty more than a practical way of capturing memories. Today, the iPhone 12 is the only consumer device in the world that can capture 10-bit Dolby Vision video footage. 

Back then a smartphone was for phone calls, texts and emails; today it’s the way most people connect to the world, their friends and their loved ones, and for many, it’s the main media consumption device in their lives.

Apple iPhone 12 review: What you need to know

Looking back, there’s a huge difference between 2020’s Apple flagship and the very first iPhone. This is the sort of progress that’s only possible by continually taking small, steady steps; the iPhone 12, like most of the iPhones that have preceded it, is another of those incremental advances.

The most obvious change this year is the new look, with the iPhones of 2020 reprising the getup of the ten-year-old iPhone 4 and 4s, but there’s a lot of other stuff that’s new, too. Inside the iPhone 12 is Apple’s new A14 Bionic chipset – a six-core SoC that’s notable not only for the fact that it’s 50% faster than the A12 Bionic but also for the fact that it’s the world’s first 5nm processor.

The iPhone 12 is slightly smaller and lighter than before, and it’s more durable, too, thanks to the new ‘Ceramic Shield’ glass on the front and a tougher glass on the rear. Despite having the same size display (6.1in), it’s now sharper thanks to a higher resolution and new “Super Retina XDR” AMOLED display tech that replaces last year’s Liquid Retina IPS LCD.

The camera system still consists of three lenses, but it’s had a substantial upgrade in the form of a wider, brighter aperture on the main camera and a new seven-element lens arrangement on the main camera, plus that incredible ability to capture 10-bit Dolby Vision HDR video. 

And that angular design isn’t the only thing Apple has resurrected with the iPhone 12 this year. MagSafe also makes a return: wireless chargers and other accessories now have the ability to snap magnetically to the rear of the iPhone.

Perhaps the biggest news this year, however, apart from the lack of a high-refresh-rate 120Hz display, is the addition of 5G support. Although coverage is still patchy in the UK, this does at least mean the new iPhone 12 and its three sister phones are future-proofed. You may not need 5G today but when you want to make the step in a year or so, you know your phone will be ready for it.

Apple iPhone 12 review: Price and competition

It’s just as well Apple has improved so much this year because prices for the iPhone 12 have risen, from a base £729 in 2019 to £799 in 2020. Disappointingly, that doesn’t get you any more base storage; your options are still 64GB, 128GB or 256GB with prices rising to £849 and £949 as you increase the amount. As ever, you can’t do this yourself because there’s no way of expanding via microSD.

For most people looking to buy an iPhone 12, the alternative options will come from Apple’s own stable of smartphones, both present and past. The iPhone 11 is still available and has seen a significant price drop. It isn’t as good as the iPhone 12 for all the reasons listed above and below but it’s still one of the best phones around and right now you can buy the 64GB model for £599.

Then you have the cheaper, smaller but just as competent iPhone 12 mini at £699. It’s quite a step up to the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, however, which cost £999 and £1,099 respectively.

If you’re not fussed about whether you buy an Apple or Android handset, your choices widen considerably, and the potential for savings increases in tandem. Our current top pick of the mid-rangers is the OnePlus 8T, which starts at £549. This comes with four rear cameras, a more powerful battery than the iPhone 12 and incredibly fast 65W charging. The Google Pixel 5 isn’t half bad, either, at £599. Both these phones come with 5G and are a lot cheaper than the iPhone 12.

Apple iPhone 12 review: Design

When I said the iPhone 12 takes inspiration from the iPhone 4 and 4s, I wasn’t kidding. This is the first iPhone since to have flat sides and glass at the front and back. I rather liked that edition of the iPhone and I like this one even more. The frame is finished here in matte aluminium, where the Pro models are adorned with gleaming stainless steel.

The black forehead and chin bezels have long-since been banished, of course, in favour of an edge-to-edge screen, and the bezels that remain have been slimmed down. This results in a more elegant-looking handset and also one that’s smaller in all dimensions than the iPhone 11. Here’s a comparison of the dimensions of the iPhone 12 versus last year’s handset:

iPhone 12

iPhone 11

% difference

Width

71.5mm

75.7mm

-6%

Depth

7.4mm

8.3mm

-11%

Height

146.7mm

150.9mm

-3%

Weight

164g

194g

-15%

It’s a surprisingly light phone, too, weighing a mere 164g – that’s 15% lighter than its predecessor. For a phone of this size, it’s remarkably svelte and you can feel that difference in your pocket.

The one area the phone doesn’t hold an advantage over last year’s model, though, is in the choice of colours. Instead of six, there’s only four to pick from in 2020: blue, green, white, black and Product Red.

The buttons, Do Not Disturb switch, speaker grille, SIM slot and Lightning connector all reside in their usual positions, as does the square camera bump. The phone is still dust- and water-resistant to the IP68 standard, which means it can be submerged in up to six metres of water for as long as 30 minutes.

What you can’t necessarily see is that Apple has improved the toughness of the glass on the front and the rear of the iPhone 12. On the front, you’re getting Corning’s “Ceramic shield” glass, which is the first time in a number of years the firm has specified which manufacturer’s glass the phone is using. It also says the glass on the front is four times more drop resistant than before.

The rear glass, which has a polished finish on the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 mini, is a little less exotic and only two times more drop-resistant. Given that most people will be slapping a case straight on their new pride and joy, however, I think that’s a fair trade-off.

The other invisible design improvement is MagSafe. Embedded magnets in the rear panel of the iPhone 12 make it possible to attach all manner of accessories securely to the rear of the phone. The main one at first is the 15W wireless MagSafe Charger, a circular puck that snaps onto the phone, ensuring you don’t have to move the phone around to get it to take a charge.

There’s also a magnetic credit card holder you can attach directly to the rear of the phone or through your case. And the really clever thing is that along with a couple of extra sensors – a magnetometer and “custom” NFC chip – the phone can also recognise what type of accessory is being attached.


UPDATE: As of 30th April 2021, Apple has made the iPhone 12 available in a new colour: purple. It’s certainly an attractive addition, and it’s finished in the same glossy glass at the rear, ground glass finish to the camera bump and colour-coordinated anodised aluminium frame as all the other colour options.

As far as the colour itself goes, it’s more Parma Violets and just the purple side of blue rather than deep vibrant amethyst. It’s also only available for the iPhone 12 and its smaller sibling, the iPhone 12 mini; if you’re thinking of buying an iPhone 12 Pro or an iPhone 12 Pro Max, those are still available in silver, graphite, gold and blue. I think the new colour looks rather smart:

If you fancy looking at the new model in more detail, there are more images in the gallery. Just click on either of the three images above to take a look. My original review continues below. 


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Apple iPhone 12 review: Display

You don’t normally get drastic specification changes along with an overhaul in design but the iPhone 12 bucks the trend, representing a revamp on all fronts – including the display.

Although the size is still 6.1in, Apple has changed the panel type to AMOLED – now all iPhones are using this technology, not just the Pro models – and it has upped the resolution as well from 1,792 x 828 (326ppi) to 2,532 x 1,170 (460ppi).

You probably won’t be able to see the difference in sharpness without pressing your nose up against the screen but you will notice the AMOLED panel’s inky black level and 1,200cd/m² (candela per square metre, equivalent to nits) peak brightness in HDR playback. The iPhone 11, for reference, was only rated at 625cd/m² and we measured it at 612cd/m².

Speaking of which, the display also supports all the standards you can think of here, including HDR10, HDR 10+, HLG and Dolby Vision. Naturally, that also means it’s a wide gamut display, capable of reproducing most of the P3 colour space.

In testing, the display performed at the iPhone’s usually excellent level,  with a colour accuracy average Delta of 0.9 in the sRGB colour space and a 1,090cd/m² peak brightness level for highlights during HDR playback.

However, it’s worth noting that the AMOLED display, although good, doesn’t have the 90Hz or 120Hz refresh rates of rival phones. That may or may not bother you, but having used high-refresh-rate screens on a number of other phones, it is a nice thing to have and may leave you feeling like you’re missing out on something.

Apple iPhone 12 review: Cameras

There’s no change to the number, type or resolution of the three cameras in this year’s iPhone but Apple has made improvements in other ways. At the rear is a pair of cameras, one wide-angle, one ultrawide, which are both capable of capturing 12MP images. The main camera has a brighter f/1.6 aperture this time and a seven-element lens. The ultrawide is exactly the same as last year (12MP, f/2.4, 120-degree field of view), as is the selfie camera on the front (12MP, f/2.2).

Most of the improvements come courtesy of the computational side of imaging and the iPhone 12’s A14 Bionic SoC. Night mode photography is now available across all three lenses, where previously it was only available on the main camera, and Deep Fusion is available across all three, too.

The iPhone 12 doesn’t have the radical new sensor-shift OIS of the iPhone 12 Pro Max but it does have regular lens-based OIS on the main camera and delivers fully stabilised 4K video recording at 60fps.

The headline feature, of course, is that 10-bit Dolby Vision video recording. Confusingly, this doesn’t fully kick in unless you record in 4K at 30fps – you only get extended dynamic range video recording at 60fps, sorry – and the UI doesn’t make this particularly obvious, but in the right circumstances, it can produce some truly stunning results. Having said that, last year’s iPhone was also pretty good in this regard and you won’t see a HUGE difference, even when viewing the clips on a Dolby Vision-enabled display.

The footage looked ever-so-slightly brighter and cleaner in 4K 30fps Dolby Vision shot on the iPhone 12 versus the iPhone 11 but the difference isn’t night and day. (For reference, I’m using the Pro Max for comparison here).

The same goes for the improvements to the main camera. You’ll mostly see the benefits of the brighter aperture in dim and dark conditions, where there’s a slight boost in colour fidelity and a tiny bit less noise in the iPhone 12 shots. Otherwise, both this year and last year’s iPhones perform near identically.

Conversely, while the other cameras are the same as last year, the difference in having night mode and Deep Fusion available to both of the other cameras makes the world of difference. The comparison photos below, which I captured in the early morning light, show that applying night mode to the wide-angle camera brightens and cleans things up no end.

The big question is, can the new iPhone camera compete with the likes of the Pixel 5 and Google’s stupendous computational photography nous? For portraits, I’m of the opinion that Google does things better. The iPhone 12 still struggles, even in good light, to gain the perfectly clipped look to portraits that the Pixel phones can pull off. In the shots below, you can see it’s a little fuzzy around my ears and even predictable subjects like the pumpkin below have soft edges.

I’ve also spotted the iPhone 12 does have issues with lens flare as well. I attempted to capture photographs with a low setting sun just out of the frame to the right and simply couldn’t avoid the phone capturing a distracting crescent of light across the left half of the shot At dusk, streetlights and car headlights can also cause weird, floating reflections to appear across the frame.

Apple iPhone 12 review: Performance

Performance is also a mixed bag. While the 5nm Apple A14 Bionic SoC is ahead of much of the competition, it isn’t ahead of the iPhone 11 by as much as I expected it to be and it continues to struggle to compete with the best phones around when it comes to battery life.

Indeed, in our video rundown test, with the screen set to a brightness level of 170cd/m² and flight mode engaged, the iPhone 12 lasted 16hrs 30mins. For a phone with bleeding-edge 5nm silicon residing under the hood that’s disappointing (and behind the iPhone 11, notably), although it isn’t outside the parameters of Apple’s quoted stamina. For reference, that’s 17 hours of video playback from local storage or 11 hours of streamed video playback.

And although charging speed is likewise reasonably good, with a 20W Apple charger bringing up 50% charge in 30 minutes, this is a long way behind the quickest competition. The OnePlus 8T, for instance, can charge up to 100% in less than 40 minutes. And, don’t forget, Apple is no longer including the charger in the box so your mileage may vary here, especially if you don’t own a 20W Apple charger already.

Having said all that if you’ve never owned a super-fast charging phone before you probably won’t miss it here and the battery should comfortably last you a day of moderate use.

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Apple iPhone 12 review: Verdict

The iPhone 12 is more than just a collection of benchmark numbers, however – more than the sum of its parts. It represents the accumulation of 13 years of development and it definitely shows.

This is a very, very good phone. It may not be the pinnacle of what Apple offers – but it is better than the iPhone 11 and hits the sweet spot of size to features to value for iPhone fans. I expect it will be the most popular phone Apple sells this year and into next.

However, for smartphone agnostics looking for the best all-rounder, there are many more alternatives. None have the incredible video capture quality of the iPhone 12 and its siblings, but our favourite mid-range Android phones – the Pixel 4a 5G, Pixel 5 and OnePlus 8T – can compete on stills photography, features and design and come in at prices that undercut the iPhone 12 significantly.

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