In my recent Top Features video walkthrough showcasing the iPhone 12, I didn’t yet have the iPhone 12 mini in hand, so I was only able to provide commentary on Apple’s large 6.1-inch baseline smartphone. Now that the iPhone 12 mini has arrived, I’ve been able to examine both smartphones in light of Apple’s entire flagship lineup. Watch our hands-on iPhone 12 & 12 mini review video for the details.

iPhones 12

Apple released four brand new iPhones this year:

  • iPhone 12
  • iPhone 12 mini
  • iPhone 12 Pro
  • iPhone 12 Pro Max

The majority of iPhone 12 features are common to every model in the lineup. Differences in size, camera, and battery life may help you decide which iPhone 12 is best for you, but all of them provide much of the same experience. After going hands-on with all models for the past week, I’ve concluded that most people will be happy with the regular iPhone 12, as it provides the best overall balance of camera, size, battery life, and price.

All four iPhone 12 models are powered by an industry-first 5-nanometer Apple A14 system on a chip, which brings forth modest performance gains in terms of CPU and GPU. However, the most impressive performance benefit is with the Neural Engine, which now hosts 16 cores and is up to 80% faster. With each new iPhone generation, machine learning gains more importance, as it lends greatly to the advances in computational photography, which gives the iPhone a distinct advantage over “dumb” traditional standalone cameras.

Video: iPhone 12 and 12 mini review

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Everyone gets the good display

If you’re coming from an iPhone 11 or iPhone XR, one of the first things you’ll notice about the iPhone 12 is the display. The Super Retina XDR display is no longer a so-called Pro feature, so now everyone gets to enjoy the benefits of an OLED display with a 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio and perfect black levels.

Even more important is that the Super Retina XDR display can get extremely bright, a feature critical to the HDR functionality. The iPhone 12 display features a typical 625 nits max brightness, but for HDR content, it can almost double that brightness up to 1200 nits. As we’ll discuss, the HDR capabilities of this phone, particularly on the video front, is what really differentiates Apple’s latest smartphone hardware compared to its predecessors.

Photos and video – the real star of the show

All iPhone 12 models feature fantastic cameras with noticeable improvements in low light capture. These improvements are partly owed to the faster f/1.6 aperture on the wide angle lens. Machine learning enhancements with Smart HDR 3 and Night mode, along with brand new features like the ability to capture, edit, and playback Dolby Vision 4K HDR video, add significant value to the iPhone 12. The front-facing TrueDepth camera system also receives upgrades, like support for Night mode and Deep Fusion, and even HDR video recording.

Despite what Apple and Verizon may have led you to believe, the most outstanding feature about this year’s crop of iPhones isn’t the over-hyped inclusion of 5G cellular connectivity, but it’s the support for Dolby Vision 4K HDR. This is the feature that stands out to me the most because it’s instantly noticeable, and when you see it for the first time, it’s really like wow

But what’s really incredible about this year’s crop of iPhone devices is the true end-to-end HDR workflow for 4K HDR video (30fps on the iPhone 12, 60fps on the iPhone 12 Pro). Not only can I capture videos in HDR, but I can edit them directly in the Photos app or iMovie. I can even fire up an advanced video editing solution like LumaFusion and edit 4K HDR videos there. In my opinion, this is the most impressive feature about the iPhone 12, and it’s not just restricted to the so-called Pro models, but it’s available on all four of Apple’s new smartphones.

The main thing separating the iPhone 12 Pro and, to a greater extent, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, are the breadth of camera options and improvements. Just like last year, the Pro-designated iPhone features a telephoto camera to go along with the standard wide and ultra wide cameras on the baseline model. While this is a nice feature, I think you’d have to be very much into capturing photos and video with your iPhone to justify the, at minimum, $200 price jump to the Pro.

With the iPhone 12 Pro you get the following camera enhancements:

  • 52mm telephoto lens
  • LiDAR scanner
  • Night mode portraits
  • Apple ProRAW capture
  • 4K HDR Dolby Vision up to 60 fps

The iPhone 12 Pro Max yields those features, plus:

  • Wide angle camera with 47% larger sensor and 1.7 μm pixels
  • Sensor-shift OIS on wide angle camera
  • 65mm telephoto focal length
  • 5x total optical zoom range

The iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max feature compelling camera upgrades, especially the addition of a third telephoto lens, native RAW photo capture (currently in beta), and 4K HDR video capture that goes from just 30fps on the iPhone 12 to up to 60 fps on iPhone 12 Pro. As nice as the 6.1-inch iPhone Pro is, if you care about photos and videos enough to warrant the upgrade, I believe you should look at the larger iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Apple’s largest smartphone to date features an enhanced primary camera with better stabilization for improved low light capture, and it has a 6.7-inch display, which makes it the most ideal for editing photos and videos. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also features the most battery life of any iPhone, which provides the needed stamina for long photo and video shoots. If you’re going to pony up the money for the iPhone 12 Pro, and you can handle the 6.7-inch form-factor, you might as well pay $100 more for the model that packs in the most “pro” features.

About Apple ProRAW

The ability to shoot RAW photos natively in the Camera app is one of the key features that sets the Pro version of the iPhone 12 apart from the baseline edition. Apple ProRAW is still in beta, but I’ve had the opportunity to test it, and I came away impressed.

Apple ProRAW lets you capture photos with less in-camera image processing, which affords more flexibility to modify the images in post production. Apple ProRAW photos feature more dynamic range, which allows you to retain more highlight and shadow data, lending you more creativity in professional editing apps like Affinity Photo, Adobe Lightroom, and Photoshop.

After testing out Apple ProRAW on my iPhone 12 Pro Max, I can definitely say that I’d prefer to always shoot photos in Apple ProRAW if I had the choice. Unfortunately, native RAW image capture is exclusive to the iPhone 12 Pro; it should be included in iOS 14.3 once the software updated is released later this year.

Design

All iPhone 12 models sport an iPhone 4-inspired design, sandwiching the body between two pieces of glass. Although I think the iPhone 6-era iPhones with rounded-off edges are more comfortable to hold in hand, the flat edges of the iPhone 12 lend the device a more distinct look that’s easier to identify among a lineup of metal and glass slabs.

Compared to the iPhone 12 Pro, which incorporates a good-looking, but finger-print-magnet-of-a-stainless-steel-band, I prefer the baseline iPhone 12 design with its aluminum band. But I’m a sucker for screen real estate, so I naturally gravitated towards the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 6.7-inch screen, much to the dismay of my arthritic fingers. If I was going to use one of the baseline iPhone 12 models full time, I’d probably go for the smaller iPhone 12 mini. It’s insane to think that you get this much power and capability in such a pint-sized body. Forgetting about the second-generation iPhone SE that launched earlier this year, the iPhone 12 mini feels like the true successor to the original iPhone SE, with a footprint that’s closer than I expected.

Outside of its “affordable” $699 price point, the biggest advantage of the iPhone 12 mini is that it’s the most hand-friendly phone that Apple’s produced in years. Because of its edge-to-edge design that omits a Home button in favor of Face ID authentication, it’s able to pack a 5.4-inch display into a body size that’s smaller than the 2nd-generation iPhone SE. Remember that the iPhone SE comes with a considerably-smaller 4.7-inch display, so the iPhone 12 mini gives you a lot more screen real estate in a more compact design that even people with smaller hands will find easy to use.

The biggest downside with the smaller iPhone 12 mini is its small battery. Depending on how you use it, that may or may not be an issue. If you’re a prolific mobile photographer or videographer, it may be difficult to make it through a full day without a mid-day visit to the wall outlet.

MagSafe

An iPhone 12 review would not be complete without a nod towards its MagSafe capability and the various MagSafe accessories now available. MagSafe for the iPhone, which owes its name to the now-defunct magnetic charging cable connection once found on MacBooks, allows you to wirelessly charge your iPhone faster than a regular Qi charger.

Here’s a piece of advice. Don’t buy MagSafe for its ability to charge faster because faster in Apple terms is only a little bit faster, not to mention that it requires a separate 20W power adapter for full charging performance. Even with MagSafe, wireless charging still doesn’t come close to the type of speeds that you get with a wired charger, which means wireless charging remains more about convenience than anything else.

That being said, MagSafe is definitely more convenient than a typical Qi charger. Thanks to auto-aligning magnetic connectivity, you no longer have to worry about perfectly aligning your device with the charging coils in order to make sure that your device actually starts charging.

Yet, MagSafe is more than just about charging a — it’s a whole accessory system. MagSafe even includes third-party offerings, with companies like Belkin making MagSafe-compatible wireless charging stands and car mounts. Apple’s Silicone and Leather cases are all MagSafe-enabled as well, and they each showcase a special color-specific animation and sound when an iPhone 12 is placed inside. These cases also work with the MagSafe wireless charger and accessories like the currently hard-to-find iPhone Leather Wallet.

5G connectivity is overhyped, for now

5G connectivity is important, but it’s far from the game-changing feature that carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile like to paint it as, at least for the moment. While 5G does have lots of potential, its usage, especially when it comes to the insanely fast speeds that 5G marketing and hype is built upon, falls flat.

With the right carrier, in an ideal location, in the right city, it may be possible for you to experience the type of speeds only made possible by millimeter wave (mmWave) high-band connectivity, but most iPhone customers will never get to experience that kind of speed. In fact, Apple only sells iPhones that are capable of experiencing the fastest type of 5G in the US, and even then, access to that type of high-band 5G is relatively rare.

That’s not to say that benefits of 5G aren’t already being felt, because it is — just not with the shocking speeds found in most 5G marketing material. It’s far more likely that your experience with 5G will be that of the low band variety, which could yield speeds that are only moderately faster than the LTE connectivity we’ve been enjoying for the last several years, if at all. In certain areas, you may be fortunate enough to have access to significantly faster mid-band connectivity, but you’ll need to check with your carrier first to see if it’s available. In my particular area of the US, I only have low-band available with my carrier, and the speeds aren’t anything to write home about.

Will 5G connectivity yield better speeds in more places in the future? Undoubtedly. But there are still major chunks of precious 5G spectrum being auctioned off that carriers like AT&T will need in order to flesh out their offerings. Give 5G a few more years, and it will be more worthy of the hype.

Conclusion

The iPhone 12 proves that you don’t need a “pro” iPhone to garner a great experience. Conceptually, the iPhone 12 mini is the best iPhone of all time in my eyes due to its design, size, and features. It’s like a modern-day iPhone SE, and many of you know how I feel about the SE. But as much as I like the idea of going back to a small phone, and as much as my fingers would appreciate that, I just can’t. I’ve been spoiled by large phones, and there’s never been a larger iPhone than the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Yet, not everyone can justify carrying around a mammoth of a phone like the iPhone 12 Pro Max, let alone pay $1,099+ for the privilege. All the while, the regular 6.1-inch iPhone 12 Pro, for all its capability, feels like it’s in no man’s land in this lineup. It’s significantly more expensive than the iPhone 12, yet doesn’t come with all of the bells and whistles of its larger sibling. For that reason, I’m keener on recommending the regular-sized iPhone 12 for the majority of people or the iPhone 12 mini if you’re dead-set on owning a more reasonably-sized phone.

The iPhone 12 mini is, in my honest opinion, the best looking and best functioning smartphone that I’ve experienced in years. If you’re not addicted to having a large phone, it’s an amazing piece of hardware, but depending on how it’s used, it can struggle with battery life. The baseline iPhone 12 is probably the most reasonable iPhone out of any in the lineup. It features a large, but not overly-large 6.1-inch display, it costs $799, it features an amazing camera system with end-to-end HDR workflow, it comes with a slightly better exterior design and color options, and it’s bundled with 5G cellular capability and MagSafe support.

What do you think is the best iPhone for 2020? Sound off in the comments section below with your thoughts on the matter.

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