Opinions and Legal Insights

Review: iPhone 12 Pro

IPhone12lineThe iPhone 12 Pro is a fantastic phone.  I think it is the phone to get if you are in the market for a new iPhone that will perform incredibly well for many years and if you also enjoy taking pictures with your iPhone.  I’m a little disappointed that the flat edge of the iPhone isn’t as nice as I had hoped, but I still like this design, and this is a great device.

Design:  the edges

One of the biggest changes in the iPhone 12 Pro is the new design.  And the most noticeable design change is the flat sides.  

If you used an iPhone 4/4s/5/5s, then you remember what it is like to have an iPhone with flat sides.  The iPhone 5/5s design of 2012 and 2013 was my all-time favorite iPhone design to hold in my hand.  In 2014, Apple introduced the iPhone 6 with a rounded edge, and Apple kept that type of edge design through the iPhone 11 family in 2019.  The rounded edge feels great but it makes the iPhone more slippery, more like a bar of soap (although obviously not that bad).  Which meant that you really need a case as a safeguard against dropping the iPhone.  Here is the edge of the iPhone 12 Pro next to the edge of the iPhone 11 Pro:

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My hope was that the iPhone 12 Pro would feel as good as the iPhone 5/5s and that the flat edge would make a case unnecessary.  Unfortunately, the iPhone 12 Pro is not quite as comfortable to hold as the iPhone 5/5s because the edges on the iPhone 12 Pro (and iPhone 12) are squared off at the corners.  The corners are not sharp, but they are just not quite as comfortable as the corners on the iPhone 4/4s/5/5s.  On the iPhone 4/4s, the front and back of the phone were not quite as wide as the aluminum band, creating a slight step instead of a corner.  On the iPhone 5/5s, the corners are chamfered so that there is a sloping edge.  Those tiny details make the corner of the iPhone much more comfortable in your hand.  The following picture shows the top edges of the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 5s, and iPhone 4s so that you can see the differences:

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Note that the flat edge works great on the iPad Pro, and I presume it is also fantastic on the new version of the iPad Air.  But with a larger tablet, you are not cupping both sides in your hand.  When my hand wraps around the iPhone 12 Pro, I find myself wishing that it had chamfered edges so that it would feel as good as the iPhone 5.

Having said that, the flat edge does make it easier to grip the side of the iPhone, making it more secure in the hand.  If I was walking quickly and holding one iPhone in one hand, the iPhone 11 design with the curved edges would likely slip out of my hand, but I think I could hang on to the iPhone 12 Pro.  None of this will make a difference if you plan to use a case with an iPhone 12 Pro, but I do like that the iPhone 12 design means that I feel safer about not using a case.  That makes the iPhone 12 Pro a little less bulky in my pocket, and I also prefer the feel of using the iPhone without a case.

Note that the iPhone 12 might be even less slippery than the iPhone 12 Pro.  The iPhone 12 Pro uses stainless steel for its edges (which look great) and a matte back.  The iPhone 12 uses aluminum for its edges and has a glossy back.  John Gruber of Daring Fireball had a chance to try out both models and noted in his review that the iPhone 12 was less slippery:  “Glossy sounds like it would be more slippery than matte, but when it comes to glass, glossiness adds grip — it gives your fingers a bit of tack, like clean sneakers on a polished basketball court.”

Of course, there are two reasons to use an iPhone case.  The first reason is to reduce the risk of the iPhone slipping out of your hand, which is much less of a risk with the iPhone 12 design.  But the case also provides additional protection if the iPhone 12 Pro does fall out of a hand and hits a hard surface.  That additional protection is less necessary with the iPhone 12 design because it also includes a much more durable glass on the front, a new material that Apple calls Ceramic Shield.  Apple says that the Ceramic Shield provides 4x drop protection for the front of the iPhone.  A test done by the MobileReviewsEh YouTube channel showed that the iPhone 11 screen cracked with 352 Newtons of force (about 79 pounds) whereas the iPhone 12 didn’t crack until 442 Newtons of force was applied (about 99 pounds).  (The tests also showed the front of the iPhone 12 to be much more resistant to scratches.)  But even with the added protection of the Ceramic Shield, it seems that you would get even more protection with a case.

Design is inherently subjective, but here is the bottom line for me.  Unless you are upgrading from an incredibly old iPhone 5s or earlier model, when you upgrade to an iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Pro you will be changing from an iPhone with a curved edge to an iPhone with a flat edge.  The good news is that it will be easier to hold the new iPhone in your hand without dropping it, so perhaps you won’t need a case.  The bad news is that while the flat edge feels good, it doesn’t feel as good as the iPhone 5/5s because the chamfered corners on that model gave the corner an even more comfortable feel.  On the other hand, I very much like the look of the shiny stainless steel flat edge.  Of course, if you plan to put your new iPhone in a case, then you are unlikely to even notice the change from the curved to the flat edge.

Design:  screen size

The other design change is the screen size.  Unlike the iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone XS, and iPhone X which all had a 5.8” screen (measured diagonally), the iPhone 12 Pro has a 6.1” screen.  

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In part that is because of smaller bezels.  In part, that is because, as shown above, the new iPhone is just a tiny bit taller:

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With the 6.1” screen, there is just a little more usable screen real estate.  It isn’t a major difference, but it is nice.  For example, when you are looking at a list of emails, you can see an additional half-a-line.  The first picture is the iPhone 11 Pro, and the second picture is the iPhone 12 Pro:

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If you already have an iPhone 11 (which is larger than the iPhone 11 Pro), then you already know what it is like to have a 6.1” screen.  But the iPhone 12 Pro puts that same 6.1” screen size in a smaller device, which is nice.

5G

If you watch any of the advertisements for the iPhone 12 family, you would think that 5G is the primary reason to buy a new iPhone.  It is not.  At least not yet.  I know that 5G will be more important in the future, and it is nice to know that a new iPhone that you purchase today will be ready for the new network that will become more important over the next few years.  But for now, 5G is a mixed bag.

To even use 5G, you need to have a carrier plan that supports it.  Although I already had an AT&T unlimited plan, it was a plan I signed up for in 2018 that AT&T no longer offers, and that plan doesn’t support 5G.  Fortunately, it was easy for me to use the myAT&T app to select a new unlimited data service (all of the new unlimited plans support 5G) and in the process, I actually saved some money.  My prior plan (AT&T Unlimited Plus) cost $185/month for three phones with 10 GB of monthly hot spot data plus my Apple Watch.  My new plan (AT&T Unlimited Elite) costs me $170, although the price varies based upon the features that you select.  The plan that I selected keeps hotspot data for each phone and increases it to 15 GB/month for two of the phones and 30 GB/month for my iPhone 12 Pro.  On the other hand, my new plans offer HD video on my phone (just like AT&T Unlimited Plus) but only SD video on the other two phones.  That still seems like a net win for my family, but I didn’t realize before I received my iPhone 12 Pro that I was going to need to change my plan.

After I changed my plan using the app, about 30 minutes later I started to see the option to use 5G on my iPhone 12 Pro.  That’s when I started to run some speed tests, and I have been running tests every day in various locations in New Orleans.  And that’s when I saw the limitations of 5G.

First, there are many places that don’t have 5G at all.  And if you live in the United States, to get the incredibly high speeds that 5G has the potential to deliver, you need to use a type of 5G that uses millimeter wave (mmWave) technology.  But the mmWave towers can only send a signal for about a block and are easily interrupted, so you have to be outside with a clear line of sight to an mmWave tower to take full advantage.  AT&T says that there are mmWave towers in New Orleans where I live, but I haven’t yet found one, even though I went hunting for them over the last few days.  The AT&T website doesn’t tell you where mmWave towers are located, and neither an AT&T representative at a local store nor the AT&T 1-800 support line could give me a location for even one AT&T mmWave tower.  I thought that I might find them downtown or in the French Quarter, and maybe they are there somewhere, but I couldn’t find them.  I know from what I have read online that if you find one of the mmWave towers, you can get incredibly fast speeds of 1Gbps or higher.

The other type of 5G is called Sub-6 GHz, and it covers a much larger area.  It has the potential to be faster than LTE, in part because of the way that it deals with congestion.  If you are at a concert or a sporting event or some other event in which there are lots of people close to each other using the same cellular networks — exactly the sort of situation that we cannot be in right now due to the pandemic — 5G might be considerably better than LTE.  But in my tests over the past few days, I really haven’t noticed much of an improvement, and often 5G was actually worse than LTE.

Fortunately, the iPhone 12 family supports three different modes, accessed by going to Settings -> Cellular -> Cellular Data Options -> Voice & Data.  You can select 5G On (5G all the time, which uses more battery life), 5G Auto (which uses 5G only when the iPhone feels that it would help without significantly reducing battery life), and LTE.

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For the following tests, I used the Ookla Speedtest app on my iPhone 12 Pro.  First, I ran a speed test using the 5G On mode.  Second, I ran the speed test in the same location using the LTE mode.  The numbers listed below are download/upload speed, measured in Mbps, with 5G first and then LTE.  You would expect the first set with the 5G numbers to always be better.  A few times it was, but most of the time, LTE was faster — especially for download speeds, which is typically more important than upload speeds.

5G — LTE

62.2 / 6.9 — 43.8 / 11.9

68.7 / 6.64 — 34.5 / 6.28

104 / 12.8 — 101 / 10.3

43.2 / 17.7 – 71.9 / 28.6

33.5 / 8.85 — 60.2 / 10.5

119 / 18.5 — 127 / 25.2

42.3 / 18.1 — 64.0 — 10.5

56.4 / 10.8 — 79.6 / 15.6

47.8 / 15.3 — 74.1 / 17.9

41.6 / 15.7 — 49.7 / 8.17

61.9 / 27.5 — 79.1 / 26.6

55.2 / 12.4 — 97.8 / 17.8

Granted, I wasn’t running these tests when I was with a big crowd.  Had I done so, perhaps 5G would have been a clear winner.  But in normal circumstances, my tests do not show Sub-6 GHz 5G being better than 4G LTE.

And of course, you can make an argument that small differences in numbers don’t really matter that much.  For many iPhone uses, you may not even notice whether you are getting 25 Mbps or 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps.  Your emails and texts will be just as fast.  You can notice a difference in loading web pages, but there are lots of other factors that cause that to vary.  You can also notice a difference when you download or upload larger files (especially videos), but that is not something that I do every day.  5G would have to be substantially faster than LTE for it to be a noticeable change.  AT&T 5G+ using mmWave might provide that.  AT&T 5G using Sub-6 GHz does not yet seem helpful to me.

I’m going to keep my iPhone in 5G Auto mode for a while long just to spend more time experimenting with 5G.  Maybe I’ll find myself in an mmWave area at some point, and I’d like to see how much faster that is.  But I certainly don’t want my iPhone to use 5G when it will significantly reduce my battery life because, for now at least, 5G doesn’t seem to be better than LTE.  And if I find myself in a situation in which I need to get maximum speed, that might mean switching back to LTE.

Camera

The iPhone 12 Pro camera is awesome.  In my own tests, I haven’t noticed much of a difference as compared to the iPhone 11 Pro, although the reviewers that I mentioned last week mostly concluded that the camera is a little better in low light or around the edges of a face when taking portrait photos (the ones that blur the background to provide an effect similar to an SLR camera).  But if you are considering purchasing an iPhone 12 Pro, my guess is that you are upgrading from an earlier model, something that you got in mid-2019 or earlier.  And if that’s the case, you will see some substantial improvements with the camera in the iPhone 12 Pro.

Moreover, this will be the first time that you will have to decide whether you want two cameras or three cameras on your iPhone.  The iPhone 12 features two cameras, but the iPhone 12 Pro adds a telephoto camera.  In my review from last year, I provided many examples of how adding the telephoto lens to an iPhone can make a big difference.  And in the year since I have posted that review, I have used the telephoto lens very frequently.  For example, on January 18, 2020 before the pandemic — which feels like 10 years ago — I attended a basketball game.  By using the three different lenses on my iPhone 11 Pro, I took three images that really each tell a different story.  The photo taken with the ultrawide lens tells the story of the entire arena:

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The photo taken with the regular lens feels like it approximates what I saw from my “cheap seats” near the top of the arena:

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And the photo taken with the telephoto lens gets much closer to the action on the court:

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(Note that I have embedded lower quality pictures to make this webpage faster to load; my point here is to comment on the feel of each photo, not the detail that you get with each lens.)

Yesterday, I visited that same arena, but this time it was to vote early.  Here are three pictures taken with the three different lenses on the iPhone 12 Pro:

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The quality of the telephoto lens on the iPhone is not quite as good as the quality of the regular camera.  Thus, you will get the best quality picture by simply getting closer to the object or person that you want to photograph.  But often, that is not an option, and in those circumstances, the optical zoom provided by the telephoto lens is far superior to using the regular camera and just cropping the picture to fake a zoom.  For example, yesterday while I was walking around downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter to search (unsuccessfully) for an mmWave tower, I took these three pictures.  With the wider lenses, your focus is on a bunch of buildings.  But you need the zoom lens to focus on the Hibernia Bank Building, which in the 1920s was the tallest building in Louisiana:

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The telephoto lens on the iPhone is not as powerful as the telephoto lens that you can get on an SLR camera, but it can still make a big difference.  For example, when I watch my daughter play soccer or volleyball or basketball and I want to get closer to the action, I certainly cannot move from my seat but the telephoto lens makes my photos and videos even better.  When my daughter played volleyball for her school during the last few months (wearing a mask), her team only played four games, and spectators were only allowed at two of those games because of COVID-19.  And for those two games, each child could bring only a single spectator.  I was happy to have that telephoto lens on my iPhone 11 Pro so that I could take a video of the game and be even closer to the action.  After the game, I created a highlights reel to share with other family members.  They could not attend as a result of the pandemic, but thanks to the iPhone and the telephoto lens, they could still experience the game.

If taking pictures and/or video is important to you, I strongly recommend that you consider the iPhone 12 Pro over the iPhone 12 because of the third camera with the telephoto lens.  You can get an even better quality telephoto lens with the iPhone 12 Pro Max that comes out next month — 2.5x zoom versus the 2.0 zoom of the iPhone 12 Pro — but you have to use the larger phone, which I find to be too large for my hands.

As you make your own decision about whether you want an iPhone 12 or an iPhone 12 Pro, take a look at my review from last year which contains additional comparison pictures with the three different lenses.  I think it will help you to decide whether getting the telephoto lens is worth the extra money for the Pro model.

Etc.

Every year, the iPhone gets a faster processor.  There are certain things that seem a bit more snappy with the iPhone 12 Pro, but I have not run any objective measurements of speed.  Suffice it to say that if you are upgrading from an iPhone that is two years old or more, you will appreciate the additional speed.

The iPhone 12 Pro features a MagSafe connector for even faster wireless charging.  I almost never used wireless charging with my iPhone 11 Pro, but I may try out the MagSafe on the iPhone 12 Pro in the future.  For now, though, I cannot share any first-hand experiences.

Conclusion

With the new iPhones in 2020, there is more choice than ever before.  The iPhone 12 Pro is coming next month, and it will have an even better camera.  If you don’t mind very large phones, that might be a good model for you, but it is not for me.  And of course, the iPhone 12 mini is coming next month too, which is perfect for those who want the smallest phone.  For me, the size of the iPhone 12 / iPhone 12 Pro is the sweet spot.  And between those two models, I prefer the iPhone 12 Pro.  The iPhone 12 Pro looks good, feels good in the hand (although, unfortunately, not as good as the iPhone 5), takes great pictures, is incredibly fast, and has an amazing screen.  If you are ready for a new iPhone, you will love the iPhone 12 Pro.