iPhone 12 review

The launch of the new iPhone has been the biggest tech story of the year, every year, for well over a decade now. It achieves unrivalled levels of interest and excitement because it gets something pretty fundamental right. It delivers. And the iPhone 12 keeps that run going.

See also: iPhone 13 release date NZ

The iPhone 12 improves on its predecessor in every department that matters. Its camera, display, all-round processing performance, screen durability are all better. And most important of all, it brings 5G to the iPhone for the first time. 

This is the new phone that, I think, most people should buy in 2020. Unless, of course, they want something smaller – in which case, the iPhone 12 mini is almost identical. Just, you know, smaller.

My only issue with the iPhone 12, is its price here in New Zealand. At NZ$1,499, it’s $150 more expensive than last year’s iPhone 11. It’s also – at the time of writing – NZ$283 more expensive here in New Zealand than it is in the US. It’s not quite a dealbreaker, but when you consider the device ships without a wall charger and the free EarBuds you usually see in an iPhone box (see below for more info on this), the price bump will be a little frustrating for some. 

That said, the new Super Retina XDR display, boosted camera performance and the inclusion of 5G for the first time, are features that I think most people will be okay with paying a little extra for.

Continue reading this iPhone 12 review to see if you agree.

Yes, the iPhone 12 looks a bit different

Not bad different. Just different from what we’ve been used to. More like an iPhone 4, or the original iPhone SE, than the slim and curved flagship iPhones we’ve come to expect since the iPhone 6 launched back in 2014.

The “flat edge design” feels solid in your hand and very nearly sits flat on a table when it’s not in a case, with camera setup only slightly bulging. 

The iPhone 12 is actually smaller than iPhone 11 with 15 per cent less volume and the same display size.

The iPhone 12 screen will be 4x tougher though. Corning, the company who has made the Gorilla Glass screens used by smartphones for the past decade, has teamed up with Apple to develop the iPhone’s new display material. It’s called Ceramic Shield, and it will be four times tougher than the glass used in previous iPhones.

As per, there’s IP68 water resistance that makes the iPhone 12 water-resistant up to 6 meters for up to 30 minutes, which is three times the depth of iPhone 11.

Available in five “all-new colours” that don’t feel that new. These are: black, white, RED, green, and blue. Note that that back glass matches the aluminium frame.

iPhone 12 review - body 2

The first iPhone with 5G! ?

5G is the headline new feature for iPhone, and all four of the new iPhone 12 devices will be 5G ready. Apple is excited about this, with its presenters mentioning “5G” at least 70 times during this year’s iPhone launch event. Is Apple right to be so giddy? Has, as claimed during the keynote, “5G just got real”?

Here in New Zealand, the answer is “no”. Not immediately anyway. You have to live and work in very specific parts of Auckland’s CBD just to connect to a 5G network in New Zealand right now. But that’s not the whole story here. Apple’s influence with carriers is what gives it “5G just got real” remark credibility.

Apple revealed it was working with over 100 carriers at launch to improve the rollout of 5G globally. Locally, Spark is obviously one of those carriers. Timing an announcement – that it was turning on 5G in more of downtown Auckland – perfectly with the launch of the 5G iPhone 12 devices.

But it’s more than that. With 5G coming to the iPhone 12, the ability for networks to sell 5G to customers just got real too. The massive numbers iPhone brings with it, means, all of a sudden, there’s a business case for rolling out 5G. Apple has been keen to publicise its willing to use its good relationships with global carriers to propel, and improve, 5G as a technology too.

So while 5G might not be a big deal, or even a thing, for Kiwis right now. The expected 2-4 year lifespan (at least) of these iPhone 12 devices means they are ready to use 5G as soon as the New Zealand infrastructure allows it.

From a technical viewpoint, the 5G on the iPhone 12 is very real. It will support mmWave 5G (in the US), but every other country’s iPhone 12 handsets will only have low- and mid-band 5G. This means it misses out on the blazing-fast 5G speeds we’ve all seen advertised – but it’s not something to worry about as you (and your iPhone 12) will need to be very close to a 5G tower to make use of the technology. The low- and mid-band 5G, that we bull supported here in NZ, will deliver a more stable (slower) version of 5G, at a longer range.

The iPhone 12’s camera improvements

There are a couple of new camera features you should take note of. 

Let’s start with the easiest to understand. Night mode can now be used on all three iPhone 12 cameras, including the front TrueDepth (selfie) camera. That’s probably the headline feature that most smartphone users will be able to understand. 

The rest is harder to explain. But the short version is: there are several incremental improvements that will help you take better photos with zero effort or skill.

Here’s the more technical explanation. Apple has given the iPhone 12’s new Wide camera a ƒ/1.6 aperture, which is the fastest yet (the iPhone 11 has ƒ/1.6 aperture). There’s also a brand-new 7-element lens that improves low-light performance by 27 per cent.

The Ultrawide cameras have specs that look identical to what we saw in the iPhone 11 devices. Here, there’s still a 12-megapixel f/2.4 aperture camera with a 120-degree field of view powered by a 5-element lens. The only difference is an image-processing one, that will intelligently and automatically correct the edges of the photo for more natural-looking results.

And that’s it. Hard to get excited about? Maybe. But it’s important to remember that camera hardware is only half the story these days. What your smartphone camera is physically able to capture when you press a button is, nowadays, always improved by image-processing. 

The iPhone 12 builds on what Apple has always done. That takes a bunch of overexposed images, and now an under-exposed image that lets in 27 per cent more light. The iPhone then uses its processing power and neural engine (AI) to produce a beautiful image that you see on your phone. All of this happens almost-instantly, as soon as you press the capture button.

Apple has done a lot of work on improving this side of smartphone photography. The 12 users improved AI technology to make your images look better – using Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion.

The updated device does the sort of thing iPhone has been doing for the past several years, but better. Specific examples are features like improving the lighting on a subject’s face, or reducing the noise in a clear blue sky. And many many more.

In the real world, you’ll struggle to notice a massive difference between the 11 and 12 for a normal photo in normal lighting. However, the iPhone 12 does open up the possibility to capture better images in more extreme lighting scenarios. This is the most noticeable progress and is clearly where Apple has set its long-term goal: better photography in more scenarios is good.

Video also gets a boost. The iPhone 12 can now shoot 4K 10-bit HDR video, with Dolby Vision. This makes the iPhone 12 (and 12 Pro devices) the first smartphones to directly record in Dolby Vision.

It’s a really solid upgrade, and a welcome one, but it’s also a bit too high end for what most people need, most of the time. Which puts it in an odd place because anyone who wants to use their Apple smartphone for creating serious video content should be looking at the 12 Pro devices instead. What this means is that the iPhone 12 has a camera that’s capable of creating videos that are way too good for most people’s needs (most of the time). 

iPhone 12 review - body 1

That Super Retina XDR display ?

The first, and easiest, observation here is that it looks fantastic. I love it, and you’re going to love it too. 

The iPhone 12 now joins the Pro devices with a beautiful OLED panel – that brings higher resolutions, better contrast at a 2,000,000-to-1 contrast ratio which allows the iPhone 12 to better create true blacks on screen.

It’s also a belter for watching content on too (if small-screen entertainment is your thing). That’s because the 12 is capable of hitting 1200 nits peak brightness. Which means the iPhone 12 is nearly twice as bright as the iPhone 11 when viewing HDR photos or videos (thanks to the Super Retina XDR display).

This upgrade, I suspect, is the main reason Apple is charging an extra NZ$150 for the iPhone 12 (compared to the iPhone 11’s launch price). And it’s totally worth it.

No wall charger and no Earbuds in the box

Okay, let’s talk about the thing you don’t get. Apple has removed the wall charger from all iPhone 12 boxes. Should you care? That depends.

On the one hand, it’s not a massive deal if you’re upgrading from an older iPhone, because the phone uses the same lightning charger iPhones have used since 2012. 

The niggly thing is that the cable that comes in the box is a USB-C to Lightning cable, and a sizeable chunk of people will only have a wall charger that’s USB-A, not -C. There’s a small piece of good news here though: Apple has dropped the price of its 20W USB-C Power Adapter to NZ$19.

There is a silver lining to all this; it’s not just Apple being d*cks hoping to make an extra NZ$19 from the section of customers who don’t already have a USB-C wall charger. The environmental reasons are compelling. 

Apple says the removing of wall chargers from the iPhone box will cut over 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year, which is the equivalent of removing 450,000 cars from the road each year. It’s a move that I suspect will lead to other manufacturers following almost immediately. It’s also a move that only Apple could get away with, and sell as a good thing to customers.

Oh, there’s no EarBuds in the box either. They won’t by missed by anyone.

About that MagSafe charger…

While we’re on the subject of charging, Apple also launched its new MagSafe charger alongside the iPhone 12 devices. This name is a little confusing because there’s nothing “safe” about the iPhone MagSafe chargers like they’re older MacBook siblings that featured “a magnetic DC connector that ensures your power cable will disconnect if it experiences undue strain”. No, if you catch your foot, or whatever, in this cable, the magnet is strong enough to take your iPhone 12 flying with it.

Anyway, I digress. The MagSafe charger is a pretty good accessory. It attaches magnetically to the back of your iPhone 12 with a satisfying clunk, and chargers your phone reasonably quickly.

The important thing to remember here is that wireless charging is a lot slower, and wasteful than traditional wired charging. And while this MagSafe charger has 15W on its label, you’re probably not going to be charging your phone wirelessly at that speed. 

However, Apple is confident that the work it has done with wireless charging technology is an improvement on the industry standard. So, yes, this is a good thing as it represents a step in the right direction for wireless charging. But it’s also a step in the direction of a future iPhone without a traditional charging port. And I’ve not made up my mind on how I feel about that yet.

iPhone 12 Verdict

This is a classic Apple smartphone upgrade; everything on the iPhone 12 is familiar, but better.

If, like me, you have been using an iPhone 11 for the past year, you won’t notice a huge huge difference here – more that things just feel a lot nicer. And cleaner. And flat edgier. But you probably won’t need to upgrade.

If, however, you’re using a phone that’s a bit older and is starting to feel tired and an upgrade is due- then this is an easy phone to recommend. It does everything you could need from a smartphone and in some departments (camera and screen) a bit more.