SAN FRANCISCO — Sometimes, it’s what Apple doesn’t say about a new iPhone that’s most revealing.
The headline upgrade in this year’s iPhone 12 — soon to be blasted across endless commercials — is that it supports fast 5G cellular networks. They probably won’t mention that across much of America, these next-generation networks are still slow. Depending on where you live, an iPhone 12 might do diddly for your downloads.
The iPhone 12 launched Tuesday with some of the most notable changes we’ve seen in years from Apple’s flagship product: there’s 5G, a flat-edge design and a “mini” model. But to figure out whether one is worth your money, we have to look beyond the hype.
My takeaway: Most people don’t need an iPhone 12 now, but you might want one in a year or two … by which point there could be an iPhone 13 or 14 with 5G. The iPhone 12 is the phone you buy because you’re planning to hold onto it for a while.
Normally after Apple unveils a product, I get the opportunity to spend a little time with it. This launch offered only a first-look-but-don’t-touch, because coronavirus pandemic precautions pushed Apple’s event online. Until professional reviewers get our hands on the new iPhone, we’re left to judge based on what Apple claimed in its prerecorded video and on its slick, computer-generated renderings.
That’s all the more reason to bite into this new iPhone with a healthy dollop of skepticism. Apple doesn’t really compete with Android phones for our business anymore. For most iPhone owners, the choice is when to upgrade, how much money you want to hand to Apple and — particularly this year — what size you want it to be.
Here are your 2020 options, arriving in stores in late October and mid-November:
- iPhone 12, $800, is the successor to the “standard” iPhone of the last few years but priced at $100 more. It’s got a 6.1-inch screen and two cameras on the back. (We’ve noted the starting prices; costs go up as you add storage capacity.)
- iPhone 12 mini, $700, is a new smaller-form iPhone, with a 5.4-inch screen squished inside a smaller body than we’ve seen from Apple in years.
- iPhone 12 Pro, $1,000, is the fancy 6.1-inch model with extra camera tricks.
- iPhone 12 Pro Max, $1,100, is the giant 6.7-inch fancy model with extra camera tricks.
Any of these phones will probably feel like a significant upgrade to anyone using an iPhone 6S, 7 or 8. You can also get a cheaper upgrade by buying last year’s iPhone 11 for $600, or the recent $400 iPhone SE, which resembles an old iPhone 8 but is faster.
While the iPhone 12 offers lots of little improvements, there are four upgrades that are the most tempting — and need some caveats.
5G across the line
What’s promising: 5G networks, which boast faster downloads, less delay and the ability to support a lot more devices, are unquestionably in our future. They’re now supported by the iPhone, the one device that can consistently make waves in tech. Unlike some competitors, Apple is also keeping 5G simple, at least in the United States, where all its phones will support the many different flavors of 5G (so you don’t have to learn terms like “millimeter wave” and “sub-6″). Buying one of these phones this year likely futureproofs you for years.
A 5G iPhone could be very fast. Verizon said on Tuesday its ultra-wideband network clocks peak downloads of 4 gigabits (yes, giga!) per second on the device.
What they didn’t mention: Even the marketing maestros at Apple couldn’t cook up a very convincing reason we need 5G on our phones in 2020. (Its few examples included a new video game and doctors quickly downloading patient brain scans … to examine on tiny phone screens?) I don’t doubt that someday 5G will power things we can’t even imagine today. But the reality is that the current “nationwide” 5G networks just aren’t very fast. When I tested Samsung’s 5G phones last month in the San Francisco Bay area, I got download speeds that were only marginally better than on 4G phones — and in some places worse! U.S. carriers have a lot of work to do to live up to what Tim Cook promised in his keynote presentation: that 5G is “super fast.”
One more caveat: Using 5G can drain your battery. Apple claims iPhone 12 battery life is about the same as the iPhone 11. But it has built in a special battery-saving Smart Data Mode that kicks you off 5G networks when it thinks you don’t need it. What happens in a few years when we actually do need it?
New designs and materials
What’s promising: Like hemlines, phone designs go in and out of fashion. The iPhone 12 brings back the flat edge of the old iPhone 4, which some people find less slippery.
And speaking of being easier to hold, there is a smaller option: the iPhone 12 mini. It’s smaller than even the iPhone 8, but it has an edge-to-edge screen.
All of this year’s iPhones had a little nip and tuck along the edges. The iPhone 12 is 11 percent thinner, 15 percent smaller and 16 percent lighter than the iPhone 11. That’s how they squeezed an even larger screen in the Pro Max model, measuring 6.7 inches on the diagonal.
The iPhone 12 also uses a new kind of glass that Apple says makes it four times more resistant to cracking when it drops. And, at long last, there’s a blue model.
What they didn’t mention: The iPhone 12 mini still isn’t as small as the beloved original iPhone SE, which Apple said goodbye to this year in favor of a new model that’s the same size as an iPhone 8. Apple also says the mini’s battery lasts 2 hours less than the regular 12.
And Apple didn’t make a change many of us really have been asking for: The return of TouchID. Apple’s FaceID system, introduced in the iPhone X, has never worked very well when you wear sunglasses. But the coronavirus pandemic caused an epidemic of unlock failures by people wearing masks. Come on Apple — you were able to put a fingerprint reader on the button in the new iPad Air, so why not in the iPhone?
Night camera improvements
What’s promising: A lot of fun happens in the dark. Now you can take better selfies at night with the addition of Apple’s Night Mode, introduced with the iPhone 11, to the front-facing camera. The impressive lowlight mode can take pictures in situations typically too dark for photography. It also has been added to the ultrawide angle camera on the back of the phone.
On the pricier 12 Pro models that have a telephoto lens on the back, Apple added a lidar sensor — it looks less like a fourth eye and more like a beauty mark. Lidar is the same depth-measurement tech used in self-driving cars. No, the iPhone 12 Pro can’t hit the road, but it can use this data to improve focus, particularly in the dark, among other tricks. As a photo hobbyist, this excites me.
What they didn’t mention: Apple didn’t do much to improve my top camera request: zooming. Samsung and other phone makers are embedding telescoping lenses in phones that do up to 10 times optical zoom and 100 times digital zoom. The iPhone 12 Pro Max offers just 2.5 optical zoom and 12 times digital zoom.
What’s promising: The iPhone 12 no longer comes with headphones or a charging brick. Wait, why is that a good thing? Apple says it’s good for the environment, because there are already over 700 million corded white EarPods in the world, and 2 billion Apple power adapters. It’s true: I could raise a family of hamsters in my big tangle of old headphones. By dropping them from the package, Apple could also make its boxes smaller, part of a wider commitment to have a net-zero climate impact across its entire business by 2030.
What they didn’t mention: If you still need headphones or a charging brick, the Apple-made models will cost you a total of $38. (Perhaps the company can interest you in some $160 AirPods instead?) And Apple didn’t lower the prices of its iPhones to compensate for giving us less. The iPhone mini starts at $700, the same price as last year’s regular-sized iPhone 11. It costs a hundred bucks more for the regular size this year.
And while environmental watchdogs report Apple generally has a better track record than others in the tech industry, it could still do more to help its products last longer. A recent lawsuit in Canada revealed that more than 100,000 used devices Apple had sent for shredding were allegedly still able to be used.
The No. 1 thing an iPhone owner can do to help the environment is not buy a new iPhone. Or buy a used or refurbished one.
Are you ready to upgrade, or do you plan on waiting for 5G to become a real thing? I’d love to hear from you through my Washington Post Help Desk.
Apple has pledged to have net-zero climate impact across its entire business by 2030. An earlier version of this column had the wrong date.
Read more tech reviews and advice from Geoffrey A. Fowler: