First Look: iPhone 12 and 12 Pro

Bree Fowler

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If you've been waiting to buy a new iPhone until there was a substantially improved model, the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 pro could be it.

Over the last three years, Apple has made incremental upgrades to the iPhone. It added more cameras, faster processors, and little improvements to battery life and display quality, but there haven’t been any major changes since the iPhone X shelved the long-used Home Button and introduced Face ID.

The iPhone 12 models appear to mark a turning point. As you’ve probably heard, they’re the first to include the hardware needed for 5G, the next step in faster wireless connectivity, and something that's now common on Samsung, OnePlus, and LG phones.

Apple also has made big changes when it comes to powering up your phone. According to the company, the new MagSafe charger, which costs an extra $40, doubles the amount of wattage you can wirelessly transfer into your phone. That should make wireless charging much faster.

All of that is powered by Apple’s new A14 Bionic chip, which the company says is designed with 5G in mind and is the fastest chip in any smartphone on the market. The phones also have new cameras designed to work better in low light.

There's some good news for your budget, as well. Many of the new tricks and toys can be found in not only the super-premium iPhone 12 Pro, but also the lower-priced iPhone 12, and the two models that go on sale in November (the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max).

For instance, a year ago, you had to buy an 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max to get a display with OLED technology, something now found on some of the best TVs and known for generating blacker blacks and almost unlimited viewing angles. But Apple has installed a super-sharp OLED display on the base iPhone 12 model.

That pocket-sized OLED display could come in handy if, like me, you find yourself spending a lot more time at home fighting a losing battle for the real TV. I’ve taken my phone, along with my favorite pair of wireless headphones, to bed with me more than once to binge watch my favorite shows in peace.

The two phones released on Friday have a sleek look and feel, too. The 12 Pro is wrapped in an elegant, though smudge-prone, stainless steel frame. The iPhone 12 is encased in more modest aluminum. Both have ditched the rounded edges found on recent iPhones in favor of flat sides reminiscent of models long-past.

An iPhone 12 with 64GB of storage will cost you $800. And the 12 Pro, which now starts with 128GB of storage—marking Apple’s first storage increase since the iPhone 8—costs $1,000, the same price as last year’s iPhone 11 Pro.

Just keep in mind that Apple won’t be including wired headphones or the wall adaptor needed for charging with any of the new phones, so you may have to spring for those as well.

Preorders for the $700 iPhone 12 Mini and $1,100 iPhone 12 Pro Max start on Nov. 6.

We'll have full lab results on all four iPhone 12 models in the coming weeks—our battery life, tumble tests, and other evaluations take time and we don’t begin them until we can purchase the phones at retail just like you—but we've already looked at a number of the new features on the 12 and 12 Pro and have some early findings to share.

Here’s what our testers have found so far.

5G Reality Check

According to telecommunications experts, 5G speeds—five times faster than 4G connections at peak performance—will eventually allow consumers to download a feature-length movie in just 5 seconds.

Proponents of the technology say that 5G could also pave the way for the instantaneous response times required to safely perform robotic surgery and help cars talk with other vehicles and road infrastructure to improve safety and efficiency. But those sophisticated applications are still a ways off.

When the technology first launched, there were just a few compatible phones; mostly super-premium models made by Samsung and LG. But, as the carriers have expanded their 5G networks, the hardware required for 5G access has entered more mainstream phones.

At the moment, that access—and the technology’s optimum speeds—still hinge on where you live and what carrier you use. That’s all changing rather quickly, though, making this a good time to think about purchasing a 5G phone, especially if you’re spending upwards of $1,000 on the thing.

The new iPhones, at least the models sold in the United States, each contain the hardware needed to pick up all 5G signals. That includes the slower-but-more-reliable low- and mid-band 5G signals, as well as super-speedy millimeter waves that often get impeded by walls and other obstructions.

But it’s still premature to expect dramatic results from a phone accessing the nation’s 5G networks.

For example, sitting at my desk in Consumer Reports’ Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters, I picked up Verizon 5G signals with download speeds ranging from 63 to 156 megabits per second. That’s okay, considering I was connected to Verizon’s slower “Nationwide Network,” not the faster “Ultra Wideband” signal, which uses millimeter waves.

To get a comparison, I put the same SIM card back in my old iPhone 11 Pro Max, which only does LTE, and ran the same tests. The download speeds ranged between 102 and 143Mbps—pretty much the same as with 5G.

In that location, at least, 5G wasn't doing any better than the older 4G network. It certainly didn't make me want to rush out and buy a 5G phone.

Henry Parra, CR’s head of phone testing, had better luck in midtown Manhattan, which has more zones covered by Verizon’s faster Ultra Wideband network. Using the same speed tests, he went to three different spots within the line of sight of Verizon 5G towers and got varied tests. In one location, he captured speeds of 237 and 250Mbps.

Keep in mind that Parra was testing in near-ideal conditions with very few people on the network. A passing car or even a tree branch can be enough to stop a 5G millimeter wave signal.

He ran the same tests with 5G phones made by Samsung and LG. Results from those phones also varied greatly, though the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra posted the fastest download speed of the day, reaching 328Mbps at one location.

Occasionally, phone testers will see a 5G speed many times as high—going well beyond a gigabit per second. But that says a lot about the inconsistency of 5G. If you happen to live in a tent at the base of the best 5G tower around, you may experience shockingly fast downloads.

But most of the time, most people with these phones should expect to use 4G, or perhaps 5G operating at 4G-like speeds.

Better Low-Light Photos

When it comes to the cameras on the new phones, Apple’s big promise is that they produce better results in low-light situations. Both have bigger sensors that let in more light and, in theory, brighten a photo that might otherwise be dark and fuzzy.

And our testers found that to be true. In our labs, they compared images taken with the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro to images taken with the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro and discovered that the photos taken with the newer models were significantly better.

But, Artur Pietruch, CR’s test lab photography expert, recommends that you use a tripod or a sturdy perch to get the best results in low-light situations, regardless of which phone model you use.

To harness that extra light, the camera’s shutter remains open longer, making your shot more susceptible to the slight movements that blur your images.

Pietruch says the new cameras stand out when it comes to progressive blur photos, a popular technique where the subject appears in sharp focus and objects in the background get less focused the further they are from the camera. In general, this is a very tough thing for smartphone cameras to do, he says.

And, according to Pietruch, the phones’ ultra-wide cameras work exceptionally well. He didn’t detect much of a “fisheye” effect, where the corners of the photos are distorted.

He also gives high marks to the 2x telephoto lens on the 12 Pro, which he says takes photos that are noticeably less blurry than those from other telephoto smartphone cameras.

A New Processor Built for 5G

Apple says the A14 Bionic is its fastest chip yet and our testing confirms that. It’s not clear yet, though, how much of an impact that will have on the performance of the phones.

We ran standard benchmark tests on the two new models, stressing the main and graphics processors by making them carry out a series of operations. For comparison’s sake, we ran the same tests on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro.

The iPhone 12 posted a 25 percent improvement over the 11, while the 12 Pro was 30 percent better than the 11 Pro (and 3 percent faster than the regular 12).

But how much do you really benefit from that extra power?

The benefits of the faster processor may show up most as 5G network coverage improves. That could mean more graphic-intensive, real-time gaming and new applications for augmented- and virtual-reality and other processor-sucking features conceived in the next few years.

So while you might not need the equivalent of a Ferrari, you may find that the extra horsepower comes in handy down the road, when you want to process truckloads of data without slowing down.

Better Display?

The OLED display on the iPhone 11 Pro earned an Excellent rating from our testers. And it’s tough to improve on that.

Any good OLED provides very deep black levels and nearly unlimited viewing angles. However, the iPhone 12 has taken a big step forward by including an OLED display, according to Claudio Ciacci, who heads TV testing for CR.

And, he says, you get nearly as much performance from the iPhone 12 as from the more expensive iPhone 12 Pro—there's just a slight difference in brightness. The 12 can reach 625 nits of brightness when displaying typical content, while the 12 Pro can climb to 800 nits, just like the 11 Pro model.

And that’s important because a bright screen is easier to see when you're outside on a sunny day.

It can also help you take advantage of HDR, or high-dynamic range, video. When done well, HDR can make a video look more vibrant, colorful, and lifelike, with lots of detail in both the dimly lit and bright parts of the image, such as the shadows in a nighttime scene and the intricate shapes of bright clouds. (HDR has become increasingly important for TVs.)

Apple says both new phones can reach 1,200 nits in small sections of an HDR picture, such as the glint off an airplane wing. We did not evaluate that claim.

Overall, both displays are great, says Ciacci, noting that the black levels are as deep as expected for an OLED display. “I wish some of the TVs we test would look as good as this,” he adds. While the resolution falls a little short of 4K, consumers won’t notice on screens this small.

And, if you’re wondering how Apple’s new “Ceramic Shield” may affect display quality, our testers found it didn’t change any of the viewing aspects of the screen. The new tech has tiny ceramic crystals embedded in the glass. The crystals are smaller than the wavelength of light, which makes the material highly transparent.

We’ll run the iPhone 12 lineup through our tumble test to check the durability of the new glass.

Should You Buy One?

We need to wait for full test results to provide our final verdict. But, after a quick early look, these phones appear to be great.

Then again, so are the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, which sat atop our ratings for the bulk of a year, receiving top marks for their cameras, displays, and processors.

So you may want to shop for a deal on one of those models, instead. It could come down to your feelings about low-light photography and, especially, 5G. Right now, the 5G capabilty built into the new phones won't bring most people much benefit.

But if you plan to hang on to your phone for several years and feel bullish on 5G, buying one of the iPhone 12 models will provide some future-proofing. And the major carriers are serving up some really good deals on them right now.