Which iPhone 12 Should You Buy?

Bree Fowler
·7 min read

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If you’re in the market for a new iPhone, you have four solid options this year, ranging from the diminutive, budget-friendly iPhone 12 Mini to the jumbo-sized, premium-priced iPhone 12 Max.

How do you decide which is the best fit for you?

That's a good question, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that makes it tough to go into a store to see how they look and feel in person.

CR has already tested the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, and they both did exceptionally well. Since the Mini and the Max, which were just released on Friday, are similar in design and technology, they're likely to deliver similar performance.

That leaves a lot of room for personal preference, and it may come down to size and weight, along with your budget.

Is the Mini too small for your taste? The Max too heavy? Do you need the jumbo screen on the Max or will you be happy with the regular iPhone 12 Pro?

Those are the sorts of questions I’ve been fielding from friends and family since Apple first unveiled the phones. People want to know how the phones feel in the hand.

Here's a quick rundown of the differences among the four models: The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are the same size; the Mini is a smaller version of the regular iPhone 12; and the Max is a bigger version of the Pro model.

For most people choosing a new iPhone 12, I think it makes sense to immediately narrow your choices down to just two phones, instead of the four being offered.

People who want to spend a bit less can choose between the iPhone 12 and the iPhone Mini. That's also the right pairing if you're deciding between a small and medium-size phone. (You can also throw the slightly older iPhone SE into that group—more on that below.)

Folks willing to spend the money for better cameras and a more luxurious package can choose between the iPhone 12 Pro and the Pro Max. And this is the right pairing for anyone waffling between getting a medium-size or a jumbo phone.

Oh, one other question I get alot: Everybody wants to know what the new Pacific Blue color looks like. For the record, it's a dark, very ocean-like, but not metallic, version of navy. And no matter what phone you decide on, you can get it in blue.

iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Mini . . . or iPhone SE?

First up: the less expensive phones, starting with the smallest iPhone 12 of the bunch.

If there ever was a smartphone to describe as “cute,” it would be the $700 Mini.

It fits comfortably in the palm of my hand, and people with small paws will have no trouble swiping and tapping away on the 5.4-inch display. By comparison, the display on the $800 iPhone 12 measures 6.1 inches diagonally.

If you're debating between the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini, keep in mind that those phones include largely the same hardware, with the notable exception of their batteries. So, on many levels, we expect them to function equally well.

If you look at it that way, the choice is simple, if you want a larger, but not huge iPhone, while saving money where you can, buy the iPhone 12, which costs $200 less than the iPhone 12 Pro.

And, if you're looking to save even more, and aren't particularly worried about screen size, buy the 12 Mini and save another $100.

But if you're looking at smaller iPhones, how about the iPhone SE, introduced earlier this year? That phone is just $400, a steep savings from the $700 it costs to get an iPhone Mini.

Here, quickly, are the differences. To start, the Mini feels sleeker and more sophisticated. Beyond aesthetics, the screen on the Mini is significantly larger than the 4.7-inch display on the SE, even though the iPhone SE is actually the slightly bigger device.

And, like the iPhone 12, the Mini steps up with Apple’s latest chip, 5G connectivity, wide and ultra-wide rear cameras, and a super-sharp OLED display. It also supports the company’s new MagSafe technology, which lets you magnetically afix the device to a wireless charger, and to snap-on accessories such as cases and credit card sleeves.

Apple says the Mini will have better battery life than the iPhone SE. That's something we'll have to determine in our labs, but if so it could be a strong argument for the Mini. The iPhone SE lasted just 25.5 hours on a single charge in CR testing. That's not great for a phone these days.

iPhone 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max?

If you want the biggest iPhone 12 you can find, you'll be looking at the Pro Max.

That phone has a whopping 6.7-inch screen. That's just a tick larger than the display on last year’s biggest iPhone, but it's a big jump from the display on the iPhone 12 Pro, which measures 6.1 inches.

For a lot of people, big screens aren’t just about binging their favorite Netflix show in bed. They’re also about having more space for typing and reading emails and text messages. And iOS 14 brought a picture-in-picture feature to iPhones that lets you watch a video while typing that email. Those are all good reasons to prefer the bigger screen.

However, while I really like the Max’s giant display, more size means more weight. After a few weeks of using the 12 Pro, I find that the Max now feels like a brick.

The cameras are another distinguishing factor between the two phones. While the 12 Pro has a camera with a 2x lens, the 12 Pro Max provides a 2.5x lens, letting you zoom in a bit closer on your subject.

I'm not sure that's a huge upside for me, though.

The 2.5x optical zoom works well, but it doesn't perform miracles. I took great pictures of the Henry Hudson Bridge with the 12 Pro Max. It easily kept the landscape in focus, with the wide-angle lens and the 2.5x zoom lens.

But while I could easily see, with my naked eyes, a pair of people in canoes paddling down the Harlem River in front of the bridge, the 2.5x lens wasn't powerful enough to pick them up in a photo.

In contrast, Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra includes a 10x zoom, while the Galaxy Note20 Ultra has a 5x zoom. So, if getting super close to your subjects is a really big deal for you, you might want to think about one of those. Or, better yet, use a real camera.

The final difference between the phones is likely to be battery life. Generally, bigger phones have bigger batteries, and run longer on a single charge.

Last year’s 11 Pro Max logged a whopping 40.5 hours in our testing, which was one of the big reasons why it sat atop our rankings for much of the last year.

Apple says the new Pro models will go about the same distance as last year’s. And our testing has, so far, proved that to be true. The iPhone 11 Pro and 12 Pro both made it 34 hours on a single charge. I'm looking forward to getting the lab results on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. If the phone hits the 40-plus hour mark of its predecessor, it would make the iPhone Pro Max the clear choice for some shoppers.