BirchTree

Talking tech since 2010

iPhone 12 Pro Review: One Leap Forward, One Step Back

iPhone 12 Pro Review: One Leap Forward, One Step Back

I’ve been using the iPhone 12 Pro for almost a month at this point, and I’ve waited a little longer than normal to write this review because it’s been a strange update for me. Apple is pushing a few things on this phone:

  1. 5G
  2. Premium, stronger materials
  3. MagSafe
  4. LiDAR
  5. Batter cameras

So, let’s go through those things in that order.

5G

I have T-Mobile and live in the Chicagoland area.

Apple would not let you forget that this was the iPhone that brought 5G to the masses, so how does it do there? Well, from my experience, it’s been great! No, I’m not getting the 4Gb/s speeds they talked about on stage, but I have invariably gotten better performance than I ever got on LTE.

I wrote about this after some controlled, but unscientific tests, and got on average 7x the performance compared to LTE on my iPhone 11 Pro. More importantly, in pockets where I had no service, or effectively no service, now I get reasonable speeds. In most places I’m getting 100Mb/s or more. My best test so far has been 363Mb/s, which is 3x faster than my home internet.

I would say this is the biggest upgrade this year, and it’s made my phone meaningfully better. Maybe this will get worse over time as more people get 5G phones, but hey, on a personal level this is an undeniable win, so I’m into it.

Premium, Stronger Materials

I think the iPhone 12 Pro design is a regression over the iPhone 11 Pro.

While the materials are undeniably premium, and the screen is supposed to be 4x stronger against drops, but after a month I have not been convinced that this is an improvement.

The squared off sides look nice, but they’re less comfortable in the hand. I don’t normally like to use a case, but I do with this phone because it’s physically painful for me to hold this on its own for long. I think the thing missing for me from the iPhone 5 design, which I loved and still enjoy with an original iPhone SE I use daily, are the slight cut outs on the edges that softened the feel in hand quite a bit.

In comparison, the squared off edges on the iPhone 12 Pro feel harsh, and in my estimation, don’t even look as good. Next year’s iPhone 13 Pro is surely going to have a similar design, but I would love it if they did something to soften these edges a little bit.

When it comes to the actual quality of these materials, I can not complain at all. Everything looks and feels like it costs a lot of money, which is good because it does. I obviously have not tried dropping my phone to see if it survives a fall, but others have and it does seem to have very durable glass, even if it will of course still break from some falls, but your odds of it surviving are increased this year.

Oh, and the Pacific Blue color I got looks gooood.

Magsafe

I like MagSafe, and based on how over-engineered it feels right now, it's hard not to imagine that this is the solution for going port-less in a year or two. Everything about this feature is “extra” right now. You get a bomb-ass battery charging animation stolen straight from the Apple Watch when you place it on the $39 MagSafe charging puck. Even more wild, when you put on a MagSafe case made by Apple, you get a circle pop up on screen in the color of your case.

None of this is necessary today, and it feels like something they would only do for something with a lot of road ahead of it.

In terms of charging speed, I found this to be a fine with the puck, if somewhat pokey way to charge your phone. It's a bit faster than the $10 Anker wireless charger I've been using for 2 years, but it's about half as fast as plugging directly into the 18W charging brick that shipped with last year’s iPhone 11 Pro. That said, if you've been charging with the old 5W charger that shipped with every other iPhone, this will feel faster than that. Assuming you have the right USB-C charger, of course.

Definitely watch this space.

LiDAR

LiDAR is currently being used by Apple to do at least 2 things:

  1. Portrait mode at night
  2. Show people’s height in the Measure app.

Portraits at night are okay, but it’s clear that this is something that’s going to need to improve a lot over the next few years. Apple demoed some good looking shots, so obviously it can do good things, but in my shots, the shots are pretty messy.

And measuring people with the Measure app is pretty cool, and it did actually nail me and my wife’s heights, which is nice. I will say that the Measure app does feel generally more reliable than it was before. I noticed this most in terms of my markers locking exactly to one spot and never moving, no matter how quickly I was moving my phone around.

I also found an app called PolyCam that lets you scan your environment and create a 3D mesh using LiDAR. It’s neat parlor trick.

Photograpy

Unlike the iPhone 12 Pro Max coming later this week, the smaller Pro’s camera system is much less changed from last year. The only notable change from my perspective is the slightly faster f/1.6 aperture on the standard wide lens, compared to last year’s f/1.8. This brings in a little more light than before, meaning in theory photos will be able to have higher shutter speeds with less gain, and get the same quality photos as before. For most shots, this won’t make much of a difference, but there could be gains in low light and high speed action shots.

I didn’t do my normal photo comparisons this year, and instead relied on how the camera made me feel about the photos I was taking. This ain’t scientific, but I think it’s often useful to zoom out and look at progress in ways other than pixel-peeping.

The bottom line is that I feel like these cameras are just as good as last year’s iPhone 11 Pro cameras. Maaaaaybe there’s a little improvement here and there, but that could just be a placebo. But if you have an 11 Pro and are wondering if the 12 Pro is worth an upgrade because you need the best camera possible, I would say it isn’t worth it this year.

Of course, most people don’t upgrade year-over-year, and for anyone coming from an iPhone XS or older, this camera system is going to feel like a huge upgrade. I know this because last year I went from the XS to the 11 Pro and it felt like a huge upgrade.

Here are a few sample shots.

Night mode, light editing
Night mode, light editing
Portrait mode, no edits
Portrait mode, no edits
Wide camera, no edits
Wide camera, no edits
Wide camera, RAW with Halide, color corrected
Wide camera, RAW with Halide, color corrected
Wide camera, RAW with Halide, color correction and sharpening
Wide camera, RAW with Halide, color correction and sharpening
Telephoto camera, boosted saturation
Telephoto camera, boosted saturation

A quick note here, the iPhone 12 Pro Max reviews came out earlier this week and the consensus seems to be that the Max is indeed a little better, but it’s not so much better that you’ll even notice much of the time. For me, the smaller form factor is more valuable to me than getting slightly better photos. Here’s hoping physics allow the larger sensor to come down to the smaller Pro next year.

Video

The Kunquat silicon case looks awesome with the blue iPhone
The Kunquat silicon case looks awesome with the blue iPhone

Video is another story entirely. Video got a massive upgrade this year with the introduction of Dolby Vision HDR. I am ill-equipped to get into the technical details, but the gist is that your videos will be able to collect a wider range of light than normal video. In my opinion, it’s like high res (“retina”) screens: you didn’t know you needed it, but once you had it you could never go back.

I really appreciate this when filming outside during the day, a pretty common occurrence. Video taken outside simply looks more lifelike than before. You can really notice this when playing back a video in the Photos app and you’ll see your iPhone screen get crazy bright. It’s not blowing out your video by cranking up the brightness, it’s actually displaying a larger range of light which looks more like what our eyes see.

I’m not doing a great job of explaining this, but you really just need to see it for yourself.

On a side note, I’ve seen a few YouTubers lament shooting in HDR and needing to convert all of their clips in iMovie to get them in SDR form to share in other places. This new HDR footage is turned on by default, so you’ll be shooting with it unless you turn it off yourself. That said, I’ve shared videos to my Mac and other devices, and iOS has always converted the file when sharing it so that it works on the receptor device. For example, AirDropping from my iPhone 12 Pro to a 2015 MacBook Pro converts the file to SDR before sending, and I was able to use the file in my ScreenFlow project, which does not support HDR at all. Downloading from iCloud.com also converted the file to SDR so my Windows machine was able to read it as expected.

The Other Stuff

More on Form Factor

Going back to the form factor talk from earlier, the phone feels noticeably thicker than the 11 Pro, even though it’s technically thinner. This is of course due to the flattened sides, but again, I think those look good in product shots and sitting on your desk, but are not as good in the hand.

Also, the screen went from 5.8” to 6.1” this year. The additional real estate is welcome, and I even turned down my text size one notch since everything was bigger. I feel like I have a lot more space than I did before, all without upgrading to the truly enormous 12 Pro Max, which I did not want to do.

Battery Life

Battery life was never mentioned by Apple on stage, likely because the batteries got smaller from last year. I sadly can’t report this as well as I normally can since I’m working from home and my phone doesn’t get close to dying any day these days. The best I can tell you is that it seems to be doing a little worse than my 11 Pro, but not much so. I’m just getting it on the charger at night with maybe 5-10% less charge left.

RAM

The iPhone 12 Pro comes with 6GB RAM, which is more than the 4GB in last year’s phones. I can’t say I’ve noticed the difference, but common wisdom is that the extra RAM is helping with camera processing. This is what allows the Pro models to capture Dolby Vision HDR video in 60fps while the non-pros cap out at 30fps. It’s also what is rumored to enable up upcoming ProRAW image format coming in an upcoming update to iOS.

The Environment

If you’ve ever owned an iPhone before, you can use the same Lightning cable to charge this one. This is good, because the iPhone 12 Pro does not come with a charging brick in the box; it simply has a USB-C to Lightning cable bundled in. Apple says they’re doing this to help reduce waste, and I take them at their word that this is the goal.

I’ve spoken about this a few times before, so I won’t go too deep into this here, but here’s a summary of my take:

  1. Indeed, many people never use the charging bricks that they get with new phones, so they likely do go to waste.
  2. I think Apple’s communication around this has been very confusing, and makes them look like they are trying to extract even more money out of you (even if they’re not). I have yet to meet a person outside of Tech Twitter who believes Apple’s stated reasoning. Either Tech Twitter is drinking the Kool-Aid, or Apple did not effectively communicate their intentions to users.

Conclusion

I very much like the iPhone 12 Pro. It looks great, is hella fast, has industry-leading cameras, and benefits greatly from 5G service in my area. That said, I think the compromises in design and battery life make this an imperfect upgrade from last year. My buying advice would be:

  • If you are upgrading from an iPhone XS or earlier, then this will be a great upgrade. The cameras especially will blow you away, as will the speed improvements, and MagSafe, LiDAR, and U1 chips will mean you’re future-proofed for what I expect the cooler things Apple has coming down the pipeline.
  • If you are upgrading from an iPhone 11 Pro, then this is one of the smaller year-over-year upgrades we’ve had (maybe comparable to the X to XS upgrade). While I never recommend buying a new phone every year, I would say that is even more the case this time.
Show Comments