2020 was, to be charitable, unexpected. But with all the stuff that was thrown off balance, working from home turned out to be a blessing for those of us in the digital content game. Covering the tech space, it turns out, actually got easier and no less busy.
By now, we all know that Apple does it’s annual iPhone reveal in September, iPads in March and Macs in November. This year, things got pushed a bit due to the COVID pandemic, but we still got our shiny (very shiny) new iPhones a month later. It turns out it wasn’t the most significant Apple announcement of the year (that honour goes to the M1 MacBooks), but here we are with not one or two, but four distinct variants of iPhone 12s this year.
For those of you who’s rather not read 2600 words to make a buying decision, here’s the TL;DR on what’s new:
- New, squared-off design, similar to the iPhone 5
- Four variants to choose from, including a Mini
- All-OLED screens
- MagSafe magnetic attachment system at the back for wireless charging and accessories
- “Ceramic Shield” material that makes the screen twice as durable’
Should you care?
Personally, the last iPhone I bought for myself was when the prices were still below 60k for the flagship device. Despite being part of the iOS ecosystem since the OG iPhone, I decided then: no more. If my throwaway electronics now cost more than my ridiculous vintage motorcycle, something has to change. Fast-forward to 2020, and the review unit that Apple sent us is the iPhone 12 Pro in “Pacific Blue” with 512gb of storage that costs a dizzying Rs 1,49,900. Thankfully, Apple has filled out their lineup with other models that are relatively more accessible, but if you want the hottest thing, you get this or the Pro Max model that’s larger, has a better camera, battery and higher price.
The price alone should make you think twice, but it bears mentioning the various reasons that you actually might want a latest-gen iPhone:
- The ecosystem is mature, and if you’re already in it, you may as well
- There’s a reason benchmarks compare iPhones and Android phones separately: the iPhones are almost always a generation ahead in performance. You want the fastest phone? iPhone.
- Apple at least has a reasonable public stand in favour of user privacy
- If you don’t break it, you can use your iPhone for up to 5 years, with reasonable satisfaction
- Apps are usually higher-quality, and often iOS-first
- Generally, iPhones are perceived to be more secure and less vulnerable to malware
- After 15 iterations (generations), the iPhone gets a lot right
- The camera, while arguably no longer the ‘best’, is still way up there
At this point, you know what you’ll get when you go spend your future car down-payment on a new iPhone – predictability, refinement, performance, kidney jokes. And while I cannot promise to desist from flogging the price jokes in the rest of this review, I would recommend the new iPhone 12 series to anyone who has a previous generation device (with some caveats), is comfortable with the ecosystem and can afford it.
One must also bear in mind that we no longer live in a world where Apple devices are by far the most expensive. Flagship Android devices are getting rather close these days. The Samsung Note20 Ultra 5G tops out at Rs 1,04,999, for instance.
A word on 5G
Okay, a few words. The new iPhone 12 series is 5G. We don’t have 5G in India, and mass rollout is some time away. This feature should not carry any significant weight in your buying decision.
Apple has soldiered on with the design language they adopted with the iPhone 6 way back in 2014. It has persisted through the 7, 8 series and carries on in the updated 2020 iPhone SE. We saw new designs for the X and 11, but for the 12, they’ve gone back to what was arguably the best design of all: the iPhone 5.
To me, this is the stand-out feature of the iPhone 12 Pro (not so much the 12). Apple have put the LiDAR sensor from the iPad Pro models where it really should be – in the iPhone. It really made no sense to me why they put it in the iPad in the first place. LiDAR, or Light Detection And Ranging, greatly improves how the iPhone camera judges depth. You know how every Android phone north of 10k has four cameras? One of them is usually a depth sensor, and counts as a “camera” so we get four.
The LiDAR sensor is sensitive enough to make the ‘Measure’ app on the iPhone accurate to a few centimetres. In fact, if you point it at a person, it almost instantly responds with the subject’s height, which I found to be accurate. The idea is to make augmented reality apps much more useful. While those may not be everybody’s idea of a good time, there is one application that benefits most people: portrait mode. You see, that creamy blurred background on portrait shots is the result of shallow depth of field. Cameras with large sensors – mirrorless, DSLR – and fast lenses are able to do this naturally; phone camera sensors are too small for the effect to be visible. Portrait mode artificially blurs the background, which requires a sense of depth. The LiDAR sensor provides this in spades.
I’ll keep this short: performance is very good. There is no app or situation that I’ve encountered thus far that has caused the iPhone 12 Pro to stutter, slow down or misbehave. I’ve had the occasional hang in Lightroom, but I’m pretty sure that’s on the app. Games run buttery-smooth and you can edit 4k Dolby Vision footage in real-time on the iMovie app. You can’t even do that as smoothly on a high-end PC! This should be no surprise, really. The A14 Bionic is the basis of the M1 chip that Apple uses for its new MacBook Air and Pro, and it’s hard to find fault with their performance. For the benchmark nerds, here are some screenshots:
The iPhone 12 Pro isn’t perfect, but the list of things I don’t like is quite small, and manageable. Chief among them is the relatively poor battery life. For the past year, I’ve been using the iPhone 11 Pro Max as my daily driver, and it is an absolute battery beast! For me, it lasts about as much as any Android flagship with a 4000mAh battery or greater. And if I don’t use it much, I sometimes forget to charge it. I’ve gotten used to an anxiety-free existence with the 11 Pro Max. I can live my life without wondering if I have a Lightning charge cable handy.
Not so with the 12 Pro. I’m back to packing charging cables wherever I go. I can generally get through a working day with the 12 Pro, but if I’ve had a working day out – admittedly rare in the pandemic – then I’m down to power-saving mode in the evening. If I have a long commute back home, I need a top-up. It’s not unmanageable, but the sheer freedom of walking out the door knowing that your phone will be alive when you get back, is something I miss.
Somewhat related is the poor performance of the MagSafe charger. One of the most interesting features in the new 12 series is the magnetic MagSafe system at the back, which attaches to various accessories, including the wireless MagSafe charger. It’s supposed to be a 15 W fast charge on the 12 Pro, but I wasn’t able to get anywhere near satisfactory charging speeds with it. In fact, I kept it on charge while I was setting up the 12 Pro, and in an hour or so, it actually lost 2% charge.
The iPhone 12 Pro is probably my pick in the current crop of iPhones available. I say this without using the Mini or the Max, but with a year’s experience using the 11 Pro Max. I think the camera capabilities are only going to better, and look forward to interesting uses of the LiDAR sensor.
You are unlikely to find a competing flagship smartphone that can deliver this kind of performance. But when phones go north of Rs 1 lac (our review unit is listed at Rs 1,49,900), you must ask yourself if you need that kind of performance. Most people don’t and would do perfectly fine with a high-value Android range-topper, of which there are many.
If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, don’t want to bother switching and dealing with missing files, contacts and WhatsApp backups, this is the best iPhone you can buy. My ‘value’ pick, and the one most comfortable for my hands, would be the iPhone Mini. For those on an even tighter budget, try the 2020 iPhone SE. My primary complaint remains the battery life, which is a physical limitation nobody has been able to get around. That would make for the best, next “one more thing”.