The iPhone 12 belongs to the ages

The last phone I reviewed on here was the iPhone 5 back in 2012. I generally get a new phone each year, but I suppose I’m not religious about posting stuff on here.

Looking back at that review, I remarked primarily on two things: speed, and the transition from the 30-pin connector to Lightning. While it might have seemed silly at the time to spend 928 words on a port transition, Lightning has nonetheless been on every phone since and continues to ship on phones to this day (though there are rumors that its days are numbered). I guess it was time well spent!

I don’t plan to be reviewing every iPhone, but I do think it’s worth taking time to write up thoughts on the iPhones that are particularly distinctive. If I had been patient and bought the iPhone X in 2017 it probably would also have earned a review; it was Apple’s first major rethinking of what the front of the iPhone should look like and it will likely be used for even longer than the original vision that incorporated a home screen button.

The iPhone 12, overall, strikes me as a phone that is teeing Apple up for a new years-long era of design (and 5G).

The Phone

I bought a blue one with 256 gigs of space, on the Verizon network. One note: the blue is not nearly as bright as the marketing pictures would have you think; they’re photographing these in insanely well-lit environments.

Industrial Design

When you pick up the iPhone 12 in your hand, something strikes you about its fit and finish. It’s difficult to rank things on a scale of niceness, but I would have to guess that my iPhone is quite possibly the nicest thing I own. It’s not the most expensive thing I own (that is a recognition my house enjoys), but perhaps with the exception of my Mac Pro, the iPhone 12 is my nicest possession. When you hold it in your hands, it has just a perfect amount of heft to it so that you know it’s substantial. It was built to incredibly tight tolerances. It has just a few buttons, but they each feel a nice satisfying and firm “click” when you press them. It feels like a device that belongs to the ages.

Apple’s industrial design for phones has a few distinct eras:

  • The first three phones, during which Apple was still figuring out how to actually make mass market phones. The very first design was only used for a generation, followed by 2 generations of phones with this rounded plastic shell that was really kind of inelegant
  • The iPhones 4 through 5s (and original SE), which fell into line with the rest of Apple’s hardware design language, primarily incorporating glass and aluminum, and going to flat sides and back
  • The iPhones 6 through 11, when Apple started experimenting with more phone sizes. They made the sides rounded, possibly to make them feel slimmer or easier to hold the larger sized devices. Aluminum remains the primary metal, while going to stainless steel for the more high-end devices

And with the iPhone 12, we enter a fourth era, which looks a lot like a refined version of that second era. We’re returning to flat sides, and the chamfers of the iPhone 5 are instead gently rounded as the sides transition to the front and back. Apple has settled on using glass on the front and back, a trend they moved away from briefly in the third era in an attempt to reduce the amount of material that could shatter, but Apple’s gotten wiser about their glass and shattering is less of a concern that it used to be.

And that to me is really what the iPhone 12 feels like. When Apple released the iPhone 4 there was this sense that the iPhone 4’s overall look and external design was the Platonic ideal of what an iPhone should be. It was flawed (the glass front and back were prone to shattering a ton) and there was demand for phones to start getting bigger. Apple inched in that direction with the iPhone 5 (which also removed the glass back) but when it became clear that Samsung was eating Apple’s lunch with their gargantuan phones, Apple radically changed the industrial design of the iPhone to make bigger phones. And finally, after years of iterating on that general look (and possibly lingering on it a couple years longer than they should have), it feels like Apple is coming home again to a design that is quintessentially classic iPhone, but scales all the way from a mini-sized phone to their biggest phone yet.

Display

The displays in this year’s standard iPhone model got nicer. They’re all OLED (last year, only the Pro models had this distinction), and on the 12, pixel density has been increased. The display looks beautiful.

5G

Another first of this phone that mirrors the iPhone model I last reviewed on here: it is the first to offer 5G support.

Despite rumors to the contrary, every (US-based, at least) iPhone has support for both sub–6GHz and mmWave 5G.

mmWave 5G is insanely fast (like, 2 gigabits per second speeds fast), but it uses very high frequencies to get these speeds, and it thus has very poor range (a closed door might cut off a 5G signal). For cities to be blanketed in mmWave 5G would require enormous investments on their part, buying an order of magnitude more equipment to get the same levels of coverage that would probably only work outdoors. mmWave 5G has its place and could be handy in dense areas like stadiums or crowded urban centers where there are lots of people using up bandwidth, but we’re far more likely to be using sub–6GHz 5G for most part in the near future.

Sub–6GHz 5G is an incremental improvement over LTE. I’ve struggled to actually hear any wireless providers provide actual speed numbers you might be able to expect, and early reviewers say that’s mostly because this 5G is often performing worse than LTE in the same location.

It’s also noteworthy that when LTE was first deployed, not that many people had LTE phones, and if you were one of the few to have one, you’d get incredible speeds of up to 100Mbps, and now that networks are saturated, real-world performance is more like 20–30 Mbps on a good day, and because sub–6GHz 5G is mostly piggybacking off of existing LTE signals to provide slight improvements, while 5G might be faster than LTE today, the speeds you’ll see on it are actually slower than when LTE was new to the scene.

And in reality, this sounds kind of dreary, but it’s not that bad. The speeds we get are really just fine, and although I can no longer get really great numbers running speed tests on my phone, as long as I have a decent signal I can generally do what I need to do. If anything, I think that it’d be nice for wireless providers to look to improve 4G and 5G signals in their existing footprint, and only really worry about mmWave in the most densely packed of areas.

MagSafe

As Apple is wont to do with their trademarks, they have resurrected the MagSafe brand, this time equipping iPhones with a magnetic back (prior art: they repurposed the iBook brand name with their e-book store).

This time, instead of being a clever little laptop connector that won’t send your expensive computer sailing into the air when you trip over the cord, MagSafe refers to an array of magnets embedded in the back of new iPhones, which you can use to connect magnetic charging pucks or other accessories like cases, Popsockets, or even wallets.

Apple loves tactical deployment of magnets in their devices, and this is a great use case. Qi chargers are great, but you have to have them positioned just so for your phone to charge, and it’s really easy for the phone to get jostled out of alignment, causing you to wake up with a dead phone.

I haven’t purchased any MagSafe accessories yet; I’m holding out for the perfect nightstand accessory, but I am excited about this concept and I look forward to seeing what kinds of MagSafe accessories come of this.

Environment

This year, Apple’s taken the opportunity to ship fewer things in the box with their devices. This year, the iPhone no longer ships with earpods or a wall charger, and the USB-A to Lightning cable has been replaced with a USB-C to Lightning cable.

The rationale is that most people already have a wall charger, and the amount of material that goes into putting one in every box is substantial. Also, by removing these standard accessories, the iPhone box shrinks and more iPhones can be packed onto airplanes to ship.

That’s all well and good, but the message got muddled by the switch from USB-A to USB-C for the included cable. It’s been awkward that Apple had been for years still shipping iPhones with a USB-A cable, given that none of Apple’s laptops even have a USB-A port, and rumor for years was that Apple was going to start shipping iPhones with a USB-C charger. And while premium models last year did get a USB-C charger, Apple decided to do away with chargers entirely, but people whose old cable was worn out found themselves either needing to buy a new cable too, or needing to buy a new USB-C charger.

The pro-environment message was further muddled by the fact that iPhones this year have an entirely new charging system available in MagSafe, which will surely tempt some people to buy new MagSafe charging accessories.

I suspect that overall this change results in a net savings of materials; I don’t think 100% of iPhone 12 buyers are also buying a USB-C charger or a MagSafe puck; a solid majority are probably going to stick with the charging equipment they have. And I’m sure the percentage of iPhone owners who will be buying some Lightning EarPods with their iPhone 12 is vanishingly small. But of course, Apple mostly comes out of this looking like they’re less altruistic about the environment, and more like they’re nickel and diming. Also worth keeping in mind: this change surely added a much needed reduction to the iPhone’s bill of materials, which increased quite a bit because of the now-standard OLED screen.

Should you buy it?

I didn’t write up a review of this phone in the typical sense of reviewing a phone, where I am trying to give you a recommendation as to whether you should buy it. Apple is solid at pushing out year over year updates; they aren’t likely to be pushing out a dud.

My buying advice: If you are in the market for a new phone, and you have the budget, buy one of the iPhones 12, and pick based on size, or opt for one of the pro models if you are serious about phone photography. If you are more price sensitive, it’s still a fantastic time to buy the new iPhone SE; it contains the very capable A13 chip and sells for half the cost of a 12; it’s an incredible value (and if you’re wearing a face mask, the SE has an advantage over the new phones in that it still has Touch ID).

If you update phones infrequently, this is a good year to make an upgrade. If you are still using an iPhone with a home button and you aren’t ready to make the switch, buy the SE instead; it just came out this year, it rocks a respectable A13 processor and decent camera, and it’s about half the price of an iPhone 12.

Parting thoughts

One of the things that I find most impressive about the iPhone as a piece of hardware is that not only is the iPhone an exquisite piece of kit, these are a truly mass market product.

This is a delicate dance Apple plays when designing its phones. This is the first year Apple switched to OLED screens for all of its phones. Until this year Apple was putting OLEDs in only the more expensive phones because even if they wanted the screens across the lineup, the manufacturing capacity to produce OLED screens that met Apple’s standards for color matching simply didn’t exist.

Apple is quite pragmatic in its industrial design choices; they don’t put out a phone with entirely new external look every year; they repurpose existing tooling to make phones of similar design and size, and they keep around tooling from older models to make budget models like the SE. Even when the iPhone X was released Apple didn’t change too many aspects of it; it still retains the overall shape and rounded edges of its predecessors.

Apple executes incredibly well at a lot of things, and lately there are a lot of things they struggle with. But the iPhone as a physical product stands out to me above all of Apple’s other products. Every year, almost like clockwork (and a little late this year because of COVID), Apple mass produces a new phone that manages to make impressive year-over-year speed and camera improvements over its predecessor, and without fail, the phones manage to be consistently high in physical quality. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; it is of course Apple’s largest source of revenue by a long shot, but the sheer consistency and reliability is something to marvel at.

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