I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s a massive pandemic happening right now. There’s also a new iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. These things are not related, and yet, what isn’t pandemic-related right now? The way we live has changed, and therefore the way we use our phones has changed. I never thought I’d miss Touch ID now that masks have totally screwed up Face ID.
What I want to assess is how this phone fits in with a 2020 pandemic lifestyle.
It will not shock you to hear that the camera on the iPhone 12 is good. The Pro is even better. The Pro Max, which will be available on Nov. 13, is probably even better. This you know. The question is: How much better is it? Is it worth it?
Both cameras are noticeably better than my current Xs, partly because of two crucial features that were introduced last year with the 11: Night mode and wide angle. If you have a phone older than the 11, these features will be a game changer — it feels like you’ve unlocked a whole new level to using the camera. Those features feel as significant as when Portrait mode was added to the 7 Plus. If you already have the 11, these features will be slightly better but won’t be as mind-blowing.
These photos were taken at night using the Xs (without Night mode), the 12, and the 12 Pro. You can see a giant jump from the Xs, but at first glance, the difference between the 12 and the 12 Pro is negligible.
In another situation, the difference in Night mode between the 12 and the 12 Pro is clearer. This photo was taken in a very dark room at night, with just a little light coming in from the window. Note how with the 12 Pro you can see the detail on the side of the piano.
The Pro has lidar, which helps it focus in lowlight and allows it to use Portrait mode in Night mode. It’s kind of mind-blowing how well it works. It’s not apparent from this photo, but this room was very dark (blackout curtains drawn on a rainy day). This is a cool thing the 12 Pro can do but the 12 can’t.
Here’s where the pandemic matters: Yes, the lowlight photos on the Pro are amazing. They would look so great for photos taken at a bar, a concert, an indoor restaurant, or the dance floor of a wedding reception. Those moments with friends that are our best memories but hard to catch — they could look so great! But womp womp, you’re not doing any of that anytime soon. Quite honestly, I had trouble testing the phone for things like Portrait mode simply because, well, I didn’t have other people to test it on and I don’t go too far outside a four-block radius of my apartment.
Yes, the camera on the 12 Pro is better, but considering that your life is probably sort of on pause right now, is this the year you want to spend the extra money on a better phone camera?
The iPhone 12 Pro was meant for a different sort of 2021, an alternate timeline where your vibrant and colorful life needed a camera to keep up. That version of reality isn’t happening. Buying the Pro right now is like buying an expensive pair of high heels right now: Where are you going to wear them?
Pandemic Rating: 😷😷😷⭕⭕
The camera is truly great, you just don’t need it in a pandemic.
Did you feel that? It felt like the square-edged ghost of the iPhone 4 just walked across my grave. All versions of the 12 have a new design with more squared edges, quite different from the 11. Sometimes, changes to technology make us uncomfortable (never forget the panic over Twitter changing the star button to heart), but this change is pleasantly nostalgic, recalling the iPhone 4 and 5, those beloved little guys right before the iPhone got big and round.
The 12 and 12 Pro are slightly smaller than 11 and Xs, but bigger than the 11 Pro. The size difference wasn’t particularly notable for me, since I am a devoted PopSocket enthusiast. Quite honestly, I don’t understand how anyone can use phones this big at the size they have been for the last few years without a PopSocket. Not only does the phone feel like it will fall out of my hands at any moment, it’s far more difficult to use without one. Get a PopSocket! You won’t notice the slightly larger size at all!
Pandemic Rating: 😷😷😷😷😷
Nice big screen and appealing shape, no virus can stand in the way of that.
MAGSAFE WIRELESS CHARGER
I’ve been intrigued by wireless charging pads ever since a colleague wrote about how a cheapo Amazon one was his favorite tech purchase of 2018 — “a legitimately magical experience,” he called it. Apple had previously been supposed to make its own but canceled the product because it just couldn't get it right.
Ultimately, wireless charging isn’t for me because of a very common problem: the PopSocket. Sadly, PopSockets (or a ring or strap) will interfere with the wireless charging pad. You can take the case off to charge the phone, but at that point it’s a lot easier to plug in a cord.
For the first time, Apple isn’t including the charging brick with new iPhones. This change has been pitched as an environmental concern: too many extra charging bricks out there people don’t need, and without those Apple is able to cut down on packaging. It also surely helps their bottom line to not include the extras. The iPhone 11 didn’t come with wired EarPods last year, and the 12 doesn’t either.
I have plenty of charging bricks for my iPhone at home, so it’s not a problem charging my phone on an old cord. However, the MagSafe charger doesn’t plug directly into an outlet, nor does it come with a charging brick. The charger ends with a USB-C plug, which means my options were to either buy a new charging brick or plug the cord into my MacBook Pro’s USB-C port, which isn’t ideal for overnight charging (digital wellness be damned, I need to fall asleep by my phone’s blue light glare).
The 12 and the 12 Pro have slightly less battery life than other phones, but unless you’re an essential worker who's on the phone all day, you’re probably at home, near your charger. This isn’t a huge difference.
Pandemic Rating: 😷😷⭕⭕⭕
You probably don’t leave home enough to need it.
Faster speeds! This is huge! But 5G is only in limited areas now, and more importantly: Are you actually going anywhere? Sadly, this feature will seem more important when we’re not strongly requested by state governments to stay home.
Pandemic rating: ⭕⭕⭕⭕⭕
Stay home, please.
A much welcome new feature of both the 12 and the 12 Pro is that instead of glass, the screen is made with something called ceramic shield. This is claimed to be four times less likely to shatter. Replacing a cracked screen always sucks, but it especially sucks during a pandemic. Social distancing measures mean that fewer people are allowed inside an Apple Store at any given time, so you may have to wait longer than normal to get an appointment. Other authorized repair places — who knows what their situation is. Either way, you probably don’t want to have to be out running unnecessary errands.
I recently had the bad luck of breaking my screen just between when my AppleCare ran out and the new phones were released. I needed to replace it because I planned to turn it in for an upgrade (more on this later) but didn’t want to pay the full $279 for the Apple Store to do it. I found an unauthorized repair place in my neighborhood that would do it for $150. Even better, instead of having me go into his shop, the repair person drove to me and fixed the phone in the back of his car.
Apple will charge the same price for ceramic shield screen repairs as it did for 11s, Xs, and X, but what unauthorized repairs will cost is unclear since they need to now get their hands on a whole new material. I texted Alexandr, who did my repair, to ask. He said their repair prices would most likely go up. “Most likely we will eventually [get ceramic shield screens], but I definitely wouldn’t say we would get them right away,” he told me.
The new phones are also water resistant up to 6 meters, which is officially deeper than you can probably dive to get it back if you drop it.
Pandemic rating: 😷😷😷😷⭕
Fewer trips to the Genius Bar.
Both new phones have a Super Retina XDR OLED screen. Previously, it was only available on the 11 Pro, so it’s nice to have it on both models since it looks great. So great, in fact, it even makes old photos look better. Even a photo taken in 2014 on an iPhone 5 looks way better on the 12 Pro’s screen than on my Xs. The colors are less washed out and the detail is a little sharper (this is more apparent in person than in a photo taken with another phone).
Most likely, the number one place you look at photos taken on your phone is on your phone. Even if you post them to Instagram or send them to a friend, you’re probably still looking at the photos you take more on your phone screen than on a computer or printing them, which makes the screen important.
Pandemic Rating: 😷😷😷😷😷
You’re trapped inside staring at your phone all day, seeing friends and family only through video calls and photos, so you want them to look their best.
SHOULD YOU BUY IT?
There are significant changes in this year’s model — the new shape, 5G, OLED screen, ceramic shield, and camera enhancements that make the 12 feel like it’s not just a minor update. In terms of actually purchasing the phone, there’s something new: Carriers are offering phone discounts on the 12 if you trade in your old phone (beware of the fine print and signing up for a costlier monthly plan). So if you’re looking for a deal on the price, you might get one, depending on your current device and plan situation.
But the advice still stands: Buy it if you need it or can afford it, but your old phone is probably still fine if you want to hold out for a new phone next year when there’s actually, ya know, life to do with it.
Here’s hoping for an iPhone 13 in 2021 that’s just as good, if not better, but for a 2021 where we all go to bars. I miss bars.
Correction: The relative sizes between the different iPhone devices were misstated in an earlier version of this story.