Apple iPhone 12 Pro review: 2 months in, still the flagship to beat

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.

iPhone 12 Pro

What’s new?

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.

Design

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.

Apple_iphone12pro-back-

With a squared-off metal frame replacing the rounded borders of the previous iPhones, the iPhone 12 series feels (to me) more secure to hold and somehow more compact. At launch, I thought the Mini would be the one I’d like most, but considering my reading glasses and the new form factor, I find the regular 12 Pro to be a nice compromise in size and practicality. I sometimes miss the ease of typing and reading on the larger iPhone 11 Pro Max (Review), but it’s hard to go back from a properly pocket-able phone.

With the new design come slightly larger dimensions. The new iPhones are a hair larger than the outgoing ones, but in the hand, they feel nicer. The 12 and 12 Pro are exactly the same size, but differ in the material of the frame – Aluminium vs stainless steel. The shiny frame of the 12 Pro has been polarising, because it begins to pick up ugly smudges the very moment you take it out of the box. The beautiful “Pacific Blue” colour of the review unit is all but lost to the case that I covered it with immediately. In that sense, the regular iPhone 12 has a nice, matte-finished Aluminium frame that looks cleaner, and – to my eye – more premium.

With that hair, larger size comes a hair larger screen. This time, it’s an OLED panel for the entire range, but it’s still a 60hz unit, eschewing the 120hz that so many Android phones are sporting these days. It’s still a great screen, but if you’ve ever used a high-refresh rate panel, you can tell the difference. The screen is also protected by Corning’s “Ceramic Shield” tech, which fuses glass and ceramic to make the screen much more durable than before. It’s also flush with the frame, so there’s less chance of chips.

Camera system

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.

Click here to see the camera samples:

iPhone 12 Pro review
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 found Apple’s portrait mode to be subtle, and in general, superior to the modes I’ve seen in competing flagship phones. It accurately masks the subject more often than not, and has a pleasing fall-off of focus behind the subject. More aggressive portrait modes I’ve seen look very strange; the subject is tack-sharp, and everything else – even the bench they’re sitting on – is blurred beyond recognition. That’s not what real life looks like.

The LiDAR sensor is officially claimed to enable portrait mode at night, but I feel like it’s already contributing to better portrait shots in general.

In terms of the camera hardware, the specs are unremarkable: there’s the 12mp f/1.6 primary wide module, a 12mp f/2.0 telephoto and a 12mp f/2.4 ultra-wide. Our test shots should give you an idea of what you can expect. The iPhone no longer carries the flag of the top smartphone camera. Companies such as DxOMark have ranked a few Android flagships higher in terms of performance. Despite all the measuring, there’s a fair bit of subjectivity in judging what photos are pleasing. MKBHD’s annual smartphone camera blind test seems to suggest that the secret sauce is rather mundane: bright, punchy images are judged to be better than more subtle ones. Evidently, the human eye doesn’t believe technical superiority.

The iPhone continues to err on the side of natural rendition, though it is evident that even Apple have decided to play to the gallery, at least a little. I found the general tone to be a bit warmer than I remember with the 11 series phones, which is pleasing. Shots around sunset seem to have that golden syrup-y look to them, which are hard to complain about. The ultra-wide sensor can now do ‘night mode’, which is nice for cityscapes and such, but it still lacks the resolving ability of the primary camera. Zoom in, and it falls apart. The telephoto remains solid, though at 2x max optical zoom, it’s not winning any drag races. It’s good for portrait mode and when you want to maintain social distancing.

For video, it’s hard to beat the iPhone. This is one area where Apple have retained their lead. You have the option of 120/240fps slow-motion, 4K recording and – new for the 12 Pros – Dolby Vision HDR recording. Apple claims to be the first camera in the world to be able to record in this format. However, the only way you can actually play back this footage in all its glory is, well, on an iPhone 12. For most people who want to share videos on social media, it’s probably safer to keep the HDR video mode off to avoid unusual colours.

Video stabilisation continues to be excellent, and microphone pickup quality seems to have improved over the past few generations of iPhones.

As of iOS 14.3, Apple has introduced the ability to shoot ProRAW to the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max. ProRAW is Apple’s flavour of the RAW image format that includes all the smart computational photography tricks that otherwise gets left out. Here’s what it means for the average user: a bit more work to get that perfect image, and much bigger files. Apple pegs an average ProRAW image at 25MB, as compared to a typical JPEG which is about 3MB.

Why all the extra space? Because you’re storing uncompressed, raw data from the image sensor, along with all the cool stuff that Apple is able to do thanks to its fast processor – automatic HDR stacking, ‘Deep Fusion’ AI-based adjustments and such. If you load a ProRAW file into an app like Lightroom mobile, you are able to play with highlights, shadows, colour (12-bit colour, for those who care) and noise to a far greater degree than a regular image, and with far less loss. If you – like me – like to take your photos into an editing app and tweak, adjust and apply presets, ProRAW may just be worth your while.

Performance

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:

Caveats

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.

Later, after setup was complete, I tried again and managed to get about ten percent in an hour. Apple even sent out a replacement MagSafe unit, but that doesn’t seem to do any better. In essence, if I want a charge in a reasonable amount of time, I use the Lightning cable. If I’m at my desk with my phone, I keep it on the MagSafe charger for whatever it’s worth.

Additionally, the fact that the MagSafe charger needs to be plugged into Apple’s new 20W charger to actually even achieve that 15W charge is a problem. Because it is not included and one must buy it. I was initially okay with Apple not including a charging brick in the iPhone box, but having cables terminated by USB-C defeats the purpose, as most people are going to have to buy a regular USB-A cable, or go out and buy a USB-C charger. Environment unsaved.

Another bit of weirdness that you’re sure to notice at some point is the lens flare that seems to show up in photos that point towards a light source. For me, there’s always a green flare somewhere in the image, and it can be multiple spots of flare, depending on the conditions. You can probably ignore them as aesthetic artefacts, but it’s not a common occurrence on smartphone cameras.

Conclusion

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”.



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