For years there was a purity of message from Apple. However, after such a long period of just having the iPhone, as in the one iPhone that is so all-encompassing, so universally pleasing to iOS devotees there need be no messing about with multiple models, Apple has gradually gone segmentation loopy. There are now five iPhones from which to choose. Five. The SE, 12 Mini, the 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max – iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, which should I buy?.
It’s happened much in the same manner as watching hair grow. We knew it had been going on, but all of a sudden, with the arrival of these four in one drop, the volume of Apple phones suddenly seems overwhelming, even though it’s still fewer on offer than most other makers.
This segmentation is of course a reaction to you lot: the market right now. A manufacturer must have a budget option these days as fewer and fewer of us can be bothered to upgrade, for example. But when there is comparatively little to distinguish the jumps between the Mini, the 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max you start to get muddled over who each model is actually for.
Who they’re for
Well, this is exactly my point. Like boiling a frog, if you gradually moved from the Mini through the 12 range to the Pro Max you might not even notice until you jumped from the Pro’s 6.1in screen to the 6.7in slab of the Pro Max. This has been my experience here with the 12 and the 12 Pro – yes, there are differences, but in day-to-day use? Not really.
So, if pushed, I’d say the £799 12 is for average iPhone users. You are in the Apple club for its fancy design, a phone where everything more or less “just works” and, as you likely also have an iPad or an Apple Watch or possibly even a MacBook Air, you bought into the iOS ecosystem and are quite happy, thank you very much.
The £999 12 Pro is trickier. It’s for the power users, the photography buffs. Only, it’s not got all the top kit. The Pro Max, due next month, takes what’s in the Pro and, for just £100 more, under the larger screen packs in as a bigger image sensor for brighter low-light images, a more capable telephoto camera and Apple‘s “sensor-shift” stabilisation tech for smooth video even when filming from the back of a truck doing 60mph in the desert (as you do). That’s quite a bit for the price of a pair of jeans.
To be honest I am not sure who the Pro is for. Professionals with smaller hands, no doubt. Photo buffs who don’t do as much night-shooting or videos from the backs of speeding trucks. For this kind of person, there are few reasons I can think of where you wouldn’t spring for that extra £100.
Just as with the welcome revamp of the iPads, most recently with the iPad Air, the look of the 12 and the 12 Pro have been much improved. Some have complained that Apple has looked back rather than forwards as there are obvious comparisons, thanks to the new flat sides with metal edges, to the iPhones 4 and 5. But I’m very happy about this as my favourite iPhone design remains the 4.
You get more premium materials on the Pro, mind you. Stainless steel edging as opposed to the aluminium on the 12. And you get Pro colours, too. These are very serious colours such as black, white and dark blue. Then you get a bling gold version that might not sit so well with arty types. The 12 comes in jauntier hues, including a bright red and a blue that actually looks blue. My pick? I like the green. I don’t know why.
Apple has upped the durability, as well. Along with the IP68 water-resistance rating, which means you can drop your iPhone in a six-metre pool and leave it there for an entire episode of EastEnders, the iPhones sport some new Ceramic Shield glass. This is apparently Gorilla glass on steroids thanks to ceramic crystals in the glass itself that Apple says make it more durable. It also means it can’t call it glass, hence the “Ceramic Shield” moniker. Apple never provides data or proof of its drop test claims, so you’re going to have to break your iPhone 12s to find out if this Ceramic Shield is legit.
Aside from the obvious missing lens on the 12, the Pro and 12 look identical in proportion. But, slight as it is, you can detect the extra heft of the Pro, 187g versus 162g. Inside on the back is ‘MagSafe’, an array of magnets Apple has shoved in so you attach various accessories and chargers to the back of the phone with a degree of assurance that things are where they should be. It’s also a move that will clearly see many throwing away old cases and chargers in favour of this new system, likely negating any e-waste good that has been achieved (if there is any) now Apple no longer includes a charger or earphones with its iPhones.
Living with them
Both 12 and 12 Pro have the ability to offer 5G, of course. But even though Apple has sensibly waited much longer than competitors to roll out this tech, you still won’t really find anywhere to take advantage of 5G. Yes, if you go looking for it you can marvel at download speeds better than your home broadband, but that’s hardly useful as it is so patchy right now here in the UK.
5G also drains the battery, too. Apple has a clever solution for this with its ability to switch to 5G when it thinks it’s better to do so, thus saving battery life. And speaking of battery, you won’t see any noticeable bump in battery performance. You get typical all-day light usage as you might expect from an iPhone (not too bad when you consider the upgrades). Power-hungry users will want the Pro Max.
What is apparent, and this goes for all the new iPhones, is the new A14 Bionic chip is a legitimate upgrade on older models. Apple boasts it’s the “fastest chip in a smartphone”. Regardless of if this is true, it is indeed slick. Games are quicker, apps load noticeably faster. And this is just as it should be with a new gen phone.
The camera system is where the 12 and the 12 Pro diverge. Thanks to the extra processing power combined with algorithm trickery and a wider aperture on the wide-angle camera lens, low-light shots are definitely improved from the iPhone 11. Shots looks sharper, too, compared to the previous generation. But avid snappers will miss the telephoto lens not being there in the 12. For the rest of us – you know, the ones who just open the photo app and point and click – you won’t.
For the 12 buyer, the killer feature is the new design. For the Pro buyer it has to be the addition of the LiDAR scanner that’s exclusive to the Pro models. Apple has taken this laser tech from its iPad Pro and squeezed it in to the Pro phones. What it means is better AR – which, frankly, no one really uses on their phones yet – and (much more usefully) considerably faster autofocus. It also means you can take portrait photos in Night mode. Again, boons for the photo buffs, but 12ers should not be overly concerned – though I do accept I am not an avid selfie taker, and this could be a dealbreaker for Portrait poppers.
Why oh why…
OK, there are two glaring issues with the 12s. The first is refresh rate. A higher refresh rate means a smoother screen and better experience that feels more responsive. Despite Apple showing off its fancy ProMotion screen refreshing tech back in 2017 for iPad, this still has not appeared on iPhone. Bloggers and fans were dreaming of 120Hz refresh rates for the 12s before they dropped, but tried to be realistic and instead hoped for 90Hz. What we got was 60Hz – the same as the iPhone 11.
The second is the 12s are still saddled with the lightning connector. After the iPad Air got USB-C, surely everyone was wishing for the same upgrade to the iPhone 12s. But no. Now, the iPad Air got USB-C because it was a completely new design with a new internal architecture, so there was a case to be made to implement the new port. Well, you would assume, considering the redesign, the 12s have a new architecture as well, so why no USB-C? It’s somewhat baffling, but Apple may think there are too many lightning cable users out there, and we’re not ready for the change yet. They are wrong.
So, which should I buy?
Both get the same score, but as for my personal choice I can’t put it plainer: this is the first time I am going to downgrade my iPhone. I’m going to move from the 11 Pro to the vanilla 12. In truth, I can count on both hands the number of times I have used the 11 Pro camera system to its full ability. I just don’t need it. And as the Pro isn’t even the best iPhone camera setup, it’s almost impossible to recommend that over the coming Pro Max. The LiDAR is a nice-to-have that’s hard to give up, but I wouldn’t pay the extra for it. Also, I actually prefer the 12 design over the 12 Pro. The stainless steel is a fingerprint magnet and this means the Pro constantly looks grubbier than the 12. And I like it being lighter, too. And I like the green. I don’t know why.