The Takeaway: The iPhone 12 is Apple’s first phone to work on 5G networks. But 5G coverage is still limited and fickle, so that benefit alone might not be worth the price for some buyers. Overall, though, the 12 is a generally excellent Apple device, and a worthy upgrade for anyone using an iPhone X or earlier.
Price: $699 (64 GB Mini version) and up
Size: 5.4 in. (Mini), 6.1 in.
Dual 12 MP cameras: Wide (ƒ/1.6 aperture) and Ultra Wide (ƒ/2.4 aperture and 120° field of view), plus 2x optical zoom
Authentication: Face ID
All iPhone 12s have squared edges like on the iPhone 5.
It charges via Lightning cable, or an included MagSafe puck, for which Apple does not include a USB-C wall charger.
The more expensive 12 Pro line has better cameras and a radar sensor system (lidar) for augmented reality and low-light photography.
Each new generation of iPhones comes with better cameras, faster chips, higher-resolution screens, and maybe thinner dimensions. Every couple of years, there might be a meaningful new convenience Apple hasn’t had in its phones before, like the iPhone X’s all-over screen and Face ID unlock. This is one of those years. For fall 2020’s iPhones, the convenience comes in the form of 5G radios and the data speeds they enable.
For as difficult as 5G is to explain, companies like Apple and Verizon market the tech heavily—perhaps justifiably so. When it works, 5G is incredible. Networking geeks who also buy Apple stuff (like me) are thrilled to see iPhones with this new feature. But all of us will need patience for that “when it works” part of the deal.
The Limits of Physics
The “G” in the 4G and 5G you see on the corner of your phone stands for “generation,” referring to different stages of cell tower infrastructure. (If it ever comes up in conversation, LTE stands for “long term evolution.”)
When you use a smartphone or tablet without Wi-Fi, when you’re driving or walking around, that device connects to a cell tower that’s wired into the greater internet. With 4G/LTE, those towers are sending out radio waves like sprinklers. Once a device connects, it begins two-way communication.
The wavelength for 4G/LTE signals is usually around 700 megahertz up to 2.5 gigahertz (GHz). Obstructions like terrain and buildings can interfere and slow that connection down, but the signal will still find its way to and from the device. 5G signals are shorter-wavelength, north of 20 GHz, which means they can carry much more data, making videos and file transfers load much faster. But those high wavelengths can’t get around obstructions as easily and need the device to be close to the cell tower. If your router has you choose between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, that’s because 2.4 GHz is slower, but better at going through walls; 5 Ghz can move more data faster, but works best with a line-of-sight connection.
Actually Using 5G
In practice, that means that you have to be holding your device with 5G-specific antennas standing pretty close to the node (usually gray boxes on the tops of telephone poles) that’s beaming out your YouTube video. Go inside your house or around the corner, and the signal drops back to 4G. Those simple physics make it difficult to accept Verizon and T-Mobile’s coverage maps, which show unbroken coverage across huge plots of land, as realistic. I’m skeptical of whether, for example, the entirety of downtown Philadelphia has 5G coverage when being inside a building can interfere with the signal. Yes, as carriers install more nodes, those figures will be more realistic. But it will be years before 5G is anywhere near as abundant as 4G.
The good news is that there are places where 5G works. And when it does, it’s fast. In a small Pennsylvania college town, inside a spacious but structurally enclosed food hall, I used SpeedTest to hit 125 Mbps download speeds. That’s not near the 1,000 Mbps speeds that some 5G locations can get, but it’s still more than twice as fast as the home Wi-Fi I use for multiplayer on Xbox Live. That translates to apps that download in seconds and YouTube videos that don’t need buffering. For iPhone users whose days are made better by very fast connections like this, the 12’s value goes up. Even if it only works in some places, and even if I only use it for mostly inconsequential things (loading up on movies and music before a flight, pulling attachments from my huge email archive), 5G is a practical feature and, for some, worth the upgrade.
Again, when it works. While in my house, a few hundred yards from that market, sitting near a window, I had four bars of 5G showing on the upper-right corner, and was hitting the same 100-plus Mbps download speeds. But in the bathroom, that dropped to half those speeds. In my parking space outside, that was down to half again, reverting back to 4G. And even when 5G was working, upload speeds (useful for live-streaming, for example) never came close to the download speeds. All of which is fine. We’ve survived with 4G/LTE for years. But with any new technology, it’s easy to feel irrationally upset when it doesn’t work as advertised, especially when it’s a major selling point of the product. iPhones, admittedly, get a bit of a pass here. For people like me, who need a smartphone and prefer Apple’s, the 12’s 5G support is almost incidental. 5G won’t and probably shouldn’t be the primary reason for most customers to pay to upgrade. But for those who upgrade because their old phone’s battery is shot or they want a better camera for a road trip, the 12’s 5G support will be a pleasant addition. Whether that’s worth hundreds more than a last-gen iPhone is the question.
The iPhone 12 Without 5G
If 5G becomes as ubiquitous as is being promised in advertisements, this new era of devices will feel like the leap that companies like Apple, Samsung, and Verizon are talking about. But that aside, the iPhone 12 still stands as the example for modern smartphones. Its OLED display is rich and pleasant to watch video on. The bezels are thin, making the phone feel like a floating display. Without a mask (because this is 2020), Face ID works quickly, every time. And in our week with the 12, we could not find app or workflow that could strain its A14 chip.
The 12’s new magnetic charging system also works as advertised, and will lead to useful integration with charging car mounts and other accessories. That said, I wish the iPhone’s designers had followed the iPad Air and Android phones and given the 12 a USB-C port instead of keeping the Lightning charging system. My ideal of needing only one type of cable (USB-C and a wall plug) to charge my phone, headphones, Nintendo Switch, and laptop will need to wait until at least the next generation.
More immediately, anyone who buys an iPhone 12 or 12 Pro will need to supply their own wall plug, the brick that plugs into your 120v wall outlet. The iPhone 12 box only comes with a USB-C-to-Lightning cable. If you don’t already have a Lightning charger or USB-C plug, or want to use the included cable or MagSafe puck, you will need to spend $20 for one. (I carry an Anker Nano for this).
That aside, I’ve owned or professionally tested every iPhone since the 4S, and those issues don’t dissuade me from recommending the 12 to anyone who lives near 5G reception and would be delighted by its speed. Those who, like me, have an unreasonable need to be holding the fastest, slickest smartphone on sale will appreciate the performance.
But most consumers aren’t like me. When friends and family ask, I have and will continue to almost always direct them to Apple’s refurbished site and recommend a last-gen model that has at least 128 GB of storage. Treated well, the phones will be fast and useful for almost everything you need, and cost hundreds of dollars less.
But if you can accept that being early to 5G will translate mostly to instances of happy surprise at incredible performance, the 12 will be worth it.
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