iPhone 12 Pro puts premium in your pocket [Review]

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Pacific Blue iPhone 12 Pro on wooden table
The iPhone 12 Pro looks like a piece of jewelry, and offers a ton of powerful features, too,
Photo: Ian Fucs/Cult of Mac

Back in September 2012, Apple released what was arguably the best iPhone, the iPhone 5. It looked beautiful, felt great in hand, and signaled the shift from 3G to LTE.

Now, eight years later, Apple is revisiting that playbook with the iPhone 12 lineup. And after about a week of using the iPhone 12 Pro, and putting it to the test on my family’s vacation to Disney World, I think I can safely say this is both my new favorite iPhone, and possibly the new best iPhone of all time.

iPhone 12 Pro review

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iPhone 12 Pro Review | My New Favorite iPhone video

iPhone 12 Pro: An old design with a fresh new look

The greatness starts with the design. One of the things I always loved about the iPhone 5 was the flat, sharp, edgy design. With the iPhone 12 lineup, Apple ditched the curvy, rounded edges and smooth lines of the last few years to return again to that boxy look. The difference is, back in 2012, the iPhone 5 sported a mostly aluminum body with chamfered edges to keep things comfortable in the hand.

With the iPhone 12 Pro, on the other hand, Apple turned to highly polished stainless steel around the sides, and matte textured glass on the back. It looks great in photos and on video, but looks even better in person.

iPhone 12 Pro review: The high-gloss stainless steel body and matte glass back look absolutely stunning with the flat design this year
The high-gloss stainless steel body and matte glass back look absolutely stunning with this year’s flat design.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

Whether you prefer something understated like graphite or silver, or something flashy — like the gold option or this year’s “colorful” Pacific Blue — the iPhone 12 Pro looks and feels incredibly premium.

Another thing adding to the premium feel is the weight. Because of the materials used in the 12 Pro — most notably the stainless steel band — the device feels hefty. Compared to the iPhone X and 11 series devices, the weight is not overly obvious. But if you’ve been using a non-plus-size iPhone 6/7/8, you’ll definitely feel the difference.

It definitely feels bigger

The flat, edgy design of the 12 Pro also create an illusion of added thickness. Next to an 11 Pro, the 12 Pro feels bulkier. However, in a side-by-side comparison, they are nearly identical. As far as overall dimensions go, the 12 Pro — and the non-Pro 12 — are slightly taller. They’re also technically wider — though only by a fraction of a millimeter. Thanks to the flattened sides, the display now stretches closer to the edges of the device, adding to the 3/10-inch increased diagonal screen size compared to the 11 Pro. It’s not a massive jump in overall screen size, but I definitely noticed myself stretching a little more to reach the upper edges.

On cases and fingerprints

The good news, though, is that the flattened design also made me feel much more confident in holding the device, without a case, even when I needed to stretch to reach for a button on the screen. In the past, I often used cases on my devices to get that added grip-ability. With the 12 Pro, I find the squared-off sides make it easier to hold. That makes a case more optional.

One final aesthetic thing worth mentioning is that, with all of the iPhone 12 Pro models, if fingerprints bother you, the stainless steel is going to make you sad. The regular iPhone 12 and 12 mini, on the other hand, both feature a brushed-aluminum band, which shouldn’t show fingerprints and smudges.

The trade-off, though, is on the back side, where the 12 Pro’s matte finish hides your fingerprints, while the glossy glass back of the 12 and 12 mini will put them on display. Ultimately, the fingerprints and smudges are a non-issue for me, since the process of putting the phone in my pocket or using it during the day seems to keep things fairly shiny. Plus, I rarely see the sides or back anyway.

The most popular camera gets better. Again.

One thing on the back that I did notice was the iPhone 12 Pro camera. For me, and for many people, one of the biggest reasons I find myself drawn to new phones each year is for the camera improvements. As minor as the camera updates may be in comparison to last year’s 11 Pro, if you’re using an older device, the changes here are huge. An upgrade will undoubtedly make your pictures and videos look better.

One thing in particular that I noticed was the ability to take even better Night mode shots. Some of that is thanks to a slightly wider aperture on the main camera, plus the LiDAR Scanner on the back camera assembly. The result: The 12 Pro focuses faster, and requires less time to capture dimly lit shots.

iPhone 12 Pro review: The upgraded camera is one of main reasons to go pro this year
The camera on the iPhone 12 Pro is one of main reasons to go pro this year.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

The improvements on the ultra-wide camera this year also made it something I could count on in darker situations. With the iPhone 11 Pro, anything that wasn’t well-lit — or, more ideally, outside in the sunlight — would yield dark, noisy, grainy or out-of-focus photos most of the time. With the 12 Pro, and the improved image processing on the ultra-wide sensor, I was able to take lower-light shots using the widest lens, and end up with results that look both color-accurate and properly detailed.

The telephoto lens, which is one of the primary differentiating factors between the standard iPhone 12 and the 12 Pro, didn’t see as many improvements this year. (The iPhone 12 Pro Max may be a different story.) Regardless, having the telephoto is a great feature of the Pro, because it offers that third perspective, even if its performance has never been on par with the main camera.

Improvements to Portrait mode and video

Another improvement in the iPhone 12 Pro camera system shows up in Portrait mode shots. Apple continues to refine its artificial depth-of-field processing in the 12 Pro. One major refinement this year is with edge detection. Thanks to the LiDAR Scanner, subjects in Portrait modes photos have less weirdly blurred ears, hair or cutouts.

Then there’s the improvements to video. The iPhone 12 Pro now features Dolby Vision HDR. Without getting into the technical details, the important thing is that you can shoot video at up to 4K, 60fps and enjoy brighter brights, darker darks and more colorful colors. Compared to the Extended Dynamic Range of the 11 Pro, video on the 12 Pro looks more vibrant and suffers less in shadows or when shooting into a light source.

Multiple minor changes

Outside of the camera and new design, many of the updates in the iPhone 12 Pro prove fairly tame. The 12 Pro starts at a higher 128GB of storage, compared to the 64GB on the base-level 12 or last year’s 11 Pro. The processor also continues to get faster, but I never felt the A13 Bionic in the iPhone 11 lineup lacked in performance.

The A14 Bionic in the iPhone 12 Pro comes with 2 GB of extra RAM over the regular 12. The A14 Bionic also packs a much more powerful Neural Engine compared to the A13. (The Neural Engine is used for real-time image and video processing.)

MagSafe

It also come with MagSafe — Apple’s magnetic, Qi charging solution on the back of all devices in the iPhone 12 lineup. The bad news is that to take advantage of the magnetic alignment, you need to drop another $40 for Apple’s MagSafe charging puck. The good news is, if you’re already using wireless chargers, MagSafe doesn’t get in the way.

Then there are the MagSafe-compatible cases, which allow the charging disk to align properly on the back and hold securely to the phone. This doesn’t mean regular cases won’t work — it just means that to get the full benefit and faster 15W charging speeds of MagSafe, you need to buy in to Apple’s new power ecosystem.

5G is a promise for the future

iPhone 12 Pro review: Finding 5G wasn't too challenging, but speeds left plenty to be desired
Finding 5G wasn’t too challenging, but speeds left plenty to be desired.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

The final tentpole feature of the iPhone 12 lineup comes in the cellular connection. Much like the iPhone 5 added LTE support in a mostly 3G world, the 12 and 12 Pro bring high-speed 5G in an LTE world.

Unfortunately, in the United States at least, 5G coverage remains spotty at best.  Along the interstates between Chicago and Florida, I rarely saw a consistent 5G signal. In Disney World — where better, faster cell service would have been a massive benefit — I found that LTE was the only thing available. This was a shock to me, since Disney World relies heavily on your mobile device for managing food orders, checking wait times, and making reservations.

While testing 5G after returning home to Chicago, I found that 5G download speeds were, at best, the same as LTE. More often, they were slower than a typical LTE connection. I have no doubt that as these 5G networks grow, we’ll see better performance, but — at least in the United States — buying a 12 or 12 Pro purely for the benefits of 5G is not worth it right now. That said, if you hold on to your device for a few years, getting something 5G-compatible offers some future-proofing.

Faster 5G is really scarce in U.S.

One other 5G thing worth noting is that in the United States, iPhone 12 models have this pill-shaped window along the right side of the frame for the mmWave antenna. This is a second, short range 5G connection that promises blazingly fast speeds. This is the kind of special cell connection you might see implemented at airports, sports arenas or tourist spots.

Currently, though, it’s not very widely available. After spending a couple hours hunting around different alleged 5G Ultra Wideband locations (Verizon’s branding for the faster 5G service), I came up with nothing. One thing became clear: We’re a long way from this being something most people see any major benefit from.

True all-day battery life

One side effect of 5G in many devices already on the market is a reduction in battery life. Apple has done some great work integrating its hardware and software in the iPhone 12 to minimize the impact of 5G on the battery. In general, battery life in my testing was fine. I was typically able to make it through a full day without needing to top up, even in power-hungry situations.

In the past, I often found that bouncing between taking pictures, using the My Disney Experience app, and dipping into other apps throughout the day, often in full sun, would take a pretty significant toll on my daily battery life while on vacation. With last year’s 11 series, and again in this year’s 12 series, it seems Apple finally reached a point where battery life can truly last all day long — even with heavier usage. I’m fairly confident the battery should prove more than sufficient for most people’s regular usage.

Is iPhone 12 Pro worth it?

Ultimately, the iPhone 12 Pro, for me, is an incredible device, even though many of this year’s changes are external. After three years of the 6/7/8 design, followed by three more years of a very similar design in the X, Xs and 11, seeing a true change in industrial design feels fresh and cool, while staying true to what makes the iPhone look and feel like an iPhone. The iPhone 12 Pro is arguably the most premium-looking smartphone you can buy.

Ultimately, though, the “regular” iPhone 12 is an extremely competitive device. It starts at $799, versus the iPhone 12 Pro’s $999 base price tag. Recommending the 12 Pro over the 12 is a tough sell that depends a lot on you as an individual.

Personally, I prefer the look of the 12 Pro over the 12. Having the option for the third camera also makes it more appealing to me. As someone that occasionally does photography and videography work, Dolby Vision HDR at 60 fps, and the eventual addition of Apple’s ProRAW photo format, make the Pro worth a little extra.