iPhone 12 mini is the ultimate one-handed phone [Review]

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iPhone 12 mini
The iPhone 12 mini is a hot little number.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

Buying a compact smartphone used to mean making some big sacrifices. You either had to settle for an older model, or you had to opt for an Android handset (ugh!). That’s no longer the case, thanks to iPhone 12 mini.

iPhone 12 mini makes no compromises. It’s not a watered-down version of the larger iPhone 12; it is an iPhone 12 that’s squeezed into a smaller body. It has a gorgeous Super Retina XDR display, a blazing-fast A14 Bionic processor, great cameras, 5G and Face ID.

What’s missing? Absolutely nothing! If you want a small smartphone that has it all, iPhone 12 mini is the only option.

iPhone 12 mini review

The fit and finish is superb. It's a lovely object to hold in your hand.
The mini’s fit and finish is superb. It’s a lovely object to hold in your hand.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

Small in size, big in character

iPhone 12 mini is both the smallest and the biggest Apple smartphone of 2020. It’s only slightly larger than an original iPhone SE, and a lot smaller than iPhone 12, measuring just 131.5 mm high by 64.2 mm wide. And yet, for those who want a small iPhone, it’s hugely significant.

This is Apple’s first truly small phone in more than four years, and it’s absolutely delightful. It fits beautifully into my hand and slides easily into my pockets. It’s super-easy to use with just one hand — like an early iPhone — and it’s amazingly lightweight.

iPhone 12 mini looks exactly the same as its larger sibling, with shiny glass on both sides, sandwiching an aluminum frame. It’s available in the same five color options. I’ve been testing the Product(Red) version, which I think is very attractive! The red color pops but doesn’t look cheap and plasticky, as I feared it might. It’s a mature, grown-up red.

Ceramic Shield display

The mini’s display is protected by the same Ceramic Shield you’ll find on the other three iPhone 12 models. Apple says Ceramic Shield, which is new to the iPhone 12 series, provides four times better drop performance than previous displays. It is made by incorporating nano-ceramic crystals into glass to make it significantly stronger, and it’s the toughest glass you’ll find in any smartphone. CNET performed some drop tests on the mini and found it “nearly indestructible.”

Ceramic Shield doesn’t make iPhone 12 mini’s display more scratch-resistant, so you’ll probably still need a screen protector. And because it’s only found on the front of the phone, you will likely still want a case, too, to protect the glass on the back.

Stellar performance all around

For one-handed iPhoning, the mini can't be beat.
For one-handed iPhoning, the mini can’t be beat.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

Despite being Apple’s smallest smartphone, the mini is far from a budget product. But there are many reasons why it starts at a whopping $729 — just $100 less than iPhone 12 — and most of them can be found on the inside of the device.

It starts with the Super Retina XDR display. It’s an OLED panel, just like every other iPhone 12 display, and it’s downright gorgeous. Its colors look deep and vibrant, its blacks look totally black. It’s plenty bright enough when you need it to be, and it’s incredibly crisp.

iPhone 12 mini’s display measures 5.4 inches diagonally, and thanks to its edge-to-edge design, the screen doesn’t feel small. Having used Apple’s largest phones for the last few years, I thought the smaller screen would be awkward, but it’s not. Not at all. The smaller screen isn’t an impediment. It never feels too small.

Having said that, it might not be the iPhone to go for if you frequently use your smartphone for gaming and watching movies — bigger screens are better for those things. And it’s worth noting that the notch remains the same size, so it’s a little more obvious.

A14 Bionic chip

iPhone 12 mini is powered by the latest A14 Bionic chip, which makes it just as speedy as iPhone 12 Pro Max. It’s faster than most of us need a smartphone processor to be, making everything you do super-snappy. No matter which apps you use, or how hard you push it, it’s never slow.

Face ID remains just as good as it’s always been, and features like Apple Pay and Dual SIM support are still present. Super-speedy 5G connectivity is here, too. iPhone 12 mini is also water-resistant and compatible with MagSafe accessories, just like the other models.

I’ve been charging it with Apple’s MagSafe charger, which gets a bit toasty but charges it just fine. The only annoyance is that the charger stays attached to the phone when you pick it up, but it’s easily detached.

Uncompromising cameras

iPhone 12 mini review: The cameras are just as good as those in its larger sibling.
The iPhone 12 mini’s cameras are just as good as those in its larger sibling.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

One area where other compact smartphones often suffer is in camera performance. But iPhone 12 mini packs exactly the same wide and ultra-wide modules as iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. They feature 12-megapixel sensors that capture beautiful photos and videos.

Apple’s smallest handset also packs all the photography features we’ve come to expect from flagship iPhone models, including support for Smart HDR, Night and Portrait modes, Deep Fusion, optical image stabilization and a True Tone flash with Slow Sync. Many of the same features, including Portrait and Night mode, are also available from the front-facing TrueDepth camera. You will also find Animoji and Memoji support here, too.

Video recording can be done with Dolby Vision at up to 30 frames per second in 4K, or 1080p at up to 60 frames per second, and in slo-mo at up to 240 frames per second.

Scroll down for some sample images at the bottom of this post. I took many of same pictures with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and you can compare them here in the Pro Max review.

To my eyes, the mini performed as well as the Pro Max in most instances. Low-light and nighttime shots look just as good. Missing is the Pro Max’s 2.5x optical zoom lens. (The camera setup is the main difference between the mini and the Pro Max. The mini has a dual-camera setup with wide and ultra-wide lenses, while the Pro Max has three lenses: wide, ultra-wide and telephoto.)

I don’t know if I miss telephoto that much. In my experience, zoomed pictures rarely work out the way you want. I tend to avoid it and get physically closer to the subject if I can.

Small differences

iPhone 12 mini review: The differences between the mini and the others in the 12 lineup are small.
The differences between the mini and the others in the 12 lineup are small.
Photo: Lyle Kahney/Cult of Mac

Although it’s true that iPhone 12 mini packs everything you’ll find inside iPhone 12, there are some small differences you should be aware of. Obviously, the smaller model features a smaller screen and a smaller battery, and it doesn’t charge quite as quickly with MagSafe, either.

Unlike other iPhone 12 models, which can charge wirelessly at up to 15W, iPhone 12 mini maxes out at 12W. It’s not a big difference, and the mini has a smaller battery anyway, so I never noticed any lag in charging time. It’s certainly not a reason to consider spending more on iPhone 12.

You’ll get used to the smaller screen — that’s probably why you’re considering an iPhone 12 mini in the first place. But if you’ve used a larger iPhone recently, having to keep an eye on battery life and charge your phone more frequently might be a pain at first.

iPhone 12 mini can certainly make it through a full day on a single charge if you’re not a heavy user. But if you watch a lot of YouTube videos, spend hours on social media, and regularly play games, you will find it might die long before bedtime.

There’s also no LiDAR Sensor, which is also missing from the regular iPhone 12. It’s only included in the 12 Pro models. At the moment, the LiDar sensor isn’t much used. It’s helpful for autofocusing the camera in low-light, but practical applications like AR have yet to break into the mainstream. Time will tell if popular AR applications arrive this year of next, so the absence of LiDar in the mini isn’t a big deal for now.

iPhone 12 mini: The verdict

I love this little iPhone.

After years of using big iPhones, I thought it’d be like a toy phone, crippled and compromised. But Apple didn’t skimp where it counts. Everything you care about — the screen, the cameras, Face ID, 5G networking, MagSafe and so on — are all present and correct. The compromises are small and insignificant.

This is a great iPhone with a killer feature all the others in the lineup lack: a teeny, tiny footprint.

Some iPhone 12 mini sample photos

iPhone 12 mini sample photo: This shot with the iPhone 12 mini shows the SkyStar Wheel in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. I dig it, even though it's slightly blurred because the lights and the wheel were in constant motion.
This shot with the iPhone 12 mini shows the SkyStar Wheel in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I dig it, even though it’s slightly blurred because the lights and the wheel were in constant motion.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo Golden Gate Bridge: The mini captured the detail in the rusted chain just as well as the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The mini captured the detail in the rusted chain just as well as the Pro Max.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo: Look at the detail in this photo of the woods in rural Marin County.
Look at the detail in this photo of the woods in rural Marin County.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo: The colors and details of this houseboat look true to life.
The colors and details of this houseboat look true to life.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo: I like the detail and colors of these palm trees.
I like the detail and colors of these palm trees.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo: The mini takes great portraits.
The mini takes great portraits.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo: Again, the colors of this shot of the Nicasio church are true-to-life. Daytime shots like this are beautifully crisp and clear.
Again, the colors of this shot of the Nicasio church look true to life. Daytime shots like this are beautifully crisp and clear.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo: Not a bad nighttime portrait. It's a bit fuzzed out in the background, but the mini captured the subject just fine.
Not a bad nighttime portrait. It’s a bit fuzzed out in the background, but the mini captured the subject just fine.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo: The Golden Gate Bridge at night. There's a bit of camera shake, but not bad.
The Golden Gate Bridge at night. There’s a bit of camera shake, but not bad.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 12 mini sample photo: Another nighttime shot of some apartments near Dolores Park in San Francisco.
Another nighttime shot of some apartments near Dolores Park in San Francisco.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Killian Bell contributed to this review.

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