iPhone 12 review: Non-Pro in name only

Most people who take a look at the iPhone 12 will see a very familiar phone. Its shape hasn’t changed much since the iPhone X was introduced three years ago. The back is basically identical to the iPhone 11. And the sides are a clear callback to the iPhone 5.

iphone 12 versus 11 Michael Simon/IDG

The iPhone 12 (left) looks a lot like the iPhone 11 from the back, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But to use the iPhone 12 is to experience a phone that’s the epitome of 13 years of iPhone evolution. There might be a general feeling that Apple’s smartphone innovation has stalled in the wake of a shift toward services and wearables, but the iPhone 12 is filled with smart, meaningful improvements and subtle iterations that make it feel as fresh and new as the iPhone 4 or iPhone 6 once were.

You can point to things like the lack of a 120Hz display or high-res zoom or its very small battery as deficiencies, and there’s certainly points to be made there. But you won’t find a better combination of power, performance, and price in another smartphone. And it’s not bad to look at, either.

Easy on the eyes

The biggest change to the iPhone 12 is its screen. Even if you don’t know what the LCD and OLED acronyms stand for, you will immediately see the difference between the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 11, XR, or SE. The display is richer, brighter, and more vibrant than any LCD Apple makes, including the iPad Pro. Blacks are incredibly deep and no longer look washed out. Brightness is significantly improved as well, topping 900 nits in my testing and touching 1,100 nits with auto-brightness on.

iphone 12 magsafe case front Michael Simon/IDG

The iPhone 12’s display isn’t quite edge-to-edge, but it’s closer than ever.

The iPhone 12’s Super Retina XDR display is identical to the one on the iPhone 12 Pro, which eliminates one of the biggest deficiencies between the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. Specs don’t really do it justice, but you get a 6.1-inch Full HD+ HDR OLED (2532×1170) with a 1,200-nit max brightness and 460 pixels per inch. That might seem like a downgrade over a phone like the Samsung Galaxy S20, which offers a Quad HD+ 3200×1440 display and a 120Hz refresh rate, but the fact of the matter is, the iPhone 12’s display is a pleasure to look at and touch.

The only thing I really miss is an always-on option. While it would certainly be nice to have a 120Hz ProMotion display for super-speedy scrolling and video playback, Apple does such a stellar job optimizing iOS 14 for the new chip and hardware, and the display feels as fast as the 90Hz display on the Pixel 5. The impact on battery life is enough where it makes sense that Apple chose to wait, especially with such a small battery inside the iPhone 12.

iphone 12 bezels Michael Simon/IDG

The bezels are visible on the iPhone 12, but they’re thinner than ever.

An ambient or always-on option, however, is noticeably missing, especially for anyone coming from an Android phone. Even with energy-efficient OLED tech, the iPhone 12 still needs to completely light up to show the time, date, music controls, or notifications, which is both annoying and inconvenient. That shouldn’t deter you from buying one, however. Apple could add an always-on toggle to the Display & Brightness settings at any time, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it make an appearance as one of the signature features of iOS 15.

Brand new you’re retro

While the front of the iPhone 12 has a similar design to the iPhone 12, there is a noticeable slimming of the bezels around the screen, bringing it ever closer to a true edge-to-edge experience. The screen-to-body ratio may be a bit lower than the Note 20 Ultra (87 percent to 92 percent), but that’s largely due to the notch, which is still necessary to house the TrueDepth camera for Face ID. A hole-punch camera might look cleaner, but it’s a worthy trade-off for the security and ease-of-use that Face ID brings.