Which iPhone Should You Buy Now? (iPhone 12 Edition)
Welcome to the 5G era. Or, at least, Apple has finally joined everyone else in launching its first flagship 5G iPhone. iPhones, really; the company stormed out of the gate with four brand-new models to buy, because it can’t power Apple Park on just services revenue. Jeeze.
I kid. But let’s get to the real talk right away: Don’t buy a new iPhone because 5G sounds faster than 4G. Most of you out there won’t be able to access these high speeds consistently, if at all.
PCMag.com recently put 5G networks to the test by driving around a bunch of locations in the U.S. and seeing what the actual connection speeds were like on real devices. I helped out with the San Francisco Bay Area testing and, well, I wouldn’t even buy a 5G phone for 5G in one of America’s technological hubs.
For example, Verizon’s mmWave 5G network—the fastest 5G speeds you’ll get on the carrier—was only available in around 2-3 percent of the many locations PCMag tested around the country. More annoying, Verizon’s “nationwide 5G” network is really just 4G speeds with a 5G icon, which surely isn’t going to create any kind of confusion or headache for your average iPhone owner.
Anyway, I’ll get off my 5G soapbox and get to the iPhones, since there’s plenty more to talk about than fast connectivity you won’t get (and will have to pay more to access).
First, here’s the latest iPhone lineup from Apple’s online store, arranged in order from least to most expensive. Say goodbye to the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, as well as the iPhone 11 Pro/Pro Max. Like the Highlander, there can be only one Pro.
- 4.7-inch 64GB: $399
- 4.7-inch 128GB: $449
- 4.7-inch 256GB: $549
- Colors: White, Black, Red
- 6.1-inch 64GB: $499 (-$100 price drop)
- 6.1-inch 128GB: $549 (-$100 price drop)
- Colors: White, Black, Blue, Yellow, Coral, Red
- 6.1-inch 64GB: $599 (-$100 price drop)
- 6.1-inch 128GB: $649 (-$100 price drop)
- 6.1-inch 256GB: $749 (-$100 price drop)
- Colors: White, Black, Green, Yellow, Purple, Red
iPhone 12 mini
- 5.4-inch 64GB: $729
- 5.4-inch 128GB: $779
- 5.4-inch 256GB: $879
- Colors: White, Black, Blue, Green, Red
- 6.1-inch 64GB: $829
- 6.1-inch 128GB: $879
- 6.1-inch 256GB: $979
- Colors: White, Black, Blue, Green, Red
iPhone 12 Pro
- 6.1-inch 128GB: $999
- 6.1-inch 256GB: $1,099
- 6.1-inch 512GB: $1,299
- Colors: Graphite, Silver, Gold, Pacific Blue
iPhone 12 Pro Max
- 6.7-inch 128GB: $1,099
- 6.7-inch 256GB: $1,199
- 6.7-inch 512GB: $1,399
- Colors: Graphite, Silver, Gold, Pacific Blue
Now, let’s talk recommendations. I’ve split this up into sections:
Should you upgrade to a new iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Mini, or iPhone 12 Pro?
This year’s analysis of the new iPhones is both easier and harder. The latter, because Apple dropped four new iPhones into the mix. The former, because each “category” of iPhones—”normal” and “Pro”—are basically identical, save for their sizes.
I’ll also start with a layup. If you want the best hardware you can buy from Apple, you’re going to want the iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max. Full stop. We’ll get into all of the features in a bit, but that’s the simple answer. The differences between these two iPhones are so minimal, that it’s really more a question of what form factor you want and how much you’re willing to pay for it.
How big are the beastly iPhone 12 Pros?
The iPhone 12 Pro clocks in with a 6.1-inch display, whereas the gigantic iPhone 12 Pro Max rocks a 6.7-incher. Here’s the kicker, though. The iPhone 12 Pro is actually smaller in height than the iPhone 11 (and shaves nearly a full millimeter off the phone’s depth.). It’s roughly the size of the iPhone XS or iPhone X, if you ever handled one of those, and ever-so-slightly smaller than the iPhone XR. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that its closest comparison for screen size and physical size is the iPhone XR. And if you want to see how that feels in real-world use, print a cutout.
As for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, it’s a chonko. It’s the biggest iPhone Apple has made, coming in just slightly taller (and slightly skinnier) than the iPhone 11 Pro Max and iPhone XS Max. You get around 0.2 more inches of screen space than the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Though you’re only paying $100 extra for the larger size of the iPhone 12 Pro Max over the iPhone 12 Pro, I wouldn’t say that bigger is necessarily better. Your personal preferences will determine which iPhone you go for—and perhaps the average size of your jean pockets, handbags, backpacks, or whatever else you use to lug around your $1,000 handheld computer.
Really? There’s no difference between the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max?
Sigh. Fine. The iPhone 12 Pro Max comes with a 5x optical zoom range to the iPhone 12 Pro’s 4x. According to Apple’s specs, its battery is a little bigger, too, supporting up to 20 hours of sustained video playback to the iPhone 12 Pro’s 17. You get a slightly larger display resolution on the iPhone 12 Pro Max (to account for its larger screen size and keep the pixel-per-inch measurements basically identical), yet your iPhone’s telephoto lens is slightly less powerful with a ƒ/2.2 aperture compared to the iPhone 12 Pro’s ƒ/2.0 aperture.
We’re splitting hairs. The key difference between these iPhones is their sizes, and that’s what will make you go with one or the other. (Or, I suppose, which iPhone you want first: The iPhone 12 Pro ships on October 23, whereas the iPhone 12 Pro Max starts shipping November 13.)
What about the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Mini?
Here’s where it gets interesting. I’ll start with a summary: If you want pretty good features, 5G capabilities (ugh), or the smallest iPhone that still contains all of Apple’s latest tech, the iPhone 12 Pro is a bit too much.
The iPhone 12 saves you around $120 over the iPhone 12 Pro before tax, and you’ll get the same-sized screen as the iPhone 12 Pro in an identical form factor (and a little less weight). Sure, your “typical” brightness for that screen will be a mere 175 nits less than the iPhone 12 Pro’s, but that’s only real difference you’ll encounter there. You’re still getting the same CPU (A14 Bionic) and all the benefits to graphics and raw performance its 5nm design brings to the party.
What you’re missing out on, however, is an extra camera—the telephoto camera. That impacts your overall optical zoom range (2x, instead of 4x). You also lose access to Apple’s new ProRAW format that bridges its computational photography with the benefits of a RAW image’s adjust-it-after-the-fact capabilities. Night Mode Portrait shots are gone, too, since the iPhone 12 doesn’t come with a rear-facing LiDAR scanner. Oh, and you can only record your Dolby Vision HDR videos at 30fps max, not 60fps.
In other words, you’re missing out on some, well, “pro” features. Are they worth $120? If you like using your iPhone to take regular, everyday photos, I wouldn’t say you need to go for the iPhone 12 Pro—and definitely not the iPhone 12 Pro Max, not unless you absolutely need the latest iPhone with the largest screen size.
Most people will never use ProRAW. The slight loss of an optical zoom range is a little irksome, but you can always…move closer to your subject. A 2x telephoto camera isn’t that big of a deal. Losing Night Mode Portraits is a bummer, but you really have to ask yourself how often you’ll find yourself in this exact scenario. Is that worth the cash? Maybe, maybe not. (I’d say “not.”) Similarly, you’ll be fine if you can’t shoot Dolby Vision at 60fps. How often are you really planning to do that, anyway?
As for the iPhone 12 Mini, this one’s easy. It’s the exact same as the iPhone 12, save for its 5.4-inch screen versus the iPhone 12’s 6.1-inch screen. And, of course, the iPhone 12 Mini is a physically smaller device. It’s smaller in height and width than even the second-generation iPhone SE, but it comes with a display that’s 0.7-inches larger. Apple hasn’t really released an iPhone this small in a long, long time, which makes it incredibly compelling for all of you who have dreamed of going back to the O.G. iPhone SE’s form factor.
When does an upgrade make sense for owners of older iPhones?
The simple answer is: It depends. We’re very quickly reaching the point where even an older iPhone is good enough to be a daily driver, especially if you’re using it to take normal photos—nothing staged or fancy. So, let’s approach this methodically.
If you own an iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max
Nah. I wouldn’t upgrade unless you really, really want 5G connectivity. If so, I recommend not trading in your old device until you have your new iPhone and can confirm that you’re getting great 5G speeds wherever it is you live, work, or travel to. (Those last two will be trickier to test due to the “cocororo,” as it’s called, but I’d absolutely make sure that I have a strong 5G connection around locations I typically frequent. Otherwise, 5G isn’t much of a selling point.)
Moving to an iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Mini feels like a downgrade of-sorts, since you’re losing your telephoto camera and that extra optical zoom. You’re gaining HDR Dolby Vision recording an “Deep Fusion” computational photography, so that’s something if you shoot a lot of video or want better images. But, honestly, your iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max cameras are probably fine for everything you need them do.
Moving to the iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max is a more obvious choice, and it’ll only cost you a few hundred bucks if you can sell off your “old” iPhone. Is that worth the upgrade? If you’re going Pro-to-Pro, probably not, but if you already spent this much for one iPhone and are now talking about upgrading, a few hundred bucks probably isn’t a big deal for you. A Pro-to-Max upgrade makes a little more sense, and a Pro Max-to-Pro Max upgrade feels a bit silly. iPhone 12 Pro features like MagSafe and ProRAW are compelling, sure, but that’s a lot of hassle to go through just to get a faster phone that you probably don’t need unless you’re really, really into smartphone photography.
Summary: I don’t think most people should upgrade their iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max to an iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, or iPhone 12 Pro Max. Enthusiasts? Sure, why not. But for everyday people, your iPhone is just fine for all the email you check, videos you watch, and cutesy photos you take. You don’t need the new Ferrari when your Tesla works just fine.
If you own an iPhone SE (second generation)
Oh, your tiny little phone. I think upgrading to an iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max is going to give you a lot—more screen real estate, a much better camera setup (front- and rear-facing), a bigger battery, 5G (sigh), and the wonders of Face ID and HD FaceTime calls. However, if you bought an iPhone SE, that means that you already dedicated yourself to a smaller phone a mere six months ago. And you’re now thinking of upgrading to Apple’s heaviest hitters? Hmm.
Apple’s “Pro” phones are obviously a big upgrade, and if you’ve found your iPhone SE’s experience lacking, there’s nothing wrong with swinging for the fences. However, I think a more balanced upgrade for size, features, and price is the iPhone 12 Mini. Assuming you can sell your iPhone SE for roughly $350 or so, you’ll be paying roughly double that (before tax) for a new iPhone 12 Mini. You’ll get a bigger OLED display instead of your meh LCD display, more cameras (with optical zoom), access to Night Mode and computational photography, HDR video recording, and (drumroll) both Animoji and Memoji, as well as Face ID, of course.
Most importantly, you’ll be able to have a phone that’s physically smaller than your second-generation iPhone SE. I think that’s the big selling point here, since you already expressed your preference for a smaller-sized phone when you bought your iPhone SE—unless you now hate it, of course. If you need something more reasonably sized, the iPhone 12 is the next best option.
Summary: If you’re already looking to upgrade a “cheaper” iPhone you bought six months ago, the iPhone 12 Mini gives top-shelf features in the tiniest size you can get them. I suspect you won’t go for an iPhone 12 Pro, since you could have just as easily bought an iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max instead of the iPhone SE. You wanted a tiny phone; now, if you want a tiny phone with all the bells and whistles, the iPhone 12 Mini makes the most sense for you.
If you own an iPhone XS or XS Max
Hello, two-year-old iPhone. Were I you, I’d be getting a little concerned about my device’s battery at this point. Assuming you don’t have AppleCare+, and your phone’s battery is starting to show issues (via Settings > Battery), you probably won’t be able to sell it for top dollar via a third-party service. You’ll instead have to trade it in to Apple, which won’t get you very much ($300-370, as of when this article was published).
Specs-wise, most of Apple’s iPhone 12s are an upgrade over what you already have. I wouldn’t go for the iPhone 12 Mini, however, since that’ll be a downgrade in screen size.
So, we’re back to the standard question: Are Apple’s “Pro” features worth it? The iPhone 12 is a no-brainer upgrade for the iPhone XS. You get an ever-so-slightly larger phone, but a bigger display, as well as a better camera setup on the front and rear (though the loss of a telephoto lens) and a bit more battery life (presumably).
That said, if your iPhone XS works just fine for you right now, I’d argue that the iPhone 12’s camera is probably the biggest and only reason to upgrade—aside from 5G, that is, but I’ve mentioned my concerns about that enough.
You can probably hold out at least one more year. The iPhone 12 is tantalizing, but it brings a bunch of refinements and tweaks to the solid base that you already mostly have. If your pictures are fine and you don’t care very much about recording videos in 4K or HDR, you can wait at least until the iPhone 13 before you give in.
Or, as I like to phrase it, consider going with the “wait to upgrade until Apple stops selling your iPhone at the store” strategy.
I wouldn’t “upgrade” to the iPhone 12 from an iPhone XS Max for all the reasons listed above plus the loss of about 0.4 inches of screen space. If you’ve been enjoying a display that large, your only real upgrade path is the iPhone 12 Pro Max. A 6.1-inch screen isn’t that much smaller than the 6.5-inch screen you have, but why go down when you can go up? You will, of course, have to spend a lot more, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max is only going to be slightly larger than what you already have, so you’ll be used to its dimensions.
Summary: Most people can hold off upgrading an iPhone XS or XS Max for one more year, if you’re not having any issues. Otherwise, the iPhone 12 is a logical leap for iPhone XS owners that don’t feel they need “Pro” features. The iPhone 12 Pro Max, however, is the upgrade path for iPhone XS Max owners who really like the size and feel of their larger devices. Every other “upgrade” for the iPhone XS Max is going to give you a smaller screen and a smaller phone. You love your big ol’ brick, and that means there’s only one real iPhone 12 for you
If you own an iPhone XR
Almost everything is going to be an upgrade for you at this point, so take your pick. I still wouldn’t go iPhone 12 Mini, since you’re getting a smaller phone and smaller screen. It’s the cheapest iPhone 12, though, so there’s that. (The iPhone XR was the “budget” iPhone of 2018, after all.)
I think the iPhone 12 is the perfect fit for those who don’t want “Pro”-level features. You’ll get the same-sized display on a slightly smaller device, so no adjustments needed there, and you’ll get all the aforementioned benefits of the iPhone 12 without blowing a small fortune on features you probably don’t need.
Summary: If you bought the iPhone XR back in 2018, I feel like you probably aren’t a person that’s chasing the absolute latest and greatest updates Apple has to offer. As in, you probably don’t need an iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max, and the iPhone 12 should be enough of an upgrade for everything you need to do.
Like the iPhone XS, you can probably squeeze at least one more year out of your device if it’s treating you well. However, given that the iPhone XR is inferior to even the iPhone XS—especially with that LCD display—I would think that you would be slightly more inclined to upgrade now than in 2021. The iPhone 12 is probably the best fit for you at this point, and I’d get what I can from my iPhone XR before it gets too old to sell for a reasonable price.
If you own an iPhone X
Hi. You’re me. Your iPhone’s battery is probably terrible by now, and it’s impacting your ability to be productive on your device. Your iPhone gets unnaturally hot sometimes and freezes up. You get anxious trying to use CarPlay on a warm day. You long for the touch of a new device.
Summary: I’m buying an iPhone 12; probably a Pro Max, to be honest, because I want to just plunk down for something I won’t need to upgrade for the next 3-5 years.
Also, since you’re me, would you mind taking the trash out? I’m a bit busy today.
Where does this leave us?
- The iPhone 12 is a ballin’ iPhone. Most people looking to upgrade should go for it, unless you prefer an iPhone SE-like “tinyphone.” If so, the iPhone 12 Mini is a better, cheaper fit. You lose nothing of value, save for screen size and physical dimensions.
- The flagship iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max are the enthusiast devices. If you know that’s you, you don’t need me to convince you which iPhone to get. They’re virtually identical for features, save for their sizes.
- If you’re on the fence about whether you need an iPhone 12 or an iPhone 12 Pro, you probably just need an iPhone 12. The iPhone 12 Pro’s LiDAR scanner, telephoto lens, ProRAW pictures, Night Mode portraits, and 60fps Dolby Vision HDR recording are fun features, sure, but I highly doubt you’ll be using them all that much. Save some cash, or use that savings for a fancy-new MagSafe case.
- If your iPhone is relatively new (2019 on up), and you’re a normal person who uses their iPhone for basic activities every day, you probably don’t need to upgrade to an iPhone 12 (any variety) unless you’re getting something with a bigger screen than what you already have. If you’re an enthusiast, you’re going to upgrade no matter what, so the question is more about reasonability (iPhone 12) versus extravagance (iPhone 12 Pro/Pro Max).
- If you have a 2018-era iPhone that’s treating you well, you can probably get by with waiting one more year. The caveat being that if you have a crappier iPhone XR with an LCD screen, the iPhone 12 upgrade makes a bit more sense.
- If you have an iPhone older than 2018, it’s probably time to upgrade—or get your battery repaired to restore your phone back to reasonable performance.
- Don’t buy an iPhone just because it has 5G, not until you’ve tested to see that you’ll get 5G speeds where you expect and/or need them.
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