Every year Apple releases new iPhones that have been improved in myriad little ways that are primarily noticeable to us nerds, and less so to normal folks. That's also true with this year's iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. But after using Apple's new smartphones for the last few days, there are several things that make these iPhones hit differently. Their changes, while not Earth-shattering in a vacuum, are significant in a way that last year's models weren't. But that doesn't necessarily make them worth upgrading for.
I've been using the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro for the past several days and, it's worth stressing they are very similar. They are the same exact size with basically the same display, a 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR. (The 12 mini and 12 Pro Max, which I haven't tested, will bring some size variety when they're available this November). Both 12s have same A14 Bionic chip. They have a lot of the same photo and video capabilities. And they work with the same exact MagSafe accessories.
For those of you on the fence between models, it's obviously important to look at how they differ, and we've dug into the primary differences here. But if you're wondering whether to upgrade, or just wondering what's up more generally, the two are best considered as a pair. After all, they both share the three fundamental improvements the family has on offer.
The new design is a throwback that absolutely holds up.
Let's start with the new design. It's not radically different by any means, as all the new iPhones have a great edge-to-edge display, but Apple updated all the new iPhones with flat, squared-off edges — as opposed to the curved edges of more recent iPhones.
Apple says that this makes all the new iPhones up to four times more drop-resistant, and i can understand way; both phones absolutely feel more substantial and just generally easier to hold. The design is kind of a throwback to the beloved iPhone 4 from 2010, which is a big hit for nostalgia reasons but also an objective improvement in form.
MagSafe is a fun little feature, but the full extent of its appeal is yet to come.
MagSafe, for me, is probably the best new feature of all the new iPhones. Apple integrated magnets into the back of each iPhone 12 so that, when paired with a MagSafe wireless charger, the iPhone magnetically snaps in; it eliminates the biggest problem with wireless chargers, which is finding the sweet spot. Apple and a couple of third-party companies have released a few cases and other accessories (like Apple's minimalist wallet) that take advantage of MagSafe, too, but it's going to see how this ecosystem of accessory expands over time. Maybe an MagSafe AirPods case? Or MagSafe-integrated furniture? Who knows.
Of course, MagSafe is only going to benefit you if you buy into it, and you'll have to pay up. The charger starts at $39 — a far cry from the free wall adapter Apple has now removed from its iPhone boxes. MagSafe is really a long-road play by Apple to pull people further into its ecosystem, similar to how having a pair of AirPods makes you more likely to stick with Apple. New iPhones will charge faster on MagSafe chargers than any other wireless chargers. And, of course, this lays the groundwork for Apple's long rumored plans for a portless iPhone.
Grand designs on the future aside, MagSafe feels great right now. Every time you place the iPhone 12 down on the MagSafe charger, you can feel it the charger grab it into place — like some kind of subtle suction. Not only that but your iPhone makes these wonderful click and ping sounds, one after the other, and a big charging symbol momentarily takes up the display. It's these little things that assure you that yes, your iPhone is in good hands, and yes, it is charging.
5G is great, but you can absolutely live without it.
And finally there's support for 5G, which is the biggest feature that Apple is toting about all the new iPhones. But the fact is that while 5G promises a lot of good things — faster download and upload speeds, higher-resolution streaming, low-latency mobile gaming, and just generally improved reliability — it's not really a reason to buy a smartphone yet.
My review units came with Verizon 5G but it's turned out to be a pretty difficult thing for me to test. There's no 5G support in and around my home in New Jersey. I could get my signal to flip over from LTE to 5G but only when I was driving though the town hub a few miles away from when I actually live.
But this wasn't really a surprise because, well, a lot of places don't get 5G coverage. They will in the future — given that all smartphones manufacturers, including Apple, are marketing the heck out it — but right now, in 2020, 5G should only be a selling point for people who aren't planning a getting another smartphone in the next two or three years.
Should you upgrade?
It's true that the 12 family is a crew of great iPhones — probably Apple's best ever. That's virtually always true. But the best features of the 12 family are notable that they each come with a catch. In order to take advantage of the MagSafe ecosystem, for example, you have actually buy into it. You can only make use of 5G if your plan and carrier coverage support it. The other new features are either photo or video-related that, although nice, won't bring much to the table for anyone who isn't already salivating over the various specs. The last few iPhones have all had a nice display and fast processor, and could take a good-looking photo, after-all.
Now, more than ever, the decision about whether to upgrade is more down to how you feel about the phone you already have, and less about what the new ones have to offer. They set the table nicely, but dinner isn't fully cooked.