Delayed by one month thanks to the ravages of 2020, Apple’s new iPhones are here at last – and there are four of them. In the first leg of what’s shaping up to be a Sisyphean ordeal, I’ve reviewed the iPhone 12 Pro.
It’s got the same screen size (6.1in) and tech (OLED) as the standard iPhone 12, but costs considerably more. Do the powerful camera setup and other upgraded features offer enough to justify the price?
I’ve spent several days testing the iPhone 12 Pro’s photographic capabilities, as well as its battery, graphics and processing performance, to help you decide if this is the phone for you. If you’d rather read about the cheaper alternative, have a look at our iPhone 12 review; for more general advice, meanwhile, you should read our iPhone buying guide.
Price & availability
The 12 Pro, which is available right now, starts at £999/$999/AUD$1,699 for the lowest-capacity version. Here’s the full price list:
- 128GB: £999/US$999/AUD$1,699
- 256GB: £1,099/US$1099/AUD$1,869
- 512GB: £1299/$1299/AUD$2,219
As was long rumoured, the 12-series handsets have a square-edged design that harks back to the iPhone 4, and more recently to the 2018 and 2020 editions of the iPad Pro. The curved edges of the 11-series, and nearly every iPhone since 2014, are gone.
In some respects this is an aesthetic decision, and your feelings about it will depend on subjective factors. Personally I think it looks smart and counterintuitively modern, although this may be influenced by how long we’ve been looking at curved-edge iPhones. After a design has stayed the same for a long time, any change feels fresh.
There are practical considerations too. From Apple’s point of view, one would imagine that a squared-off edge is easier to work with: battery cells presumably fit more efficiently into such shapes, for example.
But the curve had its advantages too. For one thing it made the device both more appealing and easier to pick up off a flat surface; I often find myself scrabbling unhappily at the edges of my 2018 iPad Pro, which hugs tables so seamlessly. I found that less of an issue with the iPhone 12 Pro, however, partly because it’s so much lighter and can be picked up with one hand, and partly because I mostly had it inside a silicone case which adds friction.
Some 12 Pro owners have complained that the edges make it less comfortable to hold, and some have even claimed to have cut their hands; that seems fanciful to me, unless they’ve received defective handsets. Perhaps the new design is slightly less ergonomic in the hand, but I found it comfortable enough.
Finally, it’s worth wondering how much better a curved design is at resisting damage. (For illustration of the general principle, try to think of an animal with a cuboid shell.) Sure enough, there have been reports of unexpected wear and tear on 12-series handsets, although these are so isolated that it’s hard to make much of them.
My sample hasn’t suffered any noticeable damage during my testing – but for fairness, that’s also a statistically insignificant sample, so perhaps we shouldn’t make any more of that than the complaints on Twitter. And as mentioned, I’ve mostly used it in a case, which I would recommend.
In general, the 12 Pro should be a tough nut to crack. It has the best water resistance of any iPhone released so far – not just IP68, which the company has attained before, but secure to a depth of up to 6m, up (or rather down) from 4m last year. It also has a new screen protection, which we’ll look at in the next section.
The screen is bigger than on the 11 Pro: 6.1in, up from 5.8in. Apple has achieved this with virtually no increase in chassis size – it’s 2.7mm taller and just 0.1mm wider, and thanks to a slimmer profile actually weighs a gram less – by shrinking the bezels.
The resolution is proportionately larger, which means the pixel density remains almost the same (it’s now 460 pixels per inch, compared to 458ppi last year). This translates to a screen that’s exceptionally sharp, as well as being as colourful and bright as ever.
One disappointment is the refresh rate, which remains at 60Hz. There were high hopes at one point that Apple would bring across the ProMotion tech from the iPad Pros, which allows for 120Hz when appropriate and dials back to 60Hz at other times to preserve battery life. No such luck – which means we miss out on the super-smooth animation and scrolling, and the hyper-precise touchscreen functions, that you get with 120Hz. (It’s for this reason that one display expert has advised readers to hold out for the iPhone 13.)
The protection mentioned earlier is called Ceramic Shield: the use of nano-ceramic crystals in the glass to improve toughness. When combined with the design of the phone, which positions the screen flush with the edge of the chassis, Apple says this brings four times the drop performance of the previous generation, and improved scratch resistance.
All of this is noticeably vague – the methodology of the testing is not revealed – and difficult to evaluate with a single review sample that, to be honest, I don’t really want to smash. (Aside from which, if I did drop the phone and it smashed, that wouldn’t disprove the claim that it had been four times less likely to do so; I might have just got unlucky.)
But more reckless outlets have been conducting some shockingly violent tests on the new handsets, and they broadly concur that Ceramic Shield does the job.
Camera upgrades are one of the key criteria by which customers choose to buy a new phone. The problem is that iPhone cameras have got so good, and so smart, that it’s harder and harder to detect the differences from generation to generation.
If you’re upgrading from an iPhone 8, say, it’s safe to say that you’ll find the 12 Pro’s photographic performance startlingly good, bringing as it does the accumulated improvements of several years at once. It captures masses of detail, colour reproduction is superb, and the automatic settings do a great job of helping those of us who aren’t technically accomplished photographers.
When comparing it to the similarly accomplished 11 Pro, however, we had to go out of our way to find unusually challenging shooting conditions that would set the two apart.
Last year Apple talked a lot about the next-gen Smart HDR and AI-powered Deep Fusion features, which used the power of the iPhone 11’s A13 Bionic processor to examine multiple exposures and select the best option for each part of a shot. This enabled it to bring out the detail of shaded areas, for example, without overexposing more brightly lit sections of the same photo. We were impressed by this.
In 2020 next-gen Smart HDR is replaced by Smart HDR 3, which is supposed to refine image processing still further. And in our tests this was apparent, especially when shooting subjects with the sun behind them.
Take this shot of a wall, lit from behind. In the old days the wall would be dark and totally detail-free because the camera would be compensating for the fierce autumn light. The 11 Pro does a good job of exposing the wall appropriately (and differently from the sky) so you can make out the detail and colour. But the 12 Pro does an even better job.
Here’s another example: a tree in bright sunshine, with foliage beneath in shadow.
Again, both phones do a good job of handling the mixed conditions, thanks to Smart HDR. But the 12 Pro draws out more detail from the darker area (look at the dark-green bush directly below the tree) and produces a more realistic rendition of the wall.
But you will appreciate that the differences are small, and noticeable only when conditions demand the extra capabilities, and when you look at the results side by side.
One last example, and this time we’ll add some extra challenges. This time it’s a selfie, with two subjects, Portrait Mode, and backlit. Again, both do a good job, but I prefer the sharper focus on the hair of both subjects in the 12 Pro’s photo.
We think these selfies are good, but Portrait Mode from the rear-facing camera is particularly good this year, thanks to the influence of the new LiDAR scanner. This sensor carries implications for augmented-reality apps, but also enables the phone to construct a far more accurate picture of surrounding objects and their distance from the camera.
We found the 12 Pro’s bokeh effect extremely accurate, even when tackling moving subjects.
The iPhone 12 Pro retains the Night Mode which was introduced last year, and it is both more effective and more versatile than on the 11 Pro. For the effectiveness, see this comparison:
As with Smart HDR 3, the improvements are there if you look (I prefer the treatment of the streetlight, and the houses and road close to it), but they’re extremely subtle. For what it’s worth, the differences are easier to spot when viewed on the phone than after being posted to our website.
The difference in quality will vary depending on the conditions. Here’s another sample where the distinction is clearer:
As for versatility, the 12 Pro can use Night Mode on selfies and time-lapse video, and in combination with Portrait Mode, none of which were possible with the 11 Pro. (It also seems possible to use Night Mode on ultra-wide-angle shots for the first time, although Apple hasn’t explicitly announced this.) Here’s a selfie I took combining Night Mode and Portrait Mode:
Night Mode selfies weren’t dazzlingly good on the whole, and in some cases I found I preferred the night-time selfies I took with the iPhone 11 Pro – no Night Mode, just the Retina Flash feature where it lights up the screen. This method tends to capture more flattering shots of your face, it’s just that it can’t get much from the background (which in most cases will be too far away to be illuminated by the flash).
If you want a nighttime selfie complete with a background in the middle distance or further, the 12 Pro’s Night mode is for you.
And here’s the best ultra-wide-angle shot I was able to take with Night Mode. It looks decent enough, but the lightening effect is altogether less miraculous than with the default lens setup. The 11 Pro was unable to make anything of this shot because Night Mode was not enabled.
It’s worth stating for those who haven’t used an 11-series, or have simply forgotten, that Night Mode really is miraculous. Here’s a shot of a church we took in the dark, and you could be forgiven for thinking it was mid-afternoon. (Notice however the softness resulting from camera shake during the long exposure. For best results use a tripod.)
It’s so miraculous, in fact, that I’m going to say something peculiar: I don’t like how good this mode is. I’m not comfortable with the way it completely changes what the shot looks like.
Years ago the art director of PC Advisor magazine, for which I then worked, wrote an ingenious Photoshop tutorial about adding sunbeams to daytime snaps: rays breaking through the clouds and poking down divinely at the earth. The results looked brilliant but they had nothing to do with the original photo. It was art, not documentary.
Of course I later came to understand that all photography is art: you decide how to frame the shot, what settings to apply, and most importantly where and when to take the picture. It would be naive to believe that any photo ever taken has been an objective record of the world with no authorial intervention.
But there is a question of degree. And for me, turning night into day is up there with adding counterfeit sunbeams: it’s creating something that simply didn’t exist in reality, and I find that strange.
The shots do look good, though.
Getting ready for 5G
This is going to feel like an anticlimax, but like many reviewers I can’t comment on the iPhone 12 Pro’s headline feature because there’s virtually no 5G coverage in my local area and my phone contract doesn’t cover 5G anyway.
Of course my inability to test the feature is itself somewhat illuminating, in the sense that it speaks to how rarely 5G, at least in 2020, is likely to affect your day-to-day experience with the phone. The tech may promise lightning-fast connection speeds but it comes with numerous caveats; aside from creeping coverage rollout and the battery drain mentioned earlier it’s likely to require an upgrade to your contract, which may or may not cost more. Check with your carrier before you buy the phone.
But this is about future-proofing, and you’ll definitely want a 5G-ready phone once the technology is more established. My colleagues in the US – a nation whose improving 5G coverage Apple talked up in the keynote – suggest you should expect speeds in the region of 50 to 100% higher than current 4G LTE. Carriers will promise more; as ever, take these claims with a pinch of salt.
Speed and performance tests
The 12 Pro has the latest processor – the A14 Bionic – and a solid 6GB of RAM. By the standards of flagship phones that’s not a particularly high allocation, but it’s the most any iPhone has offered. (The iPhone 12 and the 11 Pro both have 4GB.)
Oddly enough the extra RAM didn’t set the 12 Pro apart from the standard 12 in our general-speed benchmarks (the 12 actually scored slightly higher), although the new processor certainly made its presence felt. The 12 Pro recorded scores 19% higher than the 11 Pro in both single- and multi-core tests.
Graphics tests were more mystifying. Again the 12 Pro should be able to lean on the improved GPU in the A14 – Apple claims this is “up to 50% faster than any other smartphone chip” – but I found its performance virtually indistinguishable from that of the 11 Pro.
In some other tests, such as the unlimited versions of 3DMark Wild Life and Ice Storm test run by Macworld US, the A14’s GPU did show an improvement over the A13, but it was never huge. The 12 Pro is a graphical powerhouse, make no mistake about that, but don’t expect game-changing improvements on the previous generation.
Battery life and charging
Apple says the 12 Pro is good for up to 17 hours of (non-streamed) video playback. That’s down on last year’s estimate – the 11 Pro was specced at 18 hours.
There are two possible explanations for this lower estimate. One is that the battery itself is smaller: 2815mAh, down from 3046mAh on the 11 Pro. The other is that 5G consumes a lot of power. But you’d set against these the fact that each year, Apple gets better (thanks to software optimisation and newer tech) at extracting more battery life from similar-capacity components.
So what’s it like in practice? My colleague Lewis Painter ran the 12 Pro through the old Geekbench 4 battery test (there’s no battery component in Geekbench 5) with the screen set to 120 nits, and it lasted 7 hours and 22 minutes. That compares favourably with the 5:33 we recorded with the iPhone 11 and the roughly 6 hours with the 11 Pro.
However, it’s a little disappointing by the standards of the smartphone market in general. It’s comparable to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (around 7:25) but far less than the likes of the Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro at 14:55. There’s currently a lot of variation in smartphone battery performance, and the 12 Pro is very much at the lower end.
Bear in mind, however, that Geekbench battery life is not real-world battery life; it’s far more demanding than everyday use. You can expect something a lot closer to the estimate, and perhaps beyond, although usage habits vary so much that it’s almost impossible to give a realistic estimate of how it will work out for you.
On a typical day of review use – a fairly intense programme of games, photography, web browsing and speed tests – the 12 Pro came off the charger at 7.15am, and by the time I went to bed at 11pm it was on 11%. So we’re looking at a reasonably comfortable day of use, even when pushed pretty hard – but then again, that’s when the device is brand-new. Battery deterioration will bring that performance down in a year or two.
My review sample came with a couple of accessories: a silicone case that’s compatible with the new MagSafe magnetic-charging standard, and a MagSafe charger. Non-reviewers will have to pay extra for these, and they’re not cheap.
(In fact the 12 Pro doesn’t even come with a conventional power adapter – just a Lightning/USB-C cable for connecting to one. At minimum you’ll have to provide your own USB-C adapter, or buy one separately.)
MagSafe is fun to use, as are all magnetic systems. Hold the charger somewhat close to the iPhone and it will clunk on satisfyingly to the correct place.
You’ll no longer need to worry about failing to hit the sweet spot of a wireless charging pad – something I did, in an eerie and useful coincidence, with my iPhone 11 Pro the night before I started this review. I woke up to find it was still in the red, and annoyingly had to give it a thorough charge before I could start the camera comparisons.
MagSafe and the 12 Pro are together specced as capable of fast charging up to 15W – although in my tests it went from 0 to 20% in 30 minutes of charging, which is pretty poor – but make sure you get an adapter that can handle the requisite wattage. Here’s our advice on which power adapter you need to charge an iPhone 12.
iPhone 12 Pro tech specs
- A14 Bionic chip
- 6GB RAM
- 128GB/256GB/512GB storage
- 6.1in Super Retina XDR OLED display (2532 x 1170 at 460ppi), 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio, 800/1,200 nits max brightness (typical/HDR), True Tone
- Triple 12MP rear-facing cameras (f/2.4 Ultra Wide, f/1.6 Wide and f/2.0 Telephoto), flash, 4x optical zoom, OIS, Portrait Mode, Night mode portraits, Smart HDR 3, Apple ProRAW, 4K video recording at 24/30/60fps
- 12MP front-facing camera (f/2.2), Retina Flash, Portrait Mode, Smart HDR 3
- Wi‑Fi 6 (802.11ax) with MIMO
- Bluetooth 5.0
- IP68 water- and dust-resistant (6m up to 30 minutes), Ceramic Shield
- Claimed battery life up to 17 hours of video playback
- 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4mm
- iOS 14
The iPhone 12 Pro, like all of the this year’s iPhones, comes with iOS 14 preinstalled. This particular version of the OS had its fair share of bugs on release but it’s had time to settle down now. And the new features for 2020 (namely widgets, App Library and the ability to select your own default email and browser apps) are well worth a try.
iOS is in general a very user-friendly and secure operating system, although a major factor will be what you’re used to; if you’re coming from another iPhone it will be a breeze, but if you’re a convert from Android it will take a while to get used to everything.
The iPhone 12 Pro is a great phone, there’s no question about that – indeed it’s the best Apple has released (a title it’s likely to retain for approximately one month, until the 12 Pro Max hits the streets). But that’s exactly what you’d expect given the price tag.
Everything about this screams iterative upgrade. The cameras are better than last year, but the cameras were already so good that you have to go out hunting to find shooting conditions where you can even tell the difference when looking at the photos side by side. The processor is super-fast, but the same could be said of 2019’s A13 chip and you’re unlikely to notice the difference. The improvements in graphics processing are so underwhelming that in a lot of our tests they didn’t show up at all.
All of this, one suspects, is why Apple made such a big deal of 5G, this generation’s lightbulb moment. But 5G isn’t suited to its moment in the limelight, because it isn’t exciting, at least not yet. Getting a 5G-ready phone is a sensible act of future-proofing, a favour to your future self. But unless you’re lucky enough to live in a city with good coverage, it won’t change your life today.
This might sound like I’m winding up to a negative conclusion, but I don’t think I am. Because “a sensible act of future-proofing” pretty much sums up the entire product, and isn’t a bad thing. Most of us don’t buy a new phone every year, so the ones we do buy need to last for a while. The iPhone 12 Pro will last for a while. Its processing power will come good when handling the apps of 2022; the LiDAR scanner will become more important as AR becomes more widespread; its 5G capabilities will do the job when the coverage is there.
If you’ve got an 11-series handset, this is not an upgrade you should buy, because the differences are mostly minor. But for anyone with an older phone (and a liberal budget) this will be far more appealing. I consider battery life to be okay at best, but other than that we’re talking about an attractive smartphone with an extremely fast processor, exceptional cameras and the best mobile operating system.