REVIEW: iPHONE 12 PRO THE iPHONE THAT'S FUTURE-PROOF
Macworld|December 2020
THIS YEAR’S HIGH-END iPHONE IS FULL OF POTENTIAL THAT HAS YET TO BE FULLY REALIZED.
JASON CROSS

Every year Apple releases a new iPhone, and every year we note that it is faster and has a better camera, along with one or two other small feature changes. In rare years, like with the introduction of the iPhone X (go.macworld. com/ifnx), we get a dramatic shift in design and capabilities.

The iPhone 12 Pro is sort of an odd entry in the series. Yes, it’s faster and has a better camera, though neither change is exactly seismic. And it’s got a really nice new design, but even that feels familiar and cautious. But it also has several significant new capabilities that may eventually prove to be transformative.

Call it “untapped potential” or call it “future-proof,” but the iPhone 12 Pro’s most significant advancements are sort of waiting for the rest of the world to do something great with them.

A FRESH NEW ELEGANT DESIGN

Since the introduction of the iPhone X in 2017, Apple has stuck with essentially the same iPhone design, making a few modest tweaks each year. The iPhone 12 brings the first real change in three years, with no rounded bezels and totally flat edges, just like the iPad Pro (go.macworld.com/20pr). The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro look essentially the same—they can even use the exact same cases—but the Pro model has a stainless steel band around the outside instead of aluminum and is available in different colors. The new Pacific Blue is especially nice.

Last year’s iPhone 11 Pro had one of the best displays of any smartphone, and it’s essentially unchanged in the iPhone 12 Pro. The flat edges allow Apple to push the screen even further toward the edges, growing the display from 5.8 inches to 6.1 inches in a body almost the same size. The pixel density is about the same, and you still get great OLED contrast, color, and HDR with typical brightness up to 800 nits for standard content and 1,200 nits for HDR content.

As great as this display is, we’d still like to see an always-on display feature similar to that on the latest Apple Watches (and as Android has had for years). And it feels like the ProMotion feature of the iPad Pro, which offers variable refresh rates up to 120Hz, should have made the leap to the iPhone Pro by now.

The new design is a little slimmer, down from 8.1mm to 7.4mm. This makes the phone feel great in the hand, even with a case on, but it comes at a cost. The battery has shrunk from 3,046 mAh in the iPhone 11 Pro to 2,815 mAh in the iPhone 12 Pro.

That reduction in battery capacity is not met by a reduction in battery life, however. In our tests, which involve setting the display at a constant brightness of 200 nits (roughly halfway on these phones) and running the Geekbench 4 battery life benchmark until the phone dies, the iPhone 12 Pro actually lasted about 50 minutes longer than the iPhone 11 Pro. We should note that our battery tests do not rely on cellular data, and 5G is a significant battery drain, so your mileage may vary.

An 8 percent reduction in battery capacity with a 14 percent increase in battery life, despite having a slightly larger display, speaks to the efficiency of the A14 processor. Still, we can’t help but dream of how long these phones would last if Apple stuck with the totally reasonable thickness of 8.1mm and used that extra internal space to give us a 3,400 mAh battery (still far less than comparable premium Android phones!).

Apple promises improved durability with the iPhone 12 Pro, too. The IP68 water and dust resistance are boosted to 30 minutes at six meters instead of four in the iPhone 11 Pro, and the flat edges apparently slightly improve the ability to withstand edge impacts. The front and back glass has the same scratch resistance treatment as last year, but the glass on the display now goes through an additional strengthening process. Apple calls it “Ceramic Shield” as it imbues the front glass with nanoscopic ceramic crystals. Apple says this makes it four times as shatter-resistant as previous iPhones.

THE FASTEST PHONE AROUND (NOT THAT YOU’D NOTICE)

So it appears the A14 (go.macworld.com/ a14f) is more power-efficient than the A13 and can squeeze more life out of a smaller battery. How much faster is it?

The new 5nm manufacturing process helps Apple cram more logic and cache into this chip (11.8 billion transistors!), and likely allows for significantly higher maximum clock speeds. Single-threaded performance leaps up about 19 percent in Geekbench 5 (go.macworld.com/g519). Multi-threaded performance scores a more modest 11 percent higher (but in the older Geekbench 4 benchmark, it’s closer to 23 percent higher).

That’s a significant leap for one generation, and that single-threaded performance score is higher than some of the newest laptop processors from Intel or AMD. Of course, you can’t always compare mobile and desktop/laptop silicon, and Geekbench’s burst tests are not a good measure of sustained performance. None of that should take away from Apple’s accomplishment here: The CPU in the iPhone 12 is by all accounts dramatically faster than anything else in any other smartphone.

GPU performance is a little harder to nail down. In some tests, particularly modern 3D graphics tests like the new 3DMark Wild Life benchmark (go. macworld.com/wlfe), the A14 runs no faster than the A13. In other 3D graphics tests, like the “unlimited” versions of 3DMark’s Wild Life or the old Ice Storm test, it’s a little bit faster.

When the GPU is used for computation rather than graphics rendering, it seems to be quite a bit faster—from 20 to 40 percent faster, according to Geekbench benchmarks.

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