Apple's new iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are great, but 5G has been oversold

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iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I’ve been testing Apple’s new $799 iPhone 12 and $999 iPhone 12 Pro for almost a week. They support newer and faster 5G networks and have better cameras, great screens and an updated design. Most people should choose the iPhone 12. Buy the iPhone 12 Pro if you want a few extra camera tricks.

Both phones launch on Friday, Oct. 23, and will be followed by the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max in November. I haven’t tested those models yet. If they sound appealing to you, then you might want to wait another month before making your final decision.

The iPhone 12 launch is a big deal for Apple. Bullish analysts think the company will enter a new “iPhone super cycle.” An estimated 30% or more of iPhone owners are using a phone that’s at least three years old. This means about 420 million iPhone owners will be ready to upgrade in 2021, according to Loup Ventures.

These are also the first iPhones with 5G, which matters if you’re buying a phone you plan to use for a few years, even if 5G isn’t fully available in the U.S. yet. And it’s important for Apple in other countries where 5G is more mature, such as China, where Apple competes with Huawei.

But there’s a bear case, too. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and jobless claims in the U.S. jumped again on Oct. 15. Economic uncertainty could push people to hold off on buying a new phone. But Apple sold more Macs, iPads and iPhones than expected during its fiscal third quarter. So we know people were still buying gadgets in the first few months of the pandemic.

Before we get to the phones: What you should know about 5G

Tim Cook announces Apple iPhone 12 5G

Source: Apple Inc.

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are the first iPhones to support 5G networks. Before I talk about the phones, I should explain 5G, since carriers and Apple are using it as the key selling point. As you’ve probably heard, 5G is still in its early days, and there’s a good chance you won’t be able to use it to its full potential yet.

The new iPhones support all kinds of 5G, including the fastest networks in the U.S. But 5G is super confusing right now, so I’ll explain what’s going on.

First, the 5G speeds you see will entirely depend on where you’re using the phone. The common 5G network most people will see most often right now is sometimes faster than LTE. It can also sometimes be slower than 4G LTE. But, as long as you’re on 5G, the iPhone 12 will let you do things that earlier iPhones needed Wi-Fi for.

That meant FaceTime in HD, which was noticeably clearer than over LTE. It’ll also download software updates and play videos from the Apple TV app at the highest possible quality. Anyway, this is the sort of experience you should mostly expect right now if you’re covered by 5G.

Some of the 5G tests on the iPhone, compared to Wi-Fi in a few cases.

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Then there’s another flavor of faster 5G that’s still being built out but will eventually offer speeds many times faster than 4G LTE both indoors and outdoors. This is when you’ll see big differences in movie and TV show download times and when 5G will really start to matter. I think I ran into some of T-Mobile’s new network in Livingston, New Jersey, where I saw speeds about twice as fast as I did at home on slower 5G.

Fast 5G speeds on Verizon’s mmWave network in New York City. Tested on a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.

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And finally there’s the really fast 5G that’s bragged about the most. Verizon is the most bullish on this, though T-Mobile and AT&T are also building it. It’s mostly in cities. I’ve tested in Manhattan on other phones when I was able to download movies and TV shows in seconds but didn’t come across it on the iPhone 12 in the New Jersey suburbs, where it has yet to roll out.

5G antennas in Manhattan.

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The fastest flavor of 5G is as finicky as it is speedy: You need to be outside and basically on the same street corner as the tower. It’ll matter one day for things that need really fast and low-latency connections, like maybe if self-driving cars ever launch and need to stop on a dime. But, for now, consider yourself lucky if you happen to have it in your backyard. Otherwise it’s a bit like a treasure hunt trying to find it, and it doesn’t matter much for most people.

You need to be in a very specific place for the fastest 5G. Here, Verizon’s mmwave in Manhattan.

Verizon

Mostly, we’re still waiting for developers to show us what we can do with 5G. One thing I’m excited for is cloud gaming. Amazon‘s new Luna service will let you stream popular console games to your iPhone, for example. Apple hasn’t yet worked out deals with Google and Microsoft to allow their competing services in their current form, though.

The good news is you don’t really have to worry about 5G on the iPhone. It has an auto-detect option that will use 5G most of the time but can smartly switch to 4G LTE if you’re doing something like streaming music in your pocket and it thinks 5G will hurt battery life.

The iPhone 12, by default, will save battery by switching between 5G and 4G LTE as needed.

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I didn’t see this happen, since it does this when the screen isn’t on. You can always just force your phone to stay on 5G or on 4G LTE, too, in case 4G LTE is still faster where you live. (Pro tip: I use the SpeedTest app to try this. Make sure your Wi-Fi is off.)

So, that’s 5G. The bottom line is you don’t have to worry about it too much now, but you’ll be in a good spot in a few years once the networks are more capable.

The iPhone 12 is for most of us

I love the blue iPhone 12.

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The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are more alike than the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. I often had a hard time telling the new models apart until I looked at the cameras on the back.

iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12.

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The first thing you’ll notice on the new iPhones is the super bright and colorful screen. It’s probably one of the highlight features outside of 5G. And, this year, Apple gave the regular iPhone 12 an OLED screen, instead of the LCD panel it used on the iPhone 11.

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Max have amazing screens. Here, “Mad Max: Fury Road” in HDR.

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It’s just way, way better than LCD and matters for things such as viewing pictures, playing games and watching movies. A scene in “Mad Max: Fury Road” where a car explodes in a dust storm really stood out, since the orange flames contrast so well against the black smoke in the sky. The stereo speakers are great for watching movies, too. They sound full and get really loud.

iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12.

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I love the new blue color I reviewed. The iPhone 12 also comes in pale green, red, black and white. It has a premium feel, and is made from glass and aluminum. I love how light it is without feeling cheap.

I asked Apple about the throwback design, which is similar to 2010’s iPhone 4 (and the current iPad Pro and iPad Air) with flat edges and sharper corners. Apple said it helps the phone’s durability if it drops. And while I didn’t drop the phone to find out, Apple also claims the new “Ceramic Shield” glass on the front is four times more resistant to damage from drops. The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are more water resistant and can survive under 6 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. I don’t shower with my phones, but you could if you wanted to.

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini.

Source: Apple

Most new phones have excellent cameras. Google and Samsung phones always impress me. But it comes down to personal preference, and I still prefer the pictures and videos from an iPhone.

iPhone 12

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I took the iPhone 12 out for a walk in the park over the weekend and loved how both the regular wide-angle and the ultra-wide-angle lenses captured lots of detail and accurate colors, from the hair on my dog Mabel to trees against a deep blue sky.

A sample of the iPhone 12 ultra-wide camera.

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The front-facing selfie camera is still great, but you can see here it missed one arm of my sunglasses.

A portrait selfie from the iPhone 12.

Apple improved pictures shot at night, too, and also offers better selfies without flash even if it’s really dark out. Sometimes they were still a little blurry, though, so get a tripod or prop your iPhone on something sturdy to avoid that. Portrait shots in the day still look the best. My dog, Mabel, for example:

My dog Mabel riding in the bottom of a stroller.

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The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are the first phones to support recording video in “Dolby Vision” HDR. I didn’t think it was a big deal until I tried it. Video recorded in HDR at 4K and 30 frames per second looks great. Dolby Vision helped brighten areas that were otherwise washed out or dark, even in my relatively dim living room with a few table lamps. You don’t have to think about it or fiddle with settings, though, your videos will just look better. The iPhone 12 Pro supports Dolby Video HDR at 4K and a smoother 60 frames per second.

Battery life is great. I took the iPhone 12 off the charger at about 7:34 a.m. and it still had a 51% charge at 5 p.m. That’s with a lot of use on 5G networks and the screen at about 75% brightness. I think light users will get through more than a day of use before having to charge, though I still regularly charge my iPhone at night when I go to bed and Apple promises a full day of use. That’s impressive for such a thin phone and, if you need it, you can get up to a 50% charge in 30 minutes with a 20-watt charger.

iPhone 12.

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Finally, the iPhone 12 feels really fast. It has a new A14 Bionic processor that helps with all sorts of things, like opening large games quicker than my iPhone 11 Pro Max to improving the photos and videos.

iPhone 12 Pro

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I didn’t run into anything that felt sluggish on the iPhone. Games looked about as good as they did on my iPhone 11, although developers can probably make them even better with the added graphics performance. But it’s still pretty wild how some games, like “Genshin Impact” have huge worlds with great graphics.

Now for some bad news.

There’s no plug in the box, just the cable with a new type of connector at the bottom based on USB-C. Apple says it’s doing this to cut down its carbon footprint.

The more cynical take: Apple’s decision not to include the plug forces you to buy a new one from the company because it has that USB-C connector, not the regular USB port you’re used to seeing on Apple’s plugs since 2007. There’s a small chance you have the necessary USB-C plug already in your house, or a computer with USB-C ports that can charge the phone. This is a great way for Apple to boost its revenue by about $20 for most iPhone 12s it sells. But it’s a bad experience for you.

So what should you buy so you can actually charge your new iPhone 12? I recommend you get Apple’s $20 20-watt USB-C power adapter or Anker’s similarly priced 20-watt charger from Amazon.

The iPhone 12 Pro adds a bit more

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max is unveiled during a virtual product launch.

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Take everything I talked about with the iPhone 12 and then add a few things and you have the iPhone 12 Pro.

iPhone 12 Pro

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The iPhone 12 Pro is made out of steel instead of aluminum, which is heavier but looks a bit nicer. The back is matte and doesn’t attract fingerprints like the iPhone 12.

iPhone 12 Pro.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

There’s an extra telephoto lens that works great. It helps you zoom in without losing quality in your pictures. And speaking of pictures, the new lidar sensor helps with depth, which means even more accurate portrait shots, where the background is blurred and the subject is in focus.

That means you can take pictures like this wide-angle:

The regular wide-angle lens on the iPhone 12 Pro.

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And this ultra-wide:

An ultra-wide angle picture shot with the iPhone 12 Pro.

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And this 2x telephoto, which you don’t get on the iPhone 12:

iPhone 12 Pro telephoto lens at 2x zoom

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And the iPhone 12 Pro has support for portrait pictures at night, something the iPhone 12 lacks. It worked well when I tested it with a clock in my office at night. It was almost completely dark, but the iPhone still took this picture without flash:

A night portrait shot on the iPhone 12 Pro. This room is very dark but the iPhone brightens it.

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It’s not perfect, though. Notice the handle of the clock is still blurry. Here’s another night portrait picture of flowers. Again, it was totally dark outside:

I took a picture of these flowers at night when it was totally dark out. No flash.

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That lidar sensor does double duty for augmented reality. AR lets you drop digital objects on top of the real world.

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max LiDAR camera is unveiled.

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Sometimes it’s really cool, like if you’re using Wayfair to buy furniture and want to know if a couch will fit in your room before you buy it.

AR doesn’t look real, but it can bring digital things into your room.

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The lidar sensor quickly generates a mesh map of the room you’re in, so you can accurately place a painting, drop a pool table in your kitchen or a tile swatch on the wall to see if something fits.

Using Wayfair to see if a pool table will fit in my kitchen. It kinda does.

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The regular iPhone 12, which doesn’t have a lidar sensor, makes you wave your phone’s camera around the room for about 10 seconds before you can plop an object down.

And the lidar sensor helps with accuracy for things such as measuring. I used it on a measuring tape to check its accuracy and it nailed it. This is useful if you want to use your iPhone’s measuring app to see the length, width or height of something.

The iPhone 12 Pro measure app is accurate by my test.

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I don’t think anyone can top Apple when it comes to video recording on a phone. The Dolby Vision HDR support I talked about on the regular iPhone 12 works at up to 60 frames per second, which means even smoother 4K recording while maintaining the really good accuracy between bright and dark parts of your scene. People who film and edit with their iPhones will dig this. Normal folks might not care about the added smoothness on the 12 Pro, but they’ll get a version of it in the regular iPhone 12, too.

Speaking of HDR, the screen gets a bit brighter on the iPhone 12 Pro than it does on the iPhone 12, but only when HDR is in use. So, it has a greater peak brightness when needed.

I didn’t see a discernible difference in battery life between the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro, likely because they share so many of the same components. Expect all-day battery life.

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max are unveiled.

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Lastly, if you want a larger 6.7-inch screen, then you have to get the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It’ll ship in November, when the smaller iPhone 12 Mini also launches.

MagSafe for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro

Apple announces MagSafe

Source: Apple Inc.

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro use a fun new “MagSafe” magnetic accessory system. The name was first used back when Apple’s MacBook chargers had magnets that held them in place.

Clear MagSafe case on iPhone 12 Pro.

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MagSafe is used for wireless charging and for sticking accessories to the back of your iPhone. The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro still work with regular wireless charging pads, but they’ll juice up twice as fast — 15 watts instead of 7.5 watts — with the MagSafe charger. It magnetically sticks to the back of the phone.

iPhone 12 with MagSafe wireless charging.

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MagSafe works well, though I wish the charging puck didn’t slide off tables so easily. Apple partners such as Belkin are building some pretty nice stands, though, and Apple says more MagSafe products are coming.

iPhone 12 Pro with MagSafe wallet on the back.

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Apple’s new cases work with MagSafe, too, so the wireless charging puck still attaches even if you have a case on. You can attach things like a new leather wallet to the back of the iPhone 12, though I found that the magnet wasn’t strong enough to keep the wallet on while it was sliding around in in my pocket.

The MagSafe charging puck.

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Oh, and the MagSafe charger works with older iPhones that have wireless charging, they just don’t attach magnetically.

iPhone 12 charging on MagSafe charger.

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MagSafe is a fun new system. It’ll probably help drive accessory revenue even more for Apple. I’m excited to see what Apple and its partners bring in the future.

Should you buy the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Pro?

iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I think most people shopping for a phone right now should choose the iPhone 12, and I expect that will be the most popular model. It’s the one I ordered, though part of me wonders if maybe I’ll like the bigger iPhone 12 Pro Max better. We’ll see when that launches in November.

The iPhone 12 has great cameras, an awesome screen, excellent battery life and future-proofs you with 5G. If you want some extra camera tricks, lidar for augmented reality and better portrait photos, and a more premium design, check out the iPhone 12 Pro. If you want something smaller, maybe wait for the $699 iPhone 12 Mini. Likewise, wait for the $1,099 iPhone 12 Pro Max if you want even better zoom cameras and a bigger screen. I’m excited to check those out.

iPhone 11

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If you want to save money, consider the $599 iPhone 11, which is still great but doesn’t have as nice of a screen, the latest processor or 5G. This year’s iPhone SE is an awesome tiny phone if you don’t want to spend much more than $400.

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