iPhone 12: Hands-on, First Impressions, Camera Samples

In my hands are a pair of blue beauties, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. While complete reviews of both phones are forthcoming, I feel it’s important to also give you my initial impressions as I unbox, set up, and start using them. Here’s my early take after 24 hours with the new iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro.

Exploring an all-new hardware design

The new iPhones obviously give off a strong first impression primarily because they introduce a fresh design language, eschewing the pillowy rounded look in use for the last three generations. We’re back to a flat, angular, and slab-like aesthetic that immediately reminds me of the iPhone 5 — and that’s a good thing.

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro

Apple knows that simply making the iPhones a different shape is going to drive increased upgrades this year, which should come as no surprise. But the design is also really nice. The flat sides and sharper edges aren’t a pleasure to hold like the iPhone 11’s curves, but they’re functional, with your fingers finding the edges for effective grip. Plus, it just looks great.

There are two clear differences between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro: The colors, and the in-hand feel.

Both of these phones are “blue” — in two completely different interpretations. The iPhone 12’s blue is bright, playful, and attention-grabbing, like a piece of candy. The iPhone 12 Pro’s blue is stark, surgical, and intimidating, like a piece of machinery. Each will appeal to different personality types … or not matter at all, because you’re just going to put a case on it.

But it’s not just looks that differ. It’s feel, too, due to the differences in the metal and glass finishes, the metal used, and the weight. The iPhone 12 has a glossy glass back and a brushed matte finish on the metal frame, while the iPhone 12 Pro’s details are flipped — matte glass back, and an intensely glossy metal frame. So, pick your poison: Do you want to be wiping endless fingerprint smudges off of the back of the phone, or the sides?

The 12 Pro’s frame is also made of stainless steel, which is stronger, and heavier, than the aluminum 12. Because the phones are identical in size, it’s immediately noticeable that the 12 Pro is a full 15% heavier. It feels substantial and robust, as it should for $200 more than the 12 — and it’s that weight that influences the feel more than the difference in finishes.

Apple’s latest OLED screens are of course spectacular, and once again it impresses by shipping the same technology in the iPhone 12 as in its Pro counterpart. I really do wish this panel had a 90 or 120Hz refresh rate, but aside from that, it’s superb. Bright, colorful, and with great viewing angles. Just as you’d expect. The only shortcoming (if you could call it that) in the iPhone 12 is its average screen brightness, which is rated lower than the 12 Pro … I can’t really tell side by side, though, which is a good sign. (The quoted maximum screen brightness, when viewing HDR content, is the same though.)

Less noticeable is the fact that the screen has smaller bezels all around, mostly because they’re still pretty large. Apple doesn’t do any sort of screen curving, like Samsung does, to hide the bezels, so they still stand out. But because the sides of the phone are now flat, rather than gently curved, you get a sharp cutoff on that bezel to enahnce the feeling that the bezels are smaller.

What does MagSafe bring to the iPhone experience?

The introduction of MagSafe has a lot of people nosing around the iPhone 12 series, wondering what these magnetic accessories bring to the experience. Right now … it’s pretty minimal. There’s a $39 MagSafe charger, which clicks onto the back of the phone with abundant reassurance — which is smaller than a typical wireless charger, though still quite a bit larger than I expected. It can charge the phones at 15W, which is faster than previous iPhones, and it’s actually not awkward to use the phone while it’s attached.

Then there are Apple’s cases, which are $49 each for either clear (which is frankly horrendous looking) or colored silicone (which is very nice). MagSafe doesn’t add anything to the case experience itself. Of course, there are magnets in the case to help the MagSafe charger or other accessories attach seamlessly … but that’s it.

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro

The MagSafe charger’s magnets are strong enough to connect to the phone through a case that doesn’t have its own magnets, but the connection is definitely weaker — and how well it works will depend highly on the thickness of the case. We’re likely to see most cases for the iPhone 12 just add magnets (and charge you a bit more for it).

The real impact of MagSafe will only be realized when we have a wide variety of accessories to choose from. A lot of accessory makers have been using magnets in cases and attachments for years, letting you quickly clip a phone to a car mount or tripod, for example. But now, that can all happen without a specialized case — and Apple has repeatedly said that companies are being encouraged to make MagSafe compatible attachments.

Apple gives us an early glimpse of this out-of-the-box thinking with its own wallet attachment, which clips on the back of the phone but isn’t a full case. Belkin has an upcoming multi-device charger and a sleek car mount, and we’ve seen concepts from accessory makers showing all sorts of new ideas. This could be huge, but right now it’s all potential.

New (and old) cameras

I obviously won’t get deep into the specifics of the cameras, or come to any conclusions about where they stand in the grand scheme of smartphones today. But there are two notable things here. First, the main camera has been upgraded on both phones, with a new wider-aperture lens and new lens elements. And next, Apple has unleashed the power of the A14 Bionic chip to enable advanced camera processing across the board — you can take night mode photos with all of the cameras now, and the “Deep Fusion” advanced processing is available across the board as well.

Here are some early samples taken on the iPhone 12 Pro:

The iPhone 12 Pro steps above the 12 with a dedicated zoom camera, which Apple calls “telephoto” but is actually a meager 2X zoom over the main sensor. It also includes a lidar sensor, like the iPad Pros, which helps with focusing, portrait mode effects, and enables you to shoot combination night mode + portrait mode shots. While both phones can shoot Dolby Vision HDR video, the iPhone 12 is limited to 30 fps while the 12 Pro can handle 60 fps.

I’m excited to try out all of these changes, but at first glance, I’m loving the look of these photos. They’re subtle and accurate, rather than over-brightened and over-saturated like many cameras. And the fact that you get the same main, ultra-wide, and front-facing cameras on the iPhone 12 as the 12 Pro adds serious value to that base model.

Pricing and availability

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are already up for pre-order, and go on sale fully on October 23. Pricing starts at $799 for the iPhone 12 with 64GB of storage, and starts at $999 for the iPhone 12 Pro with 128GB of storage. The iPhone 12 jumps to $849 for 128GB and $949 for 256GB, while the iPhone 12 Pro goes to $1099 for 256GB and $1199 for 512GB.

The iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max aren’t yet up for pre-order. They will be available starting at $699 and $1099, respectively, and you’ll be able to order starting on November 6.


There’s a considerable amount of evaluation to be done before the release of my full review of both phones, including a deep dive on battery life, the cameras, and using 5G. I’m particularly excited to explore the enhanced camera capabilities of the iPhone 12 Pro, as well as see whether the improvements in the Pro really justify the $200 extra over the 12 when the base model has caught up in so many areas this generation. Those reviews will be arriving soon.

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