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For the second year running, Apple has a pro version of the iPhone. The iPhone 12 Pro is highlighted by a three-camera system on the back that sports a LiDAR sensor for impressive low-light performance, alongside a classy build featuring stainless steel edges and a frosted glass back.
Even with some notable upgrades, it keeps the same price tag as the iPhone 11 Pro with a starting price of $999. That gets you 128GB of internal storage and your pick of color: graphite, silver, gold and Pacific Blue.
In our review of the iPhone 12, we determined it didn’t make a huge case in terms of upgrading from the iPhone 11 (though those with earlier models should most certainly upgrade). But does the same hold true for the iPhone 12 Pro compared to its predecessor? After testing it over six days, aside from a slight upgrade to the cameras and a nicer design, there’s not all that much different here between the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 11 Pro.
And for many who’re looking to upgrade this year, the bigger question is: What’s the difference between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro?
iPhone 12 vs. iPhone 12 Pro
The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are more similar than any other previous pair of flagships. And that makes deciding whether to go Pro or not a bit more difficult than last year.
The core difference isn’t the display, the processor inside or even the size. Apple has pretty much leveled the playing field between the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro in those regards. They’re nearly identical except in design and their camera.
The iPhone 12 features just two lenses: a 12-megapixel wide and a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens. The 12 Pro tosses a 12-megapixel telephoto lens and a LiDAR sensor into the mix. That extra lens gives you another way to frame a shot and the ability to zoom in without losing detail. The LiDAR sensor with imaging lets the iPhone map the scene even in darkness.
Both the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro feature the same 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED screen, just with slimmer bezels on the 12 Pro. The 12 Pro also features stainless steel edges, four unique colors and a frosted matte glass finish on the back; the 12 has a glossy (but not slick) glass back with aluminum sides. They both support 5G and are powered by the A14 Bionic chip.
If you’re focused on photography or videography, we’d recommend the upgrade to the iPhone 12 Pro. For $200 more, you get double the storage and three lenses that make any shot list a cinch — especially thanks to the LiDAR sensor, which proved itself as an essential tool for impressive Night Mode shots.
A few notes on 5G
Over the past six days, we haven’t just been testing the iPhone 12 Pro, but we’ve been testing 5G in and around New York and New Jersey. And we have three big takeaways:
First: If you’re in an area that supports 5G Ultrawide Band (aka mmWave), you will see faster speeds, but you’ll need to be in direct line of sight with a cell tower or at least very close to it. In our testing on both AT&T and Verizon 5G Ultrawide Band being inside a car, walking too many paces to the left — or even to the other side of the street — resulted in losing signal. It wasn’t every time, but enough to mention it. When we did get the signal on Verizon, we hit a maximum of 2,200 Mbps down, which is way faster than our gigabit connection. We were able to easily download a double album in just under a minute, and streams happened almost instantaneously. AT&T didn’t present such high speeds, but we were able to hit 300 to 400 Mbps down. Neither carrier produced widely fast upload speeds, and it seems the technology is taking longer to develop on that front.
Second: Nationwide 5G from any of the carriers is not the super-fast speeds you’ve been teased with. It’s the lower portion of the wireless spectrum, Sub6 Ghz, which is both easier to roll out and provides more capacity. But it doesn’t deliver wildly fast speeds, and it’s the 5G you likely have in your location. In our testing, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all produced speeds somewhere in between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps down. Uploads were pretty close to what we’d expect to see on LTE.
Third: For some people, you’ll be able to take advantage of 5G on the iPhone 12 Pro right now. For many, though, opting for 5G compatibility is future-proofing your device, as you won’t be able to connect right away (or stay connected).
In short: The addition of 5G support means you won’t need to go out and buy a new iPhone next year or whenever it becomes truly nationwide. You’ll have a phone with great cameras and zippy performance along with the latest networking standards.
Three lenses to get nearly any shot
As we mentioned above, the iPhone 12 Pro houses three lenses on the rear, which are flanked by an LED flash and a LiDAR sensor.
LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging. Essentially, the addition of this sensor lets the iPhone map what it’s looking at. It can send pulses of light out and create a map through the signals that bounce back into the sensor. (Tesla uses LiDAR for self-driving cars, and Apple previously used it for Face ID on the front of the iPhone.)
The main improvement Apple is touting is faster focusing times in low-light conditions and better performance with Night Mode portraits. But it’s not just this LiDAR sensor alone — the main 12-megapixel wide lens is made up of a seven-element system with optical image stabilization and a new aperture. All of this comes into play for low-light shots. The lenses allow more light in, and the software side smartly lights the shot.
Taking a Portrait shot at night, for example, the LiDAR sensor on the 12 Pro can sense where the foreground ends and where the background begins. It’s all processed in real time so the iPhone can take data and work with it. And with a lower aperture, more light is allowed into the lens. The end result is a strong background blur with the subject in proper lighting — meaning you can more easily place that subject in relation to the environment around them. The iPhone 12 Pro keeps the details of structures, no matter how big or small.
And in the test examples below, it does get the blurring effect pretty correct. There are a few stray hairs, and the lighting on the building in the background doesn’t appear overexposed or blown out of proportion. While the photo does appear clear, zooming in just a bit reveals some fuzziness and less detail. So not perfect, but by no means a deal breaker.
With general Night Mode photography, you can now shoot Night Mode shots with the ultrawide and telephoto lens, alongside the front-facing 12-megapixel lens. When shooting in Night Mode, the iPhone 12 Pro takes a series of shots at varying exposure levels, mixes it with some software smarts and presents a photo that improves the lighting. It can make a dark scene much brighter while keeping the detail. As a whole, this feature is still one of our favorites and presents a dramatically better image that skews a bit to the warmer side; Samsung and Google’s respective Night Modes still go the cooler route.
When using Night Mode, the phone will suggest a three-second exposure window, but you can manually adjust the length of the Night Mode shot. We’ve gone up to 10 seconds in our six days of testing. The longer the time, the more shots at varying exposures the iPhone will capture. Theoretically, you can get a richer and more detailed image by opting for a longer window. And after you hit the shutter button, you still want to keep your hand stable and avoid any shakes — as it is shooting images in rapid succession. For the most part, rapid motion like multiple cars in front of what you’re shooting delivers a stop-motion effect. As you can see in the gallery below, they range from artistic to, well, just blurry.
Year over year in comparison to the iPhone 11 Pro, the shots are pretty similar. It’s quicker to take the shot and focus in on a subject by about three to four seconds. And, with Night Mode, we found the experience to pack a bit more brightness without losing details. If you’re new to Night Mode on the iPhone, we think you’ll be impressed with just how good it is. Take a look at the shot below in which we shoot through a glass door into a full dark store. You can make out some signage and even chairs. Flash alone won’t accomplish that.
In daylight, the iPhone 12 Pro is no slouch, either. You can see some examples below, but the photo of a pumpkin in direct sunlight with shadows covering the grass and apple below shows off how the iPhone can handle multiple light sources and adjust colors for each part of the photo. There’s also a natural bokeh, or blur effect, on the background.
And alongside the LiDAR sensor, the special piece of this three-camera system is the telephoto lens. It not only lets you take close-up Portrait Mode shots, but it lets you zoom in 2x optically. That’s nowhere near as far as 50x Space Zoom (a combination of digital and optical) on the Note 20 Ultra, but it can let you get a detail-filled shot without physically moving in closer. When zooming in using the telephoto lens with the flash on, this photo of a “slippery surface” sign got a bit overexposed. This lens also clearly focuses on the subject and blurs out the background alongside a portion of the foreground. It does capture reflection in the granite, though.
A key advantage of the iPhone 12 Pro is the ability to seamlessly switch between the three lenses. You get a big affordance of having three lenses that can help you frame and get almost any shot you can imagine. Year over year, it’s harder to tell the improvements. The three lenses are nearly identical to those on the Pro 11, with a few perceptible improvements in terms of low-light performance. Clearly, the iPhone 11 Pro gave Apple solid footing for the 12 Pro.
Later this year, you’ll even be able to export images in RAW format that keeps the computational data info like Deep Fusion (Apple’s method for capturing close-up details on textures) and Smart HDR. For creatives, you’ll be able to keep this data and use it when editing in other applications. RAW files are also larger and contain more info over JPEGs.
The front-facing camera, backed into the TrueDepth Sensor that enables Face ID, is a 12-megapixel sensor. It’s identical from a hardware perspective to the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro but has the added bonus of Smart HDR3 and Night Mode. Selfies look a lot brighter even when shot in a dark room. You’ll notice that there’s some noise around the face, but with one taken outside with a bit more light, the noise dies down a bit. You can still get a clear detail-packed image from the front camera.
Stretching the screen to the edges
The quality of the Super Retina XDR display (aka OLED) from the iPhone 11 Pro to the iPhone 12 Pro is the same. Colors appear super vibrant and contrast points are strong — so you’ll get really deep blacks here. The biggest change is that Apple slimmed down the edges of the display to stretch the screen from 5.89 inches to 6.1 inches.
The 6.1-inch screen features a 2532 x 1170 resolution at 460 pixels per inch. Support for HDR, the Wide Color Gamut P3 and True Tone (Apple’s tech for adjusting the temperature of the display to wherever you are) are here. It’s on par with the 11 Pro except that it’s larger by 0.21 inches.
There’s also still a notch at the top that houses the TrueDepth Sensor for Face ID. As much as we wished Apple included a Touch ID sensor in the power button, like on the new iPad Air, it’s not here. And unlocking the phone can be a little frustrating when wearing a mask. The workaround is typing in the pin, but for a modern 2020 smartphone, it feels like a legacy experience.
The iPhone 12 Pro looks more like an iPhone 5 or iPhone 4 with flat sides in a bit of a rounded box design. You can even stand the iPhone up by itself — just be careful that it doesn’t fall down.
The iPhone 12 Pro features stainless steel edges, which are fingerprint magnets, but also shine when the light hits it. On the rear side, like on the 11 Pro, it’s a frosted matte finish that hides fingerprints quite well. It’s still water resistant, under the IP68 standard, for up to 30 minutes in six meters of water.
A few abrasions showed up on the screen
Apple is touting its Ceramic Shield technology, which provides up to 4x the drop protection on the screen than earlier models. So, in theory, when an iPhone 12 Pro drops and lands on the display, the chances of the display shattering are less. But, as we’ve seen in recent years as glass and screens build up resistance for cracks and deep scratches, the level of pressure or hardness needed to cause a micro abrasion or a light scratch has lessened.
Well, lo and behold, we noticed scratches on the screen of both our iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro units.
Our current theory is that when the 12 and 12 Pro were stacked together with the lenses facing the display, it resulted in a series of hairline scratches that you can’t even feel with a finger. At first we thought they were deep smudges and tried using Whoosh, iCloth, alcohol wipes and microfiber cloths to clean them off. But they’re certainly in there. The scratches don’t really cause any issue to the device; it’s more of an annoyance when the screen is off and the light hits it right.
In short: Opt for a screen protector to protect your investment.
Let’s talk about charging and battery
Apple ships the iPhone 12 Pro without a wall plug, which means you need to find or buy a USB-C wall plug. Apple is selling a 20-watt USB-C wall plug for $19, and there are plenty of third-party options out there as well.
If you have the 5-watt classic wall plug from Apple that features a USB-A port, even pairing it with the included Lightning cable won’t get you fast charging. It will be a slow trickle charge which, in our testing, requires a full night of being plugged in for it to go from 0% to 100%. Just plugging it in for a bit to a 5-watt will only give you a percentage or two of extra juice. So, in short, you’ll want a faster charger, as the time has been cut shorter. With a 20-watt plug or higher, you’ll get a 50% charge in about 30 minutes.
So while Apple is attempting to reduce emissions, there’s a good chance you may need to purchase a new wall charger. The iPhone 12 does support Qi-enabled wireless charging at up to 7.5 watts as well — but the real story is with MagSafe.
And MagSafe is pretty neat. It’s a circular wireless charging disc that combines a Qi coil with an array of magnets and an NFC sensor inside. Essentially it will snap to the back of the iPhone 12 Pro or a MagSafe case that features magnets for alignment. You’ll hear a snap of the MagSafe charging and then see a nice graphic that tells you it’s getting a charge. It solves the problem of laying your phone on a wireless charger and waking up the next morning with no charge. MagSafe fixes that and also ups the charging speed up to 15 watts. You won’t get that from an ordinary Qi charger, though. And MagSafe doesn’t come in the box — Apple sells MagSafe for $39, and you’ll need a USB-C wall plug of at least 20 watts to get those fast speeds.
Though Apple is promising up to 17 hours of video playback in terms of battery life, that’s an hour shorter than the iPhone 11 Pro. As expected, after the initial setup, the iPhone takes some time to index. It needs to backload your photo library, messages from the cloud and even music libraries. The point being, it takes a few days to get the iPhone running at full capacity; once ours did, we were able to get a full day of use with eight hours of screen-on time on the 12 Pro.
We also put the iPhone 12 Pro through the CNN Underscored battery test. We play a 4K video on loop with the volume set to 30% with the device on airplane mode. We also ensure that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are turned off and the brightness is set to 50%. We loop the video until the battery dies and monitor it with two cameras for redundancy. The iPhone 12 Pro lasted for 12 hours and 10 minutes.
Lastly, while the iPhone 12 Pro supports Qi-enabled and MagSafe wireless charging, there’s no reverse wireless charging here. So you can’t charge another device like AirPods or AirPods Pro on the back of your iPhone, a feature we’d been hoping for.
Incremental performance improvements add up
Apple’s latest chip — the A14 Bionic — is seriously powerful with a six-core CPU, four-core GPU and a neural engine. By design, it’s efficient from the start and can learn to get better over time.
It will also manage the different cores inside to pick which one is best for whatever you’re doing on the phone. For instance, kicking in all four cores of the GPU for a Pixelmator or Photoshop edit, but dropping to one or two for an Instagram edit.
Year over year, the speed improvements from the iPhone 11 Pro to iPhone 12 Pro are a bit harder to spot; in terms of real-world performance, both devices are pretty on par with each other. Exporting a high-res raw image in Photoshop on the iPhone 12 Pro versus the 11 Pro will have it render a second or two faster. In everyday use, though, apps open quickly, you can easily keep over 30 apps open in the background without any slowdowns and you can easily accomplish tasks.
We also did a fair bit of gaming these past six days: Real Flight Simulator Pro, Mini Motorways, War Robots, Butter Royale, Real Racing 3 and Call of Duty: Mobile. All of these — and a few others — ran quite well, and we didn’t notice any choppiness. Nor did we encounter much latency or choppiness with graphics when testing the ability to connect to a gaming PC and play some PC games via Shadow.
The iPhone 12 Pro is a flagship 2020 smartphone with only a few things missing, like a 120 Hz display and reverse wireless charging. But Apple got a lot right here and the company is still pitching this as the higher-end iPhone with Pro features. The camera — namely just how good it is with low light, thanks to the addition of the LiDAR sensor — has us buying into that.
But aside from an extra camera lens, LiDAR sensor and classy design, it’s pretty on par with the iPhone 12. And for many, that device is not only cheaper but the better option. For anyone obsessed with photography, we’d opt for the iPhone 12 Pro, as it delivers a slightly better photography experience compared to the iPhone 12 and, especially, older models.
If you currently have an iPhone 11 Pro, you might not really have a need to upgrade unless something really sticks out to you.
Lastly, for those with an older iPhone, we believe now is the time to upgrade. A14 Bionic is a powerful chip that will let you get three to four years out of the device, the camera is one of the best on the market and you’re future-proofed with 5G support.
Not sold on the 12 Pro? Check out our iPhone 12 review here.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.