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You (Still) Don’t Need an iPhone 12

The dust has settled on Apple's iPhone launch, but I don't think Apple's done enough to produce an iPhone 12 that users really need.

On Monday, I opined ahead of Apple’s iPhone 12 launch that you probably didn’t need an iPhone 12 in 2020. With the benefit of hindsight and Apple having revealed its iPhone 12 lineup, has my opinion shifted? Not much.

Like many other Australian tech journalists, I was up before the sun was on Wednesday morning to take in Apple’s launch event and delve further into the details behind the iPhone 12 family, as well as to briefly go “aww” at just how gosh-darned-cute the Apple HomePod Mini is.

As I noted on Monday, I would have loved to be genuinely awestruck by a new iPhone model.

While there’s some cool features, and I am genuinely keen to get to test out the new phones, my position hasn’t changed, however, and I ultimately wasn’t awestruck.

Outside the hype bubble, and taking the wider context of 2020 being all 2020-ish to everyone on the planet, I do still maintain for most users, especially if your iPhone is 2 years old or younger, there’s much less of a reason to jump at this particular iPhone at this specific point in time.

Apple’s confusing 5G journey
iPhone 12 need

Apple wasted little time in hyping up the fact that 5G was finally coming to iPhones, not that this was news to anyone who was even remotely following the iPhone 12 story prior to launch.

Apple wasn’t first to market with 4G, and it’s likewise not been fast in getting 5G iPhones to market, although the reasons why are a little more complex this time round, mired in Intel’s failure to deliver Apple a 5G modem it wanted, prior to Apple settling with Qualcomm and stuffing its modems into this new generation of iPhone.

All good and simple, right, and Apple’s claim of a global supported multi-band 5G iPhone 12 makes it the best in market, right?

Nope. Not even close, because Apple’s own statements around 5G support are muddled, almost contradictory and significantly limited to boot. While the iPhone 12 family will support both sub-6Ghz and mmWave 5G, that’s only for the model sold in the U.S., not the other variants available elsewhere on the planet.

A quick but odd diversion here, if I may. Apple typically produces 2 different iPhone variants in a given year; one specifically for China, and then one for the rest of the world. That’s not what Apple has done this year, because while there are 4 different physical iPhone sizes – 12 mini, 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max – all up they combine for a hefty 16 different iPhones across the planet.

There are 4 that are U.S. specific. There are 4 that are specific to Japan and Canada only, and then a final set of 4 for the rest of the world, including Australia.

Why all of this matters is because the stated and specified bands that those different phones support will lead to very different 5G outcomes over time.

The U.S. model has support for mmWave bands that just aren’t present on other models, and what that means is that the iPhone 12 as sold in Australia this year will only support sub-6Ghz, and that’s all it will ever support. What we’ve seen of sub-6Ghz in Australia in terms of speeds so far hasn’t been a huge jump, if it’s a jump at all from what you can get from a premium 4G LTE device.

Right now, that’s not a huge issue, because we don’t have any mmWave networks, but in the context of 2020 with tightened budgets, and when you’re talking about a premium-priced device, why should Australians pay similar sums for iPhone 12 models that are substantially less capable and future-proof than an already existing iPhone?

Your regular Gizmodo editor Tegan put it much more simply when writing up the 5G iPhone news, noting that

“to deny customers the ability to access the best 5G Australia has to offer because they might not want to upgrade again in 12 months doesn’t sit right with me.It’s grossly classist and reinforces a blatantly capitalist ideology, rather than putting the people forking over their hard-earned dollars first.”

She’s precisely right, too.

Apple’s still playing camera catch-up
iPhone 12 need

One of my favourite phones to shoot pictures with through 2019 and most of 2020 has been the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, so why would I make a statement like that after Apple spent so much time showing off the prowess of its latest Pro photo powerhouses?

That would be because it’s pretty much true, and while the Apple spin machine was going into hyperdrive on Wednesday morning, even the statements there made it very clear, at least for stills photography.

The big headline number claim there is 87%, because Apple’s claim is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max can work up to 87% better in low light situations.

That’s really good news for iPhone photographers without a doubt, but it’s also a statement of where Apple’s fallen behind the market.

I’ve reviewed every single flagship phone released in the past few years, and while Apple has produced phones that make taking great shots in good light ridiculously easy, low light has been an area where it has struggled a lot.

It’s been able to boost performance over time thanks to iOS upgrades, but if I had to shoot a low light scene and I had my choice of phones, the reality is that I’d almost always opt for a different brand than Apple. That 87% boost might see Apple overtake its competitors, but it won’t be by some huge percentage, if at all.

You might counter that by stating that Apple’s own shots from its launch look great, but that’s because of course they do.

Nobody from Apple is going to get up on stage and say “and here’s the bad shots we took on the way” at an event explicitly designed to generate hype after all. Apple is no different from every other phone maker in this respect.

I will give it to Apple that it continues to lead in smartphone videography.

An iPhone that can handle Dolby Vision HDR shooting and editing? That’s a fascinating prospect, but the reality again for most folks is that you’re not shooting the next Hollywood epic – or likely to want to drop a minimum $1849 for the privilege.

I’m worried about that iPhone 12 Mini battery
iphone 12 need
Image: Apple

I love me a small and powerful smartphone, and sadly for my affections, they’re few and far between. I’ve seen a few comments that Apple’s reinventing the space via the iPhone 12 Mini. It’s eminently laudable that Apple’s dropping the A14 Bionic into a smaller frame for folks who want that kind of idea, but it’s not an original Apple idea in any way.

The most obvious long term candidate to take that kind of plunge is Sony, who offered a wide array of its Xperia phones in smaller form factors if that was your thing. OK, Sony’s not a great example in Australia, because it rather quietly exited the local market with no fanfare at all a few years back, but to take it to a more relevant contemporary space, there’s the Google Pixel 5.

That’s a phone that costs less than a $1,000 outright,  with a smaller frame, full mmWave and Sub-6Ghz 5G on the Australian model and rather good battery life too, at least in my own review testing.

That’s where the iPhone 12 Mini genuinely worries me. Apple doesn’t list battery specifications for any of its iPhones, and it never has, simply noting that both the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 have “up to” 10 hours of streamed battery life. It’s not clear in any way if that figure is accurate for both phones, and in any case an “up to” rating allows for a lot of wobble room in terms of overall battery endurance.

That’s going to need proper independent battery testing, but in the meantime it is instructional to look at Apple’s other smaller iPhone, the iPhone SE 2020.

Apple’s figures for that suggest it can run for up to 8 hours of streamed video, 2 less than the iPhone 12 Mini’s claimed figure.

The iPhone SE 2020 is a great and affordable iPhone with the notable exception of its real world battery life. It’s basically an iPhone 6 with a rocket strapped to it, so it’s very fast and capable, but not a phone that can always last out a day’s usage, and sometimes not even half that. To bring 2020 back into focus, while it’s true that many of us are stuck in home offices and so a charger is nearby, it still doesn’t have good or even decent battery life by mid-range phone standards. Even if the iPhone 12 Mini can eke out that extra 2 hours of usage, that might not be enough.

So you basically just hate Apple, right?
Screenshot: Apple
Screenshot: Apple

I’ve had some feedback to that effect, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

I write on a MacBook every day, and while my work means that I test and use a huge variety of phones on an ongoing basis, my daily driver in phone terms is very often an iPhone. I’m not as much of a fan of Apple’s mantra of control and doing everything the Apple way or not at all when it comes to software, but its hardware is typically excellent stuff.

However, Apple had the potential opportunity to really hit it out of the park this week when it launched new iPhones.

Instead, what we got is better than the current generation, but not in a way that left me awestruck in any particular aspect.

Moreover, there’s significant questions around relative performance too, and what actual users will need that extra grunt in the A14 Bionic, or whether they’ll be able to access decent 5G at all.

Even if you’re an Apple fan, taking 2020 into account, I’d be pondering long and hard if Apple’s first generation 5G iPhones were worth waiting for, or if this is a year where you make do with your existing phone, just as we’ve made do with so many other compromises this year and wait for 2021’s iPhone crop.

Now, if you want an iPhone 12, and your budget is up to it and you’re fine with those limitations, then best of luck to you. Confusing “want” with “need” here however won’t do you any favours at all.

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