The iPhone 12 will not spur massive upgrades — here’s why

iPhone 12
(Image credit: PhoneArena)

With the addition of 5G and a rumored new design, the iPhone 12 is one of the most anticipated phones in years. But will it lead to a so-called "super cycle" of upgrades as some are predicting?

Wedbush analyst Dan Ives told CNN that the "iPhone 12 represents the most significant product cycle for (Apple CEO Tim) Cook & Co. since iPhone 6 in 2014." He added that Wall Street is "underestimating the massive pent-up demand around this super cycle for Apple."

Ives is very bullish on the prospects for Apple, estimating that a whopping 350 million of the total 950 million iPhones on the market could be upgraded within the next 12 to 18 months. 

Other analysts say not so fast. And they downplay the importance of 5G as being a driving factor for iPhone upgrades among consumers. Plus, there's still a pandemic going on, which has hit the economy hard.

"There are undoubtedly many consumers who held off on upgrading last year, expecting Apple to launch a 5G iPhone this year," said Avi Greengart, lead analyst for Techsponential. "However, I don't think anyone can predict 2020 iPhone sales with any degree of certainty. The economic fallout from the global pandemic is depressing demand."

I do think the iPhone 12 will drive upgrades, but unless there is much more coming than 5G I doubt we will see a super cycle. For most consumers 5G is still not a necessity.

Carolina Milanesi, Creative Strategies

Then there's the matter of 5G. Yes, deployments are accelerating, but 5G will not be nationwide in the U.S. this fall across the big three carriers. T-Mobile has the widest footprint thus far, and AT&T and Verizon are catching up. 

And while 5G is an important feature to have if you want to have a future-proof phone, there aren't any killer applications for it yet. You simply get faster download speeds and less latency for things like streaming games. 

"I do think the iPhone 12 will drive upgrades," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "But unless there is much more coming than 5G I doubt we will see a super cycle. For most consumers 5G is still not a necessity."

iPhone 12: What's new beyond 5G

There are other iPhone 12 upgrades to get excited about, based on the leaks. There should be four models this time around, including a new compact 5.4-inch iPhone 12 that should be the most affordable of the bunch. The price could be as low as $649 based on previous reports. 

All four iPhone 12 models are expected to feature a fast new A14 Bionic chip that should blow Android phones away and all four should have an OLED display. The 5.4-inch iPhone 12 and 6.1-inch iPhone 12 Max will reportedly pack two cameras, wile the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 Pro and 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max will get a third camera (telephoto) plus a LiDAR sensor for better AR performance.

There are undoubtedly many consumers who held off on upgrading last year. However, the economic fallout from the global pandemic is depressing demand.

Avi Greengart, Techsponential

However, the jury is out on whether the iPhone 12 Pro phones will sport a smooth 120Hz display. The latest rumors have thrown cold water on that possibility.

Phone shoppers generally tend to care about core features like screen size and quality and battery life, and Apple A14 Bionic chip could really help with the latter. An earlier leak that this new 5nm chip could be 30% more efficient than the A13.

But I wouldn't expect 5G to be a major purchase driver for the iPhone 12 come this October.

"In most countries around the world, 5G networks are still in early stages of deployment," said Greengart. "I do expect Apple to launch 4G-only iPhone configurations, segmented either by price or regional variation."

A cheaper 4G-only iPhone 12?

Wedbush's Ives has also predicted that a lower cost, 4G-only iPhone 12 will hit the market early next year. And we've heard that rumor from other sources as well.

An earlier rumor pointed to a possible starting price as low as $549 for a 4G iPhone 12. But Ives says this model will cost around $800. That means it could be a cheaper version of the iPhone 12 Max or iPhone 12 Pro. 

Assuming the economy continues to struggle, the best cheap phones — like the $349 Pixel 4a and $399 iPhone SE — could become even more attractive. They're proving that you can get most of the features you need for less money than you think. 

So a 4G iPhone 12 could be key to attract customers who simply don't buy into the 5G hype.

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.