iPhone 12 review

A good value if you don't need the latest bells and whistles

iPhone 12 review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Tom's Guide Verdict

The iPhone 12 sports a gorgeous design, full 5G support, great cameras and strong performance. However, you don't get a 120Hz display or telephoto lens, and the newer iPhone 14 offers better cameras.

Pros

  • +

    Attractive new design with MagSafe

  • +

    Comprehensive 5G coverage

  • +

    Impressive dual cameras

  • +

    Fastest performance in this price range

  • +

    Solid battery life

Cons

  • -

    Only 64GB of base storage

  • -

    Lacks 120Hz display

  • -

    No optical zoom

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iPhone 12 review: Specs

Current price: $599 on contract
Display: 6.1-inch OLED (2532x1170)
CPU: A14 Bionic
Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4)
Front camera: 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Battery: 2,815 mAh
Battery life: 8:25 (5G), 10:23 (4G)
Size: 5.78 x 2.81 x 0.29 inches
Weight: 5.78 ounces

Editor's Note: The iPhone 12 is worth a look if you're on the hunt for a cheap iPhone, but it will likely be discontinued once the iPhone 15 arrives. Our advice is to buy the newer iPhone 13 or iPhone 14 instead.

The iPhone 12 offers an attractive, flat edged design surrounding a crisp OLED display. Also bundled in is 5G connectivity, great cameras and the power of the A14 Bionic chipset. The battery life isn't great, and it lacks a 120Hz refresh rate, but nobody's perfect.

The iPhone 12 is a good iPhone, particularly given its relatively low price tag. Read on for our full iPhone 12 review to find out more.

iPhone 12 review: Release date and price

The iPhone 12 was released in October of 2021 and it remains available from Apple as well as a number of carriers. The newly reduced price starts $599/£649/AU$1,049 for 64GB of storage, with 128GB and 246GB options avaiable. To save some money, make sure you check our Apple Store coupons page for the latest offers and discounts. 

If you want the lowest price, we continue to track iPhone 12 deals for all of Apple's phones. You can save anywhere from $40 to $720 on an iPhone 12 when you buy from Apple and trade-in your current iPhone, assuming you've got an iPhone 7 or later. (Newer models fetch the highest return.)

Note that the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini remain in Apple's lineup at lower prices of their own. The iPhone 13 costs $100 more than the iPhone 12, as you would imagine. The iPhone 13 shares that $599 price, though, so Apple is asking you to either pay for newer features or a bigger screen.

Apple doesn't shipping a charging adapter or headphones in-box with the iPhone 12, so you'll need to pay extra if you need one. But that's true of all iPhones that have come out since the iPhone 12's release.

iPhone 12 review: Design

Apple rarely alters the physical design of the iPhone from generation to generation, and thus any change — no matter how small — is typically received with enthusiasm. You can chalk up the iPhone 12’s flat-edge aesthetic as one of those more modest revisions from previous editions.

iPhone 12 review

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Sure, the flat edges look nice enough and offer a much appreciated change of pace from the last several consecutive years of rounded iPhones. What’s more, they improve the iPhone 12’s durability in tandem with Apple’s new Ceramic Shield material, as the rounded frames of previous iPhones actually made them more fragile.

The Ceramic Shield display held up well in EverythingApplePro's torture test on YouTube. Both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro did not crack at hip or shoulder height when dropped, and the display on the regular iPhone 12 didn't even crack from 10 feet, though the back did. 

iPhone 12 review

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All that said, I can’t say my hands have really taken to the sharper design. Few smartphones employ flat sides these days, and the iPhone 12 reminds me why. The edges dig into your palm, and make the entire device a bit harder to grip. For example, the iPhone 12 measures 0.29 inches thick — which is perceptibly identical to the 0.31-inch-thick Pixel 5. However, the Pixel 5 feels more slender in the hand, because it naturally fits the curvature of your palm.

iPhone 12 review

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Additionally — and I won’t blame you for dismissing this as a nitpick — as a longtime iPhone 11 Pro user, I couldn't help but feel the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 is a hair taller than it really needs to be. I find the 5.8-inch size the perfect compromise between display real estate and pocketability, but with the iPhone 12 series, Apple has left that form factor to die. Now, those who desire a more compact device will have no choice but to go for the 5.4-inch iPhone 13 mini. (The iPhone 12 mini is no longer around.) And though I commend Apple for continuing to offer a small flagship phone, I can’t help but feel a 5.4-inch display might be a bit too tiny for modern users.

iPhone 12 review

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Nevertheless, I’m generally smitten by the iPhone 12’s design. I like that Apple’s shaved down the bezels considerably compared to the iPhone 11 and XR, though a slightly reduced notch would have been appreciated. And while I’m not a huge fan of the new blue color — I find this sort of navy a bit dull — I like the mint green on offer, and I especially like the elegant simplicity of this design. The iPhone 12 comes in four other colors — black, white, red and purple.

iPhone 12 review

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iPhone 12 review: MagSafe

While the miracle of magnets continues to baffle the world’s top minds, Apple has made them a fundamental aspect of the iPhone 12’s design. A ring of magnets centrally placed on the back of the iPhone 12 enable Apple’s MagSafe ecosystem of accessories, from wireless chargers to cases and wallet attachments that simply snap on and off.

iPhone 12 review

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There’s nothing inherently unique about Apple’s brand of wireless charging here. The company’s own $30 MagSafe charging puck uses the very same Qi standard as any other wireless charger for any other phone — it just incorporates magnets, too. Your iPhone 12 will still be compatible with whatever wireless chargers or Qi accessories you already have, though to get those peak 15-watt speeds, you'll need a first- or third-party solution that incorporates MagSafe.

The bad news is that MagSafe is slower than Apple's 20W wired charger. Much slower. In a third-party charging test, the iPhone 12 charges to 50% full in 28 minutes using the 20W fast charger. The 15W MagSafe charger took an hour.

Still, that’s not to discredit the philosophy behind MagSafe, which makes a lot of sense. The magnets help localize the iPhone 12 on chargers and makes accessory attachment more convenient. And it’s surely easier to top off your phone by setting it down a puck that instantly aligns itself perfectly, rather than fumbling around at your bedside to plug in a tiny Lightning connector.

iPhone 12 review

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I think it’s going to take more third-party involvement and experimentation before we really see MagSafe reach its full potential — and that's happened a little bit in the two years since the iPhone 12's release. Still, the magnets within my iPhone 12 weren't quite strong enough to keep Apple's MagSafe wallet rigidly attached in all instances. In fact, the friction of pulling the iPhone 12 out of my jeans pocket was enough to knock the wallet off center on a few occasions, which to me doesn’t evoke very Apple-like design.

iPhone 12 review: Display

The iPhone 11’s LCD display was unquestionably the Achilles' heel of Apple’s entry-level premium iPhones, but the iPhone 12 alleviates that. It’s all thanks to a 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED display that matched what you got in the iPhone 12 Pro.

iPhone 12 review

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This panel packs a 2532x1170 resolution, making for a dramatic increase in the clarity of on-screen content compared to the iPhone 11’s dated 1792x898 display. It’s also HDR10 rated, allowing you to watch any videos recorded with the device’s Dolby Vision-equipped rear camera the way they were intended to be seen.

Watching the trailer for the Monster Hunter film that really looks as though it never should have been made, I at least came away pleased by the fidelity of the scales, horns and teeth on a Black Diablos glinting in the desert sun. The black smoke from an explosion also contrasted heavily against the otherwise bright daylight scene in a way that wouldn’t have looked nearly as alluring on the iPhone 11’s LCD panel, with its inability to display true black.

iPhone 12 review

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The iPhone 12’s screen still isn’t perfect, and the reason why is clear to anyone who has used a recent Galaxy, Pixel or OnePlus phone for any length of time. Following months of rumors suggesting the opposite, Apple decided to forgo high refresh-rate displays on the entire iPhone 12 line, which have actually become quite common in the flagship smartphone space over the past year. (You'll need to get one of Apple's Pro phones to experience faster refresh rates on an iPhone — even if you opt for the new iPhone 14 lineup.)

As a result, animations aren’t as smooth and taps and scrolls don’t respond with the same immediacy on the iPhone 12 as they do on, say, the 90Hz Pixel 5 or 120Hz Galaxy S20. Even though the iPhone 12 is more powerful than those devices — as we’ll soon see later in the review — it feels slower to use at times, simply because the display isn’t as athletic. 

In terms of brightness, under our light meter the iPhone 12 topped out at 569 nits at its highest setting, which actually falls considerably short of Apple’s 625-nit estimate. It was able to render 114.5% of the sRGB color space — just shy of the 122.8% of the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 — indicating slightly more restrained and natural hues, rather than oversaturation.

Looking to the Delta-E color accuracy test, the iPhone 12 scored a result of 0.29, which is surprisingly a bit worse than the iPhone 11’s 0.22 result. (Numbers closer to zero indicate more accurate hues.) Nevertheless, colors seemed appropriate to my eye, and the switch to OLED alone makes this a massive leap compared to the previous generation, generally speaking.

iPhone 12 review: Cameras

Judging from the outside, you wouldn’t think a whole lot has changed in the camera department for the iPhone 12. The dual-lens rear shooters are arranged in a similar fashion as they were for 2019, and both of the wide and ultrawide optics are backed by 12-megapixel sensors.

iPhone 12 review

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Don’t let your eyes deceive you, however, as upgrades have been made. The primary camera in particular benefits from a 7-element design with an ƒ/1.6 aperture, the largest at the time in an iPhone. The upshot of both of these changes is a 27% improvement in low-light performance, which, coupled with advancements to Smart HDR and Deep Fusion, should translate to more detail in even the least favorable conditions.

So let’s begin, then, with a couple of Night Mode shots that illustrate what a year’s worth of improvements have done for the iPhone’s low-light performance. Both of these photos make for dramatic, stunning night scenes, but the iPhone 12’s rendition is slightly sharper across the board, with more lifelike hues inside the shadow-clad brick and better sensitivity to specular highlights, evident in the way the brick picks up the light from the lamps above. Still, the iPhone 11 Pro doesn’t lose out by much at all to the newer handset.

That said, Apple’s got some work to do. Google looks to have the upper hand at night, judging by how the iPhone 12’s best work compares to the Pixel 5’s in the example above. While Apple’s software emboldens object boundaries, giving everything in the frame a tinge more depth, Google’s algorithms deliver a universally more visible result, in tandem with far less overall noise. There’s some ugly vignetting going on around the edges of the iPhone 12’s shot that plainly isn’t there in the Pixel’s shot.

In daylight, the iPhone 12’s main camera gives you little to complain about. While the Note 20 painted this idyllic lakeside scene a bit more sharply, particularly within the distant trees, I largely prefer the iPhone 12’s attempt for its more realistic treatment of colors, from the deep blue mid-afternoon sky to the yellows, oranges and greens encircling the water. Samsung once again went overboard with post-processing here, as it has a habit of doing.

When we zoom into that fountain off to the right, though, the iPhone 12’s limitations become painfully obvious. There’s no optical zoom on offer with the iPhone 12 — for that, you have to spend more on the iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max. But even then, you wouldn’t get the same crystal clarity provided by the Note 20’s 3x hybrid zoom, which nails the beads of water, the ripples on the lake’s surface and the wall of trees in the background.

Here we see the very same lake, now viewed through the ultrawide lenses of the iPhone 12 and $749 OnePlus 8T. Both of these shots fall astray in different respects; the iPhone 12 bungles the white balance, producing a green cast in the water and clouds, while the OnePlus 8T’s photo just isn’t sharp enough at all, and heavily distorts the image along the perimeter.

Rounding out this fall-themed photo op is a pair of portraits of my colleague Jesse, taken with the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5. Interestingly, the iPhone 12 defaults to a more pulled-out perspective for portraits than the Pixel 5, which automatically applies some cropping.

Still, the iPhone 12’s version still looks a bit sharper to my eye, with better treatment of Jesse’s skin tone, and Smart HDR deftly managing the contrast between the deep shadows blanketing his right shoulder and the rest of his hoodie. The iPhone 12 also applies a more precise bokeh around Jesse’s hair and ears, which is often the challenge of simulated shallow depth-of-field portraits like these.

To test out the capabilities of Apple’s Deep Fusion mode, which favors scenes with granular details in medium-light scenarios, I used the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5 to grab a shot of a painting on canvas. Deep Fusion is designed to composite various exposures of different lengths for optimal sharpness, but I was surprised to find Google’s handset actually generated the most precise output here, drawing the hatchwork texture of the canvas with a crispness the iPhone 12 couldn’t quite match. However, I think the iPhone’s treatment of colors at large — and the warmth it lends to the reds, whites and the neutral-toned background — ultimately results in a more appealing image.

A better example of Deep Fusion at work may be this selfie I took as the sun was going down, where the iPhone 12 rendered the individual fibers in my sweater with richness and nuance compared to the Note 20’s blurry output. The iPhone 12’s 12MP front-facing camera unsurprisingly captures more detail than the Note 20’s 10MP sensor, but Apple’s algorithms also don’t uncannily over-brighten shadows and drain contrast from my face like Samsung’s do. If I was forced to post one of these to Instagram, the choice wouldn’t be difficult.

Overall, the iPhone 12 lands among the top tier of its price bracket where camera performance is concerned, but it’s not the best in every scenario. For night shots, I’d still rather have a Pixel, which can paint the same challenging scenes with less noise. And if I was working from a distance, I’d rather have the Pixel 5 as well for its superior digital Super Res Zoom, or one of Samsung’s devices — either the Galaxy S20 FE or the Note 20 — for their 3x optical and hybrid zoom systems.

iPhone 12 review: Video

Apple went all in on 4K HDR video recording with the iPhone 12 line. Like the iPhone 12 and Pro Max, the regular iPhone 12 (and the smaller iPhone 12 mini) can record Dolby Vision video, albeit only at 30 frames per second to the Pro models’ 60. Dolby Vision is a type of HDR encoding that goes beyond the standard HDR10 format to provide superior color depth, while ensuring a consistent visual presentation as closely aligned to the source material as possible, no matter where or how the content is viewed.

It may be hard to visualize, but trust us on this one — the difference is immediately clear when observing the same content side-by-side in HDR and SDR. I recorded a short video in a park as the sun descended behind the trees, and the gap in contrast in each instance was eye-opening. For one, the sky was markedly brighter in the Dolby Vision capture, and I could actually make out individual leaves and trees reflecting the sun. These aspects were faded, washed out and obscured in the SDR take, and as someone who has been using an iPhone 11 Pro for video for the better part of a year, I had no idea what I’d been missing.

Now, to be fair, the iPhone 12 is far from the only smartphone out there that can shoot HDR video. However, it is the only Dolby Vision-certified one, and I can definitely say that HDR video I’ve shot on our Galaxy S20 Plus has never looked anywhere near as good unedited as what the iPhone 12 churns out by default.

iPhone 12 review: 5G

Lots of smartphones support 5G, especially in the two years since we first published this iPhone 12 review. You don’t even really need to pay more for the privilege anymore. However, Apple’s philosophy toward 5G is what distinguishes the iPhone 12 from all other 5G phones.

iPhone 12 review

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Whereas the vast majority of 5G handsets released at the time supported one kind of 5G and not another, or only the specific bands necessary to work on a certain network, the iPhone 12 went all out. It is built to run on the most bands of any 5G phone, which means a greater chance of 5G coverage, especially these days. What’s more, the iPhone 12 works on both sub-6GHz 5G — the nationwide 5G that has formed the backbone of T-Mobile and AT&T’s service as of yet — in addition to much faster and shorter-range millimeter-wave 5G, like what Verizon has focused on deploying in America’s cities.

This dual-pronged approach to 5G is critical, because it means when 5G eventually does become ubiquitous, your 5G-capable iPhone won’t be hamstrung with a modem that only supports some networks and not others. Mind you, that day was not when I first tested the iPhone 12 in 2020. On AT&T’s network in a Pennsylvania suburb, I tended to see downloads in the neighborhood of 85 Mbps on our iPhone 12 while pulling a two-bar signal. That’s serviceable, but only about as third as quick as the fastest LTE Advanced networks we’ve tested.