Which iPhone 12? How to choose the iPhone model that’s right for you

Which iPhone 12? How to choose the iPhone model that’s right for you

The last time we had a model and price range this broad was 2018 when Apple introduced a very confusing array of models. That year, the iPhone lineup started at $449 and topped out at $1,449. This year, with phones that have some substantially improved features, the price spread is the same, but the low end and top end are each fifty bucks lower, ranging from $399 to $1,399.

Lest you think Apple has gotten altruistic this year, keep in mind that as of 2020, the company no longer ships a power adapter nor headphones in the box. Without a doubt, they’ll likely make up the missing $50 on accessories, especially their new MagSafe charger for the iPhone 12 series.

Let’s kick off our chooser by looking at pricing for each model variation now on offer.

2020 iPhone pricing, compared

64GB 128GB 256GB 512GB Chip
iPhone 12 Pro Max $1,099 $1,199 $1,399 A14 Bionic
iPhone 12 Pro $999 $1,099 $1,299 A14 Bionic
iPhone 12 $799 $849 $949 A14 Bionic
iPhone 12 mini $699 $749 $849 A14 Bionic
iPhone 11 $599 $649 $749 A13 Bionic
iPhone XR $499 $549 A12 Bionic
iPhone SE $399 $449 $549 A13 Bionic

Missing Touch ID

This year, the only phone Apple sells with Touch ID is the reimagined iPhone SE (which is basically an updated iPhone 8). All the other devices use Apple’s TrueDepth sensor to provide support for Face ID. This is unfortunate, especially in these pandemic times when face coverings are mandated inside most offices and public buildings. Using any of the currently sold iPhones, therefore, will almost always require removing PPE in order to unlock the phone unless you tap in a code instead.

After Apple introduced its redesigned iPad Air last month, we were hoping and expecting that the new phones would take into account the New Normal and include the power-button Touch ID sensor sported by the new Air. Unfortunately, the 2020 phones were probably too far into their design-and-launch cycle by pandemic time for Apple to incorporate that technology in this generation of phones.

Although Apple has been fully committed to Face ID for a few generations now, we expect a strong push towards the return of Touch ID in the next generation of phones, especially if the pandemic is still raging next year.

TL;DR guide

Here’s the short form of this article. If you want comparatively cheap but don’t mind earlier obsolescence, get an iPhone SE. Likewise, if you want Touch ID and a Home button, your only choice is the SE.

If you live in one of the very few regions that have fully-available 5G service, consider any of the iPhone 12 models. All new iPhones now support 5G.

If you want a physically small phone with a ton of capability, get the iPhone 12 mini.

If you want top-of-the-line camera features and don’t mind spending for it, get an iPhone 12 Pro Max.

If you want some new camera features along with animoji and memoji and want to save money, then get an iPhone XR. The only gotcha is this is bound to be obsolete within a few years.

If you want as big a display as possible, then you’ll want the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

And if you want some of the new hotness and want a middle-of-the-road iPhone, the “just right” (but still pretty expensive) phone is the iPhone 12.

Got it? Good. Now let’s do our deep dive.

The dollar decision

As the chart above shows, there are a wide range of devices and prices available. As has been its practice for many years now, previous years’ models are available for down-market consumers. That said, we were quite pleased to see the $399 iPhone SE is on the docket, since it’s a very nice device for a quite reasonable price. And you can unlock it with a mask on.

Not all the pricing math is apparent based on RAM footprint and screen size. This year, the iPhone 12 Pro Max adds a ton of new camera features. So if you’re looking for power photo and video capabilities, you’ll want to consider increasing your spend.

One simple factor continues to stand out. Given the same model, going from the smaller screen to the larger screen is a $100 jump. So if you want a bigger screen, your money decision is really about whether that bigger screen is worth the Benjamin.

Of course, the bottom line is always the bottom line. Factor in how much you can afford, examine the features and decide if you’ll really use them, and then pick the best fit. Just keep in mind that 5G probably won’t mean much for a few years. That said, some of us hold onto our phones for years and years (I’m still rocking a perfectly functional 2015 model) and 5G will be meaningful a few years out.

Deciding on storage

Another relatively clear decision is memory. Regardless of model, the jump from 64GB to 256GB is $150. This has been the case for quite a few years now.

For all models, there is a $50 jump from 64GB to 128GB. We’ll make that decision easy for you. If you’re getting any of the lower-cost models, do your best to get 128GB. Losing half the RAM for fifty bucks will haunt you in the long run.

For the Pro models, which can go up to 512GB, the jump from 256GB to 512GB is $200. Math also tells us that the jump all the way from 128GM to 512GB is $300.

You need to decide how much RAM you need. I’ll tell you this: I was planning to buy a smaller RAM footprint for my cherished iPhone 6s Plus, but my wife talked me into maxing it out. That extra RAM came in handy as I started doing 4K videos and the extra expense at that time probably bought me three or four years more use of the phone without needing an upgrade. The hundred bucks I spent going from 64GB to 128GB probably saved me at least two grand.

Color

I’ll be honest. I have no idea what color my iPhone is. As soon as I opened my white iPhone box, I put the phone into a case. That’s pretty much the last time I looked at the color of my device.

2020 iPhone color choices

SE XR 11 12 mini 12 12 Pro 12 Pro Max
White X X X X X
Graphite X X
Black X X X X X
Yellow X X
Blue X X X
Coral X
Purple X
Green X X X
(PRODUCT)RED X X X X X
Silver X X
Gold X X
Pacific Blue X X

But I know color is important to some of you. Apple now has 12 separate color choices (and yes, I’m counting black, white, graphite, and silver all as colors). The gotcha is that some color choices are only available to certain model levels or years.

Here’s where you’re going to make a big choice: is a feature more important to you or a color? Remember that you can buy a case in almost any color and material, so I’d recommend you choose your phone based on your budget and the features you need, not the color. That said, the Pacific Blue iPhone Pro is pretty darn sweet.

Fashion or function? The choice is yours.

Device and display size

The following chart showcases this year’s models. The phone with the smallest physical size is the iPhone 12 mini. That’s right, the iPhone SE is no longer Apple’s smallest iPhone. By physical size, I mean what the phone feels like in your hand, not the size of the display. Note that all sizes are in inches, weights are in ounces, and display size is measured diagonally.

2020 iPhone display comparison

Device Width Height Depth Display Size Weight Resolution Technology
iPhone SE 2.65 5.45 0.29 4.7 5.22 1334 x 750 IPS LCD
iPhone XR 2.98 5.94 0.33 6.1 6.84 1792 x 828 IPS LCD
iPhone 11 2.98 5.94 0.33 6.1 6.84 1792 x 828 IPS LCD
iPhone 12 mini* 2.53 5.18 0.29 5.4 4.76 2340 x 1080 OLED
iPhone 12* 2.82 5.78 0.29 6.1 5.78 2532 x 1170 OLED
iPhone 12 Pro* 2.82 5.78 0.29 6.1 6.66 2533 x 1170 OLED
iPhone 12 Pro Max* 3.07 6.33 0.29 6.7 8.03 2778 x 1284 OLED

* The units use new Apple “ceramic shield” glass.

Hands down, if you’re all in based on display size, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the most screen real estate of any iPhone, ever. 

One thing to note, though: the iPhone 12 Pro Max is heavier than than any of the other iPhones, by a few tenths of an ounce.

Then, there’s display technology. Apple has historically used LCD technology, which requires a backlight. With the iPhone 12 and previously the iPhone X models (but, notably, not the XR), Apple is using OLED technology, where each pixel is its own light source. OLED is, generally, a more attractive display and sometimes considered easier to read.

In my personal opinion, OLED is a nice-to-have, not a must-have. If the phone otherwise has the features and specs you want, then it’s a bonus to get an OLED display. But I wouldn’t recommend choosing an iPhone model just because its got OLED. iPhone LCD displays are also quite nice.

Apple has also introduced a new glass process. Apple’s marketing team must have been working overtime, because they gave this display the name Ceramic Shield. The claim is that phones made with “ceramic shield” glass are 4X more robust, but exactly what that means in real life has yet to be determined.

Do you want a physically small phone?

When you’re choosing your phone, you’ve got a few other size-related vectors to consider. For many, it’s simply about which phone best fits your hand. 

The following chart shows the relative sizes of new models as well as some historically small iPhones. While the iPhone 12 mini isn’t as small as the original small iPhone SE, it is the smallest phone currently in Apple’s lineup and isn’t all that much bigger than either the old SE or even the ancient iPhone 4 that fit so nicely into many folks’ hands back in the day.

iphone-size.png

iPhone size comparison for folks who want a small device

Cameras

Next up is cameras, and in this case, we’re looking at rear photo cameras, rear video cameras, and front-facing selfie cameras. As the chart below shows, the big factors are the number of cameras, a new LIDAR-assisted night mode, the range of zoom, and a new way of doing image stabilization on the sensor rather than on the lens.

2020 iPhone rear-facing camera comparison

SE XR 11 12 mini 12 12 Pro 12 Pro Max
# Cameras 1 1 2 2 2 3 3
Portrait Mode Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Night Mode Wide Yes Yes Yes Yes
Portrait Lighting Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Megapixels 12 12 12 12 12 12 12
Wide angle aperture f1.8 f1.8 f1.8 f1.6 f1.6 f1.6 f1.6
Ultra wide aperture f2.4 f2.4 f2.4 f2.4 f2.4
Telephoto aperture f2.0 f2.2
Digital zoom 5x 5x 5x 5x 5x 10x 12x
Optical zoom 2x 2x 2x 4x 5x
Optical image stabilization Wide Wide Wide Lens Sensor
LIDAR Yes Yes
Apple ProRaw Later Later

The big takeaway is this: if you’re super into photography or video, then the iPhone 12 Pro Max will interest you. There are some genuine improvements (and some useful upgrades) in that device. Beyond that, the less expensive SE and XR still have fine cameras, but they’re not as extreme as the later models. One other thought: Apple has announced a new ProRaw format which is supposed to give you all the power of Raw with the addition of Apple magic. It’s not available when the devices ship, so we’ll chalk that up to real soon now.

In terms of video recording, as the chart below shows, there are few big differences. Once again, the Pro and Pro Max stand out if you want a big zoom range. Plus, the Pro and Pro Max add Dolby Vision HDR, although it’s not clear how easy it will be to take advantage of it in your productions.

2020 iPhone video camera capability comparison

SE XR 11 12 mini 12 12 Pro 12 Pro Max
4K video fps 24. 30, 60 24. 30, 60 24. 30, 60 24. 30, 60 24. 30, 60 24. 30, 60 24. 30. 60
1080p video fps 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60
720p video fps 30 30 30 30 30 30 30
Slo-mo 1080p fps 120, 240 120, 240 120, 240 120, 240 120, 240 120, 240 120, 240
Slo-mo 720p fps
Optical zoom 2x 2x 2x 4x 5x
Digital zoom 3x 3x 3x 3x 3x 6x 7x
Optical image stabilization Yes Yes Wide Wide Wide Wide Wide
Dolby Vision HDR fps 30 30 60 60

For 2020, the front-facing camera on the iPhone 12 has … nothing new. Yes, there’s supposed to be Dolby Vision HDR, but other than that, you’re getting what appears to be the very same camera from the iPhone 11. Nothing to see here. Move along.

2020 iPhone front-facing selfie camera comparison

SE XR 11 12 mini 12 12 Pro 12 Pro Max
4K video fps 24, 30, 60 24, 30, 60 24, 30, 60 24, 30, 60 24, 30, 60
1080p video fps 30 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60 30, 60
TrueDepth Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Megapixels 7 7 12 12 12 12 12
Portrait Mode Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Portrait Lighting Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Night Mode Yes Yes Yes Yes
Slo-mo 1080p ps 120 120 120 120 120
Animoji No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Memoji No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Retina Flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Auto Image Stabilization Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Cinematic Video Stabilization Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Aperture f2.2 f2.2 f2.2 f2.2 f2.2 f2.2 f2.2
Dolby Vision HDR fps 30 30 30 30
Face ID No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

We talked about Face ID earlier. The TrueDepth camera (especially with the addition of LIDAR) can provide some value add capabilities. But if you’re looking for a jump on the front-facing camera, you probably have to wait another year.

The bottom line for all the camera features is really the bottom line. If you’re willing to pony up the extra cash for one of the iPhone 12 models, you’re going to get an upgraded camera. But if you want most of the upgrades, a far less costly iPhone 11 will do you, although it will obsolete sooner. And if you just want to snap nice pictures, even the iPhone SE will take quite good pictures.

The 5G elephant in the room

Even though the main event at Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 12 line was 5G, we have to rate it as “not important” when it comes to choosing a phone. Let’s put it this way: if you need 5G, you already know it. Otherwise, for most of us, it’s not even something we’ll be able to use for a couple of years.

I do want to be clear about one thing: 5G will probably be a “thing” at some point in the future. It’s now a bad capability to have in your phone, especially if you intend to keep your phone for four or five years. But there is almost no reason to go out and upgrade just because it has 5G.

ZDNet’s iPhone decision tree

Here it is. It’s finally time for us to present you with this year’s big decision tree for purchasing a 2020 iPhone. Here are some of our recommendations.

If you want as much screen as possible and money is no object, go for the iPhone Pro Max. It’s almost like getting an iPhone and an iPad mini in the same package.

If you want animoji, memoji, and portrait mode, you’ll want any of the phones except the SE.

If you’re all about selfies, get an iPhone 11 or 12 (any one of the 12 models is fine).

If you want many features, don’t care about the slicker OLED display or camera, and want to save a ton of cash, get the iPhone XR.

If you want a higher-quality, higher resolution OLED display and want a small phone, get the iPhone 12 mini (but it will cost you).

If you need 512GB, then get either an iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max.

If you’re still committed to Touch ID and the Home button or need to use your phone while wearing a mask, get an iPhone SE.

If you want a blue, orange, green, purple, blue, yellow, or red phone, pick the one with the color you want. Better yet, get a case.

If you want fancy, magnetic snap-on wireless charging, get an iPhone 12 series device.

If you want to save as much money as possible, get the iPhone SE, but be aware it will obsolete sooner.

How and when to buy the iPhone 12

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro: Preorders opened Friday, Oct. 16 at 5am PT (8am ET). They officially launch Oct. 23, though shipping time for the iPhone 12 Pro is slipping to late October or early November. 

iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max: Preorders begin Friday, Nov. 6. They officially launch a week later on Nov. 13.

  • Starting price: $699
  • Colors: Black, white, red, blue, and green
  • Display size: 5.4 inches

$699 at Apple

  • Starting price: $799
  • Colors: Black, white, red, blue, and green
  • Display size: 6.1 inches

$799 at Apple

  • Starting price: $999
  • Colors: Gold, silver, graphite, and blue
  • Display size: 6.1 inches 

$999 at Apple

  • Starting price: $1,099
  • Colors: Gold, silver, graphite, and blue
  • Display size: 6.7 inches

$1,099 at Apple

One more thing

Those of you who bought an iPhone 11 last year may be considering upgrading to the iPhone 12. Honestly, unless you want the camera capabilities of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, there aren’t really many compelling reasons to upgrade. The 12 is just a slightly faster 11 (and yeah, it has 5G, but that’s not really going to be of much use to most of you).

So there you are. Are you one of those folks who’ll go the full monty and get an iPhone 12 Pro Max, maxed with 512GB? Let me know in the comments below.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.



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