Nov 27, 2020 | iPhone

First Impressions of the iPhone 12

Ralph

Ralph

featured image iPhone 12 Pro Max

After having an iPhone 12 Pro Max in hand for the past two weeks, I am ready to give my first impressions of the device.  Coming from an iPhone 11 Pro before it, the iPhone 12 Pro Max offered some advantages over the older model. 

5G connectivity 

The iPhone 12 series is the first in the iPhone line to have 5G connectivity.  In the area where I am T-Mobile has good coverage for 5G, so I did not have a tough time seeing the “5G” lit up in my display.  In fact, most everywhere I went, I had 5G access. 

While I had access, I barely even noticed that I was on 5G.  Running Ookla Speedtest on 5G, speeds obtained were barely better than those I was getting on 4G LTE.  In one location I averaged about 40Mb/s on 4G LTE and about 50Mb/s on 5G.  Yes, it is an increase in speed of about 25%, but hardly the increase warranted by 5G.  In fact, 50 Mb/s is at the lowest end of 5G speed.   

There are multiple 5G spectra that can be accessed.  Without going into a breakdown of the different technologies at work with 5G, the speeds expected from that technology are from 50Mb/s to 1Gb/s.  My experience was at the very, very bottom end of 5G connectivity and not worth the extra power draw from my iPhone 12 for the slight bump in speed. 

Another thing of note is that 5G connectivity has reduced latency.  That is, the connection has less delay time between sending and receiving information.  To illustrate, the latency of 4 LTE that we are all used to is around 200 milliseconds.  The latency of 5G is around 1 millisecond.   

For most people, this won’t make much difference.  If you tether a laptop to your phone for gaming or game directly on your phone, latency is a big concern.  Using the Nvidia GeForce Now service as a test, I played Path of Exile on both 4G LTE and 5G to test the data stream and responsiveness of the game.  On 4G LTE, the game was sluggish and video performance was reduced, while the 5G stream was solid and had good video performance.  Neither stream was impacted by the data rate, only the latency. 

Display 

The display of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is gorgeous, just as the iPhone 11 Pro display was.  In fact, not much has changed on the display of the new iPhone this year other than size.  Dolby Vision videos that you record will look outstanding on this display. 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max sports a 6.7-inch Super XDR Retina (OLED) display, which is slightly larger (6.5 vs 6.7 inches) than the outgoing iPhone 11 Pro Max.  Again, other than size, the panels are the same with the iPhone 12 Pro Max having slightly thinner bezels around the display. 

Design 

The design of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is different than the iPhone 11 series from last year.  Gone are the rounded edges of the iPhone 11 series, which have been replaced with flat sides reminiscent of the iPhone 4 and 5 from days gone by. 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max feels solid in the hand, likely thanks to increased rigidity from the slab sides.  While the iPhone 12 Pro Max isn’t heavy as far as cellular devices go, the weight that it does have feels solid and the unit feels well-constructed.  The phone also feels more secure in the hand, due to the flattened sides of the modern design.  It feels like the phone is more secure in my hand when I hold it as compared to the iPhone 11 series. 

Apple has infused the front display glass with ceramic for the iPhone 12 series this year.  Apple claims that the new Ceramic Shield glass offers 4x better drop protection than the iPhone 11 series.  Part of the increased drop protection is from the Ceramic Shield glass itself; part is from the design change of making the glass flat instead of curved.  Either way, testing by internet users has pointed to the glass being stronger in drop tests.  The Ceramic Shield glass does tend to scratch just as easily as any other glass on the market, so using a screen protector would be a good idea. 

Cameras 

One of the selling points of the Apple iPhone has always been the camera system.  Long gone are the days of a simple single camera and lens setup.  Instead, modern iPhones sport a triple-lens setup on the rear of the device since the iPhone 11 series.  In the previous iPhone 11 series, both of the pro models used the exact same camera system, there was no difference between the iPhone 11 Pro and the iPhone 11 Pro Max.  That ends with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. 

Wide-angle camera 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max camera system includes some upgrades not found on the iPhone 12 Pro.  Since the Pro Max is a larger device, Apple decided to use the extra room to install a larger sensor on the main wide-angle camera.  It has a 26mm focal length, f1.6 wide-angle lens. 

The new sensor has the same 12-megapixels as all the other cameras in the iPhone 12 lineup.  Being 47% larger with the same number of megapixels, the new sensor has larger pixels than the standard cameras.  Larger pixels on a larger sensor will usually give better low-light performance over the smaller sensors. 

Additionally, the larger main wide-angle shooter will also have in-body image stabilization (IBIS).  This means that the camera sensor will move in response to phone movements to stabilize the image or video.  Apple’s standard optical image stabilization (OIS) moves the lens to compensate for phone movement.  The new IBIS system is of the same type of stabilization used in modern mirrorless cameras and is the superior system. 

Given the excellent results from Apple’s OIS system, I’m not sure the IBIS will produce dramatically better results.  As with most of the camera upgrades over the iPhone 11 series, I expect the benefit over OIS will be subtle but noticeable. 

Ultra-wide-angle camera 

The ultra-wide-angle camera is somewhat improved over last year’s camera in the iPhone 11 series.  It carries the same specs as last year’s model: 13 mm at f2.4.  What isn’t the same is that it seems the barrel distortion has been cleaned up in the iPhone 12 series. 

There is no optical image stabilization on the ultra-wide shooter and it really doesn’t need it at such a short focal length.  Camera movements become more noticeable as the focal length increases and the lens zooms in. 

Night mode has been added to the ultra-wide camera this year to help with low light images.  I’m interested to see how this works out and what images the wide-angle can produce in low light and nighttime images. 

2.5x Telephoto camera 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max gets a different telephoto lens this year.  It is different from the iPhone 11 series and different from the rest of the iPhone 12 series.  The 2.5x zoom is a 65mm equivalent focal length at f2.2.  The aperture being 2.2 is a little slower than that on the iPhone 12 Pro.  Digital zoom has also been bumped up a small bit to 12x on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. 

The longer 65mm focal length is more in line with what a professional photographer might use for portrait work, compared to the 52mm on the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 11 Pros.  The longer focal length will assist with creating a nice, blurred background for portrait images.  A nice, blurred background helps separate the subject from the background in an image as the eye is drawn to the in-focus subject rather than the slightly out of focus background.

Check out my article on the iPhone 12 Pro Max portrait mode here.

The extra focal length will help zoom a little closer to the action with the iPhone 12 Pro Max.  Given that I always suggest using optical zoom over digital zoom (see this article) the extra magnification in the lens glass in appreciated. 

10-Bit Dolby Vision Video 

The iPhone 12 series is the first, and only, camera phones that record in 10-bit Dolby Vision.  This is no small thing as the process of recording Dolby Vision is quite computationally intensive.  To capture the higher dynamic range and wider color range of Dolby Vision, the iPhone 12 series will process each frame of the video in real-time.  Technically, it will process two captured frames for each video frame and combine them in real-time. 

This means that for each frame of video captured on your iPhone 12, the phone will expose two frames of video, combine them for more dynamic range and color and then record the frame.  This will happen at rates of up to 30 frames per second or 60 frames per second (Pro and Pro Max).  There is quite a lot going on under the hood when recording Dolby Vision video. 

The included iMovie app will allow you to make some color and brightness adjustments to the video as well as cut and splice video clips together.  In my experience with Dolby Vision on my iPhone 12 Pro Max, recording video went off without a hitch.  But how does the video look? 

Amazing!  I shot some footage of my daughter pitching a fastpitch softball game and recorded it at 4K resolution at 60 frames per second in Dolby Vision.  I was shooting a nighttime game with field lights on at the highest resolution and frames per second the iPhone 12 Pro Max would handle.  The results were amazing.   

The 4K from the main wide-angle sensor was crisp and clean enough to allow me to crop into the frame during post-processing and keep the footage sharp.  I’ve exported some of the footage in Dolby Vision and some in standard dynamic range.  I must say that the Dolby Vision video is hands-down better for being able to see detail in both the highlights and shadows of the video. 

My personal use so far

In the past two weeks, I have used the iPhone 12 Pro Max for my usual tasks.  Everything ranging from checking and replying to emails, taking photos of my daughter and her softball game, and even shooting video of her pitching.  I’ve done a decent amount of work with this phone in that time.

I think the camera, at least the wide-angle camera, it sharper and better than its predecessor from the iPhone 11 Pro.  Especially shooting photos and video at night on a softball field with field lights on.  I am most pleased with the way both still photos and Dolby Vision video have turned out in that scenario.  The video was bright and colorful with good contrast.  

The photos were also well lit and colorful with just a hint of green in the color balance, which is expected on a softball field with lots of grass.  The extra focal length on the telephoto lens is more noticeable in use than the numbers would suggest.  Shooting from the first base side, the 2.5x zoom gets just a tad closer and is a welcome improvement.

If anything, I would wish for a little more zoom out of the telephoto lens.  I know that is not the majority consensus, most people aren’t shooting sports from an iPhone.  I think we will see more of a periscope type of telephoto lens in a couple of years, a lens that allows an optical zoom range of maybe 2x to 5x or possibly even a high side of 10x.  Having a variable optical zoom in on an iPhone would all but bury my Canon 80D for most shooting softball games.

Conclusion

The iPhone 12 Pro Max was a worthwhile investment for me, coming from the iPhone 11 Pro.  The slab sides and increased size are helpful in holding the phone in my hand.  The flat sides just make the phone feel more secure in my hand.  

The device feels just as solid in the hand as the iPhone 11 Pro did.  It feels premium and solid, indicative of a quality build that will last for years of service.  Put a decent case on it and you are good to go.

The cameras did not disappoint me since I was aware that the upgrades were going to be a little subtle this year.  This was not an iPhone X to iPhone 11 Pro level of camera upgrade, which was just huge.  The cameras, especially the wide-angle with the larger sensor had me excited.

In body image stabilization (IBIS) in an iPhone is important for those that shoot handheld video.  IBIS is the standard by which others are judged for single-device stabilization.  Cinematic pans and walking videos are butter smooth with just a little bit of work on the part of the videographer.  If the IBIS in the iPhone isn’t good enough for you, you will need a dedicated gimbal.

Finally, the size of the phone and display was a welcome one.  I’m not trying to cram this device into a pair of skinny jeans, so the larger size doesn’t cramp my style at all.  I welcome the larger display as my aging eyes aren’t meant for small display sizes anymore.  I have an easier time reading web pages and emails without having to scale the text size up.  I’ll trade a little larger phone size for being able to read it without my glasses.

If you enjoyed this post, please share and leave a comment below.  If there is a topic you would like me to address, please leave a suggestion at the link in the menu above.

Until next time, go take some photos!

Ralph

Ralph

Ralph is an avid photographer in his spare time. He spends a lot of his photography time shooting sports photos of his daughter, who plays softball and swims. He also has a keen interest in mobile photography.

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