2020-11-30
★ The iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max

★ The iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max

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There is a structural problem with writing reviews of multiple new iPhones when they are released together — Mini and Max sizes, say, or Pro and non-Pro tiers, or, in this review’s case, two phones that span both gamuts. Each phone is a potential story unto itself, but to be truly understood, they need to be compared and contrasted with each other. I’ve spent the last week using a black iPhone 12 Mini and gold iPhone 12 Pro Max, and my thoughts on both follow upon my take on Apple’s iPhone 12 event and my review three weeks ago of the mid-sized iPhones, the 12 and 12 Pro. That’s a large reading assignment if you haven’t been following along, I’m afraid, but we’re not going to slow down for the benefit of those who haven’t been paying attention.

iPhone 12 Mini

The name tells you just about everything you’d want or need to know — the iPhone 12 Mini is exactly like the iPhone 12, but smaller. Well, almost exactly — but the differences are truly negligible. The differences that aren’t just “same thing but smaller” are serious footnote territory. I, of course, will try to explain them below.

But, truly, for all practical purposes as a user, the iPhone 12 Mini is a smaller iPhone 12. Same fit and finish. Same colors. Same exact camera system. Same exact A14 chip, with the exact same performance. Same exact 5G network support.

The iPhone 12 Mini even sounds great, playing music or video from the built-in speaker. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I intuitively expected it to sound smaller than the 12/12 Pro, but it doesn’t. The whole experience is as close to uncompromising for the smaller size as you could hope for.

If you’ve been waiting for a smaller Face-ID-era iPhone and haven’t yet preordered a 12 Mini — waiting, perhaps, for the reviews, to see if there’s a catch — stop reading and place your order. There is no catch. The 12 Mini is a triumph and a joy to use. If you know you want a smaller iPhone, just buy it. This is it. If you think you might want a smaller iPhone, you really need to check out the iPhone 12 Mini in person, if and when you can. You need to see it and feel it.

Mini Battery Life

There is one spec where the 12 Mini necessarily trails the regular 12: battery life. A smaller device means a smaller battery, and a smaller battery means shorter battery life. The smaller screen consumes less energy than a larger one, but battery size is more of a factor in battery life than screen size is. This, to me, is an obvious trade-off, not a “catch”.

Battery life is a bit hard to quantify, and in my opinion difficult to peg to a single number. Milliamp-hours or watt-hours don’t tell you the story. What you want to know is, in practical real-world use, how long the device lasts on a charge. An ideal test would involve, say, an iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 used side-by-side, doing the same things in the same apps at the same time in the same places. We don’t have that. What we do have are Apple’s stated battery life specs, and my own anecdotal observations from the last week. On the iPhone 12 tech specs page (with specs for both the 12 and 12 Mini), Apple offers three specs for battery life:

12 Mini 12/12 Pro %
Video playback 15 hours 17 hours 88%
Video playback (streamed) 10 hours 11 hours 91%
Audio playback 50 hours 65 hours 77%

To be pedantic, Apple prefixes all of these times with “up to”, but for the sake of relative comparison, that shouldn’t matter. My interpretation of these results is that audio playback, with the display off, is a pure test of the battery size, so the 12 Mini’s battery is probably close to 77 percent the size of the 12’s. But the video playback numbers are around 90 percent, which I think is fair to assume is explained by the fact that the 12 Mini’s smaller display consumes less energy.

So as a ballpark tidy single number, based on Apple’s quoted specs for video and audio playback, let’s just say the iPhone 12 Mini gets about 85 percent of the battery life the iPhone 12 does. That jibes with my personal experience, which I’ve measured only subjectively.

Now, I used the hell out of the iPhone 12 Mini over the past week. I was pretty much glued to cable TV news for days after last Tuesday’s election, and the iPhone 12 Mini was my main device sitting on the couch for those very long days. Email, Twitter, Safari, Messages, Twitter, Safari, Twitter, Messages, Safari. More Twitter. Almost all of it using the iPhone 12 Mini, and if not the Mini, the 12 Pro Max. 85 percent sounds about right.

That’s fine, and about as good as I had hoped for. Yes, I noticed battery life on the Mini wasn’t quite as good as on the 12 and 12 Pro (and the 11 Pro I used for a year, and the XS I’d used the year before that). But I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to buy a 12 Mini for this reason. Battery life on the Mini is, at worst, good enough. No one buys the smallest iPhone expecting the longest battery life.

(Apple’s stated battery life specs for the iPhone 12 Pro are identical to those of the regular 12. There are reasons you might want the 12 Pro instead of the regular 12, but battery life isn’t one. Apple’s video playback, streaming video playback, and audio playback numbers for the 12 Pro Max, on the other hand, are noticeably longer: “up to” 20, 12, and 80 hours (!) respectively.)

The 12 Mini Display

The 12 Mini’s display is not just smaller, physically, but it’s also denser. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro 6.1-inch displays have 2532 x 1170 pixels, at 460 pixels per inch. The 12 Mini’s 5.4-inch display has 2340 x 1080 pixels, at 476 pixels per inch. The iPhone 12 Pro Max display (2778 x 1284) has a density of 458 pixels per inch — the same pixel-per-inch density as the iPhones X, XS, XS Max, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max. An additional 2 pixels per inch — the difference between the 12/12 Pro display and all those other OLED iPhone X-style displays — is negligible. An additional 16 pixels per inch — the difference between the 12 Mini and the 12/12 Pro — is not dramatic, per se, but it is significant and definitely noticeable.

In practice what this means is that the Mini packs the same pixel-for-pixel content into a smaller area on screen. It shows the same amount of content at a smaller scaled down size.

The 12 Mini is also doing something else to pack more content onto the screen at a smaller size: its standard display resolution is ever so slightly scaled down.

On the 12/12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, the physical pixel dimensions of the displays exactly the match the effective pixel resolutions of the interface rendered by iOS. The 12 display is 2532 x 1170, and a screenshot taken on the iPhone 12 in standard scaling mode is 2532 x 1170. The 12 Pro Max display is 2778 x 1284 and screenshots in standard scaling mode are 2778 x 1284.

But on the 12 Mini, the display is 2340 x 1080, but standard scale screenshots are 2436 x 1125 — a scaling factor of 96 percent. Software running on the 12 Mini “sees” the display as 2436 x 1125, but everything is downsampled on-the-fly to 2340 x 1080. Apple did something like this with the Plus-sized iPhone 6–8 models, which I wrote about in detail in my review of the iPhones 6 in 2014.

This on-the-fly downsampling sounds crazy, and with a scaling factor of 96 percent, it’s very tempting to think “Why bother?” Why not just do the obvious thing and use 100 percent scaling to show a 2340 x 1080 interface on a 2340 x 1080 display? With the iPhone 6–8 Plus models, the standard scaling factor was about 87 percent — Apple was using downsampling to simulate a 13-percent higher pixel density display. Why downsample on the 12 Mini for a measly 4 percent increase in simulated pixel density — especially on a display that natively supports the highest pixel density Apple has ever shipped?

The answer is that 2436 x 1125, the software interface size of the 12 Mini display, is exactly the size in pixels of the iPhone 11 Pro, XS, and X displays. From an app’s perspective, the standard scaling mode of the iPhone 12 Mini is not a new size: it’s the same exact pixel dimensions as the 11 Pro, XS, and X.

What this means as a user is that the on-screen content of the 12 Mini in standard scaling isn’t really a scaled down version of the on-screen content of the 12/12 Pro — it’s a scaled down version of the on-screen content of an iPhone 11 Pro (or XS or X). The difference here is truly minor — again, just 4 percent scaling. In practice, I don’t notice any side effects of this downsampling — nothing is blurry, no animations jitter, and 60 FPS video playback looks like silky smooth 60 FPS video playback.

The simple truth is that with a resolution of 476 pixels per inch, downsampling just isn’t noticeable. There’s no more need to worry about a 1:1 ratio of content pixels to display pixels than there is to worrying about resizing photos to align precisely with the dots of a 600 DPI laser printer.

The other interesting thing to keep in mind are points per inch. In the bygone pre-retina-display days, points and pixels were one and the same. On a 2× retina display, 1 point is rendered on screen as a 2×2 matrix of pixels. On a 3× retina display — which all the OLED iPhones are — 1 point is rendered as a 3×3 matrix of pixels. To convert pixels to points, you just divide pixels by the retina scaling factor. So a 2436 x 1125 pixel interface at 3× retina resolution is 812 x 375 points.

Points per inch describes how big something is on screen; pixels per inch describes how sharp something looks. Points are how developers lay out user interfaces. Points are how text is sized. The original 2007 iPhone — and the 3G/3GS, 4/4S, 5/5S/5C/SE(1), 6/6S/7/8/SE(2) — all display content on screen at 163 points per inch. All but the first three iPhones were 2× retina displays, which displayed content at 326 pixels per inch for sharpness, but every single one of those iPhones displayed content at 163 points per inch for size.

With 96 percent scaling of a 2436 x 1125 interface on a 2340 x 1080 display, the iPhone 12 Mini has an effective points per inch of … 165. Just a hair tighter than all of those classic iPhones. Bigger iPhones — from the older Plus models to the modern mid-sized iPhone X/XS/11 Pro to the larger Max models — all display content at default scaling at about 153 points per inch. The new iPhone 12, 12 Pro, and 12 Pro Max: 153 points per inch at standard scaling. The bigger iPhones make everything just a little bit bigger than it was on the classic smaller iPhones, point-for-point.

The iPhone 12 Mini, as a smaller device, also uses the tighter points per inch density of the classic smaller iPhones. Everything on screen does look smaller on the 12 Mini than on the 12 and 12 Pro Max, but it’s the same density as all previous smaller iPhones. In this sense, the iPhone 12 Mini doesn’t just feel like an older iPhone in hand, it renders content on screen like one too. The result feels like the 2020 iPhone — the one and only 2020 iPhone — that we would have had if iPhones had never gotten bigger or forked into Pro and non-Pro tiers.

iPhone 12 Pro Max

But iPhones have gotten bigger. And the biggest ever is the 12 Pro Max. Walking around with the 12 Pro Max in one pocket and the 12 Mini in the other feels like I’m carrying a little iPhone for the big iPhone to use. The 12 Mini feels like a game cartridge you slot into the 12 Pro Max to play.

The 12 Pro Max isn’t too big for my hands, but it is way too big for my taste. I don’t care if the camera is so good it can see through walls, this size and weight iPhone is just not something I want to carry around.

But, oh man, the 12 Pro Max camera system is good. It doesn’t see through walls but it is clearly an altogether different and better camera system.

But it’s also a bigger camera system. This is not obvious at all from Apple’s product marketing photography, and I can’t really take a photo myself that illustrates this in a way that feels true to life, but the 12 Pro Max camera module — the whole raised square bump containing the rear facing cameras, flash, and lidar sensor — is much bigger in surface area than the camera module on the other iPhones 12. In the previous two years, not only were XS Max and 11 Pro Max camera systems identical spec-wise to those on the XS and 11 Pro, they were the same size, too.

It’s not just the square module as a whole. The camera lenses themselves are bigger — both larger in diameter and they protrude more from the body of the iPhone. It’s all just bigger.

Here’s my theory — purely speculative — on what led to this design:

  • Apple decided to put a 47 percent bigger sensor in the primary 1× “wide” camera, along with sensor-shift (as opposed to lens-shift) optical image stabilization. This is the most-used lens, and the single biggest thing Apple could do to improve its image quality is make the sensor bigger — not by adding more pixels, but by using bigger pixels, allowing them to gather more light.

  • Once you add a bigger sensor, without making the iPhone body thicker (all iPhone 12 models, camera modules aside, are exactly 7.4 mm thick), you have to use a bigger 1× lens that protrudes a bit more and has a slightly larger diameter, in order to cover the larger sensor with the same equivalent focal length as the 1× cameras on the other iPhones.

  • Once you make the 1× lens bigger and protrude more, the other two lenses (ultra wide and telephoto) need to be made bigger and to protrude more for aesthetic symmetry. Apple didn’t need to do this, but they surely wanted to. A three-lens camera module where one of the lenses is slightly bigger and protrudes slightly more than the other two would look ungainly, like a mistake.

  • Once you’re making the telephoto lens larger and protrude more, you might as well change it from 2.0× (52mm equivalent) to 2.5× (65mm equivalent). The telephoto sensor is the same size and quality as on the 12 Pro, but a longer lens gives you a bit “more zoom” in colloquial terms. This is only possible if the lens protrudes a bit more — which, again, it might as well, to match the protrusion of the new 1× lens need to cover the larger 1× sensor.

Thus, the whole rear camera module needs to be bigger and protrude more to make everything fit and look good.

I know some people speculate that this new best-of-breed camera system is exclusive to the 12 Pro Max just to steer buyers who care about photography to the most expensive models in the lineup. But it’s just obvious looking at the outside — even before we get to teardowns showing us the internals — that this new camera system wouldn’t easily fit on the iPhone 12 Pro.

The lenses on the 12 Pro Max really do protrude more than those on the other iPhones 12. It’s very noticeable to the eye and to the touch. My review unit kit included one case for the 12 Pro Max — Apple’s leather case — and it has a raised plastic lip around the camera module cutout to protect the lenses. This lip is raised enough that the 12 Pro Max, in the case, has about as much wobble laying flat on a table as it does without a case. In previous years, Apple’s cases leveled out the bump from the camera(s). The Pro Max lenses protrude too far for that. According to my digital calipers, the 12 Pro Max lenses protrude 1.25 mm further than the lenses on the other iPhones 12. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but percentage-wise it is. Remember, all four of the iPhones 12 are just 7.4 mm thick. You can clearly see it from the side.

iPhone 12 Pro Max:


★ The iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro:


Side view of the iPhone 12 Pro camera module, illustrating the protrusion of the lenses from the body.

(Both photos taken using the iPhone 12 Mini.)

The metal rings around the lenses protrude more on the Pro Max and the sapphire crystal of the lenses themselves stick out more from the metal rings.

As for the results from the Pro Max camera system, that’s beyond the scope of this review. The benefits of the bigger sensor on the Pro Max’s 1× “wide” camera should be most evident in low-light photography and video, but I just haven’t had the opportunity to shoot much in low light situations. And when I have, I’m not seeing that much difference in casual still photos. I’m not saying there isn’t a noticeable difference, just that I haven’t seen it so far.

The output of the Pro Max camera system is more obviously different, at a glance, not with the 1× camera but with the increased focal distance of the telephoto lens. There’s a difference in spatial compression — the distance between the lens and the subject — that is noticeable right away when shooting with the Pro Max 2.5× telephoto compared to the 12 Pro’s 2.0×. It’s not just better because “more zoom” (again, colloquially) is better, but because a 65 mm equivalent focal distance is more flattering for portraits than 52 mm. Not hugely different, but incrementally better.

Conclusion

Back when I was a teenager, a west Texas golf teacher named Harvey Penick published his eponymous Little Red Book. Ostensibly a golf instruction book, it’s arguably more about life than golf. It’s a wonderful read, broken into piecemeal nuggets, not chapters, with many of the items being closer in length to a tweet or two than to an essay. It’s about simplifying things, not complicating them. It’s the golf equivalent of Strunk and White.

I haven’t played golf in going on 20 years, but there are bits of advice from Penick’s Little Red Book that have stuck with me. One of them is the following, about building one’s game around the 7-iron:

The best way to learn to trust your swing is by practicing your
swing with a club you trust. A high handicapper who learns to hit
a good 7-iron can build his or her game around that shot. […]

Some teachers have their students practice with a 3-iron on the
theory that if the student can learn to hit a 3-iron, the rest of
the clubs will seem easy. This is certainly true, but it seems
backward to me. It is much easier to learn to hit a good 7-iron,
and that in turn will make the 3-iron easier to hit if you just
use your good 7-iron swing on it.

The basic idea is that the 7-iron is neither a long nor short club. It’s right in the middle. Learn to hit the 7-iron and you can hit your other clubs with your 7-iron swing.

The no-adjective iPhone 12 is the 7-iron of Apple’s iPhone lineup. Understand the iPhone 12 and it’s easier to understand all the other models. The 12 Mini is the 12 but smaller. The 12 Pro is the 12 but a little more blingy and with a telephoto 2.0× additional camera. The 12 Pro Max is the outlier — the one that can’t quite be defined in terms of the regular iPhone 12 — it’s bigger, blingier, and with a camera system that feels pulled from a year or two in the future.

In hand and in pocket, the iPhone 12 Mini feels less like “Hey, flat sides are back”, and more like “Hey, the iPhone 5 is back”. I can see why, in the name of layout symmetry, Apple didn’t do it, but it even feels like the power button could be at the top again — the 12 Mini is a very comfortable one-handed device, and I, for one, adore that. The iPhone 12 Pro Max, on the other hand, is the most two-handed iPhone Apple has made to date — as much a very small tablet as it is a very large phone. Some, I know, love that — but that’s not for me.

Is the iPhone 12 Pro Max worth it for the screen size alone? I really can’t say, because I don’t want a large-screened phone. For the camera hardware advancements? Maybe — if you can enjoy (or merely abide) the device size and weight. I’m not going to use pejoratives. I’m not going to say the Pro Max feels like a steel and glass brick. Or that it fits in a pants pocket not dissimilarly to an iPad Mini. But it’s big.

The larger 12 Pro Max display is used to show more content than the 12/12 Pro display — both show content at 153 points per inch with standard display scaling. The smaller 12 Mini display shows almost the same amount of content as the regular 12 display by default, just scaled smaller, at 165 points per inch. That makes for smaller text, yes, but no smaller than on any of the smaller classic iPhones (or, for that matter, the iPhone XR or non-Pro 11, both of which defaulted to 163 points per inch).

All three iPhone 12 device sizes support zoomed scaling modes too, for those who want to show larger content, not more content, whether by preference or visual necessity. In zoomed display mode, the 12 Pro Max renders content at 2436 x 1125 — the exact same dimensions as the 12 Mini at standard scaling. Here are side-by-side comparisons of the Settings → General screen on the 12 Pro Max and 12 Mini — first, with both at default scaling (and thus the Pro Max showing more content), and second, with the 12 Pro Max changed to zoomed (and thus the Pro Max showing the same exact content, just much bigger).

I’ve never before been so torn over which new iPhone I like best. I think I prefer the overall experience of the 12/12 Pro size than the Mini size — my typing, in particular, feels more accurate and efficient, and my aging eyes do better with the slightly larger display and content scaling.

But if we’re talking about value, about bang for the buck, the iPhone 12 Mini is the standout. There was a time when miniaturization in technology cost a premium. Smaller cell phones cost more than larger ones. A smaller camera that captured the exact same quality images cost more than a larger one. That the iPhone 12 Mini costs $100 less than the iPhone 12 feels too good to be true. I suspect most of the people who want a 12 Mini don’t want it because it costs less, they want it entirely because they prefer the size. It’s like Apple is just handing these people a $100 bill along with the no-compromise smaller iPhone they’ve been waiting for.