7

Thoughts and Observations on Apple’s ‘Hi, Speed’ iPhone 12 Event

Last month’s “Time Flies” event for the Apple Watch Series 6 and new iPad Air was about an hour long; this week’s “Hi, Speed” event ran just a bit longer at 70 minutes. Perhaps, if 2020 had gone as planned, all of these products would have been announced in one big two-hour event in early September. There’s a lot I miss about in-person events,1 but in terms of dosing the news, I like the digestibility of these shorter, more focused events. There’s more than enough to process considering just the new iPhone 12 models and the dessert course (served before the entrees) of HomePod Mini.

The 2020 iPhone Lineup

So there are four new iPhones this year. Is that confusing? I don’t think so, and if anything is confusing or complicated about this year’s lineup, it’s at the high end, with the camera system differences between the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max. The addition of a fourth iPhone, the 12 Mini, doesn’t complicate the lineup at all, because its name completely describes everything there is to know about it.

Really, the product names tell you how to understand the lineup. The iPhone 12 is the new iPhone — almost certainly the best choice for most people in the market for a new-model-year iPhone. Unless they really want an iPhone that is smaller, in which case they should, with no hesitation, get the iPhone 12 Mini. In terms of features and specs, it’s exactly like the iPhone 12, just smaller. It’s also $100 cheaper — but the reason to buy a 12 Mini is the size, not the price. If a lower price is more meaningful to you than device size, you should probably either get an iPhone 11 or XR and save some money, or, for a smaller device, get an iPhone SE and save a lot of money.

Here’s a matrix with the new lineup, organized the way I think makes the most sense. In the bottom row, I compare all storage tiers to 128 GB as a baseline. Storage is priced very consistently this year: across all iPhone models, every 64 GB of additional storage costs $50.

64 GB 128 GB 256 GB 512 GB
iPhone 12 Pro Max $1,100 $1,200 $1,400
iPhone 12 Pro 1,000 1,100 1,300
iPhone 12 830 880 980
iPhone 12 Mini 730 780 880
 
iPhone 11 600 650 750
iPhone XR 500 550
iPhone SE 400 450 550
Δ from 128 GB -50 +100 +300

I think it’s useful to include last year’s prices for the then-new iPhone 11 lineup for comparison:

64 GB 128 GB 256 GB 512 GB
(2019) 11 Pro Max $1,100 $1,250 $1,450
(2019) 11 Pro 1,000 1,150 1,350
(2019) iPhone 11 700 750 850

Zeroth, all prices I’ve listed are for unlocked phones. Apple’s promotion of the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini as starting (respectively) at $799/699 rather than $829/729 just because of some sort of marketing deals they cut with AT&T and Verizon for existing AT&T and Verizon customers is $30 worth of bullshit. (And now Apple has let T-Mobile join the club.)

First, comparing like-to-like models year-over-year, the regular iPhone 12 is $130 more expensive than the iPhone 11 was. The fact that the 12 Mini is just $30 more than the equivalent 11 was a year ago helps assuage that, but, again, I think the 12 Mini is best thought of as a variant for people who really prefer smaller phones, not as the base model.

Second, the Pro models are actually less expensive than they were last year. The base prices are the same, but base storage goes from 64 to 128 GB, which, to be honest, feels overdue. We can argue about how much the “Pro” in these iPhone product names means professional and how much it actually means deluxe, but 64 GB of storage in 2019 was neither professional nor deluxe. At the 256 and 512 GB tiers, prices are $50 lower this year.

But the main thing to take away is that the prices are much more continuous. Last year there was a gaping $300 chasm between the iPhone 11 and the 11 Pro; this year that difference is only $120. You don’t have to be Jeff Williams to figure out that OLED displays are expensive. 5G modems — exclusively available from Apple’s bitter frenemy Qualcomm — are probably expensive too, but with the Pro models going down in price year-over-year, it seems clear that the single biggest factor is OLED vs. LCD. When the iPhone 11 was LCD and the 11 Pros were OLED — and in 2018 when there was an LCD/OLED split between the XR and XS models — there was a gaping difference in price. This year, with all iPhone 12 models on OLED, there is no pricing gap.

12 Pro vs. 12 Pro Max and the Rather Confusing Nomenclature and Technical Differences Between Their Cameras

When Apple introduced the “Max” moniker with 2018’s iPhone XS, the proposition was much like that of the 12 and 12 Mini this year: the only difference was size. That was true last year with the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, too. For me, someone who desired the very best camera system Apple makes but not the biggest-ass display size, that was great.

No such good fortune this year.

The 12 Pro Max has several camera advantages over the 12 Pro, harking back to the iPhone 6 / 6S / 7 era, when the Plus models had camera features their regular-sized siblings did not.2 Herewith, I believe, is the full accounting of the differences between the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, camera by camera:

  • Front-facing (a.k.a. “TrueDepth”, a.k.a. “selfie”): Same across all iPhone 12 models.

  • Ultra Wide (0.5×): Same across all iPhone 12 models.

  • Wide (1×): Same on iPhone 12, 12 Mini, and 12 Pro, with a new ƒ/1.6 lens that captures 27 percent more light than last year’s 1× wide lens. The 12 Pro Max has the same ƒ/1.6 lens, but also has an altogether different sensor that is 47 percent larger than the 1× camera sensor on the other models. This bigger sensor has the same number of pixels (12 MP = 4032 × 3024), but those pixels are bigger. The larger sensor combined with the new-to-all-models ƒ/1.6 lens means the 1× wide camera on the 12 Pro Max captures 87 percent more light than last year’s iPhone 11 models. And that’s not all: in addition to being bigger, the new Pro Max’s 1× camera sensor exclusively features sensor-shift OIS, stabilizing the sensor rather than the lens, which according to Apple is beneficial both for photos and video. This sensor-shift OIS is also what enables the 12 Pro Max’s ability to capture up to 2-second exposures handheld, which, if it works as Apple describes, is a breakthrough that would be impractical in non-computational photography. Bottom line: all iPhone 12 models have the same 1× camera lens, which is faster than last year’s models, but the 12 Pro Max also has a bigger sensor and sensor-shift OIS.

  • Telephoto: This is the lens that the non-Pro models do not have. On the iPhone 12 Pro, it’s a 2× ƒ/2.0 lens with equivalent field of view to a 52mm lens. On the 12 Pro Max, it’s a 2.5× ƒ/2.2 lens equivalent to a 65mm lens. The sensors, apparently, are the same or effectively the same. 2.5× is “better” than 2.0× because it’s longer, offering more effective optical zoom. But ƒ/2.0 is “better” than ƒ/2.2, because it lets in more light. But whatever low-light advantage the 12 Pro’s ƒ/2.0 aperture might have over the 12 Pro Max’s ƒ/2.2 aperture, in practice this is almost certainly effectively moot, because in low-light situations the camera system probably gets better results using the faster 1× camera and digitally zooming to a 2×/2.5× crop factor.

Apple has confused all of this by promoting “4×” (12 Pro) and “5×” (12 Pro Max) “optical zoom range”. How can you get 4× or 5× optical zoom out of 2× and 2.5× lenses? What Apple is talking about here is the full range of optical zoom from the ultra wide 0.5× lens to the telephoto 2×/2.5× lenses. I think they’re doing this because the marketing looks better to say 4×/5× rather than 2×/2.5×.

Despite my being both a prosumer-grade camera enthusiast and professional-grade iPhone nerd, even I continually get confused when Apple refers to the 1× back camera as “wide”. Here’s how Apple refers to the lenses:

  • 0.5×: ultra wide
  • 1×: wide
  • 2/2.5×: telephoto

Here’s how my mind thinks about the lenses:

  • 0.5×: wide / zoomed out
  • 1×: regular
  • 2/2.5×: telephoto / zoomed in

To me, “1×” unambiguously implies “regular/default/normal”. (And yes, I know that in traditional photography, “normal” is lingo for a 50mm lens, roughly what the iPhone 2× lens offers. I’m using normal in the common sense of the word.) It just never fits my mental model to think of the 1× default lens as “wide”.

The Photographic Differentiators Between the 12 Pro Models and the non-Pro Ones

The biggest difference, most obviously, is the existence of a telephoto lens at all. Also, the existence of a lidar sensor, which the 12 Pro models use for faster autofocus in low light (6 times faster, according to Apple) and to enable Night Mode portrait shots.

All iPhone 12 models support shooting Dolby Vision 10-bit HDR video. But the 12 and 12 Mini only support Dolby Vision HDR at 30 FPS — the Pro models both support up to 60 FPS.

Apple’s upcoming ProRAW features — which will enable shooting RAW images using the built-in Camera app and a bunch of new APIs for third-party camera and photo-editing apps — are exclusive to the 12 Pro models. (Apple says ProRAW is coming “later this year” — I’m guessing that means iOS 14.2.)

When you consider the camera specs alone, that seems like pure marketing spite. All iPhone 12 models have the A14 SoC with the same CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine. But there might be a technical reason ProRAW is limited to the iPhone 12 Pro models: according to the latest version of Xcode, the 12 Pro models have 50 percent more RAM than the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini (6 GB vs. 4 GB). It seems reasonable to assume that ProRAW and 60 FPS Dolby Vision encoding are RAM-hungry features. But because Apple never ever talks about RAM in iOS devices, even in the small print of their advertised tech specs, this comes across as purely marketing-driven differentiation.

How Small Is the iPhone 12 Mini?

The iPhone 12 Mini is, by today’s standards, really small. It’s larger than the old 4-inch display models (5 / 5S / original SE) but noticeably smaller than the 4.7-inch display models (6 / 6S / 7 / 8 / new SE). Here’s an illustrative screenshot from Apple’s ever-excellent iPhone “Compare” page:

Side by side comparison of the iPhones SE (1st generation), 12 Mini, and SE (2nd generation).

On Twitter, Kate Matthews posted a series of helpful size comparison illustrations.

If you were holding out for a X-class iPhone significantly smaller than the 5.8-inch iPhone X, your patience has finally been rewarded. The iPhone 12 Mini seems like a fantastic device. You save $100 and pay no penalty in camera quality, performance, display brightness or color gamut. It’s just smaller. Battery life takes a hit compared to the regular iPhone 12, but, judging by Apple’s quoted numbers, the battery life difference seems commensurate with device volume. You can’t simultaneously clamor for a smaller device and a bigger battery.

The Missing iPhones

So Apple now sells modern X-class iPhones in small, medium, and large sizes. But a truly complete lineup would have two additional models: a non-Pro iPhone 12 Max and an iPhone 12 Pro Mini. Given that there is now a technology gap between the regular-size 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max camera systems (see above), it seems unfair to assume a 12 Pro Mini with all the features of the regular 12 Pro is possible without undesirable tradeoffs. There may well not be room for all the 12 Pro camera system features in a Mini-sized device.

But a non-Pro 12 Max is obviously technologically feasible. That’s a product Apple simply chooses not to make. If you want a big 6.7-inch display, you have to pay Pro prices, even if you don’t care about any of the Pro features or accoutrements (extra camera lens, lidar, premium stainless steel finish, sleeker wallpapers, etc.).

My purely hypothetical non-Pro iPhone 12 Max would slot into the product line as follows, presuming the same $100 difference as the Pro models. I’ll toss in the also-hypothetical 12 Pro Mini to complete this theoretically-complete lineup:

64 GB 128 GB 256 GB 512 GB
iPhone 12 Pro Max $1,100 $1,200 $1,400
iPhone 12 Pro 1,000 1,100 1,300
iPhone 12 Pro Mini 900 1,000 1,200
iPhone 12 Max 930 980 1,080
iPhone 12 830 880 980
iPhone 12 Mini 730 780 880

Look at that chart. One reason both of these hypothetical missing models are unlikely is that they muddle the middle. It was a problem in the last few years that there was a gap in the middle of the price range; with a Pro Mini and non-Pro Max, we’d have a confusing glut in the heart of the price range, with at least 8 configurations between $880–1,000.

But I think a non-Pro iPhone Max model, in particular, would be really popular, because I think a lot of people desire big-ass phones solely for the display size. And I think Apple doesn’t make them because a lot of people who really care that much about having the largest possible display will just pay the premium for the Pro Max. This product strategy is true for the iPad and MacBook lineups, too — Apple’s biggest displays are only in its “Pro” models. A 16-inch MacBook Air and 12.9-inch iPad Air would undeniably both be popular, but would cannibalize sales of the more expensive Pro models with the largest displays.

But, along those lines, it thus seems to me that of the two “missing” iPhones — Pro Mini and non-Pro Max — we’re more likely to someday see the one that’s more technically challenging (the Pro Mini) because it’s a product that would sell at a higher price to people whose first concern is size. But my gut says we’ll never see either of them.

People are complaining about Apple pinching pennies by no longer including the power adapter and headphones with new iPhones, but to me, the most notable omissions across the board are entire products that don’t exist: non-Pro iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks with large displays.

Speaking of the Stuff Apple No Longer Includes in the Box

I’m unequivocally in favor of no longer including headphones in the box. The move away from including power adapters is a little iffier, but I think it’s right. I think of it this way: they were never “free”. Whatever the price for the iPhone was, that price included the cost of the bundled power adapter. So if they’re included in the box, you might be (and in my case, personally, often were) paying for a power adapter and headphones you neither want nor need. And Apple has lowered the prices on their own peripherals: their Lightning earbuds and 20W power adapter (which replaces the 18W adapter they included with iPhone Pros last year) are each $19; they used to cost $29.

Not including the power adapter in the box also clearly nudges people toward spending the $39 for the new MagSafe charger (which does not itself include a power adapter), in the same way that removing the headphone jack nudged people toward buying AirPods. Cynically, yes, such nudging is in the direction of buying more stuff from Apple. But it’s also the direction of a better user experience. The future is clearly not iPhones with USB-C ports instead of Lightning, but iPhones with no ports at all, like Apple Watch.

If you want to argue that it’s a silent $38 price hike, fine, it’s a $38 price hike. But by that logic, savvy buyers who don’t need wired earbuds or yet another USB-C power adapter are getting a $38 discount. As a general rule in life, it’s better to pay for what you need.

5G 5G 5G

Did you hear about 5G and Verizon’s 5G network? If you watched the event, you certainly did. If you didn’t, here’s a supercut of every mention of “5G”.

Apple once named an iPhone after a cellular network technology upgrade and somehow this 5G stuff felt more heavy-handed. I just don’t see 5G as all that meaningful, and mentioning “5G” several dozen times throughout the event doesn’t change that. Going from 2G “EDGE” to 3G was a breakthrough in performance. 3G to LTE was significant. But today, when it comes to complaints and wishes for your phone, is “LTE is not fast enough” even on your list?

Before introducing the iPhone 12, Tim Cook handed the stage (literally — this part was shot in Apple’s Steve Jobs Theater) to Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg for four minutes. Four very long, conspicuous minutes. Vestberg was fine — this was not a Stan Sigman fiasco — but it just felt so gratuitous. I don’t know what Verizon paid Apple for this slot in the event, but it must have been a fortune (probably in marketing, advertising, and in-store promotion, not necessarily cash). Good god would I love to be privy to the negotiations between Apple, Verizon, and AT&T for this. (I just presume T-Mobile was not in the running.)

Without delving deeply into details that, to be honest, I just don’t care about, there are two main types of 5G service. In Verizon’s parlance, these are “5G Nationwide” and “5G Ultra Wideband”. 5G Nationwide is best thought of as regular 5G — for most people in most places in most situations on most carriers, when their phone is getting 5G service, this is what they’re getting. 5G Ultra Wideband is faster, maybe way faster, but looking at coverage maps it’s sort of like Wi-Fi in scope — it’s only available outdoors and limited in range to specific streets. Ultra Wideband support on all iPhone 12 models is limited to the United States, and is the reason U.S. iPhone 12’s have a window on the side under the power button. (iPhone 12’s in Europe have their own ugly turds marring the side — stupid regulatory etchings that are mandatory over there.)

HomePod Mini

Looks cool, $99 sounds right, looking forward to hearing it in action. The upcoming Intercom feature seems neat, too.

Miscellaneous

  • As a watch nerd I get it, but it’s kind of funny that the HomePod Mini is the same price as some of Apple’s watch bands.

  • I’m fascinated by the degree to which so many of Apple’s new products are doing cool things with magnets, of all things. iPad covers and keyboards, Apple Watch band clasps, and now MagSafe chargers and cases for iPhones.

  • There’s a weird display brightness tech spec difference between the Pro and non-Pro models I don’t understand. On Apple’s Compare page, the display specs for the 12 and 12 Pro are identical — same size, same pixel count, same contrast ratio — except for brightness. The 12 Pro is listed as “800 nits max brightness (typical)”; the 12 says “625 nits max brightness (typical)”. Yet both have the same max brightness (1,200 nits) for HDR content. Are these different components?

  • During Apple’s event, the iPhone 12 scenes were set in daytime, the 12 Pro scenes were at night. Apple’s iPhone 12 web pages are white, the 12 Pro pages black. Pro = dark mode.

  • I asked around, and a little birdie confirmed that Lisa Jackson really went up on the roof of Apple Park for her segment of the show. It looked breathtaking. This stunt reminded me of (now-disgraced) Steve Wynn’s introduction of Wynn Las Vegas in 2005 (which he reprised three years later for its sibling Encore).

  • Unsurprisingly, there’s no Touch ID in the power button like on the new iPad Air. Nor any mention of better support for face mask awareness with Face ID.

  • This was the first flagship iPhone introduction without Phil Schiller. Schiller, in fact, emceed the entire introduction of the iPhone 3GS at WWDC 2009 while Steve Jobs was on medical leave. He even told us what the “S” stood for!

  • Speaking of 2009, you may remember HomePod Mini introducer Bob Borchers from Apple’s iPhone Guided Tour videos and commercials back around that timeframe.

  • Our long national off-center Lightning port nightmare is over.


  1. The obvious thing I miss from in-person events is hands-on time with all of the announced products. I opened with this observation in my week-on-the-wrist review of the Series 6 Apple Watch. When it comes to color, material, and device size, you really need to see and hold and feel the products. But the bigger thing, really, is in-person nuance. I miss talking to my fellow hacks in the press, getting their impressions and thoughts. And I greatly miss talking to folks from Apple in person, both formally, through the official PR channel, and informally, simply by bumping into people I know. Like any meeting, in any sphere, the official product briefings are just higher-bandwidth in person than when conducted remotely. To me, the longer we go with this quarantine, the more glaringly obvious the endemic shortcomings of Zoom/Webex/whatever remote interaction become. It’s the difference between being able to chug straight from a cup and being forced to use an annoyingly narrow straw, despite being very thirsty. It sucks.

    And the unofficial interactions — they just don’t really happen the same way at all if they’re not in person. I’m not talking about anyone spilling state secrets — the folks at Apple who have the most interesting things to say are also the people who are the least likely to ever reveal anything that shouldn’t be revealed. I’m just talking about little things. Color, in the figurative sense. Insight into Apple’s thinking. Sometimes just gossip. Why certain things are the way they are — or are not the way they’re not — that the company isn’t going to publish or advertise. Apple, as a company, does not like to explain itself. Folks who work there, however, sometimes do. Even just a little.

    I miss it. ↩︎

  2. 2014’s iPhone 6 Plus had optical image stabilization for photos. In 2015 with the iPhones 6S, OIS remained Plus-only, but added support for video in addition to photos. In 2016, the iPhone 7 finally got OIS (for both photos and video), but the 7 Plus alone gained an entire second camera lens. ↩︎︎