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Apple’s iPhone 12 Mini will, I think, mark an end to small and good smartphones. That’s not because it’s bad, far from it; this is a great phone. But, it hasn’t sold very well, and though they might argue otherwise, smartphone manufacturers are hardly altruistic. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple doesn’t refresh this model next year. The iPhone 12 Mini may very well be the small phone swan song, and it really makes me wish a company in Android-land would make the mistake of copying it.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
Apple has consistently lead the market when it comes to industrial design, and this year’s iPhones are down-right sexy. The return to a flat edge is a change I appreciate, and I honestly can’t wait for all the clone shapes that are sure to land for the world of Android in the coming year. For larger phones, the sharper lip might make it harder to hold at a stretch, but the design really shines with the smaller iPhone 12 Mini.
Above, left to right: Galaxy Z Flip, iPhone 12 Mini, Pixel 5, Galaxy S20. Below left to right: iPhone 12 Mini, 2020 iPhone SE.
I can’t wait for tiny Android flagships to make a copycat comeback.
While Apple is still making bigger phones (just like everyone else) it’s the Mini that caught my eye as the first flagship-grade diminutive device to land in ages. So, of course, I had to get one. I’m far from a tiny phone apologist, but I have come to appreciate smaller devices in a roundabout way — via foldables like the Galaxy Z Flip. Sometimes I like having the extra space to do work, but when I want something for strictly personal non-productive use, a small phone is really nice to have, and the iPhone 12 Mini fits the bill perfectly. It’s got that barely-there pocket feel, you can use it one-handed upside down in bed without worrying about it falling on your face, and while you lose some screen real estate, the edge-to-edge screen design and tiny bezels give you the experience of a bigger phone. Compared to the (physically bigger) iPhone SE, the iPhone 12 Mini still has a larger screen.
Over the last two weeks using the phone, I’ve come to really appreciate the compact form factor, and while I think the Pixel 4a/Pixel 5 is still a sweet spot for general use, I have loved using the tiniest iPhone. I can’t wait for tiny Android flagships to make a copycat comeback.
Even outside the size, pretty much everything about the iPhone 12 Mini’s physical design pleases me. While I wish it had a stainless steel body, like the more expensive “Pro” series, it’s still very nice aluminum, with inset antenna bands you can see but not feel. Like it or hate it, the back is glass — I prefer matte, but most of us are putting the phone in a case, so the glossy finish doesn’t really matter. The front is a new Ceramic Shield-branded glass, ostensibly much tougher than the Gorilla Glass we’re all used to. I can’t speak to the long-term durability, but I’ve already picked up a few light scratches, so it doesn’t seem too drastically improved.
As usual, this new breed of iPhone has a ring/silent switch on the left. On the right, you’ll notice a new cutout in the frame, which is a window for one of the phone’s three mmWave 5G antennas. (They have to be studded all around the phone like that because basically anything can block it — welcome to the future.)
The screen might not be 120Hz, but it’s super-sharp and looks great otherwise. I’m quite picky about displays, and mine is very uniform without any odd tints or irregularities in low light. OLED displays always vary slightly, but the one on my store-bought unit is exceedingly good. In more typical screen discussion, it gets more than bright enough outdoors, quite dim at night, has good color to my eye, and doesn’t suffer much in the way of crushed blacks. I also love Apple’s True Tone, which adapts color temperature to suit the local ambiance, and it does an excellent job of matching the environment. Last year’s Pixels 4 and recent OnePlus Pro-series flagships have a similar feature, but all phones should have it.
As with most iPhones since the X, there’s a notched display cutout for Face ID. I do wish the cutout was a little smaller since that space could be used for more status icons or maybe even notification icons someday, but it’s not too bothersome — though it is more annoying on the Mini than it is on the larger-screen iPhones.
As usual for flagships, there’s no headphone jack, but the bigger bummer is the lack of a USB Type-C port. iPhones continue to use Apple’s proprietary Lightning charging solution, which is a little annoying when everything else (including Apple’s own iPad Pro line) has moved on to the better USB Type-C standard. At least there’s always wireless charging, which is universal outside the new MagSafe chargers.
After using (and quickly filling up) the 64GB 2020 iPhone SE, I don’t think that it’s acceptable for Apple to ship just 64GB in a flagship device anymore. If even Google can manage 128GB of base storage in the mid-range Pixel 4a, the least Apple could do is match it with the iPhone 12, and I’m a little upset they’re slinging insufficient 64GB base models that tons of folks are sure to grab as the cheapest version available. If you get one, do yourself a favor and snag at least the 128GB model.
Apple’s new MagSafe cases grip even more tightly courtesy of those magnets.
Lastly, though it’s part hardware and part software, it’s always worth pointing out that Apple’s haptics are still leaps and bounds ahead of Android devices. I love discovering the new feedback different apps provide, and though it might seem like a minor point, it’s something you can’t help but enjoy. From a tiny light tapping inside your pocket to a woodblock “thonk,” it seems able to emulate almost any sensation convincingly, easily training you to recognize different notification types by touch alone.
It doesn’t come with a power adapter this year, but the iPhone 12 Mini ships with a Type-C to Lightning cable. I don’t think that’s a problem since most of us have plenty of Type-C chargers already.
Software, performance, and battery
Any discussion of the iPhone’s software should be prefaced with the fact that we’re looking at this from the perspective of an Android site. I hesitate to say we have a bias against iOS — after all, I recommend the iPad over any Android tablet — but consider the source.
iOS has made huge strides recently — or, if you’re a cynic/Android fan, it’s finally catching up with some long-overdue features. You can now have widgets on the home screen, hide apps in a drawer, and set your own defaults for mail and browsing apps. They’re all big changes, but for Android power users, they may not go far enough in allowing complex workflows, and it’s still a more limited environment than what we’re used to.
The new home screen is a marked improvement on the old design, which literally just dumped all your apps wherever they landed and forced the user to deal with organizing them. The new widgets aren’t quite as good as we’re used to on Android, and many apps still don’t support them yet, but it’s still early days. However, I still think the new App Library could use more options.
It sorts apps into groups like “Productivity & Finance” and “Creativity,” but in practice, plenty of apps are still poorly categorized. I’d honestly just prefer an alphabetical list. To be fair, a swipe down to search does bring up an alphabetized listing, but it’s a space-wasting affair with each app on its own line. I know Apple hates providing customers with options of almost any kind — presumably, out of fear they’ll freak out when they change a setting and can’t figure out how to change it back — but the App Library could still use a little more work and some extra sorting options.
Thanks to iOS 14, incoming calls also no longer block the whole screen when they land. I know, it’s actually ridiculous to think such a simple feature wasn’t present on iPhones until this year, but there it is.
It’s 2020, and incoming calls finally don’t block the whole screen on an iPhone.
Although Apple champions user privacy and has been touting the strides made when it comes to granting apps permissions, I find the constant dialogs in iOS more bothersome than useful. They’re continuously popping up and blocking my view, asking me (yet again) if I’d like to change location access for some app I clearly granted permission to previously. It’s a daily exercise in futility granting access for the ten-thousandth time to my weather app or Google, and it’s not as if I’m going to change my mind about these apps again tomorrow. In general, Apple’s permissions and privacy settings just feel sort of messy and obtrusive compared to the clarity of recent versions of Android.
In more general problems, I ran into issues with certain apps flickering weird colors across the entire display (like Hangouts) at the end of specific animations. I also had problems with auto-rotation at times, where the phone would just lock itself into landscape for no reason. Although your experience might vary, I also find apps on iOS to be less stable than their Android counterparts, crashing or locking up much more frequently — usually around one a day, with Gmail a big recent offender.
It’s minor by itself, but all these extra taps add up, and they’re annoying when everything is so directly integrated in Android.
Without Android’s intents system, opening things you want in the right app is terribly frustrating on iOS. As an example: tap a Spotify link on Twitter, and it doesn’t take you to the app; it takes you to an in-app Safari window (not even the browser I use), where you have to then tap Play, tap “download app” (because that makes sense) and wait to be redirected to the installed app. I should note, that’s all just one tap on Android, taking you directly from Twitter to the Spotify app. And this same dance plays out with content from basically any app. It’s intensely frustrating knowing how much easier all this could be if iOS just loosened things up a little.
Came up w/ a Shortcut share action that opens URL as deeplinks where possible, avoiding all the hassles of going thru in-app Safari and “open in app” banners. No apps required
— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) November 25, 2020
This sort of “shortcut” workaround shouldn’t be necessary, and yet you’ll need to make things like these all the time to do things Android can do on its own by default.
There are also inconsistencies with system navigation that I find grating coming from Android’s universal system. Sometimes a swipe from the edge on iOS is back, but sometimes you have to swipe down to exit some full-screen views, and it isn’t always clear when you’re in one. At times, that left swipe to go back doesn’t work either, and you have to tap a button (usually in the top left) instead. It’s not all on Apple — part of the problem stems from developers implementing poor designs. None of that is an issue with Android’s gesture navigation system; a swipe for back is always back and always works the same wherever you are, full-screen view or not.
Left: Look at all those notifications. Right: And they’re not on my lockscreen.
All these complaints ignore my biggest beef with iOS, and that’s notifications. I continue to hate that there’s a difference between notifications on your lockscreen and the persistent Notification Center, and it makes no sense to me to shuffle notifications you’ve ostensibly “seen” to a different location. They’re all still notifications, and I want to see all of them anywhere notifications should appear, period. And though notifications on iOS can include ways to interact with them, that’s hidden behind a tedious long-press. I’d rather they just be included as buttons under their content for faster action, as on Android.
Even with widgets and the ability to finally change default browsers, iOS still feels behind Android in so many little ways.
Swiping to dismiss notifications on iOS is also intensely frustrating for no reason and doesn’t always work reliably. It either takes a super fast swipe or a swipe over the edge, but neither is detected too reliably, making it an inconsistent experience that otherwise requires yet another tap to dismiss them. Top to bottom, I think the iOS notification experience could use an overhaul because, in its current form, it’s an outright drain compared to the ease of interaction and productivity of Android. Even with widgets and the ability to finally change default browsers, iOS still feels behind Android in so many little ways.
Outside the greater Android vs. iOS discussion, I also missed one very specific feature: the Pixel’s excellent Assistant-based call screening. Spam calls are a blight on modern life, I get at least one a day (as I assume many of us do), and while the carriers and FCC dither on ways to actually fix the problem, Google already did it. I’d absolutely pay a monthly fee to get automatic call screening on all my phones, and I wish Apple would just clone the feature already. Spam calls alone are almost reason enough to buy a Pixel.
This is the best feature ever. Please clone it for iPhones, Apple.
iOS may not be quite as stable for me as Android in normal use, but it doesn’t have Android’s habitual issue with jank and dropped frames, so even when you’re having trouble, it’s usually a pretty smooth experience. General performance on the new A14 chip flies, handling anything you throw at it with total ease. From gaming to productivity, it’s the smoothest experience you can get right now, even compared to the best-of-the-best Android flagships. Side-by-side app startup times in looping YouTube benchmarks may not show off the difference to the utmost, but it feels tangibly faster compared to using the same apps on Android. However, that 4GB of RAM does make itself felt a little, as you’ll notice some apps further back in your multitasking list take longer to resume. A few times, Spotify did die on me in the background while playing back content during navigation, but that could have been a Google Maps or a Spotify issue just as easily as the phone.
A lot of these issues can be smoothed away by the fact that the phone will probably get updates for the next five years or so. That’s not something any Android phone can claim, and it substantially raises the long-term value of iPhones.
The one potential issue you might run into either way, though, is battery life. I was usually able to break five or six hours of screen-on time per charge. I think that’s good, but I’m also not super hard on my phones. If you do a ton of gaming, that can easily dip down under 4 hours, and it’s nothing compared to the amazing battery life you can get on the Pro Max iPhones. (As an example, my iPhone 11 Pro Max only needed to be charged twice a week on vacation last year.) But coming from Android, iPhone 12 Mini battery life is fine — though I wish it charged a bit faster than 20W when you do run it dry.
The iPhone 12 Mini has two rear cameras: A standard wide-angle and an ultra-wide. And they’re both good. Although I still prefer the processing of Google’s Pixels, iPhone cameras are very, very good cameras, even in low-light. There are a few caveats, though. For one, I find Apple’s white balance gets confused a little more easily in challenging situations than the Pixel’s, and the iPhone is more aggressive to push a longer exposure at night than the Pixel. Sometimes that gives the iPhone a solid edge in capturing more light, but if there’s any motion (as with pets or children), it’s a disadvantage as the moment you intended to save comes out with more blur than you expected. Distortion on the ultra-wide-angle camera is also strong (and also totally normal for that type of camera), so be careful framing things like faces too close to the edge.
Dynamic range is good, with very aggressive contrast, but things are muddier on a close crop than you might see with Google’s phones. If you aren’t pixel-peeping or cropping images hard, it isn’t an issue, though. Personally, I think Apple’s HDR is a little too strong, and something about edge sharpening feels overdone, but these are minor points.
Longer nighttime exposures look artsy but incredibly muddy.
Ultimately, I like the iPhone’s camera quite a lot — though I still prefer the more natural-feeling look of Google’s Pixels.
Front-facing camera in bright (left) and dim (right) light.
The front-facing camera does a decent job with dynamic range, but that smaller aperture means less light, and the extra processing to compensate is more aggressive and more likely to turn details into a muddy mess in marginal lighting, though that’s no different than any other smartphone’s front-facing camera. If I had to choose a phone for video conferencing, though, I think I’d probably pick the iPhone over other recent Android devices.
I’m not a videographer, and discussing video is an entirely different beast than photography. I am told by my betters that Apple remains ahead, not just when it comes to new features like Dolby Vision HDR support, but even just in terms of basic quality. To my less critical eye, the iPhone does seem to shoot better video than Google’s Pixels.
Should you buy it?
I have to say it: I love the iPhone 12 Mini. I don’t think I’m going to put this phone down, and I anticipate using iOS and Android side-by-side even more often than I have in the past simply because I love this phone’s hardware so much. The size is absolutely perfect. While I know my workflow will eventually make iOS too frustrating to use compared to the ease of Android, right now I’m still in that honeymoon phase — and that’s not something I experience too often, even when reviewing lots of different phones.
That said, iOS still makes it harder for me to do the things I need than Android. The notification system doesn’t fit my sort of workflow, iOS makes it too hard to pass many kinds of content between apps, and I still can’t even really use the browser I want. Sure, I can change my default to “Chrome,” but those quotations are legit; it’s just Safari with a Google-flavored skin. Ultimately, iOS still lacks the freedom of Android — I actually need the extra tools that come with it to do my job, and though I can reproduce those workflows in iOS, it takes ages to come up with what ultimately feels like a half-baked workaround. Apple may be loosening the reins just a bit in recent days, but there’s a long way to go before it can do everything Android does. But iPhones also get years more updates than Android phones, which is a big point in their favor.
the new iPhone 12 Mini is a tiny slice of magic
The iPhone 12 Mini isn’t just a good phone, it’s also a good value. $700 feels right for what you get here, and this is a genuine flagship experience — if not at the new “Ultra” level that phones like the 12 Pro Max and Galaxy Note20 Ultra hit. However, pricing is a little odd: You either pay $700 outright for a carrier model or $730 SIM-free, and I don’t understand why it isn’t the same across the board, as it usually is. Even if you drop the extra $30, it still feels worth it to me, though just 64GB of base storage really isn’t enough in 2020.
Apple’s iPhones are great devices, and the new iPhone 12 Mini is a tiny slice of magic, even looking over the fence from Android’s pastures. But it’s not without its drawbacks, and they’re almost all software. Still, some of us can get by on iOS, in no small part thanks to the recent changes — though Apple could still do more to court Android fans.
Buy it if
- You want to try out iOS for a few years.
- A tiny phone appeals to you — this is perfectly sized.
- You can give up on some of Android’s (better) features.
- You want a phone that might last five years and still get updates.
Don’t buy it if
- iOS’s lack of an intents system and mediocre notifications would drive you crazy.
- You have a very specific workflow that’s hard to duplicate.
- You need longer battery life — this is good but not great.
Where to buy
The iPhone 12 Mini is available starting at $700 at:
One month later, my small phone swan song
The honeymoon period has ended, and coming back to iOS is now rife with frustration rather than novelty. The constant restrictions and dams in my workflow compared to Android just make for a painful experience — especially now, during CES, as busy as I am. Between iOS’s mediocre notification management and the difficulty in handing content between apps, I often spend a good minute or two working around an issue or bust out a big-boy computer to do a job that would take three or four taps in Android, and that’s not okay.
However, one of my opinions has been reinforced, and that’s just how much I love the size of this phone. Although my coworker Max Weinbach has suffered some pretty poor battery life using the iPhone 12 Mini, I’m still getting by with at least a normal day’s use between charges, and having a tiny phone in my pocket is just so refreshing and freeing.
I maintain that even recent huge phones like the S20 Ultra or OnePlus 8 Pro are still one-handed devices; they can just be a little hard to use doing certain things or in specific apps. With the iPhone 12 Mini, I’ve really enjoyed not having to do that sort of one-handed shuffle to move the phone up or down in a precarious grip to hit a button just outside my reach. Typing on the smaller screen is starting to feel a little less accurate than I’d like, but it’s just such a comfortable experience, I can’t really resent it for that.
If there’s one thing about the phone I don’t like physically, it’s the accessories. Specifically, Apple’s latest cases. While the fit on my first-party leather case is perfect (contrary to some folks’ experience), it isn’t aging with a “patina” as gracefully as the company’s prior leather cases did. As something of an amateur leatherworker, I may have some insight, but I’d be guessing: I think Apple or its leather supplier switched from an unsealed aniline or semi-aniline process to a pigmented/sealed process, which will prevent the “patina” darkening you get with some leathers as they absorb oils and waxes. Whether that’s the cause or not, the result is the same. Apple’s new leather cases kinda suck, and you probably shouldn’t buy one.
The “patina” on these new cases is honestly just sort of gross.
It’s a real pity the iPhone 12 Mini didn’t actually sell very well, because that will probably just serve to ensure Android smartphone makers don’t step up to match it with their own mini flagships, and I really wish they would. Just imagine it: a Pixel 6 Mini with a 5.4″ screen. While that’s almost guaranteed not to happen, the iPhone 12 Mini makes me want one — bad.