This year’s iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro models are quite possibly some of the most groundbreaking new devices that Apple has announced in years, adding a collection of interesting improvements that ultimately make the new iPhones far greater than the sum of their parts.
We’ve known for a couple of years now that Apple’s ever-increasingly powerful A-series chips are more about making headroom for new machine learning features than they are about offering faster user-facing performance, since we reached the point of seriously diminishing returns with the A10 or A11 chip three or four years ago. Since then, iPhones haven’t gotten noticeably faster in day-to-day use, but there’s a lot more power packed in under the hood for Apple to do some pretty incredible things, especially when it comes to photography.
As a result, there are a lot of new things that the iPhone 12 can do exclusively that we won’t see coming to older models, as even last year’s A13 can’t quite cut it when it comes to the power required for these. In addition, other new hardware changes make the iPhone 12 more durable and compatible with a whole new lineup of unique accessories. Read on for 6 things that the iPhone 12 can do that no other iPhone — or even any other smartphone — can.
Take Incredible Night Shots with LiDAR
The iPhone 12 Pro isn’t actually Apple’s first device to gain a LiDAR Scanner—that distinction goes to the latest iPad Pro released last spring—but it is the first device to actually make much more practical use of it.
While the 2020 iPad Pro did offer up a significantly improved camera system over prior iPad models, it still paled in comparison to even that found on the iPhone 11, and naturally the iPhone 12 has lapped that one entirely. On the iPad Pro, the LiDAR Sensor was therefore added entirely to power augmented reality experiences, some of which were very cool for use in certain fields like interior design and medical research, but generally of little interest to most iPad Pro users.
With the iPhone 12 Pro, however, the new LiDAR Scanner gains the much more practical purpose of aiding in actual photography by allowing depth calculations to be used to power autofocus and Portrait Mode photography.
This means that for the first time, you’ll be able to use the iPhone’s Portrait Mode at night or in other similarly low-lit conditions, as the LiDAR Scanner can take the measurements that previously had to be done optically in a well-lit environment. Further, the ability to use LiDAR to measure distances also means that autofocus will now work much faster, again especially in low-light conditions.
Charge Easier and More Efficiently with MagSafe
There’s no arguing that Apple was really late to the party when it came to adding support for wireless charging. When Apple finally unveiled its first Qi-compatible iPhones in 2017, the technology had been available in at least some rival Android handsets for at least five years, and had pretty much gone mainstream by 2015, although it was still somewhat beset by competing standards.
In typical Apple fashion, however, the company wasn’t interested in being the first to add wireless charging to its devices, but was instead looking for ways to be the best. Waiting for the dust to settle and Qi to emerge as the dominant standard was undoubtedly part of that, but at the same time Apple was looking to “Think Different” in terms of how Qi charging would be handled, and from this desire came AirPower — a unique wireless charging pad that turned out to be so ambitious that it blew past its promised 2018 deadline and ultimately forced Apple to admit defeat and abandon the project entirely.
In its usual tenacious determination to do something different from the rest, however, Apple chose to approach the problem of getting reliable and efficient wireless charging from a different direction, leading to the birth of this year’s MagSafe technology — a set of circular magnets in every iPhone 12 that not only guarantees precise placement for wireless charging — offering charging speeds of up to 15W in the process — but has also opened the door to a whole new world of magnetically-attached accessories.
While we’d argue that some of these are of dubious value, especially considering they aren’t working as well as we might have hoped, creating an entire ecosystem of accessories based simply on a ring of magnets is something that we think only Apple could pull off, and in many ways it signals a whole new era for the iPhone.
Shoot Dolby Vision HDR Videos
Apple’s iPhone unveilings almost always herald at least one or two major “firsts” when it comes to new technologies — or even just new approaches to existing ones — but this year Apple really blew the doors off with the announcement that its iPhone 12 lineup would now offer native Dolby Vision HDR Recording, with up to 700 million colours, thanks to the power of Apple’s newest A14 chip.
It’s easy for those who aren’t steeped in professional video production to miss how big of a deal this really is. The iPhone 12 isn’t just the first iPhone, or even the first smartphone, to support native Dolby Vision HDR recording. It’s the first camera in the world to offer this capability—this is something that even professional studio-quality cameras can’t yet accomplish. Up until now, rendering a video in Dolby Vision HDR required an expensive mirrorless camera capable of 10-bit recording combined with a complex post-production process of “grading” HDR footage on a professional workstation with an expensive HDR “reference” monitor.
With the iPhone 12, however, the staggering amount of computational power baked into the A14 chip means that the iPhone can actually capture and process the camera’s sensor data and add on the Dolby Vision metadata in real-time, as it’s recording the video footage.
While Apple showed off the new Dolby Vision HDR recording features during the unveiling of the iPhone 12 Pro, it turns out that it’s also available on the standard iPhone 12 too, albeit in a very slightly more limited fashion: iPhone 12 Pro users will be able to record Dolby Vision HDR in 4K at 60fps, while iPhone 12 users will be limited to a 30fps frame rate.
Take ProRAW Photos
Apple has allowed users to shoot RAW photos on their iPhones since iOS 10 was released back in 2016, however doing so always required a compromise — you were forced to choose between getting a pure RAW photo or taking advantage of Apple’s advanced computational photography features.
For the first couple of years of RAW support, that wasn’t really a huge tradeoff, since there weren’t really all that many advanced photography features to lose, but with last year’s debut of Smart HDR, Deep Fusion, and Night Mode on the A13-equipped iPhone 11 models, suddenly this became something of a Hobson’s choice for many photographers: either shoot RAW for maximum editing flexibility or get much better photos on the front-end by taking advantage of the A13’s Neural Engine.
Fortunately, Apple has solved this dilemma with a new “ProRAW” format that it’s introduced with the iPhone 12 Pro, which allows a pure RAW photo to be encapsulated with all of the computational photography data calculated by the A14’s Neural Engine. When editing the photo later on, photographers can choose whether to apply some or all of this data selectively to the underlying pixel-by-pixel RAW image, giving them the best of all possible worlds.
Unfortunately, even though the iPhone 12 sports the same A14 chip as the iPhone 12 Pro, Apple has only added ProRAW support to the more expensive flagship models. It’s unclear if this is an artificial limitation to distinguish the higher-end model as a “Pro” device, or if there’s some technical reason for it, although it is worth noting that the iPhone 12 Pro does have 50 percent more RAM, which could account for the difference.
Save Battery Power When Using 5G
Perhaps the biggest improvement to the iPhone 12 this year was something that shouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody at all, and that’s the addition of 5G support to the entire lineup.
Much like we saw with the advent of 3G and LTE years ago, others beat Apple to releasing the first 5G smartphones, but Apple has arguably done a much better job here by waiting for the second-generation of more power-efficient 5G modem chips as well as baking in a new “Smart Data Mode” to save power by only using 5G when it’s actually needed.
The fact is that 5G still uses a lot more power than 4G LTE, and this is even more true if you’re using the ultra-fast mmWave 5G with its much higher frequencies. Testing has shown that the iPhone can lose as much as two hours of its normal battery life when surfing exclusively over a 5G connection.
This could be a serious battery killer if it weren’t for Apple’s Smart Data Mode, however, and while we’ll have to wait to see how it plays out in people’s everyday real-world experiences, it’s a fairly safe bet that most users probably won’t notice nearly as significant of a battery drain as long as they leave Smart Data Mode enabled (which it is by default), as the majority of what most folks do on their iPhones don’t require the extra speeds offered by 5G, and the 5G radios most certainly don’t need to be engaged when your iPhone is sitting in your pocket.
Survive More Drops
This year Apple has added a new “Ceramic Shield” to all of its iPhone 12 models, which is promises offers up to 4X stronger protection against drops than prior iPhone models, and probably even most other competing smartphones.
The new glass was developed in partnership with Corning, likely as an upgrade to its Gorilla Glass 6 which is used in many other smartphones, and tests so far have borne out its increased durability against impacts, although it’s not necessarily that much more scratch-proof than prior iPhone models.
We’re not sure this is enough to encourage you to go without a case or a screen protector, but that’s ultimately a matter of personal choice. It’s worth keeping in mind that the rear glass on the iPhone 12 hasn’t been improved in any way, so dropping an un-encased iPhone 12 on a hard surface could still result in shattering the back glass just as easily. Either way, however, all other things being equal, the iPhone 12 screen should be able to survive accidents much better than prior models.