Apple iPhone 12 vs. iPhone 12 Pro Review

We compare the Apple iPhone 12's and 12 Pro's design, camera quality, battery life, and user experience to help pick the right one for you.

Tshaka Armstrong
YouTube Host, Mobile
Read More
March 17, 2021
11 min read

Should you upgrade to the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Pro? And what's the difference between them?

Both the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are great upgrades over anything older than the iPhone 10. But when we compared the iPhone 12 to the Pro, the iPhone 12 Pro stood out because it offers a better battery, a better camera array, and better video capabilities.

Here are the main comparison points:

Handset color options: The iPhone 12 color selection is varied and vibrant, whereas the iPhone Pro 12 colorways are more lowkey.
Battery life:  Based on our testing, the iPhone 12 seems to have a shorter battery life than the 12 Pro.
Display: Quality on both is exceptional, and you can't go wrong with either.
Cameras: Both have a 12-megapixel front-facing camera. The iPhone 12 has two rear cams: a wide angle and ultra-wide angle lens. The 12 Pro has three rear cams: the wide, the ultra-wide, and a telephoto lens for closeups.
Night mode: The iPhone 12 Pro has LIDAR for better night mode shots and more lifelike virtual and enhanced reality experiences.

Let's dig into the details.

View popular unlimited plans for the iPhone 12 Pro (128 GB model)

Apple iPhone 12 vs. Apple iPhone 12 Pro design

Both phones are beautiful in different ways

For testing, I have both the Pacific blue iPhone 12 Pro and the (PRODUCT)RED iPhone 12. [Editor's note: According to Apple's website, iPhone 12s purchased in this special (PRODUCT)RED colorway contribute directly to the Global Fund to combat COVID‑19.]

The 12 Pro has a beautiful stainless steel band around it with a high-gloss finish that does have an affinity for fingerprints. But I use a MagSafe-compatible blue case most of the time, so that wasn't an issue for me.

On the iPhone 12, you'll get the same design, but in aluminum with a more matte finish. So if you go caseless with the iPhone 12, you're going to see fewer fingerprints than you would with the 12 Pro.

Speaking of the trim, that's one of the big design changes this year. Instead of the rounded or chamfered edges like the iPhone 11, you get somewhat of a throwback industrial design that I'm sure is going to have its fans and its detractors. I fall squarely into the fan camp.

iPhone 12 and 12 Pro color options

The 12 Pro's Pacific blue is beautiful and looks great in daylight. And in low light can present as a bit gray. Or my eyes are just really bad. You can decide when you get yours. The red of the PRODUCT(RED) iPhone 12 is bright and vibrant as well. I like both colorways quite a bit, and that highlights one of the key differences between the 12 and 12 Pro.

The iPhone 12 comes in a variety of vibrant colors, whereas the options available for the 12 Pro tend to be on more muted side of things.

Buttons and ports

On the right side of the phone you'll find the sleep/wake Siri button. Bottom is the lightning port, half of the stereo speakers, and the microphone. On the left side, you'll find the volume buttons and alert toggle.


On the front of both the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, you get a 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED display with a 2532x1170 resolution at 460 pixels per inch. The display also touts Apple's new ceramic shield technology, which is supposed to make it more durable for drops but not necessarily more scratch-proof. Time will tell if that's true.

You don't get the 120 Hz refresh rate this year, but the phones still feel quite smooth and snappy—particularly if you haven't had the opportunity to use one of the newer 90 or 120 Hz phones.

View popular unlimited plans for the iPhone 12 (64 GB model)

Apple iPhone 12 vs. Apple iPhone 12 Pro accessories

No more free earbuds and charging bricks

There are no charging bricks in the boxes or earbuds. Plus, the charging cable you do get in the box is USB-C to lightning, and that means if you have an older iPhone charger (older than the 11), you're gonna be looking at purchasing some additional equipment to charge your phone.

I have another video that addresses this issue with some inexpensive options for both charging and using your older 3.5mm earbuds by themselves, or while charging in your car if you're using an aux port. If you're a serious music lover, you'll want to check out that video because I have some great devices to help you get the most out of the Bluetooth connection and still use your wired in-ear or over-ear headphones.

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Apple iPhone 12 vs. Apple iPhone 12 Pro battery life and charging

The iPhone 12 Pro outlasts the iPhone 12, but neither lasts the entire workday

The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are equipped with a new wireless charging technology that takes their wireless charging one step further, but let's talk about comparative battery life first.

Battery life

In my first week of use, I found the iPhone 12 Pro battery doesn't get me fully through my day without topping off. Day one, I took the 12 Pro off the charger around 3:30 a.m., and 12 hours later I was down to 16% battery and getting those Low Power Mode alerts. That was with a little less than four hours of screen-on time.

In subsequent days, I've pushed the iPhone 12 Pro closer to seven hours of screen-on time, running the battery down to 5% or less over 12 hours. Between my day job and these reviews, my days are long. So for some of you, this may be more than sufficient to get you through an eight or 10 hour workday.

Therein lies another difference between these two phones.

The saving grace with both versions of the 12 is their rapid wireless charging capabilities, which will get you to over 50% charge in roughly 30 minutes.

Wireless charging

Combining the Anker PowerPort Atom PD 4 charger, which can output up to 100 W, with the iPhone 12, which is rated at 20 W charging or better, I was able to charge the phone to 50% of its capacity in just 30 minutes without it actually getting hot. Using my thermal gun, the phone's temperature increased only 2˚ while charging via cable.

Apple's new phone charging technology, the MagSafe charger, is rated for 15 W. Using the MagSafe, the phone charged less effectively, reaching only 16% charge in 30 minutes. It runs hotter, too, increasing 7˚ in temperature during that time.

How does the MagSafe charger work?

I wanna spend a few more moments here looking at the MagSafe charger because I think you're going to see a whole new ecosystem of Apple and third-party products develop around this technology.

Apple, during their event, already showed off some accessories that utilize the magnets. But these magnets are so strong, I think you can expect to see a host of desktop stands and car mounts and all kinds of other mounts, I'm sure.

One thing to be aware of is that these magnets are strong as you pull them apart, but as you slide them they tend to move apart more easily. So as MagSafe accessories are developed, which go into your pocket along with your phone, we'll see how Apple and others tackle that potential issue.

View popular unlimited plans for the iPhone 12 Pro (256 GB model)

Apple iPhone 12 vs. Apple iPhone 12 Pro display and user interface

Both the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro provide an amazing user experience

You know what else is magnetic? The user experience. Wallpapers on the iPhone 12 Pro's display are rich and vibrant. Moving around the interface is snappy, though having played with other 120 Hz displays, there's definitely a difference.

Watching content on any version of the iPhone 12, you won't be disappointed by the visuals or the sound. The dynamic range of this OLED is indeed very satisfying, and the dual stereo speakers are the loudest I've tested this year so far. Using the Decibel X app while watching YouTube, the dB meters showed an average of 80 decibels at max volume and maxed out at 89 decibels.

The dual stereo speakers on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are the loudest I've tested this year so far.

Going through my Netflix playlist, Our Planet: Coastal Seas looks great—no complaints there, especially with the speaker volume. The narrator for the show cuts through in a manner which makes the dialogue so present. You'll never struggle to hear it.

And The Witcher presents the audio soundtrack the same way. Dialogue is clear, and for small speakers they do a solid job of broadcasting the stereo image in the great hall. For The Witcher, which can be dark on some displays, the iPhone 12's and 12 Pro's displays are nice and bright, and the colors pop like they should. You aren't going to have any issues enjoying any content on the 12 Pro or the 12.

Apple iPhone 12 vs. Apple iPhone 12 Pro cameras

Only the iPhone 12 Pro has a telephoto lens and LIDAR

But what about those cameras? We know that's what you're here for, so let's get into it.

Front-facing cameras

Let's hit that front-facing camera first, which is the same on both the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro.

You may not have noticed, but I have seven tribbles permanently attached to my face. And that makes it hard for a mediocre camera AI to cut out the edges of my beard for portrait photography, which uses algorithms to produce that beautiful background blur.

But with the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, portrait, night mode, and low-light shots look great with the front-facing camera. With the A14 bionic chip, neural engine processing, the Deep Fusion tech, and wide color capture, you've got a really capable front 12-megapixel camera.

The iPhone 12's and 12 Pro's front-facing camera is not only good, but it's consistent. And you'll get Dolby Vision HDR video recording out of this front camera at up to 30 frames per second. What this means is that your video should have brilliant colors and deep blacks. I'm definitely looking forward to getting more time with this.

Rear cameras

So what about those rear cameras? On the iPhone 12, you'll get two: a wide angle and ultra-wide angle lens. With the 12 Pro, you're gonna get three—you get the same wide and ultra-wide as the iPhone 12, but with the addition of the telephoto lens for closeups. The iPhone 12 Pro cameras have a 4x optical zoom range.

The iPhone 12 has optical image stabilization on the wide angle lens, while the iPhone 12 Pro has it on both the wide and ultra-wide.

And eventually, the iPhone 12 Pro (and not the iPhone 12) will have the advantage of supporting Apple's new image format, Apple ProRaw.

Night mode and LIDAR

The other big difference between these phones is that the iPhone 12 Pro has LIDAR and the iPhone 12 does not. LIDAR should give you better night mode shots and AR and VR experiences, so let's take a look at those night mode shots on the 12 Pro.

Now, I will say up front that my low-light image tests weren't the best for showing off the iPhone 12 Pro, but its performance did improve over the 11 Pro Max. In my experience, the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra fares better, as does the Pixel 4A. If night mode performance really matters to you, you can check out my review of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra here, and my review of the Pixel 4A here.

But in a more real world test—my "metro stop at night" test—the iPhone 12 Pro produced one of the best night mode shots of any phone I've tested recently. The contrast, clarity, colors, and detail in the image are stunning compared to almost every other smartphone night mode I've tested.

And the images look fantastic on this Super Retina XDR display. Zooming in, you can see those palm fronds in magnificent detail, from the hearts of the leaves to the hanging fingers of the fronds against that night sky. The palm trees trunks are sharp and detailed as well. You can even see the texture in the trunks.

I have to say that I'm quite impressed with the low-light capability of the iPhone 12 Pro's cameras.

In this shot taken of my car's instrument panel at night, when you zoom in you can see where I did a sad job of wiping the display and left a nice film across it.

But more important, the contrast and detail in the light to dark areas, the shadows and highlights really give you a sense of the depth of the inlaid panel. You can see where Deep Fusion imaging technology really works to bring the textures and details to life in these night mode shots.

Of course daylight photos are beautiful and richly detailed. Here's my pooch, after our morning hike.

Notice the detail in her fur and the blades of grass. And this was on a very overcast morning, which is actually really good for photography. Colors are bright and vibrant without looking oversaturated.

HDR video capture and image stabilization

While we were on that hike with the dog, I took some video so we could get a look at the image stabilization, and I can report that it doesn't disappoint.

As you can see in the video, this is a heck of a trail. It's called "the Butt Blaster." It is steep, and there's a portion of it that's very rocky. One thing I noticed, which I see on most other cameras, is a lack of jitter. When cameras compensate for movement, they tend to have this jittery movement to the captured videos, but not the iPhone 12 Pro. The video captured is smooth. And the colors it captured on this overcast morning are nice and vibrant and natural.

iPhones have always had very solid video recording, but the range of color and depth of detail with the new iPhone 12 Pro's HDR recording and playback is stunning, even in low light.

Apple iPhone 12 vs. Apple iPhone 12 Pro 5G capabilities

5G speeds everything up, including battery drain

Let's wrap this review up by talking about 5G, which is both a blessing and a curse here.

One blessing is the high download and upload speeds that 5G offers. The speeds I recorded with the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro were anywhere from 38 megabits per second (Mbps), all the way up to 634 Mbps. More on that momentarily, but those speeds represent a big step up from 4G LTE.

Another blessing is having a phone that has the most 5G bands on the market, which means your iPhone 12 or 12 Pro should work across all carriers and in the most situations where 5G is accessible.

The curse comes from the fact that using 5G on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro does impact battery life, no doubt about it.

In my case, I tested the phones on T-Mobile's network. We've conducted speed tests on T-Mobile's network before, and we rank it near the top. In my 5G testing with the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, I was able to get up to 634 Mbps download and almost 100 Mbps upload speeds while positioned 100 yards from one of T-Mobile's 2.5 GHz towers. That's the fastest of any phone we've tested so far.

But I'm not always 100 yards from a 5G tower. The rest of the time I was anywhere from 31 to 88 Mbps in my day-to-day travels, which have expanded now that I'm back in the office and not working from home any longer.

The 31 Mbps isn't impressive for 5G speeds, but one of the tidbits people often leave out when discussing 5G—especially when you can see LTE advanced speeds higher than 31 Mbps—is latency or buffering. Even before I had a full grasp of what 5G technologies are and how they operate, the main thing I noticed early on was that my video content loaded faster. Playing content from YouTube, Vimeo, or Netflix in areas where my 5G connection was underwhelming was still a better experience than on 4G, where I'd be sitting, waiting for the video to load, buffer, then play.

Apparently, Apple may have had a hint that 5G would have an impact on the battery, because you can take one simple step to minimize the drain.

In the Settings menu, go to the Cellular menu, then the Cellular Data Options menu, then the Voice & Data menu. There you can switch the phone to 5G On, 5G Auto, or LTE.

Selecting 5G Auto will make it so that the phone uses 4G for tasks which it is well-suited for, like streaming music, but as soon as it recognizes you're doing something that requires more horsepower, 5G kicks in like Jim Kelly (not the football player, but the martial arts expert from Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones).

Recap: Are the iPhone 12 or 12 Pro worth the upgrade?

It really depends on what you're doing with it and what phone you're upgrading from, but I can definitely say that the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are a step up from the iPhone 11 Pro. And they are absolutely a worthy upgrade over anything that came before the iPhone 10.

I'd say that the 12 Pro is the more impactful upgrade than the iPhone 12, though the iPhone 12 is also most certainly a worthy upgrade over anything which came before the iPhone 10.

The bottom line is that if quality photo and video matters to you, and you can swing it financially, go for the iPhone 12 Pro over the iPhone 12.

View popular unlimited plans for the iPhone 12 Pro (128 GB model)

Hey, we don't take it lightly that you spent your time watching with us. And we thank you. If you have any questions or comments about the iPhone 12 Pro or the iPhone 12, please leave them in the comments section below.

Tshaka Armstrong
Written by
Tshaka Armstrong
Tshaka is a nerd and Griot. Founder of the non-profit digital literacy organization Digital Shepherds, he’s also been a broadcast technology reporter, writer, and producer. In addition to being an award-winning broadcast storyteller, he’s also covered tech online and in print for everything from paintball gear technology, to parenting gadgets. He blathers on about his many curiosities on social media everywhere as @tshakaarmstrong.

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