Normally, we’d ask you to wait for your favorite consumer tech team to review the new iPhones before handing Apple your money. But we get it. Sometimes you just need to upgrade your phone as soon as possible.
This year’s annual iPhone event was a little different than in years past. Due to the pandemic, we didn’t get to fly out to Cupertino and get some real hands-on time with the new iPhones like we normally would. That said, you can expect our hands-on impressions and in-depth reviews in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we know enough about each iPhone to help you make a smarter decision now that preorders have officially begun. (A quick note: Today’s preorders are for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. Preorders for the iPhone Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max start Friday, Nov. 6, at 5 a.m. PT/8 a.m. ET.)
Buy the 128 GB iPhone 12.
Why iPhone 12?
Last year, we recommended the entry-level iPhone 11 for most people. That phone is sticking around in Apple’s lineup, but we like to err on the side of future-proofing. To be clear, you shouldn’t upgrade your phone just for 5G, but it is a thing, and if you want a phone that’s going to last you a while, it makes more sense to get the iPhone 12 with its ability to connect to next-gen networks. Plus, you get a new OLED panel and a better camera.
Performance-wise, you’re getting the same A14 Bionic processor in the iPhone 12 as the 12 Pro. They also both have the new Ceramic Shield displays, which are supposedly four times more drop resistant than the iPhone 11. And while we don’t yet know which phones have what battery, the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are both rated for 11 hours. In terms of price, the 128 GB model of the iPhone 12 is $880. That’s $120 cheaper than the base model iPhone 12 Pro, which also has 128 GB of storage.
Sure, it doesn’t have as many of the snazzy camera features as the iPhone 12 Pro, like the new telephoto camera, support for Apple’s ProRAW format, and the new LiDAR scanner. That said, even with only two cameras, it can do plenty. It’s got 2x optical zoom, a new ultra-wide-angle camera, and some new modes like Night Mode Timelapse. Unless you’re an avid photographer, these upgrades are more than enough for the average person.
Why 128 GB?
Unless you barely use your iPhone for anything, it’s tough to get by on 64 GB of storage these days. It’s only $50 more to upgrade to 128 GB for a total of $880, while it’s an extra $100 to get 256 GB. The combo of a 128 GB iPhone and cloud storage should be more than sufficient for most people. If you’re a power user, however, feel free to opt for the 256 GB version.
But which carrier should I choose?
In the past, we’ve tended to recommend Verizon, but the calculations are a lot more complicated this year. That’s because if you want 5G speeds, you might have to upgrade your existing plan, which adds a new level of math when figuring out what might be your best deal.
T-Mobile has the most well-rounded 5G network, because it’s leveraging low-, mid-, and high-band (millimeter wave) spectrum. AT&T and Verizon’s networks use low-band and mmWave, which means you get speeds just slightly faster than 4G on the low end and super-fast speeds but hard-to-find signal on the high end. T-Mobile’s use of mid-band lands somewhere in the middle.
T-Mobile also doesn’t force you to upgrade to an unlimited plan. If you’ve got a device that supports 5G, you’re good. AT&T requires you to sign up for one of its newer unlimited data plans: Unlimited Starter, Unlimited Extra, or Unlimited Elite. If you’re on an older unlimited plan, you’ll be stuck with 4G LTE, which the carrier misleadingly calls 5G E. Don’t be fooled: It’s not 5G. Verizon splits the difference. As it announced during the iPhone 12 event, its new network will be available to everyone regardless of what plan you’re on. If you want the fastest 5G speeds, however, you’re going to have to opt for one of its newer unlimited plans: Do More, Get More, or Play More.
You also have to take into account each carrier’s trade-in deals. AT&T has the most generous offer of the three. New and existing customers with an iPhone 8 or newer are eligible for an $800 trade-in, which makes the iPhone 12 basically free. The only catch is you need an unlimited data plan and you have to pledge fealty to AT&T for 30 months. T-Mobile is giving customers up to an $850 credit if they add a line and trade in an iPhone XS, XS Max, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max. If you’ve got an iPhone 11, XR, X, 8, or 8 Plus, you can get $680. Even older phones will get $530 off. If you don’t add a line, the trade-in values are lower. If you’re part of a couple, you could also get two iPhones 12 for $100 a month with an unlimited data plan, but you have to trade in two eligible iPhones. Verizon has the weakest offering: You get an $800 trade-in but only if you have an iPhone X or newer, and you have to be a new customer or adding a new line.
Confused? Yeah, we don’t blame you.
...But if you really are a “pro,” maybe you should just get a 256 GB 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max.
Yes, the iPhone 12 Pro models are pricey, but these days, some of us use our phones more than our laptops. If you’re a photographer or video producer, you might want the extra video and photography capabilities on the 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max. That said, you shouldn’t settle for the base storage model; if you’re really heavy into creative work, you’ll run out of space super quickly even with 128 GB.
The 12 Pro and Pro Max both have that telephoto lens and sweet LiDAR sensor. The Pro will get you 2x optical zoom, while the Pro Max gets you 2.5x optical zoom. Both support Apple’s ProRAW format, and you can record Dolby Vision HDR at 4K resolution at 60 frames per second.
Bumping up storage to 256 GB on the Pro is pricey at $1,100, but well worth the expense if you create a lot of content. It’s even more expensive on the Pro Max, which is $1,200 at 256 GB. Which one you should get depends on what size you prefer and if you want the cream of the crop. While the Pro Max has a slightly larger sensor in the wide camera for better low-light photos and image stabilization for blur, that might not be worth the premium. When it comes to size, there’s a huge disparity: The Pro is 6.1 inches, while the Pro Max is even bigger than last year’s Max model at 6.7 inches.
But what if my tiny hands hate big phones?
Good news, friend: You can get the iPhone 12 Mini! It starts at $700 and has a 5.4-inch display, but includes all of the same features as the iPhone 12, including that zippy A14 Bionic processor and OLED display. It’s actually smaller than the iPhone SE, but has a larger screen because you don’t have those hideous bezels. You also get two cameras to the SE’s one.
Am I really losing out with the iPhone SE, though?
That depends on what you value. The SE is $400, which is tough to beat if you’re on a budget. Apple’s cheapest phone has an A13 Bionic processor, just like the iPhone 11, though the its design is a little outdated with a pint-sized 4.7-inch display and a single rear camera lens. But if you prefer Touch ID to Face ID, this is the only iPhone that still has it.
Should I get the iPhone 11 or XR?
Probably not, though the iPhone 11 is still a good phone and is now reduced to $600. It’s $200 less than the iPhone 12, which also has a 6.1-inch display. However, you’re opting for an LCD display and a slightly older A13 processor with the 11, which is still good, just not the best. If you don’t give a flying flip about 5G, this could be a decent budget choice, as the cameras are still pretty good.
You absolutely should not get the XR. Forget it exists. The XR has an A12 Bionic processor, meaning it’s slower than the SE, which costs $100 less. Your storage options are capped at 128 GB, and the camera isn’t particularly great by today’s standards. If you really want to save money by getting an older phone, you’re better off with the iPhone 11.
Correction, 10:05 a.m.: Clarified that the T-Mobile trade-in deals are if you add a line and that the values are lower if you only do a trade-in. We regret the error.