Review – iPhone 12 Mini

New iPhone releases used to be a big deal. I stood in line for hours at the Apple store in 2008 to purchase the then-brand-new iPhone 3G. I did the same in 2010 for the iPhone 4. Apple Store employees fed us yogurt while we waited.

I had been holding on to my most recent iPhone, a jet black iPhone 7 (which I only bought because my iPhone 5 was on its last legs), since the second Obama administration for no other reason than that Apple had not released a compelling new phone. As my phone showed its age more and more Apple kept releasing unexciting and expensive gigantic phones, some of them with so-called “edge to edge” screens, eliminating the home button. Apple revived the “SE” name, but this time, rather than being used for a smaller phone, the name was used for a “current spec” phone inside an iPhone 6-through-8 style body.

With the 12 series, Apple has finally offered pretty much the phone I had been asking for – an edge-to-edge-style phone in a smaller package . . . and with flat edges reminiscent of the iPhone 4 and 5.

I received my 128 gigabyte black iPhone 12 from Verizon a couple weeks ago after switching from T Mobile. With a slimmer box than previous phones, Apple no longer includes earbuds or an AC wall wart with the phone, but they do include a USB-C to lightning cable (as opposed to a USB to lightning cable), which I appreciate since Apple’s new products, including my new 13″ MacBook Pro, have USB-C. There is also a SIM removal tool in the box, which I did not need to use.

The setup process in transferring data from my iPhone 7 was the easiest and slickest I have experienced yet. The phones immediately recognized the presence of one another, and both phones gave me some choices and were wirelessly transferring data in no time. The new 12 Mini photographed my videotaped continuously from various angles to set up face ID. Classic Apple.

Speaking of classic Apple, the style of the iPhone 12 very much recalls the 4 and 5 in that it has flat edges, as opposed to the rounded edges of the 6 through 11 series (and the original and 3G, for that matter). This is a welcome change, as I preferred that style, but it absolutely seems like once-innovative Apple is recycling old ideas. They might as well release a new Mac Pro styled after the Quadra 700.

I opted for glossy black, and the edge to edge black glass panel very much recalls the iPhone 4. It even smudges just like it. The matching black edges, on the other hand, recall the iPhone 5. (The iPhone 4, you may remember, had brushed aluminum edges.)

Although it is the smallest phone Apple has released since the original SE back in 2016, the 12 Mini is not all that “mini.” It is basically the size a standard 7 or 8 series would be with the rounded edges removed. Since it is smaller than my old 7 yet has a larger screen it has a strange way of simultaneously feeling both larger and smaller than the old phone.

While the phone does not really project an overwhelming since of “mini,” its long-and-narrowness gives it somewhat of a strange “remote control” quality. I would not call it an iPhone “Mini” so much as an iPhone “Slim.”

One thing that is interesting about the phone that people have not been noting is the phone’s thickness. Back in 2014 or 2015 Apple was infamously making phones so thin they would bend. Each generation since has been progressively thicker, and now the 12 series, which is thicker than the 5 or SE, is the thickest series of phone Apple has made since the 4.

While the camera is excellent, it protrudes from the casing in a way that would be more excusable if the phone were very thin. I do not think Steve Jobs would have approved of all these protruding cameras.

Since I am upgrading from a 7, many of the features of the 12 Mini that are new to me came about in generations 8 through 11.

The biggest of those features is the “edge to edge” display. Note the quotation marks. It would be cool if the display actually stretched from edge to edge. It does not. There is as much of a black box around the display as there is around the display on the iPhone 7, except this time there is no space wasted by a home button, and the display wraps around a notch for the ear speaker.

I am not one of those “I can’t imagine losing the home button” folks, but I also was not begging for more screen real estate, and the workarounds for no longer having a home button are not always elegant.

Much of the home button’s functionality has been replaced by a “swipe up” motion from the bottom. That’s all fine and dandy, but touch ID is gone, replaced by facial recognition, that does not really work any better (and has some of its own flaws, like not working in the dark, or with the face masks we are all wearing these days), and since facial recognition doesn’t have the element of consent that touching a physical home button has, it is not used for things like making payments. “Touch the thumbprint reader if you agree” works. “Look at the phone if you agree” does not.

Many other functions of the home button, including verifying payment with Apple Pay and taking screen shots, have been replaced by the on/off button and combinations of the on/off and volume buttons. Because a “swipe up” motion is now used for many home button functions, “swipe up” can no longer be used for that screen with the flashlight and stuff. Now that screen is accessed with a “swipe down from the upper right” motion. Yep, the upper right. It took me a while to figure out how to switch between open apps (swipe up from the bottom but move to the side). The swipe up solution works for me, but increased demands on the power on/off button aren’t speaking my language. Here’s why.

Part of the reason for removing the home button is removing a mechanical switch. Mechanical switches are bad. Somehow the touch screen never has any problems, but over time the physical buttons, including the home, power, volume, and sound on/off switch, can start to act flaky or stop working entirely. The home button on my 3G mostly stopped working, and the sound on/off switch was iffy, having almost zero resistance. The on/off button on my 5 stopped working almost entirely.

Since the 7 (or maybe the 6S?) the home button has not been a mechanical button, so the home button’s problem was effectively solved. With some of the home button’s functionality being moved to the previously-rarely-used power on/off button, that button gets more of a workout than it otherwise would. I don’t like that, since I think the power button is a button that needs to disappear or be replaced with something more elegant that doesn’t protrude from the side of the case. (Ditto for the volume buttons and the sound on/off switch. What are they still doing on the new iPhones?)

Stock photo – Note gigantic protruding multi-lens camera (a very good one, I might add) and black band around “edge to edge” screen

There are some great things to say about the 12 Mini though. The camera takes beautiful pictures. The OLED display looks great, with the blackest blacks in the business. The phone generally has a nice feel in the hand.

But the large screen creates some problems with ergonomics even when it is placed on a smaller body. Reaching from one edge of the screen to the other is difficult on a large screen, even when said large screen is stretched onto a smaller body.

It is also not all that apparent what if anything is gained by the extra screen real estate at the bottom of the screen. It does not quite allow for an extra row of icons on the home screen (and why would we need that anyways?). When texting and doing other typing functions most of that part of the screen is empty, with empty aside from the swiping notch where the home button would be. The “dead space” surrounding the home button is still “dead” because adding any functionality down there would get in the way of typing. Maybe if I were a “gamer” I would appreciate the larger screen and wider aspect ratio. Then again, I can see the lack of symmetry caused by the ear piece notch being a problem for the “gamer” community. Who knows? I do think it is silly that people who spend lots of time playing video games these days have higher demands of what a computer or phone needs to do than people who do professional things like, say, desktop publishing.

It is a pleasant phone to type on. This is a place where the relatively smaller (or at least narrower) size is tangible.

The battery life is also very good, at least compared to the old iPhone 7 I had been using. It sort of stays at 100 percent for quite a while then starts losing battery at a faster rate, creating sort of a false sense of economy like cars the can travel a hundred miles before the needle dips below “F.” (People will tell you “My car gets really good fuel economy! I drove a hundred miles and the needle didn’t even MOVE! But they may forget how quickly the needle moved from “F” to the middle or the middle to “E.”) I’d say it’s as if the phone says the battery is at 100 percent until it is at 80 percent then starts being honest. This may be in the name of “advanced battery management” or something, as an 80 percent full battery is supposedly better than a full battery.

By the way, this phone finally has 5G. Although 5G is hard to come by, that will make the phone more future-proof, and it was one of the things I had been waiting for when skipping over previous generations. It also did not occur to me until this far into my review to mention arguably the phone’s biggest new feature because it has not been all that relevant. Yet.

The offering of a “mini” phone suggests Apple is at least aware that people would like a phone that is not the size of a cookie sheet, the OLED display and camera are great, and 5G should give it some staying power. Apple made a smaller phone that does not have lower specifications than the larger model, meaning this time you do not need to buy poster-sized phone to take good pictures. It may not be a perfectly-executed piece of phone, but with the 12 Mini Apple has made its best phone in years.

A-

Pros: Relatively smaller size; quick and easy setup routine; enhanced pocketability; great camera, beautiful OLED display; good battery life; comfortable to type on; comfortable and stylish flat edges; reduced packaging; handsome style is reminiscent of phones from Apple’s glory days; USB-C cable included; less expensive; includes all features of regularly sized model

Cons: Ergonomics of a larger screen on a smaller phone take some getting used to; odd remote control-like proportionality; an alternative to face ID and 6-digit password would be nice given the necessity of mask-wearing; still uses proprietary lightning port; still includes physical on/off button, volume buttons, and sound on/off switch; ear buds no longer included; expensive

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