Apple Launches iPhone 12 with Some Surprises

Published October 16, 2020

While the launch of the iPhone 12 was far from secret, Apple still managed to surprise with some of the attributes of the iPhone 12. Our latest understanding of their product specs are shown below along with some of the surprises.

mmWave on All Models!

The biggest surprise to me was mmWave 5G on all models. To date, mmWave has been focused on high-end models with an additional $100 premium for mmWave-based smartphones. Yet, Apple launched $699 and $799 5G AMOLED iPhones with mmWave and Sub-6 GHz for the US market . That is impressive. Is mmWave ready for broad usage? Not likely, but Verizon and AT&T now can justify even greater investment into mmWave given the large number of mmWave 5G phones that will be sold over the next year. It has the potential to really accelerate the growth of mmWave. The iPhone 12's use a Qualcomm X55 5G modem and an Apple-designed mmWave antenna with reduced thickness to fit into a 7.4mm package. The thinnest mmWave phone until the iPhone 12 was 7.6mm from Fujitsu. Apple also reduced the bezel thickness to just 3.27mm - 3.47mm depending on the phone. The added cost of the additional 5G circuitry should impact Apple’s margins on this product, but Apple will benefit from removing the charger and headphones.

Source: DSCC. *Battery and RAM specs are based on leaks, will need to wait for teardowns.

Form Factor – Thinner and Lighter!

Apple has reduced the thickness by 9% to 7.4mm on the Pro models. It also reduced the bezel width and slightly reduced the size of the notch. The 12 Pro Max weighed just 2g more than the 11 Pro Max at 228g vs. 226g despite the extra 5G circuitry and the display growing from 6.5” to 6.7”. The 6.1” 12 Pro weighs 189g vs. 188g on the 11 Pro which has a smaller display at 5.85”. This is impressive. There was an emphasis on a thinner design which some say was important to the flat-edged design used as shown below. The design looks a lot like the iPad Air which squared-off edges instead of the rounded ones used in the past few iPhones. The lighter weight and placement of the display also helps with its performance in drop tests as we describe later in this article.

It is all about trade-offs and the trade-off for Apple in reducing thickness was the adoption of a small battery, smaller than last year, which likely prevented the adoption of a higher refresh rate display as it would have sacrificed battery life. I think a lot of users would have liked to have had a higher refresh rate and a larger battery with similar or increased thickness as last year. Some Apple fans are really bothered by seeing Android phones with better specs at a lower price. But Apple isn’t selling specs, they are selling the whole experience which likely still gives them an advantage over most Android phones.

What About the Display?

The displays are what we thought they were. They are LTPS-based, 60Hz, Y-OCTA on the 5.4” and 6.7”, add-on touch at 6.1”. There was not a lot of attention paid to the displays during the launch. I am sure we will get more info from Ray Soneira of DisplayMate when he does his analysis. The brightness specifications are the same last year, but I imagine we may see some improvement when Ray does his thing. The same is true on color gamut. Are the Pro displays 10-bits and does that result in significantly better color performance? Looks like we will have to wait. We will be watching to see how the displays compare to recent Samsung models as well.

Ceramic Glass? Yes Please!

As we mentioned last week, Apple planned to announce Ceramic Shield which we thought was likely a modest variation of Gorilla Glass Victus, but it turns out there was more to it. Apple claimed 4X better drop performance with Ceramic Shield which it claimed was a glass ceramic. The glass-ceramic material was created by Corning in collaboration with Apple and consists of nano ceramic crystals embedded in the glass matrix. Corning did not mention ceramic when describing GG Victus, so we believe this is unique to Apple. When Corning launched the Gorilla Glass Victus, it had mentioned the ability to survive 2 meter drops vs. 1.6 meters on Gorilla Glass 6 and 2X better scratch resistance. 4X better drop performance is a lot better than the 25% promoted by Corning with Gorilla Glass Victus. We believe some of these improvements are in the material and some are in the implementation, read on…

Corning told us, “We can confirm that together with Apple’s team, we combined our deep expertise in materials science to develop a new-to-the world material. And with Apple’s support, we scaled up several next-gen manufacturing processes to make the front cover of the latest iPhone. Corning’s new material is the world’s first transparent and color-free glass-ceramic, which provides optical performance suitable for use as a cover material for smartphones."

We believe the Ceramic Shield material is likely the result of Apple's investment in Corning's Harrodsburg, Kentucky manufacturing plant. Apple has made two investments in Harrodsburg, $200 million in May 2017 and $250 million in September 2019. The latest investment likely funded the equipment for a new melting and forming process for the Ceramic Shield glass ceramic material.

We believe the 4X improvement in drop performance is likely related both to the material and the design. The drop performance is not just a function of how durable the cover is; it's also how the edges of the material are exposed, which Apple admits when they said, "Beyond Ceramic Shield, there’s one more thing that contributes to the durability of the front cover. It sits flush to the edge of the phone, which helps protect it even more. Altogether, we’ve quadrupled the drop performance — the largest year-over-year improvement ever for iPhone."

The weight of the phone is also a factor - more weight means more energy in a drop test that needs to be absorbed by the "shield". Apple may have decided to keep the weight as low as possible to help improve drop performance.

It’s the Camera Stupid!

The camera was where most of the innovation took place in the iPhone 12.

The iPhone 12 and 12 mini each have two cameras.

  • The main wide angle camera is still 12 MPs, but now has 7 elements and a larger f/1.6 aperture ratio that lets in 27% more light that hits the sensor compared to the 11. This should mean brighter, less noisy and/or less blurry images in low light according to The Verge.
  • The second ultrawide camera is believed to be similar to what is on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro with a f/2.4 lens with 120-degree field of view, a 5-element lens and a 13mm equivalent focal length.
  • Apple’s Deep Fusion computational photography system can be used on both lenses rather than just the wide angle and it operates faster.
  • Night mode can be used on both cameras. The 11 didn’t support night mode with the ultrawide.
  • A new night mode time-lapse feature.
  • Apple’s Smart HDR 3 system which automatically adjusts white balance and contrast in photos to make them look more natural.
  • HDR video with Dolby Vision at 30 fps.

iPhone 12 Pro

  • The iPhone 12 Pro adds a 3rd telephoto camera which is reportedly the same f/2.0, 52mm telephoto lens from the 11 Pro, but can now be used to take Deep Fusion photos.
  • The 12 Pro also has a LIDAR sensor which can really help with low light situations. Apple indicated the LIDAR sensor results in 6x faster autofocus in low light and lets you take Night Mode portrait photos.
  • 2X optical zoom in, 2X optical zoom out, 4X optical zoom range, 6X digital zoom.
  • HDR video with Dolby Vision, at up to 60fps vs. 30fps on non-Pro models.
  • Support for Apple’s ProRAW format which combines Apple’s computational photography with RAW which should be available by the end of the year.

iPhone 12 Pro Max

  • The 12 Pro Max main wide camera with 12MP, f/1.6 aperture gets an upgrade to 1.7um pixels, a 47% increase, which Apple claims results in an 87% improvement in low light photos. It also has sensor-shift optical image stabilization I tried to explain last week where the sensor shifts to offset any movement.
  • A longer 2.5X optical zoom in, 2X optical zoom out, 5X optical zoom range, 7X digital zoom.
  • A longer 65mm equivalent telephoto lens.
  • The ultrawide camera and the LIDAR sensor are the same.
  • The same software as on the Pro with Dolby Vision HDR at 60fps.
  • Support for Apple’s ProRAW format which combines Apple’s computational photography with RAW which should be available by the end of the year.

Mag Safe Chargers

MagSafe chargers provide a magnetic connection between the display and the wireless charger, so you don’t have to wonder if it is working. It is also fully functional unlike many other phones when used with wireless chargers. This is a nice improvement.

All in all, there were a lot of important developments and the teardowns and display performance tests may even show more. Stay tuned.

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Written by

Ross Young