Why I’m skipping the iPhone 12 this year

I typically wait 2 to 3 years before upgrading my cell phone, with my main motivation being meaningful camera updates. The last standalone camera I bought was back in 2014 (a gently used Ricoh GR which is still going strong), and I haven’t felt the need to buy another because most of the pictures I now shoot are with my phone, and I only dust off the big camera for special vacations or events.

I’m currently using an iPhone XS and was really looking forward to getting the new iPhone 12 Pro that is soon to be released. But once I saw Apple’s presentation and reviewed the camera specs, I decided to wait until next year. Here’s the reason why.

The biggest camera upgrade was reserved for the iPhone 12 Pro Max. I loved how in the last 2 generations (XS and 11 series), the only difference between the small phone and the big phone was the size. Everything else from a technology standpoint was the same.

No longer. In order to get the best camera tech, you have to buy the 6.7 inch Max: the big chonkin gargantuan phone that is an order of magnitude too big for my purposes. Even the smaller iPhone 12 Pro is bordering on being uncomfortably large, so getting a bigger phone was not a good option for me. It’s disappointing to see Apple revert to this in an obvious attempt to drive people toward the larger, more expensive phone.

They’ve done this in the past. With the iPhone 6 series, Apple reserved optical image stabilization (OIS) for the 6 Plus. There was no reason other than financial for this decision, as 2 years later OIS was brought to the smaller iPhone 7 which looks and feels exactly the same as the iPhone 6. With the iPhone 7 series, they did the same thing where only the larger 7 Plus got a dual lens setup. As we can see with the upcoming iPhone 12 mini, it is certainly possible to fit 2 camera lenses into a smaller phone body; Apple simply chose not to in order to encourage people to spend the extra cash on the large model.

With this year’s 12 series, the only meaningful camera upgrade is the larger 1/1.7 inch sensor found in the main module on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Bigger sensor = more light collecting ability = better photo quality with all other factors being equal.

iPhone modelMain camera Sensor Size
4, 4S, 51/3.2
5S, 61/3 (8 megapixel)
6S, 7, 8, X1/3 (12 megapixel)
XS, XR, 11 series, 12, 12 Mini, 12 Pro1/2.5
12 Pro Max1/1.7
For those of you unfamiliar with sensor size lingo, the larger the sensor the better. The 3GS sensor has a surface area of approximately 0.25 inches, compared to the newest 12 Pro Max which has a surface area of approximately 0.59 inches, which is over twice the size.

From a technical standpoint, there is absolutely no legitimate reason Apple couldn’t have put the improved camera module into the smaller iPhone 12 Pro, or even in the mini. The main practical design limitation of shoving a larger sensor into a device is the distance between the front of the camera lens to the surface of the sensor, which is a function of how thick the phone is. This is why all of the iPhone models after the iPhone 5S have a “camera bump” which is where the camera lens protrudes more than the rest of the phone surface. This extra thickness is required to provide the necessary distance for the camera lens to bend incoming light rays to give you that sharp, in-focus picture of your cat.

Guess what? The thickness of the iPhone 12, 12 Pro, 12 Pro Max, and 12 Mini are all exactly the same: 7.4 mm. If they can fit the bigger sensor into the 12 Pro Max, they can easily fit it into the other smaller phones (and from the what I’ve read, they will do so in next year’s models while likely providing some bogus “engineering miracle” explanation). But Apple chose not to because they want to sell more of the $1099 phones.

I’ll be holding off until next year when hopefully the normal sized iPhone 13 (or whatever it ends up being called) will contain the best available camera tech.


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