“It is really easy to make a new product that’s bigger. Everyone does that. The challenge is to make it better and smaller,” Phil Schiller had said while announcing the iPhone 5 in 2012. “A phone should feel great in your hand and more importantly, it should be easy to use with this magical device we all carry, called the thumb.”
The iPhone 5 was the first iPhone to break with convention. It came with a 4-inch screen. All the previous models dating back to the original were 3.5-inch iPhones. Over the coming years, Apple would go on to launch even bigger iPhones. The iPhone 12 Pro Max, today, stands tall at 6.7-inch–the biggest iPhone ever. Regardless of all this, Apple continued to make small iPhones stay relevant in one way or the other. But whether or not it was (also) making them better is subject to debate.
This is because the last few iterations were spun off as budget iPhones which meant, even though they were good, they weren’t necessarily great iPhones. With the iPhone 12 Mini, Apple has finally made a great small iPhone again. It is the perfect size for everything, including your thumb.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about a phone with the words mini or lite attached to it? Nine out of ten times, a mini or lite phone will be supposedly designed to bring ‘high-end’ technology to a relatively more ‘accessible’ price point, so more people can afford it — it is about finding the right balance between features and compromises. It is a slippery slope.
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The iPhone 12 Mini is that one rare phone that keeps things simple. No tall claims. No huge expectations. It is what it is. A ‘mini’ iPhone 12. That is all that there is to it. You know what you are getting into, you know what to expect, you know that it is going to be a no-compromise affair, and you sure as hell know, it will not come cheap.
The big new update is the size really. The iPhone 12 Mini is a 5.4-inch iPhone (while the iPhone 12 is 6.1-inch). The updated design scheme, which is blast-from-the-past-meets-present-day in the best possible way, means, the iPhone 12 Mini occupies an even smaller footprint than the 2020 edition of iPhone SE (that is a 4.7-inch screen in a 5.5-inch body)–Apple’s smallest current-gen iPhone. The iPhone 12 Mini is also ‘much’ lighter. You have to hold it to believe it. They just don’t make them this small anymore.
The squared-off edges, which additionally have a soft matte finish, are a nice touch. The back panel is all-glass. The front is protected by Apple’s ceramic shield which makes it 4x more resistant to drops–same as the iPhone 12, 12 Pro, and 12 Pro Max. The camera module sits near flush with the body which makes the phone wobble-free and less susceptible to mishap. My review unit has been scuffle-free so far (that’s after more than two months of usage without a case) so I would go out on a limb and say, it is built to last. The iPhone 12 Mini is also water resistant to a depth of 6 metres for up to 30 minutes, same as the iPhone 12, 12 Pro, and 12 Pro Max.
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Perhaps an even bigger deal is Apple not cutting any corners when it comes to the ‘mini display’. Both its quality and feature-set are at par with the iPhone 12, and even the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max. It is 1080p OLED and HDR-ready with good colour reproduction and ample brightness. It is signature Apple, and you can’t go wrong with it. Lack of a high refresh rate does not hurt as much on the Mini as it does on the Max.
This also has to do with the way iPhone hardware usually works. Everything is just so well optimized. The whole thing is crafted with meticulous care and the experience is similar whether it is an iPhone SE, an iPhone 12 Mini, or an iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple software is kinder to smaller screens – even after all this time – so this makes its latest and greatest ‘small iPhone’ feel more like a ‘max’ rather than some mini update. Aside from the lesser RAM, the iPhone 12 Mini (4GB) has the same guts as the iPhone 12 Pro Max (6GB)–which is the 5nm A14 Bionic chip. More importantly, both the iPhone 12 and its mini version have the same amount of RAM. Base storage also starts at 64GB in both the phones.
Software is iOS 14 (iOS 14.4 at the time of writing this review). Apple usually supports its iPhones for upwards of four years at least, something that no other Android phone can guarantee. The iPhone 12 Mini, like the iPhone 12, and even the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, also supports 5G, which adds another level of futureproofing to the package.
Rounding off the package are two 12MP cameras, one wide with f/1.6 aperture and OIS, and another ultrawide-angle with f/2.4 aperture. This is same as the iPhone 12. Unless telephoto is what you are specifically looking for, the iPhone 12 Mini is one of the best camera phones in and around its price point at both still photography as well as video recording. Image quality is in line with what we’ve come to expect from iPhones, which is to say that photos come out nice and vibrant (without going overboard) with good dynamic range. Night mode is generally impressive, though, the ‘pro’ iPhones with their dedicated LiDAR sensor can focus faster and capture more detailed low-light photos. The iPhone 12 Mini also can’t do night portraits. But then the iPhone 12 Mini can do everything that the iPhone 12 can including Dolby Vision recording (@30fps) which is the bigger deal.
Credit must be given where it is due, and there’s little doubt that the iPhone 12 Mini is an engineering marvel. It is not without its limitations, but, just like its many pros, its idiosyncrasies are also on very expected lines.
A big trade-off for most people will be the screen size. Most people have, over time, moved on to larger screens. They would rather pick the iPhone 12. I would pick the iPhone 12. But at the same time, the iPhone 12 Mini’s screen size will not be a deal breaker for those (still) invested in smaller phones. That number may be small, but there is surely an audience.
These are the people who embraced the iPhone SE with arms wide open, but maybe, just maybe, they would have happily picked up something more ‘next-gen’ if Apple had done this earlier. These are also the people who have been holding on to an iPhone 6S/7/8 (or the first-gen iPhone SE), in the hopes that Apple would – someday – launch a great small iPhone again. Apple’s extended software support ensures even an iPhone as old as the iPhone 6S (which was launched in 2015) can ‘officially’ run iOS 14, but it will be a good idea to upgrade now.
The bigger concern is that the iPhone 12 Mini has disappointing battery life (by today’s standards). It is worse of all the iPhone 12 models. It is better than the iPhone SE 2020 but that is not a high benchmark, anyway. This is not a comfortable 1-day phone, but one that you will need to charge multiple times depending on how you use it. Gaming, taking photos and videos, obviously, depletes the battery faster. Doing those things occasionally entails slightly better results. You can get close to a full ‘working’ day doing just the basics, but I am more concerned about how this thing fares when everybody can go out and about eventually, or when 5G arrives in India.
Like the iPhone 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, the iPhone 12 Mini also supports MagSafe ‘magnetic’ wireless charging though it maxes out at 12W (while the other iPhones can peak 15W). There is no charger and EarPods in the box.
Just for comparison’s sake, the iPhone 12 Mini has the ‘tiniest’ sounding dual speakers of all the iPhone 12 models, though they sound better (and fuller) than many competing Android phones. Not to mention, the haptics on this thing are just phenomenal.
Lastly, the iPhone 12 Mini’s 12MP front camera (which is the same as on the other iPhone 12 models) could do better, next to competition. Also, the pandemic has shown, some form of ‘physical’ biometrics would be appreciated in future iPhone models (though Apple is ramping up Face ID to make it faster with masks but then, the workaround requires the owner to also have an Apple Watch.)
It is difficult to recall the last time, any brand – including Apple – launched a no holds barred compact flagship. I think it was Samsung with the Galaxy S10e. That phone came out in early 2019. Samsung hasn’t gone down that road since. The Google Pixel 3 also comes to mind. That phone came out in late 2018. The Pixel 4 that followed, was slightly bigger, and it was never launched in India. Apple itself hasn’t made such a phone since 2017 even though it is the only brand trying to keep this form factor alive to this day.
One of the plausible explanations behind this can be traced back to Apple’s own iPhone 5 launch event in 2012. Phones have been getting bigger since then, or maybe even sometime before that. Which brings us to the present day when Apple is also contributing extensively to the ‘bigger is better’ adage, opening more and more possibilities for people, whether it is to work or be entertained. A phone isn’t just about making phone calls anymore. It is a complex multi-tasking ‘mini’ computer in the palm of your hands. And the moment you enter the flagship territory, it is only fair, you want nothing short of the best, including a big screen and, a bigger battery.
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More often than not, a phone like the iPhone 12 Mini, even though it is a remarkable feat of engineering, will fall short of meeting consumer demands, which in turn will reflect in sales (that’s what we have been hearing for a while now). At a certain point, the cost of custom-building components to make a phone like the iPhone 12 Mini will not be justified when compared to the demand, and the future of a certain iPhone 13 Mini may be jeopardized (that’s why competition just doesn’t do it anymore).
But does that mean the iPhone 12 Mini is a flop? Far from it. The iPhone 12 Mini in fact, is one of the boldest pieces of technology that exists today, one that deserves the same respect and adulation as a foldable like the Galaxy Fold, or any other device that is trying to break stereotypes despite the many challenges.
My only gripe with the iPhone 12 Mini is that Apple could have priced it lower in India. But it is what it is. My only hope is, Apple should totally make the iPhone 13 Mini.
- Compact flagship
- Fast performance
- Apple software support
- Fantastic cameras
- Battery life could be better
- Price could be lower