Which Is The Smallest Phone With The Best Camera, iPhone 12 mini or iPhone 12 Pro?

Nov 7, 2020 • Extra Ordinary



Say you, like me, want the best camera in the smallest phone. Which do you get? Obviously, the iPhone 12 mini is the smaller phone and the iPhone 12 Pro has the better camera1. The tragic omission of a hypothetical iPhone 12 Pro mini from the lineup dictates people like you and me choose between the phone that is as mini as we want and the camera that is as great as we want.

The iPhone 12 mini has nearly all the same features of the iPhone 12 Pro, which is great for people who want a small phone, but disappointing for people who want the decision to be easily made for them. There should be an obvious my-best-choice and an obvious that’s-not-for-me. Weirdly, of the Steve Jobs-era of Apple, I miss most how he reduced choice. You didn’t choose an iPhone size; Steve decided that they should be just-so-big, and that was how all of them were. But I digress.

Is the iPhone 12 mini’s camera good enough for me to sleep well at night knowing I took good-enough-pictures? Will the pictures on the iPhone 12 Pro be better enough to justify its larger size? Let us explore.

iPhone 12 mini, you have the floor

I was prepared to be disappointed by the features omitted from the iPhone 12 mini before I watched the announcement. When the segment ended, however, I was convinced it was the phone for me.

Both phones

Both phones have mmWave 5G. Both phones have the same 1× and 0.5× lens. Both phones have a Ceramic Shield on the front glass for 4× better shatter resistance. Both phones have the same OLED display2. Both phones have, on the 1× lens, a 28% larger ƒ/2.4 aperture. Both phones feature Smart HDR 3 for better visual range in high-contrast lighting. Both phones bring the same high dynamic range to video recording. Both phones record Dolby Vision HDR3. On the other side, neither phone has a 120 Hz ProMotion display.

It is so delightfully small

After four years with the iPhone 7 Plus, I have dreams at night where I imagine reaching to the top of the screen with one thumb to press a button or to pull down Notification Center without shimmying the phone around in my hand. I type a text message in a hurry, and in my dream, I don’t have to activate the small one-handed keyboard because the phone is narrow enough as is. I awake from these dreams to the sound of the alarm coming from my iPhone 7 Plus, groggily reach for it to silence the noise and fumble with its incredible size and weight, no doubt worsened by its slippery aluminum body and rounded corners.

Weight is just as important as size. The iPhone 12 mini is the same weight as the original iPhone at just 135 grams. It has a light-weight aluminum frame and a grippy glass back panel. The iPhone 12 Pro is hardly any lighter than the iPhone 7 Plus thanks to its stainless steel body and hardly any easier to handle thanks to its slippery frosted glass finish on the back.

A downside to the materials difference is that the iPhone 12 isn’t as shiny as the iPhone 12 Pro. This influenced my decision making more than I care to admit.

iPhone 12 Pro, your rebuttal

The 2× lens

It is what I sold my soul for when I opted for the iPhone 7 Plus over the iPhone 7, and once again, it is what is tempting me away from the iPhone 12 mini. I created a Smart Album on my Mac to show me all the pictures I have taken with the 2× lens to see if I really use it as much as I think I do. Running the numbers, I use the 2× lens at least4 20% of the time. Am I really OK with not being able to take 1 in every 5 photos?

That’s not where the differences end

I was prepared to give up the 2× lens. I had time to come to terms with that since it was leaked five months in advance, but that’s not the whole story. The LiDAR Scanner—while I may only rarely use it for AR—is used by the camera for autofocus. As a result, autofocus on the iPhone 12 Pro is 6× faster. When recording video, the subject never goes out of focus because the iPhone is always acutely aware of how far away it is from the camera. The iPhone 12 Pro is also able to combine Portrait Mode with Night Mode to take low-light portraits. The iPhone 12 Pro has an extra 2 GB of memory for Apple ProRAW—allowing you to non-destructively edit and fine-tune the computational magic that goes on behind the scenes when you take a photo.

And the preorder goes too…

The smallest phone with the best camera is the iPhone 12 Pro. The nail in the coffin was when I thought about how it’s not just the >20% of all pictures I would lose. Every picture and video I take where the subject is slightly out of focus, I would wonder if the LiDAR Scanner would have helped. Every indoor Portrait Mode photo I take in the late evening that doesn’t come out good enough, I would wonder if Portrait Night Mode should have been used. Every time I think a picture is a little too dark or a little too saturated and use the built-in photo editor, I would wonder if I would be able to edit it a little better if it were shot with Apple ProRAW.

After all, it’s not that much bigger of a phone. The display is over half an inch larger, sure—but considering the weird aspect ratios the displays are these days, it only adds up to 7.3 mm of extra width. Sure, if I’m texting with one hand, I have to stretch my thumb a little bit to tap the Send button. And yes, I occasionally invoke Reachability to tap buttons on the very top of the screen.

But damn, is it shiny.

Footnotes

  1. Yes, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has the best camera, with a motion-stabilized sensor and an 87% larger sensor. It's bigness is simply too much. It shares physical dimensions with my outgoing iPhone 7 Plus, which I believe is too big for human consumption.
  2. Theoretically, the iPhone 12 Pro is rated for a slightly brighter display in terms of sustained brightness. As John Gruber pointed out on The Talk Show, they aren't actually different components—Apple just takes the displays that are manufactured better that test higher and puts them in the iPhones 12 Pro and uses the remaining displays in the iPhones 12. It's likely an iPhone 12 mini won't be noticeably dimmer than an iPhone 12 Pro at all.
  3. The iPhone 12 Pro records in Dolby Vision HDR at 60 fps compared to 30 fps. Generally, I only record in 30 fps, so this may not be an issue for me.
  4. I suspect the number of times I tap the 2× button is actually much higher. The iPhone 7 Plus 2× lens has an ƒ/2.8 aperture with relatively poor low-light performance. When you take a picture with the 2× lens and the iPhone determines it would be too grainy, it secretly uses the 1× lens and crops it in so it looks like 2×. These aren't counted in my Smart Album, so I suspect the number of times I want to take a 2× photo is closer to 40%—it doesn't take a very dim room for it to take the picture with the 1× lens instead of the 2× lens.

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