Apple iPhone 12 mini review: Tiny and mighty

Apple’s miniature 5.4-inch iPhone is absolutely fabulous. It’s just a shame it won’t last that long on a charge.

By now, I’m sure you’ve read all about Apple’s iPhone 12 mini. The cheapest option in the company’s 2020 flagship phone line, this device capitalizes on its tiny form factor to appeal to those who have been asking for small, premium phones for years.

Reviews have all been relatively positive, with some highlighting the delightfulness of a smaller phone, while others express concerns about battery life. There will be a lot of both of those points in this review, but don’t assume that’s because I have an unoriginal opinion.

The iPhone 12 mini is a simple phone, one that can be summed up in a brief description: it’s an iPhone 12, just smaller.

Whether that’s what you’re looking for in a phone is totally up to you. No, this phone likely won’t serve as your main computer all day, nor is it supposed to. It’s built to compliment your arsenal of devices you use on a daily basis. It’s a mobile communicator, and it’s a really good one.

I just wish it’d last longer on a charge.

Apple’s iPhone 12 series paved the way for a revitalized version of the iPhone X design introduced in 2017. Instead of rounded edges and slightly curved screen glass, the iPhone 12 series opts for flat edges and completely flat back and front glass. The result is a look and feel that’s reminiscent of the iPhone 4 and 5 from years ago, and it’s fabulous.

Using the iPhone 12 mini without a case, I was able to grip it with no issues. It’s got a hand feel that fans of the iPhone 4s and OG iPhone SE will dig. This is, of course, partially due to its small form factor which I’ll get to in a moment, but at least thanks in part to the boxier design, I found the phone to be very comfortable in day-to-day operation.

Okay, the size. This phone is tiny. When I unboxed the iPhone 12 mini, I didn’t anticipate just how small it would be, and when I held it, I was seriously impressed. It truly is a miniature phone.

I did some comparing of sizes and I was surprised to learn just how much smaller it is when held up next to an iPhone 7. It’s also, obviously, much smaller than my Pixel 5.

Left to right: iPhone 7 (4.7-inch), iPhone 12 mini (5.4-inch), Pixel 5 (6.0-inch)

Having such a small phone in your pocket tends to change your use habits. I found that I wasn’t going to my phone as often for things I usually would like checking email or watching a video. I waited until I got back to my laptop to do so. Whether it was the small screen or the battery anxiety kicking in, keeping my SIM inside the iPhone 12 mini has helped me bring down my screen time tremendously.

The mini has also reassured me that what I want in a phone falls much more in line with the idea of a mobile communicator, not an all-in-one gadget that can replace my laptop. I want an extension of the devices I already have that’s powerful enough to handle on-the-go activities and keep me in the loop with family and friends. The iPhone 12 mini has been perfect for that thanks to its incredibly convenient size.

Of course, with a smaller phone comes smaller…everything. The display shrinks down to 5.4-inches which is 0.7-inches larger than the 2020 iPhone SE but smaller than the 6.1-inch panel on the regular 12. The speakers also take a bit of a hit since Apple doesn’t have as much room inside the phone for the drivers.

But the most important downsize is the battery, which is worth addressing early on since it’s been the main concern of many potential buyers.

The iPhone 12 mini has a 2,227mAh cell. That’s bigger than the 1,821mAh battery in the SE but much smaller than the 2,815mAh cell in the standard 12. This has translated to endurance that, for a good amount of people, will be enough to get through a full day.

I’m not joking. I would say for a majority of my review period, I was able to get through a full day on the iPhone 12 mini with around 40 percent left in the tank. Mind you, these were days where I used the phone as a mobile communicator, which meant no games and only basic tasks like texting and emails. On days where I was using the phone more like a smartphone, I could easily burn through the battery by 8 p.m., which is a 12.5-hour day for me, a.k.a. not enough.

I’ve found that having dark mode on permanently with a black background can add a few extra percentage points to the battery meter, but it won’t be enough if you’re a heavy phone user. Then again, if you’re buying a miniature phone, you’re probably not using your phone all that much anyway?

(Also, I tried flicking 5G off for a day to see if that helped, and it didn’t.)

Look, battery life is unimpressive to say the least. If you’re going on a road trip, you’ll need to pack at least one battery bank with you for when the phone eventually dies. I could never see myself using the iPhone 12 mini as my companion for a trip to New York to cover an event because of it.

Luckily, the mini tends to charge pretty quickly. I’ve been using my iPad’s 20W USB-C charger with the device and I’ve found that it manages to go from zero to 100 percent in a reasonable amount of time (read: about an hour).

Of course, I’m a bit lucky since I already had a 20W charger to use the phone with. If you don’t and you buy any member of the iPhone 12 series, you’ll be forced to shell out a few extra bucks for a wall wart since none of the devices ship with one. And it’s a Lightning to USB-C cable that sits below your iPhone in its packaging, so if you don’t have a recent iPhone or iPad, you’ll have no choice but to buy a new adapter.

Not including a charger is a way for Apple to cut down on e-waste and ultimately be more efficient when shipping iPhones (half the packaging size means twice as many iPhones can be included in batches), but it definitely feels like a cheap way for the multi-billion-dollar company to make a buck by not just giving you one.

How’s the rest of this miniature package from the outside? Pretty fantastic. The Super Retina XDR display, while small, is plenty sharp thanks to its 2340×1080 resolution. It’s also extremely colorful, color accurate, and HDR10 certified. Apple gave it 1200 nits of brightness which means it’s plenty visible in direct sunlight, and everything is much easier to manage since each corner of the screen can be reached with a single hand.

There’s one glaring issue I have with the screen, and it’s the lack of a refresh rate faster than 60Hz. With the battery situation, I can definitely understand why Apple didn’t include one, but it still would’ve been nice. When I wrap up my time with the phone, I’ll be going back to a phone with a 90Hz refresh rate because of just how smooth it feels.

One aspect of the iPhone 12 mini I was worried about was typing. The screen is physically slimmer, which means less room for the keys to spread out. Luckily, I was able to get used to it quickly.

I also experienced something I know a lot of other reviewers have: after a few weeks, the iPhone 12 mini started to feel like a normal size for a phone.

While yes, you’ll be surprised by how small the phone is the first few times you pick it up, eventually it’ll start to feel like a sort of “default” size for a phone. I kid you not, when I put my mini down to grab my Pixel 5, I was shocked at just how much bigger the Google phone felt in my hands. It was something I didn’t expect going into my review process.

Considering how much smaller the iPhone 12 mini is compared to the rest of the lineup, you’d think Apple might shrink the notch to accommodate. They did not. It’s the same notch you’ll find on every other iPhone 12 model, which means the screen’s top corners (or “ears) are much smaller. This isn’t a huge deal, but it does look a bit awkward.

Speaking of the notch, Face ID works fine and is a bit faster than previous iPhones, but it’s not very convenient when you’re out and about with a mask on. I wish Apple would add a Touch ID sensor to their phones to make everything from unlocking to Apple Pay authentication more convenient.

Performance has always been a strong suit for the iPhone thanks to Apple’s incredible chip technology. When it comes to the iPhone 12 mini, it’s no exception. The A14 Bionic processor is incredibly speedy during day-to-day operations. I’ve never experienced a slowdown on this phone, and there’s a huge chance you won’t either.

RAM is a bit slim on this phone, sitting at just 4GB. That’s enough to not notice any crazy number of app closures in the background, although there were more times apps had to reload when I flicked between them than I anticipated. Perhaps Apple will add a couple extra gigs to the iPhone 13 mini this year.

Software wise, iOS 14 is installed out of the box with upgrades for at least five years down the line. By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about iOS 14 with its widgets, homescreen customizations, App Library, third-party app support for browsers and email apps, App Clips, improvements to Music, Maps, Notes, Reminders, and more.

It’s a fine operating system, one that feels mature and stable. Of course, if you’re an avid Android user, nothing in iOS 14 will make you wanna switch since it’s still really locked despite some system-level third-party app integration being added. Maybe things will get betters as time progresses – who knows?

With the iPhone 12 series, Apple introduced its new MagSafe magnetic accessory ecosystem. It’s kind of like Apple’s idea of Moto Mods from 2016, only much more refined. It also provides an alternative way to charge your phone since the wireless charging coils are already on the back.

I’ve been using Spigen’s MagSafe charger and case with the mini and I’ve loved the convenience of just snapping the charger to the back of the phone when I go back to my desk. It’s a bit slower than normal Lightning charging (about 12W as opposed to 20W), but it’s definitely way more convenient.

Because I haven’t mentioned them yet, I’d like to just note that the stereo speakers are fantastic, especially for their size. I always enjoy listening to music on iPhones because of how good they are.

You can’t go an entire smartphone review without talking about the camera. Apple includes a 12MP f/1.6 wide camera and a secondary 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide lens with a 120-degree field of view on the back, while a third 12MP f/2.2 camera sits on the front for selfies.

Just like the iPhone 12, Apple shoves in all of the camera tech you’ve come to expect like portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, Night mode, Deep Fusion, Smart HDR 3, and 4K video. Photos from the 12 mini are excellent with fabulous color balance, plenty of sharpness, and good dynamic range. Compared to my XS, it’s evident there’s an increase in captured detail and saturation. I can definitely understand why people call this one of the best smartphone cameras around.

The ultra-wide camera is also great on the mini, although it takes a step back in terms of quality compared to the main shooter. Regardless, it’s plenty fun to use and is much more of a convenience than a telephoto camera.

Night mode on the device works really well. I’ve been able to get some nice shots in low-light conditions, although compared to the Google Pixel 5 (it’s stiffest competition in this space), it’s slightly behind. The iPhone 12 mini wasn’t able to capture as much detail in the night sky in these photos, while the Pixel’s Night Sight was able to grab a couple of stars around the bright moon. During my testing, I found that the Pixel still won at night, but you’ll be happy with the low-light photo quality on the iPhone regardless.

As always, if you want to capture the best video possible on your phone, you have to buy an iPhone. The iPhone 12 mini is no exception as it can capture fantastic results no matter the mode you decide to shoot in.

That being said, I do want to point out an issue with video at night. As many reviewers have pointed out, you get a bunch of floating dots and orbs around lights when in low-light conditions. I’m not sure if this is a hardware issue (it probably is), but it was definitely pretty annoying. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but something to keep in mind.

Over the month and change that I’ve used the iPhone 12 mini, I’ve fallen in love with the idea of a compact flagship. I’ve been cheering for smaller phones for years, and those on the same page as I am have finally gotten what we’ve been asking for with the mini.

It’s powerful, it has great cameras, it’ll get software updates for years on end, and it’s virtually a perfect size for a miniature phone. Battery life is something you’re going to have to deal with if you want this phone, because there’s really no alternative that’s as well balanced or as small.

The iPhone 12 mini feels like a mobile communicator, and it doesn’t strive to be a full-on replacement for your iPad or laptop. It’s the perfect extension of those devices, keeping you in touch with people on the go while still giving you enough power when you need it. I’ll be recommending this device to anyone who wants a small phone – it’s just that good.

(Thanks to Visible for sending over the iPhone 12 mini for review!)

Apple iPhone 12 mini

$729
8

Design

9.0/10

Display

8.5/10

Performance

9.0/10

Camera

8.5/10

Battery

5.0/10

Pros

  • Tiny, comfy size!
  • Fantastic screen
  • Powerful performance
  • Consistent software updates for years

Cons

  • Battery life is simply not good
  • Refresh rate is locked at 60Hz
  • Face ID isn't great in the COVID-19 era

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