iPhone 12 mini review: A concentration not a reduction

The iPhone gets the iPad mini treatment and the results are practically perfect.

Credit: Michael Simon/IDG

The iPhone 12 mini will probably be Apple’s worst-selling iPhone in years. But that's kind of the point. With a screen that measures just 5.4 inches, it’s one of the smallest smartphones ever made and only about a half-inch taller than the original iPhone. It’s so small that it’s actually easier to use with one hand than two.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s what you need to know.

  • The iPhone 12 mini isn’t quite as small as the original iPhone SE, but it’s a little smaller than the current iPhone SE. With an all-screen design, however, it feels much larger than either of those phones. There will definitely be an adjustment for anyone who hasn’t used an iPhone without a home button, but the screen-to-body improvements will be massive.

  • The performance, camera, and charging are all top-notch and the same as you’ll get on the iPhone 12. It’s remarkable that a phone of this size can deliver such a tremendous experience in the areas that matter.

  • The battery will likely be plenty good for the people who want a phone this size, but it’s not as good as the iPhone 12. I routinely needed to charge the mini for a half-hour or so during the day to make sure I made it through, and the old 5W iPhone plug won’t cut it. You should invest in a 20W power adapter, wireless charging pad, or MagSafe charger.

  • Some apps might be a bit truncated at the top due to the iPhone 12 mini’s unique size. The major issues I experienced were resolved with updates, but some icons and elements in some apps are still uncomfortably close to the notch and status bar.

Those quibbles aside, if you’ve been waiting for an iPhone with a small screen and a modern design that will fit in any pocket or clutch, you’ll absolutely love the iPhone 12 mini. It’s basically a smaller version of the 6.1-inch iPhone 12, and while there are some quirks that tarnish the experience somewhat, it’s easily the best phone you can buy under 6 inches. There may be cheaper options like the 5.8-inch Google Pixel 4a or Galaxy S10e or even the 4.7-inch iPhone SE, but if you want the best, the mini is it.

Perfectly petite

There isn’t much to say about the design of the iPhone 12 mini that hasn’t already been said about the iPhone 12. The mini has the same shape, flat-edged design, color selection, and camera array as the iPhone 12. It looks great even at this size and feels fantastic to hold, almost like an updated (original) iPhone SE.

iphone 12 mini se Michael Simon/IDG

The iPhone 12 mini is actually a bit smaller than the iPhone SE but has a whole lot more screen.

The display is the same as the larger iPhone 12 as well, and it’s even more impressive at this size. It’s so small, Apple probably could have gotten away with the same 720p LCD on this phone as it has on the iPhone 11, but the move to OLED gives the iPhone 12 a premium feel that belies its stature. Colors and text pop off the Super Retina XDR screen, and at 476ppi, it’s even denser pixel-wise than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (458ppi).

Because the phone is so small, the bezels and notch look a little chunkier than they do on the iPhone 12. And a couple of the apps I used needed small tweaks to account for the small size. Even after updates, however, status icons are a little closer to the notch than they are on the other models and the bezels are a little more iPhone XR-like, but the design isn't at all distracting. After those criticisms, it may sound a bit like faint praise, but the fact remains: the iPhone 12 mini is far and away the nicest 5-inch phone ever made.

It’s also the fastest. The iPhone 12 mini has the same A14 bionic processor that’s in the higher-end iPhone 12’s, and it’s every bit as fast as the iPhone 12. Benchmarks are virtually identical to the iPhone 12 and you can feel every bit of the speed on a screen this small. Animations, transitions, app launching, and scrolling is incredible fast. It’s not, but the mini actually feels faster than the iPhone 12 due to its smaller size.

iphone 12 mini notch Michael Simon/IDG

The notch on the iPhone 12 mini (bottom) is just as big as it is on the iPhone 12, which messes with the layout and the status bar a bit.

The iPhone 12 mini would probably be $100 cheaper without 5G connectivity, and even though it’s a feature most buyers won’t need now, it’s good to have. All three carriers offer some form of 5G with plans to build it out in the coming year, so you’re essentially future-proofing your small phone.

I was able to test the 12 mini using Verizon’s mmWave network and it’s just as speedy as the larger iPhone 12. Think of it this way: if Apple stops making a phone this small in a couple of years, you can keep your iPhone 12 mini for 4 to 5 years without missing a beat.

Battery life is fine but not great

What doesn’t feel better, or even the same quite frankly, is the battery. The iPhone 12 mini has a paltry 2,227mAh battery (versus 2,815mAh on the bigger model), and for the first time in a flagship-level iPhone, it shows.

It’s not that the iPhone 12 mini has horrendous battery life—I routinely got around 6 hours of screen-on time during my time with it as my daily driver, but I still needed to find a charger more often than not. I didn’t take much–a quick 20 minutes usually did the trick—but I was more aware of the 12 mini’s battery life than with any other flagship iPhone I’ve used. It’s the kind of battery life you can live with in the $399 iPhone SE, but it’s a little more noticeable in a $729 phone.

iphone 12 mini flat Michael Simon/IDG

The iPhone 12 mini has the same gloriously flat edges as the iPhone 12.

The 12 mini’s less-than-great battery shines a somewhat harsher spotlight on its bountiful charging options. Like the other models, you get fast, wireless, and MagSafe charging, all of which require a separate purchase. The iPhone 12 mini only comes with a USB-C-to-Lightning cable, so you’ll need to get a 20W adapter ($19) along with either a MagSafe charger ($39) or a wireless charging pad.

But the battery life shouldn't be a deal-breaker for anyone attracted to the iPhone 12 mini's size. The compromises here are to be expected and relatively small, and won’t dampen the experience much at all.

An impressive picture taker

While the biggest selling point is the size of the display, the camera is what makes the iPhone 12 mini truly remarkable. The closest comparison at this price range is the Pixel 5, but when you factor in the speed and features, especially when it comes to video, it’s very hard to beat the iPhone 12.

iphone 12 mini bump Michael Simon/IDG

You'll get a great camera no matter which size of iPhone 12 you buy.

Along with seven-element wide and five-element ultra-wide lenses, you’re getting the full complement of features that Apple brought to the iPhone 12 this year, including Night mode, Deep Fusion, Smart HDR 3, Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, QuickTake video, Night mode Time-lapse, 4K cinematic video stabilization, and HDR video recording with Dolby Vision.

It’s a monster feature-set that is backed by the quality of the shots you’ll take. The iPhone 12 mini excels in all kinds of light and while you can quibble over the benefits of a secondary telephoto lens versus on ultra-wide one, the fact of the matter is you’ll be able to whip out your 12 mini and snap a pic quicker than you will with any other phone due to its size. It’s hard to quantify with benchmarks or samples, but the iPhone 12 mini delivers the most pleasurable photo-taking experience I’ve had in a smartphone in a long time.

iphone 12 mini photo comp2 Michael Simon/IDG

The shots taken by the iPhone 12 mini (left) and the iPhone 12 (center) are virtually indistinguishable, while the Pixel 5 (right) struggled a bit with the focus.

Otherwise, you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the difference between photos snapped with the iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, and a stellar Android camera like the Pixel 5. As you can see in the images above and below, the iPhone 12 mini (left) captures impressive detail and handles tricky color with ease, while nailing the white balance and the focus with ease.

iphone 12 mini photo comp1 Michael Simon/IDG

The iPhone 12 mini (left) handled the tricky lighting and color of his shot as well as the iPhone 12 (center) and the Pixel 5 (right).

And the same goes for night mode, which works on all three cameras, selfies, videos, and anything you want to shoot with your phone. Simply put, you won’t find a better camera in a phone this small.

Should you buy an iPhone 12 mini?

As I’ve written numerous times in this review, the iPhone 12 mini is for people who want a small phone that’s not underpowered or outdated. If you’ve been holding onto your original iPhone SE, the mini is a no-brainer purchase.

iphone 12 mini se 5 size Michael Simon/IDG

The original iPhone SE is still a little smaller than the iPhone 12 mini (middle) and iPhone SE (bottom).

The same goes for bargain hunters. If you want the cheapest iPhone 12 regardless of screen size, the iPhone 12 mini for $729 (or $699 with carrier “special offers”) is it. Just make sure that you’ll be okay with a phone of this size. I’ve used it for about three weeks and have adjusted to the size, though I’m still looking forward to returning to a larger phone. But if you want the smallest possible phone that doesn’t compromise or corners, there’s nothing small about the mini other than its display.

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Michael Simon

Michael Simon

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