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iPhone 12 Mini review: Apple's smallest is a one-handed phone user's dream

Move over iPhone SE. This is the small iPhone people have been asking Apple to make.

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- 08:59
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From left to right: The iPhone 12 Mini, the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Patrick Holland/CNET

In 2020, phones are big. Even the small ones are big. The iPhone 12 Mini is wonderful because it's not big. It's truly small. When Apple announced the Mini along with the iPhone 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max it was a remarkable moment for small phone lovers like myself. For a long time, we've wanted Apple to make a truly small iPhone in the vein of the iPhone 5, 5S or original SE. Earlier this year, Apple got our hopes up a bit, when it released a new iPhone SE which put the brains of the iPhone 11 Pro into the smallish body of the iPhone 8. It's a solid phone for the price, but it's tucked inside a three-year-old design. 

Obviously when you make anything smaller, there are going to be trade-offs and I braced myself wondering which features Apple sacrificed to make a small phone in 2020. But the iPhone 12 Mini has everything the iPhone 12 has -- it's just smaller. It has the same flat-sided design, support for 5G and OLED screen with support for HDR. The screen is covered with Apple's ceramic shield. The body has an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance and supports MagSafe wireless charging and accessories. It has the same A14 Bionic processor, runs the same iOS 14 software and even has the same cameras. The iPhone 12 and 12 Mini are the same phone. But one is small and one isn't.

9.2

iPhone 12 Mini

Like

  • It's actually small
  • 5G support
  • Easy to use one-handed
  • Fits in most pockets
  • Same cameras and everything as the iPhone 12

Don't Like

  • Baseline iPhone 12 Mini only has 64GB of storage
  • Back glass is a fingerprint magnet
  • Battery life is good for the size, but just OK compared to the iPhone 12

The iPhone 12 Mini has a 5.4-inch display and costs $729 (£699, AU$1,199) while the iPhone 12 has a 6.1-inch screen and costs $829 (£799, AU$1,349). If you activate either phone on a carrier when you buy it, that price drops $30. Also, carriers are running a number of deals and discounts on these phones, especially if you trade in an old phone.

A couple of weeks ago, I did an in-depth review of the iPhone 12. Since this is the same phone, all of those criticisms apply. So for this iPhone 12 Mini review, I wanted to see if the convenience its size provides comes at the sacrifice of features I've grown accustomed to on larger phones, such as an all-day battery life. Spoiler alert: It doesn't and easily earns CNET's Editors' Choice.

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Overall, the small physical size, the swipe-friendly navigation in iOS 14 and high screen-to-body ratio make this compact phone nearly perfect... for me. But it might not be for you. That small screen is great for one-handed use, but you might not find it great for reading, or viewing documents. There will be many people who find the keys on the onscreen keyboard too tiny. And that's why there's the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Still, Apple nailed the iPhone 12 Mini. It's a one-handed phone user's dream. And it's good to see Apple go so big on a phone so small.

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The iPhone 12 Mini can fit into the watch pocket on a pair of jeans. Though the top does stick out.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone 12 Mini is actually small

With flat aluminum sides and a glossy glass back, the iPhone 12 Mini looks like a premium version of the iPhone 5, which is absolutely a good thing. In fact, it isn't much bigger than an iPhone 5 and it's smaller than the 2020 iPhone SE. The 12 Mini has a much higher screen-to-body ratio than the SE, which is great for watching videos or just having more information displayed on screen, like extra conversation threads in the Messages app.

The glass back picks up fingerprint smudges and dust ridiculously easily. If you're going to put this in a case, it's no biggie. But without one, you're basically carrying around your own personal CSI: Miami crime scene.

As with the rest of the iPhone 12 family, you'll either love or hate those boxy sides. I think they're wonderful, especially on a phone this size. The sides give me a secure grip on the phone without even trying. The flat edges also mean you can stand the 12 Mini on its side to take a photo or watch a video.

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The iPhone 12 Mini is the small phone from Apple that many of us have been waiting for. Here it is next to an iPhone 5.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Compared to the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, the display looks tiny, especially next to the 6.7-inch screen on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. For some, that small screen will be a reason to stick with the 12. But for others, like me, the small display is the main reason to get the 12 Mini. Using my thumb in a windshield-wiper motion, I can reach every part of the screen. It's satisfying. On even a slightly larger phone like last year's iPhone 11 Pro (which has a 5.8-inch screen and isn't that much bigger) I couldn't reach every part of the screen. And if I tried reaching the top, I either had to strain my thumb or loosen my grip and inevitably drop my phone.

There's a clever software band aid in iOS to assist with one-handed use called Reachability. You swipe down on the bottom edge of the screen and what was at the top of the display moves to the middle so you can reach it. That mode works well but can be tedious when you have multiple interactions in a row with the top of the screen. 

The iPhone 12 Mini's petite size means it has natural reachability. You can use iOS Reachability on the iPhone 12 Mini, however, which is meta.

Now playing: Watch this: We unbox the iPhone 12 Mini and size it up with the iPhone...
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I found one-handed typing on the 12 Mini faster and more accurate than when I typed on a larger screen one-handed. During my week with the iPhone 12 Mini, I hardly made any mistakes typing. My friends who normally receive a regular stream of typos and corrections in our message threads must have thought I'd finally learned how to type.

CNET's Vanessa Hand-Orellana once told me a phone isn't truly small unless it has "pocketability." The pockets on my clothes fit most phones comfortably, but I realize there are many people whose clothes don't have pockets and when they do, those pockets can be tiny. To test the iPhone 12 Mini, I found the smallest pocket in my household, which was the inner pocket on a pair of jeans. (Fun fact: It's called a watch pocket.) The iPhone 12 Mini got mixed results. It fitted into the pocket, but the top stuck out. For the record, I don't know of any mainstream phone sold today that can fit into a watch pocket. 

There's big camera power in the tiny iPhone 12 Mini

Lucky for us, the 12 Mini's pocketability doesn't come at the expense of camera hardware. In fact, the 12 Mini has the same wide, ultrawide and selfie cameras found on the iPhone 12. They capture excellent photos and video and consistently deliver terrific images. The Mini can even record videos up to 4K 60 frames per second and up to 4K 30 fps in Dolby Vision. 

Having all of this camera power packaged into such a small device had a curious consequence: I used it more. The 12 Mini is much more inconspicuous than taking a photo or video with a larger phone like the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

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The iPhone 12 Mini has the same wide, ultra-wide and selfie cameras as the iPhone 12.

Patrick Holland/CNET

It's easy to take photos and record videos one-handed. The phone nestles between my pinky and index fingers, allowing my thumb to maneuver the iOS camera app. I appreciated the quick settings drawer next to the shutter button. It allowed me to easily adjust exposure, aspect ratio and even the length of time for a Night Mode shot all one-handed.

Check out some photos I took with the 12 Mini below.

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This is a Night Mode photo taken handheld with the iPhone 12 Mini.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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Notice the way the 12 Mini handles all the details in the wallpaper.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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This was taken with the ultrawide-angle camera on the iPhone 12 Mini. Software corrects the distortion in the corners without sacrificing the perspective.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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I like how the 12 Mini handles the texture of the wall and keeps the color true to life.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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This is a Night Mode selfie taken with the iPhone 12 Mini.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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The iPhone 12 Mini does an excellent job of keeping the highlights in the clouds in-check.

Patrick Holland/CNET
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Here is another Night Mode photo captured by the iPhone 12 Mini.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone 12 Mini is the smallest 5G phone

Apple managed to build the same 5G antennas from the 12, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max into the 12 Mini. Currently, the iPhone 12 Mini is the smallest 5G phone you can buy. I tested it in Greenville, South Carolina, on both T-Mobile's 5G network and Verizon's Nationwide 5G. The consistency of 5G speeds weren't consistent.

Using the app SpeedTest, the iPhone 12 Mini on T-Mobile recorded download speeds between 2.53 and 14.9 megabits per second, while on Verizon it got between 48.7 and 104Mbps for downloads. For reference, the average download speed in the US on a home broadband connection is 135Mbps.

A small phone means a small battery life -- sort of

If there's one consequence of having a small phone, it's battery life. Apple doesn't share the size of the batteries in its phones. But it's obvious that the 12 Mini has a smaller battery than the 12 or 12 Pro. You wouldn't expect a two-seat convertible car to hold as much gas as an SUV, and the same applies here with battery life.

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From left to right: The iPhone SE (2020), the iPhone 12 Mini and the iPhone 12;

Patrick Holland/CNET

During the week I used it, the iPhone 12 Mini got good battery life for its size. The 12 Mini made it through a day of regular use with no problem. I ran a battery test playing a looped video while the phone was in airplane mode. Apple's website states the 12 Mini should last 15 hours. In my test it lasted 14 hours, 48 minutes.

The iPhone 12 Mini has the same A14 processor as of the iPhone 12 family. In use the phone was peppy and fast. Animations looked smooth. The camera opened fast. Editing photos was easy. Gameplay was smooth though sometimes the 12 Mini did get warm after a few minutes.

MagSafe for the Mini

Even though it's the smallest iPhone you can buy, the 12 Mini is built for Apple's MagSafe wireless charging system. Magnets inside the phone and charger nestle them into an ideal position for the most efficient charge. Having MagSafe on a phone this small was fantastic. I could see buying a MagSafe charger and AirPods along with the Mini for an ultimate minimalist phone setup.

I did try out Apple's $129 MagSafe leather sleeve, which looks really cool. There's a little window for a quick peek at the time. It even has a wrist strap and a shield pocket to hold a few credit cards or ID. The leather sleeve made the phone bulky, which I didn't like. Though I can definitely envision people having the leather sleeve for their phone and putting a few credit cards in it for going out… whenever we get to do that again.

iPhone 12 specs compared to iPhone 12 Mini, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max


Apple iPhone 12 Apple iPhone 12 Mini Apple iPhone 12 Pro Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Display size, resolution 6.1-inch OLED; 2,532x1,170 pixels 5.4-inch OLED; 2,340x1,080 pixels 6.1-inch OLED; 2,532x1,170 pixels 6.7-inch OLED; 2,778x1,284 pixels
Pixel density 460ppi 476ppi 460ppi 458ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.78x2.82x0.29 inches 5.18x2.53x0.29 inches 5.78x2.82x0.29 inches 6.33x3.07x0.29 inches
Dimensions (millimeters) 146.7x71.5x7.4mm 131.5x64.2x7.4mm 146.7x71.5x7.4mm 160.8x78.1x7.4mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 5.78 oz.; 164g 4.76 oz.; 135g 6.66 oz.; 189g 8.03 oz.; 228g
Mobile software iOS 14 iOS 14 iOS 14 iOS 14
Camera 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide) 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide) 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 12-megapixel 12-megapixel 12-megapixel 12-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor Apple A14 Bionic Apple A14 Bionic Apple A14 Bionic Apple A14 Bionic
Storage 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
RAM Undisclosed Undisclosed Undisclosed Undisclosed
Expandable storage No No No No
Battery Undisclosed; Apple lists 15 hours of video playback Undisclosed; Apple lists 15 hours of video playback Undisclosed; Apple lists 17 hours of video playback Undisclosed; Apple lists 17 hours of video playback
Fingerprint sensor No (Face ID) No (Face ID) No (Face ID) No (Face ID)
Connector Lightning Lightning Lightning Lightning
Headphone jack No No No No
Special features 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) Lidar scanner; 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) Lidar scanner; 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM)
Price off-contract (USD) $829 (64GB), $879 (128GB), $979 (256GB) $729 (64GB), $779 (128GB), $879 (256GB) $999 (128GB), $1,099 (256GB), $1,299 (512GB) $1,099 (128GB), $1,199 (256GB), $1,399 (512GB)
Price (GBP) £799 (64GB), £849 (128GB), £949 (256GB) £699 (64GB), £749 (128GB), £849 (256GB) £999 (128GB), £1,099 (256GB), £1,299 (512GB) £1,099 (128GB), £1,199 (256GB), £1,399 (512GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,349 (64GB), AU$1,429 (128GB), AU$1,599 (256GB) AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,279 (128GB), AU$1,449 (256GB) AU$1,699 (128GB), AU$1,869 (256GB), AU$2,219 (512GB) AU$1,849 (128GB), AU$2,019 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB)