Apple iPhone 12 Mini Review: Tiny Yet Mighty Phone

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“The iPhone 12 Mini is exactly what fans of small phones been waiting for: A full-featured iPhone in a tiny size.”

  • Incredible compact size
  • Great camera quality
  • Top-notch performance
  • Every iPhone 12 feature
  • Weak battery life
  • Screen can actually feel cramped

The iPhone hasn’t been “small” since the iPhone 8. Even though Apple has kept its mainline models compact relative to the huge Android competition, your only choices for a truly small phone from Apple have been to buy an iPhone SE, or keep using an older model. In either case, you had to choose between having the latest features and capabilities, and having a phone that was the size you preferred.

That isn’t the case anymore. Now, we have the iPhone 12 Mini.

I’m delighted that Apple decided to make the iPhone 12 Mini, because there’s no reason why people who want a small phone need to be treated like second-class citizens. You should be able to get a fully capable modern iPhone in a size that doesn’t challenge your hand. And with a couple expected caveats, that’s precisely what we have.

The basics: Hardware, specs, and features

Apple’s consistency between iPhone models isn’t necessarily exciting, but if you think about it, it’s exactly what you want to see. When you consider the prospect of the iPhone 12 Mini being smaller and less expensive than the base iPhone 12, there was ample opportunity for Apple to cut corners — just look at the iPhone SE. But it didn’t. Outside of making the battery and screen smaller, which are both obvious changes, the iPhone 12 Mini is identical to the iPhone 12.

That starts with the design, which translates very well when scaled down to this size. The lack of curves and focus on sharp edges suits a small phone that’s trying to be as efficient as possible with space, and Apple’s hardware execution is once again exquisite. The lineup’s bright color options are well-matched to the playful size, too — though I’ve loved the completely incognito look of my black phone, spiced up with a red leather case.

Apple had ample opportunity to cut corners in the 12 Mini, and it didn’t.

It isn’t typical that a phone of this size (and price) will have the rest of the top-end specs the iPhone 12 Mini has. The A14 Bionic chip in control is equally powerful in relation to the rest of the iPhone 12 models, and the 12 Mini’s performance is superb as a result. You get good speakers, the latest “Ceramic Shield” screen glass, IP68 water resistance, top-notch haptics, Face ID, and on down the list. Apple will also remind you that this is the smallest phone yet to have a complete 5G implementation, with both Sub-6 and mmWave, as well as global network band support.

I’ve run through all of the specifics of this platform’s capabilities in my full iPhone 12 review, and I suggest you read it to get the complete picture of what the iPhone 12 series has to offer. After that, you can see what makes the iPhone 12 Mini in particular special right here.

A delightfully small phone

Unlike modern Mini cars, the iPhone 12 Mini is actually small. And it isn’t just “small” because it’s smaller than the iPhone 12, which has grown now to a 6.1-inch screen — it’s well and truly small. It’s shorter, narrower, and lighter than the iPhone 8 (and latest iPhone SE), and one of the smallest modern, full-featured smartphones.

Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

You can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia when you come to the iPhone 12 Mini from any other phone. Thinking back to a time when you could have a phone that was compact, yet still considered to be state of the art. But after a day using the 12 Mini, I no longer thought about its size as some novel thing — I just used it, and enjoyed the hell out of it.

The iPhone 12 Mini expects nothing of you. It’s so light, and your hand easily wraps around the sides for a secure grasp. It’s actually reasonable to reach across, or to the top of, the screen with your thumb. And my goodness, not only does it fit in a pocket, it doesn’t even stretch the fabric. On several occasions, I would keep the iPhone 12 Mini in my coat pocket and forget it was there, initiating a moment of panic a half-hour later when i feared I had left it behind somewhere.

The iPhone 12 Mini expects nothing of you. Yet it’s an incredibly powerful phone.

There’s something very freeing about having a small phone that doesn’t feel like a burden to carry and use, yet is more than capable of doing everything you need in the day.

With a 5.4-inch display, the 12 Mini provides just enough screen space to not feel cramped. And iOS 14 is identical on this smaller screen to how it is on a larger one — you get the same icon grid and same buttons, but things are just a little smaller. Every app works perfectly, and I never felt the need to go into the settings and raise the font size or screen zoom. Basically, you just miss out on an extra email when viewing your inbox, or a couple extra lines when reading an article in the browser. Everything is just as lightning-quick as it is on the iPhone 12, as I was able to run apps and multitask with nary a hiccup. To my surprise I didn’t have any thumb collisions with two-handed typing, though because it’s so narrow I really enjoyed swipe typing.

Size comparison: iPhone 12 vs. iPhone 12 Mini vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

I concede that the 12 Mini doesn’t exactly provide an immersive viewing experience for video, nor does the screen give you an expansive viewfinder for taking photos. But it’s absolutely functional on both accounts, and if you’re expecting to use your phone for copious amounts of media viewing, you likely won’t be considering the 12 Mini in the first place.

I know that the screen is quoted as being the same as the iPhone 12, but I swear it doesn’t get quite as bright as the larger phone’s screen. There were a few situations using the 12 Mini outside in the sun where I pulled down Control Center to increase the screen brightness only to see it was already pegged at 100%. Aside from those instances, the screen is fantastic: Great colors, good viewing angles, low reflectivity, and crisp text.

Battery life

When the rubber meets the road, the only place the iPhone 12 Mini comes up short is in its fuel range. On a weekend trip to beautiful Mystic, Connecticut, I spent a copious amount of time outdoors with the screen brightness at 100%, taking tons of photos and leaning on Google Maps while keeping up with my usual messaging and social media apps. And the results … weren’t great.

Battery life is the only upsetting part of using a phone this small.

On Saturday, I took the phone off the charger at 8 a.m., and was down to 10% battery at 9 p.m. as we enjoyed a nightcap under a patio heat lamp. That’s with four hours of “screen on” time, which is respectable, but having very little battery to spare doesn’t instill confidence. Sunday brought more of the same, with the phone coming off the charger at 8 a.m. After more than three hours of “screen on” time, it was at a worrisome 40% battery by 1 p.m. when I plugged in to use CarPlay for the drive home.

Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Apple’s quoted estimates for video playback paint a rosier picture than the reality. It’s clear that when I use the iPhone 12 Mini the same as I do the 12 or 12 Pro, I’m pushing the limits of making the battery last to the end of the day. On lighter days, with time inside and on Wi-Fi, I made it through the day with 20% to 30% to spare — but that still doesn’t bode well for late evenings or days when I need a hot spot or spend lots of time navigating in Google Maps.

If you’re going to be glued to your phone constantly, this just isn’t the phone for you. But I don’t think this will be an issue for that many people, as the philosophy of many who want a small phone will also align with the expectation that having a phone in their hand constantly isn’t a requirement. Know what you’re getting into, and be ready to give it a little charging bump in some situations, and you’ll be fine.

If you’re going to live glued to your phone, this just isn’t the phone for you.

The one upside to a tiny battery is that it recharges very quickly. Using a 20W charger, it’ll rush from 0% to 50% in 30 minutes. And because the capacity is so minuscule, it even recharges somewhat quickly from a computer, lesser wall charger, or with the MagSafe charger. Even my car’s low-power USB port easily kicked out enough power to add considerable charge while running CarPlay.

Cameras

Perhaps the best part about the iPhone 12 Mini is that Apple didn’t skimp on its cameras in this small body, which is something you had to take into account if you were considering an iPhone SE as a small phone option. The 12-megapixel main camera, and 12MP ultrawide camera make for a great pair — that’s the case on the $999 iPhone 12 Pro, and even more so at this price.

Few people expect a camera on a $700 phone to be this good, but it delivers.

In daylight, you get bright and colorful photos with just enough pop and extra warmth to make them feel a bit more alive. Sharpness and detail are excellent, even in photos with mixed lighting that require extra processing. In low light, the photos are just as great as long as you can keep your hand steady. The camera leans on long Night Mode exposures, but the results are excellent. And if you keep the lights on, the selfie camera is good as well.

I’m so familiar with this camera setup now that I tend to forget how impressive it is related to the competition; anyone picking up this phone will be ecstatic with the photos that come out of it. The same goes for video, where you can get crisp 4K 60 fps shots with great colors and stabilization. Chances are you’ll opt not to shoot in Dolby Vision HDR, considering its limited playback compatibility — and you may want to skip it just to save on storage. My friend Michael Fisher maxed out his 128GB Mini the first afternoon he got it after installing apps, shooting video, and having iCloud Photos sync to the phone. You should spend at least an extra $50 on the 128GB model, because the base 64GB will feel very cramped.

You really won’t miss the camera features the iPhone 12 Pro offers for $300 more.

On rare occasions, I’d miss not having the 2X zoom camera from the 12 Pro, but otherwise, this is a camera setup that’s perfectly comparable to that phone. Anyone buying the 12 Mini won’t miss the marginal improvements from that third camera and a promise of shooting RAW photos with a future software update.

Our take

The iPhone 12 Mini plays in a category all its own: A truly small phone with an otherwise top-end experience. It’s small enough to be manageable in anyone’s hands and pockets, yet has full-blown iPhone 12 capabilities, from its excellent hardware, to processing speed, to camera quality and software experience.

If you’ve been constantly put off by the vexing decision of choosing between getting a phone that has high-end features or one that fits in your hand, the iPhone 12 Mini should be your next purchase. But not everyone feels so strongly about size, and in that case should be wary of its weaker battery life and a screen size that could feel limiting after spending years getting used to 6-inch displays.

I absolutely adore the size of the iPhone 12 Mini, but I don’t think I can make it my primary phone. I need more confidence in battery life, and that means moving back up to the iPhone 12. And for as much as I love the size of the 12 Mini, I can handle the standard 12 without feeling burdened by its size — that makes it an easy choice to get the midsized phone.

Are there better alternatives?

In this size and price range, you really don’t have another choice. For literally half the price, you can get a Google Pixel 4a that’s the same size, but isn’t a competitor in any way outside of the camera.

Then there are phones that are bigger, but still manageable and comparable in price and capabilities. For a $100 premium you can buy the iPhone 12, which is a logical choice if you can handle more screen and want longer battery life. The Google Pixel 5 is still relatively compact and costs the same as the 12 Mini — it also has an excellent camera and streamlined software experience that’ll be familiar to iPhone owners.

How long will it last?

Being built on the same platform as the mainline iPhone 12, the 12 Mini should have great longevity. It will get several future iOS updates, and the A14 Bionic chip is plenty powerful to run them. It also has a strong water-resistance rating, should it take a splash or a dunk. The iPhone 12 Mini can easily last you two years, or up to four if you’re keeping budgets tight.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you feel disenfranchised by the ever-growing size of smartphones and have been longing for a compact model that also doesn’t skimp on capabilities.

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