I started this iPhone review in the most peculiar way: by opening a map to find out where I could test it.
That’s because Apple’s newest iPhones, for the first time, work with 5G, the ultrafast fifth-generation wireless networks that will theoretically let people download a movie to their devices in seconds. The problem? The superspeedy 5G networks have not been rolled out everywhere.
I learned this the hard way. When Apple provided The New York Times with iPhone 12s to test on Verizon’s 5G network, I quickly discovered that my neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area didn’t have any 5G connection. So I went on a journey through San Francisco to find the superfast data speeds that Apple and Verizon executives promised when they unveiled the new iPhones last week.
When I found places where I could connect to the fastest 5G networks, the iPhone experience was hugely gratifying. The network delivered download speeds to the phone that were up to seven times as fast as the best broadband services I have ever used.
But the locations where I tracked down ultrafast 5G were far less satisfying. At one point, I found the speedy connection in the back of a Safeway parking lot. Another time I was in front of a Pet Food Express. What would I do with an incredibly fast internet connection there?
In most parts of San Francisco, the iPhone instead drew data from a more vanilla flavor of 5G that Verizon calls “5G Nationwide,” which is the connection that most of the country will get for the foreseeable future. Those download speeds ranged from much slower than to twice as fast as my older iPhone, which was on Verizon’s 4G network.
That’s all to say that despite the hype around 5G, the network underwhelmed. At this point, it should not be the primary reason to splurge on an expensive handset in a pandemic-induced recession.
The iPhone 12, with bright screens and a more robust design, is still a solid upgrade from past iPhones. But you will pay a premium: The device, which becomes available on Friday, starts at $829, up from $699 for last year’s iPhone 11. (Another model, the iPhone 12 Mini, costs $729 but has a smaller screen and ships later this year.)
I tested the iPhone 12 and the high-end iPhone 12 Pro, which starts at $999, for about a week. Here’s how that went.
The Hunt for 5G
Phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T started rolling out 5G networks last year and have marketed them as superfast. But what they aren’t telling you is that there are two flavors of 5G and that the one you will most likely get is not going to be the speedier one.
Here are the two versions of 5G in a nutshell:
There’s ultrafast 5G, which is called millimeter wave. (Verizon labels it “5G Ultra Wideband.”) It travels very short distances and has trouble penetrating obstacles and walls. That makes it usable in outdoor spaces like street corners or parks, but probably not in our offices or homes anytime soon. Because of that, only tiny slivers of the country now have superfast 5G.
Then there’s “5G Nationwide,” which is more widely available. It travels much farther, but carriers have said it will be only about 20 percent faster than 4G wireless networks.
I saw the differences in 5G firsthand when I opened the Verizon coverage map for San Francisco. Verizon used red to highlight locations with 5G Nationwide, while areas with the ultrafast 5G were marked in dark red. The overwhelming majority of the city was shaded in red, with only small areas in dark red.
To test ultrafast 5G, I drove to six locations that Verizon advertised as having the fast connection and used the Speedtest app from Ookla, a network diagnostics company.
At three of the locations in the city’s Marina district and Mission district, I was immediately disappointed. I walked up and down the streets, constantly refreshing websites and running the Speedtest app, but there was no superfast signal to be found. Instead, I got 4G or vanilla 5G connections.
Verizon said its engineers walked those same streets in the Marina over the weekend and were able to find the superfast 5G connection in one location but confirmed the signal had weakened in the other. (Verizon didn’t immediately comment on the location in the Mission district.)
That led me to conclude that Verizon’s coverage map was unreliable.
Still, I drove to three other locations in the city’s Marina, Presidio Heights and South of Market districts. There, I finally found the fabled superfast 5G — and I was blown away.
Standing in front of a camera store in South of Market, I got 5G speeds reaching 2,160 megabits a second, which was 2,900 percent faster than 4G. Even where it was a tad slower — behind the Safeway parking lot in the Marina district — the 5G iPhone drew speeds of 668 megabits a second, which was 1,052 percent faster than 4G.
These were odd places to have blazing fast speeds, though. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, these areas did not have much foot traffic. The carriers have said ultrafast 5G speeds would be great for data-heavy tasks like streaming video, but I had no desire to do much streaming while standing on those street corners.
Why the nondescript locations? Karen Schulz, a Verizon spokeswoman, said the company ran into complex engineering tasks in San Francisco. While ultrafast 5G relies on access to light poles, most of the city’s utilities infrastructure is underground. Verizon’s progress to deploy 5G has run into red tape, she said.
When I tested the new iPhones on the vanilla 5G network, any speed improvement was hardly noticeable. In the best cases, vanilla 5G was twice as fast as 4G, or 209 megabits a second compared with 103 megabits on 4G. But in some locations, 5G was slower than 4G. In one part of the Mission district, for instance, 5G speeds reached 28 megabits a second compared with 39 megabits on 4G.
Ms. Schulz said that customers should initially expect the 5G Nationwide network to perform like 4G, and that performance and coverage would grow over time.
I’m not sure that’s good enough. I’ve reviewed phones over the past 12 years and covered the transition from 2G to 3G, and from 3G to 4G. I have never seen a network rollout this confusing and spotty — 5G, simply, is a mess.
Setting aside the network issues, there’s still a handset to review — and that brings much better news.
The design changes to the new iPhones are substantive. The iPhone 12 has a fancy OLED screen, a more modern display technology. So it looks brighter and has more accurate colors than the iPhone 11, which used LCD screen technology. (OLED was previously exclusive to Apple’s high-end iPhones.) The edges of the phone are also now flat instead of round.
The changes have helped the handset shed some weight and thickness while maintaining a roomy 6.1-inch screen. It felt much more comfortable inside my pants pockets than the iPhone 11, which always seemed too thick.
Apple also said it had strengthened the display glass, making it four times less likely to break. It’s difficult to test that scientifically, but I dropped the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro several times by accident on hard surfaces. They survived without any scuffs.
Also new is a charging mechanism that Apple calls MagSafe. It’s basically a new standard to support faster charging via magnetic induction. The new standard will open doors to other companies to make accessories that magnetically attach to iPhones, such as miniature wallets.
I tested both the MagSafe charger and Apple’s MagSafe wallet. But I preferred charging with a normal wire because it was faster, as well as carrying my own wallet, because it can hold more cards.
There’s a major downside to all of the new features: We have to pay a lot for these phones. Apple is also no longer including charging bricks or earphones with the new iPhones since so many people already own power bricks and fancy wireless earbuds. While that will lead to less waste, this shift and the price jump may annoy plenty of people.
So Should I Buy?
It’s tough to recommend splurging on a fancy phone in a pandemic. But here are three quick questions to ask yourself about whether it’s time to upgrade:
Can I still get software updates on my current phone?
Is my device repairable for a reasonable cost?
Am I happy with my phone?
If you answered no to any of the above questions, you will probably be happy investing in this upgrade.
But if you answered yes, wait it out. In a few years, the carriers will probably have a better handle on 5G. At that point, it may even be safe enough to leave the house again and reap the benefits of the mobile companions we carry everywhere.