iPhone 12 mini review: Apple’s small wonder

Small phones are usually the runts of the litter. The lesser spec’d models for the people who, as they are deranged enough to not want a larger screen, clearly don’t deserve a good phone. Sony memorably broke this particular rule with its Xperia Z1 Compact back in 2014. The same specs as the larger version, but a smaller screen and no penalty for wanting the dinky model.

Apple is mirroring this praiseworthy tactic with the iPhone 12 mini – the exact same innards as the vanilla iPhone 12 are here, but with a 5.4-inch OLED Super Retina XDR display as opposed to the larger 6.1in one. The model came as something of a surprise when announced last month, but despite being the baby iPhone 12, this is clearly no also-ran. It’s a full-fat iPhone that’s been shrunk down. Let’s put it under the microscope.

Who’s it for

Interestingly, if you actually ask Apple this question there isn’t a definitive answer from Cupertino. Not one they are willing to share on record, anyway. I think it is for people who want a proper iPhone but are sick of getting cramp trying to stretch digits across increasingly large screens.

It’s also for those who rejoiced at the update of the iPhone SE, but were grumpy that in order to secure a pocketable phone they had to deal with the home button and chunky bezels at the top and bottom of the screen. No such nonsense with the mini (from £699), which despite being a smaller handset has a screen that is 0.7in larger than that of the SE.

It is also for that particular niche of people with small fingers who would not consider themselves to be power users. More on that later.

Design

The standard iPhone 12 next to the smaller iPhone 12 mini shows the difference in size

This is a handsome phone. I would go as far as to say it is my favourite looking iPhone 12. The new iPhone redesign already evoked the lines of the old iPhone 4 and to a lesser extent the 5, but with the mini being much closer to the 4’s size the comparisons are even more apparent. And this is a very good thing.

The smaller form factor somehow helps show off the flat edges in a better light. Perhaps it’s because the mini is so much easier to hold? You get the same Ceramic Shield glass, that cannot be called glass, that’s on the other 12s, which is supposedly four times better in drop performance (though Apple won’t prove this assertion), which is a bonus as smaller phones can be easier to drop.

The smaller 5.4in screen does highlight more so than its siblings the case for getting rid of the notch at the top of the display, though. It doesn’t get in the way, but it is more noticeable than on the normal 12 or the Pros.

It will be interesting to see how Apple’s and various third party MagSafe accessories deal with the smaller size of the mini, too. Apple’s own MagSafe charger takes up much of the rear on the mini. Whether this will be a good or bad thing, or of no consequence at all, remains to be seen. But if we are dealing with magnets, maybe a lighter weight – at 133 grams this is the lightest iPhone available – will have some advantages somehow?

Living with it

It has been a joy carrying around the iPhone 12 mini mainly because you are unaware you are carrying it around. Switch to the Pro or Pro Max and you certainly know you have your phone on you. One of the reasons we liked the standard 12 over the Pros was the fact it is noticeably lighter, and the mini scores even higher in this regard, naturally.

What you notice very quickly, too, is the power of the phone. The mini packs in the same camera system with wide and ultra-wide lenses and Dolby Vision HDR video recording, the same water resistance (six metres for up to 30 minutes), the same Face ID tech, the same 5G capability and, perhaps most importantly, the same new A14 Bionic chip, which is lightning quick and superb, as the bigger iPhone 12. And consequently it performs just the same, too. Unfortunately you also get the same sub-standard 60hz screen refresh rate on the mini, sadly, so scrolling isn’t as slick.

As with the iPhone 12, left, the iPhone 12 mini comes in a number of bright colour options

The smaller size does bring some differences, though. The iPhone mini uses 2,436 by 1,125 pixel resolution, which is scaled down to 2,340 by 1,080. Why has Apple scaled this down? We asked and they aren’t saying. But what this means, in theory, is that there might be scaling artefacts (blurring in other words). But considering the screen size and the 476ppi resolution (the highest in an iPhone) I challenge you to actually spot this occurring.

As for 5G usage, keep Apple’s clever “Auto” feature turned on which flips the device to 5G only when it thinks there will be a distinct advantage for doing so, because, like with the other iPhones, 5G drains the battery fast. More on this below.

Typing on a smaller screen was always going to be tricker, too. And with my fat fingers my text spelling has got even worse (something many thought impossible). Interestingly, though, it has made me use dictation much more on the mini, and I like doing so. It’s a habit I’m going to continue even when not using this phone, especially as with every update the speech-to-text accuracy gets noticeably better.

Killer feature

You may well say, “the small size, obviously”. And you’d be right. But for me, the killer feature of the mini is the fact that very little compromises have been made on this mini to give users this size option compared to the other 12s.

This baby iPhone performs and behaves like a flagship device, because it is a flagship device. Those of you who wanted a smaller iPhone have not been short changed in any way. Yes it costs £300 more than an SE, but that’s because it’s way, way better than an SE.

Why oh why…

The bad bit? The battery life. You know I said very few compromises have been made on the mini? Well this is most certainly one of them. You get a noticeably smaller battery life on the mini. You can’t blame Apple for this, there is only a certain amount of physical space in there considering the smaller dimensions, and battery tech hasn’t taken a giant leap forward recently. The result is that, unless you are a light user, then you will need to charge up the phone during the day in normal use.

Also, it is a big issue with one of the phone’s major selling points: 5G. I switched the mini off ‘Auto 5G’ to permanently on. In 90 minutes the battery ran flat as it frantically looked for and (very) occasionally found 5G signal. You will also see a drain in battery power if you sit under a 5G antenna and download stuff at blistering speeds. This, of course, is no real issue now as there is such poor 5G coverage in the UK, but it will be an issue when coverage is better, no doubt.

So, should I buy it?

Yes. I’ve loved carrying the small iPhone around and it’s been a pleasure to use. As long as you are aware you’ll need to top up during the day at some point, and don’t care for now about 5G so much, this is the ideal small phone for those who want all the power of a flagship but without the overbearing presence of one.

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