iPhone 12 mini review: It's all I've ever wanted in a tiny iPhone

iPhone 12 mini held by Lory Gil
iPhone 12 mini held by Lory Gil (Image credit: iMore)

Just a few weeks ago, Apple released the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, which are Apple's flagship devices. Supplier and shipping issues have plagued 2020, and so Apple released two additional phones a few weeks later, the iPhone 12 mini and the iPhone 12 Pro Max, both of which are the polar opposites of each other in terms of size. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the biggest iPhone Apple has ever made with a massive 6.7-inch screen. The iPhone 12 mini, which this review is about, is not the smallest iPhone Apple has ever made, but it's the smallest we've seen in years and is more closely comparable to the four-inch iPhone than any iPhone since the original iPhone SE.

I've long been an outspoken supporter of the smaller iPhone. By the time the 2020 iPhone SE came out, I'd all but given up hope that Apple would ever go back to a really small iPhone. And then the iPhone 12 mini was introduced.

It's larger than the original iPhone SE/iPhone 5, but smaller than the brand new iPhone SE/iPhone 6 (and up). It's thin. It's light. It has all of the same features as the iPhone 12, Apple's flagship iPhone. Is it everything I've always wanted in a smaller iPhone? Pretty much, yes. But let's talk about why.

For people who want:

  • The smallest iPhone you can get
  • All the features of the iPhone 12 but smaller
  • Pocketability!

Not for people who want:

  • A big screen
  • Pro model extras
  • The longest battery life

In terms of the differences and similarities between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini, the only difference is in battery life and some slightly different specs on the Super Retina XDR display (the smaller phone has a smaller resolution but more pixels per inch, but that's how screen sizes work).

That's it. Everything else is the same. Same Face ID with TrueDepth camera. Same edge-to-edge(ish) screen. Same beautiful new design and colors. Same processor. Same cameras.

It's, frankly, unheard of.

Not even when the original iPhone SE launched in 2016 was it outfitted with the same level of features as the iPhone 7, which launched the same year.

The iPhone 12 mini is not the entry-level iPhone. It's not the cheapest iPhone. That's what the 2020 iPhone SE is for. It's not last year's model. That's the iPhone 11. This is the newest and best iPhone Apple has ever made (except the Pro models) packed into a smaller body.

iPhone 12 mini review: Pocket friendly

iPhone 12 mini in a back pocket of skinny jeans

iPhone 12 mini in a back pocket of skinny jeans (Image credit: iMore)

So just how small is this small phone? Even though lots of reviewers are talking about it being small, what is their basis for comparison? It's only until you are holding it in your hand that you get an idea of just how small it is.

When I first unboxed the iPhone 12 mini, I let out a squeak of excitement. It really is small. I was actually expecting to be disappointed because it's not as small as the original iPhone SE (the four-inch iPhone). I figured I'd be pleased with its size, but not flat out love it.

I flat out love it.

Having been using larger phones for the past few years, from the iPhone X to the iPhone 12, and even the 2020 iPhone SE, I'm just used to iPhones being bigger now. It was sheer joy to open the box and see its diminutive size.

The first thing I wanted to know was how easy is it to wrap my hand around it? Very easy. My thumb and fingers overlap when I hold the iPhone 12 mini in one hand. By comparison, I can't quite fit my hand around the iPhone 12 — there is about a quart-inch (maybe closer to half-inch) gap.

It means one-handed usability with the iPhone 12 mini is much easier than with its larger counterpart. It's truly a pleasant experience reaching for the opposite side of the screen. I can actually reach across to the other side of the screen without having to contort my hand.

iPhone 12 mini Home screen

iPhone 12 mini Home screen (Image credit: iMore)

It means it fits so much better into the small spaces that I normally put my phone. It practically fits all the way into my back pocket. And, yeah, I wear those skinny jeans with small pockets. It fits snug in my fanny pack, which I use in place of a purse because I hate carrying around a large bag. This is one of my biggest joys. My fanny pack is stuffed with everything I need to take with me out of the house, so much so that even a pair of sunglasses barely fits. For the past three years, the iPhones I carry with me made my pack feel overly full. It has been a constant source of irritation for me. But not anymore.

It means I can use a case with it without it feeling like it adds too much bulk and weight. It's so small that there is room for a little added protection.

For anyone wondering about the size of the iPhone 12 mini, hoping it is comparable to the original iPhone SE or iPhone 5 of the past. It is, indeed. It's not as small, but it definitely evokes that same feeling of smallness.

With all of this small talk, it's quite extraordinary that it can fit all of the advanced features of the iPhone 12. Face ID, edge-to-edge display, A14 processor, long battery life (though not quite as long as the iPhone 12).

Something I should point out about the smaller size; I have two standing charging pads that don't work with the iPhone 12 mini. It's too short. The charging coils inside the iPhone don't line up with the charging coils inside the charging pad. I don't know whether this is a universal problem, but it's a problem for two of my wireless chargers.

I also want to note, in this section about pocketability that, though it fits nicely into my skinny jeans pockets, it is also susceptible to slipping out and falling on the ground. That did happen to me. It still sticks out of my back pockets just a little, and that's a recipe for popping out like a slippery fish.

iPhone 12 mini review: Light as a feather

iPhone 12 mini gripped by one hand

iPhone 12 mini gripped by one hand (Image credit: iMore)

Small is good, and small does usually mean lighter, and that's exactly what the iPhone 12 mini is. It's so light that I no longer feel cramping in my hand when I use my iPhone one-handed for long periods of time.

A small iPhone is a good thing, but a light iPhone matters just as much. If you're still carrying around something that weighs nearly six ounces, you aren't going to have as pleasant of an experience. One of the problems I have with the larger iPhone is that it's heavy enough to cause a bit of cramping in the finger I rest the phone on (usually my pinky finger).

With the iPhone 12 mini in hand (one hand), I can scroll through the News app for an hour, reply to all of my morning emails, and check out my Twitter feed without ever feeling the strain of holding a device for a long time.

Something I did notice is that the iPhone 12 mini feels a little top-heavy. If I balance the phone on one finger, it seems to be weighted with a perfect balance, but my brain thinks the top of the iPhone is just a little heavier than the bottom.

iPhone 12 mini review: Smaller screen is small

Lock screen widgets on iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini side-by-side

Lock screen widgets on iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini side-by-side (Image credit: iMore)

Yes, the iPhone 12 mini is small. That means the iPhone 12 mini screen is also ... you guessed it, small. It's notably smaller than the iPhone X - 12 screen size. If you are used to the larger display of any of the Face ID iPhones, it's going to take some getting used to.

The keyboard is the most noticeably smaller feature. Those keys are really packed into a small space. It's not quite the mash-your-fingers-all-over-the-keys sort of experience you had with the original iPhone SE, but those keys are cramped. Thank goodness for autocorrect (I never thought I'd say that) because I've done a lot of misspelling simply because my finger tapped the S key when I was trying to tap the D key.

It is not the 4-inch iPhone of our past, but it really does evoke those nostalgic feelings and makes this fan of the original iPhone SE very happy.

It is, however, very close to the same size as the iPhone 6 through the 2020 iPhone SE, even though it's packed into a significantly smaller frame. For anyone upgrading from an iPhone with a Home button (not the Plus models) will consider this screen to be very familiar. It's more narrow than the iPhone 6 display, but longer and fills the device better.

Because there is no "chin" or "forehead" on the iPhone 12 mini (in other words, it's nearly edge-to-edge), reaching for buttons in the bottom corner is actually a little uncomfortable. You have to angle your thumb awkwardly lower than your thumb is meant to go. By comparison on the iPhone 12, however, it's much better.

Reaching for buttons in the top corner is also a little uncomfortable, but it's really because I expect to be able to reach up to the top as I would on the original iPhone SE, but the top is higher, so I end up frustrated (it's just barely out of reach). Luckily, the iPhone 12 mini does support Reachability, which I find myself using more than I ever did with any other iPhone with Face ID simply because I want to keep that one-handed activity going.

Even though this is the largest screen ever on a phone this small, it is small. Everything on the screen is shrunk down to fit, so if you have trouble seeing smaller text, you will probably want to increase the font size.

iPhone 12 mini review: How it compares to the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini side-by-side

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini side-by-side (Image credit: iMore)

I've been lucky enough to test out the iPhone 12 mini alongside the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, and it's pretty close to the same, feature-wise, which is incredible considering the iPhone 12 mini is so much smaller than the iPhone 12 but packs in everything I love about the iPhone 12.

Let's talk about the camera. The camera performs exactly the same on the iPhone 12 mini as it does on the iPhone 12. That's because it's the exact same system — same 12MP camera with wide and ultra-wide, same ƒ/1.6 for the wide lens and 2x optical zoom out, same Night Mode and Deep Fusion support. Video recording and the TrueDepth Camera are also exactly the same, too. You can take advantage of the front-facing camera to get detailed beautiful Portrait mode selfies and can get goofy in your FaceTime calls with Animoji and Memoji. The iPhone 12 mini, like its larger sibling, supports Dolby Vision HDR recording up to 30 fps, as well as, 4K recording at 24, 30, or 60 fps. Basically, this tiny phone can make a full-length movie. Editing on that small screen is a different story, though. There was nothing about the camera on the iPhone 12 mini that was of lower quality than the iPhone 12.

iPhone 12 mini Camera

iPhone 12 mini Camera (Image credit: iMore)

Compared to the iPhone 12 Pro, there are some differences, mostly with the telephoto lens and the LiDAR scanner, which makes taking night time shots much better. The iPhone 12 mini does not have a telephoto lens, so you won't be able to optically zoom in, only digitally. Digital zoom causes noise, which is something no one wants, but Apple has significantly improved digital zooming over the years and because you can crop photos, it's even easier to get a better shot with a wide lens and then crop to zoom instead of using a telephoto lens. I realize that this isn't ideal for everyone and an optical telephoto lens is far superior to a cropped zoom, but I rarely found myself using the telephoto lens on the iPhone 12 Pro (or iPhone 11 Pro, for that matter), so don't miss it on the iPhone 12 mini. The compromise is worth it to me.

The LiDAR scanner on the iPhone 12 Pro future-proofs it for AR improvements in the years to come. Right now, the one thing it does, and it does it really well, is to take better low-light pictures. The LiDAR scanner is able to determine an object and its distance from the phone in a split second and then tells the camera where to lock on to get accurate auto-focus. It works really well, and I do miss not having it on the iPhone 12 mini. I prefer a smaller phone to exquisite nighttime photos, but it's the one thing I truly envy about the iPhone 12 Pro.

The iPhone 12 mini has a slightly smaller battery than the iPhone 12 at an estimated 15 hours of video playback vs an estimated 17 hours of video playback. These specs, while nice to have, don't interest me as much as, will my iPhone last all day? With the iPhone 12, I would usually reach anywhere between 25% and 35% before going to bed. With the iPhone 12 mini, it stretches closer to 20% before bedtime hits, and that's with a workout every day, playing music for a bit, doom scrolling on Twitter, taking lots of pictures and a few videos, reading the news in the evening and playing video games for a bit. This is a fairly normal day of use for me. There are going to be scenarios under which I'll be wishing for longer battery life, but for the most part, it does what I need it to, which is last all day.

It's also small enough that I could add a battery case to it and it wouldn't feel like I was carrying around a brick, which is a nice bonus considering if I were ever somewhere that I worried at all about running low on battery power, I'd have to bring along a heavy battery backup, no matter what size phone I had.

iPhone 12 mini review: How it really compares to the original iPhone SE

iPhone 12 mini and original iPhone SE side-by-side in a hand

iPhone 12 mini and original iPhone SE side-by-side in a hand (Image credit: iMore)

If you've read this far, you're probably like me; hated the iPhone 6 when it first came out because it was too big, kept your iPhone 5s all the way until Apple released the iPhone SE, but was also disappointed in the SE for not having the same advanced features as the iPhone 7 and spent every subsequent year yelling into the void about how Apple should bring back the smaller iPhone. Sound about right?

So, of course, you want to know just how much like the original iPhone SE the iPhone 12 mini is like. The short answer is; a lot. At first glance, you almost think it's the same model of phone. With a second glance, you can tell that it's not the same phone, but you can't put your finger on why. Is it the glass back? Is it the buttons? Oh, wait, I see. It's bigger. But ... is it narrower than the SE? No, I guess it's not, but it sure does look like it is (actual conversation I had with a friend).

It is not the 4-inch iPhone of our past, but it really does evoke those nostalgic feelings and makes this fan of the original iPhone SE very happy.

What it doesn't have is Touch ID. If you've refused to upgrade your iPhone for a couple of years because you are just not having Face ID, you may want to consider the new-and-improved 2020 iPhone SE.

iPhone 12 mini review: Small but not inexpensive; Is it better than the 2020 iPhone SE?

iPhone SE 2020

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: iMore)

When you have the conversation about a small phone, you're not having the conversation about a cheap phone. Those are totally different categories. Those of us that love small phones love them because they fit so well in our hands. They fit so well in our pockets. We will spend nearly as much (maybe even fully as much) as we would on a larger iPhone if it means we can have all of the same advanced features. It's not about the price.

If you're looking for an inexpensive phone that does the most advanced things your budget can buy, you want the iPhone SE. It has an A13 processor (same as in the iPhone 11 Pro), is very thin and very light, and is the least expensive iPhone you can get at just $399. I was using the 2020 iPhone SE right up until just before Apple announced the iPhone 12 mini, and I downgraded from the iPhone 11 Pro. It's a great phone and worth twice as much as it costs. Plus, if you don't like Face ID, it's the only phone left on Apple's current lineup with Touch ID.

There really isn't a comparison between the 2020 iPhone SE and the iPhone 12 mini, but because it's "mini" some people might think of it as cheaper and want to know how it compares to the cheapest iPhone.

On the one hand, it blows it out of the water. The iPhone 12 mini has a faster processor, better display, longer battery life, and is smaller and lighter.

On the other hand, the 2020 iPhone SE is still an incredibly powerful machine for its price. I stand by my 2020 iPhone SE review that it is not a compromise for what you get. If $399 is your budget, you're still going to walk away very happy.

iPhone 12 mini review: Bottomline

Black iPhone 12 mini standing upright

Black iPhone 12 mini standing upright (Image credit: iMore)

If you need your phone to be a phone, the iPhone 12 mini is the first phone in years to meet that standard of portability. It fits easily in one hand and is incredibly lightweight. It's small but still usable. Though the screen is definitely smaller than an iPhone 12, it's still a lot to fit into a small package. It easily fits in your pockets and won't feel like a burden when you need to pull it out of your pocket to use it.

If you need your phone to be more than a phone, if it's more of a computing device for you than a tablet or a full computer, you should consider something larger, like the iPhone 12 or the iPhone 12 Pro (or Pro Max), not because these larger phones work better, but because they have a more comfortable display size.

Even though Apple sent me an iPhone 12 mini for review so I could bring you this review as early as possible, I bought the iPhone 12 mini for myself. I even stepped up my storage option, which I've never done before because I plan to own this specific phone for many years to come. The iPhone 12 mini will be my forever phone (unless Apple makes an iPhone 12 mini Pro) and I'm head-over-heels for every aspect of it. The only thing missing from this phone is a telephoto lens and LiDAR scanner and the compromise is hands-down worth it for me.

Lory Gil

Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books.  If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).