Sometimes a product is released that makes you wonder why it even exists. It could be an off the wall flavoring in a drink or snack, or perhaps a service that seems to offer no utility to warrant its existence. The recently shuttered mobile video streaming service Quibi comes to mind in this regard. But there are times when a product comes out that will sell well, and you still question its reason for being released. This has been my reaction to one of Apple’s new phones: the iPhone 12 Pro.
Improvement and Stagnation
Last year, when Apple released the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro there was a $300 price difference between the two models. At the time, I thought that there was a reasonable argument to be made for making that jump to the more expensive model. The screen of the 11 Pro was an OLED with a higher resolution as opposed to the lower resolution LCD panel found on the iPhone 11. Additionally, the Pro sported a higher quality stainless steel frame and third telephoto camera lens. But the real advantage of the Pro was the thing that we interact with most on a smartphone: the screen.
This year, that gap has been minimized. And the primary reason for that is the display. Apple has made the components, including the screen, largely the same on the iPhone and 12 Pro. By having a similar display experience on both devices one of the reasons for paying more for the Pro model has been negated. In what amounts to the same screen experience for $170 less, the iPhone 12 seems to be the smarter purchase this year.
Since the screen is no longer a noticeable difference, this leaves two elements to differentiate the Pro from the standard 12: materials used and an additional camera lens. The material is of course a matter of preference. The 12 Pro uses a stainless steel casing with a frosted matte glass finish on the back of the phone. Whereas the standard iPhone 12 utilizes an aluminum frame and glossy glass back. The third lens that the iPhone 12 Pro is a telephoto lens in addition to a LiDAR scanner for enhanced portrait modes such as night mode portrait shots.
The story of these two phones becomes that the standard iPhone has greatly improved in the span of a year whereas the Pro model has remained mostly stagnant. There is a slimming of the curve here that puts into question whether the Pro is truly worthy of the higher price point. I would suggest that the 12 is the standard iPhone and does everything that the overwhelming majority of iPhone buyers would need. The appeal of the Pro comes when more advanced camera features are needed. The unfortunate part of that is that the 12 Pro is bested yet again by its larger sibling the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The Awkward Middle
Over the last couple of years, Apple’s Max series of phones have mostly been merely larger versions of their smaller counterparts with better battery life. This is changing this year. As pointed out here by 9to5Mac, the differences lie in the camera performance. In summary, the Pro Max offers a larger sensor which enables better low light condition photography. The Pro Max also offers a larger zoom capability than the standard 12 Pro (5x over 4x optical zoom and 12x over 10x digital zoom), therefore making it the more capable of the two cameras. Apple has made it clear that its definition of a Pro phone is defined by a camera for on the creators. And if this is the definition, then it is clear that the Pro Max is the phone that those users need.
At a $100 price premium, the Pro Max offers enough of an extra incentive for this target demographic with improvements that will matter to people that care about camera performance. At an even smaller price gap than the standard 12 to the Pro, people that care about photography will flock to the Max instead since the value addition is worthwhile for their usage.
This puts the standard iPhone 12 Pro as something of an unwanted middle child in the iPhone lineup. The standard iPhone 12 offers more of a value for the average iPhone user, the 12 Pro Max offers more for the more serious photographer, and the 12 Mini offers a better solution for someone looking for a small phone. This leaves the iPhone 12 Pro as a device that is very good but lacking in purpose. So much so that moving forward I think that Apple should make the iPhone Max lineup its only Pro phone.
The Three Phone Strategy
I have long believed that phone manufacturers have too many options that ultimately lead to consumer confusion. Samsung is a prime example of this. Merely at the $700 and above tier the company has released six different models. And compared against one another some pricing makes absolutely no sense. This has been the case for the $700 Galaxy S20 FE and the $1,000 Note 20. The price increase of the Note gets you the trademark S-Pen while losing out on the expandable storage and high refresh display of the S20 FE, making the Note a nonstarter for most people. Apple has always been a company that did not fall into these traps. They would release one or two phones per year and as a result, managed their lineup more efficiently.
This year is different, however. With the launch of the four new iPhones and the iPhone SE earlier this year, Apple has released 5 new phones this year. And for the most part, four of these five make sense. The iPhone SE is the entry-level iPhone designed for people that are holding onto Touch-ID-equipped iPhones like the iPhone 7. This device is one of familiarity for those users and also the cheapest way to get into the iOS ecosystem. The iPhone 12 Mini is designed for people that want a modern iPhone experience in a compact form factor. The iPhone 12 is the standard iPhone, the one that most people will want to get since it has good size and all of the features that most people want. And the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the iPhone for serious smartphone photography users.
Where does this leave the iPhone 12 Pro? For basic everyday use cases, the more practical device is the iPhone 12. For heavier photography use cases, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a better solution. Apple shifting to a three phone (or four phones if they continue the SE line) makes more sense than having four 12 series models. Distilling of the brand would go a long way to add more differentiation. There is a gap between the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro Max that can get someone looking at the two devices to realize that there is a value-added by paying an extra $270. The same cannot be said about the iPhone 12 to the iPhone 12 Pro, nor can a case be made that the 12 Pro is a better value than the 12 Pro Max. Apple needs to get back to a more distilled product offering, as do all companies. And the reality is that Apple made one iPhone too many this year. Here’s to hoping that they can fix this mistake next year with the iPhone 13.