LiDAR changes the game for AR
Along with the suite of cameras on the back is a new sensor for iPhones: LiDAR. Though it first appeared in the 2020 iPad Pro, this new range-sensing technology makes a lot more sense in something small and handheld like an iPhone, and it’s only on iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max.
LiDAR does two things for the iPhone 12 Pro. It allows instant focus on nearby objects even in super dark environments. That means faster and more accurate shots in low light, and you can even take night mode portraits. Perhaps more importantly, it completely revolutionizes apps that rely on Apple’s ARKit augmented reality framework.
Instead of having to wave around your iPhone to “learn” the environment using regular cameras, the iPhone 12 Pro instantly creates a detailed 3D map of what it sees. Surfaces are recognized with no delay and much more accurately. AR apps like Measure are way easier to use and far more accurate. AR games spring to life immediately and interact with surfaces and objects smoothly.
So the LiDAR sensor is a nice little perk for photography and a total game-changer for augmented reality apps. The problem is, there really aren’t any truly meaningful AR apps. Sure, you can now make some really great Snapchat lenses, but that’s hardly going to be the thing that makes people go storming back to Snapchat. The Measure app is now fast and accurate enough to often allow you to ditch the tape measure, but nobody’s going to grab a thousand-dollar phone because it obsoletes the $4.99 tool they use every other month.
Augmented reality needs a killer app, and it’s just not here yet. Maybe the vast improvement afforded by LiDAR will help usher it in. Maybe it won't be here until we have AR glasses and are looking at the real world directly rather than on a screen. Either way, LiDAR on iPhone 12 feels like a killer piece of technology still searching for its true purpose.
MagSafe is back (sort of)
Old-school Apple fans are still bitter over the removal of MagSafe charging plugs from MacBooks in favor of USB-C charging. The magnetically-attached power cables were easy, convenient, and prevented your laptop from sailing off the table whenever someone accidentally walked into the cable.
Apple’s bringing back the MagSafe name for a somewhat different concept. MagSafe on the iPhone 12 combines a higher-power Qi charging coil, NFC, and a ring of magnets to produce a whole new ecosystem of accessories that snap onto the back of your phone.
With MagSafe chargers, your iPhone can wirelessly charge up to 15 watts instead of the 7.5 watts of standard wireless chargers. MagSafe accessories snap right on to the back of your phone, right in the middle, sort of the way the Apple Watch charger does. You can even stack compatible accessories; a MagSafe case with a MagSafe wallet on the back, for example.
But current MagSafe stuff is lackluster at best. Apple’s official MagSafe Charger ($39 with no power adapter!) is too small and light to be a decent charging pad, as it will stay attached to your iPhone 12 when you pick it up and easily slides across a desk. It would be a convenient way to charge your phone while using it if the one-meter cable was about twice as long. It charges more slowly than a Lightning cable.
Apple’s MagSafe cases offer little benefit over regular cases, other than that you can snap other MagSafe stuff onto them. The MagSafe wallet is, by all early indications, a terrible design and not nearly secure enough.
There’s a lot of potential here for wireless charging pads and stands that are faster and afford perfect phone placement every time. Or for “floating” stands and car mounts that simply hold your phone up with magnetic attachments. Or articulating arms with convenient magnetic mounts. Or more secure and useful snap-on wallets. Or magnetic car mounts.
But that stuff doesn’t exist yet. Third-party accessory manufacturers are already working on their MagSafe products, but until then, Apple’s own accessories do a poor job showing this feature’s promise.
Waiting for its time to shine
The iPhone 12 Pro has an excellent new design and tangible benefits today, but it still feels like a bundle of untapped potential. The frankly excessive performance, 5G network support, LiDAR, and MagSafe are all underutilized right now.
5G can make a big difference, but networks are way behind schedule in expanding coverage. It’s a small benefit today, but in a year or two the difference between a 5G-capable iPhone and an earlier model will be dramatic.
LiDAR enables portrait mode photos in extreme darkness with night mode, a neat trick, but its real benefit is in bringing augmented reality apps to life. That doesn’t mean a thing if there are no gotta-have-it AR apps.
MagSafe may eventually bring all sorts of creative and useful accessories that simply snap on to the back of your iPhone 12, but Apple’s first MagSafe accessories offer little benefit.
This is certainly Apple’s best iPhone yet, but we may not recognize just how much so for a year or two. As good as the iPhone 12 Pro is, it may age particularly well, growing more capable and useful as the supporting software, hardware, and carrier ecosystem catch up to its new features.