Apple unveiled its 2020 line up of new iPhones on Tuesday, a few weeks later than usual because of the pandemic, but with a headline-grabbing new feature: 5G.
The first 5G iPhones, which can download data at least 10-times faster than older 4G models, come up to two years behind rivals but just as wireless carriers are building their 5G networks.
Apple CEO Tim Cook called the 5G feature a “new era” for the popular phone line. “Each generation of cellular technology on iPhone has enabled breakthrough innovations,” Cook said during an online unveiling. “5G is the most exciting step yet.”
After debuting three new iPhone models a year ago, this year Apple had four new phones.
The new iPhone 12 mini, the smallest and cheapest new arrival, has a 5.4-inch screen and starts at $700. Apple says it’s the smallest and lightest 5G phone available. The regular iPhone 12, slightly larger with a 6.1-inch screen, starts at $800. However, both phones were priced $30 higher if bought for T-Mobile’s network or unlocked without a carrier’s SIM card.
For its more expensive Pro models, Apple went with slightly larger displays than last year while shrinking the bezels around the edges. The iPhone Pro has an 6.1-inch screen, up from 5.8-inches, and starts at $1,000. The iPhone 12 Pro Max comes with a 6.7-inch display, up from 6.5-inches, and costs $1,100. The new Pro phones have much improved cameras, with a telephoto lens that can zoom in up to 2.5X, up from 2X in last year’s models. And prices were the same for all carriers.
Compared to last year’s models, the new iPhones have a boxier design with flat sides. Apple also said it would no longer include headphones or a power adapter with every phone, explaining that it would help the environment by reducing plastic waste.
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro will be available for pre-order on October 16 and delivered on October 23. The iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max will be available for pre-order on November 6 and delivered on November 13.
Analysts are split about whether the addition of 5G will be a big draw for consumers. Apple said customers could use 5G to download files more quickly, play battle games like League of Legends that require low-latency connections, and upload hefty 4K resolution video clips. Apple also showed off an app that doctors could use to download a medical diagnostic scan instantly, and an augmented reality app for mapping 3D spaces and sharing the maps in real-time.
In China, where 5G networks are widely deployed, rival 5G phones from Samsung and others have sold well. But U.S. networks have lagged behind and some early incarnations of 5G aren’t any faster than 4G. AT&T even has set up parts of its 4G network to display as “5GE” on iPhones and other devices, a confusing label that may explain why almost half of all current iPhone owners think they already have a 5G compatible device (AT&T denies being a source of confusion and notes its has the fastest 5G network according to some researchers).
As part of Apple’s event on Tuesday, Verizon announced it was rolling out a somewhat slower but nationwide 5G service, matching offerings from rivals AT&T and T-Mobile and complimenting its super-fast 5G network that is only available in parts of a few dozen cities. Both Verizon 5G networks will also work with phones from other manufacturers.
Apple’s stock price was down 3% at midday after the event after gaining 30% over the past three months on growing excitement over the arrival of the new 5G models. Still, the company will have to attract buyers at a time when the pandemic has put many people out of work. Apple sold $56 billion worth of iPhones in last year’s fourth quarter, its fiscal first quarter, an 8% increase from a year earlier.
(This story was updated on Oct. 14 to correct the amount of zoom on telephoto lens of the iPhone 12 Pro Max.)