Apple may have ushered in the wire-free craze with its now-ubiquitous AirPods, but in 2020, there seems to be an endless influx of wireless earbuds entering the market. Amazon has Echo Buds; Samsung has Galaxy Buds; Google has Pixel Buds; Beats has Powerbeats Pro. The list goes on and on…
With so many options out there, we figured we’d simplify the choice for you by finding the best. So as CNN Underscored has done with on-ear, over-ear and ANC headphones, we decided to tackle the final frontier (for now) of portable listening: true wireless earbuds. Following the beat of our own testing, we discovered the best true wireless earbuds out there:
Apple’s AirPods Pro ($220, originally $249; amazon.com) hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.
For those looking for earbuds to power their workouts, there’s no better option than the Powerbeats Pro ($199.95, originally $249.95; amazon.com). The ear hooks are malleable and will conform to your ear after just a few wearings, so there’s no worry about these falling off even during the toughest of workouts. Additionally, these have an IPX4 resistance, which means neither rain nor sweat storm will kill these buds’ vibe, and a bass-heavy (but not overly heavy) sound performance to boost your workouts.
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds ($279.95; bose.com) have all the necessary tropes of true wireless earbuds (no wires, multiple ear tips, a carrying case that doubles as a charger and easy pairing), but they also have an X factor: the Bose legacy. While that does come at a premium, it also comes with the expected balanced sound and class-leading noise cancellation that blocks out way more sound over AirPods Pro.
If you value comfort above all else, the funkily designed Galaxy Buds Live are your best bet. These bean-shaped earbuds proved to be significantly more comfortable than traditional buds. They don’t protrude far into the ear like others we tested — instead sitting rather flush with the ear — so there was no added pressure to any part of the ear. Because they don’t seal the ear quite as much as AirPods Pro, though, you do give up a bit in terms of sound quality. But at $169.99, you’re getting earbuds that, in terms of comfort, you’ll forget are even in your ear, and ones that pack pretty hefty bass in a small package.
Best overall true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)
As it should be with any pair of quality earbuds, the first thing you notice about the AirPods Pro is their sound quality, which is second to none.
The latest AirPods seamlessly reproduce every note, strum, hit or key press on a track. The sound output is custom-tuned in real time using Adaptive EQ. While other earbuds may come with a manually controlled equalizer, the AirPods Pro work in real time to analyze drivers, amplifiers and microphones on both the outside and inside of the ear in an effort to reproduce tracks as true to the artist’s intent as possible. Alongside that tech, Apple amped up the bass on the Pros to a thumping degree compared with the regular AirPods.
This all comes into play on songs like “Ex’s & Oh’s” by Elle King, which starts off strong with a leading bass tone and background snares. Sharp vocals are overlaid with guitars and a constant bass remains strong throughout. On some earbuds, this leads to unintended reverb or a crackling sound that creates a less than stellar experience. But not with the AirPods. While the roaring electric guitar is meant to have some reverb, the AirPods’ Adaptive EQ didn’t lower or raise it and left it as the track intends it to be played back, so you can still clearly make out each instrument and its tones.
For a wider soundstage, we went back to the ‘80s with “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. The soundtrack starts with a constant snare on the left side with guitars mixed in on the right. Then, as if Springsteen is stepping up to the center microphone, you hear his voice smack-dab in the middle. It’s not a very energetic track, but it’s a tough mix with instruments and sound switching from left to right and swelling together. AirPods Pro don’t add any extra vibrancy to the track by upping tones, but rather present it in a balanced environment that focuses on vocals.
For a more powerful test that encompasses drums, pianos, multiple vocals, guitars and a saxophone, we opted for “Born to Run.” With the AirPods Pro, you can clearly hear each instrument on the track as the Adaptive EQ works to mix the track in real time.
The volume produced at 50% is loud enough to block out most sound, even with noise cancellation turned off. But turning on the ANC really shows the power of the AirPods Pro. Their noise-canceling ability rivals even the best over-ear headphones, creating a truly immersive, studio-like listening experience. While flying with AirPods Pro in and the ANC turned on, the engine noise and plane environmental sounds are brought down to a whisper with the volume at 50%; turning the volume up to 70% sounds almost the same as when you were still on the ground. These beat out any other passive or active noise-canceling abilities of all the earbuds we tested, and the experience is consistent whether you’re connected to an iPhone, a Google Pixel, a Mac or even a Surface Go2.
One small imperfection with the AirPods Pro is that, as an Apple-made product, connectivity to iOS devices is prioritized. As soon as you open the lid on the AirPods Pro case, the true wireless earbuds start casting a connection to iOS devices; with non-Apple devices you’ll head over to Bluetooth in order to manually connect to the AirPods Pro when first pairing. After that, opening up the case and placing them in your ears will have them connect. While it may be quicker for iOS devices, in our testing we found the connection to be sturdy and stable with 38 different devices, many of which were not Apple-made. We didn’t experience any dropouts, and using non-Apple devices didn’t affect battery life.
Those pairing with an iPhone also get the “Ear Tip Fit Test” during the initial pairing process. Essentially, this uses Adaptive EQ and pulsating tones to measure which size tips are correct for your ear.
You can comfortably wear these for long stretches, thanks to their design and long battery life — specifically five hours of it (you can quick-charge via the case for an additional five hours) even with ANC turned on. You can stretch that with ANC or transparency modes turned off.
AirPods Pro really land at the top of the mountain both in feature set and in price. At $220 (originally $249), these are the most expensive, but the sound quality, battery life, connectivity and class-leading noise cancellation will blow you away.
Best earbuds for working out: Powerbeats Pro ($174.95, originally $249.95; amazon.com)
No matter how fast we ran or how hard we pedaled, the Powerbeats Pro didn’t so much as wiggle in our ears.
And that’s thanks to the design of their earhooks, which are a bit more compact than others we tested and keep the earbuds more snug to the ear. The earhooks are malleable, allowing them to easily slide over the top of the ear and rest behind it; they’ll even mold to your ear (and you can conform them to the fit you want).
The buds’ IPX4 rating for dust and water means they can withstand a rain shower without fail — or a shower of sweat, be it from a 45-minute Peloton ride, a 5-mile run or just general wear on a sweaty, hot day. While the AirPods Pro share this rating, the Powerbeats Pro’s matte finish allowed the sweat to bead and drip off more quickly than the AirPods’ glossy finish.
Most critically, the Powerbeats Pro also sound great. They produce a balanced sound that puts an emphasis on bass, but it’s not overemphasized as we’d seen in the past with Beats. The mid and high tones are still clear and intact.
For example, “I’m on Fire” isn’t a bass-heavy song, but one that clearly separates the left and right sides. With the Powerbeats, the drums and guitar are separated accurately, and seamlessly blend together as the track concludes. Springsteen’s main vocals come through the center, making you feel as if you are at a concert.
“Born to Run” was even more vibrant on the Powerbeats Pro than on the AirPods Pro: The blast at the beginning with nearly every instrument sounded arena-like. The buds presented the track in a crisp form where you could clearly hear each instrument, which results in a terrific audio experience.
With Jessie J’s “Domino,” you start with vocals that quickly range and harmonize, reaching high tones with a basic backing beat. Guitar is then layered on top with synthesizer sounds as accompaniment. The Powerbeats Pro delivered a crisp mix that didn’t introduce any artifacts or extra noise onto the track. Simply put, they emphasized vocals and the main beat, but not in an overpowering way.
Powerbeats Pro are powered by the same hardware as the AirPods Pro. That means fast pairing with Apple devices and a less magical but still zippy experience with Android. Beats eases this a bit with a companion app for Android that enables a faster connection and quick pairing. Regardless of the device (Apple, Android, Windows or Google Chrome), we found it to be a stable connection with no latency.
Another fitness-centric bonus is the on-device controls, which let you easily manage playback, engage voice assistance and even adjust the volume. And you won’t have to worry about these calling it quits before you’re done with your workout: We averaged almost nine hours on the Powerbeats Pro.
With earhooks and a matte finish, Powerbeats Pro are not only up to the task of handling sweat or a downpour, but they’ll last nine hours. For $199.95 (originally $249.95), you’re getting the same sound quality as AirPods Pro, and at times even more vibrant.
Best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds ($279.95; bose.com)
The QuietComfort Earbuds are, quite frankly, the best noise-canceling earbuds we’ve used to date — even better, in this regard, to the AirPods Pro. They fully block all background noise from a room in an instant.
In an apartment with a noisy central air system that was set to high, putting the QuietComfort Earbuds in and setting noise cancellation to 10 resulted in serenity. The QuietComfort Earbuds remove all tones, while AirPods Pro allow some noises to pass through.
There are also levels to the noise cancellation — 11, to be precise — and as you go up on the scale, the earbuds, microphones and algorithms work to block out environmental noise. You can even have no music playing and noise cancellation turned on to help you focus (a pretty handy work-from-home hack if we say so ourselves). Level zero is a transparency mode, similar to the mode on AirPods Pro, as it allows environmental noise in.
But fret not: That powerful noise cancellation doesn’t hamper battery life. QuietComfort Earbuds fall slightly ahead of other earbuds with six hours of battery life — no matter if noise cancellation is on or off. Higher volumes and higher levels of noise cancellation do result in that falling closer to five hours and 30 minutes, though. The battery case provides two additional full charges, and it delivers a neat quick-charge function. A quick 15-minute journey in the case delivers two hours of playback. For comparison, AirPods Pro delivered five hours with no noise cancellation and four hours and 30 minutes with noise cancellation on.
Expectedly, sound quality from the QuietComfort Earbuds is in line with previous Bose earbuds and headphones. It’s a rich and balanced mix that doesn’t shy away from delivering an energizing audio experience, which is ticked up a few notches here with a more powerful bass and focus on lower tones.
EDM and pop genres absolutely shine with the QuietComfort Earbuds. “Wake Me Up” by Avicci starts with a simple guitar strum that sounds quite wide, with deep vocals overlaid. It comes through clear, with no distortion or cracking, even at full volume. About 38 seconds in you get a strong kick drum, which delivers a rousing bass beat that delivers in full force before more instruments, higher vocals and an electronic beat mask over the track.
The remastered version of “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen comes through vibrantly, and the QuietComfort Earbuds deliver an invigorating wall-of-sound effect, allowing you to clearly hear the drums, piano and guitar at the opening.
All in all, it’s one of the best mixes Bose has produced, and those who like EDM, pop or strong bass will be exceptionally happy here.
Our biggest qualm is with their design, which is, summed up in a word, noticeable. They’re quite large and have a long oval build that sticks out of your ear. While overall the buds are comfortable, you’ll definitely notice them in your ears, as they’re pretty heavy for true wireless earbuds. Each bud is 0.3 ounces, or 8.5 grams. AirPods, for instance, are nearly 3 grams lighter, and the same goes for Galaxy Buds Live. It’s harder to forget these are in your ears; after the first few wears, you’ll also feel that something was in your ears after removing them.
But if you can look past the not-so-discreet design, along with the $280 price tag, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds bring a lot of features. Namely, they deliver the best noise cancellation on any pair of true wireless earbuds — besting the AirPods Pro and the Sony WF-1000XM3s.
Most comfortable earbuds: Galaxy Buds Live ($169.99; samsung.com)
Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live are James Bond-like in their stealth. The bean-shaped earbuds sit in, and are flush with, the ear. No stem sticking out like the AirPods. No speaker tunneling into your ear canal like the Amazon Echo Buds. No hook wrapping itself around your ear like the Powerbeats Pro. In short: No part of the Galaxy Buds Live will cause any pressure, pinch or poke your ear, or cause any other discomfort. Instead, they sit comfortably, and somewhat unnoticeably, in your ears.
The top portion of each bud does feature a small rubber circle out of the box — although it can be swapped for a larger tip — to ensure the Buds Live stay in place, but you can barely tell that tip is there. Despite the lack of earhooks or stems, the Buds Live stay put. No matter if we were sitting at our desk or out for a jog, the Buds Live didn’t budge.
Aiding in the comfort is an air vent near the speakers on each earbud. Essentially, this acts as a way for air to flow into the ear, alleviating any pressure buildup on the eardrum. Other earbuds, AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds+ included, use an ear tip around the speaker to create a seal, which does wonders to block passive outside sound. But it also creates more pressure on the ear, leading to a kind of boxed-in feeling that some might find uncomfortable.
The small size of the Buds Live belies their sound quality. While they don’t seal the ear like the AirPods Pro — leading to some sound leakage — the Galaxy Buds Live do pack some powerful audio. Samsung managed to keep a 12mm speaker (tuned by AKG) in each bud, which means sound is strong and on par with our other top picks.
The Buds Live deliver a balanced mix that lets each instrument category stand out, as opposed to the more nuanced sound of the AirPods that let you hear individual instruments. With a song like “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, it’s not muddied, but you hear more groups of instruments rather than each individual melody produced. The Buds Live do shine with lower-end and bass tones, though. Drums in “Born To Run” have a noticeable bop to them. “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish features a prominent bass beat that keeps the song going, and the Buds Live present it strong with no crackling or other artifacts. And similar to the Buds+, you get some control over the playback mix with a companion app that allows you to create a custom EQ or pick from a number of presets.
Thankfully, Samsung does not waste the comfort of these earbuds with lackluster battery life. You’ll be able to rock out for hours. In our tests, we got six hours with ANC turned on (eight with ANC turned off). Though that still falls behind the insane 11 hours of listening with no ANC that the Galaxy Buds+ offer, these beat the AirPods Pro by an hour.
The main takeaway with the Galaxy Buds Live is that you’ll forget they’re in your ears, and you’ll walk away after six or eight hours with no ear pain. That’s a high bar for any true wireless earbud, let alone one with a unique design and solid sound. At $169.99, these undercut our top pick and are more comfortable to boot.
How we tested
We listened to a wide range of genres from pop to classic rock, focusing on bass, as well as soundstage and sound clarity. We charged each pair to full and let them drain. We wore them for hours at a time to get a feel for how they fit. We also analyzed and rated the nuances of each device’s control scheme.
Read on for a thorough breakdown of each and every testing category.
- Overall: We assessed general sound quality using a number of tracks. Core songs we tested include: “Born to Run,” “Domino,” “I’m on Fire,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “What A Man Gotta Do,” “Ex’s & Oh’s,” “Rosalita,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Dance Tonight,” “Higher Love,” “You Make My Dreams” and “Get Down Tonight,” among others.
- Low, mid, high: During the lower, mid-ranged and higher tones in songs, we listened to how each pair addressed each range.
- Bass: We listened to how well buds could reproduce the depth and kick of bass in a variety of songs.
- Soundstage: Musical soundstage is the three-dimensional feeling provided by high-quality stereo sound. Strong soundstage shows off the instrument and vocal positions in 3D space.
Design and comfort
- Build quality: Testing a number of physical properties of each pair of buds, we determined how heavy they felt in our ears, as well as whether they used an earhook to hold them in place. We also tested whether they bent, and to what degree, as well as the sturdiness of the build, and rated how soft or firm each pair was, a factor that affects comfort and ear size flexibility.
- Fit in ear: On multiple days, we wore each of them from three to eight hours at a time to determine how these fit in the ear, namely in the form of comfort or if pressure was added. We tried them out at various times during the day to account for varying ear canal tension. We also monitored fit with different genres at different volumes. If any additional ear tip sizes were included, we tried them to find the best fit.
- Stays in the ear: With buds inserted, we took a walk, went on a run, did a 45-minute Peloton workout and wore them around the house to test their ability to stay put. We also tried lying down and tilting each ear toward the floor.
- IP rating: An IP rating is an international standard scoring electrical devices on how well they resist elements like dust and moisture. We tested each device to the fullest extent of its rating, spraying them with water, and wearing them in the rain and during intensive workouts. With dust, we tried to get a bit dirty running outside in a number of environments and tested removing the dust.
- Connectivity: We tested three connectivity functions: VoIP calls (specifically FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Skype), latency and fast pairing. For VoIP testing, we simply rang people up and recorded real-time feedback on quality. To test latency, we looked into how quickly on-device controls registered with each device — for example, how long it took to pause music when we used the pause function on a pair of buds. Finally, we checked whether buds could fast pair, such as Apple-made pairs quickly being recognized by and pairing with Apple devices. We tested these on an array of devices, including iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, SE (2020), 8, XR, Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL, Pixel 3a, Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20+, Galaxy S20 Ultra, Galaxy Note 10+, Galaxy S10e, Galaxy S10, Galaxy S10+, TCL 10 Pro, TCL 10L, OnePlus 8 Pro, Fire HD 8, Galaxy Tab S6, 16-inch MacBook Pro, 13-inch MacBook Pro (2020), 2018 and 2020 MacBook Air, Apple Watch Series 3, Apple Watch Series 5, 7th-Gen iPad, 10.5-inch iPad Pro, 11-inch iPad Pro (2018), 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2018/2020), HP Zenbook, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Surface Pro 6, Surface Book 2, Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Go2.
- On-device controls: We learned every control on each device, looking at how intuitive functions like playback, calls, volume adjustments and Bluetooth pairing are. We noted which controls required holding our finger down versus one or several presses. We also listened for voice narration of controls or information such as battery life.
- Off-device controls: We determined whether a device had a companion app or if it had native support on a specific device (e.g. AirPods Pro and Apple devices). If they did, we sussed out how much control they provided and what value the experience brought to the table.
- NC: Noise cancellation is measured by how well a device cancels environmental sounds. Some devices feature active noise cancellation (ANC), which uses microphones to listen to and cancel the frequencies of these sounds. To test NC, we put on buds with and without music under a variety of environmental conditions. This includes outdoor running and Peloton workouts, taking a walk on a windy day, listening to a dog barking, commuting on public transportation, and flying in an exit row and at the front of a plane.
- Voice control: We tested numerous commands in a variety of conditions. These included dictating messages or emails, sending payments, asking for inquiries and dialing a number.
- Call quality: We made numerous calls to people across various devices via VoIP and mobile calls. We listened to the sound quality of the calls and noted any artifacts like crackling or poor compression. We also took feedback from recipients on how we sounded.
- Battery life: We matched how long each pair’s battery lasted against how long they are purported to last.
- Battery life + case: We performed the same test comparing each pair’s battery life plus the additional battery life provided by its case. This included testing with and without the additional battery life provided by charging cases.
- Charging time: We recorded how long it took to charge the buds from dead to full, how long they gained percentage after being dead, and quick-charge functions.
- Warranty: We determined which warranty/warranties were provided with each device.
How we rated
Every pair of earbuds received a score for each subcategory. The combined scores of each tier comprised each category’s max score. For our workout pair, we put an emphasis on subcategories such as battery life and fit in-ear. Naturally, our top pick for battery life required the best score under the battery life category.
Check out how we broke down the points below.
- Sound quality had a maximum of 25 points: overall (10 points), low, mid and high (5 points), bass (5 points) and soundstage (5 points).
- Design and comfort had a maximum of 25 points: build quality (10 points), fit in-ear (5 points), stays in the ear (5 points) and IP rating (5 points).
- Connectivity had a maximum of 10 points: connectivity (10 points).
- Controls had a maximum 10 points: on-device controls (5 points) and off-device controls (5 points).
- NC (noise cancellation) had a maximum of 5 points: overall (5 points).
- Microphones had a maximum of 10 points: voice control (5 points), call quality (5 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: warranty (5 points).
Other true wireless earbuds we tested
Amazon Echo Buds ($129.99; amazon.com)
Echo Buds hit the scene last fall and aimed to pack a punch with a price of $129.99 that undercut nearly all the other core wireless earbuds. These ended up being average across the board, but they’re a solid option as a value pick. Their very focused in-ear design lacks some of the stability offered by the likes of the Galaxy Buds+. Given their size, you might expect a similar battery life, but the longest usage period we got with these was 4½ hours. Sound was balanced across the board but lacked some vibrancy and loudness.
Apple AirPods (starting at $129, originally $159; amazon.com)
Apple’s second-generation AirPods provide a really close experience to the AirPods Pro, but these lack some of the wideness for sound quality (as well as bass) and feature no noise cancellation. You get the classic AirPods design with a white finish, and there are no gel tips — these just go right into your ears. You still get five hours of battery life on each charge, fast pairing and hands-free “Hey Siri” access.
Google Pixel Buds ($179; bhphotovideo.com)
The Pixel Buds feature solid sound, battery life and a stealthy design. On the whole playing field, these sit in the middle across the board. For Android users, these deserve a look after the Galaxy Buds+, especially if you want a deep integration with the Google Assistant. The Pixel Buds offered some of the best voice pickup we experienced.
Microsoft Surface Earbuds ($199.99; microsoft.com)
The Surface Earbuds performed well in our testing and real-world usage. You’ll get stable connectivity, a unique circular disc-like design, and eight hours of battery life. But for $199.99, you’re going to be left wanting more, especially when you compare them with our top picks. Microsoft super fans who use the 365 suite daily will be impressed by dictation and other integrated features.
Sony WF-1000XM3 ($178, originally $229.99; amazon.com)
We once ranked Sony’s WF-1000XM3s as the top in true wireless, but nearly a year later, we’ve found some clear areas where they fall short, notably in design. We don’t like how much they stick out of and weigh down the ear. Additionally, there is no type of resistance, which makes them harder to recommend for wear in a variety of situations. Sound is still good, with a wide soundstage and an app for customization.
Samsung Galaxy Buds+ ($130, originally $149.99; amazon.com)
If you want a pair of true wireless earbuds that won’t break the bank, Samsung has you covered with the $130 Galaxy Buds+. These lasted 11 hours on one charge — that’s six more hours than AirPods Pro and two more hours than Powerbeats Pro. That long runtime is paired with an equalizer in the companion app for iOS or Android, so you can up the bass or increase high tones as you see fit, which means you’ll get good sound quality that holds its own against more expensive options.
Arkansas governor tests negative after possible Covid-19 exposure
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has tested negative for Covid-19 after being in a meeting Friday with an individual who later tested positive, the governor said.
After contact tracing took place, the governor was notified early Monday morning, that there were questions about his exposure, “even though I had remained over six feet away from the individual,” Hutchinson said.
The governor said as a precaution, he was administered an antigen Covid-19 test early Monday morning, followed by a PCR test that was also negative.
According to Hutchinson, the meeting with the infected individual did not lot rise to the level of CDC quarantine guidance. The governor said that “out of an abundance of caution,” he would be limiting his meetings in order to make sure no one is inadvertently exposed.
“That’s a comfort matter, I don’t want people in a meeting with me that feel uncomfortable, because I might have been around somebody that, even though they were 10 feet away, that there might have been, that they ultimately tested positive. And so this is really out of an abundance of caution,” Hutchinson said.
Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said it is the Health Department’s recommendation that the governor undergo testing on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and again on Monday of next week, with both rapid tests and PCR based test being offered to the governor. Additional testing will be added as necessary, the health secretary said.
Here’s what we love about the new iPhone 12
The iPhone 12 isn’t exactly a complete overhaul of the iPhone 11, but it does bring few, albeit somewhat minute, improvements. Namely, the iPhone 12 sports an OLED display, boasts a faster processor, features a few camera improvements and, of course, has the long-talked-about 5G support.
Those adjustments, though, bumped up the price tag. The iPhone 11 brought value at just $699 for a flagship smartphone; the iPhone 12 starts at $799.
If you bought an iPhone 11 last year, though, are the features above worth the upgrade? Or does this make better sense if you have an iPhone 8, XR or XS?
Well, we’ve been using the iPhone 12 for the past six days — shooting photos, performing our daily use cases and testing 5G. Apples to apples (sorry, but pun definitely intended), the performance improvements are a bit hard to see directly in comparison to the 11. Photo improvements are visible in low-light shots, for instance. And processing speeds are a bit speedier.
But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of the iPhone 12 and if the improvements are a reason to upgrade.
There’s no wall charger in the box
Before diving into what the iPhone 12 does bring, let’s first cover a glaring omission: There’s no wall plug included in the box.
Apple opted not to include the charger, as the company is working to reduce emissions. Its thought: You already have a charger at home, so why send another?
That’s a bit counterintuitive, though. Apple does include a USB-C to Lightning cord. But to use the cord you’ll need to buy a USB-C wall plug if you’re upgrading from a previous iPhone. Apple sells a 20-watt USB-C plug, which can fast-charge your iPhone 12, for $19.99; Anker makes a nano option that is super tiny; and there are other companies, like Belkin, in the mix of third-party companies offering chargers.
If you do opt to stick with the older 5-watt plug, don’t expect fast charging speeds, especially the new feature that can charge 50% of the battery in 30 minutes. Instead, you’ll get an old-fashioned trickle charge that, after 30 minutes, will only provide a small boost. And it will require full overnight charge to get from 0% to 100%.
That’s why, though Apple’s focus on sustainability is laudable, we still suggest you pick up one of the third-party wall plugs that support USB-C charging and meet the 20-watt suggestion.
Let’s talk about 5G
Over the past six days, we haven’t just been testing the iPhone 12; we’ve also been testing 5G in and around New York and New Jersey. And we have three big takeaways:
First: If you’re in an area that supports 5G Ultrawide Band (aka mmWave), you will see faster speeds, but you’ll need to be in direct line of sight with a cell tower or at least very close to it. In our testing on both AT&T and Verizon 5G Ultrawide Band being inside a car, walking too many paces to the left — or even to the other side of the street — resulted in losing signal. It wasn’t every time, but enough to mention it. When we did get the signal on Verizon, we hit a maximum of 2,200 Mbps down, which is way faster than our gigabit connection. We were able to easily download a double album in just under a minute, and streams happened almost instantaneously. AT&T didn’t present such high speeds, but we were able to hit 300 to 400 Mbps down. Neither carrier produced widely fast upload speeds, and it seems the technology is taking longer to develop on that front.
Second: Nationwide 5G from any of the carriers is not the super-fast speeds you’ve been teased with. It’s the lower portion of the wireless spectrum, Sub6 Ghz, which is both easier to roll out and provides more capacity. But it doesn’t deliver wildly fast speeds, and it’s the 5G you likely have in your location. In our testing, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all produced speeds somewhere in between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps down. Uploads were pretty close to what we’d expect to see on LTE.
Third: For some people, you’ll be able to take advantage of 5G on the iPhone 12 Pro right now. For many, though, opting for 5G compatibility is future-proofing your device, as you won’t be able to connect right away (or stay connected).
In short: The addition of 5G support means you won’t need to go out and buy a new iPhone next year or whenever it becomes truly nationwide. You’ll have a phone with great cameras and zippy performance along with the latest networking standards.
Dual cameras and Night Mode on every lens
Over the years, the iPhone has become known as a dependable shooter. And Apple really isn’t messing with its tried-and-true formula this year, focusing on cameras and software that come together for clear, realistic images.
The iPhone 12 features a 12-megapixel wide lens that’s built with a new seven-element lens. The aperture is improved to ƒ/1.6 from ƒ/1.8 on iPhone 11, which Apple says improves low-light performance by 27%. A lower aperture lets more light into the lens; more light means a clearer picture. This wide lens is paired with a 12-megapixel ultrawide that boasts a 120-degree field of view. The TrueDepth Sensor on the front houses a 12-megapixel camera for selfies and video calls.
All of this tech across hardware and software come together to make the iPhone 12 a really dependable content capturer. Sure, the iPhone 12 lacks the telephoto lens and LiDAR sensor found on the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, but for many, they won’t miss those features.
For starters, we found that both of these lenses capture a large amount of detail and don’t mess around when it comes to colors — namely in the realm of saturation and hues. As with iPhone models before the 12, this device captures with a sense of realism. Saturation doesn’t get turned up to 10 and the colors don’t skew one way.
Take this photo from a pumpkin patch — you can see the natural orange of the pumpkins presented clearly, even capturing the dirt particles splattered on the tops and sides. It’s a pretty bright shot, but the lenses can handle shadows and brights together in the same frame. Even the red of the apple is clear in the shadows below the front pumpkin; same for the green grass with some bright spots via sun rays in a smattering.
This level of detail is thanks to Deep Fusion, a proprietary technology from Apple that uses the neural engine found in the A14 Bionic chip. It works to improve texture details in shots, allowing you to zoom in and see details rather than pixelation. You can see several more shots from both the wide and ultrawide lenses on the iPhone 12 below.
And when the lights go out, you don’t need to opt for a flash — or worse, put the camera away. Apple finally joined the low-light-enhancing party last year with Night Mode with the iPhone 11. With the iPhone 12, Night Mode — Apple’s shooting mode for low-light situations — expands beyond just the main wide-angle lens to both the ultrawide and front lenses.
In Night Mode, the iPhone shoots multiple images at varying exposures. The iPhone will suggest a length of time for Night Mode and you have the option to extend that up to 10 seconds. The longer the time, the more shots and exposures the iPhone will capture. It’s important to keep your hands steady or even use a tripod to avoid any movements. Through some software magic, the iPhone will then combine the images to create one.
Shot for shot, images look brighter on the 12 over the 11 and keep more details in the photo. The processing of the image is a second or two faster as well. So, while these miniscule changes do add up to a crisper visual, an untrained eye still would have trouble noticing the differences between images taken on the 12 and on the 11. (Those coming from earlier phones will see big improvements in low light, especially considering that there isn’t a Night Mode on those devices.)
iPhone 12 in hand, we headed back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC to try to match our favorite shot from the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro last year: the Met at night with traffic zipping across. Quality was definitely as good as we expected, and it still managed to produce a stop-motion effect on a taxi with proper colors. With the Met behind, we could make out lighting within the windows, details of the steps and classic food carts parked out front. You can opt for the ultrawide lens to capture a 120-degree field of view and have Night Mode work its smarts. There’s even lens correction done automatically to remove any fish-eye effect from the corners.
Night Mode selfies are quite impressive and really light up your face, although some detail can be lost, especially with the front-facing camera. It’s much better than using the screen as a flash as previous iPhones did. It still uses a toned-down version of this flash but also uses software to intelligently light the shot. It should up your iMessage, Snapchat and Instagram story game, though.
Most impressively throughout the different shooting modes was how the iPhone 12 can handle different levels of brightness in the same shot. For instance, the sun shining bright from the top left over an apple orchard with a grove of trees creating shadows on the right. It can manage the different levels of lighting on its own, without causing overexposure from one side. On a Samsung device, you might need to play around with different settings and even mess with exposure. On the iPhone 12, the phone handles all of that for you, so all you have to do is point and shoot.
Portrait Mode got some improvements here as well. Notably, we noticed that hairlines around people and dogs are more precise. You won’t accidentally cut off a few strands or a chunk of someone’s head. Fun positions, like arms out or jazz hands, are easier to capture as well. And if you never liked the “need more light” notification, the increased aperture of the wide lens allows you to capture these Instagram-worthy shots in darker conditions.
OLED makes all the difference
The iPhone 12 has an OLED screen (a jump from the iPhone 11’s LCD display), and it’s on par with the iPhone 12 Pro.
It’s a Super Retina XDR display with True Tone, a technology that uses sensors to adjust the temperature of the display to your environment. It’s a vibrant picture that really immerses you with colors that pop, whether you’re scrolling through Instagram or playing games.
With an OLED panel, it’s the individual pixels getting an electrical current to display color and create the image. That means an image can look very specific and detailed. Similarly, on the pixel level, it doesn’t need to turn one on full blast when it’s not needed. And that delivers deep black and strong contrast on the iPhone 12’s display.
It packs a much higher resolution also — 2532 x 1170, which measures out to 460 pixels per inch. If you’re coming from an iPhone 11, you’ll see a big difference. And if you’re coming from an older device (like an iPhone X, 8, 7, 6s or 6), you’ll see a huge one.
The main thing the iPhone 12 display is missing is a high refresh rate, which is essentially the specification that shows how many times in a second the screen can refresh itself. While other smartphones, namely Android ones, have been offering 120 Hz displays, this year, Apple is sticking with 60 Hz across the entire iPhone 12 family. While 60 Hz has long been the standard, some games and fast-moving content can look less fluid compared to 120 Hz. It would have been nice to see, but with average tasks you should be just fine.
A few abrasions showed up on the screen
Apple is touting its Ceramic Shield technology, which provides up to 4x the drop protection on the screen than earlier models. So, in theory, when an iPhone 12 drops and lands on the display, the chances of the display shattering are less. But, as we’ve seen in recent years as glass and screens build up resistance for cracks and deep scratches, the level of pressure or hardness needed to cause a micro abrasion or a light scratch has lessened.
Well, lo and behold, we noticed scratches on the screen of both our iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro units.
Our current theory is that when the 12 and 12 Pro were stacked together with the lenses facing the display, it resulted in a series of hairline scratches that you can’t even feel with a finger. At first we thought they were deep smudges and tried using Whoosh, iCloth, alcohol wipes and microfiber cloths to clean them off. But they’re certainly in there. The scratches don’t really cause any issue to the device; it’s more of an annoyance when the screen is off and the light hits it right.
In short: Opt for a screen protector to protect your investment.
iOS 14 flies with the A14 Bionic
The iPhone 12 comes with iOS 14, specifically 14.1, out of the box. And we’ve already detailed our favorite features of iOS 14 in our preview guide.
Year over year, with everyday tasks, you likely won’t see an improvement from a device with an A13 Bionic inside. To notice the difference from those devices, you’d really need to push it with a high-performance game or a big high-res photo export. But if you’re coming from an A12 Bionic or earlier, the speed improvements will be completely evident.
The A14 Bionic is the full chipset for the iPhone 12. It’s made up of a six-core CPU, a four-core GPU and a neural engine (this by itself is 16 cores). The A14 is built on a 5-nanometer process versus the 7-nanometer process of the A13 Bionic. All of these components make up the chip and work hand in hand with iOS 14. Keep in mind that unlike a majority of other smartphones, Apple makes both the hardware and the software. The teams can be in communication every step of the way for design and launch of the iPhone.
In comparison to an iPhone 11, it’s the same speedy experience. Completing a big export in Pixelmator or Photoshop may result in you getting the image a second or two earlier, for instance. Those coming from anything earlier, though, will notice a more efficient software experience. It just glides along. We were hard-pressed to make the iPhone 12 slow down through a normal day of work and play with applications like Slack, Mail, Outlook, Chrome, Safari, TikTok, Twitter and Instagram (frequently even keeping upward of 25 applications open in the background, which is enough to make other smartphones bottleneck).
Face ID is still pretty rapid when you’re not wearing a mask. Maybe Apple will add Touch ID in the form of the power button (like on the new iPad Air) or under the screen next year, but for now keep masking up and triggering the unlocking number pad to show up.
We threw several games at the iPhone 12: Numberzilla, Toy Story Drop!, Real Racing 3, Shadow (which has us connecting to a powerful gaming PC to test latency), Real Flight Simulator Pro, Butter Royale, Mini Motorways and a few others. The more basic titles didn’t really show much improvement compared with an iPhone 11. Compared to an XR, X or 8, though, gaming did feel more prompt and responsive. Toy Story Drop! was able to load in quicker, and if it was a multistep move with pieces flying off the board, it happened with no latency. Real Flight Simulator Pro and Butter Royale handled frame rates a bit better here, and we noticed improved times when rendering the game or match.
Solid battery life
Over the first few days, battery life was a little short as the iPhone 12 was still indexing. Whether or not you do a restore from backup — we recommend setting up your new iPhone clean — there is still some indexing. In our case, Messages in the Cloud, a large music library and a photo library took a bit to fully sync. 5G speed tests did eat up a healthy amount of battery, but the iPhone 12 did not get uncomfortably warm during this, though.
We found that the iPhone 12 completed indexing after about two days and we were able to get through a full day on one charge, averaging about eight to 10 hours of screen-on time. That’s slightly short of the nine to 11 hours that we got on the iPhone 11. In fact, with minimal use, the iPhone 11 could last over 24 hours, thanks to the combination of an LCD display and the efficient A13 Bionic chip. Even so, the iPhone 12 is certainly strong enough to get you through a full day.
We also ran the iPhone 12 through the CNN Underscored battery test. In it we play a 4K video on loop with the brightness set to 50% and volume at 30% with the device in airplane mode. We also ensure that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are turned off and play the video on a loop until the device dies. We monitor the test with two cameras for redundancy. The iPhone 12 lasted for 12 hours and 30 minutes.
The iPhone 12 sports fast charging support as well — with a cord and at least a 20-watt wall plug, you can get 50% battery in about 30 minutes. We were able to test this and met the mark.
The new MagSafe charger is really a joy to use and the only way to get 15-watt speeds when wirelessly charging. Qi-enabled chargers are locked to, at most, 7.5 watts. If you’ve ever had the frustration of laying a device on a charging pad and waking up to no juice, this will fix that.
It’s just an experience that’s inherently Apple and will solve a big frustration of many. We’re excited about third-party accessories and future MagSafe products from Apple.
Five colors in a new design
With the iPhone 12, Apple is making better use of space, especially in comparison to the iPhone 11. It’s about 15% smaller in terms of volume but keeps the same 6.1-inch display. Apple did manage to make the bezels slimmer here as well. You still get a glass finish on the back that has some gloss and shine to it. The good news is that it’s not super slippery and provides some grip, thanks to a coating. It’s easier to hold in comparison to Galaxy Note 20 or S20.
A big change lives underneath the glass back, though. There’s not just a Qi-enabled wireless charging coil but rather a MagSafe charging system. Essentially, it’s a wireless charging coil that supports up to 15 watts (a big improvement from 7.5 watts) and has magnets around it. This helps to ensure the MagSafe wireless charger, a new $39 accessory from Apple, properly aligns and stays stuck to the back of the phone.
Antennas for 4G LTE and 5G are etched into the aluminum siding of the iPhone 12. Most noticeable is a long oval piece on the right-hand side that houses the mmWave antenna for 5G Ultrawide Band on supported networks. It’s a darker blue and, while you’ll notice it, it doesn’t impact the design all that much. The power button is found higher up on the right side. The volume up, volume down, sound silencer and SIM card slot are all found on the left side. On the bottom of the device is a Lightning port that’s flanked on either side by speakers. The iPhone 12 features an IP68 water-resistant rating. That means it can stay in up to 6 meters of water for up to 30 minutes.
The iPhone 12 feels quite comfortable in the hand, and we especially like the length of the buttons (volume and power), as it makes it easy to find them — and continues the sizing we first saw on iPhone 11 and 11 Pro.
At $799.99, the iPhone 12 hits a sweet spot in the smartphone space. You’re getting an expansive 6.1-inch OLED screen, a sleek build in a fun color, dependable camera lenses that offer low-light smarts and a fast A14 Bionic chip. All of these features — including 5G support — should keep this smartphone a viable option for three to four years to come.
But the big question: Should you upgrade?
If you have an iPhone 11 and are happy with it, you’re good to stick with it. Unless you want a better display, you’re getting a pretty similar experience all around — especially if you’re not in an area with 5G connectivity.
If you have an older iPhone, though, it’s a no-brainer — upgrade to the iPhone 12 to future-proof yourself with 5G, on top of the clear-cut improvements in terms of faster operating prowess, superior cameras and a crisper display.
Not to mention there are some tremendous deals from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon that, with proper trade-in, let you get an iPhone 12 for free. And if you can do that, well, then we wouldn’t blame you at all. Even if you have an iPhone 11.
Want a sleeker design, an extra camera lens and a LiDAR sensor? Check out our iPhone 12 Pro review here.
Allbirds just launched its first line of apparel
Allbirds, the sneaker brand much-loved for their comfy knit kicks made from wool and recycled materials, is branching out into clothing. Launching today, the new collection of clothing is small but mighty: Four well-designed non-gendered basics — including a T-shirt, sweater, cardigan and puffer — carry on Allbirds’ minimalist aesthetic (the company’s design philosophy, after all, is the “right amount of nothing”) with a lot of eco-friendly thinking.
Along with sustainability efforts comes consumer transparency, and Allbirds is making sure customers know what’s gone into each and every product, down to the energy used producing it. The company says it’s the first in the world to label each piece with its carbon footprint.
Allbirds’ Merino wool cardigan and “jumper” (or, to Americans, sweater) work with the material Allbirds made its name with. Expect a superfine fiber from this responsibly sourced wool, and a cozy fit that’s just the right balance of stylish and oversized.
The new TrinoXO Tee — which at first glance might look like a fairly standard T-shirt — is actually made from discarded shells of marine life (yes, you read that right), which is Allbirds’ latest and greatest fiber innovation. These shells, according to the company, are the second most abundant polymer on Earth, and they happen to be great for textiles: One of their major superpowers is that these shells have chitosan, which keeps clothing fresh for longer — and that means less washing for you (and more water for the environment).
Finally, the company’s Trino puffer replaces the conventional oil-derived synthetics and down fill of your usual winter down jacket with a combination of Tencel and recycled polyester. It’ll keep you dry, too: While many winter coats use a fluorine-based (read: toxic) water repellent for protection against drizzles and snow, this jacket has a fluorine-free durable water repellent coating that does the job just as well. Add to all that engineering some classic good looks, and you’ve got a timeless puffer that keeps you warm and dry.
The apparel, which ranges in size from XS to XXL, starts at $48 for the TrinoXO Tee and goes up to $250 for the Wool Puffer, but you can rest assured that your investment will have big returns when it comes to quality and sustainability. Shop the clothes at Allbirds’ site now.
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