Why Apple was right to choose 5G over 120Hz in the iPhone 12

How to change the Galaxy S20 refresh rate to 120Hz
How to change the Galaxy S20 refresh rate to 120Hz (Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

Prodigious Apple leaker Jon Prosser has taken to Twitter to tell us more about the imminent launch of the iPhone 12 line, and this time we hear that Apple is planning to sell their next $1,000-plus flagship phone with a standard 60Hz screen refresh rate. Why? Because when paired with a 5G cell modem, the battery can't handle a high refresh rate too.

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Nine times out of 10, and particularly when it comes to Apple, Prosser's information is either 100% right or close enough for horseshoes. This time was no exception as we see the iPhone 12 launch with 5G but the same old 60Hz refresh rate. The phone looks like a great mix of old tech with new names and some smart features I'd like to see on a phone that I'd actually use like magnetic charging (that both Sony and Samsung briefly offered, only less "refined").

Apple didn't even mention 120Hz nor talk about its effect on battery life and nobody really expected it to. Apple events are designed to focus on what's new and why you'll love the product just like every other event from any company. But I'm not convinced the reason for not including a better display was all about battery life.

More than battery life

Galaxy S20 Review 11 Hour Battery Life Greycube

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

First, let me say I think there is a reason that Apple has to go with a standard-refresh panel for the iPhone, and it has nothing to do with the battery. We see several Android phone makers that include a variable refresh rate system where the interface and any apps optimized for it can run at high screen refresh rates. At the same time, everything else defaults the screen refresh back to 60Hz to keep the battery drain minimal. Apple could certainly write this into iOS. But Apple can't pull a rabbit — or a display controller — out of a hat.

Apple uses Samsung panels but adds its own customizations.

Apple buys it's display panels from Samsung because Samsung makes the best small OLED panels that money can buy — almost every other phone from every other company has a Samsung display for this very reason. Even the older or budget versions of Samsung OLED displays are really good, so most companies don't try to reinvent the wheel, and just use Samsung's off-the-shelf controller to go along with the panel.

But Apple also does a lot of work on those Samsung OLED panels to make them just how it wants them. Apple tunes the color, enables its own dynamic color tuning based on content, and then assembles them into a working display for its devices. In order to do this, Apple needs to have its own display controller hardware built because it isn't a component manufacturer. I think Apple hasn't yet worked out a way to have 60 million display controllers built that can manage the current features of iOS as well as manage a higher-refresh rate. The company will get there and be able to do it at some point in the future. But it's a tall order, and unless Apple can be guaranteed that everything can be built on time, every time, it has to pass for now.

Samsung is a component manufacturer, so it can build 60 million or so specialized controllers with no problems. Other companies like OnePlus that sell high-refresh phones don't need to source 60 million of anything because of their sales numbers. Like all the best phones, an iPhone is a sum of all its parts.

So why not both then?

Galaxy S20+ 5G network with SIM cards

Source: Samuel Contreras / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

A high-refresh-rate does use more battery, especially on dense pixel count displays. But there are ways to mitigate the extra power used. There is also the option to add a bigger battery. Or, you could do both. I really think this is more of a supply-chain issue, but I'm not an Apple insider so let's go with the "it uses too much battery" thing that Apple would probably say, if it ever does say anything on the issue. (Spoiler: it won't).

If the battery can't handle both a high refresh rate and 5G, Apple will choose 5G because it's more important to consumers.

The Internet likes to claim that iPhone users know nothing about tech and regurgitate everything Apple tells them. For the most part, that's true, but it's also true for people that buy an Android phone, a television, a laptop, or any other tech purchase. Most consumers just aren't tech-savvy past a certain point. For you, it might be a passion, and you know every spec and why each one matters, but not everyone is like you.

Do you know what every tech consumer does know, though? 5G. They might not know that there are several different and incompatible 5G standards, or how the fast one is the one that will take forever and a day to offer the same level of coverage that LTE can bring. Or even how there's a good chance much of this will change and a 5G phone from 2020 might not be compatible with a 5G network in 2022. But they know 5G is coming, it's better than 4G if you can get it, and carriers promise they can have it soon. That's one heck of a selling point.

I also think most people can see the difference between 60Hz and 120Hz and appreciate the difference. But you need actually to see it in your hands to have that appreciation. On paper or in a blog post, 120Hz display refresh just doesn't translate the same way "your internet will be faster with 5G" does. You can make a great phone with a 60Hz display or without 5G, but neither makes a phone worse.

Like most companies, Apple wants to offer features that people will enjoy, and if it can't have 5G along with a high refresh screen for any reason, it has to go with what will sell the most number of new iPhones.

What really matters

Galaxy S20 FE in orange

Source: Joe Maring / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Joe Maring / Android Central)

It's all good.

Apple will sell a mountain of its first 5G-ready iPhones, and almost every person who buys one is going to like it despite any shortcomings that there may be. You and I and plenty of other tech-savvy users can still have super high-end Android phones with both 90 or 120Hz displays and 5G, and we are going to continue to really like them — and their own shortcomings — just as much. And two years from now, both camps will have the other's features because every company copies every great idea as quickly as it can.

In the meantime, I'm just going to forget that the iPhone 12 only has a 60Hz panel or that most people who buy a 5G phone don't have 5G and everything else about it because I'll never use an iPhone 12 — there are better phones for me already out there, and maybe one or two more are coming soon.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

31 Comments
  • Though I love 120Hz, I realize it's still a niche feature that iPhone users won't even care that much about, because iPhones have never had a smoothness or fluidity issue. Android has, and 90/120Hz has pretty fixed that.
  • This guy gets it.
  • Every move Apple makes is the right move.
  • I agree, except the 64gb of storage in 2020 is a shame.
  • It's only there for the STARTS AT $XX.XX line. That and there are likely those who actually ca get by with 64GB.
  • "Apple also does a lot of work on those Samsung OLED panels to make them just how it wants them. Apple tunes the color, enables its own dynamic color tuning based on content, and then assembles them into a working display for its devices" That right there tells those users that thought Apple didn't do anything to those Samsung made OLED screens. "DisplayMate states that Apple's impressive precision display calibration is the major factor that sets the iPhone X apart from Samsung's impressive OLED displays."
  • Finally an article that I can truly relate to, I just returned to iPhone back in August with an iPhone 11 Pro Max and I'm loving it as I'm reminded why I've always preferred iOS over Android, I realized as early as last year that I don't care about customisation (as it brings too many complications) and gimmicky features (along with the fact that I got fed up with Android's flaws) such as a high refresh rate (I have a 7T as my secondary phone) and don't even use the 90Hz mode as it is a battery drain and can't tell the difference between 90Hz and 60Hz as I'm visaully impaired and I'm not as tech savvy as all of you on here, Apple brings features that is easy for the mainstream consumer to digest and for them to sell iPhones like hotcakes along with adding to the iOS user experience.
  • I think it's actually much more simple than that. It's more likely a business decision on apple's part as at this point in time people are mostly settled on their OS of choice, either iOS or Android so new features won't tempt (most) folks to swap from iPhone to android or vice versa. However what they do want/need as a business is that the people who already own iPhones to upgrade to the newest model and a cool new feature like a 120hz refresh screen could quite easily tempt someone who's been sitting on the fence to upgrade. I'm not making an argument to say you need a high refresh screen or if it makes much difference but a headline new feature that apple (or Android) can use to tempt folks to the latest and greatest will make more money for the company. My guess is apple will add this 'amazing' new screen tech and have a big advertising campaign maybe for the iPhone 13 or 14 and lots of people will think their 'old' 60hz screen is out of date and upgrade whether they need to or not. I use Android phones because I don't need all the bells and whistles of a flagship device at £1000+ as I buy my phones unlocked and I've just paid £230 for the new Poco X3 NFC which has a 120hz screen and honestly with my 54 year old eyes can't tell any difference to 60hz. The biggest difference is this phone has an LCD panel instead of an oled one which I prefer as oled hurts my eyes and gives me a headache even though every reviewer says how 'inferior' LCD panels are. So that's my prediction for high refresh rate screens on iPhones, what do you think?
  • It's even more simple than that. You should really get both for what you pay for an iPhone. I think the majority of iPhone users know what 5G is but not care or know what 120hz is. Apple has never sold their phones on amount of RAM and their users couldn't care less as long as they enjoy the experience. As an Android user, kudos to Apple for selling a product that their user base wants. They know their audience.
  • Android's maker releases 60hz phone: We wished they came out with a higher refresh rate screen phones. iPhone releases 60hz phone: It's the right move.
  • Lol right. Apple can almost get away with anything
  • Android central is a bunch of hypocrites. As long as they get paid they will say what ever, even contradict themselves.
  • This is so true! Every android phone released now gets slated if it doesn't have a minimum 90hz screen but it's ok for apple? This isn't the first time ANDROID??? Central has given iPhones a blind pass on something that's seen as a deficiency now on android! Hypocritical reviews along with FU#£ING ANNOYING ADS THAT GET LONGER AND LONGER AND LOUDER!!! And why don't more actual android phones get proper reviews on here anymore? There are loads of less expensive (read affordable to most people) phones that never see the light of day on here. Not everyone considers 5-600 pounds/dollars as budget or affordable so why not review more cheaper phones that people can actually afford?
  • I think you must remember that iOS does not have a smoothness and fluidity issue like Android does and Apple felt and rightly so that 5G was a gamble worth talking. Remember most iPhone users don't care about all the extra gimmicky features that they won't. ever use, they value simplicity and ease of use and is one of fhe major reasons I have come back to iPhone, it's easier to adapt to an iPhone than adapting to Android.
  • Higher refresh rates don't hide stutter in animations/scrolling, if anything, they highlight it more! If iPhones are really still much more fluid than Android flagships then higher refresh rates would look better on iPhones
  • If it's an issue where Apple didn't have enough time I agree. However don't charge over a $1000 for a phone with the same size notch and no high refresh rate. By the time the iPhone 13 comes out IOS will be way behind. An iPhone pro max should be starting at $800 bucks the most.
  • Apple can charge whatever they want.
  • True. The iFans will pay what ever Apple asks.
  • It's true they can because people who buy iPhones will continue to buy iPhones regardless of what features they have or don't have and apple know this. Big notch, no headphone jack and even stopping putting a charger in the box won't stop people using iPhones.
  • They're paying for the bitten apple logo
  • You're not the target audience for am iPhone and Apple made the right trade off with 5G as it's the easiest to market to average consumers and especially existing iPhone users looking to upgrade from an older iPhone and Apple can charge what ever of wants.
  • What I didn't realize the new iPhones would still only have a 60Hz refresh rate. I went from a OnePlus 7 Pro to the iPhone 11 Pro I'm typing on and the screen is the biggest weakness of this thing. Apple is notorious for spoon feeding it's customers and holding back features to micro update it's phones. They could have at least used a 90Hz refresh rate. This whole article is a bunch of baloney!
  • Err no dude, I can't even tell the difference between 60Hz and 90Hz on my OnePlus 7T so I've turned it off S it's not worth the ridiculous battery drain and I have an iPhone 11 Pro Max that I use as my daily driver as I prefer iOS and typing on my iPhone is much more enjoyable especially with haptic touch which is like 3D Touch that it replaced but slightly slower. Apple made the right call as iOS is already smoother at 60Hz than any Android phone which is why Android phones need that higher refresh rate more than the iPhone which isn't even a big difference.
  • I have an ipad pro, and when I turned off 120hz to see the difference, it was almost negligible. There is the slightest bit more motion blur when scrolling, and that's it.
  • I watched with interest this year, if they had ditched the bathtub notch, I would have bought one. But nope. Maybe next year.
  • In the US 5G is virtually useless.
  • no, apple was wrong, which makes android central wrong as well. put the 120hz screen and put a freaking toggle. like samsung did. as it turns out, 5G is not ready and contrary to what you might believe, it's not available nationwide (carriers LIE on their coverage map. i'm in a full 5G zone according to t-mobile's map. yet they admitted to me that a very weak 5G sub-6 signal is reported as full coverage on the maps). enjoying my samsung s20 FE so far. speedtest of 170 Mbps with LTE. and enjoying the 120hz screen. recharging the phone each 3 days (i'm a lite user, and turn off the phone at night) moral of the story: unless you live in chicago, have verizon and get 1 Gbps 5G speeds, you will enjoy more a 120hz screen than 5G.
  • I currently do not have either 120 Hz or 5G... and I'm not lacking for anything!
  • Because none of them is apparent for users, and manufacturing 5G is cheaper, and even if it does not work, there is always somebody else to blame. Simple as that.
  • I don't think I've ever seen not noticing the hz upgrade. First impression of a customer who uses any 120hz screen and thought the phone was a more powerful and mcuh faster, when it really is only the updating pixels, touch response and the screen being smother and snappier consumers often interpret to be a higher spec faster device
  • If they chose 5G over 120hz, that means the majority who own an iPhone must be in the one of the handful of cities currently offering the line of sight, inconsistent speeds 5G systems. So to think 120hz to benefit everyone vs the small niche in 5G areas that's bother with the hassle of it has to be significant.