iPhone 13 Pro review: Good just got better
The iPhone 13 Pro has a better battery, a better camera, and a better display. If you are all about the details, this gets very good.
- Incredible cameras
- Improved battery life
- 120 Hz refresh rate
- New camera modes
- Well. Expensive.
Display6.1-inch Super Retina XDR display with ProMotion
New camera modesCinematic Mode and Picture Profiles
Apple’s last year’s offerings, the iPhone 12 series, were quite perfect. Between the iPhone 11 series and the iPhone 12 series, the upgrades were significant and easy to spot - like the changes in design and cameras. Now, this year, between the iPhone 12 series and the iPhone 13 series the upgrades are also significant, but not that easy to spot. This made most people call the upgrades incremental. To be fair, the most important upgrades Apple has brought in this year are the improvements in battery life and the camera system. Additionally, there is a 120Hz refresh rate.
Upgrading the battery, screen, and cameras sound rather iterative. Something all smartphone manufacturers are expected to do every year. But to assume that these upgrades on the iPhone 13 series are iterative could not be further from the truth.
Of the three significant changes Apple has brought in on the iPhone 13 series, the one that will make the biggest impact for most people is the battery life. Apple tells us that these battery improvements come from a series of updates that include the increased efficiency in the new A15 Bionic processor and how the new display on the iPhones uses power. While that might be true, there’s one factor that very obviously contributes towards this improved battery life - the batteries are bigger this year. While on the iPhone 13 Pro, the battery is 11% larger than the one on the iPhone 12 Pro, on the iPhone 13 Pro Max, the battery is 18.5% larger than last year’s iPhone 12 Pro Max. This translates to one and a half hours of battery life more on the iPhone 13 Pro and two and a half hours more on the iPhone 13 Pro Max. This is massive, especially because the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s battery was already pretty, darn good.
I started my day with 100% battery at 10 AM. At midnight the battery was down to about 30%. I finally got the low battery warning at 3 AM. Between midnight and 2 AM, my activity was definitely on the low and the iPhone 13 Pro had gone into sleep mode waking up only when I manually made it, thereby making that 30% battery last much longer than it would have in the morning. The iPhone 13 Pro is now my primary device where I check emails, use WhatsApp, Instagram, Discord, Twitter, a little bit of Facebook, some editing, photos, and a bit of gaming. Over the last one week, my daily average screen time clocks in at about 6 hours plus, 7 on certain days. And through the week, the battery on the iPhone 13 Pro has lasted me more than a normal workday.
I’ve used the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max in turns as my primary device over the last year and I was pretty happy with the battery on those, with the iPhone 13 Pro it got better.
Compared to the design updates we saw last year, this year’s changes are very subtle. In 2020 Apple introduced the flat sides (metallic ones for the Pro devices) and MagSafe charging. This year’s iPhone 13 devices inherit all of that with some small changes. The considerably noticeable one is the size of the notch on the screen. It’s slightly smaller this year, horizontally. Vertically it still retains the same size as what we saw on the iPhone 12 series. The little extra space on top that you get now with the smaller notch has not been utilised by Apple for anything, yet.
The other change you might be able to understand, especially if you have the iPhone 12 devices, is that the iPhone 13 devices are heavier and thicker across the body, and the camera bumps are also bigger. This means that the iPhone 12 Pro cases are not going to fit the iPhone 13 Pro. This heft brings in a better battery and a better camera system - so all in all, a new case is a small price to pay.
The Pro models retain the glossy stainless steel edges that still attract fingerprint smudges while the smooth matte glass back also remains the same as last year’s. Apple has introduced a new blue, the Sierra Blue, on the Pro devices this year which looks good, but not as good as the Pacific Blue we saw last year.
Besides the camera and the battery life, the other important upgrade this year is the new A15 Bionic chip. The important thing here is that the A15 Bionic does not make the iPhone 13 devices faster than the iPhone 12 series. The primary purpose of this new processor is to ensure that the phones remain snappy in the years to come. This is why there are many iPhone users who are happily using older devices without any issues. While upgrades are great, not everyone finds joy in getting a new phone every year. To be honest, I think I envy those people, sometimes. There are some new camera features on the iPhone 13 devices that are enabled by the A15, and the new processor is definitely more efficient but there is almost no perceptible difference in speed if you compare last year’s devices to this year’s. Then again, that’s not what Apple has planned anyway. One last change - there is a 1TB version available this year for the Pro models with base variants starting from 128GB.
Unlike last year, the camera systems on the iPhone 13 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro Max are identical, so you do not have to splurge extra this year to get “the best cameras there are”. The iPhone 12 Pro last year made me leave my Pixel 4a and the photos were incredible. On the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the night mode was to die for. This year, Apple has subtly made it better. Whether the Pixel 6 can beat what the iPhone 13 Pro models can do remains to be seen. Apple calls the camera system on the iPhone 13 Pro models the “biggest advancement ever”. Given that the iPhone 12 Pro devices already took great photos, it will be hard for a lay-person to really spot the improvements this year. You’ll understand what the iPhone 13 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro Max can do if you really pay attention to the details.
In normal light or bright sunlight, the photos clicked by the iPhone 13 Pro devices are hard to distinguish from the iPhone 13 or even the older devices from last year (the non-Pro ones). Almost all smartphones perform well in good light so there’s not much there. However, the real difference shows up in low light. Apple has stuck to its 12MP camera, the same resolution we’ve seen since 2015, but the sensors are bigger now (1.9 µm pixels) and the lens has an f/1.5 aperture. A bigger sensor means that the camera can take in more light as compared to the older iPhones and this combined with Apple’s improved computational photography creates some incredibly detailed low-light images. As compared to the iPhone 12 Pro, the iPhone 13 Pro switches to Night Mode far less, which means that photos do not get randomly lightened unless you manually control that.
Most people will not notice the difference between photos clicked by this year’s Pro models and the regular iPhone 13, or even last year’s devices unless you really zoom in. Which is ok. Apple’s Pro devices are meant for the pros, who have a much better understanding of the photographic nitty-gritty than the rest of us point-and-shoot aficionados.
The one new added trick this year that more people might notice is the macro photography feature on the main wide-angle camera on the iPhone 13 Pro devices. When you bring the iPhone 13 Pros closer to a subject (10 cm away), you will see the camera frame switch to ultrawide. You can keep closing in and still get an in-focus shot. While this is automatic for now, Apple is reportedly going to roll out a software update to disable this automatic switch. Android phones have been doing macro photos for a while now, but Apple does its own, incredible take on it. I take a lot of photos of devices in close-up and I saw this new trick shine. The new telephoto lens on the iPhone 13 Pro devices with the addition of night mode makes for incredible portrait shots creating natural bokeh without going on the portrait mode.
Apple has added something called Picture Profile to its cameras this year. To explain it simply, these Picture Profiles are like filters, but Apple does not call them filters. As Dieter Bohn points out in his review of the iPhone 13 Pro, “picture profiles are particularly interesting because they serve almost as an admission that Apple is feeling competitive pressure from the likes of Samsung and Google”, and if you use these new Picture Profiles, you’ll see that he’s right.
Once selected and set, these profiles change the way your photos look by default. You no longer have to manually edit them or slap on a filter. Essentially you set your iPhone cameras up in a way that photos clicked look a certain way without editing. There are a set of default options for these Picture Profiles that include Standard, Vibrant, Warm, Cool, and Rich Contrast. You can manually tweak all of these to change both tone and warmth, and when you tweak them the names of these profiles change to match the new settings. To find one you like, you have to play around a bit with these and once you set it, it becomes the new default (not)filter on your pictures. There is a pop-up button you will see to toggle this off too. You can read Bohn’s review to understand how this feature makes photos look like they’ve been clicked on from a Google Pixel or a Samsung smartphone.
Why anyone would want to make iPhone photos look like not-iPhone photos is beyond me. But nonetheless, Picture Profiles are a fun new thing you can play around with and this is Apple giving you a chance to get pictures you like without having to edit them post the shot. And as Apple explains, these Picture Profiles are not filters since they are not applied evenly across the entire image. Apple’s computational photography chooses which parts of the photo should have the filter. Picture Profiles also do not work if you are shooting in RAW.
When it comes to videos, Apple has been untouchable for a while and that same legacy continues this year. There is a new Cinematic Mode that can simply be explained as Portrait Mode, but for video. With the Cinematic Mode, you can shift focus from one person to another, one spot to another, manually, while shooting. Left on auto the camera will focus on the biggest face/body on the screen and shift focus to it. If that face or body turns away from the camera, the focus shifts to something/somebody else. You can also manually control this by tapping on what you want to focus on. You can also change your focus choices post the shoot in the Photos app. Cinematic Mode works on both the front and rear cameras and it’s fun to play around with.
Now the last big upgrade - that 120Hz refresh rate that many people have been whining about. While the iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 mini still have the 60Hz refresh rate, the Pro devices have 120Hz. In real life, this translates to smoother scrolling and animations and better battery life. This 120Hz is not new for Android users, almost all high-end Android devices have it. Apple has just introduced it. But most iPhone users will not understand the difference because iPhones have always been smooth, even with their low refresh rates. In reality, this 120Hz won’t change your life unless you are upgrading to the iPhone 13 Pro devices from a much older iPhone. Add ProMotion (the ability to adjust the refresh rate to match the movement of the content) to all this and you get a much smarter screen than what we’ve seen on older iPhones.
Should you buy it?
The iPhone 13 Pro has the best cameras yet. In fact, the cameras on the iPhone 13 Pro devices are better than any you’d find across any smartphone right now. So for that, yes. If you are already on the iPhone 12 Pro or the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and photography is not the most important thing for you, you may consider the new iPhone 13 Pros for its improved battery life.
If you decide to give in, there are many small little upgrades that you will get. Many of these you will really have to look closely to understand. For most regular users these upgrades will feel iterative and you might want to hold out for the iPhone 14 devices, and that’s fair. There are no glaring upgrades this time around, except for the battery life that you can really yell about. The perks lie in the details. For those who know where to look, things just got better.