iPhone 13 Review: Just Get the Pro Instead

iPhone 13 Review: Just Get the Pro Instead
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

Last year’s iPhone 12 was a meaningful upgrade from the iPhone 11 and felt more premium than its $1,000+ price tag. I was less sold on the iPhone 12 Mini, which was a perfectly sized phone for those of us with small hands, but it had tragic battery life made worse by 5G connectivity. With the iPhone 13, Apple has significantly improved the Mini’s battery life, but now that the Pro lineup has elevated what a flagship iPhone is capable of, the iPhone 13 feels like the most incremental of upgrades. If it weren’t for the battery gains, which are huge compared to the iPhone 12, let alone the 8, X, XS, and 11, I’d recommend sitting this one out.

But the battery life really is that good.

Apple iPhone 13 and 13 Mini

WHAT IS IT?

Apple’s more affordable flagship iPhones

PRICE

$1,199 for iPhone 13 Mini, $1,349 for iPhone 13

LIKE

Much improved battery life; slightly better low-light photos; ultra-fast processor; double the storage for the price

DON’T LIKE

Ultra-wide-angle lens has outlived its usefulness

The Battery Upgrade Is Real

Let’s get right down to it. The biggest change Apple made in this year’s more affordable iPhones is perhaps one that’s most essential for every single iPhone user: battery life. Last year’s iPhone 12 delivered a solid amount of life on a charge — 14 hours and 20 minutes on Gizmodo’s video rundown test — but the 12 Mini’s small size translated to a small battery. The Mini lasted just 11 hours and 20 minutes on our test, a full three hours less than the 12, and often needed to be charged by early evening. Not being able to last an entire day is a cardinal sin for a smartphone, and Apple took that criticism to heart.

The 13 and 13 Mini have bigger batteries, and that absolutely makes a difference. The 13 lasted almost 17 hours on our battery test, and the 13 Mini turned in a respectable 13 hours and 42 minutes — almost 2.5 hours longer than last year’s Mini. This is a big deal because it means you don’t have to tote around a charger or a battery pack as punishment for choosing a small phone.

The iPhone 13 Pro’s battery life is on par with the 13’s, but the 13 Pro Max blows all of the other new iPhones away. Anecdotally, the Pro Max lasted 2.5 days on a charge, and 19 hours and 30 minutes on our battery test. It’s a beast. But it’s also too large for most human beings to use comfortably and that’s that.

We Need to Talk About the Cameras

The cheaper iPhone 13 models (left: Mini, right: iPhone 13) have a dual-lens array now arranged diagonally. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini, like the 12 and 12 Mini, have two rear 12-megapixel camera lenses: one standard (or what Apple calls wide), and one ultra-wide with a 120-degree field of view. The 13 Pro and Pro Max have an extra 12-MP telephoto lens capable of shooting up to 3x optical zoom. The 13 and 13 Mini have a digital zoom of up to 5x for photos and 3x for videos.

The 13 and 13 Mini’s camera modules are much larger than the 12 and 12 Mini, with noticeably bigger lenses. Apple has beefed up the main cam with a larger sensor that the company says can take in 47% more light, while the ultra-wide-angle lens also has a new sensor that Apple says reduces noise in low-light photos. All the iPhone 13 models have sensor-shift optical image stabilisation, which basically works to combat the inevitable shake in your hands when shooting photos or video so you get crisper shots. Last year, this feature was reserved for the 12 Pro Max.

I traipsed up to Griffith Observatory to capture downtown Los Angeles on a foggy night to do some camera comparisons, taking an iPhone 12 Pro Max with last year’s best camera, a 3-year-old iPhone XS, and Google’s Pixel 5, which has long set the standard for excellent low-light shots (although both Samsung and Apple have become competitive in the last year). As you can see below, the 12 Pro Max still turned in a solid shot, but its main lens lets in less light than the 13’s. The XS lacks any kind of night mode, which is obvious. Google’s Pixel 5 still has a capable Night Sight mode.

I decided to test out the iPhone 13, 12, 11, and XS side by side in low-light conditions. Apple still sells both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 11 alongside the new iPhone 13 lineup. For reference, the 13 and 12 both support Night Mode in both lenses. The 11’s main lens enables Night Mode, but its ultra-wide-angle lens does not. The XS has a standard cam and a telephoto lens, but it lacks Night Mode altogether. You can compare their shots below.

The iPhone 13 clearly has a better main lens than the 12 (and 11 and XS), with its Night Mode shots even besting the 12 Pro Max. But where things fall apart a bit is with the ultra-wide-angle lens. While the 13 has a slight edge when it comes to more natural colour reproduction than the 12, I wouldn’t call the 13’s ultra-wide-angle lens good. More on that in a minute.

Back to the iPhone 13’s main lens, which handles bright daylight well, even when shooting directly into the sun. The brewery scene below shows the light-dappled ground and has just a hint of the green light iPhones usually have from lens refraction. But the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s aggressive scene optimisation works to its favour here — the left side of the image is more well-lit than the iPhone’s. The Pixel 5’s backlit scene is completely blown out, though the effect is unintentionally kind of cool. The 13 is definitely more capable than the XS.

When it comes to optimal shooting conditions — late afternoon light outside — the iPhone 13 excels. In the golf course photo below, the putting green stands in vivid contrast to the deep green trees and red flag, and the wisps of clouds are stark against the bright blue sky. Compared to the Pixel 5’s shot, which is overall duller, from the colours to the details, the iPhone 13’s image is perfect. But the iPhone has always performed well outside in daylight.

In addition to low-light improvements, the iPhone 13 shares a few features with the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, including Photographic Styles (a smart version of filters that can’t be reversed after the fact) and cinematic video mode, which is like portrait mode for video. I wrote about these in-depth in my 13 Pro and Pro Max review — Photographic Styles are fine but unnecessary, and cinematic video is fun but finicky — and the same applies to the 13 and 13 Mini.

But after spending a week shooting with the iPhone 13, I’m a little disappointed. The main lens is excellent at both daytime and nighttime shots, but you don’t get much bang for your buck with the ultra-wide lens. Don’t get me wrong: Ultra-wide is great for dramatic landscape shots or making a short person look like they have gazelle-like supermodel legs. (Try this, it works.) But I found myself longing for a telephoto lens more often than not — digital zoom just doesn’t cut it. If the iPhone 13 had a dual-lens set-up with a telephoto and main cam that both supported Night Mode, sort of like an iPhone XS meets iPhone 13 Pro, that would be it: the perfect iPhone.

But as it stands, the iPhone 13 Pro is the more well-rounded camera system capable of a wider variety of great shots, while the 13’s upgrades are too incremental.

No Design Changes

The iPhone 13 notch is noticeably slimmer, but it's useless because nothing is done with that extra space. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

The 6.1-inch iPhone 13 and 5.4-inch 13 Mini look almost identical to their predecessors, minus two small tweaks. The first is a slightly smaller notch — 20% smaller, Apple says — which is thinner at the sides but protrudes down a smidge more than on past notched iPhones. This change is negligible, and I’m not actually sure why Apple did it. Until the notch goes away completely, the notch is fine. We’re all used to it.

The second change is on the back of the iPhones, where the dual lenses are now arranged diagonally. This seems to be related to the sensor-shift OIS mechanism, which appears to take up a chunk of the camera module. It’s also a visual indicator to the rest of the world that you have a new iPhone, so there’s that. The lenses themselves are bigger than last year’s, and the square module is also larger.

The iPhone 12 Mini (left) has smaller lenses stacked vertically. The 13 Mini (right) has a new lens placement with an overall larger camera module. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

Other than that, the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini retain the same flat-edged design as last year, with a shiny fingerprint magnet of a glass back that comes in five colours: red, white, black, blue, pink, and a new colour called “starlight,” which is silver and gold combined. I tested the black Mini (yawn) and the pink iPhone 13, which is a lovely pale pink. The new iPhones have colour-matched aluminium frames, just like they did last year.

The OLED display is slightly brighter than last year’s, but the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini screens don’t get the 120Hz adaptive refresh rate that the 13 Pro and Pro Max do, so scrolling isn’t as smooth.

Pro-Level Performance

Every year, iPhones get faster, and this year’s iPhones are the fastest iPhones ever. This is not surprising. The new A15 Bionic chip has a 6-core CPU and 5-core GPU that beats every other smartphone chip out there by a wide margin. You can multitask, play games, and never have to worry about a sluggish phone. The same was true last year, but this year, even faster.

On Geekbench 5’s Compute Metal benchmark of graphics performance, the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini’s scores were leagues beyond way more expensive Android flagships (Mini: 10877; Samsung’s $2,649 Galaxy Z Fold 3: 4684). As expected, the 13 and 13 Mini’s synthetic benchmark scores were also more impressive than last year’s iPhone 12 and 12 Mini, which ran on Apple’s A14 Bionic processor. The A15 Bionic and iOS 15 also contribute battery optimisations on both the hardware and software levels to increase the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini’s battery life, which is helpful.

I’m not sure anyone would notice a meaningful difference between the A15 Bionic and A14 Bionic in real world use, unlike how they would with, say, a 120Hz screen. But they’re fast iPhones. That’s good.

So. Should You Buy an iPhone 13?

The iPhone 13 Mini is a perfectly-sized phone with actually solid battery life. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

The 13 and 13 Mini undeniably have compelling price tags for flagship phones. I’m curious to see whether Google’s Pixel 6, built on Google’s custom processor, can rival the iPhone 13 when it comes to price, performance, and photography features when it debuts later this spring.

If you’re not an Android person and simply want to know which iPhone to buy, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all recommendation here. Whether you should upgrade to an iPhone 13 or 13 Mini depends on a few factors:

  • Did you buy an iPhone 12 Mini because you love the size? If so, and if you can snag an iPhone 13 Mini at a deep discount or for free from your carrier, it’s worth upgrading almost solely for the battery life (better low-light shots and cinematic video mode experiments are just a bonus). The increase in base storage, from 64GB to 128GB for the same starting price, is also a plus.
  • Do you own an iPhone 12? Keep it, unless your carrier is offering you a free 13. The standard iPhone 12’s battery is good enough, and you’ll almost certainly want to see what’s coming in the iPhone 14.
  • Do you own an iPhone 8, X, XS, or 11? Consider the iPhone 13 Pro. The battery life gains and camera upgrades are a huge leap from those older phones, and you also get a brighter, smoother 120Hz display.

Last year, the iPhone 12 seemed like a steal. You got basically all of the Pro models’ features — fresh design, 5G connectivity, MagSafe charging, an OLED display — without spending $1,699. This year, the calculus is a little different. The 13 and 13 Mini’s battery gains are meaningful, but the new camera features are light and the ultra-wide-angle lens is just not as useful as a telephoto one. The 13 Pro adds some features you can’t get on the 13 or 13 Mini, and you no longer have to splurge on the overly large Pro Max to get the best cameras on an iPhone.

Rumour has it this year’s Mini will be the last, so if you love a pint-sized phone, follow your heart. Otherwise, go Pro.

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