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Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: The ‘S’ year iPhone without the S

It’s perhaps the most incremental update Apple has ever made

The iPhone 13 Pro phones now get the 1TB storage option. Power users may appreciate this, particularly if the intention is to fully use the camera for space consuming ProRAW photos, ProRes or Dolby Vision HDR videos as well as Cinematic Mode. 
The iPhone 13 Pro phones now get the 1TB storage option. Power users may appreciate this, particularly if the intention is to fully use the camera for space consuming ProRAW photos, ProRes or Dolby Vision HDR videos as well as Cinematic Mode.  (HT_PRINT)

Apple may have retired the ‘S’ moniker from its iPhones, but it still follows the traditional cycle. While last year’s iPhone 12 series was the biggest update to iPhones in a long time, the iPhone 13 series falls squarely in the ‘S year’, which is a term reviewers have adopted to say that this year’s iPhone 13 Pro is only an incremental update. 

But what’s an incremental update that comes after the biggest change to the iPhone in years? It’s the most incremental update Apple has ever made, that’s what it is.

Also read: Has Apple really stopped innovating?

The biggest updates this year are in the iPhone 13 Pro’s camera software, which take advantage of bigger sensors and Apple’s new A15 Bionic processor to deliver some nifty new software features. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the stuff that’s really noticeable from the get go.

Battery life and design

The two really noticeable changes in the iPhone 13 Pro is that it is very noticeably bigger in size than the iPhone 12 Pro and that it delivers greater battery life. The camera sensors are larger, and to accommodate that Apple enhanced the overall size, which is a bummer for those who care about ergonomics. The iPhone 12 Pro was much more pocketable and single-handed usage friendly.

But this size trade-off is somewhat worth it because the battery life has improved too. The iPhone 13 Pro has a more battery friendly display and power efficient processor, but even though Apple won’t admit it, it might all come down to the larger battery inside this phone. Teardowns have revealed that the iPhone 13 Pro has a 3095 mAh battery, while the iPhone 12 Pro had a 2815 mAh unit.

Apple claims the new device will provide an hour and a half’s worth of extra battery life over its predecessor and it checks out. I was using an iPhone 12 Pro for a year before this one and it lasted from about 8am to 8pm every day. This one needs a quick top up around 10pm to get me through the day. Conservatively, using Apple’s new notifications settings, do not disturb etc, I could get to midnight quite easily too.

I must note though that my iPhone 12 Pro started off with about 8am-10pm battery life too, and dropped over the past year. So, it might be a little early to sing praises for Apple. But, it’s still a work day’s worth of battery life, which should be enough for most of use.

The new iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max also have new “ProMotion” displays, which is Apple’s branding on what Android smartphones call variable refresh rate. It basically allows the screen to dynamically switch the refresh rate as required by what’s happening on the screen, and unlike Android devices, Apple’s device can switch between 10-120Hz.

The refresh rate of a display determines how many times it is able to draw a new image, which is important for making animations smoother, watching videos that have higher refresh rates and playing many games. It’s great that iPhones have it now, but unlike Android devices, Apple’s interface animations were already so smooth that you don’t see that difference. It’s a good feature to have though, and allows app developers the opportunity to build more products around the iPhone.

To the “Pro” stuff then

Unlike Android smartphone makers, Apple doesn’t use the ‘Pro’ terminology lightly. A Macbook Pro has been meant for the “pro” users, which consists of creators, designers and others who have a better understanding of cameras than you and I do. And they will appreciate the fact that the iPhone 13 Pro’s cameras are exactly the same as the iPhone 13 Pro Max, ending a distinction that Apple had been making in yesteryears.

The iPhone 13 Pro’s cameras are designed to take in more light and shoot photos in low light quickly. You can hardly see any practical difference between photos shot using the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro though. Which is true for any two comparable smartphones today, but the changes Apple has made might actually make sense to some of the more advanced users.

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The new iPhone 13 Pro produces lower image noise, shoots faster when using the Night Mode and deals with shadows better. For instance, when you click photos of subjects against the night sky, the 13 Pro’s camera is much closer to what the black sky looks like naturally than what the iPhone 12 does. Even in a dull whitewashed room, the iPhone 13 Pro produces deeper shadows around a subject than its predecessors.

The cameras are definitely better. The ultrawide sensor is better at low light than it used to be, and the iPhone 13 Pro has a macro mode now, which it slips into automatically when you move close enough to a subject. If you’re asking whether this is a significant step forward from the iPhone 12 Pro though, the answer will have to be no.

If you know how to compose photos, understand how to play off ambient light and so on, the iPhone 13 Pro can literally take the best photos any phone can. If you simply take photos to post on social media and share over WhatsApp, save some money and buy the iPhone 13 instead.

The iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max had the best cameras on smartphones till last year, and in my opinion the iPhone 13 Pro series will take over that mantle this year, unless Google pulls a rabbit out of the hat with the upcoming Pixel 6. However, these cameras are much more suited to Pro users than people like me, who need cameras on their phones only to click a few photos for social media, or perhaps to capture the occasional moment.

Topping off the “Pro-ness” of the iPhone 13 is the fact that you can shoot videos in Apple’s ProRes compression technology. It allows videos to be shot at high resolution and detail with minimal compression, and is very popular amongst professionals. It’s no secret that Apple’s iPhones are popular amongst filmmakers, and this feature is squarely aimed at them.

ProRes videos can be so large that on 512GB iPhones, Apple will limit these videos to 256GB file sizes. On 256GB iPhones, it will only shoot in 1080p and up to a 128GB file size.

Camera Modes

For people like me, who often depend on Instagram’s filters to make photos look good, Apple has something called Photographic Styles this year. Combined the new hardware and all of Apple’s computational photography algos (called Smart HDR), it’s like a much smarter filter. Unlike an Instagram filter though, Photographic Styles literally apply changes to Apple’s camera software and shoot photos in a particular way, applying your choices when a photo is clicked instead of afterwards.

In essence, the algorithms don’t just take a picture and apply a new colour profile to them, they take into account the subjects in that photo and apply the photographic profile of your choice accordingly. So “Vibrant” could mean that leaves on a tree will look more yellowish, but a person’s skin tones won’t suddenly start looking that way.

There’s a bigger statement here though, one that Apple’s been making slowly and slowly for the past few years. That Google and Samsung were right, and smartphone cameras need to bend to popular opinion.

You see, Apple’s cameras have always been known for ‘natural’ photos. But phone makers realized long ago that consumers want filters that make photos look unnaturally vibrant than a photographer’s idea of natural photos. Companies like Samsung and Google have made their phone cameras artificially saturated colours to a point where they are actually unnatural but really pleasing. The iPhone 10, 11 and 12 did that too, to an extent, but the Photographic Styles on the iPhone 13 Pro is Apple accepting the norm. The normal mode is still more natural than most other phones, whereas the Photographic Styles are for us ‘non-pro’ users.

And speaking of Pro users, the new iPhone 13 Pro series also has something called Cinematic Mode, which is meant for videographers. It uses software to understand the foreground and background in an image, add bokeh to the background when the focus is on a subject in front, or focus on the person standing behind the subject when they’re facing the camera.

At the moment, it’s almost a party trick. It fails in low light very often and the blurs it produces aren’t inch perfect yet, especially around a subject’s hair. It gives you control over where to focus and when, something many videographers might appreciate, but there is work to be done. It also works only in 1080p video and at 30 frames per second, which isn’t always the preferred way to shoot videos. Also, this phone still has mobile camera sensors, so it’s far from actual professional video cameras.

Cinematic mode today is where portrait mode (for photos) was when it was first introduced, so one can only assume that Apple will improve it over the next few years.

Should you buy it?

Reiterating what I said right at the top — the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are iterative updates. Which means that iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max users can hold on to their devices for a few more years. For those who own aniPhone older than the iPhone 11, the iPhone 13 Pro is a massive upgrade for you. However, for iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max users, I’d recommend this one only if the ‘Pro’ features matter to you. If not, let that phone last longer.

Also read: Should you invest in a flagship phone?

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