Apple’s triskaidekaphobia-inducing iPhone 13 lineup may, on the face of it, seem like an iterative “S”-series update, with the phones looking almost the same as those released last year. Yet, there’s more to the iPhones 13, 13 mini, 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max than meets the eye, and having put them through their paces over the past few weeks, here’s our considered take on Apple’s flagship 2021 iPhone portfolio, a report card, if you will.
The new iPhones are pretty similar to last year’s models in terms of design, with two notable exceptions. The notch is smaller, by about 20% horizontally, a fact you may only notice if you place it side by side with an earlier iPhone. You will reclaim some screen real estate in games and full-screen apps without losing out on the benefits of FaceID recognition. Then there’s the almost gargantuan rear camera bump with bigger lenses, a change that tacks on weight to each device but delivers a bunch of better cameras—win some, lose some. Apple has also persisted with its proprietary long-in-the-tooth Lightning port instead of switching to USB-C like the bulk of the Mac and iPad lineup.
With form factors staying the same, so do the displays, and in general, these continue to be among the most colour-accurate OLED screens you can get on a smartphone. Across the board, the maximum brightness levels are higher than last year’s models, which is nicer in outdoor use. The Pro/Pro Max models offer the same buttery-smooth 120Hz “ProMotion” variable refresh rate displays we have seen on earlier iPad Pros.
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iOS user interface animations were already zippy at 60Hz on previous iPhones, so the differences in everyday navigation are fairly subtle. The real value of ratcheting up the refresh rate to 120Hz will surface when developers update their apps to take advantage of the extra fluidity…in particular, game developers who already ship 120Hz-compatible games on the iPad Pro. The other benefit is that the refresh rate can be dropped to as low as 10Hz to match what’s happening on the screen, so films can be served up at their native 24 frames/second and text documents can go even lower, to 10Hz, yielding big benefits in battery life.
Is ProMotion a must-have, though? After years of asking for this one big upgrade, it’s telling that most folks didn’t notice it when the author interchangeably handed them the vanilla iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 Pro.
Big upgrades define the iPhones 13 camera setup, from the improved primary camera with large 1.7 micrometer pixels and sensor-shift optical-image stabilisation (restricted to the Pro series last year) across all four models. On the 13 and 13 mini, the ultra-wide has the same fixed focus sensor, which doesn’t allow for the close-up macro shot wizardry that’s possible on the Pros.
The larger sensor produces slightly sharper daylight images than the previous generation but the real benefits are delivered in low-light scenarios, where image noise is reined in better, and you can take vibrant-looking low-light shots with shorter exposure times. The ability to shoot 4K video in Dolby Vision HDR at 60 frames per second is another big plus for the non-Pro models. Exclusive to the iPhone 13 lineup are new Cinematic mode video and Photographic Styles, which add a dash of versatility to the competent camera setup.
On to the Pros, where you get wider aperture lens for even better light sensitivity on both the primary and ultra-wide cameras; the ultra-wide goes up close for those detailed macro shots. The LIDAR scanner on the rear helps in better and quicker Night Mode shots, and the telephoto now goes up to 3x optical zoom. With the competition upping the ante in the recent past with insane 10x periscopic zooms, Apple’s quality over quantity approach may be in need of a refresh next year. Save for this, the iPhones 13 are still the photo-video combo champ to beat in the flagship segment.
Apple placed less than the usual emphasis on performance upgrades in the iPhone 13 lineup, which is borne out by the 10-15% improvements in benchmark scores over the iPhone 12 series and the absence of a perceptible difference in everyday tasks. Make no mistake, however—the A15 Bionic chip still runs circles around the competition, though it’s not that big of a leap forward on processor-intensive tasks within its own stable. Graphics performance is a nice surprise, with the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max having one GPU core more than the iPhone 13 and 13 mini, which plays out well (pun intended) on demanding 3D-heavy games.
Crucially for Apple, it widens the gap between the regular iPhones 13 and the Pro variants, the lines for which were blurred in last year’s iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. Folks who push the performance envelope of their phones will certainly see gains in picking up the Pros this time around.
In terms of meaningful quality-of-life upgrades, battery life improvements across the iPhone 13 lineup are right up there. On the vanilla iPhone 13, one saw well over six hours of screen-on time, up an hour over the iPhone 12, while the 13 Pro fared similarly.
Even the iPhone 13 mini sees a minor improvement in battery life, but there’s only so much battery the adorably small mini can pack in; it still pales in comparison to its bigger siblings. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is the true battery champ, lasting well over 10 hours of screen time (or about two days) for everyday tasks, which included lots of doomscrolling on Twitter and Instagram, streaming music, the odd hour of casual gaming and a couple of Netflix episodes.
Apple has added bigger capacity batteries (and a bit of extra weight and thickness) to improve battery life on all four devices, and it shows. The only downside is that Apple is behind the curve when it comes to fast charging support, taking a shade past 30 minutes to hit 40% and two hours, five minutes to charge the 13 Pro Max to full using Apple’s 20W charger (not included in the box). MagSafe-based wireless charging is slower still.
The holy trifecta of battery life, display and camera improvements do well to sell the iPhone 13 lineup, even to recent iPhone buyers, but the big pitch will obviously be to iPhone 8, X and XS owners, who will see hugely discernible jumps in each of these categories to warrant the not insignificant premium. Granted, the screens don’t fold, the cameras may not zoom as much and the batteries may not charge as fast, but the upgrades reinforce the “complete, refined package” approach Apple seems to favour over fancy bells and whistles.
Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator and tweets @2shar.
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