iPhone 13 Review

It’s hard to remember the world before the iPhone. So many things we take for granted now were the stuff of science fiction in 2007. 14 years later, and nearly an entire generation has been born in the wake of the iPhone, and they know nothing different. It’s hard for any product to keep itself relevant for a few years, yet the iPhone has evolved, improved, improvised and re-invented itself several times in that window, and is more popular today than it was in 2007 on it’s release. 

With the iPhone 13 Pro lineup, Apple focused on the main 3 areas that people want to see improvements on – battery, screen and camera. I’m going to break down the improvements in each area, and then focus on the camera, because it is clearly the biggest upgrade in this iteration.

Battery

Out of the 3 main improvement areas, battery is the least sexy. But it is probably the one that is most appreciated on a daily basis. Both Pro and Pro Max models get bigger batteries this year, and along with new efficiencies in the A15 Bionic chip, get improved battery life . 

Apple touts the Pro as receiving an increase of 1.5 hours and the Pro Max as receiving 2.5 hours more of battery life. This doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but when you factor in the improvements in the second area – the screen, it’s a miracle that battery life increased and not decreased. Anyone who saw what happened when Android handset manufacturers adopted faster refresh rate panels knows what that does to battery life, and it doesn’t increase them.

Screen

The iPhone finally gets a 120hz screen. I say finally because these have been standard fare on many higher end Android phones for several years now. And yes, as I just mentioned, most of the Android phones who adopted higher refresh rate screens did so at detriment of battery life.

But Apple, being Apple, did something a bit different.

Instead of adopting a 120hz panel and calling it a day, Apple realized that having a panel refreshing at 120hz when a user is doing something static was a waste of precious power. So Apple implemented a variable refresh rate. Just sitting there looking at text on your phone screen, or a photo? The iPhone will throttle down the refresh rate to 10hz. The magic part is when you flick to scroll, the iPhone will immediately throttle up the refresh rate to the full 120hz. This adaptive refresh rate takes in to account what you are doing, and applies the necessary refresh rate all the way up to 120hz or down to 10hz. In this way, Apple took something that was done first on Android, and did it way better on iOS.

Camera

Now, Apple brought a number of camera improvements to the 13 and the 13 Pro models. The biggest is democratizing the sensor shift stabilizing that was present on the Pro Max last year, and bringing it to the Ultra Wide lens for all models, Pro and non Pro alike this year. 

Then there is the Cinematic Mode. This is feature I would have figured Apple would have saved just for the Pro models, because, well, it seems like something that could be used to justify the increased cost of the Pro or Pro Max. But since this feature really only dependent upon the improvements made in the A15 Bionic, Apple made it available to all iPhone 13 models.

But for the Pro models, Apple improved the hardware and kept the camera system the same on the Pro and Pro Max models.

The standard wide lens has been upgraded to an f/1.5 aperture. The utlra-wide lens has been upgraded to a f1/.8 aperture. And the telephoto lens, which now features a more telephoto focal length of 77m (equivalent), features a f/2.8 aperture. So you get faster glass, and you get bigger pixels. What this means is better low light performance. Of course, Apple touts better low light performance every year, so the real test is actually putting the cameras thru the paces. So let’s take a look at a bunch of photos taken with both the iPhone 12 Pro and 13 Pro. 

Conclusion

Whether you think the iPhone 13 Pro is just another iPhone or a significant entry in the iPhone’s 14 year saga will really come down to how much you value your iPhone as a camera. If you take casual pics and don’t think about things like low light photography, macro photography or portrait shots, you will probably be best served with the iPhone 13. If these details matter to you, the 13 Pro is the way to go. If you are an iPhone 12 Pro user and you are thinking of upgrading, you have to ask yourself – is $700 or so (the cost of a new iPhone after trading in your 12 or 12 Pro model) worth it to take macro pics, slightly better low light pics, or to gain a more “telephoto” telephoto lens? Are the battery improvements worth it to you? 120hz scrolling is nice, but I can tell you it’s not something I miss so much that going back to 60hz makes me feel like a caveman.

So, essentially – iPhone 13 Pro… a great upgrade for anyone not already using a 12 Pro.

Apple iPhone 13 Event

The yearly iPhone 13 event has come and gone, and pre-orders for the new devices (except for the Apple Watch Series 7) have begun. I was pretty adamant, based on the rumors, that I would skip the iPhone 13 and stick with my trusty Pacific Blue iPhone 12 Pro. However, a few things changed my mind.

First, the upgrades this year are pretty modest. But, when you are dealing with a product as mature as the iPhone, you aren’t going to get revolutionary features every year.

What did we get? With the iPhone 13 Mini and iPhone 13, we got bigger batteries, slightly better camera lenses and sensors (though still limited to 12 megapixels), a new sensor shift (ie, image stabilization) feature, and of course, a new processor – the A15 Bionic. The new processor is the key feature, as it powers some nice new software features. Specifically, the Cinematic Mode that is present on all the iPhone 13 models. This feature allows you to perform rack focus in video, something that is sure to elevate the iPhone 13 from a nice tool to augment filmmakers, to one that can be at the center of their workflows. Another software upgrade to the camera app, Photograph Styles, allows you to apply photo filters to the live image while you are shooting to see what the filters will look like before you capture the shot. Apple claims that these filters apply only to the areas of the photo that you would want them to – specifically, leaving skin tones as natural.

The Pro models now feature the same identical camera systems, so the only real differentiator between the Pro and the Pro Max now are battery life and screen size.

What Apple did to differentiate the standard models from the Pro models this year is small tweaks throughout the features. These consist of:

  • 120hz refresh rate. This adaptive refresh rate ramps up and down depending upon what you are doing. But with support at 120hz for games, the gaming experience on the Pro models is going to feel significantly more premium than the base models. The big question is how will this affect battery life. I’ll let you know when my iPhone 13 Pro arrives.
  • More RAM (4GB on the iPhone 13 Mini/13, 6GB on the Pro/Pro Max)
  • Extra GPU Core – 4 on the standard models, 5 on the Pro
  • Batter cameras with faster apertures for the wide, ultra wide. Ultra wide cameras on the Pro models also feature auto focusing capabilities, giving them the ability to perform macro shots.
  • Ability to shoot in ProRes video recording. This is coming in a software update later this year. The ability to shoot in 4K ProRes is limited to the 256GB models (ProRes video formats created incredibly large files, and 128GB wouldn’t be enough to store more than a few minutes of 4K footage). 128GB models can shoot in 1080p ProRes.

So the value proposition is this: Apple improved the overall base model iPhone 13 experience in the batteries, cameras, processors, and added some nice video features (Cinematic Mode/Photograph Styles). The main reason to buy the 12 Pro (apart from the larger screen/battery of the 12 Pro Max), comes down to a better gaming experience, better photographic and video hardware and software), and the increased RAM giving your device the ability to keep more apps running simultaneously. I find the Pro value proposition quite smaller and more targeted this year than most other years. I’d really recommend the Pro models to people who either have to have the larger display size of the Pro Max, or people who actually use their phones for semi-pro or professional video applications. Everyone else will be better served to stick with the iPhone 13 standard models.

Apple Watch

So the Series 7 Apple Watch is one of the smaller updates to date. It received a small upgrade in screen size, and really… not much else. There’s speculation based upon supply chain leaks about what was expected vs what was delivered that Apple scrapped the real Series 7 plans a few months ago, and instead scrambled at the last minute to put together a substitute release. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it definitely feels like this release is small compared to other years. No new ground breaking applications for the Series 7, just small refinements to screen size and some other software editions. If you have a Series 6, you can save your money until next year and not feel like you are missing out on a lot.

iPad

The iPad mini got an update that brings it inline with the iPad Air. There’s no more Home Screen button, replaced with the fingerprint reader on the power button like the iPad Air. I’m not a fan of this design, as you get a mixed experience – navigating your iPad with gestures like you have FaceID, but authenticating with putting your finger on the power button, which, depending upon how you are holding the device, can be a bit of a disruption.

Otherwise, you get a slightly underclocked A15 chip in the mini, 5G support (in the cellular models, but no mmWave support), and some new colors. Fans of the minis form factor will probably be happy that it got some love, but at a $499/649 price point. for 64GB/256GB configurations, the mini isn’t the value proposition it once was.

The base model iPad got a small update as well. It is now sporting an A13 processor and a true-tone display. The base model also went form 32GB to 64GB. The entry level iPad remains one of the better technology buys at $329, not just from Apple, but from any company. The spec bumped version now features 256GB of storage, but at an increased cost of $479. Otherwise both still use the same accessories and case sizes as before.

So what swayed me to get the iPhone 13 Pro instead of holding steady with my 12 Pro? First off, the new Cinematic Video features look impressive, and will be a welcome addition to my videography toolset. Second, the addition of macro photography is another feature that I could justify upgrading for. Finally, the improvement in battery life sealed the deal. Battery life on my 12 Pro hasn’t been bad, but I’ve noticed in the last month or so that I’m running out of battery regularly before the day is over. The Battery Health is rated at 88%, so I’ve had 12% degradation in about a year of everyday use. This isn’t terrible, but it’s enough that had I kept my iPhone 12 Pro, I probably would have opted for a battery upgrade before the year was out. Upgrading to the new model solves that problem for me, and gets me some very nice photo/video features as well.