iPhone 13 review: An essential phone but a nonessential upgrade

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The iPhone 13 is a great phone, but it doesn’t bring many must-have upgrades over the iPhone 12.
$799 (base model)
Without the setup of the cameras, the iPhone 13 would be almost indistinguishable from the iPhone 12. There are other subtle differences: it’s a hair thicker, the volume and side buttons are lower, the notch is smaller, and the colors are a bit thicker. bit more understated, but the main difference is the diagonal placement of the rear camera lenses.
The iPhone 13 is a great phone with a great screen and a great camera – it’s just not much bigger than the iPhone 12.
Michael Simon/IDG
Like everything about the iPhone 13, that subtle change makes more sense than it looks. You get the same wide and ultra-wide camera system as on the iPhone 12, but the diagonal placement is necessary to house an advanced camera system. It’s a classic Apple upgrade – seemingly redundant on the outside, but hides much bigger things on the inside.
The iPhone 13 will garner its share of annual buyers, but it’s not an essential upgrade for anyone using an iPhone 12 or maybe even an iPhone 11. But that’s not really who it’s for. The iPhone 13 is the phone for the millions of Apple users who have skipped the iPhone 12 and maybe even the iPhone 11 and will be perfectly happy with their vertically aligned cameras for another 12 months.
At first glance, the iPhone 13 looks almost identical to the iPhone 12. The screen is the same – 6.1 inches – and the dimensions are very close, except for the thickness (7.65 mm vs. 7.4 mm), which is even difficult to distinguish when you compare the phones side by side. The other physical differences are the aforementioned diagonal camera array and slightly lower volume and side buttons.
The buttons on the iPhone 13 (right) are slightly lower than on the iPhone 12.
Michael Simon/IDG
At 6.14 grams, the iPhone 13 is also a bit heavier than the iPhone 12 (5.78 grams). There are a number of reasons why — bigger battery, bigger cameras, thicker frame — but the fact is, it’s one of the heaviest phones this side of the iPhone 13 Pro, weighing over an ounce.
You have to turn the screen on to see the biggest visual change: a smaller notch for the front camera and sensors. Apple has reduced the size of the iPhone’s most iconic feature by about 20 percent, and it’s definitely smaller. Also, the earpiece speaker has been moved to the top edge of the phone, making it slightly less distracting.
Michael Simon/IDG
However, the smaller notch adds nothing but a few extra pixels for the “horns” on either side of it. Instead of adding a new status icon, Apple has only centered the existing icons, which is a bit more distracting as there’s a bit of dead space around them now. I’m hopeful that an iOS update will bring new icons or a switch to show the battery percentage, as it’s a shame Apple isn’t embracing the extra space.
Aside from the notch and a higher maximum brightness (800 nits vs. 625 nits), the rest of the display is essentially the same as the iPhone 12, a 6.1-inch 2532 x 1170 Retina display with True Tone, wide colors and HapticTouch. The bezels around the screen are also the same, and they are starting to show their age. Apple calls it an “all-screen OLED display,” but it has a much lower screen-to-body ratio than many of its Android peers. Rumor has it that the iPhone 14 will bring a new design, so hopefully Apple has thinner bezels in the works.
Notably, the iPhone 13 has the same 60Hz screen as previous iPhones, as opposed to the new ProMotion 120Hz variable refresh screen of the iPhone 13 Pro. It’s a notable difference when switching between the two models, but not one that previous iPhone users will notice. ProMotion is definitely better, but the stock old iPhone screen is pretty good too.
Like every other iPhone that Apple has ever released, the iPhone 13 features Apple’s latest A-series processor, the A15 Bionic. But unlike previous years, the iPhone 13’s processor is slightly less capable than the one in the iPhone 13 Pro.
That probably won’t be a problem for anyone except the most demanding users. In benchmarks, the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro differ about 20 percent from each other in graphics tests and are basically identical in CPU performance. They’re both still much faster than the iPhone 12 and hugely capable, but if you’re a high-end gamer or a real power user, the extra graphics core could make an impact. For most users, the standard A15 will be a workhorse. Add to that a 128GB starting storage (twice the base storage of the iPhone 12) and it’s hard to complain about the specs.
The battery life is even more impressive. On paper, Apple says the iPhone 13 can play back two hours of video and stream four more hours of video, but those numbers don’t really tell the whole story. In benchmarks, the iPhone 13 lasted almost eight and a half hours, which is quite a bit longer than the iPhone 12 Pro and almost as long as the iPhone 12 Pro Max. That’s quite astounding and easily the biggest generational leap in battery life. The Pro models still last longer, but it’s not hard to say that this is the most significant upgrade in the iPhone 13.
Battery life wasn’t exactly an issue with the iPhone 12, but with enough use, you probably had to grab a charger by the end of the day. That’s not even a passing thought with the iPhone 13. On a day of particularly heavy use, I spent a lot of time using Apple Maps and Apple Music, taking lots of photos, playing some games, and doing all the other usual things that I do while I was making the brightness higher than usual (it was a particularly sunny day), and I barely touched the red when I was ready to go to bed. And when I forgot to charge it, I still had enough juice to get through my morning before a quick charge.
It’s safe to say that battery life won’t be an issue with the iPhone 13. Like the processor, Apple has provided more than we actually need, and with the rare exception of having to travel overnight without a charger, iPhone 13 users don’t have to. pay close attention to the battery icon (although I still wish Apple would bring the percentage back).
You can charge the iPhone 13 with the included USB-C to Lightning cable or wirelessly with MagSafe. You’ll need a USB-C charger, so check out our recommendations for the best iPhone charger and the best MagSafe charger too.
Together with the battery, the camera is the biggest improvement over the iPhone 12. Apple uses the same basic hardware – dual 12MP wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle cameras with 2x optical zoom – but the technical aspects have changed. The sensor in the wide camera is larger, the sensor in the ultra-wide camera is faster, and the system now has sensor shift stabilization instead of the previous lens-based stabilization.
While you’ll take better photos with the iPhone 13, they won’t be very noticeable if they come from the iPhone 12. That’s not meant to be a criticism: the iPhone 12 also took great photos. If you’re upgrading from an iPhone 12 for the camera, I suggest you buy an iPhone 13 Pro or wait for the iPhone 14.
But if you’re coming from an older phone, especially an iPhone XR or earlier, the difference will be significant. The iPhone 13 takes great photos in all types of light, but really excels in low-light situations. Apple introduced Night Mode on the iPhone 11 and it has gotten better with each new phone. The best improvement this year, other than improved image processing, is the larger 1.7 µm pixels on the Wide camera, which according to Apple captures 47 percent more light.
That may be true, but it’s still very hard to tell the difference between the iPhone 13 and iPhone 12 when it comes to nighttime shooting. If you compare the two photos side by side, you’ll see a bit more detail and a bit more sharpness with the iPhone 13, but for the most part, both phones will take very similar and very good photos in low light.
The same goes for photos taken in better light. Even without a telephoto lens, the iPhone 13 takes great photos with just one tap. The new Photographic Styles feature is impressive for its subtlety and fidelity to the scene, but people aren’t likely to use it that often. The same goes for movie mode video, which is very cool and impressive, but only useful in very specific situations.
I’ve used both the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro Max, and this is the first year I’d recommend spending a little more on the Pro to get a better camera. The differences are no longer just focused on super high-end photos. The main feature I missed from the iPhone 13 Pro is the macro mode. While there’s already a software solution from Halide that mimics it pretty well, it’s not as smooth and automatic as on the iPhone 13 Pro, nor can you get that close to your subject. And when you get close to snap a photo with the iPhone 13’s stock camera app, photos are a blurry mess.
We’ve outlined the advantages of the iPhone 13 Pro camera in our extensive review, and it brings a host of hardware and software improvements that you won’t get on the iPhone 13. The iPhone 13 certainly has a great camera, but it doesn’t feel like a generational leap like the Pro model does.
The iPhone 13 is an easy phone to recommend. Even with the look of the iPhone 12, it doesn’t feel like an old design and has a huge battery life. At $799 ($829 unlocked), it’s the same price as the iPhone 12 and you’ll get a little more for your money in 2021. There’s no doubt the iPhone 13 will be a fantastic upgrade for anyone who owns an iPhone 11, XR or XS used . And getting 128GB of storage instead of 64GB is nice too.
The iPhone 13 (above) has a different camera layout and shade of blue than the iPhone 12.
Michael Simon/IDG
But if you already have an iPhone 12 and want one of the newer phones, the iPhone 13 Pro is a better option. Yes, it’s $200 more expensive, but you get a lot more for the extra $200: a better screen (brighter and with ProMotion), processor (five GPU cores vs. four GPU cores), camera system (telephoto plus wide and ultrawide improvements ) and longer battery life.
It’s not that you won’t be happy with the iPhone 13, but you’ll be happier with the iPhone 13 Pro.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology dates back to his first PC: the IBM Thinkpad with the flip-up keyboard to change the drive. Still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.
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