iPhone 13 review: Pinnacle of the mainstream

Iphone 13 Review HeroSource: Joseph Keller / iMore

It's easy to look at the iPhone 13 on paper and see an incremental update to last year's iPhone 12. And indeed, that would seem to be true in several aspects, at least at first glance. You won't really be going through your email any faster, the design is essentially the same as last year's phone, and seriously, who really needs 5G?

I've seen a lot of sentiment lamenting the iPhone 13 as "really an iPhone 12s," and apart from being a ridiculous statement (it's never mattered what Apple called the phones), it also ignores that some of the iPhone's most exciting and important updates have been in 's' years. Siri arrived with the iPhone 4s. The iPhone 5s was the first iPhone with Touch ID, and the first phone with a 64-bit processor. The iPhone 6s was the first iPhone with a 12-megapixel camera. A lot goes on in 's' years.

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While I'm not certain if this is an update on any of those levels, Apple's done a lot of work to provide the iPhone 13 with some interesting upgrades in performance, cameras, and battery life. But in many ways, these enhancements arrive in more subtle forms that work together to create a compelling new package, rather than each being potentially the thing that will drive you to buy this phone.

iPhone 13 And Mini Pink Cropped Render

iPhone 13

Bottom line: With excellent new cameras, improvements to battery life, and a nice selection of colors, Apple's mainstream flagship is the best iPhone for most people.

The Good

  • Excellent cameras
  • Battery life is much improved over iPhone 12
  • Photographic Styles put a personal touch on your photos
  • Wide color selection
  • Smaller notch

The Bad

  • No ProMotion display
  • Cinematic mode is limited to 1080p at 30fps
  • Still no telephoto lens

iPhone 13: Price and availability

Iphone 13 And Mini Dark And Light Hero

Source: Joseph Keller / iMore

The iPhone 13 mini once again sits at the bottom of the flagship pricing ladder, starting at $699 for 128GB. You can also get the iPhone 13 mini with 256GB of storage for $799, and 512GB for $999. The iPhone 13 comes in the same storage configurations for $100 more each, so 128GB costs $799, 256GB costs $899, and 512GB costs $1,099. Of course, if those price tags are a little steep, you can save some money with the best iPhone 13 deals even now as the phones launch.

You can order your iPhone 13 or iPhone 13 mini now directly from Apple and other online retailers, and phones arrived in stores on Friday, September 24.

iPhone 13: Hardware and design

Iphone 13 Design Hero

Source: Joseph Keller / iMore

If you're familiar with the iPhone 12 design, you know what to expect with the iPhone 13, except for the camera module, but more on that later. The same is true with the iPhone 13 mini. If you loved the iPhone 12, you'll feel the same about the iPhone 13.

It's the same flat aluminum edges with rounded corners. Same Ceramic Shield-coated display glass. Same glossy back with matte camera module. If you were hoping for a revolutionary design, this isn't your year.

Category iPhone 13
Operating System iOS 15
Display 6.1 inches, 2532x1170 (460 ppi) resolution, Super Retina XDR OLED display (iPhone 13)
5.4 inches, 2340x1080 (476 ppi) resolution, Super Retina XDR OLED display (iPhone 13 mini)
Processor Apple A15
Storage 128/256/512GB
Rear Camera 12MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.7μm (wide)
12MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.0μm (ultra-wide)
Front Camera 12MP, ƒ/2.2
Battery 3,227 mAh (iPhone 13)
2,406 mAh (iPhone 13 mini)
Charging Qi wireless charging up to 7.5W
MagSafe wireless charging up to 15W
Fast wired charging over Lightning with 20W power adapter
Water Resistance IP68
Dimensions 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.65mm, 174g (iPhone 13)
131.5 x 64.2 x 7.65mm, 141g (iPhone 13 mini)
Colors Starlight
Midnight
Blue
Pink
(PRODUCT)Red

Apple has refreshed its color palette this year. The blue is a little more gray, and the red a little deeper. But there are three new colors on the iPhone 13 and 13 mini: pink, Midnight, and Starlight. Starlight is not a color I've seen in person, but it seems to be a sort of beige/silver combination. The pink on my iPhone 13 review unit is extremely light, and it's easy for me to mistake it for white at some points.

My iPhone 13 mini review unit comes in Midnight, and this is a color to which Apple's photos do a great disservice. Midnight isn't black, nor is it space gray. The best way to describe it that I've found is it looks like someone dripped dark blue into the black paint they were going to use for this phone. There's a slight blue tint to it that's really slick.

The glossy back of the iPhone 13 is still a fingerprint magnet

While I've been a fan of this design overall, the iPhone 13 and 13 mini have the same major materials flaw as last year's iPhones, and that the glossy glass on the back. It loves fingerprints. Absolutely loves them. You need to either accept that, slap a case on your phone, or be prepared to carry a cloth around with you because there is no avoiding the fingerprint issue.

I do want to take some time to talk about the notch, but in all honestly, I don't really notice much of a difference. Yes, the notch on the front of the iPhone, which houses the TrueDepth camera that powers Face ID, is narrower this year. But we don't get a lot for that additional space. It's just a little more screen. One thing you will notice, though, if you use the new iOS 15 Focus feature, is that the icon for your current focus will appear next to the clock in the upper-left corner.

One of the major points of divergence between the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro this year is the display. Both are still beautiful OLED displays, but where the iPhone 13 sports the same 60Hz refresh rate that the iPhone always has, the iPhone 13 Pro lineup has a ProMotion display that has variable refresh rates as high as 120Hz. While I have some things to say about the ProMotion display in another review, the iPhone 13's display is another matter.

The truth is, there's not a lot to say here apart from this: it's the best display on an iPhone limited to 60Hz that Apple's made yet. Colors are beautiful, scrolling is relatively smooth, and it's reasonably bright in sunlight. HDR content also plays wonderfully on this screen, hitting the kinds of brights and darks that OLED is famous for. It's not an exciting display, but it is an excellent one when accounting for its limitations versus ProMotion.

iPhone 13: Software and performance

Iphone 13 Mini Safari Hero

Source: Joseph Keller / iMore

The software story on the iPhone 13 is all about iOS 15. While packed with some exciting features of its own, it doesn't represent a radical upgrade over iOS 14. It's a system that runs as well on the iPhone 13 as it does on the iPhone 12, maybe a little better thanks to the A15 Bionic chip.

The A15 Bionic is once again a 6-core system-on-a-chip that combines the CPU, GPU, memory, and neural engine onto a single die. The CPU features four high-efficiency cores for lower-power tasks, and two high-performance cores to that take over for more intensive tasks. Benchmarks place the A15 CPU performance at about 15-20% better than the A14, a similar year-over-year jump to what we've seen in recent Apple chip updates. Apple's neural engine, the part of the chip that powers machine learning functions on the iPhone, is new. It still has 16 cores, but is now capable of 15.8 trillion operations per second, resulting in fast on-device machine learning task completion.

The biggest performance boosts come from the GPU, which Apple claims is up to 30% faster than the GPU on competing chips, though it hasn't specified which chips this means. For any games that are already pushing the limits of the A14's graphics processing, this should result in better and more efficient performance, while apps and games that update to specifically take advantage of the A15 should see substantially improved performance down the road.

But that's a lot of numbers and jargon. What does that actually mean? Well, for most people, probably not a lot, at least not in everyday use. If you're someone who mostly uses your phone to check email, take some photos, listen to music, or browse the web, then, especially coming from an iPhone 12, you probably won't notice much of a difference. iOS 15 runs well, even on phones that are a few years old, so you might not notice a change in your everyday task speed, even jumping from, say, an iPhone XS. It'll be more apparent if you're coming from an older iPhone, though, and if you are, you're in for a treat.

While I'll talk about these features more in the camera section, I think a lot of the power of the A15 chip can be seen in the new camera capabilities. This includes Cinematic Mode, but also Photographic Styles. These are Apple's take on filters, but leverage the A15's Neural Engine to intelligently boost, or mute colors based on the style you select, while keeping skin tones looking natural. Adjustments are applied selectively to the right areas of an image thanks to that intelligence, allowing for a more powerful than a filter.

While everyday tasks probably won't feel faster, anything that engages the performance cores, GPU, or Neural Engine should feel fairly snappy, from editing photos to playing the latest hit game on the App Store.

iPhone 13: Battery

Iphone 13 Battery Hero

Source: Joseph Keller / iMore

This is one of the more interesting aspects of the iPhone 13's story. During the announcement, Apple claimed that the iPhone 13 mini would see as much as 1.5 hours of additional battery life over the iPhone 12 mini, while the iPhone 13 would see as much as 2.5 hours over the iPhone 12.

It's going to take longer-term testing to really get a sense of it, but so far, those claims have held up. Compared to the iPhone 12 mini I've been using since April, the iPhone 13 mini definitely holds on to a charge longer, especially when it's in standby. Having the screen on for long stretches certainly drains the battery faster than the standard iPhone 13, but it's holding on better than the 12 mini did. In fact, I would go so far to say that the mini holds up favorably compared to my iPhone 12 Pro. In almost a week of use, the mini is usually down to about 30% of battery power by the time it hits the charger at around 11:00 p.m., or about 14 hours after it came off the charger. That's a little lower than I'd expect from my iPhone 12 Pro over the same amount of time.

As for the standard iPhone 13, the claim of an additional 2.5 hours does seem to be holding up. It's been handily beating the iPhone 12 Pro's times, ending most days at over 50% charge. Unsurprisingly, it still trounces its mini counterpart.

Keep in mind, however, that this is with normal use. If you're using your phone a lot, then we have a different story. Your battery should still last longer than last year's phones, but in my short time with the iPhone 13 and 13 mini, heavy use has drained the battery at only a slightly slower rate than last year's phones.

iPhone 13: Cameras

Iphone 13 Camera Hero

Source: Joseph Keller / iMore

A primary reason that I'm fine moving to the iPhone 13 mini for my personal phone this year after so long using Apple's Pro phones is that, aside from loving the size, I'm just not a big iPhone photographer. It's not that I don't take photos with my phone, but it's not my favored camera. The photos for the review, for instance, were not taken using an iPhone camera.

But that's not to say the cameras aren't good. In fact, the cameras on the iPhone 13 are probably the best the iPhone cameras have ever been outside the Pro line. A good thing they are, too, because the iPhone 13 has an entirely new setup, both in the wide and the ultra-wide cameras.

The photos you get with this new setup are excellent, with the wide camera, of course, being the standout.

Iphone 12 Vs Iphone 13 Night Mode

Source: Joseph Keller / iMore

One of the interesting updates I've noticed comes with Night mode. The photos above were taken in Night mode, one on the iPhone 12 Pro's wide camera (left) and one on the iPhone 13's wide camera (right). While the iPhone 12 Pro's photo is brighter overall, this is because of the brightness added to the photo by an additional second of Night Mode exposure, where the iPhone 13 needed one second less to grab its shot. The result is a more accurate and sharper photo from the iPhone 13.

That Night Mode performance is indicative of Apple's upgrade to this camera system, starting with an entirely new wide-angle camera, what many would refer to as the iPhone's 'standard' camera. While still a 12-megapixel sensor, that sensor now features bigger pixels (1.7 microns versus last year's 1.4), which capture 47% more light compared to last year's iPhone camera. And in photography, light's the name of the game. We're still looking at an f/1.6 maximum aperture, so in bright sunlight, you might not notice much difference between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 if they're both very steadily held.

But the reason I bring that up is the other major upgrade in the iPhone 13: Sensor-shift optical image stabilization, which debuted with the iPhone 12 Pro Max last year. Where previous iPhones stabilized the camera lens, the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini stabilize the sensor directly, allowing the iPhone to deal better with the small movements your hands make while taking a photo with your iPhone. Between sensor shift and the additional light on the sensor, your images will be clearer than they've ever been.

But the iPhone's camera story is never only about the hardware. Apple's also giving you more control over your photography this year with the introduction of photographic styles, which work a lot like filters, except they apply a specific style, which you can modify, to your photos as you're taking them. Photographic Styles become an important part of the image capture pipeline and play a major role in how an image resolves, which is why you can't change an image's style after it's been taken (you can still make normal edits, of course). Photographic styles don't simply layer color and contrast choices over your image, either, but rather do things like preserve skin tone.

Then there's Cinematic Mode. While Apple spent a while demonstrating the admittedly impressive capabilities that this mode brings to the table, it's not going to be for everyone. In addition to being "Portrait mode for video," Cinematic Mode uses machine learning to know when to shift focus in a scene between two different people. But what's most impressive, at least to me, comes in the editing process. You can change the focus of a shot that was taken in Cinematic Mode, no matter what was captured in the moment.

But it's limited, at least right now. Aspiring moviemakers will need to settle for capturing their Cinematic Mode footage in 1080p at 30fps. If that style of shooting appeals to you more than any particular resolution and frame rate, it's definitely an exciting new tool in your belt — just know its limitations going in.

The iPhone 13 cameras might lack some neat tricks of the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max like macro mode and a dedicated telephoto camera, but if you don't need those features, you won't be disappointed by what the iPhone 13 can do.

iPhone 13: Competition

Samsung Galaxy S21 in-hand

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central

The world is full to bursting with smartphones that compete with the iPhone 13, and that starts with Apple's own products. First, there's the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini, still on sale from Apple following the introduction of the iPhone 13 lineup. The iPhone 12's battery, camera, and overall performance aren't as good as the iPhone 13 (and the iPhone 12 mini's battery life leaves a lot to be desired), but if you want to save a little money while still getting a great phone, a new iPhone 12 will have life in it for years to come.

Of course, you could always opt for going to the higher end of things. The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max offer even better cameras, battery, and performance. The A15 chips in the Pro line of phones feature enhancements, including higher clock speeds and an additional GPU core. If you want those cameras, or in the case of the iPhone 13 Pro Max, want the biggest phone Apple sells, you need to go Pro.

Then we come to the Android phones. I'm of the opinion that one of the first decisions you should make is whether you want to buy an iPhone or Android device. While the two systems often have many of the same features, things can differ significantly phone-to-phone.

Starting with Google itself, you have the flagship Google Pixel 5. Admittedly, this phone is on its way out, but it's still a capable device that shows off Google's vision for what Android is supposed to be. As always, Google puts a lot of emphasis on the Pixel's cameras, and the Pixel 5 has a 12.2MP camera backed by Google's impressive image processing software, with an emphasis on creating photos that are overall warmer and with less noise than its predecessors. It shipped with Android 11, and will support Android 12 when it launches later this year.

But the Pixel 5 is getting harder and harder to find. If you want the latest flagship phone from Google, you'll want to hang on a bit longer for the launch of the Google Pixel 6, set to debut at some point this fall. One of this phone's more exciting aspects is the inclusion of Google's custom Tensor chip.

But in smartphones, Apple's chief rival isn't Google, but Samsung. The Samsung Galaxy S21, launched earlier this year by the Korean electronics giant, comes in at $799. As with most flagship smartphones, including the iPhone, Samsung has placed a big bet on cameras, and offers three cameras to the iPhone 13's two: a wide, and ultra-wide, and a 3x telephoto, the same basic setup found in the iPhone 13 Pro. Like the iPhone 13, both the wide and ultra-wide cameras on the Galaxy S21 sport 12-megapixel sensors, while the telephoto camera features a 64-megapixel sensor, though at the expense of the amount of light it can capture, thanks to smaller pixels.

If you're looking for an iPhone 13 rival in the Android world at the same price point, and you're fine with Samsung's One UI customizations, then the Galaxy S21 might be the phone to get.

iPhone 13: Should you buy it?

Iphone 13 Summary Hero

Source: Joseph Keller / iMore

You should buy this if ...

You have an iPhone XR or older

While those with an iPhone 11 will almost certainly notice some performance jump, most people hold on to iPhones for three or four years now, and for good reason: they hold up fairly well. But if you're on 2018's iPhone XR, XS, or something older, you'll really benefit from the updated battery, cameras, and overall performance of the iPhone 13.

Cameras aren't your highest priority

The iPhone 13's cameras are great, but they're not on quite the same level as the iPhone 13 Pro. Not only are you missing a telephoto camera, but the iPhone 13 will also miss out on ProRes video when it arrives for the iPhone 13 Pro later this year. The wide camera on the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max is also slightly better, with even bigger pixels and a wider lens aperture.

You love a colorful phone

Another year, another round of insistence from Apple that color isn't for "Pros." Apple's mainstream phone lineup has always had more interesting and varied color options than the Pro line, and this year is no exception.

You should not buy this if ...

You need the best cameras out there

The iPhone 13 Pro has better cameras than the iPhone 13. It has a better wide camera, as well as a telephoto lens (an improved one over last year, at that). The iPhone 13 Pro also has macro mode, which lets you get really close to a subject. As I previously mentioned, the iPhone 13 Pro will also get the ProRes video shooting later this year, which the regular iPhone 13 won't get.

You want a higher-refresh display

The ProMotion display on the iPhone 13 Pro line is slick. Quick and smooth, it feels like a genuine leap when viewed next to the locked 60Hz of the iPhone 13. If that smoothness is something you want, you'll want to go Pro. The thing about ProMotion is that it's not just 120Hz, it has a variable refresh rate, meaning that it slows way down to preserve battery life when it doesn't need the quick motion, making it a better option than many high-refresh displays from Apple's rivals.

The people who should buy the iPhone 13 are those who are looking for the best iPhone available that don't want to go Pro. You want excellent cameras, a better battery, improved performance, but you don't need the absolute best that Apple has to offer and the price tag that comes with it. This is the iPhone most people looking to get one should buy.

4.5 out of 5

The iPhone 13 is the best iPhone in its class because, of course, it is. There hasn't been a year since the iPhone debuted where Apple has regressed in overall phone quality year-over-year. If you already have an iPhone 12, the iPhone 13 probably won't wow you, but it won't disappoint you, either. It's just an iPhone, and everything that entails. You won't miss a lot if you decide to skip it, but you're sure to enjoy your experience if you elect to pick one up.

If you have an iPhone 11 or older, the iPhone 13 is more exciting. It'll feel that much faster, the cameras that much better. The design will also be fresh to you, and your screen will now be protected by Ceramic Shield. It's still not a quantum leap, but a solid upgrade. And at the end of the day, people with the iPhone 11 and older are who Apple's aiming for.

iPhone 13 And Mini Pink Cropped Render

iPhone 13

Bottom line: The iPhone 13 is the best iPhone for most people, with impressive new cameras and notable improvements to battery life. Without all the bells and whistles of the Pro line, the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini are still powerhouses that'll keep owners happy for years to come.

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