Some say it's boring, but Apple's latest $999 iPhone Pro is an exciting incremental update for a device that was already terrific.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro
Apple's latest "professional" iPhone offers debatably incremental improvements over last year's excellent iPhone 12 Pro. Despite this, they're meaningful and very capable of driving year-over-year upgrades for people who care about specs and details.
Fantastic battery life
Top-tier camera system
Charging is slow by flagship standards
Cinematic mode is gimmicky
The iPhone 13 Pro is not boring.
I don’t care what anybody says. Does it look like the 12 Pro? Absolutely. Does it come in the same size as last year’s iPhone 12 Pro? Yep. Are the improvements incremental on paper? You bet. But there’s no reason you should try to stop someone from getting pumped for this year’s Pro-grade iPhone.
The iPhone 13 series has proven to be an “S”-equivalent upgrade for the iPhone. Every iPhone in this year’s lineup doesn’t stray far from each model’s predecessor, and the 13 Pro is a prime example. Priced at $999, everything from the screen to the battery to the camera to the processor only see minor improvements on paper. However, in practice, these changes are notable, and sometimes exceptional.
If you own an iPhone 12 Pro (or any member of the iPhone 12 series), the general consumer will survive without an iPhone 13 Pro. But if you’re like me and are distracted by the small but meaningful improvements Apple made to the 13 Pro, I actually think it’s worth a year-over-year upgrade. For anyone else with an older iPhone, this will prove to be a great upgrade.
The primary reason no one seems to think the iPhone 13 series is worth talking about is because of its design. Apple basically took last year’s iPhone 12 (across the entire lineup) and made it thicker and heavier. This ultimately led to the inclusion of bigger batteries across the board, which is always nice, but not much in the way of “new design.” Rumors suggest that’s coming next year.
For this year, we have an iPhone 13 line that looks strikingly similar to the iPhone 12. Side by side with my iPhone 12 Pro, you can barely tell the two devices apart. Of course, the camera system on the iPhone 13 Pro is a pretty big giveaway considering just how large it is, but the buck stops there if what you’re looking for are major changes to the fundamental design.
I suppose a pretty big change is the repositioning of the volume and power buttons. For whatever reason, Apple felt the need to move them down the sides of the phones a little bit. This makes them a bit easier to reach, I suppose, but I never had any issues with my 12 Pro’s buttons.
The iPhone 13 Pro won’t fit in old 12 Pro cases, which makes sense, but still a bummer for me because I have so many 12 Pro cases lying around. Because of that, I reached out to Spigen (not sponsored) who supplied a whole lineup of cases for me to use. Once again, I gravitated to the company’s Mag Armor case which offers a good balance between durability, looks, and functionality. It’s one of just two cases Spigen sent that includes extra magnets for MagSafe, which is a huge reason why it’s still on my 13 Pro.
Using the iPhone 13 Pro without a case is a very nice experience, but it feels far too fragile to use long-term. The stainless steel rails are still very slippery and prone to fingerprints, the frosted glass on the back is a little grittier this time around but still very slick, and you can forget about using it in the winter when a) you have gloves on or b) your hands are chapped due to the cold weather.
I’m a case guy. What can I say?
Speaking of handling the phone, this is the size to get if you actually want to use your phone with one hand. My co-worker has an iPhone 12 Pro Max which is roughly the same size as the 13 Pro Max, and every time I look at it I wonder how he handles it. It’s far too much phone, whereas the iPhone 13 Pro and its 6.1-inch screen is perfectly manageable. It’s not as comfortable as an iPhone mini, but it’s a good size if you want a big screen that isn’t overwhelming.
Display & 120Hz
I’m also going to become a screen protector guy to add some durability to the beautiful panel Apple provides here. On the front of the iPhone 13 Pro is a 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR display with support for HDR 10+ and up to 1,200 nits of peak brightness. Under normal circumstances, the screen will go up to 1,000 nits which makes it very easy to see in direct sunlight. When viewing HDR content, you’ll see the display go up to 1,200 nits, and it looks incredible. Everything about this screen is great with fantastic color reproduction and exceptional viewing angles.
You also get a little bit of extra screen thanks to a smaller notch. Apple says it’s 20 percent smaller than what was on the previous iPhones, but it doesn’t make much of a difference in practice. It’s not like you can add a battery percentage to the status bar with the smaller notch, and it’s actually a bit taller than before so it’ll dip further into the content on your screen. I’m not sure why Apple decided to shrink the notch beyond aesthetics, but whatever the reason, there’s no clear functional improvement here.
The glass on top of the display is the same Ceramic Shield material Apple’s been using, so it isn’t any stronger than last year’s phones. I’ve seen plenty of people crack their screens with short drops on the kitchen and bathroom floor, hence my reason for eventually sticking a screen protector on it.
Glass is glass, people.
Perhaps the area with the most improvement is the refresh rate. This is the main reason I upgraded from my 12 Pro to the 13 Pro. I’ve been waiting for Apple to ship an iPhone with a 120Hz ProMotion display for a long time, and after all this time, it’s finally here. And boy is it nice.
I’ll admit, I didn’t see the higher refresh rate at first. While I was setting up my iPhone 13 Pro, everything felt as smooth as it always has on iOS. However, when I picked up my 12 Pro again after spending some time with the 13, I immediately noticed how much more jittery it seemed. Once I saw this, I knew there was no going back to 60Hz. A 120Hz display (especially a good one) can literally ruinother phone screens for you, and the 13 Pro has definitely done that to me.
The way Apple implemented its 120Hz refresh rate is similar to how other companies have in the past. It’s using LTPO technology to float the refresh rate between 10Hz and 120Hz depending on what type of content you’re interacting with. For example, if you’re scrolling Twitter or playing a supported game, you’ll see 120Hz. If you’re looking at something stagnant, it’ll drop down to 10Hz to save battery life.
The iPhone 13 Pro does this effortlessly. I’ve never noticed a sudden change in refresh rate switching between apps, and it doesn’t seem like the faster refresh rate has taken a toll on the battery life. I’m incredibly impressed with Apple’s implementation here.
Performance, Speakers, & Battery
Outside of the faster refresh rate, the iPhone 13 Pro feels like an iPhone 12 Pro when using it day-to-day. The A15 Bionic processor isn’t noticeably faster than the A14 Bionic, and the only way you’d be able to tell the difference between them is if you run an incredibly heavy game or render a 4K video. In those two instances, you’ll notice some graphics improvements and upgraded speed. But for the rest of us, this change is almost indistinguishable. More headroom for the future, I guess.
Another area with indistinguishable change is between the A15 chips inside the iPhone 13 and 13 Pro. Apple includes an extra GPU core on the A15 in the iPhone 13 Pro models while leaving it out on the regular iPhone 13 and 13 mini. This gives the A15 six performance cores in total across the lineup (two high-performance, four efficiency), four GPU cores on the standard 13s, and five GPU cores on the 13 Pros. I have a pretty good feeling you won’t notice this difference almost ever. I certainly didn’t, and I have yet to find someone who has.
The same kind of unrecognizable improvement is in the speakers. I loved the speakers on the iPhone 12 Pro, and I love them on the 13 Pro. They’re crisp, clear, and offer a decent amount of low-end for a smartphone. You won’t notice a difference between them, but that’s not a bad thing whatsoever.
An area where you’ll absolutely notice a difference between iPhones is battery life. Apple shipped larger batteries in all four iPhone 13 models, and the one included in the iPhone 13 Pro is stupendous.
There’s a 3,095mAh cell inside which, admittedly, doesn’t sound like much. It is, however, a whole 320mAh larger than the 2,775mAh cell in the 12 Pro. This combined with the improved efficiency led by the A15 Bionic has resulted in some of the best battery life I’ve experienced on an iPhone.
On a typical day filled with sending emails, listening to music over Bluetooth, taking tons of photos, and staying in touch with the team at How-To Geek, I can make it from 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. and still have 40-50 percent left in the tank. This means you can easily last the weekend on a full charge. If you try to kill it in a day (and I certainly have), you can get pretty close, but you really have to work at it.
Overall, this is fantastic endurance for a phone that, historically, hasn’t excelled in the battery department. For the past few years, if you’ve wanted an iPhone with great battery life, you’ve had to buy an iPhone Pro Max what with its somewhat big battery inside. It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that the 13 Pro Max offers even better endurance. Still, if you want really good battery life, I think the iPhone 13 Pro is certainly a phone to consider.
As far as charging performance is concerned, there’s nothing new to talk about. Apple is still using the Lightning port which means you’ll still get 20W charging which… isn’t great. So many companies have outpaced Apple in this area that it’s getting hard to tell when the company will ever catch up. The 13 Pro Max did get an upgrade to 27W, but that’s nowhere near the charging capabilities of a Galaxy S21 Ultra or OnePlus 9 Pro which have 65W charging.
Regardless, when you do go to juice up, it shouldn’t take that long to go from zero to 100 percent. I measured around two hours and 40 minutes which is in the ballpark of other battery tests. Over MagSafe, it’s much slower since it’s only 15W. Standard Qi wireless charging is even slower at 12W, so for optimal charging performance, using a wire is still the best option.
No doubt about it, the single most asked question I got about the iPhone 13 Pro during my review period was whether the camera was actually as good as it sounds. Apple is making very strong claims with this year’s camera system, saying how much better it is compared to the 12 and 12 Pro while also touting a handful of new features and improvements.
There is a LOT to talk about, so let’s break it down.
The main camera on the back of the iPhone 13 Pro is a new 12MP lens with an f/1.5 aperture and a 1.9µm sensor.
The ultra-wide camera is 12MP as well with upgraded hardware, an f/1.8 aperture, and a 120-degree field of view.
The telephoto camera is 12MP with an f/2.8 aperture and 3x optical zoom, the first for any iPhone.
The selfie camera is 12MP with an f/2.2 aperture and remains unchanged from last year.
All three rear cameras have optical image stabilization and phase detection autofocus (PDAF).
You can shoot up to 4K video at 60 frames per second.
The time-of-flight sensor on the back aids in portrait modes and Apple’s new Cinematic Mode for video.
Despite how much stuff is packed into the iPhone’s cameras this year, there’s a very simple way to sum it all up: this is a very capable, very reliable camera system that leads the industry in dependability and overall quality.
Here’s what I mean by that. When you open the camera app and take a picture, no matter what lens you use, you wind up with a good or great photograph. It’s true across all three sensors on the back and the selfie camera on the front. I have yet to take a photo on the iPhone 13 Pro that I’d call “bad” or “unimpressive.”
Compared to the iPhone 12 Pro, improvements are noticeable, but you have to look for them. Apple decided this year that it would leave shadows alone (for the most part) and give natural highlights a chance to add some depth to the foreground. Apple also doesn’t go crazy with over-processed HDR effects, something we’ve seen on the Pixel 6 series and many a Samsung phone.
It’s clear that Apple is shooting for a photo that looks more true to life, and this is as close as they’ve ever gotten to that. Every daytime photograph I’ve taken, I’ve been pleased with. These shots of the Atlantic on the Ocean City, NJ beach look just as good as I remember it looking in real-life. The photos below them capture the exact scene I saw during my many kayaking trips over the summer. No doubt about it, I’m a fan of this camera system.
It’s obviously not just the new main sensor that’s driving these positive impressions. Apple also improved the ultra-wide sensor this year to let in more light, and the upgrades are noticeable. I wouldn’t go as far to say the ultra-wide is on par with the main lens, but it seems to close the gap more than any ultra-wide Apple’s shipped on an iPhone to date.
New to the ultra-wide camera is macro photography. Instead of a dedicated macro lens, Apple has implemented a new feature that lets you use the ultra-wide lens to get super close to objects and capture close-ups typically only possible with specialized hardware. I was incredibly impressed with the quality of macro photos I’ve been able to take, and the entire experience got better once iOS 15.1 was released with the option to stop your iPhone from automatically switching to macro mode if you got too close to something. It’s an underrated feature some might not even realize is there, but it’s definitely a highlight of the experience.
Meanwhile, the telephoto lens gets an update with 3x optical zoom. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, you can get even closer to a subject without losing any quality and without having to physically move. On the other hand, you’ll likely be taking a few steps back whenever you wanna capture a portrait mode photo since it now crops in even further to capture your subject. Given the fact I tend to zoom in more than I do take portraits, I don’t really mind the change. But if you’re someone who likes portrait photography, you’ll probably get annoyed sooner than later.
Nighttime photographs are also stupendous, albeit not as good as well-lit ones. You can get some really nice shots of dimly-lit and nearly pitch-black environments that go head-to-head in terms of quality and sharpness. Apple’s night mode even kicks in less often this year than last thanks to those new, larger sensors. Again, the ultra-wide and telephoto sensors aren’t totally up to snuff with the main lens, but they’re good nonetheless.
When night mode does kick in, it’s never for very long. It’s only ever taken my 13 Pro 3-5 seconds to collect enough light to capture a killer photo. Obviously, that number gets a little hairy when you get into really dark scenarios, but that’s the case with any smartphone camera. Even in those circumstances, I’ve found you’ll still get a photo you feel comfortable sharing.
Video quality is also fantastic, as per usual. Apple still lets you capture 4K at 60 frames per second, there’s still great stabilization, and it’s still the best video quality you can get on a smartphone.
It wouldn’t be an iPhone 13 Pro review without talking about Apple’s new camera features that have created their own news cycles since the iPhone 13 series went on sale. The one that seems to get all the attention is Cinematic video, a feature that’s essentially Apple’s version of portrait mode for video.
It’s obviously not as simple as “portrait mode for video,” with Apple leaning into focus racking to differentiate itself from similar features on third-party devices. Apple also thinks it’s good enough to produce feature-length films, which is an interesting opinion.
Here’s the story on Cinematic video: it’s fine. By no means would I use it to film a movie, but it’s definitely a fun feature to play with.
The way it works is interesting. Once enabled, your iPhone will start hunting around for faces and find the one closest to the camera. It’ll then shift focus to that face and blur out the background. If and when that face disappears (a character could turn to look at someone behind them, for example), focus will shift to the next face that appears in the frame. This is a common hardware-based shooting technique that requires a large sensor with a very shallow depth of field. But on the iPhone, it’s basically all software-based that leans on the larger sensors and time-of-flight sensor to measure depth.
This creates an effect that, too often, feels like is powered by software. You can see whatever algorithms Apple uses struggling at times to detect the edges of a subject to keep its background blurred out. It’s sort of like how portrait mode used to be back in its infancy.
You can also see the camera hunting for focus a bit too often, especially in situations that aren’t flooded in light. What’s more, you can’t shoot 4K video with it enabled, leaving the “filmmakers” Apple designed the feature for with 1080p.
When you go back to edit it, Apple lets you refocus the video on different subjects if it didn’t manage to grab the right one initially. That’s super cool, but there’s one huge caveat: you have to use Apple’s own video editing software. That means if you don’t use Final Cut Pro or iMovie, you’ll be stuck with the video in its original format. This is not very “pro,” in case you couldn’t tell.
All in all, this feature feels a bit too gimmicky to be taken seriously at the moment, and it’ll likely take some time for Apple to perfect it. It would also be nice to see them build out support for editing the focus of these videos in third-party software, but I assume that’ll take a lot of convincing.
The other new video feature on the iPhone 13 Pro is ProRes. If you don’t regularly use the ProRes codec, you likely won’t care about it. But if you do, it seems to be a handy feature to have.
ProRes is basically RAW support for video. It gives creators a flat video file that can be more easily manipulated later in post-production. The biggest downside to it is just how big the file sizes are. If you capture a 4K video at 30 frames per second using ProRes 4:2:2 LT (the smallest codec available on the iPhone), you’ll eat up 3GB of your storage.
Apple knows how big these file sizes are, and it decided to limit who gets to record in such a high definition. Those who buy a 256GB or larger iPhone 13 Pro or 13 Pro Max can capture in ProRes in 4K. If you buy a 128GB device, however, you’ll be limited to 1080p. This is basically why Apple created a 1TB iPhone this year.
Personally, I didn’t find ProRes to be useful because there’s nowhere for it in my workflow. You might find it handy, however, if you’re a video creator who likes to use their iPhone as a spare camera from time to time. Just keep in mind that you won’t wanna buy a 128GB iPhone if you’ll be using it often.
There’s also Photographic Styles, Apple’s way of trying to appeal to as many people as possible. It’s been a common opinion among reviewers that most flagship smartphone cameras are good and what the end consumer should be focused on is deciding which looks the best. Google Pixels have a look, Samsung Galaxies have a look, Huawei’s phones have a look, and iPhones have a look.
But what if all of those looks were available on one device? That’s sort of what Apple is trying to do here with Photographic Styles.
There are five different styles to choose from: Standard, Rich Contrast, Vibrant, Warm, and Cool. Each of them can be tweaked and customized to your liking and will even adapt descriptive names so you can identify them (e.g. Rich Warm or Vibrant Cool). Once set, that style will remain on your camera until you turn it off.
Apple says these aren’t mere filters being placed on top of the original image. Instead, it completely changes how your iPhone processes the photo captured by the camera. Each style offers much more depth and definition because of this, and the photos I’ve taken make that evident. These all feel like different photographs.
I’ve always been a fan of how Apple processes images by default, so I didn’t use Photography Styles a ton. However, I can see this feature coming in handy for anyone who likes to have a certain aesthetic. Maybe you have an Instagram account you like to give a certain look. Maybe you just like photos with a little more contrast or warmth. No matter your preference, Apple’s happy to provide it to you. It’s certainly not as extensive as something like a Lightroom preset, but it can get the job done.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that you can’t edit the style of your photograph after you take it. Once you press the shutter button, there’s no going back.
Overall, these cameras are very good and very reliable. I’m excited to take pictures with my iPhone because I know it’ll look great. The additional features like Cinematic video and Photographic Styles add some extra versatility to the system, and they’re certainly nice-to-have advantages, but none of them are compelling reasons to buy an iPhone 13 or 13 Pro.
At the end of the day, if you’re shopping for the best camera on a smartphone, you better be looking at the iPhone this year. It’s just that good.
Out of the box, Apple ships every iPhone 13 with iOS 15, and it’s proven to be a pretty solid update. I highlighted some of the biggest new features in this article like Focus modes, SharePlay, and upgrades to a number of first-party apps. It’s a fine update, one that feels much more incremental than the past few versions of iOS. If you’re on the fence about updating, I say go for it because of how little your overall experience will change.
This is one of my favorite iPhones to date. I love the screen, battery life is terrific, the cameras are awesome, and the design is beautiful.
Is this phone for everybody? No. Some people won’t find the extra telephoto lens all that useful, and some probably won’t notice a difference with ProMotion enabled. There are also some folks who are happy with the overall experience of their current iPhone, and if that’s the case, I’m not sure the iPhone 13 Pro will convince you to upgrade.
Personally, I think anyone with an iPhone 11 Pro or newer is fine holding out for another year. These improvements are extremely nice to have, and they’re exciting for nerds like me. But the 11 Pro and entire 12 series are terrific phones, and I think it’d be worth waiting another 12 months and seeing what the iPhone 14 delivers.
That being said, some of you will undoubtedly be mesmerized by the added endurance, camera quality, and faster refresh rate. If that’s the case, I don’t think you’ll regret picking up an iPhone 13 Pro. It feels different enough to justify an early upgrade.
This phone is by no means boring, and it deserves your attention if you’re buying a new phone. Apple did a lot right with this device, and if you do wind up springing for it, you won’t regret it.