iPhone 13 review roundup: Stellar displays, cracking cameras, outstanding battery life

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Apple California Streaming event: iPhone 13 comes in an array of five colors.
But should you upgrade?
Photo: Apple

If you still can’t decide whether you want to upgrade to iPhone 13 or 13 Pro, perhaps some early feedback from reviewers will help. Unsurprisingly, they all have good things to say about Apple’s newest handsets, which pack big camera upgrades, better battery life, even faster A15 Bionic chips, and wonderfully smooth ProMotion displays (if you buy a Pro model).

But most agree that the changes don’t break new ground for iPhone, so you might be happy to stick with what you already have. But are the 2021 iPhones really “the most incremental update ever,” as The New York Times writes? Here’s our iPhone 13 review roundup.

iPhone 13 review roundup

iPhone 13 and 13 Pro are essentially better versions of iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. They look similar. They do mostly the same things. And you’ll use them in exactly the same way. That’s why the Times’ Brian X. Chen called annual updates by all smartphone makers “a celebration of capitalism in the form of ruthless incrementalism.”

However, this year’s iPhones are definitely a little better at doing certain things. When it comes to performance, for instance, they’re the fastest iPhone models to date — and much faster than any other smartphone on the market. Will you notice? Perhaps not if you’re already using a modern iPhone.

Outstanding performance

“A new processor – the A15 Bionic – powers the iPhone 13 Pro experience, but it’s getting harder and harder to see the speed increases between generations,” wrote Stuart Miles for Pocket-lint. “Remember refinement is the name of the game here. And the A15 is plenty fast and efficient. Apps load quickly. Crazy computational stuff in photos and videos all functions seamlessly. In short: the iPhone 13 Pro is unlikely to struggle with any task at hand.”

“The important spec outside of the camera system and the screen is the new A15 Bionic processor, which is indeed fast,” said Dieter Bohn of The Verge. “But as always with iPhones, the primary purpose of that speed is ensuring the phone will still feel fast in years to come, not making it seem faster than last year’s device.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that the A15 Bionic is slightly different between standard iPhone 13 and 13 Pro models. While both are super-speedy, Pro and Pro Max handsets come with an additional GPU core, which will help in certain instances — like when editing video and playing intensive games.

“The GPU on the Pro models has five cores instead of four on the 13 and 13 Mini,” wrote Patrick Holland for CNET. “During my time testing the phones, it didn’t have any trouble handling gaming, editing photos or even having a bunch of apps open at the same time.”

Excellent cameras in iPhone 13 and 13 Pro

Apple has been packing excellent cameras into iPhone since its earliest models. With every refresh, they get even better. So, whether you like snapping photos or shooting home movies, you can expect stellar results from iPhone 13. But it’s the new camera features reviewers are particularly excited about.

Cinematic mode: Hit and miss

Cinematic mode, available on all iPhone 13 models, and the new macro mode available on iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, are said to be impressive. Though it seems Cinematic mode could use some slight improvements.

“In bright and medium lighting, I found macro photography on the iPhone solid,” said Holland. “It’s not on the level of a mirrorless camera with dedicated macro lens but it’s one of the better implementations of a macro mode that I’ve seen on a phone … Cinematic mode needs a good amount of light to work best. If conditions are too dark, you’ll get a pop-up prompting you to turn your flash on.”

“When it did perform as expected, Cinematic Mode produced a pleasant effect that gave videos a professional air,” wrote Cherlynn Low for Engadget. “But at the default intensity, the blurriness looked strange or artificial.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern wrote that she was excited about Cinematic mode, but the results proved disappointing.

“The software struggles to know where objects begin and end,” she said. “It’s a lot like the early days of Portrait Mode, but it’s worse because now the blur moves and warps. I shot footage where the software lost parts of noses and fingers, and struggled with items such as a phone or camera.”

Better in low light

The New York Times’ Chen focused on photography for his review. He used a special tripod to snap shots of a single scene using iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Pro, iPhone 12 and iPhone XS. The takeaway? Yes, this year’s iPhone cameras are better. But the differences seem small, except in low-light situations.

“In summary, the iPhone 13 cameras are slightly better than those of last year’s iPhones,” he wrote. “Even compared with iPhones from three years ago, the cameras are much better only if you care about taking nice photos in the dark.”

Oh-so-perfect ProMotion

The big advantage iPhone 13 Pro has over its standard siblings this year is its outstanding ProMotion display. Like that in iPad Pro, it allows the screen to reach refresh rates up to 120Hz to make gaming, web browsing and just about anything else you do on iPhone smoother than silk.

“When I scroll on the iPhone 13 Pro, the text stays readable instead of turning into a blur,” The Verge’s Bohn wrote. “Things moving on the screen are smoother. It feels more like a direct interaction with my finger because the iPhone can literally change its refresh rate to match my movement.”

“In use, the screen looks stellar,” said Holland. “Animations look smooth, graphics crisp and even mundane things like scrolling feeds look better.”

“It certainly makes for a smoother experience, although just as some people can’t see the benefits of Ultra-HD over HD until it’s pointed out, some possibly won’t notice the upgrade they are enjoying,” warned Miles. “Side-by-side with the iPhone 12 Pro you absolutely will, but that’s not how these devices are used in real life.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Stern, who compared all four of this year’s models, found the ProMotion display exquisite, even in everyday usage.

“While 120Hz would be a waste of power in many cases, doubling the refresh rate in compatible games or for specific things like scrolling and swiping really does look smoother,” Stern wrote. “I felt the difference instantly when scrolling through long webpages or social-media feeds.”

Best-in-class battery life

Battery life on iPhone has been getting better and better in recent years, and Apple says iPhone 13 raises the bar even further. Those aren’t empty promises, either — reviewers agree that all four models last a long time between charges.

iPhone 13 “outlasted its predecessor and generally hung around for almost two days,” wrote Low. “While the 13 mini did beat the 12 mini by sticking around almost a whole day on light use.”

“The 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max both have a larger battery. I didn’t have any trouble getting through a day, even a hot and humid one where I captured a bunch of photos and videos,” said Holland.

“The change that’s most likely to make the biggest impact for the most people is battery life,” wrote Bohn. “On a day when we really pushed the phone with lots of 4K video and max brightness on the screen, it still lasted from early morning to 11PM with 20 percent remaining — with somewhere north of four hours of very heavy use in the screen time tracking app. A day with less intense usage clocked me at seven hours of screen on time before the low battery warning kicked in.”