iPhone 13 Pro truly is the Goldilocks phone [Review]

By

iPhone 13 Pro
Behold the iPhone 13 Pro, a true Goldilocks smartphone.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Is there such a thing as the fabled Goldilocks phone? You know, a phone that is just right? Not too big. Not too small. Great camera and screen. Amazing battery life.

Well, the new iPhone 13 Pro is that “just right” phone.

13 Pro review: The Goldilocks phone

Last year, I bought the whopping iPhone 12 Pro Max. But when it started yanking my pants down from its weight, I switched to the opposite end of the spectrum: the diminutive iPhone 12 mini.

After using big-screen phones for several years, I was surprised how delighted I was with the mini: easy to carry, easy to use with one hand and the screen wasn’t too small — in fact, I never once missed the bigger screen. But I did miss the great cameras on the Pro Max. The mini’s cameras are great in optimal conditions, but not so great in low light or the dark. And no telephoto, of course.

So this year I wanted a phone with the best cameras, but not something the size of an aircraft carrier deck. Enter the iPhone 13 Pro.

Design

Because of the camera bump, the iPhone 13 Pro won't lay flat, including on charging mats. This will drive some people crazy. (It still charges though)
Because of the camera bump, the iPhone 13 Pro won’t lay flat, including on charging mats. This will drive some people crazy. (It still charges, though.)
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

iPhone 13 Pro looks a lot like its predecessor at first glance, but there are some subtle differences in its design. For starters, the notch above its display is now smaller (narrower but ever so slightly taller), and it now comes in new color options. I opted for the Sierra Blue, which has been dubbed “Honda minivan blue” for its middling and inoffensive hue. The color is OK, I guess, and probably the best choice among some rather unexciting color options in the 13 Pro lineup. What happened to the rumored bronze? Now that would’ve been baller.

The handset’s rear-facing camera array also takes up a lot more room. That’s because iPhone 13 Pro packs three improved camera sensors — more on those later.

Yes, the camera bump is bigger

An iPhone 13 Pro in the hand is worth two in the bush, or something. It's surprisingly hefty for a fairly small device
An iPhone 13 Pro in the hand is worth two in the bush, or something. It’s surprisingly hefty for a fairly small device.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Its body is also slightly thicker to accommodate a bigger battery. Sadly, these things make the iPhone 13 Pro variants incompatible with most cases designed for iPhone 12. You’re going to have to buy new ones.

The changes also mean that iPhone 13 Pro doesn’t work quite as well with Apple’s MagSafe Duo charger and other MagSafe chargers with larger housings. The bigger “camera bump” prevents the iPhone 13 Pro from making complete contact with the surface of the charger. Charging still works fine — I tested this with a couple of different Qi chargers — it just doesn’t sit perfectly flat. That is going to drive some people crazy.

Elsewhere, iPhone 13 Pro looks cosmetically identical to iPhone 12 Pro. It sports a polished, stainless steel chassis flanked by two sheets of glass, one of which (the rear one) is frosted to hide fingerprints and provide a little more grip. It also carries the same IP68 certification for dust- and water-resistance. Overall, it’s a very handsome sandwich of steel and glass. It’s superbly made, of course, but all that metal and glass adds up: it’s a hefty little device and feels heavier than it looks.

ProMotion display

The iPhone 13 Pro's display is simply spectacular. It's gorgeous. It's great. I can't bear to look at lesser screens now
The iPhone 13 Pro’s display is simply spectacular. It’s gorgeous. It’s great. I can’t bear to look at lesser screens now.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

iPhone 13 Pro’s display is one of its biggest selling points. It’s a Super Retina XDR panel like last year’s, with the same contrast ratio and P3 wide color support, but it now features the terrific ProMotion technology packed into iPad Pro. It makes everything you do on iPhone 13 Pro perfectly smooth and fluid.

ProMotion allows the iPhone’s display to hit a 120Hz refresh rate when browsing the web, flicking through photos, playing games and more. It matches the speed of your finger to make everything feel incredibly fluid, and it makes a real difference when compared to the 60Hz screens in other iPhone models. TBH, I never noticed jittery scrolling on my older iPhones and iPads. But when I compared them to the 13 Pro, the difference is clearly noticeable. In fact, it’s now ruined those old devices for me. I can’t look at the screen without the experience being ruined by stuttery scrolling. Thanks, Tim Cook!

And don’t worry about your battery life. ProMotion intelligently adjusts the speed of your iPhone’s display — all the way down to 10Hz at times — so higher refresh rates aren’t used when they’re not needed. This minimizes the amount of energy the screen uses throughout the day.

The other, slightly less exciting improvement to iPhone 13 Pro’s display is that it’s now a little brighter. It reaches a maximum brightness of 1,000 nits, up from 800 nits in iPhone 12 Pro, but that can be boosted to 1,200 nits for HDR.

The screen is a delight. If you’re on the fence, I urge you not to check it out; you’ll just want it.

iPhone 13 Pro cameras

Macro test shot of eyeball from iPhone 13 Pro. Look at that detail in the iris!
Macro test shot of eyeball from iPhone 13 Pro. Look at that detail in the iris!
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Although that ProMotion display is spectacular, the camera improvements are what really make iPhone 13 Pro a worthwhile upgrade over iPhone 12 Pro. It not only packs new and improved sensors, but also a bunch of awesome new camera features, including Cinematic and macro modes.

On the back of iPhone 13 Pro, you’ll find three 12-megapixel lenses — Telephoto, Wide and Ultra Wide — just like before. However, the Wide and Ultra Wide lenses now come with wider apertures that let in significantly more light for brighter images and better low-light performance.

The Telephoto lens now achieves up to 3X optical zoom, up from 2X in earlier iPhone models. (Digital zoom maxes out at 15X, up from 10X.) iPhone 13 Pro also offers sensor-shift optical image stabilization — an improvement over the standard optical image stabilization in iPhone 12 Pro — and Smart HDR 4.

Cinematic mode and macro photos

Personally, I love the iPhone 13 Pro's camera module. And no, it doesn't induce trypophobia
Personally, I love the iPhone 13 Pro’s camera module. And no, it doesn’t induce trypophobia.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

But enough about the specs. What really matters is that iPhone 13 Pro shoots even better photos and videos in every possible setting. It also offers a new Cinematic video mode that seamlessly and automatically shifts the focus between subjects in the foreground and the background. (The “normal” iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini also offer this interesting new feature.)

Cinematic mode delivers results we’re typically used to seeing in Hollywood movies — not homemade clips shot on a smartphone. And although there is a little room for improvement and greater accuracy, it works surprisingly well.

iPhone 13 Pro also brings a macro photo mode for the first time. You can use it to take close-up shots of detailed subjects, like the veins in a leaf, the hair on a caterpillar or water droplets on a plant. (You can check out a couple of test shots below.)

iPhone 13 Pro’s front-facing selfie camera relies on the same 12-megapixel TrueDepth sensor from iPhone 12 Pro. But thanks to the A15 Bionic chip, it now offers ProRes video and Smart HDR 4 instead of Smart HDR 3. It also can shoot faster HDR video at up to 60 frames per second (versus 30 fps in earlier models).

Sadly, this year’s iPhone models don’t get the ultra-wide front-facing lens that enables Center Stage on iPad. That’s a shame, but it’s probably not needed as much on iPhone, which you’re more likely to be holding during FaceTime calls.

iPhone 13 Pro test shots

Here are a couple of test shots. The amount of detail in the macro shots looks amazing.

iPhone 13 Pro test shot of Golden Gate Bridge
iPhone 13 Pro test shot of Golden Gate Bridge.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 13 Pro test macro shot of cat
iPhone 13 Pro test macro shot of a very good pussycat called “big puss.”
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac
iPhone 13 Pro test shot of downtown San Francisco
This is a telephoto shot of downtown San Francisco.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Performance

Thanks to Apple’s brand-new A15 Bionic chip, iPhone 13 Pro is even faster than earlier iPhone models. Apple calls it the fastest smartphone in the world and claims it’s around 50% quicker than its leading competitors. All you need to know is that no matter what you throw at it, iPhone 13 Pro will handle it with ease.

The A15 Bionic, like last year’s A14, consists of six processing cores. Two are efficiency cores that power basic smartphone tasks. The other four high-performance cores kick into action when you start doing anything intensive, like using one of iPhone 13 Pro’s new camera features.

A15 Bionic and 16-core Neural Engine

The A15 also ships with a new 16-core Neural Engine and an even faster GPU. And in iPhone 13 Pro models, that GPU offers an additional core — five versus four in regular iPhone 13 models. That means greater performance during graphically intensive tasks, such as playing games and editing video.

On the storage side, iPhone 13 Pro comes with the same 128GB as standard, as well as 256GB and 512GB options. There’s also a 1TB model for the first time this year, which will undoubtedly come in handy for those who plan to use the new ProRes video recording feature extensively. The file sizes are huge! ProRes files eat up 1GB to 1.5GB for HD and 4GB to 6GB for 4K per minute, according to Apple.

One note about ProRes video and storage: On 128GB iPhone 13 Pro models, Apple restricts ProRes to 1080p at 30 frames per second. On handsets with 256GB of storage or more, you can shoot ProRes video in a super-sharp 4K at the same frame rate.

Battery life

Despite an even greater display with ProMotion, a faster A15 Bionic chip, and a bunch of big camera improvements, iPhone 13 Pro’s battery life is even better. Apple says you can expect up to 1.5 hours extra in between charges when compared to iPhone 12 Pro.

Battery life breaks down into 22 hours of video playback, up from 17 hours, and around 75 hours of audio playback, up from 65 hours. But it’s in streaming video where you’ll see the biggest improvement, with iPhone 13 Pro capable of lasting a whole 20 hours, up from just 11 hours with iPhone 12 Pro.

In an informal test, I used the 13 Pro for a full 24 hours before it need charging. The usage wasn’t heavy, just normal everyday stuff like taking photos, making calls, sending texts and checking info online. I went to bed with the battery at about 25% and woke to find it at 15%, which is pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, Apple didn’t make improvements to charging speed this time around. When charging wirelessly with MagSafe, iPhone 13 Pro maxes out at 15W, the same as iPhone 12 Pro. If you use a wired charger with a 20W power adapter instead, you’ll get the same 50% charge in just 30 minutes. Again, in an informal test, the iPhone 13 Pro recharged to about 90% in just under an hour using a 20W power brick.

iPhone 13 Pro review: The verdict

Although many reviewers basically call this year’s iPhones “the most incremental yet,” we beg to differ. The iPhone 13 Pro significantly improves all the things that you most likely care about — the cameras, the screen, the battery and performance.

It’s got it all, and it’s neither too big nor too small. The iPhone 13 Pro truly is the Goldilocks phone.

Killian Bell contributed to this review. Apple did not provide Cult of Mac with a review unit for this article. See our reviews policy, and check out other in-depth reviews of Apple-related items.