By Dan Moren
October 15, 2021 6:00 AM PT
iPhone 13 Pro review: This Pro’s got few cons
Almost every year since 2007, I’ve gotten a new iPhone.1 Some years promise big improvements over the past—others are more incremental. But 14 years into the iPhone’s life, those big updates are decidedly fewer and farther between.
Such it is with the iPhone 13 Pro. This is the third “Pro”-branded iPhone in Apple’s history, and with every iteration, it’s increasingly clear that the moniker is more marketing than anything of substance.
What makes a Pro phone? These days it’s more camera lenses, different materials, and one or two additional features. Not a better processor, increased storage, or even more RAM, the traditional hallmarks of “pro” in the Mac lineup. This isn’t a phone for pros—what would a “professional” smartphone user even look like? Are the rest of us rank amateurs by comparison?
Ultimately, the Pro phone is simply the more expensive phone—but Apple couldn’t exactly call it the “iPhone Pricier.”2 But I digress.
Jason has already taken a close look at the 13 and 13 mini in his review; the iPhone 13 Pro (and, by extension, the Pro Max, which feature-wise is exactly the same this year, with the exception of being larger in every way: chassis, screen, and battery life) mainly differs from its standard 13 counterpart in three ways. Do those features make the Pro phones “better”? Not necessarily: the real question is whether those factors make a meaningful difference to you, the potential phone customer.
A steely glare
Externally, the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 look very similar: they’re exactly the same height, length, and thickness. And yet the Pro is substantively weightier than the normal 13, to the tune of a full ounce and change. A large part of that is because Apple uses stainless steel3 in the pro phones, rather than the anodized aluminum of the 13 and 13 mini. I haven’t held an iPhone 13 or 13 mini, but I imagine the weight difference would be noticeable.
Those different materials also lend themselves to different colors. As with both the 12 Pro and the 11 Pro, the 13 Pro comes in gold, silver, graphite4, and one “special” color. On the 11 Pro it was Midnight Green, on the 12 Pro Pacific Blue, and on the 13 Pro it’s the new Sierra Blue.
Apple made a big deal of the Sierra Blue in this year’s announcement, saying that it required a new process “using multiple layers of nanometer-scale metallic ceramics.” Take from that what you will, but the color is certainly a lot lighter than the one-off shades of the last two years, and I generally find it very pleasant. After years of space gray/black phones, I’ve taken to ordering the one-off color every year for the same reason that I often order the special at a restaurant: who knows when it will come around again? It’s also the closest Pro phone users get to the fun colors of the 13 and 13 mini. Come on, Apple: pros like to have fun too.5
Long story short: It’s a nice blue. Some may find it a bit grayer, but it still reads as blue for me, even in low light. It probably helps that my office, where I spend a lot of time, is a similar shade of blue.
I also have to mention the camera bump on the back: Apple’s fully embraced the camera module on the back, and it’s pretty big on the 13 Pro—noticeably larger than the 12 Pro. In general, this isn’t a huge deal, but I did notice that, when combined with the protective lip around the lenses on the clear case I’m using, I have to be more precise about putting my 13 Pro down on my Studio Neat MagSafe charging dock every night; it doesn’t align quite as nicely, as the lip hits the edge of dock. It still works, but I have definitely ended up with my phone not charging once or twice because I didn’t have it seated perfectly.
One way to make your phone “pro” for sure? Put in a feature that has “pro” in the name! It’s ProMotion! Job done—let’s knock off for the day.
First introduced four years ago on the iPad Pro (there’s that word again), ProMotion makes its leap to the iPhone line with the 13 Pro, though the variable refresh rate technology is one of those features that has been rumored for every new model of phone since the feature first debuted.6
Frankly, I didn’t think I would notice the ProMotion display on the iPhone 13 Pro. My iPad Pro has it, and it rarely jumps out at me there. Or rather, what differences I see in the displays of my iPad and iPhone I usually chalk up to other factors, like the relative screen sizes, before I think of ProMotion.
But lo and behold, I noticed ProMotion on the iPhone 13 the second I booted it up: from the swiping up of the lock screen to moving between home screens, I could tell that it was a different experience. Better? That’s harder to say: to my eyes it looked a little bit uncanny, like the motion-smoothing Soap Opera Effect of many modern TVs. Things just looked a little too real at that 120Hz refresh rate. That said, after a few days, I basically tuned it out, with the exception of the occasional bug.7
The real magic behind ProMotion is the variable part of the equation, which lets it adapt to whatever content is being displayed. So scrolling through web pages, flipping between home screens, or in-app animations all look very smooth, but the videos you watch will show up in their native frame rates, so they’ll still look as you expect them to.
Even more importantly, the variable refresh rate means that when the screen doesn’t need to update constantly—like if you’re just reading static text or looking at a still photo—it can throttle that refresh rate all the way down to 10Hz, providing a substantive power savings.
It’s worth calling out those power savings specifically, because they are impressive. Apple’s specs claim the 13 Pro outperforms the 12 Pro in every battery mode, with gains from 5 hours of video playback to an impressive 9 hours of streamed video and 1 more hours of audio playback. The battery is higher capacity (11.97Wh compared to the 10.78Wh of the 12 Pro, according to iFixit’s teardown), but power savings from the A15’s improved efficiency cores and ProMotion can’t be discounted.
For the sake of comparison, by the time I turned it in, my iPhone 12 Pro had lost a bit of battery health—I think it was down to 93 percent when I last checked—but it was getting pretty drained by the end of the day. Even with moderate usage, I saw it hitting that 20 percent warning more often than not.
The 13 Pro, meanwhile, has barely hit that point at all. Of course, it’s a brand new phone, and it will always have better battery life than a year-old model, but I’ve been impressed at just how much juice is left after a full day’s usage. Looking at the battery screen in Settings, it’s rarely dropped below 25 percent, and many days, it’s closer to 50 percent. That’s just ridiculous.
While I haven’t had to do much traveling recently, it seems likely that this upcoming year will see more of that, and I’ll be glad to have a phone that can make it all the way through the day without too much worrying. (Not that I’ll be leaving my external battery packs at home.)
In the end, the ProMotion display is nice, but it’s not a feature that I’d recommend upgrading to the Pro for. If anything, I think the increase in power efficiency is more worth it, and if you upgrade for that, the smoother animations come along for the ride. In any case, I won’t be too surprised to see ProMotion trickle down to the standard iPhone 14 or iPhone 15 at the latest, so if you miss it this go around, you’ll probably have another chance at it.
We talk about the camera being the most important feature on a smartphone and while I’d argue that the gestalt of a phone is more important, it’s hard to argue that in terms of the most important single discrete feature, it probably does trump any other considerations.
The iPhone 13 Pro’s camera system is the most significant thing that sets it apart from the standard 13, and it’s undoubtedly what’s going to draw the most attention from prospective buyers. And I don’t want to downplay it: it’s a really good camera.
A lot has been written about the iPhone 13 Pro camera, much of it by people’s whose knowledge of and enthusiasm for photography vastly outpaces my own. So, if I can offer my layperson’s opinion, it’s this: the iPhone 13 Pro camera excels by making you worry less. If you snap a picture, you can be pretty certain that you’re going to end up with a solid shot, no matter what the subject or lighting is like.
For instance, the other week, some friends came over to sit in our driveway and visit. When it came time for them to leave, we tried to take a group picture with a wide variety of lighting: one of them was already sitting in their car, everybody else was crouched outside in the dark. Was the result amazing? No. But you could see everybody’s faces clearly enough. The 12 Pro was no slouch in the night mode department, but Apple’s computational photography just keeps getting better.
One of the biggest improvements of the 12 Pro last year was the addition of a 2x telephoto lens. This year, the iPhone 13 Pro has upped that to 3x, and to my mind it’s a welcome addition. I’ve heard people comment that 3x seems like too much sometimes, and there’s no option to fall back to 2x, which is now a digital rather than optical zoom level. But personally I think you can never have too much telephoto—it’s one of the biggest limitations of a smartphone camera, and I’m a huge fan of the 3x lens. There were shots that were just outside of my reach before—like taking a picture of a bird in a tree outside—and I love that I can get those now.
Likewise, the addition of a macro mode also adds tremendous versatility to the iPhone camera’s toolkit. Its activation is a little finicky, and there’s a weird disjointed moment where the camera system automatically switches to the ultra wide mode. (You’ll notice a perspective shift because you are very close to your subject and the ultra wide lens is literally looking from a different angle than the wide camera.) But Apple has said it’ll provide an option to disable this in an upcoming update.
Being able to capture anything from an extreme closeup of something small to an object far away, and have it look good no matter what is a real achievement. I’d say it’s even less reason for someone to pull out a traditional camera, but really, how many people actually carry a traditional camera anymore at all?
The iPhone 13 Pro is a very good phone. I’m sorry if you’ve come here expecting some sort of epiphany that you haven’t seen in a dozen other reviews. If you’re coming from an iPhone that’s more than a year or two old, it’s a truly excellent upgrade.
Year over year? Less so. Personally, had I not been on the iPhone Upgrade Program, I’m not sure that I would have even entertained the idea of upgrading from my 12 Pro. But again, that’s par for the course these days. Revolutionary changes don’t come on a yearly or even every-two-years schedule.
But there’s nothing bad about the iPhone 13 Pro, no reason that I wouldn’t recommend it other than the price tag. The telephoto lens, macro mode, and ProMotion display are all nice to have, but none of them are strictly necessary, and they come with at least a $100 cost increase.
And that’s where the standard/Pro divide is these days: need vs. want. Most people don’t need the features in the iPhone 13 Pro, but if you want them, go for it. Perhaps it’s time to update the old saying about RAM in your computer with a new corollary for smartphones: Buy as much phone as you can afford.
- The only new iPhone I didn’t own was the iPhone 5s. ↩
- I suppose they could take a page from the Apple Watch playbook and call it the “iPhone Edition.” ↩
- If I opt for the stainless steel phones every year, does that make me…Steely Dan? (Yes, Joe Rosensteel, I can hear you groaning from here.) ↩
- Technically “Space Gray” in the 11 Pro, though I believe the colors are identical. ↩
- I’m no materials engineer, but I assume that the stainless steel holds metallic tones better than the colors conferred by the anodization process? The stainless steel Apple Watch likewise tends to only come in a few generally metallic shades. ↩
- ProMotion was introduced in 2017, so it predates the current iPad Pro design. Even my 10.5-inch iPad Pro, with its home button and chunky bezels, has ProMotion! ↩
- Slack for a while was playing GIFs at hyperfast speeds. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]
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