By Jason Snell
October 6, 2021 9:00 AM PT
iPhone 13 review: We put the ‘fun’ in function
The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini aren’t for everybody. Apple’s higher-end iPhone Pro line offers a high-refresh-rate display and a telephoto camera and a few other features that make those phones the ne plus ultra of smartphones, and if you really want the best the smartphone world has to offer at any price, they’re a great choice.
But the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini are for everybody else.
They’re cheaper. They have most of the same advantages as the higher-end iPhones do. They’re a huge improvement over most upgraders’ current phones. The iPhone 13 mini is the rare modern iPhone to come in a manageable size. And at least to my eyes, the iPhone 13 design just looks better than the iPhone 13 Pro.
Don’t want to spent $1000 on a new iPhone? Don’t sweat it. Apple’s lower-priced iPhones are anything but second rate.
Best deal, best look
What I find remarkable about the iPhone 13 (and the iPhone 12) is that they appeal to me more aesthetically than the iPhone 13 Pro (and iPhone 12 Pro) models. The shiny glass back, especially when dressed in a bright color, is bold and interesting where the iPhone 13 Pro back is frosted and muted. The anodized aluminum ring around the sides of the iPhone 13 case also appeals to me more than the ultra-shiny, fingerprint-magnet stainless steel on the Pro models.
Everyone’s tastes vary. But I always expect the more expensive iPhone to be the one that’s more covetable in every way. I’m not suggesting that Apple make its cheaper phones dull, but I am suggesting that this generation of iPhone makes it a lot easier to opt for a cheaper phone—because they look (and feel, because that shiny glass back also has a bit of tackiness to it that I love) so good.
That said, after a brief break where I was thrilled by Apple’s decision to present the new 24-inch iMac in big, bold colors, I’m back to being frustrated by Apple’s incredibly conservative choices when it comes to coloring its products. Leaving aside the limited choices of the Pro models, even the bright, colorful iPhones we saw with the iPhone 12 models have been drained of a lot of their color for the iPhone 13. Sure, the blue and red models still sparkle, but the others—starlight, midnight, and pink—are boring.
Boring is fine—some people want their phones to be understated, and that’s understandable. (And yes, I accept that many people will wrap their iPhone in a case and never see anything but the merest hint of color around the sides and on the camera bump.) But some people want… more from their iPhones. Apple itself made a big stink about releasing a bright purple iPhone 12 last May—but there’s no equivalent purple iPhone 13. It’s almost criminal to only offer two bold colors on these phones.
The most important single feature in any smartphone is its camera. As you might expect, the iPhone 13 delivers some incremental improvements over last year’s models, and if you’re upgrading from an older model those incremental upgrades accumulate into an even more impressive jump.
Apple says that improved the standard camera in the iPhone 13, and added sensor-shift optical image stabilization for even better performance in low-light scenarios. It’s very, very hard for me to tell the difference in performance from the iPhone 12, but I’m sure I will encounter some low-light scenarios that will generate better photos because of the new features.
A more obvious improvement is the introduction of Photographic Styles, a feature that lets you adjust the target image that Apple’s image-capture pipeline is solving for. Every photo you shoot on the iPhone is the product of computational photography; the camera’s shooting multiple frames, analyzing them to pick the best one(s), and often merging them together in order to expand dynamic range or enhance detail. The JPEG or HEIF image you get out of a standard iPhone photo is anything but raw (for that, you’ll want to shoot… in RAW format). It’s a complex bit of software that’s trying to make what Apple thinks is the best-looking photo possible.
But just as with phone colors, everyone’s tastes vary when it comes to what the ideal photo should look like. Apple’s philosophy has always been to depict reality as accurately as possible. Other phonemakers have amped up the color in order to make the results eye-popping. There’s no correct answer to this question. It literally is a matter of taste. And with Photographic Styles, you can tell Apple’s image-capture pipeline to shoot for something different—something warmer, or cooler, or richer, with more or less contrast.
In contrast with a filter, which is adjusting an entire image after the fact, Photographic Styles hook into Apple’s complex image-processing system, so your preferences aren’t applied globally, but added to the capture process in appropriate ways, in appropriate areas of your shot. For example, I prefer a warmer image—but Photographic Styles will try to maintain a realistic skin tone on the people in my shot, regardless. It looks great, and as someone who prefers richer, warmer shots, I’ve set up Photographic Styles with those settings and have been really happy with the results. I’m glad Apple has broken the seal on its imaging pipeline and accepted that reasonable people can differ when it comes to what images they want their phones to produce.
The other major photographic upgrade on the iPhone 13 is Cinematic Mode, which is essentially a Portrait Mode for video. But calling it that undersells the amount of intense computing effort involved—it’s building a depth map and calculating out what parts of the image it’s going to blur with a photographic effect 30 times a second. That’s impressive.
So let me get all my criticisms about Cinematic Mode out: Like Portrait mode, it’s phony, not based on real optics, which means that if the software fails to properly detect depth, you end up with not-quite-right effects. Edges are fuzzy. Glasses look wrong. The triangle of open space between an arm and a chest becomes a window of sharp focus in what should be a blurred background. If you look at Cinematic Mode with a critical eye, you will find that it’s full of faults.
And now let me tell you, I don’t think it matters. No professional is going to want to use this feature, no matter who Apple featured in their video event that launched it. But as for the rest of us? Yeah, regular people are going to use it, and they’re going to love it—because it’s fun. It is an enormous kick to flip into Cinematic Mode and shoot video with everything artfully fuzzed out in the background. Yes, it’s only 1080p30 video—but again, who cares? The hike I took with my dog through the redwoods looks inescapably film-like. Fun!
And since the whole thing is synthetic, you can change the focus choices later—or turn them off entirely, which means you can shoot in Cinematic Mode without worrying that if it screws things up you’ll lose that important moment that you’ll never have a second chance to catch.
Cinematic Mode is flawed and if you are someone who notices its flaws, you should turn it off. My guess is that most people won’t, and will find it an incredibly fun feature on their new iPhone.
Let’s get small
I’ll leave the detailed battery tests to others, but I can corroborate that Apple has lifted the battery life of both iPhone 13 models when compared with the iPhone 12. While Apple has eked out even more battery savings on the iPhone 13 Pro models owing to the variable-refresh-rate screen, the physically expanded battery and more power-efficient A15 processor still contribute a lot.
As someone who has spent the last year using an iPhone 12 mini, I can tell you that the extra battery life is appreciated. The mini’s greatest weakness is that, owing to its small size, it has the least battery life of any modern iPhone. The iPhone 13 mini isn’t going to win any awards for battery life, but it’s noticeably better than the previous model, and that’s a good thing.
Which brings me to a painful section of this review: I don’t come to bury the iPhone mini, but to praise it. I couldn’t love this little phone more. It’s got a big enough screen for me to do just about anything, but fits well in my hand and is light in my pocket. I’ve got iPads and Macs to do the heavy lifting, but when I’m out and about I love that my iPhone isn’t weighing me down but still gives me access to all the information I need.
Apparently I am part of a small group of people who feel this way, because according to fairly authoritative reports, iPhone 12 mini sales were so poor that Apple has no plans to release an iPhone 14 mini next year. Apple reportedly plans to replace the mini with a lower-priced Max model instead. I get it, lots of people like big phones. Some of us don’t. And using the mini’s slot to sell Yet Another Huge Phone is the unkindest cut of all.
This may be the end of the line. But I don’t care, I’m going to use my blue iPhone 13 mini with reckless abandon. I’ll shoot Cinematic Video like nobody’s looking. And I’ll dream of a scenario that causes Apple to build another iPhone with a sub-six-inch screen.
Next year, I’ll be prepared to complain vociferously. But for this year, I will celebrate the existence of the iPhone 13 mini.
What you don’t get
If you opt not to spent money on the iPhone 13 Pro, what do you lose? The biggest loss is the telephoto lens. I’d like to say that I never missed that lens in my year of using an iPhone 12 mini, but that wouldn’t be entirely truthful. I did miss it, occasionally—but much less often than I expected to.
The iPhone 13 Pro also offers a photographic Macro mode that’s fantastic. Basically, if you’re frequently tempted to take super-close-up shots, or shots of things that are far away, you should give the iPhone 13 Pro another look.
And then there’s the ProMotion display, which is a very nice feature—but reasonable people can differ on just how nice. The iPhone 13 Pro models have displays that refresh 120 times per second, as opposed to 60 on other iPhones. (Apple introduced ProMotion on the iPad Pro a few years ago; this is its first appearance on an iPhone.)
With ProMotion, everything is smoother. Animations are smooth and fast. You can scroll text while you’re reading it, and the text never breaks up—if you’re an inveterate read-while-scrolling person, you are the target audience for ProMotion. It’s a really nice effect.
For me, the test was simple: After I spent a few days with an iPhone 13 Pro, could I go back to the iPhone 13’s display without feeling as if my eyes were slumming it at 60 frames per second? (To me, that was the true test of the importance of Retina displays: Once I saw a Retina display I could never go back to life without one.)
The truth is, while I noticed the lack of ProMotion on the iPhone 13, it didn’t gnaw at me. Don’t get me wrong—I look forward to the day when every iPhone has a ProMotion display, because it’s a better experience. But it wasn’t noticeable enough to offset my other preferences—namely for a smaller, lighter, cheaper phone. Your mileage may vary. If you can see an iPhone 13 Pro in person, you should give it a look. For some people, ProMotion will be reason enough to upgrade. (For others it’ll be that telephoto lens.) For me, it just isn’t.
I have to commend Apple for the job it did with the iPhone 13, and last year with the iPhone 12. These are the less-expensive iPhone models, but they don’t feel cheap. They feel like the base-model, standard, everyone-should-have-one iPhone. The iPhone 13 Pro models feel like an upgrade, but the iPhone 13 doesn’t feel like a downgrade. It’s probably the right iPhone model for most people—and if you like a smaller iPhone, grab the iPhone 13 mini while you can.
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