For much of my smartphone-owning adulthood, I was an iPhone “S” year upgrader, due almost entirely to my relationship with my cell carrier. My first iPhone was a 3GS, which I got for peanuts with my Cingular contract. (Yes, Cingular.) I was eligible to upgrade to a new phone every other year, at which point I would renew my cell contract, plunk down $200, and walk away with an “S” model iPhone.
Times have changed. It’s now easier to untether yourself from a carrier contract and buy an unlocked phone outright (or, in Apple’s case, via the iPhone Upgrade Program). And as phones have become more capable and durable, with better cameras, longer battery life, water-resistance, and stronger glass able to withstand a few inevitable drops, upgrading every other year no longer feels necessary. Apple has ditched the “S” branding that once marked a phone that wasn’t getting a huge redesign, but the iPhone 13 is largely considered an “S” iPhone. What’s the point of upgrading to an iPhone that looks similar to last year’s?
Well, most people don’t get a new phone every year, and plenty of folks do still upgrade through their carriers. This year Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are doing the most to convince you to get an iPhone 13. It almost goes without saying, but I’ll say it: If you have an iPhone 12, you don’t really need a 13. But if you want one and you can get one at a steep discount, or free, then it’s worth the upgrade for the battery life alone. If you own an older iPhone, like an 11, XS, X, or 8, the iPhone 13 is a much more substantial upgrade—even more so if you go with the 13 Pro or Pro Max.
Every year, the iPhone gets a better camera, and this year is no different. The entire 13 lineup has improved lenses that shoot better photos in low light, and all four new iPhones offer a new cinematic video mode that’s like portrait mode for videos. Like the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, the 13 Pro and Pro Max stand apart from the cheaper 13 and 13 Mini with a trio of lenses, including a telephoto lens. This year’s models now shoot up to 3x optical zoom and have a new macrophotography feature that lets you capture incredible detail at close range.
Unlike last year, the 13 Pro and Pro Max have the same camera modules, which means you don’t have to spend more to get better photos. Both the Pro and Pro Max have 12-megapixel standard and ultra-wide lenses with larger sensors, and the new 12-MP telephoto lens offers a 77mm focal length. While camera upgrades are usually under-the-hood, you can literally see how much bigger the lenses are when compared to the 12 Pro/Max—they’re freakin’ huge. Apple says the standard lens (ƒ/1.5) gathers 2.2 times more light compared to the iPhone 12 Pro and a 49% bump from the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Meanwhile, the 12-MP ultra-wide-angle lens (ƒ/1.8.) has a new autofocus sensor and gathers 92% more light than last year’s models. See some photo samples from the 13 Pro and Pro Max below.
The 13 Pro and Pro Max definitely take better low-light shots than the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, but more importantly, nighttime shots are better than on older iPhones. Given that you can still buy an iPhone 11 from Apple brand new—albeit for cheaper than it was during its model year—that’s important to note.
The 13 Pro and Pro Max’s telephoto lenses now support Night Mode, which the 12 Pro models do not. I tested this at a Lucy Dacus concert at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where I was seated toward the back of the theater. The 3x zoom photos and videos I took turned out crisp and color accurate, and I was able to capture my two favorite songs as usable videos I could share on Instagram without being embarrassed of the quality (rare for a concert). I compared that to the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom with night mode turned on, and got a much closer shot of Dacus center stage. The photo isn’t perfectly clear, but you can see her red lipstick and the details in her guitar, which you can’t see in the iPhone photo. I also gave it a shot with the Pixel 5's Night Sight and digital zoom, but it, uh, didn’t quite work out. The S21 Ultra’s telephoto lens makes me wish Apple would beef up the iPhone’s optical zoom a bit, but the 3x is a definite improvement over the iPhone 12 Pro’s 2x (and even the 12 Pro Max’s 2.5x).
The Pro’s other main selling point is a macrophotography feature enabled by the redesigned ultra-wide-angle lens with its new autofocus sensor. Macro isn’t a manual mode you can toggle on like you do for portraits; instead, macro kicks in when you get close enough to a subject—within two centimeters. The Camera app preview then switches to macro in a very obvious visual shift, which I found extremely annoying in my first few days testing the camera but grew accustomed to. The visible lens shift was a helpful visual cue that I had activated macro mode, even though it seems a little janky for Apple software. The company is fixing this with a feature in the Settings menu coming in iOS 15.1 that will let you disable the auto macro switching. You can then shoot macro by tapping on the ultra-wide lens mode (0.5x) and tapping the subject to focus.
The macro results are kind of a trip. Blades of grass look like giant green daggers, flower petals look like tunnels, flies look like monsters from another planet. If you’ve ever watched Honey! I Shrunk the Kids and thought, “I want to be those kids,” macro mode is for you. I can’t imagine myself using this setting all the time, but the results are undeniably cool as hell.
The camera feature I expect to use far more often is cinematic video, which is enabled on every iPhone 13 model. Cinematic video promises to be portrait mode for video, and I can’t lie: It needs work. But when it does work, it works.
Situations tailor-made for cinematic video: well-lit indoor spaces or outdoors in broad daylight with a plan for who you’re shooting and how. Situations in which it does not work: every other one. Low light? Nope. Decent light? Absolutely not. Trying to focus on one or two faces with lots of people around? Good luck. Unless you’re a professional with a shot list, getting a good cinematic video is going to take some real effort—and some frustration. But I also really enjoyed trying.
I tested this in a few different scenarios, and didn’t quite achieve the professional-looking videos that Apple’s promos have shown. I did have fun testing it while golfing, though. Every amateur golfer needs footage of their swing to make improvements, and I’m not going to say cinematic video makes a bad swing look good, but it does make the overall video look way cooler. (LPGA, call me. Whenever you’re ready.)
Cinematic video is enabled in both the front- and rear-facing lenses, just like portrait photos are, and while I didn’t capture anything with the selfie cam that I want to publish to the internet, I had a whole lot of fun experimenting with it. I expect the feature to improve, as portrait mode for photos has over time. I wouldn’t recommend anyone rush out to buy an iPhone 13 for cinematic video, but it’s interesting to see what comes out of it.
The last camera feature available on all iPhone 13 models is called Photographic Styles. This is another setting buried in the Camera app’s toolbar, (did I mention how bloated that app is becoming?) Apple has essentially created filters that make your photos warmer, cooler, higher contrast, etc. You can also create a custom style that you can apply to all of your photos. Importantly, you have to select a style before you start shooting, so it’s slightly different from a filter that you can apply after the fact. (You also can’t change a style from, say, Vibrant to Cool in post.) Apple says the styles adjust different aspects of a photo without changing details like skin tone.
Reader, this feature is fine. As you can see above, the styles do change the photo as a filter would. The iPhone camera has always been more true-to-life than its rivals; Photographic Styles lets you add some drama without going too heavy-handed like Samsung’s phones can.
And, lastly, Apple is rolling out a new file format for professionals called ProRes video. It’s similar to the company’s ProRAW format for photographers, and while it sounds useful for filmmaking and editing, it’s a) not available to try yet, and b) not relevant for most iPhone buyers.
Some people don’t care about taking the best photos, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that phones need to last longer on a charge. This is where Apple has stepped it up significantly. The iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max were already two of the longest-lasting smartphones you could buy, and Apple supersized the batteries and took the 13 Pro and Pro Max to the next level.
In Gizmodo’s video rundown battery test, the 13 Pro lasted 16 hours and 21 minutes, a full two hours and 11 minutes longer than the 12 Pro and just 10 minutes shy of the 12 Pro Max. The 13 Pro Max lasted 19 hours and 30 minutes, three hours longer than the 12 Pro Max.
Anecdotally, I used the 13 Pro Max for two and a half days before it dwindled below 10%, and I’m the kind of iPhone user whose weekly Screen Time reports are appalling to normal people. I would definitely still charge up overnight out of habit, but this makes it possible to have days of heavy usage or forget to charge one night without stressing.
Like the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, the 6.1-inch 13 Pro and 6.7-inch Pro Max are more high-end than their cheaper siblings. The Pro models trade aluminum for stainless steel trim and matte glass backs, and the effect is particularly stunning in the new Sierra Blue. The Pros also come in graphite, gold, and silver.
All of the iPhone 13 models have a 20% slimmer notch that also juts down a little more prominently than on notched iPhones past. You get a little bit of screen back, but there’s not much that can be done with it. I still can’t see the battery indicator in the top status bar, so I’m not quite sure why Apple bothered. But, hey, maybe next year we get no notch.
One major feature that sets the Pro models apart from the 13 and 13 Mini is a new 120Hz display that can adjust its refresh rate on the fly depending on what content you’re looking at—viewing still images requires a lower refresh rate than scrolling through websites or playing games, for instance. It’s similar to the ProMotion display on the iPad Pros, and it’s definitely noticeable when compared side by side to an iPhone with a 60Hz display—scrolling on an older iPhone looks more jagged. For a certain type of phone user, refresh rates are high priority making this change a big deal. Many users—I’d argue most—will not notice.
Apple didn’t break the mold here; Android phones have had 120Hz screens for years now. Developers still have to optimize third-party apps for the new iPhone’s refresh rate, so it’s not like you’re going to see massive improvements across the board right away. But it’s a welcome shift, even if not a groundbreaking one.
The iPhone 13 lineup runs on Apple’s latest A15 Bionic processor, with a 6-core CPU and 5-core CPU, and suffice to say it’s the most powerful phone chip out there—really, it’s not even close. In synthetic benchmarks like Geekbench 5, which measures overall system performance, the 13 Pro and Pro Max blaze past Android flagships running on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chip by a huge margin. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3, with its 3419 multi-core and 1077 single-core scores, is no match for the Pro Max (4770 multi-core and 1744 single-core). The A15 is also much faster than the A14 Bionic that powers the 12 lineup, and if you’ve got an 11, XS, X, or 8, you’re going to notice that everything feels a lot snappier.
The iPhone gets faster and more powerful every single year, and at this point, we’ve just come to expect a big performance bump. Whether you need it is a different question, but if you’re a power user who needs a capable multitasker, the iPhone 13 Pro is it.
Every smartphone has its drawbacks. Samsung’s experimental hardware and impressive cameras make you feel like you’re living in the future, but the software experience on that cutting-edge hardware is hit or miss. Case in point: Samsung has offered a portrait mode video feature on multiple handsets in recent years, and yet even on its flagship Galaxy S21 Ultra the effect is wildly uneven. Google excels at useful software features, but its Pixel phones look extremely dated and its AI-powered camera magic is no longer leading the industry. Apple’s sweet spot is the integration of hardware and software, but the company is playing it safe on both fronts.
But things are about to get interesting. Google’s Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are coming soon, built on Google’s in-house chipset. Samsung is hitting its stride with foldable phones. Next year’s iPhone 14 is rumored to sport a redesign that finally ditches the notch. And Microsoft is, uh, still trying, which we love to see.
Lately, I’ve been reading old iPhone reviews. Not just Gizmodo’s—though those are fun—but from mainstream outlets and tech enthusiast sites alike. The “S” year reviews in particular are interesting. Every “S” phone gets a better camera and a faster chip. The iPhone 4S added a “faster CPU, better camera, and new software to a familiar-looking phone.” The iPhone 5S chip was twice as fast as the 5's, but one reviewer said, “nobody was exactly complaining about the iPhone’s speed before.”
The iPhone 4S also, for better or worse, brought us Siri. The iPhone 5S introduced Touch ID. And the year that Apple introduced the trailblazing iPhone X with secure facial recognition, millions of people bought the iPhone 8, which was essentially a 7S, introduced that same year.
Every year, the iPhone gets a little better, and sometimes we don’t realize immediately which new features will resonate over time. When I upgraded to the 4S, I didn’t realize Siri would become my foe, still unable to set multiple timers. And who knew the iPhone 5S fingerprint sensor would become something we longed for in a world where everyone is masked?
The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are faster, have better cameras, and pack improved software in a familiar-looking phone. If you need to upgrade, they’re worth buying. Next year’s iPhone might be better, but next year’s iPhone is always better.