The iPhone 13 Pro is another highly competent Apple phone, with the most notable improvements coming in the camera department
- ProMotion 120Hz OLED display
- Decent battery life
- Excellent set of cameras
- A bit boring
- Lens flare still an issue
The iPhone 13 Pro sums up Apple’s approach to smartphone upgrades pretty much perfectly. It’s an iterative improvement that introduces a number of key updates in critical areas but it isn’t a phone that moves the needle much over last year’s iPhone 12 handsets.
But that’s okay. The people who upgrade their premium iPhone once a year are in the minority; most of those considering the move to the 13 Pro won’t be coming from an iPhone 12 Pro, they’ll be moving from an iPhone 11 Pro or even earlier.
Look at it this way and the iPhone 13 seems a much more tempting proposition. iPhones are so fast these days that I’d be perfectly happy owning and running one for more than two years, perhaps even three, before changing.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: What you need to know
That’s an important thing to bear in mind because, if you only consider the upgrades over the iPhone 12 Pro, the iPhone 13 Pro looks like a fairly small step forwards.
In design terms, barely anything has changed. Yes, Apple has shrunk the notch that eats into the top of the screen by 20%, which is nice, but it doesn’t really do anything with the extra real estate to either side and, to my eye, it isn’t a big enough change to warrant anything more than a raised eyebrow.
It still has a 6.1in display with the same resolution of 1,170 x 2,532, it’s still a flat-sided rectangle banded in stainless steel, it still has Apple’s remarkably scratch-resistant Ceramic Shield glass on the front and it’s still IP68 dust- and water-resistant.
Otherwise, it’s all about subtle updates: the Super Retina XDR OLED display is now brighter than ever in general use and also inherits Apple’s ProMotion 120Hz variable refresh display technology from the iPad Pro.
The cameras have had a boost as well. The main camera inherits the sensor shift stabilisation tech from the iPhone 12 Pro Max last year, with a slightly larger sensor and bigger pixels. The telephoto camera gains extra reach on the optical zoom lens (up to 3x from 2x), and the light-gathering capabilities of the ultrawide camera is improved as well, with new macro capabilities.
Indeed, the iPhone 13 Pro cameras are now the same as the 13 Pro Max, where last year the 12 Pro missed out on sensor shift and had a slightly shorter zoom. That’s great news for iPhone enthusiasts who don’t get on with a larger phone.
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Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: Price and competition
In even better news, the iPhone 13 Pro is £50 cheaper than the 12 Pro was last year, starting at £949 for the model with 128GB of storage. This rises to £1,049 for the 256GB model and £1,249 for the 512GB model, and there’s now an iPhone 13 Pro with a huge 1TB of storage for £1,449.
This makes the iPhone 13 Pro a far better-value purchase than last year’s 12 Pro and, arguably, the pick of the new range. That’s because it’s £100 cheaper than the iPhone 13 Pro Max, with the only difference being a smaller display and slightly shorter battery life. Its cameras are more accomplished than the iPhone 13, too, which starts at £779.
The competition, for those willing to flip-flop between Android and iOS handsets, comes principally from the Samsung Galaxy S21, which you can pick up for around £650 these days; that gets you a similarly sized phone with a bigger display, a triple camera array with a 3x optical zoom and ultrawide lens to go with the main camera.
For a little more than the iPhone 13 Pro, you can indulge yourself and pick up Samsung’s latest folding phone, the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 5G. This costs £999, squeezes a 6.7in screen into a more pocketable package than the iPhone 13 Pro, but has only a main and ultrawide camera, and lacks a telephoto lens.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: Design
There’s not much to say about the design of the iPhone 13 Pro aside from what I’ve already outlined above. It’s essentially the same as the iPhone 12 Pro, but with a 20% narrower notch and a slightly larger camera housing on the rear, plus the option of a new colour, sierra blue, alongside the graphite, silver and gold options from last year.
Not that this is a bad thing. I rather like the flat-edged look of the iPhone 12, and the Ceramic Shield glass on the front has proved remarkably robust over the past year or so.
The iPhone 13 Pro still has 5G connectivity and IP68 dust and water resistance, and the MagSafe charging area is still in place, too. The only disappointment from a design standpoint is that Apple has continued with the Lightning connector for another year.
In an age where iPhones are able to capture Dolby Vision video (and soon Apple ProRes too), Lightning’s data transfer rate of 480Mbits/sec is positively antediluvian. It’s somewhat embarrassing for Apple that it hasn’t moved to USB-C on its phones where every single one of its Android rivals has done so and has been using the connector for some time.
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Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: Display
Apple isn’t lagging behind on display tech, but nor could you say it has been pushing the envelope in recent years. It took a fair while to introduce OLED panels, for instance, and it has taken a while to ditch 60Hz screens in favour of higher refresh panels this year.
That being said, Apple’s new “Super Retina XDR display with ProMotion” is a cracker of a screen. It can now reach a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz, which leads not only to faster frame rates in supported games, but also noticeably smoother animations, scrolling, panning and zooming in all parts of iOS 15. It adapts automatically to the task at hand, reducing the refresh rate all the way down to 10Hz when you’re reading static text, for example, or matching the frame rate to the 24fps of a movie.
Cleverly, Apple is also able to match the refresh rate of the display to the speed of finger swipes, so the display is never using any more power than it needs to. And with Apple claiming an additional 1hr 30mins extra battery life over last year’s iPhone 12 Pro, it looks to have had a positive impact on efficiency.
This isn’t the only area in which Apple has improved the display, either. It’s now brighter in normal usage, up from 800 to 1,000 nits with auto-brightness enabled, which is great news for those living in sunny climes. I measured it peaking at just over 1,000 cd/m².
Peak brightness while watching HDR, meanwhile, is the same as last time, but still impressive at a rated 1,200cd/m². There’s also support for Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HLG, covering most of the major standards, and colour accuracy in SDR is exceptional, as always. In my testing, the average colour variance came in at 1.02 versus sRGB (the lower the better), which is a very impressive score indeed.
iPhone 13 Pro review: Cameras
From a scant glance at the rear of the phone and the tech specs on Apple’s website, it might appear that nothing has changed, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Quite apart from the fact that the camera housing is larger than before – it’s 4mm or so wider and taller than even the camera bump on the 12 Pro Max – all three camera modules have received significant upgrades.
I could list all of these in text but it’s easier to see them in a table:
iPhone 13 Pro main
iPhone 12 Pro main
iPhone 13 Pro telephoto
iPhone 12 Pro telephoto
iPhone 13 Pro ultrawide
0.5x (120 degrees)
iPhone 12 Pro ultrawide
0.5x (120 degrees)
The telephoto camera has a narrower aperture than last year but everything else is an improvement: more light-gathering capability and sensor-shift stabilisation for the main camera; a brighter aperture and autofocus for the ultrawide; and 50% more reach for the telephoto.
Not only that but there’s also the new Cinematic Mode, which as we will see is clever – but little more than a trick of smoke and mirrors – plus macro photography, which enables each of the three cameras to focus as close as 2cm to any subject. In the case of the 3x telephoto lens, this can lead to some truly stunning close-up photographs, although the f/2.8 aperture means that these shots can look a little grainier than those captured with the main and ultrawide cameras.
Here’s a series of macro shots taken from close distance with the ultrawide, main and telephoto cameras:
Cinematic Mode is a slightly less orthodox feature that creates the illusion of what’s known in the film industry as “racking focus” – in plain English, this is when the focus changes from one point to another point in a scene and then (potentially) back again. It’s normally used when two characters in the same scene are having a conversation on camera and, usually, you’d need a professional camera operator and a very expensive film camera to achieve the effect.
Here, the iPhone 13 Pro is applying a fake bokeh in a scene to achieve a similar effect, automatically based on who is talking to whom in a scene. When it works, it’s very impressive, but you do need to set up the scene quite specifically to achieve the best results.
I tried it out with my daughter in the foreground and my wife in the background and found that, typically, one of the people in shot needs to turn away from the camera slightly before focus changes to the other person in the scene. That also means the focus can flick back and forth to people randomly as they turn their heads this way and that, which isn’t ideal.
You can rack focus manually instead, simply by tapping as you record the scene, or – and this is the best way – by altering the focus point afterwards by choosing the Edit option. Again, you need to be careful about the way you shoot such scenes, since both subjects need to be within the focal range of the lens, or you might end up with slightly blurry shots. It’s also important to remember that Cinematic Mode is limited to 1080p at 30fps.
You’ll probably find, however, that Cinematic Mode is a thing you play with once or twice and then abandon in favour of the main video mode because it’s still so good. The iPhones remain the only phones that can capture Dolby Vision footage – at 4K up to 60fps fully stabilised, no less – and this looks stunning played back on an Apple TV 4K (2021) or an iPad Pro 12.9 (2021). Detail, colours and stabilisation are all phenomenal.
In summary, though, the changes can be distilled into a few salient points:
- The iPhone 13 Pro’s main camera produces a slightly richer colour palette than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (the best of the previous generation of iPhones) and cleaner images in low light without Night mode enabled.
- The 3x telephoto delivers a bit more reach than last time but captures noisier images, mostly due to the dimmer, narrower f/2.8 aperture.
- The ultrawide camera captures photographs that look pretty much indistinguishable from the iPhone 12 Pro Max in daylight but are cleaner and less noisy in low light, largely thanks to the larger, brighter aperture.
The one disappointment is that Apple hasn’t addressed the iPhone’s lens flare issue. Most of the time, you won’t notice this, but as soon as you try to capture an image with a strong light source in the frame, you’ll spot corresponding – and occasionally distracting – dots and flare. It’s especially noticeable in video recordings when these dots or flares match your hand movements.
Overall, though, you won’t be disappointed with the iPhone 13 Pro’s camera. It’s a superb all-rounder, capable of capturing stunning stills and video, especially in low and marginal light.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: Performance and battery life
As usual, Apple is giving this year’s iPhones a performance lift with the new A15 Bionic processor replacing 2020’s A14 Bionic. This is a six-core chipset with two 3.22GHz performance cores and four lower-power cores, accompanied by a 5-core GPU (one more core than last year) and 6GB of RAM.
In the benchmarks, this proved only slightly faster in single-core operations than the A14 Bionic, but much faster in multicore operations, so it will probably only be in demanding tasks such as video editing that you notice much of a difference, assuming you’re coming from an iPhone 12 Pro, of course. Owners of older hardware will notice a big step forwards in performance.
In the GFXBench graphics benchmark, the iPhone 13 Pro returned similar results, improving in raw power, delivering a maximum frame rate of 227fps in the off-screen test. Note that, at the time of writing, GFXBench hadn’t updated its benchmark application to take advantage of the faster screen refresh rate, so you can disregard the onscreen (native resolution) result.
In our battery testing, the iPhone 13 Pro delivered improved results as well, lasting 20hrs 39mins in our video rundown test (in flight mode with the display set to 170cd/m²). That’s more than two hours longer than the iPhone 12 Pro and nearly two hours longer than the Samsung Galaxy S21. A pretty decent performance, all told.
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Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: Verdict
And that’s the sentiment I’d echo for the iPhone 13 Pro as a whole: it’s pretty decent. Not a groundbreaking update but a solid one, with better stills photography, better video features, improved battery life and zippier performance.
In fact, I think the iPhone 13 Pro is the pick of the four iPhone models released in 2021. It’s just as capable as – and more pocketable than – the iPhone 13 Pro Max, and cheaper, too. And you get faster graphics and a brighter display than the iPhone 12, plus ProMotion 120Hz support and a 3x telephoto camera.
On the other hand, if you don’t care whether you buy an iPhone or an Android handset, you should probably opt for a Samsung Galaxy S21 instead, which currently offers far better value. It may not be as quick as the iPhone 13 Pro, but it’s currently at least £300 cheaper.
In the end, the choice is yours, but there’s no doubt the iPhone 13 Pro is a very good handset and the best option for iPhone enthusiasts.