Small improvements make the iPhone 13 a better smartphone than the 12, but it’s no longer the best-value iPhone
- More storage
- Sensor shift stabilisation
- Brighter display
- Most upgrades will be barely noticeable
- No 120Hz display
Most people probably won’t need to read a review to know the iPhone 13 is the smartphone to buy. They’ll upgrade each year (or, more likely, every two) no matter what, and never once give a thought to the alternatives.
It is to Apple’s credit, however – and perhaps the reason why it has so many loyal followers – that it continues to produce better hardware no matter how slavishly its customers follow the upgrade cycle. The iPhone 13 is a good example of that.
Apple iPhone 13 review: What you need to know
Visually, you certainly won’t be wowed by Apple’s design tweaks, and that’s because not much has changed. It has the same flat-edged casing as last year with only two visible changes having been introduced: the two lenses on the camera housing at the rear are now arranged diagonally instead of being stacked on top of one another; and the notch housing the Face ID camera at the front is 20% narrower.
Fortunately, these tweaks aren’t the only upgrades: Apple has introduced a hatful of small changes across the board. It’s added Sensor Shift stabilisation to the main camera and introduced the impressive Cinematic Mode, which adds fake background blur to video shots.
It’s improved the screen, boosting peak brightness in everyday use. There’s also better battery life this time around, and a performance upgrade, too.
The change that will make the biggest difference to most people, however, is also the most mundane: all models have double the storage, starting at 128GB, rising through 256GB and topping out at 512GB.
Apple iPhone 13 review: Price and competition
As a bonus, the price of the cheapest model has fallen from £799 to £779, effectively gaining you 64GB for £20 less, while the 256GB model costs £879, which is a solid £70 discount on 2020’s 256GB iPhone 12. The iPhone 13 with 512GB storage is £1,079.
The main competition for the iPhone 13, in truth, comes from Apple’s own stables in the form of the iPhone 13 mini or the iPhone 13 Pro. The former is £100 cheaper but has a smaller, 5.4in display and inferior battery life; the latter is £120 more expensive but comes with a 3x optical zoom telephoto camera, better battery life and a smoother 120Hz display.
Which you choose will depend mostly on your budget, but I’d recommend stretching that little further extra and plumping for the iPhone 13 Pro.
Those who don’t mind flip-flopping between iPhone and Android handsets, meanwhile, have a little more choice. Our current pick is the Samsung Galaxy S21. Significantly cheaper at the time of writing at £590, it also comes with a 6.2in display but trumps the iPhone 13 with a higher 120Hz refresh rate.
Apple iPhone 13 review: Design
If you’ve got this far you’ll know already that the iPhone 13 isn’t much changed from the iPhone 12. That’s not to say it’s precisely the same, however.
Apple has shrunk the notch by 20% so it now measures around 27mm across – it’s a touch less annoying but not by much – and although the iPhone 13 is the same width and height as before (72 x 147mm), it’s 10g heavier and a smidge thicker, too – by 0.3mm in the body.
The camera housing is also 1mm thicker, which means the phone sits slightly prouder on a surface than the iPhone 12 when it’s not in a case. Speaking of which, these small changes mean that the iPhone 13 won’t fit into a case designed for the iPhone 12.
That’s it for physical changes. Apple hasn’t made any alterations to the physical materials the phone is built from, or its fundamental durability. It still has an aluminium frame with Apple’s own “Ceramic Shield” glass at the front protecting the screen and regular strengthened glass at the rear. The Ceramic Shield glass is remarkably scratch-resistant in my experience, although it’s disappointing not to have this on the rear of the phone as well.
The phone is still IP68 dust- and water-resistant, which means you can use it the rain or drop it in the bath without having to worry about breaking it. And it’s available in five different colours: red, white (“Starlight”), black (“Midnight”), blue and pink.
There’s also support for 5G mobile networks as there was last year, and Apple continues to include its excellent MagSafe magnetic wireless charging and accessory system on all iPhones.
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Apple iPhone 13 review: Display
Once again, you have to examine the small print to discover the difference between the display on the iPhone 13 versus its predecessor, because you’d probably fail to tell the two apart even if you held them right next to each other.
The size and resolution of the Super Retina XDR OLED display is the same. It measures 6.2in across the diagonal, squeezes in 1,170 x 2,532 pixels and, since Apple hasn’t seen fit to endow the non-Pro iPhones with a high refresh rate panel, it doesn’t any feel smoother, either.
However, Apple tells us the iPhone 13’s peak brightness has seen a lift, from a quoted 625nits last year to 800nits this year, and my test results concur. I measured the iPhone 13’s peak brightness at 776cd/m² (an equivalent unit to nits), where last year’s measured 612cd/m².
This should mean the iPhone 13’s screen is slightly easier to read in very bright conditions; most of the time, however, you won’t notice a jot of difference.
The display can go even brighter than this during HDR video playback, but peak brightness here is the same as it was last year at a quoted maximum of 1,200cd/m²; I measured peaks of up to 1,161cd/m² with HDR video.
And, as always, the iPhone 13’s screen is very colour accurate when measured against sRGB, returning an average colour variance (Delta E) score of 1.12 (the lower the better).
What do all these numbers mean for day-to-day use? In short, there’s very little practical difference between the screen on the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 13. Both look magnificent across all types of content, especially HDR, where all iPhone 13 models support HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision. It’s a corker of a display.
The only thing I take issue with, however, is Apple’s decision to keep the 120Hz panels to the iPhone 13 Pro models. With the phones side by side, you can clearly tell the difference and it makes the iPhone 13 feel a touch behind the times, which is compounded by the fact that most Android rivals at this price and below went over to high refresh rate screens some time ago.
Apple iPhone 13 review: Cameras
You’ll see a bit more of a difference when it comes to camera quality, but again the upgrades don’t represent an earth-shattering improvement.
As before, you get two rear cameras: the main camera and an ultrawide unit, both capable of capturing 12MP photos and Dolby Vision 4K video at up to 60fps. There’s still no telephoto lens on the regular iPhone so you’ll have to move up to the iPhone 13 Pro or the iPhone 13 Pro Max if you want to shoot at longer range. The iPhone 13 doesn’t get the superb macro mode that the 13 Pro does, either.
The good news is that the iPhone 13 does have a slightly larger sensor on the main camera than its predecessor, and it couples this with sensor-shift stabilisation for, in theory, superior, sharper, low-light photographs.
In side-by-side testing with the iPhone 12 mini (which has the same camera array as the iPhone 12), I found that the differences were definitely there, with a touch less noise in the iPhone 13’s shots in low light and a slightly cleaner overall look. But in most circumstances, the differences were so small as to make little difference to the look of the shots.
The same goes for the ultrawide camera and video quality; the latter remains brilliant – and beats most rivals, apart from the other iPhones, of course. And the iPhone 13’s camera is still afflicted, as it was last year, by fairly awful lens flare and internal reflections from the inner surfaces of the lens housings. You’ll not see much evidence of this in good light, but when shooting scenes such as the shot of Soho at night below, you’ll frequently see bright lights reflected clearly elsewhere in the frame. Apple needs to sort this issue out.
Don’t get me wrong: the iPhone 13’s cameras are still very good overall and its images are cleaner than before, but the upgrade isn’t a big one and certainly doesn’t justify an upgrade from the iPhone 12.
What of the much talked about Cinematic Mode, then? This applies a portrait-style blur to video as you shoot, and is also able to automatically “pull focus” when someone in the scene turns away from the camera to face someone else in the scene. Cinematic Mode also, magically, allows you to choose the focus point manually even after you’ve shot your video and adjust the amount of blur.
This operates in pretty much the same way as it does on the iPhone 13 Pro handsets, which is to say it’s patchy. The automatic focus pulling only really works in specific circumstances – it’s prone to flipping back and forth between subjects if they’re half facing the camera.
You have to be careful about how you compose your scene if you want manual refocusing to work well, too. If the objects you want to focus on fall outside the camera’s natural depth of field, they’ll look slightly out of focus when you attempt to switch focus to them in the edit as well. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Cinematic Mode only captures video at 1080p at 30fps (albeit in Dolby Vision HDR) because it’s so processor-intensive.
In short, while Cinematic Mode is certainly clever, I can’t see many people actually using it all that often. It’s a bit of a gimmick that you’ll try a few times and then probably forget about in favour of the iPhone 13’s regular video-recording mode.
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Apple iPhone 13 review: Performance
It wouldn’t be an iPhone upgrade if Apple didn’t provide a performance boost, and the iPhone 13 goes from the A14 Bionic chip to the A15 Bionic. It’s accompanied by 4GB of RAM and a quad-core GPU, and results are better than the iPhone 12 and, for CPU-bound tasks, similar to the iPhone 13 Pro. The iPhone 13 Pro stretches out a lead on graphics performance, however, thanks to its 5-core GPU.
It’s not just the benchmark numbers that reveal the difference between the iPhone 13 and the 13 Pro; the iPhone 13’s lack of a high refresh 120Hz display makes a palpable difference as well. In games that support the feature (Alto’s Adventure, PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty Mobile and many others) the difference is tangible, with smoother visuals, snappier response times and an overall superior experience.
Perhaps more importantly, however, battery life has been given a big performance boost. In our video rundown test, the iPhone 13 lasted 20hrs 21mins, which is nearly four hours longer than the iPhone 12 and only a few minutes shorter than the iPhone 13 Pro. That’s a very result; the days of iPhones lagging behind Android handsets on stamina seem finally to be over. This is a phone that will comfortably last you a full day of use without the need to reach for a charger in the early afternoon.
Apple iPhone 13 review: Verdict
The Apple iPhone 13 is a decent upgrade over the iPhone 12, but nothing more than that. The improvements are generally small and incremental, and even the addition of sensor-shift stabilisation and Cinematic Mode aren’t that exciting in reality.
That doesn’t make the iPhone 13 a bad phone; far from it. It’s an improvement over the iPhone 12 in many areas – and that’s saying something, as the 12 was, for me, the pick of the iPhones last year for value.
This year, however, I’d recommend spending a bit more on the iPhone 13 Pro instead: it has all the tech of the iPhone 13 Pro Max in a more compact, more affordable package, not to mention a better set of cameras and superior battery life to the iPhone 13. No two ways about it, for £120 more the iPhone 13 Pro snatches the value crown in 2021.
Apple iPhone 13 specifications
|Processor||Apple A15 Bionic|
|Screen resolution||1,170 x 2,532|
|Screen refresh rate||60Hz|
|Front camera||12MP, f/2.2|
|Rear camera||12MP f/1.6; 12MP f/2.4 ultrawide; 12MP|
|Flash||Dual LED, dual-tone|
|Dust and water resistance||IP68|
|3.5mm headphone jack||No|
|Wireless charging||Qi (7.5W); MagSafe (15W)|
|USB connection type||Lightning|
|Storage options||128GB; 256GB; 512GB|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||No|
|Cellular data||5G, 4G|
|Dual SIM||Yes (via eSIM)|
|Dimensions (WDH)||72 x 7.7 x 147mm|
|Operating system||iOS 15|
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