iPhone 13 Pro Review: Top-notch flagship from Apple, but with one camera flaw
Almost as soon as the iPhone 13 launch event wrapped, there’s been comments in the smartphone discussion spaces that this year’s devices do not bring enough upgrades to justify a whole new number jump. They are “12S” models, as some have joked.
The thing is, not all of these changes are upgrades.
Navigate this review:
- Hardware & Software
- iOS 15: Focus Modes, new FaceTime, and more
- What’s it like using the iPhone 13 Pro daily?
- Performance & Battery Life
- Is the iPhone 13 Pro worth the upgrade?
Click to expand: Apple iPhone 13 Series Specifications
|Specifications||Apple iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Mini||Apple iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max|
|Dimensions & Weight||
|SoC||Apple A15 Bionic||Apple A15 Bionic|
|RAM & Storage||
|Battery & Charging||
|Security||Face ID||Face ID|
|Front Camera(s)||12MP TrueDepth camera system||12MP TrueDepth camera system|
|Audio||Stereo speakers||Stereo speakers|
|Software||iOS 15||iOS 15|
|Other Features||Dual physical SIM or Dual eSIM support||Dual physical SIM or Dual eSIM support|
About this review: Apple loaned us all four models of the iPhone 13 series for testing. This review was written after two weeks of using the iPhone 13 Pro as my main phone. Apple did not have any input in this article.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro: Hardware & Software
Apple has always zigged where others zagged and this is true with the iPhone 13 Pro’s hardware design. Many Android phones feel curvy and rounded, almost like a personal piece of jewelry. The iPhone 13 Pro feels dense, blocky, evoking feelings of cold, metallic machine vibe, like the monolith in 2001: Space Odyssey.
The in-hand feel of the iPhone 13 Pro is great at first (this will change, as I’ll explain later): buttons are firm and clicky, the stainless steel frame cold to the touch, the so-called “Ceramic Shield” glass covering the 6.1-inch display seemingly harder than usual. I adore the Sierra Blue color, particularly the way it can look like a different shade of blue and even look grey under different lighting. The matte coating prevents fingerprints and smudges, while feeling grippy. The haptic engine is superb, and of course, all the bells and whistles are here like stereo speakers and IP68 water and dust resistance rating. The steel frame does pick up fingerprints, but they are easy to wipe off from the sides.
Of course, this design is not new. In fact, the iPhone 13 Pro looks almost the same as last year’s iPhone 12 Pro, with four physical changes:
- The camera module is bigger
- The notch is slightly smaller
- Thickness and weight have increased
- The screen refreshes at 120Hz
The larger camera module is to accommodate new, larger image sensors, and they definitely bring noticeable changes that are, at least so far, both good and bad. I’ll address this in the next section.
The smaller notch is basically a non-factor, as the extra space gained does not show more content unless you are watching a video that spans the entire screen.
The extra heft, however, does bring tangible benefits, as its increase was to accommodate a larger battery that improves battery life over the iPhone 12 Pro.
As for that variable 120Hz refresh rate — during my hands-on, I wrote that the 120Hz didn’t feel as noticeable as 120Hz on, say, a OnePlus or Xiaomi phone. Now we know that’s partially due to a bug that limits the 120Hz refresh rate to Apple’s own first-party apps only. Apple has promised to fix this, but I don’t really mind even if it doesn’t because Apple’s 60Hz animations are actually very well-optimized, I’d argue more so than Android devices’ 60Hz animations, and battery life on the iPhone 13 Pro has been really good — better than any 120Hz Android flagship.
A major reason the iPhone 13 Pro can score so high in benchmarks and offer such great battery life relative to its battery size is that Apple is the rare phone brand that has full control over its hardware and software, so there’s better synergy between the two, which leads to a more efficient and optimized operation.
iOS 15: Focus Modes, new FaceTime, and more
New additions to iOS 15 include a new FaceTime app that allows you to send a link to Android phone owners to join the call. Almost nobody in Hong Kong uses FaceTime, so I have only tried this feature once or twice merely as a test, but it works as advertised.
Another new feature to iOS 15 is Focus Modes, which are essentially different profiles that you can set to allow only specific communication methods to get through. By default, there are four modes: Do Not Disturb, Sleep, Personal, Work. You can add custom ones if you like. Once you have your profiles, you can assign specific contacts that can contact you, as well as notifications from apps. So for Work mode, you can set it so only work-related apps will ping you notifications. Conversely, on the weekend you may want to set to Personal mode and block out any work contacts if you choose to. If this sounds a lot like OnePlus’s Work-Life Balance feature on OxygenOS, that’s because it is.
There’s also Live Text, which works like Google Lens. Essentially, the iPhone 13 Pro (or any device running iOS 15) will attempt to identify written words on any photo stored on the device. This allows the words to be highlighted and searched or translated. It works okay from my experience — I’d say half the time I can indeed pinpoint a specific word in a photo, but other times the phone cannot pick up the text. It has been useful, however. I’ve looked up the address of a store once simply by highlighting the name of the store from an old photo and searching the name. The screenshot below is from my iPad running iPadOS 15, but it works just the same on the iPhone 13 Pro.
Overall the iOS 15 experience is stable and bug-free. But it’s still iOS, so some of Apple’s draconian way of doing things still annoy me. I much prefer Android’s notification management and completely free homescreen grid than iOS 15’s rigid take.
What’s it like using the iPhone 13 Pro daily?
Using the iPhone 13 Pro as my daily driver has been mostly a great experience. I enjoy Apple’s unparalleled synergy between devices inside its ecosystem. I find many of the apps I use work better than on iOS than Android (my Hong Kong bank’s iOS app, for example, allows Face ID log in but the Android version of the same app does not allow fingerprint login). The iPhone 13 Pro has fewer app crashes and camera shutter lag compared to Android phones (not that app crashes are frequent on Android devices by the way, but it does happen every now and then).
But I do have four gripes with using the iPhone 13 Pro as my main phone:
- The boxy design with flat sides looks great, but it’s just not as comfortable in the hand compared to curvy Androids or even the iPhone 11 series.
- Having Face ID as the only biometric security solution is not ideal in this era of mask-wearing.
- iOS is not as one-hand-friendly as Android.
- The iPhone 13 Pro cameras have had trouble with finding proper exposure in scenes with challenging lighting.
We will explore the fourth annoyance in the camera section, but first let’s briefly go over the first three.
iPhone 13 Pro’s boxy design look better than they feel
I am someone who loves using large phones, and in years past, have chosen to use the Pro Max variant of the iPhone XS and iPhone 11 without major issues. But ever since Apple switched to the boxy, flat side design, I have been unable to use the Pro Max model for more than a few days before my hand tells me to move to a smaller phone. This problem is not as bad on the iPhone 13 Pro, but it is heavier and thicker than last year’s 12 Pro, so it’s still a phone that’s not the most comfortable to hold all day. A major caveat is that I use my phones naked, which most consumers won’t do. Once you slap a case on the iPhone 13 Pro, the hard sides should be softened, so the phone should be more comfortable to hold.
Face ID is magical in the pre-mask era, but now it’s a hassle
Face ID is an ingenious invention that Apple nailed from the start. Being able to glance at a phone and swipe up to unlock is natural and intuitive. And logging into websites or bank apps by just looking at the screen still gives me a feeling of “oh I’m living in the future”.
But the world is still going through a pandemic, and for me here in Hong Kong (and many parts of Asia, Europe, and elsewhere), we still wear masks every time we step out or are around strangers. This has made unlocking the iPhone a hassle. I know Apple has tried to address this by first shortening the waiting period before the number pad pops up on screen after a failed Face ID scan, and allowing Apple Watch wearers to skip Face ID if their watch is nearby. But these are workarounds that do not solve the core issue: when I’m outside wearing a mask, it takes twice or three times as long to unlock my iPhone than an Android with a fingerprint scanner.
This could have been fixed if Apple wasn’t so strictly married to the idea of removing Touch ID. The power button is a good spot to integrate one, and that would have solved this entire issue. But now we wait for another year to see if Apple plans to look beyond Face ID on the iPhone.
iOS is not one-hand friendly
I’ve written an entire article on this, but iOS is more difficult to use with one hand than an Android phone for several reasons. Both the notification panel and control center must be triggered by swiping from the very top of the screen, and even on the smaller 6.1-inch iPhone 13 Pro, this swipe down gesture requires an exaggerated motion of re-adjusting grip and stretching the palm and thumb (see gif below). The control center is particularly hard to trigger for me because it requires a swipe from the upper right corner and I hold my phone with my left hand. On the larger Pro Max phones, this act is downright user-hostile.
iOS also doesn’t give you a truly free homescreen grid: apps must be placed in a top-down, left-to-right order. This means I must fill my homescreen with apps or widgets if I want my frequently used apps to sit closer to my thumb at the bottom of the screen.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro: Cameras
During my hands-on, I gave the iPhone 13 Pro cameras high marks, mostly on the strength of its new “Cinematic mode,” which is essentially portrait mode for video. While I still love this feature and have used it extensively — probably gratuitously — on social media, I have found that, in still photography, the iPhone 13 Pro cameras struggle with dynamic range in challenging high contrast scenes.
Basically, anytime I shoot night photos with some bright lights facing the camera, the iPhone 13 Pro tends to overexpose the lights, while keeping the shadowed areas darker than usual.
You likely won’t notice this problem if you are not picky with your cameras, or don’t snap photos in tough lighting conditions, or if you have been upgraded to the iPhone 13 Pro from a several-year-old phone. If you look at the images below captured by the iPhone 13 Pro, they look like good photos, right?
But now compare the iPhone 13 Pro image to the same shot captured by the just-released Vivo X70 Pro Plus.
Look at the light sources — lanterns hanging above my friends’ heads, neon signs — and the iPhone 13 Pro over-exposed some of them. What was supposed to be a green lantern in the first pic appeared bright white in the iPhone 13 Pro image.
A common defense for iPhone’s image processing is that Apple likes to keep shots more natural and less processed, and while this is true in previous years, I don’t think this defense works this time. In the below set of shots, the iPhone completely blows out the sky compared to the same shots captured by the Galaxy S21 Ultra or Vivo X70 Pro Plus. These are not more “realistic shots,” these are just over-exposed shots, period.
I have snapped hundreds of night shots over the past week with both the iPhone 13 Pro and the Vivo X70 Pro Plus, and in almost every case, I prefer Vivo’s colors. Fine, color perception can be subjective, but there’s no denying the iPhone shot over-exposes all the lanterns and neon lights.
While iPhones had always gone with a more understated dynamic range than the poppy, very processed looks of Android brands, the iPhone 12 Pro did not consistently blow out lights and skies like this. I think this problem is specific to the fact that Apple used all-new image sensors (that take in more light) and Apple hasn’t had enough time to fine-tune the software to adapt.
The good news is I am pretty sure Apple will fix this via software updates.
Perhaps even better news is these “night shots with lots of bright city lights” is particularly noticeable where I live, because Hong Kong at night is basically Cyberpunk Central. For people living in, say, Sacramento in California or a quaint town in New Zealand, these shooting conditions won’t pop up nearly as often, and the iPhone 13 Pro cameras won’t have to deal with these issues.
And the best news? Night shots shooting bright lights is just one aspect of photography. Just as the Vivo X70 Pro Plus beats the iPhone 13 Pro in that specific aspect, the iPhone 13 Pro wins in others.
And that’s exactly where the iPhone 13 Pro excels. I still think Apple’s image processing captures the warm, cuddly vibes of cats and dogs better than Android phones; and portraits of humans tend to appear more natural, with more accurate skin tones, than the sort of photoshopped looks of Chinese and Korean phones.
And in general, when not shooting against harsh light, the iPhone 13 Pro photos are very good. There’s a general polish to the iPhone camera system that is not found in Android phones. For example, almost every Android flagship in 2021 has a slight shutter delay (the Galaxy S21 Ultra is particularly bad), while the iPhone does not. The iPhone can also zoom in and out when filming videos with a relatively smooth transition between lenses. On the Galaxy S21 Ultra or Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, there’s a jerkiness anytime you switch from ultra-wide to wide, wide to zoom. The Vivo X70 Pro Plus doesn’t let you switch between the main and ultra-wide lenses at all in the middle of filming.
The iPhone 13 Pro also captures natural selfies that are a better representation of a person than Chinese or Korean phones, which will apply a layer of skin whitening and smoothening whether the user wants it or not.
Ultimately, while I find the iPhone 13 Pro to over-expose light sources more often than before, the overall camera experience is similar to before. I’ve never considered any iPhone in the past few years to be the best still photo camera anyway. The Vivo X70 Pro Plus producing shots that appear more aesthetically pleasing to me doesn’t surprise me.
Where the iPhone 13 Pro cameras really excel over the rest is in video performance. The iPhone 13 Pro’s video footage is still the most stabilized without the micro-jitters that plague many Android phones if you’re filming and walking. Cinematic mode, I must stress again, is a game-changer for me and probably TikTok/Instagram influencers.
Here’s the iPhone 13 Pro zooming into a cat. Notice how smooth and fluid the zooming action is — you can’t get this on another Android phone. There’s always a hiccup as the Android device switch from the main camera to the zoom lens.
There’s also this new feature which Apple calls “Photographic Styles,” and it’s basically a fancier execution for filters. I tried it a few times, and every time I switched back to the default as the filters just didn’t look right to me.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro: Performance & Battery Life
The battery life on the iPhone 13 Pro is great. In two weeks of heavy use as my main phone, the device would finish a heavy 14-hour day (this would be weekends when I’m out all day using the phone heavily) with about 15% battery to spare. On lighter use days (workdays when I’m seated at a computer for a big chunk of the day), then the iPhone 13 Pro will make it to the end of a 14-hour day with about 30-40% battery life. These are both major improvements over the iPhone 12 Pro, which could not last me a heavy 14-hour day out. Apple touted major improvements for battery life in this generation of iPhones, and we’re inclined to agree with them as the iPhone 13 Pro has been great so far, arguably even better than a lot of popular Android smartphones these days.
Strong battery life is particularly welcomed on an iPhone because these phones charge relatively slow compared to an Android flagship. The iPhone 13 Pro has a maximum charging speed of 23W. I’m used to using Android flagships that can charge at 50W or higher speeds, so this feels ancient in comparison. It’s high time Apple looked at a fast-charging solution to adopt, preferably something like USB PD that it already has an accessory ecosystem for.
Is the iPhone 13 Pro worth the upgrade?
Other than the fact the iPhone 13 Pro’s over-exposure problem, everything else about the phone is polished, refined, and in top form. For me, Cinematic mode, along with improved battery life are major upgrades. If you’re an iPhone user upgrading to the 13 Pro from an older model (11 or older), you won’t be disappointed. It’s an excellent iPhone, and even the best one this year if it wasn’t for the better battery life on the iPhone 13 Pro Max.
However, those who already own the iPhone 12 Pro should think twice before upgrading. Unless you really want to shoot cinematic videos or suffer from battery anxiety regularly, the iPhone 13 Pro doesn’t bring enough upgrades to justify the purchase. Plus, with the recent rumors of the iPhone 14 getting a new design overhaul, perhaps it’s worth waiting one more year.
If you are already using a 2020 or 2021 Android flagship, I don’t think you need to switch unless you’ve been frustrated by your phone’s video recording capabilities or battery life.
Ultimately, Apple’s iPhones are sort of review-proof. They’re ubiquitous, almost must-own products for a major chunk of the world, so they are likely the default upgrade options for anyone on an old iPhone.