iPhone 13 Review: Good value, but not as great as the Pros
Most of us at XDA agreed last year that the standard iPhone 12 was the best iPhone option for most people because the differences between it and the iPhone 12 Pro mostly came down to a single telephoto camera, which wasn’t enough to justify the extra $200 in our opinions. But this year, Apple widened the gap between the Pro and non-Pro iPhones by giving the iPhone 13 Pro several more features than the standard iPhone 13, while keeping the price gap between models the same as last year.
Is the standard iPhone 13 still the best iPhone for most people?
Navigate this review:
- Hardware & Design
- iPhone 13 vs iPhone 13 Pro: What are the differences … and do they matter?
- The Pro over-exposure problem
- Low light shots
- Zoom shots
- Cinematic Mode
- Battery life and other bits
Click to expand: Apple iPhone 13 Series Specifications
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 me all four iPhones to test. This review was written after using the iPhone 13 as my main phone for six days, and as my secondary phone for another week. Apple did not have input in this review.
iPhone 13: Hardware & Design
The iPhone 13 continues the boxy, flat sides design language Apple is introducing across all of its devices. It’s got a 6.1-inch OLED screen interrupted by a notch. The front side is covered by what Apple calls “Ceramic Shield” technology.
Around the back, we have a slightly glossy glass back (but still doesn’t attract fingerprints as much as, say, an iPhone X or Galaxy S10) with a dual-camera system consisting of a 12MP main (wide) lens and a 12MP ultra-wide lens. Both rear cameras’ sensors are new and larger than the iPhone 12’s sensors.
The flat railing around the iPhone 13 is crafted out of aluminum and it has a matte finish that I prefer over the Pro’s glossy stainless steel railings. But I’ll elaborate on the differences between the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro in the next section.Inside the iPhone 13 is the A15 Bionic silicon, and it’s the most powerful mobile SoC hands-down. Whether in real-world scenarios (like exporting/rendering videos) or benchmark numbers, it beats the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888+ quite easily. Apple’s A15 Bionic bleeding-edge processing power is also what makes the new “Cinematic mode” possible. This is one area where Apple truly leads heads and shoulders above the rest. And with the iPhone 13 series, you get the same chip across all four phones, so there are no real compromises to be had in choosing a cheaper phone over the other. You can read more about the performance in our iPhone 13 Pro review.
Apple does not disclose RAM or battery size, but thanks to third-party teardowns, we know the iPhone 13 runs on 4GB of RAM and a 3,240 mAh cell. Both of these numbers are small compared to Android phones but worry not — the iPhone 13’s UI zips around fine and battery life is strong. This is another testament to the A15 Bionic’s efficiency and Apple’s unrivaled hardware-software synergy.
Overall the iPhone 13 is light at 174g and sort of easy to hold. I say “sort of” because the iPhone 13 is still slightly wide at 71.5mm (2.81-inches) horizontally, so the hard corners of the flat sides will still dig into your palm. There’s just no getting around this: flat sides with angular corners do not feel as comfortable in the palm as rounded, curvy sides (like on the iPhone 11 or almost every Android).
Let’s elaborate on the screen a bit more: the 2,340 x 1,080 panel looks great, with a maximum brightness of 1,200 nits. It refreshes at 60 Hz only, but Apple’s 60Hz is better optimized than Android’s 60Hz in my opinion, so animations and UI fluidity doesn’t feel as outdated as, say, picking up a 60Hz Android device today.
The notch is smaller, but it almost doesn’t matter because Apple’s UI does not take advantage of the extra space. You’re still getting the same number of icons and information in the areas next to the notch. The only time you will “see more” is if you’re watching a video that’s zoomed in to expand the entire screen.
iPhone 13 vs iPhone 13 Pro: What are the differences … and do they matter?
As mentioned, there are a myriad of differences between the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro:
- Chassis material: iPhone 13 uses an aluminum frame; iPhone 13 Pro uses a stainless steel frame
- GPU: iPhone 13 has a four-core GPU; iPhone 13 Pro has a five-core GPU
- Weight: iPhone 13 weighs 174g; iPhone 13 Pro weighs 204g
- Screen refresh rate: iPhone 13 display has a 60Hz refresh rate; iPhone 13 Pro display has a variable refresh rate up to 120Hz
- Camera array: iPhone 13 has two rear cameras (wide and ultra-wide); iPhone 13 Pro has three rear cameras (wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto)
- Camera image sensor size: iPhone 13’s wide camera uses a smaller image sensor than iPhone 13 Pro’s wide camera image sensor
- Camera aperture: iPhone 13’s ultra-wide camera has a slower aperture than iPhone 13 Pro’s ultra-wide camera
- Macro mode: iPhone 13 has no macro mode; the iPhone 13 Pro’s ultra-wide lens can double as a macro sensor
- Battery capacity: iPhone 13’s 3,227 mAh battery is larger than the iPhone 13 Pro’s 3,095 mAh
Everything else not mentioned above is identical across the two phones: selfie camera hardware, CPU, software, overall dimensions, etc. Whether these differences matter should vary from person to person. I’ll share my opinions on whether they matter to me:
- Chassis material: The stainless steel frame should be sturdier in theory, but when we drop our phones we are likely more concerned with the screen’s durability than the frame? I also like the look and feel of the matte coating Apple gave to its aluminum frame than the glossy, fingerprint-magnet stainless steel material.
- GPU: The Apple A15 Bionic is already complete overkill for a smartphone SoC, I’m not sure the extra GPU brings many benefits unless you do heavy, serious mobile gaming or video editing sessions.
- Weight: I find the iPhone 13 easier to hold because it’s 30g lighter.
- Screen refresh rate: Right now, the differences between 120Hz and 60Hz on the iPhones are minor, because it’s only really noticeable in first-party apps thanks to a bug. Apple has promised to open up 120Hz to all apps, so I think this will matter down the line. High refresh rates are always good.
- Camera array: Before this year, I would say the non-Pro iPhones skipping the telephoto zoom lens is fine because Apple’s previous 2x telephoto zoom was mediocre anyway. But this year, Apple improved the Pro telephoto cameras to 3x optical and 15x digital zoom, so I think it matters. I enjoy zooming 5x, 10x into things around the city. The standard iPhone 13’s digital zoom looks bad beyond 2x.
- Camera image sensor size: The 13 Pro having larger image sensors matter if you enjoy natural bokeh when shooting objects up close, or if you take low light photos often. The iPhone 13 will have to resort to night mode more often. The good news is Apple’s night mode works seamlessly, and well.
- Camera aperture: The iPhone 13 ultrawide’s slower aperture means that in low light conditions, it will have to resort to night mode more often than not. This matters to me, but I’m guessing not many.
- Macro mode: Being able to get closer to an object/subject when shooting or filming is important, so I’d say it matters that the iPhone 13 omits the macro shooting capability.
- Battery capacity: Despite the difference in battery size, I find battery life between the standard iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro to be similar — I think the variable refresh rate of the Pro models helps it conserve battery.
iPhone 13: Cameras
As mentioned earlier, the iPhone 13’s rear cameras gain larger sensors compared to last year’s iPhone 12 cameras, but the increase in size is not as significant as what the iPhone 13 Pro got. In other words, the iPhone 13’s main camera sensor is larger, but still smaller than the iPhone 13 Pro’s main camera sensor.
A larger sensor size brings two benefits: it pulls in more light, which benefits night photography/videography, and larger sensors bring shallower depth-of-field, which creates stronger separation between an object and background. The latter is noticeably in the below samples.
You can see the iPhone 13 Pro’s image shows the strongest natural bokeh, creating a sense of depth separation between the camera and the things behind it (soda can, iPhone box, and plant). The iPhone 12, with the smallest sensor of the three, has the faintest amount of bokeh, resulting in an image that looks flatter. The iPhone 13 is somewhere in between — while there’s decent bokeh for the plant, the soda can and iPhone box are not as nicely separated from the camera.
For the most part, if you are shooting in ideal conditions (good lighting that’s not too harsh), iPhone 13’s dual-camera system produces great images that look very close to the iPhone 13 Pro in quality. The iPhone’s selfie camera is mostly the same as before, it produces shots with consistent balance and natural skin tones without any of the beautifying tricks that Android brands resort to.
The Pro over-exposure problemIn my review of the iPhone 13 Pro, I highlighted the fact that the phone has a tendency to over-expose in certain situations. This is particularly noticeable when shooting high-contrast scenes, like neon lights-drenched Hong Kong night scenes, or shooting towards the sun on a sunny day. I concluded the problem was likely due to Apple dealing with new, larger sensors and not having had enough time to fine-tune software yet.
I’m happy to report the problem is less severe on the standard iPhone 13, ironically because the iPhone 13’s camera hardware is not as powerful as the Pro’s. Both the iPhone 13’s main and ultra-wide cameras have smaller image sensors than the Pro’s and in the case of the ultra-wide, the 13 shooter has a slower aperture too (all of which means the iPhone 13 cameras take in less light than the 13 Pro).
You should be able to see in the above samples that the iPhone 13 Pro blows out the sky in the first set and neon light logo in the second set. The iPhone 13 image, ironically, looks slightly better because its image sensor is smaller. But this is a niche situation (I purposely shot against the sun to test exposure in the first set). For the most part, the Pro cameras will be better as soon as the sun sets, or if we step indoors and the lighting isn’t perfect.
Low light shots
So the iPhone 13’s cameras do not take in as much light as the Pro models, but the iPhone’s night mode is still so good. Night mode kicks in seamlessly, for example, unlike many Android phones which require you to swipe a few times to turn it on. When you let night mode work its magic, the iPhone 13’s low-light image can look almost as good as the 13 Pro. But if you turn off night mode, then you can see the iPhone 13 Pro’s main camera produces a brighter image.
This is even more noticeable if shooting with the ultra-wide. If we don’t use night mode, the iPhone 13’s ultra-wide produces a far darker shot.
Now you might be asking “if night mode is so good then why bother testing without night mode?”. Well, night mode isn’t always ideal. Because you have to wait 2-3 seconds for night mode to capture, that means if you’re shooting action scenes, or shots with lots of moving things, night mode could produce a wonky blurry shot. Ultimately, night mode is good insurance, it’s still better to just have a camera that can natively take in more light.
Since the iPhone 13 doesn’t have a zoom lens at all, this means any zooming will be digital zoom, and Apple caps it at 5x. In other words, don’t expect much: any phone with a zoom lens will produce sharper zoom images than the iPhone 13.
As I wrote earlier: the iPhone 12 missing the zoom lens last year wasn’t that big of a deal because the iPhone 12 Pro only had a mediocre 2x zoom lens anyway. But the iPhone 13 Pro this year got a big upgrade to a 3x zoom lens (with a larger sensor) that can digitally zoom up to 15x. So compared to the Pro this year, the iPhone 13’s lack of zoom is a more glaring omission.
The best new camera feature to the iPhone 13 in my opinion is “Cinematic mode.” I’ve written about this feature in several articles already, and the gist of it is that it’s portrait mode for video: when you film a clip in Cinematic mode, you can choose to focus on an object/subject in the foreground or background, and then Apple’s A15 Bionic will use its neural engine to process the scene and produce an artificial bokeh (blur) in the out-of-focus areas.
This feature is not perfect — trained eyes will be able to spot it’s not a real bokeh from a real full-frame camera right away — but it’s good enough in certain conditions that it does add cinematic flair to what otherwise used to be flat-looking smartphone videos. The ability to change focus points on the fly also allows the iPhone 13 to pull off a “rack focus,” — a cinematic trick in which the focus shifts from an object/subject in the foreground to background (and vice versa).
iPhone 13: Software
The iPhone 13, like all the other iPhone 13 models, run iOS 15 out of the box, but within days, it received an update to iOS 15.1. This newest version of iOS is mostly an iterative upgrade over iOS 14, bringing the same visual elements and changes, such as the App Library (Apple’s version of the Android app drawer) and widgets on the homescreen.
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. FaceTime is not widely used in Hong Kong, but from my testing it works.
There are minor visual overhauls, like a redesigned notification panel that will display contact photos, as well as larger app icons. But let’s face it, iOS’ handling of notifications is still inferior compared to Android.
There’s a new Focus mode in iOS 15 that essentially allows you to set specific profiles (like “work,” “weekend,” “night”) and then allow only specific contacts and apps to reach you when you’re in that mode.
One of the more useful new additions to iOS 15 is its spotlight search can now search within the photos you’ve taken too. For example, I can search “photos Los Angeles” and it will show me photos I’ve taken while in Los Angeles, directly within the search results.
Overall, iOS is a smooth and fast OS with the best app ecosystem as well as the best third-party accessory ecosystem around. However, most of my gripes with iOS are still here. The lack of a truly free homescreen grid, the inability to get rid of notification bubbles, the fact that I have to swipe all the way from the upper right corner to access control center.
iPhone 13: Battery life and other bits
The battery life on the iPhone 13 is great, thanks to the larger cell. In a week of use, the phone can last me a full 14-hour day consistently, with only really heavy usage weekend days resulting in me needing to top up before my night is finished. Apple promised better battery life, and it did deliver. Surprisingly, there is not much of a difference in battery life between the iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 Pro: I expected the regular device to last longer, but it’s just about the same on both. The variable refresh rate on the iPhone 13 Pro (and the iOS bug limiting the higher refresh rate to just Apple apps) helps the Pro conserve battery. So there’s no real and immediate battery benefit in getting the regular iPhone 13 over the iPhone 13 Pro.
Gaming and watching videos on the iPhone 13 is a solid experience. Obviously, the phone is powerful enough to handle any game, and the stereo speakers sound excellent. But I find the 6.1-inch screen with a notch a bit cramped, likely because I’m usually using a 6.7-inch Android with a hole-punch instead.
iPhone 13 Conclusion: Good value, but it’s clearly the little brother this time around
At a time when every top Android flagship reaches or well surpasses the four-digit price range, the iPhone 13’s $799 starting price can be considered a very good value, especially since Apple has doubled the base storage this year to 128GB instead. Is the iPhone 13 worth the wait for older iPhone users? It is.
However, while last year’s iPhone 12 kept close enough to the 12 Pro in features and power, this year’s iPhone 13 is clearly a level below the iPhone 13 Pro. It’s one thing to lose out on the zoom lens, but to also lose the macro lens, 120Hz refresh rate, and noticeably smaller image sensors? This makes the iPhone 13 not quite an Apple flagship. It’s an almost-flagship, the way the Galaxy S21 and Pixel 5 are almost-flagships to my (admittedly very nitpicky) eyes.
The iPhone 13 Pro is the phone that truly shows off what Apple wanted to flex this year. But if you really cannot (or refuse to) pay more than $800, then the standard iPhone 13 is still a fine option. You’re still getting the best SoC and video capabilities in the smartphone space.