NEW Apple iPhone 13 Pro review

"If it ain't broke then don't fix it," as the saying goes - but that's not something Apple fans, pining for more innovation, more wow factor, will want to hear. 

So will such fans be able to cope with that approach from Apple in 2021 with the iPhone 13 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro Max - a phone that seems to be more about minor refinements over the previous generation than any huge changes? Upgraders might not be best pleased, but those who are in the market for the ultimate iPhone might think otherwise.

Design & Display

  • 6.1-inch 'Super Retina' XDR OLED, 2532 x 1170 resolution (460ppi), 1200nits max brightness
  • Apple ProMotion display technology (adaptive 10-120Hz refresh rate)
  • Four colour options: Graphite, Gold, Silver, Sierra Blue
  • Dimensions: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.65mm / Weight: 204g
  • Stainless steel and glass materials 

For all intents and purposes the iPhone 13's design is the same as its predecessor. It could easily have been called the iPhone 12S for its lack of differences, really, but there are changes for those who look closely enough.

On the front the notch that houses the front-facing camera, Face ID smarts, and other sensors, has shrunk by around 20 per cent - delivering a much narrower yet taller cut-out.

Meanwhile the rear sees the camera enclosure - which still houses three main camera lenses - become larger and protrude ever so slightly more than previously, meaning your iPhone 11 or iPhone 12 cases won't fit.

Those changes, plus a slight increase in battery capacity, mean the iPhone 13 Pro is now also heavier than earlier iterations. It's now almost twice the weight of the iPhone 5 - if you can remember that far back - but the circa-200g weight isn't too unwieldy by any means. How times have changed, eh?

Available in four grown-up colours - there's Graphite, Gold, Silver, and Sierra Blue - "going pro" means you can't be too colourful. There's no Pink or Starlight options here, thank you very much, you'll have to look to the iPhone 13 mini for that.

The iPhone 13 Pro's design is familiar, but it's also robust - something that's backed up by the IP68 water- and dust-resistant rating and new tougher glass.

The big change in terms of the iPhone 13 Pro's display is the introduction of Apple's ProMotion technology - as first introduced to the iPad Pro range in 2017 - for the first time in any iPhone.

This technology allows the display to automatically adapt the refresh rate to match the content on the screen. It starts at 10Hz and goes all the way up to 120Hz, just like you'll find in most Android phones from the last couple of years, adapted depending on the kind of content that's on the display. Older screens would typically be 60Hz only, so you're getting a potential doubling of frames for enhanced smoothness.

That 120Hz top number is particularly exciting for gamers because it can result in smoother graphics, depending on the game. The benefits can also be seen elsewhere, such as when you're doom scrolling on social media, surfing the web, or generally using any app that has plenty of on-screen movement.

It certainly makes for a smoother experience, although just as some people can't see the benefits of Ultra-HD over HD until it's pointed out, some possibly won't notice the upgrade they are enjoying. Side-by-side with the iPhone 12 Pro you absolutely will, but that's not how these devices are used in real life.

ProMotion is yet another refinement to what is already a very good display, but perhaps not as noticeable as if Apple had given the iPhone 13 Pro's display an always-on option, or added Apple Pencil stylus support for those who are keen to take notes just like they can on an iPad.

Beyond ProMotion the iPhone 13 Pro features many of the usual Apple display tech buzzwords to deliver a sharp and vivid experience that makes everything pop: wide colour (DCI-P3 gamut), True Tone, a 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio, and up to 1,200 nits maximum brightness for those high dynamic range (HDR) playback moments. That means it's pretty much all here - there isn't a screen tech that Apple currently offers that isn't on this roster.

Hardware & Performance

  • 128/256/512GB/1TB storage sizes
  • Wireless charging and MagSafe
  • A15 Bionic processor
  • 5G and Wi-Fi 6

A new processor - the A15 Bionic - powers the iPhone 13 Pro experience, but it's getting harder and harder to see the speed increases between generations. Apple has been vague as to how much improvement there really is to be seen against previous models - and our basic tests suggest it is only around 15 per cent faster than the previous iPhone 12 Pro (as powered by the A14 Bionic processor).

Getting technical for a moment: the A15 processor featured here is different to the A15 found in the standard iPhone 13 or 13 mini thanks to the addition of an extra graphical processing unit (GPU) - it's five cores versus four - but in reality you aren't going to see that in most real-life use-cases.

Remember refinement is the name of the game here. And the A15 is plenty fast and efficient. Apps load quickly. Crazy computational stuff in photos and videos all functions seamlessly. In short: the iPhone 13 Pro is unlikely to struggle with any task at hand.

Beyond the processor not much has changed though. There are four storage sizes: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and now a new 1TB option to fill up. Be cautious in which one you choose, though, as those looking to take advantage of the yet-to-be-released ProRes - a high-quality video compression format - will want to opt for 256GB of storage or more to get 4K recording. Why? It's down to file sizes. ProRes needs around 6GB for a single minute of footage. Buy the 128GB handset and you'll be restricted to 1080p recordings, not 4K.

As before there's 5G, Wi-FI 6 (802.11ax), Bluetooth, Apple's U1 chip for spatial awareness, and wireless MagSafe charging to keep it all powered. Those who want eSIM or Dual SIM support get that too. 

Apple might have all but made the transition to USB-C on the iPad range (the standard iPad is still holding out though) but hasn't yet made the move for iPhone just yet. There is still a Lightning port at the bottom of the phone tucked in-between the two speaker grilles. Maybe USB-C will come into play for the iPhone 14, we'll just have to wait and see...

Cameras

  • Quad rear cameras:
    • Main (26mm): 12-megapixels, f/1.5 aperture, 1.9µm pixel size, dual pixel autofocus (PDAF), sensor-shift stabilisation (OIS)
    • Ultra-wide (0.5x; 13mm): 12MP, f/1.8, PDAF
    • Zoom (3x; 77mm): 12MP, f/2.8, PDAF, OIS
    • LiDAR scanner
  • Macro mode, Night Mode, Cinematic Video mode, Photographic Styles
  • ProRes support 'coming soon'

Apple continues to focus on the camera experience with the iPhone 13 Pro, offering new photography modes, filters, and video options. It's here where iPhone 12 Pro users will notice the most change.

As previously there are three main lenses on the back, alongside a flash and LiDAR sensor, and the cameras are housed in a slightly larger enclosure that protrudes even more from the back than ever before - the iPhone 13 Pro no longer sits flat on our Belkin wireless charger, for example - because there are tweaks to maximum aperture values and zoom in the newer device.

All three sensors offer 12-megapixel resolutions, however the lenses deliver three very different shooting options: ultra-wide, standard wide, and tele zoom. The combination of these also delivers an almost seamless 6x zoom - optically speaking the tele is only 3x though - as you zoom through the various lenses unaware that you're changing camera systems as you do so. 

It's only when the iPhone 13 Pro automatically switches to the new macro feature that you notice anything different on the screen - only for a split second, but it's still something that can be a little jarring at times. Macro allows you to shoot from just 2cm away from your subject and opens the door to the world of close-up photography for those who are interested.

The three new lenses do more than just let you zoom in on the action too. The improved apertures mean more light can get in, which means a quicker shutter response is plausible, which can help in reducing image blur - especially in lower-light conditions.

Helping things further is dual optical image stabilisation and sensor-shift stabilisation, and that's before you start to factor in all the computational fixes Apple is applying with that new A15 Bionic processor. 

The results are impressive, with photos being sharp and detailed. Not to mention it's almost effortless to shoot, which is one of Apple's big strengths against the competition. No, it might not have the highest of resolutions, but you won't be worried about that given the ease of use. Whether that's shooting on a bright and sunny day, or when it's overcast, or in low-light conditions, we've yet to experience any issues.

Apple has also taken things a step further with something it's calling Photography Styles. More than just filters that you can apply to a photo before or after the fact, this considers the layers within a photo, so it only applies the filter to the elements that it deems needs application, helping to protect things like skin tones.

There are four Photography Styles to select from - Rich Contrast, Vibrant, Warm, and Cool - with the ability to customise the settings even further to suit your style. Although be warned: you can only apply the feature ahead of taking a picture and once taken you can't remove it. Thankfully the results are subtle, so you're not going to end up with a ruinous bleach bypass effect or anything like that.

Perhaps the biggest new shout-about feature is Cinematic mode. Much like a Portrait mode for video, it applies the blur effect to foreground objects in addition to background ones, so your subjects' faces remain in focus as they move around the frame, softly blurring everything else to give you a pronounced depth-of-field. Automatically selected by default, this mode also allows you to change the focus as you shoot, or edit afterward via an interface. 

The results can be good but certainly not always perfect. Much like Portrait mode for stills, the blur is prone to getting excessive at times, which can make a complete mess of things. Multiple faces in a shot can confuse the system, for example, as can other objects as it tries to lock onto all potential subjects. When it gets it right the results are very impressive, but be prepared for it to get it equally wrong. Thankfully you can remove or reduce the effect if it hasn't worked out how you wanted. Our gut feeling is that this mode will only be used by a handful of users rather than the masses.

Battery life

  • Fast-charging via optional 20W charger
  • 1.5 more hours battery life than iPhone 12 Pro

If you've had an iPhone before then you'll know that in the first week it's always hard to determine the capabilities of the battery. Installing apps and downloading thousands of images can be a demanding process for starters, while multiple battery cycles are helpful to let the device settle in.

Still, the iPhone 13 Pro claims to deliver around 1.5 hours more battery life per charge compared to the iPhone 12 Pro was capable of delivering. You'll also be able to charge the phone up to 50 per cent in just 30 minutes if you use an optional 20W adapter - it's slightly slower using the 15W MagSafe charger. 

In our usage so far battery life is good, with the usual culprits like 5G, 4K video, games, and social media apps continuing to be the most demanding. A full day out filming and photographing at a local fête meant we were down to 10 per cent battery by 10pm. That's not the end of the world, but add 5G into the mix and some social media and you'll be hard pushed to get to the next morning.

5G really does need a lot of power, something we became all too aware of having used the iPhone 12 Pro for the last year. The extra battery in the iPhone 13 Pro is welcomed - an essential, really - but if you like burning the midnight oil and using your iPhone heaps, then you'll still have to build in backup charging plans to be safe.

Software

  • iOS 15

The Apple iPhone 13 Pro runs on iOS 15, which is available for all iPhone devices (from the iPhone 6S and later). There are a few extra features on the iPhone 13 series that you won't find on older models, however, like the Cinematic video mode and the Photographic Styles in the camera app, but otherwise the experience is a familiar one.

You can read about all the changes that the software build brings in our separate feature, but the one thing we would say is that we're pleasantly surprised by how much we like the slimmer and more timely delivered notifications on the lock screen, plus how quickly we've got used to the Safari browser's URL bar moving. Give it a chance - sometimes change is good.

Verdict

"That looks like your last phone," was the comment we got when showing family members the new iPhone 13 Pro. And they would be right. Unless you look closely, you'll be hard pushed to notice the differences over its predecessor.

Start to use the iPhone 13 Pro, however, and you'll slowly begin to notice those small but important changes. The increased battery life is an obvious benefit, the smoother screen experience is great (and the more entry iPhone 13 lacks this ProMotion feature), and that updated notch is less noticeable too. It's just all-round better.

Ultimately it feels like Apple's 2021 iPhones are all about refining rather than offering anything brand new. While that's not exciting for those eager to get all the new toys and tech, the iPhone 13 Pro is still as a refined an Apple phone as you can buy - so if you're in the market for an upgrade from an older generation then it'll feel genuinely impressive.

Also consider

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

The larger sibling brings a bigger battery - it claims to deliver an extra hour on top of the 13 Pro's performance - and a bigger 6.7-inch screen, but otherwise the specs are identical. If you want a big screen then it's the one to go for.

Apple iPhone 13 

If the Pro sounds a bit over the top then you could easily opt for the more consumer-friendly iPhone 13. It has many of the same features, but loses the ProMotion screen and one of the cameras (that zoom-capable telephoto).

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