The iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max are phones designed for people who care about the details. The improvements over last year’s iPhones are significant but not obvious at first glance.
Just as with the regular iPhone 13 and 13 Mini, the most important upgrades on the 13 Pro are to battery life and the camera system. The 13 Pro adds a third major improvement with a high refresh rate screen.
Upgrading the battery, camera, and screen sounds like an iterative, yearly update; they sound like the so-called “S” updates that Apple used to do for iPhones before its naming schemes became unpredictable. And it is true that the design is virtually identical to that of last year’s iPhone 12 Pros. But those assumptions — those words — don’t quite do justice to how big the changes really are.
Updated on October 5th, 2021 to include results from longer-term testing with the iPhone 13 Pro Max.
iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max battery
The change that’s most likely to make the biggest impact for the most people is battery life. Apple is happy to tell you that the battery improvements come from a constellation of updates, including increased efficiency in the new A15 Bionic processor and changes to how the new display uses power. I am sure all that is true, but I’m just as sure that the biggest contributor is simply that the batteries are bigger than last year.
The 13 Pro has an 11 percent larger battery, and the 13 Pro Max’s battery is an astonishing 18.5 percent larger. Apple’s quoted improvements over the 12 Pro models are one and a half hours more usage on the 13 Pro and two and a half hours on the 13 Pro Max — and the 12 Pro Max was already a battery life monster.
The battery life improvement isn’t complicated; it’s a bigger battery
I’ve only had the phones for a little less than a week, so I focused most of my use on the smaller iPhone 13 Pro as a kind of worst-case test. And my results are in line with Apple’s claims. On a day when we really pushed the phone with lots of 4K video and max brightness on the screen, it still lasted from early morning to 11PM with 20 percent remaining — with somewhere north of four hours of very heavy use in the screen time tracking app. A day with less intense usage clocked me at seven hours of screen on time before the low battery warning kicked in.
As for the iPhone 13 Pro Max: it is a beast. I can’t seem to kill this phone off in a day without intentionally shooting a ton of 4K video. It lasts even longer than last year’s Pro Max. I normally hesitate to enthuse about battery life because people’s phone usage can vary so much, but I can confidently tell you that the 13 Pro Max will get most people well into their second day. That extra battery adds some weight, but I think it’s worth it.
Bottom line: I have much more confidence walking out of the house for a long day without carrying an external battery pack. For me, the line a smartphone needs to cross is that I trust I can get through a normal day without battery anxiety. Both the 13 Pro and the 13 Pro Max easily get there.
iPhone 13 Pro design and specs
Last year was a big design update for the iPhone, with flat sides, 5G, and MagSafe charging. This year’s models inherit all of that, changing the design in only minor ways. The most obvious one is the notch on the screen. It’s slightly smaller, but only horizontally — it still pushes down into what you’re looking at to the same degree. Apple also didn’t do anything with that extra space at the top, meaning you still can’t see your battery percentage without pulling down the control center.
The other design change is that the new iPhones are almost imperceptibly heavier and also thicker across the entire body compared to last year’s models. But the camera bumps on both phones are significantly bigger, which means that 12 Pro cases are not going to fit on the 13 Pro. I think the tradeoffs are worth it for the improved battery life and camera system.
The design is virtually identical to the iPhone 12 Pro models
Unlike many Android phones with gently curving displays at the edges, Apple does still have a small bezel around the screen. The rails on the edges are glossy stainless steel that pick up fingerprints, the glass on the back is a smooth matte. The front uses Apple’s Ceramic Shield finish to prevent cracks, and the camera lenses are sapphire. It’s a beautiful phone, and I think it’s a huge step up from the curved sides we’ve seen on iPhones from the 6 all the way up through the 11.
The important spec outside of the camera system and the screen is the new A15 Bionic processor, which is indeed fast. But as always with iPhones, the primary purpose of that speed is ensuring the phone will still feel fast in years to come, not making it seem faster than last year’s device. There are a bunch of camera features that seem to be enabled by the A15, however. I’ll also just point out that the 13 Pro models get five GPU cores to the regular 13’s four, but that extra core doesn’t seem to enable anything specific beyond more speed.
Base storage still starts at 128GB, but at the top end, there’s a new 1TB option. That is a ridiculous amount of storage for a phone, but if you’re planning on shooting a bunch of ProRes video, then it might be something to actually consider. Screen sizes and resolutions are the same: 6.1 inches at 1170 x 2532 pixels for the 13 Pro and 6.7 inches at 1284 x 2778 pixels for the 13 Pro Max.
In terms of networking, Apple is focused on expanding support for Mid-Band 5G — the kind that will actually matter more than the UWB version that’s only really available on certain street corners. All that really means is that in the US, the 13 Pro is ready for a 5G future that could come if carriers keep their promises (they haven’t so far, but maybe next year). As usual, if you travel a lot, you should keep an eye on the bands available on the several variants that are sold in different regions.
Finally, although I know it’s a lost cause and that I sound like a broken record, I still believe that Apple should switch the iPhone from the Lightning connector to USB-C. I also still believe Apple made a mistake by not taking advantage of the obvious opportunities to do so with the big iPhone X and iPhone 12 redesigns. I understand the reasons why it hasn’t switched, and I disagree with them. Especially on a “Pro” phone, the standard cable would be incredibly convenient and useful for both charging and connecting other accessories without adapters.
iPhone 13 Pro cameras
The camera systems on the iPhone 13 Pro and the 13 Pro Max are identical this year, which means you don’t have to buy the bigger and more expensive phone to get the best photos. And I do mean best photos because there isn’t another phone on the market that can match the iPhone 13 Pro. (Google’s upcoming Pixel 6 hasn’t been released as of writing this, of course, but it will have its work cut out for it.)
Apple’s marketing for the camera system on the 13 Pro is that it’s the “biggest advancement ever.” I don’t know that I would go that far, but I also can’t remember the last time I’ve said “whoa, look at this photo” as many times as I have during this review.
The best cameras on a smartphone
I will start, however, by pointing out that this camera system is one of the things I’m referring to when I say that the 13 Pro is a phone for people who pay attention to the details. In bright sunlight or normal light, the pictures these phones take are very hard to distinguish from the iPhone 13 or even the iPhone 12. In good lighting, almost any high-end smartphone is very competent these days.
Where the Pro 13 camera system shines is in low light. The main wide-angle sensor has seen a massive upgrade this year. Unlike Android phones that are chasing big megapixel counts and then “pixel binning” to achieve low light performance, Apple is sticking with 12 megapixels, the same resolution it’s used since 2015’s iPhone 6S. The sensor itself is much bigger now and features 1.9 µm pixels, which are about as big as anything we’ve seen on a smartphone. And on top of all that, the lens now has an f/1.5 aperture.
All of that adds up to a camera that can very quickly take in a massive amount of light relative to other phones. Combined with some tuning and improvements to Apple’s computational photography, the low light performance on the 13 Pro is simply second to none.
There’s less image noise in low light and more dynamic range in low and even medium light. Apple also tells me it has adjusted how it handles the black point, so shadow exposure is more accurate now, too — the 13 Pro is just more willing to let darks be dark while accurately exposing lighter areas. In situations the 12 Pro would aggressively hop into night mode and lighten everything up, the 13 Pro often doesn’t need night mode. And when the 13 Pro does drop into night mode, it goes through that exposure process twice as quickly.
We used this word last year in our 12 Pro Max review, but I think it applies even more this year. The camera on the 13 Pro is confident. As computational photography has become the norm over the past few years, I have seen lots of camera systems — including on the iPhone — just sort of panic and do the wrong things with exposure or tone. The iPhone 13 Pro has almost never done that in my testing.
Let’s bring things back to earth. Will most people notice the quality difference between the 13 Pro and the regular iPhone 13 or even last year’s iPhones? Most of the time, I think the answer is actually no. On phone screens, you really have to zoom in and pixel peep to see it. But if there’s any place where I think it makes sense to call an iPhone “Pro” as in “for professionals,” I think this main wide angle camera is it.
The ultrawide camera also got an upgrade in terms of taking in more light, but it’s not as dramatic a difference. A more interesting upgrade is adding autofocus to that camera, which allows it to pick up a new trick: macro photography.
When you bring the phone in close to a subject, you can see the camera frame switch over to the ultrawide when it’s about 10cm away. It tries to keep the same basic framing with a crop, but apparently, not everybody is enthused: Apple emailed us the night before the review to say it would ship a software update later with an option to disable the automatic switchover. Then you can keep pushing in until you’re as close as 2cm away and still have an in-focus shot. The photos it takes are better than the bespoke, throwaway macro lenses on many Android phones these days. It’s a fun feature.
The wide angle camera has gotten the most impressive upgrade, but my favorite is the new telephoto lens. Apple has set it to a 3X zoom, the equivalent of a 77mm focal length and up from the 2.5X / 65mm in the 12 Pro Max. That extended zoom does mean that it drops to an f/2.8 aperture (from f/2.2), but whatever low light losses that entails are more than made up for by the addition of night mode for this lens. Apple isn’t playing the superzoom 100X game; instead, it’s focusing on quality at the 3X optical zoom for things like portrait photography.
And that quality is incredible. I simply love taking photos of people with the telephoto at 3X now, getting a natural bokeh effect without having to engage the software portrait mode. The telephoto lens gets the award this year for most improved.
Apple has held the crown for best smartphone video for a very long time now, challenged (but not losing) only briefly by the Samsung Galaxy Ultra series phones in the last year or two. This year, video quality is simply amazing, at least on the wide angle camera. That larger sensor and the fact that it’s using sensor-based stabilization instead of just OIS makes for stable and beautiful footage even in low light.
Apple will also let you shoot video in ProRes this year. I didn’t have much time to test that, and ProRes isn’t really a part of our video workflow. But it’s there if you buy an iPhone that has enough storage to handle it.
I’ll state it plainly because it bears repeating: the iPhone 13 Pro has the best camera system on any smartphone available as of this writing.
Apple has added two new camera modes to this year’s iPhones, both Pro and regular. Each is fascinating in its own way. Cinematic Mode is essentially Portrait Mode but for video, while Picture Profiles change the default way the iPhone takes photos. Picture Profiles are particularly interesting because they serve almost as an admission that Apple is feeling competitive pressure from the likes of Samsung and Google, so let’s start there.
Profiles are a new setting in the camera app that change the way your photos look by default. So instead of applying a filter after the photo is taken, you can set your iPhone to have a specific kind of “look” right away. In fact, Apple insists that Profiles are not filters at all, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
The default options for Profiles include Standard, Rich Contrast, Vibrant, Warm, and Cool. Each one has its own little sliders that you can manually tweak for both Tone and Warmth. If you tweak those sliders, the name of that profile cleverly changes to match your settings (my personal favorite name is “Rich Cool,” because I imagine that’s Apple’s target demographic). When you set one of these profiles, it becomes the new default way the camera takes pictures, though it will also pop up a button that lets you toggle it off. (The button is also clever, the way it looks changes based on what profile you’ve set).
The TL;DR for Profiles is that “Rich Contrast” makes the iPhone’s photos look more like a Google Pixel, with bluer tones and deeper contrast. And “Vibrant” makes the iPhone look more like a Samsung phone, with more extreme colors all around.
Historically, Apple has insisted that what it aims for in photography is the “truth” of what your eye would see. I will (regretfully) set aside philosophical questions about the nature of objective reality and what a photograph is and instead just point out that it’s fair to say that when it comes to photography, Apple is much less opinionated than the competition. Samsung and Google are both more willing to tune their images to be more pleasing to their customers than Apple is. With Profiles, Apple is essentially giving its customers the option to get pictures they like better without having to edit them after the shot.
Understanding how Profiles actually works is a little complicated. Apple’s computational photography process is called Smart HDR, and what it does is standard across many phones these days: it takes a bunch of photos at different exposures all at once and then combines them into a single, final image. Part of that process involves making choices about white balance, color, contrast, and so on. Another part of that process is the iPhone semantically recognizing different things in the scene — things like faces, people, grass, sky, cats, or whatever and exposing them differently.
When you set a profile, the iPhone makes different choices during the Smart HDR capture about white balance, color, contrast, and so on based on the preference you set. It also uses that semantic recognition to make better choices for things like skin tone. That’s why it’s not a filter — it’s not applied evenly across the entire image.
Profiles are not something you can undo in the edit — though Apple does label them in the metadata when you view them in the Photos app. You should also know that you can’t shoot with profiles and have RAW output on at the same time. Unlike a RAW photo where you can make all sorts of choices in the edit, Photographic Profiles lock your choices in to the file as it’s saved. In theory, it might be possible for the iPhone to save all of that extra data, but Apple tells us that it would create huge files that it wouldn’t be worth it for ordinary use and that people who do want to edit after the fact can just shoot RAW.
Apple’s flashiest iPhone ads are for Cinematic Mode. It’s an entirely new mode for iPhone video that uses software to blur the background of a video, much as Portrait Mode does for photos. Unlike Portrait Mode, Cinematic doesn’t take advantage of the iPhone 13 Pro’s LIDAR sensor for creating a depth map — it just uses software to recognize human faces and bodies.
The reason Cinematic mode makes for such a great demo is that it can automatically shift the focus when something happens in the scene. It locks on to the biggest face that it sees, but if that face turns away, the iPhone can automatically shift focus to somebody else in the background. It is fun to play around with and works with both the rear and front-facing Selfie cameras.
You can also change the focus point as you’re shooting by tapping something in the background and lock focus by tapping again. And then, after you’re done shooting, you can change your focus decisions moment-to-moment in the Photos app and even change the amount of background blur for the entire video.
Because it’s the equivalent of Portrait Mode for video, it can have the same problems as Portrait Mode for photos — it rarely works in low light, for example. (Apple’s own ads for Cinematic Mode show it working in low light, which I find misleading.) It can also have weird or bad cutouts around hair, which is a little less noticeable because it’s video, but it’s still there. Finally, Cinematic Mode only works in 1080p at 30FPS.
Cinematic Mode really only works well within Apple’s own ecosystem of apps. The depth map information is saved into an ancillary “sidecar” file that goes alongside the video, but only Apple apps like Photos or Final Cut can do anything with it right now. If you AirDrop it to a Mac that isn’t running macOS Monterey, the iPhone will bake all your depth choices into the file before sending it along. Apple tells us that it hasn’t worked with third-party companies like Adobe or Lumafusion to make that data editable in those apps.
I think Cinematic Mode is crazy fun, but I’m not sure how much value it really adds to people who want to use their iPhone for actual, professional video work. I’m not going to say it’s a gimmick, but it is gimmick-adjacent. Like Portrait Mode in photos was at the beginning, Cinematic Mode feels like it’s a few years away from being truly useful for anything beyond casual use. Despite Apple’s promos, I have a hard time believing real movies will be made with this in its present state.
iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max displays
The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max finally offer iPhone users a screen feature that flagship Android phones have had for quite a long time: higher refresh rates. Apple’s branding for its screen is “Super Retina XDR display with ProMotion,” and the important part is the ProMotion, which previously has only been on the iPad Pro.
Historically, the iPhone has been able to refresh its screen at 60Hz (or 60 times every second), but the new iPhone 13 Pros can vary the refresh rates from as little as 10Hz all the way up to 120Hz. Apple is using a type of OLED display called LTPO (Low-Temperature Polycrystalline Oxide) panel, technology first seen on Samsung phones. It has a wide dynamic range, can get much brighter, and also uses less power because it can ratchet down the refresh rate.
What all this means practically is that scrolling and animations look much smoother. It also has battery life benefits because if nothing’s moving on the screen, the screen needs to refresh less often and therefore uses less power.
Apple waited too long to introduce high refresh rate displays on its Pro phones, but it has implemented them well
None of this is news to Android users, but if you haven’t used a high refresh rate display on a phone before, it can be a little hard to explain why it makes a difference. This is doubly true on iPhones because Apple has gotten away with not putting a high refresh rate screen on an iPhone for so long because iOS is itself a very smooth OS without very much jank in its animations.
When I scroll on the iPhone 13 Pro, the text stays readable instead of turning into a blur. Things moving on the screen are smoother. It feels more like a direct interaction with my finger because the iPhone can literally change its refresh rate to match my movement.
Apple’s implementation is also smart: iOS keeps an eye on what activity is happening on the screen and adjusts the refresh rate to match. So the screen matches the 24FPS frame rate in video apps, for example. Apple tells me apps coded with its default tools like Swift will get these benefits for free and that developers will have access to tools to update their apps to support ProMotion if they like.
I get if all this sounds very silly. It is very much a premium feature that is more about experience than anything practical. That’s exactly what ProMotion is, and it is exactly what I think we should expect from a phone that costs more than a thousand dollars. It was a similar story when Apple’s own high-density Retina Displays hit the scene. Once many people experienced the nicer thing, they were bothered by its lack.
I have heard all the speculation about why Apple waited this long to implement this feature, and I don’t really buy any of them. I admit that high refresh rates are the epitome of “nice to have,” but part of the point of Apple’s extravagant Pro phones is to provide the nicest experience. Now, finally, they do. Crucially, Apple did an excellent job with its implementation.
The ProMotion display is the perfect example of what you get with the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. It’s an improvement that may only matter explicitly to a few but will subtly make life nicer for everybody who uses it. The battery life upgrade isn’t quite so subtle, of course.
As for the camera, I can see it both ways. When you’re sharing photos and videos to social media and looking at them on a phone, the differences are subtle at most — but they’re there if you look for them. And if you use your iPhone’s camera for more than just Instagram, you’ll appreciate the updates.
The list of significant things I have to complain about with these phones is almost astonishingly short. (Though, as you might expect, I can quibble for days about little things like the lack of a meaningful MagSafe ecosystem, the lightning port, or how iOS 15 handles notifications).
The story of the iPhone 13 Pro is a story of iteration, sure, but iteration matters. iPhone 12 Pro owners will have to pay a lot of attention to see some of the differences, and an upgrade probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. But if you’re using something older, all that iteration comes on top of the major improvements from the iPhone 12 Pro — the upgrades will be very noticeable.
Either way, when you start to pay attention to the details, prepare to be impressed.