What, really, do you want out of a new phone?
Assuming you’re starting with a good foundation, I think the list of what really makes a big difference in phone upgrades is actually short. The first thing on the list is improved battery life. The second is an improved camera.
Those are the two things that make a fundamental difference in your day-to-day experience of a smartphone (assuming, again, that the basics don’t stink). Those are also exactly the things Apple tried to make better in the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini.
Those two improvements come on top of the major changes the company introduced last year with the iPhone 12. If you already have an iPhone 12, this year’s update looks iterative because it is. If you have an older iPhone, the full list of what’s better on the iPhone 13 is almost too long to enumerate.
The iPhone 12 brought new technologies and a fancy new design (and a new, Mini-sized version). The iPhone 13’s battery and camera updates aren’t so flashy, but they’re more important.
Updated on October 5th, 2021 to include results from longer-term testing with the iPhone 13 Mini.
iPhone 13 and 13 Mini design and specs
Unless you look very closely, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the iPhone 13 devices and their predecessors. The iPhone 12 and 12 Mini introduced a striking and new flat-edged design that I still believe is a massive improvement on what came before. And of course, the iPhone 12 Mini was the first phone in a long time to bring a truly great experience to a smartphone with a smaller form factor.
They also switched over to OLED screens, which offer a superior experience to the LCDs that came before in several ways: contrast ratio, brightness, and power efficiency. They added 5G. They added the MagSafe charging system.
It’s worth revisiting all those big changes because people are hanging on to their smartphones for a longer time now — especially iPhones. I think it’s fair to give the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini credit for the design they’re based on since so many of the people that are likely to buy them will be new to what the iPhone 12 offered.
There are some changes to that design, however. The newer iPhones are just a tiny bit thicker overall, with substantially bigger camera bumps. That means that cases designed for the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini are unlikely to fit the newer phones. The camera bump is not only thicker, but the lenses have been rearranged to accommodate the giant new sensor that’s in the main wide-angle camera.
The last change is that the notch housing FaceID and the selfie camera has been shrunk down by 20 percent — but don’t get too excited by that. It’s only been reduced on the horizontal axis, so the extra screen you get doesn’t amount to much (and Apple isn’t using it to show more info, like battery percentage).
There is a new processor inside the iPhone 13: the A15 Bionic. As usual with iPhones, it’s difficult to discern significant speed improvements, but that is only because there’s so much headroom that iPhones tend to feel fast for longer. The Pro models get one more GPU core than the regular models, but I haven’t noticed that make a difference at all.
One difference that does matter this year: the base storage on the least expensive iPhone 13 and 13 Mini has been increased to 128GB. I’m frankly impressed that Apple actually managed to proactively increase the base storage on its own — historically, it’s always done it far too late.
Finally, my favorite design improvement over the iPhone 12 is that there’s a new pink color option. Of all the colors offered on the iPhone 13 and 13 Pro lines, it is the best one.
iPhone 13 battery
Battery life on last year’s iPhone 12 wasn’t quite what I had hoped for. Battery life on last year’s iPhone 12 Mini was sadly exactly what I was expecting: not very good. So for this year’s iPhone 13, Apple did the obvious thing: it made the batteries bigger.
Those larger batteries (9 percent on the iPhone 13 Mini and 15.1 percent on the iPhone 13) are the main driver behind Apple’s battery claims this year. It says that the regular iPhone 13 should last for a whopping two-and-a-half hours of usage longer than the iPhone 12, while the Mini will last an extra one-and-a-half hour.
Of course, if you don’t have an iPhone 12, then the 13 lasting more than two hours longer is kind of meaningless. My takeaway for the regular iPhone 13 doesn’t require relative comparisons, though: battery life is excellent.
On one day of my testing, the regular iPhone 13 made it from 7AM to midnight before it tuckered out. That was with some camera testing, watching some video, the usual doomscrolling, emails, work, and some games. It was an intense set of work for the five hours of screentime that day, so that’s impressive. On another day with lighter usage, I didn’t see the battery warning until the following morning. But the iPhone 13’s battery isn’t magic. When we had a day of a lot more 4K video testing, I was looking for a charger by 7 or 8.
As for the iPhone 13 Mini, its battery life is much improved over last year’s 12 Mini, but not quite enough for me to throw caution to the wind and recommend it to anybody who wants a smaller phone.
With last year’s 12 Mini, I had to significantly change my phone usage to get it to last through an entire day. This year, I only had to modestly change my behavior. I think that if you’re not glued to your screen for many hours a day, the 13 Mini crosses a line of battery usability the 12 Mini didn’t quite manage to even approach.
The iPhone 12 and 13 Minis are meant to be minimalistic, both in size and also in how much you use them. If you are constantly using your phone all day, the smaller battery in the Mini isn’t likely to be enough.
My takeaway on the Mini is to not assume the improvements are enough to overcome the fundamental physics of smaller batteries. My takeaway on the regular iPhone 13 is also based on fundamental physics: a big battery means good battery life.
iPhone 13 cameras
Both the iPhone 13 and the 13 Mini have the same camera system: a regular wide-angle camera and an ultrawide. Both have been upgraded, but the major improvement comes to the wide angle.
Just like the battery, the improvement to the wide-angle camera sensor is simple: make it bigger. A bigger camera sensor is able to take in more light more quickly and produce better results. Apple happened to have just such a sensor lying around: the one from last year’s iPhone 12 Pro Max.
That’s notable because the 12 Pro Max stood apart from all the other iPhones last year by having a larger sensor, and now that sensor is the new default this year. And from the moment the 12 Pro Max was released up until now, it has been the best smartphone camera on the market for both photos and video.
I am happy to report that the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini match or improve on those results. Details are sharp and accurate, colors are rich without being oversaturated, focusing is fast and reliable, portrait mode is good enough to use day to day, and low light and night sight are both exceptional.
Video quality is great. The main camera has sensor stabilization, which helps when you’re walking around. It can do all the modes that matter in terms of 4K and slow mo and handles them all super well.
Really, the only way to be unhappy with this camera is to compare it head to head with an iPhone 13 Pro — and even then, I think you’d probably need to do it on a big screen with images taken in low light.
The ultrawide sensor was also updated for better low-light performance, but it’s fairly minor. What I mostly see is improved white balance and color when it’s in night mode. That’s something I’ve noticed across the board, actually. Especially in low light, colors are a bit more true to life than last year.
My main wish is that the selfie camera sensor had been updated. It has some software improvements just like the other cameras, and it’s inside a smaller notch now, but the selfie camera is too important for Apple to just leave the same this many years in a row.
Apple has also introduced two new camera modes with the iPhone 13: Photographic Profiles and Cinematic Mode. I have gone in depth on both of those features in the iPhone 13 Pro review, so you can read the full details on how they work there. But I’ll briefly describe each here, too.
Photographic Profiles are a new option in the camera that change the default look of the picture you’re taking. You can customize the tone and contrast of how all the pictures you take look instead of doing it in edit after the fact.
You may know that Samsung phones take super vivid photos or that Google Pixel phones take photos that are more contrasty and blue. With Profiles, Apple is essentially admitting that people may prefer those looks and is providing an option to get them automatically. You can also customize each one to your own personal preferences.
Profiles aren’t like filters in that they don’t apply tone and warmth settings to the whole picture. The iPhone knows when it sees grass or faces or sky, and so it adjusts how it applies those color preferences accordingly, so you don’t get weird-looking skin tones or purple skies.
Photos taken with a Profile can’t have adjustments removed or changed (beyond normal editing) after the fact, and you can’t use RAW at the same time as profiles. It’s handy sometimes to think of them as presets, and I think I will use them from time to time. Apple claims that the A15 Bionic is necessary for the whole Profiles experience to work, but my feeling is that it ought to be possible to get this feature on older iPhones.
Cinematic Mode is a new feature that is essentially the equivalent of Portrait Mode but for video. It locks on to a face and blurs the rest of the scene, just like if you were using a lens with a big aperture. But it then tries to change the focus as it sees fit, shifting over to a face in the background if a face in the foreground turns away, for example. As you shoot the video, you can manually change focus yourself, or you can do it after the fact in the edit — but only inside Apple’s own apps like Photos or Final Cut.
The results from Cinematic Mode are nowhere near as good as Apple’s own commercials would have you believe. It doesn’t work well (or really, at all) in low light, and it has the same problems you may remember from the early days of Portrait Mode photos: weird cutouts around hair and glasses. It also only works in 1080p at 30fps.
But don’t let the fact that Cinematic Mode doesn’t live up to the hype distract you. The camera systems on the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini are excellent. If there wasn’t also the iPhone 13 Pro in the world, they’d be the best you could get on a phone as of this writing.
I think it’s all too easy to look at the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini and not think much of the updates this year. Cameras get better every year, and every company promises good battery life, after all. And compared to the massive changes we saw on the iPhone last year, the 13 looks iterative, more like an iPhone 12S than truly new models.
I won’t pretend that reading is totally wrong, but I also think it misses the point. Fancy new features are fun, but the fundamentals of battery life and camera are more important. Because if you focus on the fundamentals, your whole game gets better. And the iPhone 13 has got some good game.