Apple iPhone 13 Pro Review: Do Better Photos and Display Justify the Premium?

Category: Tech

Apple made a big jump with its design when it introduced the iPhone 12, which marked two consecutive years of critics talking about its smartphones in a largely positive manner. This year, though, Apple’s taken a somewhat conservative approach towards its new iPhone 13 series. It has largely stuck on with the same design, and even in terms of features, there isn’t stuff that is drastically new for the average buyer. In fact, many reviewers around the world have already declared that the iPhone 13 Pro is an ‘S’ cycle iPhone, even if Apple no longer uses the ‘S’ moniker. But, are the changes really so few?

Design and ergonomics: You can feel the heft now

Hold the iPhone 13 Pro in your hand, and you’ll realise that this is a rather bulky smartphone. If you’ve used the iPhone 12 Pro (review), you’ll find this difference even more stark – the latter, according to me, is one of Apple’s best iPhone designs since the iPhone 5s (which is incidentally my favourite iPhone of all time). However, the iPhone 13 Pro doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot in terms of weight, design and ergonomics the way the 12 Pro did, and there are multiple reasons for that. The first is the weight – it weighs 205 grams, and even without any comparison, that is fairly heavy for a phone.

Thankfully, it isn’t taller than before. Apple states that the iPhone 13 Pro is two-tenths of a millimetre thicker than the 12 Pro, which you really do not feel in hand. The dimensions have remained the same, and while Apple has made micro adjustments to the location of the volume keys, SIM tray and power key, they’re roughly where they’re supposed to be. This means that you won’t need to adjust your muscle memory to a new key layout, which is also good enough in terms of ergonomics.

However, while that is great, the added bulk is not. The extra weight comes courtesy the new cameras, which deploy larger sensors and use sensor-shift stabilisation apparatus as well. The size of the camera module is therefore massive, and the larger lenses look bolder on the new iPhones, too. However, you will not be able to use your older back cover on the new iPhone 13 Pro, and neither will you be able to keep the new phone stable on a flat surface. Given that Apple is known for its particular proclivity towards good design, this is a bit of a surprise.

The sides of the iPhone 13 Pro offer a stainless steel finish, which looks as premium as it should. However, it is an undisputed fingerprint magnet, which makes it quite a task to be kept clean at all times. You’ll most likely wrap it within a cover, as you must if you want it to lie flat and stable on a tabletop. This, however, beats the point of the sheen.

Display and UX: ProMotion adds to the fun, the notch doesn’t

The 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED display now gets ProMotion, which is Applespeak for high/variable refresh rate. Apple has finally enabled at least two of its four new iPhones to feature up to 120Hz refresh rates, which is a feature that has already trickled down even to sub-Rs 20,000 smartphones on the Android side of things. Why Apple took so long to bring it to its iPhones is anyone’s guess, but it is testament to Apple’s excellence at software design that you couldn’t quite feel the difference thanks to iOS’ already smooth animations, at least on its newer iPhones.

Does this mean ProMotion on the iPhone 13 Pro isn’t a big deal? Not entirely. Having the super smooth scrolling rate on your iPhone makes its display just that much smoother than before, but right now, it feels about as good as the iPhone 12 Pro’s display did for the most part. You’ll most likely feel the benefits of the high refresh rate panel as the iPhone 13 Pro ages and inevitably becomes slower than the latest phones, when the smoothness of the display might somewhat paper over the performance cracks.

For now, though, you’ll really notice the difference between the iPhone 13 Pro’s display and the 12 Pro’s if you plonk the two, side by side. Until then, they’re both excellent displays in terms of their touch response, colour accuracy and tonal balance. In terms of the overall iOS 15 UX, it’s a bit disappointing that Apple didn’t at least make something out of its “20 percent smaller” notch, but if market whispers are to be believed, they most likely will within the next year. True Tone feels a bit heavy handed for me, but thankfully, you can tune the display warmth to your preference.

iOS 15’s sharing features are all squarely geared to keep you more within the Apple ecosystem, and if you do that, you’ll see how seamless and fluid its file, photo and music sharing features really are. However, you’ll also need to convince all your friends and family to buy iPhones, which might not be the most pleasant dinner-time debate to host.

Cameras: Better details and low light shots, but we need a new app

The cameras are perhaps the biggest differentiating factor for the iPhone 13 Pro. With the new cameras, Apple is offering larger sensors, and Sensor Shift stabilisation on the main camera. Along with Apple ProRAW introduced last year for capturing RAW photos, the company has also introduced ProRes – to capture lossless 4K footage at up to 60fps, encoded directly in the phone itself. What’s more interesting to note is exactly how the cameras have improved.

The main camera now has 1.9um pixels, which are 36 percent larger than the 1.4um pixels on the iPhone 12 Pro’s main sensor. What’s more worthwhile to note is that the iPhone 13 Pro has a much larger sensor itself – a 1/1.65-inch sensor, replacing a 1/1.255-inch one. It is 84 percent larger than before, and is further combined with an f/1.5 lens that replaces an f/1.6 one. This overall combination produces an optical setup that can produce some amount of natural background blur without the software based Portrait Mode, which is a clear difference that you can see in the iPhone 13 Pro, over the iPhone 12 Pro.

Where it makes the biggest difference is in producing finer textures thanks to greater stability of camera, along with considerably better low light shots. Apple was already good at producing good tonal accuracy in low light, but with the iPhone 13 Pro, you now get details that are significantly better defined. A combination of Sensor Shift and OIS with the wide camera further combines with the significantly higher amount of light that the main sensor of the iPhone 13 Pro can take in, to produce much richer textural details.

Edges of objects shot while moving or in low light are now much better defined, and grains are now finer than before as well. This creates less pixelation when you zoom into a frame, which is handy if you must crop into an image before posting. It also makes photographs better to edit, in terms of overall details. The difference is fairly apparent, and while it isn’t exactly a generational jump, it is significant enough for anyone that’s at least mildly interested in photography.

The new ultra-wide unit has been improved too, the results of which won’t be apparent to you in regular photographs. Where it shows its improvements are in low light, and while recording videos. Apple advertises a “faster” sensor, and while it doesn’t get stabilisation, it gets improved phase detection autofocus against the previous generation’s fixed focus camera. The “faster sensor” promo likely refers to faster sensor readout, for in moving shots on the ultra-wide unit, the iPhone 13 Pro produces significantly better details due to improved rolling shutter artifacts.

In simpler words, you would find fewer inconsistencies of lines and edges on your subject, as you would while shooting with the ultra-wide unit of older iPhones. Phase detection autofocus also comes to the new ultra-wide unit, in place of the fixed focus camera on the 12 Pro. This has also improved the overall performance of the camera, which makes for a quantifiable upgrade over its predecessors. However, whether this makes a big difference to you or not depends on if you take enough ultra-wide shots.

Finally, the telephoto unit gets longer optical range, offering effective 3x optical zoom with the new camera. It features an f/2.8 lens, along with OIS and phase detection AF. The 1/3.4-inch sensor remains the same size as before, and in terms of the overall quality, the iPhone 13 Pro remains largely similar to the 12 Pro. However, the added focal range may come handy when you travel, and in what is a good thing, both the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max now have the exact same camera setup.

All of this sums up to make the iPhone 13 Pro camera to be a clearly better performer than before. It does make a difference in the long run, when you shoot without putting much focus on framing a shot properly. Low light photos are clearly better, and in terms of overall details, the iPhone 13 Pro is most likely the best smartphone camera right now.

Videography: Cinematic Mode is a work in progress

While Apple has announced ProRes for the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, the latter’s yet to be introduced to the devices and will likely land up in a future software update. There’s no 120fps video recording mode in either 4K or 1080p, which many Android smartphones have started offering. A higher frame rate has become increasingly key to producing better videos directly from phones, and the absence of it from a smartphone that has actually ‘pro’ cameras does look awkward.

The big talk of the town is Cinematic Mode, which seeks to automate the rack focus cinematic technique by using Apple’s Neural Engine, and put focus pullers out of business across filmmaking industries. Much to Apple’s chagrin (and focus pullers’ joy), it’s hardly ready for its big premiere yet. Think of it as a ‘Portrait Mode’ for videos, but with the ability to intelligently select the right point of focus – while producing the bokeh quality that the physical iris patterns of cinema lenses can create.

However, in what is a major detriment to any ‘pro’ user looking to shoot a movie with the iPhone 13 Pro, the Cinematic Mode video recording is capped to 30fps, at 1080p. Even if you could live with 1080p video recording, the 30fps cap really limits your creative ability. Yet again, in a phone as ‘pro’ as the iPhone 13 Pro, this is another glaring miss. Future generations of this mode will surely overcome this barrier, but until then, this will largely suffice creators who haven’t quite used a dedicated video camera to the fullest.

In terms of the mode itself, Apple’s algorithms are yet to become adept at latching on to the right focus points as seamlessly as Apple’s rather fun ‘Whodunit’ teaser that it played at this feature’s reveal. The camera clearly keeps trying to focus properly, causing repeated and jarring focus shifts in process. That said, all of this is largely down to the software, so Apple will surely issue updates that make Cinematic Mode a better video mode to actually shoot with. It isn’t clear if Cinematic Mode would get support for higher frame rates, in future.

Performance: Expected, but A14’s still adequate

The A15 Bionic onboard the Apple iPhone 13 Pro is the best smartphone processor in the industry right now, according to Apple and most benchmarks that index mobile processors. Naturally, this makes the iPhone 13 Pro the fastest smartphone in the market, and that is pretty much how it performs. While we’ve spent just one week with it, and a week is too short to gauge performance deterioration in any smartphone, one can see that the iPhone 13 Pro is a blazing fast smartphone.

Games, including graphics rich Apple Arcade titles such as NBA 2K21, all load without a trace of a stutter, which is also what you’d expect from a smartphone of this stature. Video processing and export times through editing apps such as InShot are short and hardly feels like a wait, and even heavy, complicated apps load smoothly. They also stay live in the phone’s memory, which lets you pick back up from where you’d left the app at – even hours after you put it on standby.

While all of this is great, it is interesting to note that Apple’s processors from two generations ago, the A13 and A14 Bionic, are still up to the task. The latter, in particular, performs almost as well as the A15 for practical purposes – possibly because for most users, there aren’t tasks heavy enough to make the most of the A15 Bionic. This may borderline on stating the obvious, but it also goes to say that as far as performance is concerned, you wouldn’t really feel the difference if you get yourself an iPhone 12 today. While the iPhone 11 series is noticeably slower than the iPhone 13 series, the former is still fast enough for most users, today.

Battery life: A full day for power users, two for light

Apple has claimed that the iPhone 13 Pro will offer users about an hour and a half’s worth of longer battery life, than the iPhone 12 Pro. This claim is more or less in line with real-world usage. With my smartphone usage pattern, the iPhone 12 Pro lasts for a little more than 13 hours before it hits the 10 percent battery mark. The iPhone 13 Pro, on this note, lasts for about 15 hours with the same volume of usage.

Personally, this does not make a huge difference as I end up needing to plug in my phone just before going to sleep, anyway. Where it would matter, I guess, is when I spend longer than a typical work day outside – the final couple of hours might help in booking a cab on the odd rainy day when I forget to carry the charger.

Verdict: An excellent phone, but you should probably wait

All things considered, is the iPhone 13 Pro worth it? On standalone terms, yes. Its cameras are definitely better than its predecessors, and so are its display, performance and battery life. However, here’s where it’s important to be cautious – the upgrade in cameras will matter to regular content creators, or those who are heavily invested in photography. Its display’s higher refresh rate is something that you can live without (as long as you have an iPhone 11 or newer), and the same goes for its performance and battery life.

If you own an iPhone Xs generation phone or older, you may find the iPhone 13 to be a more prudent choice (unless, of course, you can make the most of the ‘pro’ features of the iPhone 13 Pro). With the standard iPhone 13, you get the same performance, better cameras than the iPhone 12, and the lack of the ProMotion display isn’t a deal-breaker. Considering that it is a full Rs 40,000 less expensive, this is an important factor to consider.

If, however, you want the ProMotion display and the telephoto camera, and you intend to retain your phone beyond two years, the Apple iPhone 13 Pro has everything to give you a flagship smartphone experience for well beyond two years.

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