iPhone 13 review: All you need to know

The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max mark the third year in a row that Apple released two Pro models. The phones have the same price as last year's 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, and are loaded with updated cameras, a larger battery and an A15 Bionic chip. By packing the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max with features many of us have wanted for years, including a display with a high refresh rate, Apple further defined the difference between its Pro and non-Pro phones. Three years ago, by comparison, the word Pro seemed more of a marketing term than an indication that the phone was any more professional than a regular iPhone.

The 13 Pro is an important signal that there isn't just one iPhone that works for everyone. Unlike last year, the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max vary by size, battery life and price, but both phones now have the same camera array. 

The iPhone 13 Pro starts at $999 (£949, AU$1,699) and the 13 Pro Max at $1,099 (£1,049, AU$1,849) for 128GB of storage. For the first time, you have the option to get 1TB of storage on an iPhone. The extra storage pushes the price of a 13 Pro to $1,499 (£1,449, AU$2,569) and the 13 Pro Max to $1,599 (£1,549, AU$2,719). That's a lot of storage... and a lot of money. 

The iPhone 13 Pro gets beefier

The phones have the same squared off look as the 12 series. The stainless steel sides are glossy and the back has one of four matte finishes: graphite, gold, silver or Sierra blue. In some lighting, the Sierra blue iPhone reads as light gray and in other lighting it looks like the Carolina blue of the UNC Tarheels.

The notch is 20% smaller. It's not as wide, but there's still a notch. It's fair to say that it annoys me 20% less.

Both phones are thicker and weigh more. The 13 Pro gains 15 grams and the 13 Pro Max packs on an additional 12 grams. I noticed the extra weight more when I used the 13 Pro. Both phones have Apple's Ceramic Shield on the front and an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance.

ProMotion on the iPhone 13 Pro is stellar

The 13 Pro has a 6.1-inch screen and the 13 Pro Max a 6.7-inch one. In everyday use, the screens are noticeably brighter. The displays have what Apple calls ProMotion, meaning the iPhone, for the first time ever, supports a high refresh rate. Depending what's being shown on the screen, the refresh rate switches between 10 and 120Hz. This is a similar approach Samsung took with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. In use, the screen looks stellar. Animations look smooth, graphics crisp and even mundane things like scrolling feeds look better. 

The iPhone 13 Pro has a longer telephoto camera

The main camera has a new sensor, the largest ever put into an iPhone. It has a faster f1.5 aperture lens, which equates to improved light gathering. The ultrawide has a new auto focus sensor and lens that also improves light gathering. And last, the telephoto camera gets a new sensor and lens with a longer 3x optical zoom.

Using the Pro iPhones did result in brighter photos, but the improvement wasn't always obvious. I also noticed that photos had fast shutter speeds, which resulted in freezing action better, like when I took a shot of people riding bikes. 

Also taking a Night mode photo was faster and works with the 3x telephoto camera. The iPhone 11 and 12 series had a peculiar quirk where the camera reflected light sources. On the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max, that quirk is still there, especially if there are string lights in your shot, but overall it's better. 

The iPhone 13 Pro cameras bring you even closer to your subject

The 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max have a new macro mode, which triggers automatically when you get within a few centimeters of your subject. To test the cameras and Macro function, I took the iPhone 13 Pro Max and iPhone 13 to the Feast of the Field, part of the yearly Euphoria food event in Greenville, South Carolina. This made for a tasty camera test.

The way macro photography works is that as you get closer to your subject, the camera automatically switches from the wide camera to ultrawide. Now that the ultrawide has autofocus, it can lock focus on something that's just a couple of centimeters away.

In bright and medium lighting, I found macro photography on the iPhone solid. It's not on the level of a mirrorless camera with dedicated macro lens but it's one of the better implementations of a macro mode that I've seen on a phone. I took solid close-up photos of food, coffee and even recorded a nightmare video clip of ants crawling all over a discarded grapefruit.

At the main dinner for the event, I learned two things: The first is that gooseberries are delicious. And the next is that in low lighting, the iPhone still switches to the ultrawide camera to take a macro photo. The best camera on the phone is the wide-angle camera, which can also handle low-light situations well. And because the phone has to be so close to its subject, it actually blocks some of the light, resulting in mediocre close-ups. At this time, there isn't a way to turn off the macro functionality. Apple says that a new setting will be added in a software update this fall, so you'll be able to turn off automatic camera switching when shooting at close distances for macro photography and video. 

I'm all about Cinematic mode on the iPhone 13 Pro

All of the iPhones 13 get a new feature called Cinematic mode. It uses the rear cameras or the True Depth camera array to create a 1080p video at 30 frames per second. What makes the video compelling is that everything but your subject is out of focus. The iPhone can even execute a rack focus from one subject to another. The effect is dramatic and impressive. 

Like Portrait mode for photos, the feature allows you to change the depth of field. What's great is the phone can do everything, including choosing who's in focus and when to change focus. During the recording, you can tap and manually change the focus points and aperture yourself. Or you can do all of that after the fact.

Are Cinematic videos perfect? No, but it's a blast to use and experiment with. Cinematic mode needs a good amount of light to work best. If conditions are too dark, you'll get a pop-up prompting you to turn your flash on.

Also, I noticed that fast-moving nonhuman subjects, such as water being poured out of a spout or a shot of espresso being brewed, were hard for Cinematic mode to keep in focus. And when editing a Cinematic mode video, the controls for the focus keyframes are tiny. You can long-press to expand them, but as soon as you let go, it goes back to being small.

Not all A15 Bionic power is the same

Powering everything is Apple's new A15 Bionic chip. The GPU on the Pro models has five cores instead of four on the 13 and 13 Mini. During my time testing the phones, it didn't have any trouble handling gaming, editing photos or having a bunch of apps open at the same time. Check out the benchmark test results below.

I've had all four iPhone 13 models for about five days, so there are some features I still need to test more to give you a true critique. Let's wrap up by talking about a few of those remaining questions.

The 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max both have a larger battery. I didn't have any trouble getting through a day, even a hot and humid one where I captured a bunch of photos and videos. I'm running the phones through CNET's battery tests and will update my written review with all of the results.

iOS 15 on the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max is wonderful. It adds a bunch of features but doesn't mess with the status quo. I love Focus mode. If you want a more in-depth look at iOS 15, check out our iOS 15 review.

All of the iPhone 13 models get a new feature called Photographic styles, which lets you choose between standard, the default iPhone look, and four styles: Vibrant, Rich Contrast, Warm and Cool. Apple says these are more than just filters. Your phone analyzes the different parts of your subject to add the look you want without, for example, making someone's skin look overly orange. Apple does all this while you take the photo, and it's baked into the file.

These will be the first phones to support the Apple ProRes video codec. ProRes optimizes video files and is especially useful for people who color grade or use editing software such as Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro. ProRes video files have a lower amount of compression but take up a lot of room, which is why that 1TB storage tier is going to be important. Sadly, ProRes isn't available to test at this time and will be out later this year.

I do want to mention that for this review, I used phones that Apple lent me. During my five days, the iPhone 13 Pro Max powered off unexpectedly twice and the iPhone 13 Pro Max shut down once. I don't think this is a major issue or anything to be alarmed about, but I wanted to share my experience.

I still have more in-depth testing to do on the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max and CNET's team will be doing its usual barrage of camera tests, drop tests and battery tests. Keep checking back as we learn more about these phones.  

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