It's late in the year 2021 and Apple has only just decided that iPhone users should be able to have a high-refresh-rate screen and take macro photos – that too only if you buy one of the new iPhone 13 Pro models. If you glance through their spec sheets, these are the two key hardware specifications that set this year's iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max apart from their predecessors, and neither one of them is pathbreaking. In fact, both these features have been common on sub-Rs. 20,000 Android phones for quite a while now. So what is it exactly that justifies spending well over Rs. 1,00,000 on either of these two new iPhones?
The answer to that is a bit abstract, and potentially frustrating – you pay for the overall experience that only Apple has so far managed to achieve. These aren't necessarily things that get listed on spec sheets; they're capabilities that arise from tight integration between the hardware, software, services, design, and manufacturing process. The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max in particular also have the best cameras of their generation, and some capabilities that will make amateur as well as pro filmmakers and photographers take notice.
In fact, the new Pro iPhones are being positioned as all-in-one moviemaking tools. While this might create a whole new market, it also shows how little there is left to improve in terms of top-tier smartphone features and performance. If you're an iPhone user with no budget constraints and want the best of the best, you'll be buying one of Apple's latest Pro iPhones regardless of any other consideration. On the other hand if you aren't sure whether to upgrade, or whether it's worth choosing the iPhone 13 Pro over the iPhone 13, this review is for you.
With the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max, compared to the relatively more affordable iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini, you're paying for a more premium stainless steel frame, more powerful graphics, better rear cameras plus an additional telephoto camera and LiDAR scanner, and a better screen. Only the Pro models can record ProRes video, ProRAW stills, and portrait stills in Night mode. All models have roughly the same core specifications, IP68 ratings, Ceramic Shield for display protection, and MagSafe wireless charging support. What's interesting is that the actual headlining new features this year, Cinematic Mode for video recording and Photographic Styles for stills, are common across all four Pro and non-Pro iPhone 13 models.
While the 128GB iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini start at Rs. 79,900 and Rs. 69,900 respectively, the iPhone 13 Pro starts at Rs. 1,19,900 with the same amount of storage. If you want more storage space, you'll pay Rs. 1,29,900 for 256GB, Rs. 1,49,900 for 512GB, or Rs. 1,69,900 for the new 1TB option, for the smaller iPhone 13 Pro. The iPhone 13 Pro Max costs Rs. 10,000 more for each tier, so it starts at Rs. 1,29,900 for 128GB, and that goes up to Rs. 1,39,900 for 256GB, Rs. 1,59,900 for 512GB, and Rs. 1,79,900 for 1TB.
It's worth pointing out that Apple's prices don't scale evenly across the Pro and non-Pro lineups in India. For example, the 512GB iPhone 13 and 256GB iPhone Pro (or 128GB iPhone 13 Pro Max) are priced at $1,099 in the US but cost Rs. 1,09,900 and Rs. 1,29,900 here respectively. For that reason, it isn't as tempting to consider spending “just a little more” to step up to a Pro model in India.
You don't get anything in the box apart from the phone itself, a lightning to Type-C cable, a SIM eject pin and some paperwork. You'll have to pay extra for an Apple official charger and headset – of course Apple would prefer that you spend even more on a pair of AirPods and some MagSafe accessories instead.
If you've seen the iPhone 12 Pro series, you've pretty much seen the iPhone 13 Pro siblings. It would be quite hard to tell them apart. The newer models have slightly larger camera modules on the rear (so cases and some accessories won't be compatible), and there's a new signature colour as with each generation. The Sierra Blue finish looks light and bright in Apple's promotional photos, but in real life, it's more of a muted blue-grey and looks quite sophisticated and fresh. Silver, Gold, and Graphite continue alongside as the other colour options.
It's likely that next year's iPhones will have a significant design overhaul. For now though, we still have the exact same body shape. The new Pro iPhones are 0.15mm thicker and up to 16g heavier than their predecessors – the thickness is inconsequential but the weight can certainly be felt.
The front and back are completely flat, as is the stainless steel frame that runs around the sides. This makes the iPhone 13 series slightly difficult to get a comfortable grip on, especially the larger and more unwieldy iPhone 13 Pro Max. A case such as one of Apple's official leather and silicone options will help with this, and will also keep fingerprints off the frame.
The power and volume buttons are on the right and left respectively on both phones, and are placed within reach. The mute switch, which is above the volume buttons, is quite handy. There's sadly no fingerprint sensor, only Apple's unique 3D Face ID for biometric security, which doesn't work if you're wearing a mask.
Speaking of Face ID, Apple has decided to make the notch on all iPhone 13 models less wide, but also taller. While many Android manufacturers copied the notch simply for the sake of copying Apple, it quickly became obvious that this is a terrible design “solution”, and they all went to narrow notches, then waterdrop-style indentations, and now embedded camera holes. Apple, meanwhile, is stuck with its large Face ID sensor assembly. The new notch shape doesn't feel like an improvement – in fact it's even more intrusive when watching full-screen video. It's also annoying that iOS 15 doesn't use the newly liberated lateral space to do things like show the battery percentage again.
All iPhone 13 models are IP68 rated for protection against dust and liquid ingress. Apple says its Ceramic Shield material over the display is more resilient to scratches and shattering on impact than even reinforced glass.
Every year, Apple introduces a new version of its A-series SoCs for each new iPhone generation, and we're now up to the A15 Bionic. This time, there aren't any headline-grabbing new capabilities or speed increases – Apple says even last year's A14 Bionic is still in the lead compared to the best competitor (which we take to mean the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Snapdragon 888+). The “Neural Engine” for on-device machine learning gets a significant bump up from 11 trillion operations per second to 15.8 trillion, and the new image signal processor allows for camera features such as Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles that won't be coming to older iPhones through software updates.
The SoC has two high-performance CPU cores running at up to 3.23GHz, and four more efficiency cores for simple tasks. The integrated GPU is interesting, because for the first time Apple is giving its Pro iPhones more power than the non-Pro ones, in the form of five GPU cores versus four. The company says this is the best graphics performance of any smartphone ever. Much like we've seen with the M1 SoC in entry-level and high-end versions of the 2021 iMac and 2020 MacBook Air, this allows Apple to work with chips that might have miniscule defects. It's exactly the same as how many other companies “bin” processors depending on the maximum speed they can hit, which is great for manufacturing efficiency.
Screen size is one of the key differences between the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max. You get to choose between 6.1 inches (1170x2532 pixels) and 6.7 inches (1284x2778 pixels), respectively. Both models have the same type of OLED panel, which supports a 120Hz maximum refresh rate, DCI-P3 wide colour gamut, and 1000nit brightness (1200nit peak for HDR). The phone's ambient light sensors let them adjust the panel colour temperature dynamically, which Apple calls True Tone.
Third-party teardowns have confirmed that the iPhone 13 Pro has a 3095mAh battery while the iPhone 13 Pro Max's battery has a 4352mAh capacity. These are slightly larger than the ones in the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max respectively. The numbers are quite low compared to what we usually see in the Android world, but Apple still claims competitive battery life thanks to its efficient SoC and display, plus software optimisations. It also seems as though the iPhone 13 Pro Max can charge more quickly, supporting up to 27W USB-PD adapters versus 23W for the iPhone 13 Pro – an unannounced difference between the siblings. You can charge both phones wirelessly at up to 15W using an Apple-certified MagSafe charger, or up to 7.5W with a standard Qi wireless pad.
All the new iPhones let you use two eSIMs together and ditch a physical SIM altogether. There's support for more 5G bands in India than on previous iPhones, but still only sub-6GHz and not mmWave. There's also support for Gigabit-class LTE, GPS, Wi-Fi 6, and Bluetooth 5. Apple also uses Ultra Wideband and NFC to enable specific features such as directional awareness, AirDrop, and Apple Pay (not available in India yet).
You get iOS 15 out of the box, and many of its features will be common across iPhones going back as far as the iPhone 6s. The highlights are media syncing through FaceTime, tighter integration between iMessage and various first-party Apple apps, a more powerful DND mode called Focus, a major redesign for the Safari browser, and improved AI optical character recognition in photos.
Let's first talk about the 120Hz ‘ProMotion' displays that Apple has finally brought to the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max. This feature is on all the time – there's no choice, unless you dive deep into the Accessibility settings to override it and reduce all motion. It's typical Apple to force this, but in all honesty, you'd never want to turn it off even if that was possible. Comparing an iPhone 13 Pro side by side with an iPhone 13 with the same screen size, it's obvious that motion is smoother and more responsive. Apple says it has optimised its hardware and software so that the refresh rate dynamically adjusts not just based on what app is active, but also what you're doing – scrolling through a list will raise it, while an idle home screen can refresh at much lower than 60Hz to save power.
Beyond its refresh rate, this is a very crisp, bright display. HDR videos in compatible apps really pop. It's a pity that there's no ambient always-on display feature to take advantage of the OLED panel. The notch does cut into your usable screen space – it isn't a major pain in games, which are all now designed to avoid placing controls in that area, but it's still distracting in videos. The stereo speakers produce loud, spacious sound that works well for voices in movies and game sound effects.
That's only one factor that contributes to the responsiveness of these new iPhones. The A15 Bionic SoC is obviously no slouch, handling everything including heavy 3D games with ease. I never saw either phone struggle with any app or workload. Both phones got slightly warm when running heavy apps, and noticeably toasty after benchmarking.
Speaking of benchmarks, the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max both posted excellent scores. AnTuTu reported 8,42,386 and 8,44,883 for the two respectively. An iPhone 12 based on the A14 Bionic SoC managed 6,94,580 points when tested again with the same version of the benchmark app. Geekbench 5 showed single-core and multicore scores of 1,716 and 4,635 respectively for the iPhone 13 Pro, and 1,725 and 4,709 respectively for the iPhone 13 Pro Max.
3DMark's Wild Life Stress Test reported a 9,694 points as its best score with a stability rating of 61.4 percent over the course of its 20-minute loop for the iPhone 13 Pro. The larger iPhone 13 Pro Max got a top score of 9,026 with a less severe dropoff leading to a stability score of 74.3 percent. All these numbers show that the more compact iPhone 13 Pro is a little more thermally constrained than its sibling. This shouldn't matter as very few real-world applications will stress either phone so severely over long stretches – but it's worth noting, since these phones are being promoted for their 4K HDR video recording and workflow capabilities.
I played Call of Duty: Mobile and Asphalt 9: Legends, along with several more casual games such as Alto's Odyssey and Lara Croft: Go. Both iPhone 13 Pro models handled these games beautifully, even at the highest possible visual quality settings.
Battery life lives up to claims of being far better than before. In particular, the iPhone 13 Pro Max justifies its weight with stellar battery life – nearly two full days with moderate use, and still well over one day even with a lot of video streaming, gaming, and camera usage. It lasted for 22 hours, 45 minutes in our HD video loop test. The more manageable iPhone 13 Pro also pushed through a full day with heavy use, and might last up to a day and a half if you're very frugal. It managed to run our HD video loop test for 14 hours, 52 minutes which is about average.
Apple doesn't include chargers with any new iPhones, but claims that if you use a compatible 20W or greater unit, these phones will charge to 50 percent in half an hour. If you recycle a 5W unit like the ones that used to come with almost all phones (which was Apple's proposed solution when it claimed it was ditching chargers to help save the environment), it will take at least three hours to fully charge the iPhone 13 Pro Max.
Unlike last year's models, the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max have exactly the same cameras. All three rear cameras as well as the front camera have 12 megapixel resolutions. First up is the primary wide-angle camera, which has an f/1.5 aperture, sensor-shift stabilisation, and 7-element lens. Then there's a new ultra-wide camera with an f/1.8 aperture which can now autofocus to also take macro shots. The telephoto camera can now do 3X optical zoom with OIS, but it only has an f/2.8 aperture. Apple also throws in a LiDAR sensor on the Pro models, which has some applications for augmented reality apps and also allows for portrait shots in Night mode.
All of Apple's previous headlining camera tweaks continue – Portrait mode lighting (using the TrueDepth 3D sensor on the front for selfies), Deep Fusion computational enhancement, and the ProRAW format which lets you make drastic edits to photos using professional software. In addition, the iPhone 13 Pro siblings will soon be able to shoot ProRes video, following an iOS update. This format is said to allow for improved quality and an end-to-end professional level video production workflow (but just remember that 1080p limitation on iPhones with only 128GB of storage). Smart HDR 4 can now individually adjust the colour and exposure of multiple faces of different complexions in group shots.
There are two other new tricks, which are shared across the iPhone 13 family – Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles. Cinematic Mode essentially applies a Portrait-like depth effect to video backgrounds and automatically switches focus between subjects based on who is looking at the camera and who is speaking. It can also react to subjects entering or leaving frames, or simply turning their heads. When I tried it on non-human subjects, it seemed to work just fine, however it needs good light and didn't always work after dark. It works with the wide and telephoto cameras as well as the front one, but not the ultra-wide one.
If you're shooting something scripted and planned, or if you're a vlogger or content creator, Cinematic Mode might come in handy. You'll be able to play off its strengths and use it to reduce manual focus shifting. You can even change focus points or disable the effect entirely after shooting your video, using the editor built into the iOS Photos app. This was of course fun to play with if you're going for a dramatic effect, but it isn't something I'd necessarily want to use for everyday videos that I'd take to preserve memories of places and events. It can also sometimes feel a bit overbearing – not every subject needs depth of field, and not every scene benefits from dramatic focus shifts between subjects.
Photographic Styles let you impose your own preferences over the iPhone's automatic decisions regarding metering and colour tone. There's a lot that can be said about how technology has made it easier for rank amateurs to capture great quality photos and videos, and just as much about how that leads to a certain homogeneity, with the tools having more say over outcomes than the people taking shots. With Photographic Styles, you can set default levels for Tone and Warmth, which will be applied to all photos you take. There are four preset combinations of these levels – Rich Contrast, Vibrant, Warm, and Cool – but you can fine-tune them. The differences they make are subtle, but noticeable. It might seem that this is just like applying filters, but that isn't the case – and surprisingly, you can't just revert to the default after taking a shot. That means it isn't at all like applying a filter or tweaking parameters using RAW data, but it might help people make similar choices more quickly and easily in some cases.
Unfortunately, Apple's camera app doesn't show you when your chosen Style is active by default – you have to tap a button to reveal all the available toggles and indicators (which hides the camera mode selections even though there's plenty of screen space). I'm not sure I want a Style to be active all the time since I don't want all my photos to have irreversible stylistic choices, but this isn't one of the settings you can choose to have reset each time the Camera app is launched. Except where stated, all camera samples shown in this review were captured without an active Photographic Style, to show you the camera's defaults.
Another annoyance with Apple's Camera app is that you need to switch into the main iOS Settings app to change many important parameters such as video resolution, HDR, ProRAW, Slo-mo speed, etc. Not all of these are set-and-forget choices, and it can get frustrating to lose your composition just because something needs to be changed.
As for photo quality, the new iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max can definitely take some incredible shots. There's no perceivable difference in quality between the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max. The primary wide-angle camera will not let you down in any situation. In daylight, detail is crisp and colours are vibrant without being oversaturated. Exposures are handled well and HDR worked subtly in scenes with detail in the shadows as well as bright areas. These images can be magnified and cropped to quite an extent.
You do lose a bit of quality with the ultra-wide-angle camera, especially towards the edges of the frame. The difference isn't huge, especially in terms of exposure and colour balance, and you can get a lot of practical use out of this camera without it feeling like a compromise.
However, when it comes to macros, the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max leave a lot to be desired. First of all, there's no separate macro mode or toggle. As soon as you move either phone close to a subject, the app will automatically switch over to the ultra-wide camera – and this works even in video mode. You can usually see this happen in the viewfinder but there's no icon on screen so after taking a few shots, moving back and forth to try getting my composition right, I sometimes wasn't sure whether I was using the right camera. There's also no indicator of the optimal distance from your subject. As sometimes happens with Apple, this kind of oversimplification doesn't really work in the real world, and a change might already be planned for a future iOS update. As for macro quality, my results were hit or miss. I needed to take several shots, varying my position each time, to have a decent chance of finding one crisp result when checking them later.
The telephoto camera goes up to 3X optical zoom now, but the aperture has been cut back to f/2.8 from f/2.2. This is pretty surprising, but Night mode now works with this camera, so that should compensate to a degree. Digital zoom can go up to 15X. At 3X, daytime shots are crisp enough to be useful. Interestingly, when you switch to Portrait mode, the telephoto camera is automatically activated. You can go back to the primary wide-angle camera, but this default option allows for some very sharp framing with a natural depth in the background.
What really needs to be pointed out is the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max's performance in low light. The larger primary camera sensor, improved A15 Bionic SoC, and Night mode all work together to allow these phones to capture sharp, vibrant images even when there isn't much light around. The ultra-wide and telephoto cameras aren't quite at the same level but they're still exceptionally good.
Video shot on all three cameras, in the daytime or at night, looks vibrant. There's no reason not to have HDR on all the time. Objects in motion look smooth, and there isn't too much jitter and shimmer if you record with the main camera while walking. The ultra-wide camera can't quite deliver at the same level in terms of definition in low light, but video is no less bright. I did notice a bit of light flaring when shooting with the telephoto camera at night.
The front cameras on the iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max are also perfectly serviceable but there isn't anything special to say about their quality. They deliver crisp shots in the daytime and acceptable detail at night, at least for phones at this price level.
Apple has certainly improved upon last year's iPhone 12 Pro (Review) and iPhone 12 Pro Max (Review) in significant ways. The cameras are better, battery life has improved, and the 120Hz displays are much appreciated. However, these phones won't exactly blow anyone away. If you have an iPhone 12 Pro or even an iPhone 11 Pro, you probably don't need to upgrade. If you can find the previous generation on sale at a significant discount, that might work just fine for you. If you have no budget constraints and just want the latest and greatest iPhone, go ahead and buy one of these – the experience won't disappoint. If you don't have Rs. 1,20,000 or more to spend on a phone though, there's a lot to think about.
Cinematic Mode and Photography Styles are available on the non-pro iPhone 13 models, and they aren't exactly features you'd need enough to base a buying decision on. That said, the Pro iPhones have somewhat pivoted from being super-premium smartphones to also serving as video production tools, and from that perspective, you could actually get a lot out of investing in one. These features, combined with the superior camera sensors, ProRAW and ProRes support, telephoto and macro capabilities, and the LiDAR scanner, could make the iPhone 13 Pro models right for content creators. If not, the iPhone 13 might suit you just fine.
You do also have to consider the fact that you can get a high-refresh-rate display, IP rating, macro, and telephoto cameras, and plenty of other features on far less expensive Android phones. Alternatively, Samsung's far flashier Galaxy Z Fold 3 (Review) costs about the same as the iPhone 13 Pro Max, and while it needs to be handled with far greater care, it feels much fresher and more futuristic – which is what many people are looking for.