Technology

Apple iPhone 13 Review: What's New This Fall

Todd Haselton | CNBC
  • I've been testing Apple's new phones -- iPhone 13 Pro Max, iPhone 13 Pro, iPhone 13, and iPhone 13 Mini — for the past several days.
  • Overall, they offer minor improvements in display technology, cameras and battery life.
  • There's no reason to upgrade if you bought an iPhone 12, but if you're coming from an older phone, you'll notice and appreciate the differences.

Apple's four new iPhone 13 models hit stores on Friday.

Apple is well-positioned to maintain its momentum from last year's big 5G super cycle. It focused on battery life and cameras this year since that's what buyers care about most. Apple also improved the displays and tucked in a few other upgrades — like expanded support for 5G in more places — that may help the phones appeal to a wider global audience who want faster data in markets like China, Australia and Japan.

But this is not a major shift in the iPhone landscape, like the iPhone 12 last year, which introduced 5G and the biggest screen ever on an iPhone. Or the iPhone 5s, which in 2013 introduced a fingerprint reader for the first time.

In short, you really don't need to upgrade if you bought a new iPhone last year. But anyone with an iPhone 11 or older will find enough new parts and features to consider the new models. That means more than 250 million iPhone owners with phones that are more than 3 years old.

I've been testing all the new models — the iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Mini, iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max — for the past several days. While I used all of them, the core of this review focuses on the Pro Max, because it's the biggest and best — and most expensive — phone you can get from Apple today.

Starting at $1,099, the iPhone 13 Pro Max is for folks who want the primo iPhone, with the best battery life, cameras and display. But it's unlikely to be the most popular model Apple sells, since the regular iPhone 13 is still great, and costs $300 less.

I'll walk you through the differences and help you figure out which, if any, is right for you.

IPhone 13 Pro Max: What's good

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

The iPhone 13 Pro Max is huge, with a screen that measures 6.7 inches diagonally.

That's either good or bad depending on what you want out of a phone. If you want something that feels a bit like a mini-tablet in your pocket and is great for gaming and viewing TV shows and movies, then you'll love the iPhone 13 Pro Max.

The screen is notably better than last year's. It's the first iPhone with Apple's ProMotion display, a very high refresh-rate screen technology that was introduced on the iPad Pro in 2017.

The screen can adjust to the content on the page to help save battery life and make things feel smoother. If you're just reading a website, for example, it might refresh less frequently and save battery life. But then if you're gaming or scrolling through a long webpage, it'll refresh really fast to make everything much smoother. It's one of those things you need to see for yourself to appreciate.

Videogames look great on the big screen
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Videogames look great on the big screen

Battery life is top-notch and lasts longer than any other iPhone on the market. Unless you're playing games for hours and hours, iPhone 13 Pro Max should get you to bedtime and even into another day.

That's thanks to a combination of a newer processor, a new screen and a bigger battery. I streamed nine hours of movies, for example, with just over 50% brightness, and still had more than half the battery left. Apple promises up to 25 hours of streaming video playback, but I imagine I took a bit of a hit since I was streaming instead of playing a downloaded video, and used the phone for other things.

Speaking of movies, the screen also gets brighter than last year's model, although I find the iPhone 12 Pro Max already gets plenty bright.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

Apple also updated the cameras. The regular wide-angle, the zoom and the ultra-wide-angle lenses on the back now allow in more light, which means they're better at taking pictures in the dark.

The HDR feature is also better in situations where your subject might have a lot of light behind them, which can normally make people in a picture look dark — all the iPhone 13 phones can keep color and detail even if the sun is right behind someone.

Here's a shot of my dog Mabel:

A camera sample of my dog Mabel.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
A camera sample of my dog Mabel.

The new macro camera option is a lot of fun. You can get really close to an object, like a blueberry or a flower, and capture a lot of detail.

Testing the macro feature on the iPhone 13 Pro Max.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review
Testing the macro feature on the iPhone 13 Pro Max.

Apple also increased the zoom range a bit, offering 3x zoom instead of 2.5x on last year's Pro models. I took pictures of turtles in the park to test this, but found I still had to get pretty close, even with 3x zoom, for the shot I wanted. But I got close enough without scaring them off. (Still, Samsung's phones, like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, have way better zoom.)

Testing the zoom on a turtle.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Testing the zoom on a turtle.

There are some other camera options that people who do a lot of filming will use more than I did. Cinematic Mode lets you keep a subject in focus and then automatically switch to another. So if you're filming someone talking, the way you might for a movie, you can keep them in focus and keep the other person in the background blurred, then switch the focus when the second person begins talking. I mostly film my son toddling around the living room so I don't really use these features. Apple's pro customers may, although this option is limited to shooting in HD and isn't available in 4K.

New Cinematic Mode on the iPhone 13 Pro Max.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
New Cinematic Mode on the iPhone 13 Pro Max.

There's a ton of space to store all your stuff, too. Apple's iPhone 13 Pro Max can be configured with up to 1TB of storage for $500 on top of the base price. Just for comparison's sake, that's four times as much storage as my MacBook Air and twice as much as the maximum storage option last year. Most people don't need this much, but pro users storing lots of 4K video may find it useful.

Like last year, the iPhone 13 Pro Max is durable. It's water-resistant, so it can survive being dropped in a pool, just like Apple's other iPhones, but also has the same strong glass and steel on the front and back as the iPhone 13 Pro and last year's Pro models. Having owned last year's model, I know it can take a pretty solid beating. The screen still gets scratched as easily as usual, though.

IPhone 13 Pro Max: What's bad

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max and iPhone 13 Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max and iPhone 13 Pro

It's huge. And it's heavier than last year.

I loved big-screen phones when I was traveling more often. But now that I'm at home, I prefer a smaller phone — I turn to an iPad for movies. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is awkward to use in bed when you're trying to hold it with one hand. It's also too big and heavy for me to tuck into my running belt. And I've dropped my iPhone 12 Pro Max countless times trying to fumble with it and something else.

The ProMotion display mostly works well, but I noticed some hiccups in apps like Spotify, where some menu options appeared to rise slightly slower from the bottom of the screen instead of appearing instantaneously. Most people might not even notice that. And GIFs in a chat app I used played in slow motion. Those bugs will probably get fixed as apps optimize for the new screens. 

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

I'd also like to see Apple improve other areas. The phone could use USB-C charging so that I could carry one cable to charge my Mac, iPad and phone. Instead, the iPhone uses the aging Lightning port. I'd also like to see other fun features you get on Android, like reverse wireless charging. It would be useful if I could just drop my AirPods on the back of the iPhone to charge them up. But Apple would need to perfect this: It's not power-efficient on Android phones — you often lose more battery life than you're giving to the gadget you're charging — and can be too slow to even bother with.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

All the iPhone 13 models have 5G, but there's little reason to upgrade for that right now. Most of us are still at home where we have Wi-Fi and it's unclear when we'll be out in the real world more often. When we are, you'll be able to take advantage of 5G for faster downloads or for things like streaming games. But that's not really a reason to upgrade at this point.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

IPhone 13 Pro: Same phone, smaller screen

Apple iPhone 13 Pro
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 Pro

The iPhone 13 Pro, which starts at $999, is effectively the same phone as the iPhone 13 Pro Max, with slightly less battery life and a smaller 6.1-inch screen. You still get the fancy high-refresh-rate display, and the cameras are exactly the same. (Unlike the case with last year's iPhone 12 Pro Max, which had better cameras than the plain old Pro.)

The battery life is a little worse but still solid. In my tests, I used it with the screen on for six hours, watching a movie three times on repeat and using it for other things, and still had 28% battery left. Most people should be fine getting through a full day.

If you're interested in the most advanced phone technology from Apple but don't want an enormous screen, get this version.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

IPhone 13: What's missing?

Apple iPhone 13, iPhone 13 mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13, iPhone 13 mini

The iPhone 13, which starts at $799, is a solid phone, but lacks the most advanced features found in the Pro models.

Here are the main differences:

  • No new ProMotion display. But the display is brighter than last year, which means it's easier to see outdoors when it's sunny.
  • Storage maxes out at 512GB instead of 1TB.
  • No dedicated zoom camera. 
  • Less battery life, though still an improvement over last year's models. 
  • One less GPU core for gaming and video rendering -- most people probably won't notice it missing.
  • The screens get bright but not as bright as the Pro models during normal usage.

Still, Apple made a lot of upgrades between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13, like adding twice the storage (128GB) on the entry-level model, new cameras, improved battery life, an updated processor, brighter screens and 5G support in more countries.

Apple iPhone 13
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13

The cameras in particular were upgraded from the iPhone 12 for improved night pictures and better HDR (shots when it's really light behind your subject come out better, for example). They also support Cinematic Mode, but otherwise, they aren't as advanced as the cameras on the Pro models.

IPhone 13 Mini: The little guy

Apple iPhone 13 mini
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Apple iPhone 13 mini

The iPhone 13 Mini, which starts at $699, is virtually identical to the iPhone 13 except for battery life and screen size.

The iPhone 13 has a 6.1-inch screen while the iPhone 13 Mini has a 5.4-inch screen. I wasn't a huge fan of the Mini's size last year because I assumed we'd be out of Covid lockdown soon, and I wanted to have a bigger screen and longer battery life.

But my habits have changed and I love the iPhone 13 Mini's size now. It's small and light enough to put in my running belt without feeling it bumping around too much.

But I'm still concerned about battery life. While Apple says it lasts up to 13 hours streaming video, I got 4 hours and 13 minutes before the battery fell below 50%. That also included 3 hours of screen-off time, when background tasks like photo uploads were still running. Anyone doing a lot of traveling with a Mini should bring a battery pack along just in case.

Which one should you buy?

I'm partial to the iPhone13 Mini this year since I love its size and I barely notice in my pocket. But for most people, the regular iPhone 13 is the best choice — just like the iPhone 12 last year. It has the best balance between features, screen size, price and battery life. 

Overall, all of the iPhone 13 models contain only minor updates from last year, and you don't need to upgrade from the iPhone 12. But if you're coming from an iPhone 11 or earlier, you'll like the new design, the boost in cameras, better battery life and nicer screens, no matter what model you pick.


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