On the 24th of September Apple released its latest series of iPhone models into the world. The iPhone 13 and 13 mini along with the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max. This review is a deep dive into the best that Apple has to offer with the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. I’ve spent the last week testing the new phones extensively to help you decide if now is the time to upgrade or if you should hold onto your current phone for another year.
Starting with design. At a casual glance, the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max look very similar to last years iPhone 12 Pro. They feature boxy, flat edges made of precision-engineered, surgical grade stainless steel. I picked up the Graphite iPhone 13 Pro and the Silver iPhone 13 Pro Max. The Graphite achieves its deep rich finish with a physical vapour deposition process. The Silver by contrast is the raw colour of the metal. There is also a Gold colour option and a new colour for 2021, Sierra Blue. The Sierra Blue was created using a different type of finishing process that involves nano-ceramic crystals. It should be super durable as is the case with the other finishes but not less susceptible to fingerprints.
The rear glass of these phones feature Corning Gorilla Glass (though Apple hasn’t confirmed which generation) and it has a beautiful matte finish. The front glass is protected by Apple’s proprietary ‘Ceramic Shield’ which infuses ceramic crystals into the display for enhanced drop protection. You’ll still need a screen protector though if scratches bother you as it isn’t any less vulnerable to scratches.
The camera bump has increased significantly in size this year to accommodate much larger sensors. In my opinion it’s a none issue. It didn’t bother me and the benefits far outweighs the disadvantages. If you don’t use a case the phone will rock on a table like the iPhone 12 that came before it. And the iPhone 11, XS and X. You get the idea. If it bothers you just use a case and the problem goes away. The cameras are protected with sapphire crystal for good measure so durability is of little concern.
On the left side of the device, we find the volume controls and the silent ringer switch. On the right the Sleep/Wake power button and the SIM tray. If you’re in the USA you’ll also notice a small plastic transparency window for mmWave 5G. At the bottom of the device, we find the speaker and microphone grilles and the lightning port returns for another year. Sorry USB C fans. Although on a personal level I’m not fussed about USB C on the iPhone. If like me you’re all in on wireless charging and data transfer then USB C is just another port and doesn’t make the experience better. I can appreciate that for certain use cases such as faster data transfer it might be useful to have a USB C port. But I imagine that people with that use case are in the minority. The average consumer won’t notice or just doesn’t care provided they have a way to charge their phone.
The design changes are minimal this year but that isn’t a bad thing. Too often tech companies are praised for shipping a new design each year. But the external appearance in most cases doesn’t change the way you use the product or push the technology forward. It’s just a design change and progress for the sake of progress. And the iPhone 13 Pro looks gorgeous, feels great in the hand and is the ideal form factor for maximising battery capacity. Samsung and others can keep changing their designs annually and people will continue to not notice they exist (or even buy them). Ignore the noise when it comes to iPhone design changes. It’s what you can actually use the device for that really matters. That brings us nicely to the display….
The iPhone 13 Pro comes with a 6.1-inch display and the iPhone 13 Pro Max features a larger 6.7-inch display. These are the same screen sizes as last years Pro iPhones. Aside from display size, the screens on both models are identical. And this year there are some notable improvements. The displays can reach a peak brightness of 1000 nits in normal use compared to last years 800 nits. In all lighting conditions including outdoors the displays are vibrant, colourful and readable. You’ll appreciate the difference most outdoors on a sunny day or in a very brightly lit room. When watching HDR content, the displays can ramp up to a huge 1200 nits of brightness. This makes watching HDR Movies, TV Shows and YouTube videos simply stunning. Specular highlights have a level of sustained luminosity that I’ve never seen on a phone before. And the contrast is excellent thanks to Apple’s continued top-notch implementation of OLED technology.
Speaking of top-notch, both the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max continue to feature a notch at the top of the phone for housing various sensors, the selfie camera and Face ID biometric security. But this year Apple has reduced the width of the notch by 20% so it doesn’t take up quite as much viewable screen area. That being said the notch is ever so slightly taller but you’d be hard-pressed to notice. Some reviewers have found that the slight increase in height means that the notch cuts into zoomed out video content but I haven’t been able to replicate this. I imagine this would only be an issue for very wide aspect ratios. For regular 16:9 movies and TV shows, this is a non-issue. And I’ve yet to encounter it on YouTube videos which tend to use a wider variety of aspect ratios.
The real star of the show this year though is the introduction of ProMotion. This is Apple’s marketing term for displays that feature a high refresh rate. 120hz to be exact. Previous iPhones including this year’s lower-end iPhone 13 refresh at 60hz and maintain a constant frame rate. Apple’s ProMotion displays found in the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max offer a variable refresh rate that can change how often it refreshes depending on the content you’re viewing. For example, if you’re scrolling through a website it will refresh at a maximum of 120hz. But when watching a typical Hollywood movie, the display drops to 24hz to match the frame rate of the action on screen. Or if you’re playing a game which is locked to 60 frames per second the display will refresh at 60hz rather than a full 120hz. What all this means in practice is that the display looks and feels far more responsive than any previous iPhone model. Scrolling through a website looks gorgeously smooth. Navigating the user interface of iOS feels more responsive than ever. And this is all enabled by a technology called Low-temperature polycrystalline silicon or ‘LTPO’ for short. LTPO means that the display can be super responsive and refresh at 120hz when it needs to but then ramp down to as low as 10hz to save battery when static content is being shown on the screen. This is a feature that some people will notice immediately and love from the moment they experience it. But thanks to how smooth Apple’s animations are in iOS some people won’t notice it right away. However once you’ve been using ProMotion for a little while and try to go back to a 60hz display as found on older iPhones, you won’t want to go back.
The Tech Specs
iPhone 13 Pro:
- Super Retina XDR display
- 6.1‑inch (diagonal) all‑screen OLED display
- 2532×1170-pixel resolution at 460 ppi
iPhone 13 Pro Max:
- Super Retina XDR display
- 6.7‑inch (diagonal) all‑screen OLED display
- 2778×1284-pixel resolution at 458 ppi
- ProMotion technology with adaptive refresh rates up to 120Hz
- HDR display
- True Tone
- Wide colour (P3)
- Haptic Touch
- 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio (typical)
- 1,000 nits max brightness (typical); 1,200 nits max brightness (HDR)
- Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
- Support for display of multiple languages and characters simultaneously
The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are powered by Apple’s A15 Bionic chip. It offers modest performance bumps over last years A14 Bionic for CPU intensive tasks. Around a 15% increase in speed year on year. But for graphics performance, the chip takes a big leap with a whopping 70% increase compared to the A14. Furthermore, the A15 is far more energy-efficient than its predecessor which as discussed later in this review, lends itself to great battery life.
This year Apple has doubled down on many of its camera features and machine learning. To enable some of the new features such as portrait mode for video (or as Apple is referring to it ‘Cinematic Video’), the faster GPU was critical. Intriguingly in the iPhone 13 Pro/Pro Max, Apple has kitted it out with a 5 core GPU compared to 4 cores on the A15. This no doubt improves gaming performance, video export times and so forth. But I can’t help but wonder if the additional core also helps Apple to achieve a smooth and consistent 120hz refresh rate without running the display at a lesser resolution. Apple hasn’t commented on this.
As is always the case, Apple does not reveal the amount of RAM inside the iPhone 13 Pro but thanks to Geekbench 5 and various teardowns, we know that it comes with 6GB. As always this is much lower than most Android flagships. But of course, iOS is so well optimised for Apple silicon that additional RAM isn’t required. And while it isn’t the only measure of performance, Geekbench 5 indicated that the A15 is at least 2 years ahead in performance compared to any other phone. Quallcolms latest Snapdragon 888 chip just can’t compare. The iPhone 12 from last year featuring the A14 bionic still continues to outperform the Snapdragon 888 as it happens. And Google’s first-generation customer silicon (code-named Tensor) if these leaks are accurate.
In my testing, the A15 bionic has been simply exceptional. It enables the iPhone 13 Pro to cut through even the most demanding tasks with ease. I didn’t expect to notice much of a difference in performance when compared to last years iPhone 12 Pro Max but everything certainly felt notably snappier. Much of that though could be down to ProMotion and how much smoother animations can run thanks to the higher refresh rate. I can say with confidence that for even the most demanding tasks you won’t be disappointed with the performance. Photo editing, video editing and gaming are class-leading on the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. There isn’t another smartphone that can match this level of consistent performance.
The Tech Specs
- 2 x 3.23 GHz Avalanche performance cores
- 4 x Blizzard efficiency cores
- Arm v8 Instruction set
- 6 GB RAM
- 15 billion transistors at 5nm
- 16 core neural engine capable of 15.8 trillion operations per second
- 5 Core GPU that is 50% faster than the Snapdragon 888
I’ll just say it now. The battery in the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max is legendary. Not just a little bit better than the previous iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max. A lot better. And that’s down to several factors. As mentioned earlier in this review the A15 Bionic chip is more energy-efficient thanks to improvements to its ‘Blizzard’ efficiency cores. But Apple has also increased the capacity of the batteries by 12% and 17% respectively compared to last years iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max. The introduction of LTPO technology in the display also means the iPhone 13 Pro can gently sip at the energy when static content is displayed on the screen, running the display at a low 10hz.
The introduction of larger batteries does increase the thickness and weight of these new phones but the differences were imperceptible to me. Last years phones were still pretty heavy in my opinion and this years are simply continuations of the same form factor yet heavier still. It isn’t a deal-breaker for me and for people that want a smaller and lighter phone, the iPhone 13 mini exists as does the iPhone 13 with a lightweight Aluminium frame. But I do think the trade-off made in size and weight was worth it to deliver true, all-day battery life.
As I’m writing this review my iPhone 13 Pro Max has had 7 and a half hours of screen on time with 28% battery left. That’s about 10% battery consumption per hour of screen on usage. And that doesn’t even account for background power draw. This is mightily impressive and you’ll comfortably get through a day with the 13 Pro or the 13 Pro Max. But if you want the absolute longest battery life you’ll need to go for the Pro max.
One final impressive battery feature to note is the dramatic increase in streaming video watch time. Apple has doubled down on the way the A15 bionic handles different video encoders and the results are dramatic. The iPhone 13 Pro delivers 20 hours of video streaming compared to 11 in the 12 Pro. The iPhone 13 Pro Max offers a whopping 25 hours of video streaming compared to 12 hours in the 12 Pro Max. More than double! Of course, these figures are based on Apple’s claims and there are numerous variables to consider such as display brightness, method of internet connection, signal strength and so forth. But regardless these are impressive numbers and you really do feel the benefit in real-world use.
Thoughts so far
The Display, Performance and Battery upgrades this year in the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are truly excellent. They’re meaningful updates to last years iPhone and if you’re upgrading from an iPhone 11 or older, the differences will feel night and day. And we haven’t even talked about the camera, photography and new video features yet. Come back for Part 2 of this review which focuses specifcially on the Camera and includes well over 50 photos and videos shot in a variety of different situations. Stay tuned as its coming later this week!