Anton D. Nagy contributed to this “Apple’s best iPhone 13 is complicated” post.
I think the topic of picking a new iPhone usually goes in three ways. One: some people just want an iPhone, doesn’t matter which one, meaning the less expensive it is the better. Two: other people either want the successor to their current iPhone because they loved it or want to try another because they didn’t. I think the third category is the most interesting: people that want the best iPhone, and this is a tricky premise because we usually attribute price as a determining factor, and in the case of iPhones, it’s not that simple.
This year we have four iPhones, two regulars, and two pros, where for the first time ever, it’s really just two different phones with different size options. Thing is, the more I’ve spent the past few days comparing them, the more I realize that they’re not that much different, so it might just be that you don’t need to pay extra to get the best one for you.
I think the most important thing to consider is that in my opinion, these are the best iPhones Apple has ever launched. I know for many of you they look like an iteration of last year, and visually they sort of are, but think of this as the M1 launch, where it’s exactly what each product should’ve always been, even if baked under familiar hardware, and I say familiar because looks can be deceiving. I’ll have comparisons with the older models soon for you to understand where I’m going.
So to start, doesn’t matter which iPhone you pick, you get the same exact thing in the box. A phone, and a USB-C to lightning cable. You’d assume at least the Pro models get a couple of extra perks for the price difference, but not the case here. If anything they did go far more environmental this time as there’s no plastic to be seen here.
As for their differences, think of it this way, if you like small to medium phones that are light, the 13 series should be your pick. If you prefer a bit more heft in the medium range, or you flat out like large phones, the 13 Pro series is for you. Just keep in mind there’s a difference in price and features.
The 13 series is made of the same aluminum most high-end phones are made of, but the Pro series adopts stronger stainless steel. Now if resale value matters to you, I’d just recommend you pick a darker color if you go Pro as my 12 Pro Max After The Buzz proved silver doesn’t age as well as the aluminum. I do prefer the matte back of the Pro series though, but it’s not like if the regular 13 doesn’t handle fingerprints well in most cases. Color options are also owned by the regular 13 models for anyone looking for variety, even if I’d consider the Pro variants to have a more elegant finish.
Now from the front, their screens are nearly identical. Same flat finish, Same Ceramic Shield protection, same smaller notch for Face ID that pushes the earpiece higher, and nearly the same AMOLED panels across the board. This means all four models have amazing color accuracy, contrast and are all bright enough to handle outdoor visibility just fine. Where they vary is that the Pro models have LTPO panels that allow for variable refresh rate from 10 to 120hz. That means it’s more efficient at sipping power during moderate use, and smother as you add intensity. Now if that doesn’t matter to you, stack them side by side, and most of the time, you’ll feel all 4 have the same quality, and that same experience extends to the dual firing speakers on each unit.
Now as for the experience of using these phones, it’s interesting that regardless of which phone you pick, iOS 15 is pretty consistent. The icons will just be a bit more spread out between the Pro Max and the mini, and naturally, the text will be larger, but even if there are resolution differences since their pixel density doesn’t vary much, you only get a bit more content on the Pro Max, and not really the 20% their size differences imply. The Pro and the Regular share the same numbers though, so both are identical. This is good because you’re not really getting a watered-down experience with the mini. You can feel confident that if this size works for you, so will the experience. It’s not good because it means a lot of wasted space on the Pro Max. I do wish there were some sort of multi-window user interface or Apple Pencil support for such a large canvas. It’s the reason I feel the 13 or 13 Pro are the sweet spot because you get a massive screen on a package you can handle with one hand.
Even down to the spec sheet, it’s crazy to see that all phones now start at the same storage. They all get the A15 Bionic which is so far second to none. They now all start at the same amount of storage and picking more costs the same price difference. All flavors of 5G are now standard, and the same goes for their IP rating and wireless connectivity. And sure the regular variants get two fewer gigs of RAM and one less GPU core, but I seriously can’t tell the difference in day-to-day use. Load the home screen with all the widgets you want, move around different screens and you won’t be able to tell one is better than the other. Unless you’re scrolling down menus or playing a game that supports a high refresh rate, the experience is solid on all four iPhones. Maybe what you will notice is that battery life did get better. I’ll leave my final verdict for our full reviews of each, but so far, I’m ending days just fine on all units, even the mini.
Maybe the spot where most think they’ll find major differences is in the camera department, because if you look at the spec sheets, the Pro Models don’t just have an extra focal length, but they also have better optics, and perks like Pro RAW, ProRes, and a Macro Mode that the regular models don’t. That said since the regulars have the same sensor as last year’s 12 Pro Max plus the sensor shifting stabilization, I think you’re in for a surprise.
During the day you won’t notice much difference from a distance. Whether you use the ultra-wide or the standard camera, their results are nearly identical, and even if you wanted to punch into 3X digital on the 13 just to match the Pro, I’d say those digital shots are pretty decent. You just can’t punch into 15X like you can on the Pro, but even that’s not as usable. The problem is close-ups where I have a love-hate relationship with the Pro as I love the shallow depth of field, and it forces the macro mode automatically, without a way to switch it off. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool as you get closer, but not compared to the 13 when you don’t.
Where you will notice the optical differences is in low light. I’d say both smartphones perform admirably from their primary sensors in very tough conditions. It’s when you switch to the Ultra-wide that the 13 Pro takes far less time to take a shot, but then the results aren’t that much better. Same thing if you punch in, as on both this is really just a digital crop.
Portraits and selfies are literally the same as those modules are identical across the board, with some pretty good separation and detail.
Even if you were to jump to video, the results are nearly identical in detail, stabilization, and color reproduction. I’d trust any of these four iPhones to serve as my B camera so long as I have good light, and the same can be said about the 4K at selfie performance from the front camera. Now I’m skipping cinematic on all phones because it only supports 1080p HDR, which I can’t portray on this 8-bit video, and it’s also capped at 30fps, which in my opinion is not a cinematic framerate. Even if ProRes is a differentiation between Pro and Regular, that’s sadly not available at the time of this comparison.
To conclude, I think you now understand why I’m as shocked as I am. You’d think there would be many differences between them, but it turns out that regardless of which iPhone you pick, you’re still getting an iPhone in every sense of the word. There’s really nothing here I’d call watered down at all. Yes, there are differences, but I can’t say that any would be considered a step back between one lineup or the other.
iPhone 13 Pro
iPhone 13 Pro packs Apple's best processor and camera hardware in its Stainless Steel chassis to provide buyers with the most robust iPhone experience yet.
Obviously, I have to pick one, and that’s harder than it sounds. See as much as I feel the mini is too good for its size, I need reading glasses, so that kills it for me in day-to-day use. As much as I love the added real-estate of the Pro Max, I do a lot of commuting and one-handed use is not really its cup of tea. If either of those extremes works for you, go for it. Really the best middle ground is either the 13 or the 13 Pro, and where what you have to consider is how much you care about stainless steel, an extra camera lens, added photography and video perks, and 120hz on the display.
In my case, I’m a creator, so going 13 Pro is a no-brainer. For me the more focal lengths I get the better but stay tuned for our full reviews coming soon to shed more light on my full experience using each phone. Now in your case, that might not be necessary. If you’re looking for the best iPhone money can buy, I think all 4 devices fit the bill. The question is which one matches your needs most.