Apple just held its annual September event yesterday where they announced their 2021 slate of refreshed products. By now, everyone knows that Apple announces the new iPhone models this month, but there are always some extras that accompany the iPhone. This time, Apple revealed a new iPad Mini, a new baseline iPad, and Watch Series 7. All of these are follow-ups to already established product lines. Even though the new iPhone is the focal point of the event, this time it felt like the tag-alongs stole the show.
It’s An “S” Year
The iPhone 13 lineup announced yesterday is the most incremental year-over-year update in a long time. Apart from one standout feature, the phones feel and look the same as their predecessors. If rumors are to be believed, next year’s iPhone will be the benchmark generational upgrade, similar to how the iPhone X was after the iPhone 8. Therefore, it stands to reason that you should skip this “S” generation and just wait for the next.
Alright, maybe I’m being too harsh. There are some genuinely intuitive features making their first appearance on these iPhones. Even if a lot of these features have been available on Android for a while, or they’ve been borrowed from other Apple products, they’re still a conversation starter. So, let’s take a deep dive into what distinguishes the new iPhones from the old and whether you should consider upgrading or not.
The design is pretty much the exact same across the board. The iPhone 13 looks like the iPhone 12; the iPhone 13 Mini looks like the iPhone 12 Mini; the iPhone 13 Pro looks like the iPhone 12 Pro; and the iPhone 13 Pro Max looks like the iPhone 12 Pro Max. You see the pattern yet? The only difference is that the rear camera arrangement on the non-Pro models this year is diagonal instead of vertical. The camera bump is also a bit larger on all phones, but especially on the Pro models. The camera array itself now takes up half of the top of the phone on the 13 Pro and Pro Max. Apart from that, the iPhone 13 is just a newer iPhone 12.
The screens do see a bit of a upgrade this year. All iPhone 13 models will sport a 20% smaller notch. They will still carry the same FaceID hardware and the front cameras, just squished into a tighter space. For the naked eye, the difference is quite subtle, but in Apple’s eye, it’s enough to warrant a generational moniker. Nonetheless, it’s a welcomed change as a smaller notch equates to more screen real estate, which is always a nice thing.
Smaller notch aside, the screens are also slightly brighter this year. The non-Pro models will reach a peak brightness of 800 nits, that’s 28% higher than iPhone 12. It can actually even exceed that and hit up to 1200 nits when viewing HDR content. Whereas, the iPhone 13 Pro and the Pro Max can get as bright as 1000 nits, 25% brighter than last year’s models. All of the iPhone 13s are also HDR capable, just like last year’s models. But, the standout feature is definitely the inclusion of ProMotion on the Pro models. This is the one thing that makes iPhone 13 (Pros) an exciting upgrade over the iPhone 12 Pros. Only the iPhone 13 Pro and the 13 Pro Max feature a ProMotion display and it’s actually the exact same panel that we’ve already seen on iPad Pro.
If you don’t know what ProMotion is, it’s basically Apple’s fancy name for high-refresh rate displays. In this case, it’s a 120Hz LTPO panel, which means that the refresh rate is variable from 10Hz all the way up to 120Hz. The phone will dynamically adjust the refresh date depending on what you’re looking at to conserve energy and save battery. So, for instance, when you’re scrolling through an article, the phone will bump up the refresh rate to 120Hz, but when you stop to gaze at a picture, it’ll drop down to just 10Hz. This way you get the best of both worlds; fluidity and a long-lasting battery life.
Speaking of battery life, it’s better! All iPhones this year actually feature a physically larger battery. The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro Max will last 2.5 hours more than their iPhone 12 equivalents. Meanwhile, the iPhone 13 Mini and iPhone 13 Pro will last 1.5 hours longer than their predecessors. That’s a really impressive feat even without taking the new displays into account. A bright, higher refresh rate display is more taxing on a phone’s battery so it’s commendable that Apple was able to not only keep that under control, but actually improve upon it to deliver a better user experience. The phones are ever-so-slightly thicker across the board to accommodate the bigger batteries, though.
Finally, we come to, arguably, the bread and butter of iPhones: the cameras. As with every passing year, the cameras have been upgraded to be better than last year’s models. However, this year there’s a very clear difference in the camera department between the non-Pro and Pro versions of the iPhone 13. The Pro models have gotten the most love and attention, and while it’s not like the non-Pro models have been sidelined, they definitely feel like more of an incremental upgrade than ever before.
iPhone 13 and 13 Mini
The standard iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 Mini have new dual cameras on the back. As mentioned before, they’re placed horizontally in the camera square instead of being stacked on top of each other like they were last year. Apple did this so they could include bigger sensors in the same space. Both phones have the same camera layout: one wide camera and one ultra-wide. Both lenses are 12MP, just like last year’s, however they have been improved all-around. The wide camera has a bigger sensor this time which apparently lets in 47% more light.
Whereas, the ultra-wide camera also features a larger sensor and an increased aperture to allow for more light-gathering. Moreover, the main wide camera on both phones now have sensor-shift optical image stabilization as well. We saw this tech debut on the iPhone 12 Pro Max last year, so it’s nice to see that Apple has brought this up in the non-Pro models this year. In theory, all this should allow for better low-light photography as larger sensors mixed with enhanced optical image stabilization will allow the camera to capture more light. But, we’ll have to wait and see if these improvements actually make a real-world difference.
iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max
The Pro models, however, pack the biggest upgrades. It really feels like Apple made sure that the Pro models this year actually feel Pro. The iPhone 13 Pro and the 13 Pro Max share the same three cameras across the board, however they’re significantly better than what’s on the iPhone 13 non-Pro models. The telephoto lens can now do up to 3x optical zoom, compared to only 2.5x on the iPhone 12 Pros; the ultra-wide lens can capture 92% more light, and the wide camera boasts a 2.2x improvement in low-light photography. All three cameras also have Night Mode now. Additionally, there’s a new Image Signal processor in the mix here, which should allow for better image processing.
That’s on top of the wider aperture on all lenses across the board as compared to non-Pro iPhone 13 models. Oh, and, the ultra-wide camera now has Autofocus so it can do macro photography. That’s right, you can now take macro shots on your iPhone, as close as 2cm from the subject. In a way, you can say that the iPhone 13 Pros actually have a fourth lens, as most Android phones have a separate, dedicated lens for macro photos. Regardless, those are some very bold claims. And, as always Apple hasn’t really provided any context as to how they’re calculating these numbers but, if we take their word, the Pro cameras truly feel like a notch above the rest this time.
Camera Software Features
If that was not enough, Apple has thought of some technical wizardry in the software department as well. There are two new features available on the iPhone 13 that further validate the “Pro” moniker. First, there’s a new “Cinematic Mode” which uses computational photography and AI to rack focus from one subject to another. Not only that, it can actually create fake bokeh or depth of field around subjects, similar to Portrait Mode on the iPhone. This feature is available on all iPhone 13 models. Just a few years ago, this was a challenge to do for mere photos and now, the iPhone 13 can do it for videos. Furthermore, you can actually go in and change the focus AFTER the video has been shot in the Photos app, like you can do for Portrait photos.
Apple is so confident in this feature that they shot a whole short film with it, just to showcase what the iPhone 13’s cameras can do. To be honest, the demo that Apple showed didn’t exactly look mind-blowing. It had a very soft appearance and there were slight halos around the subjects. Also, the cameras took a second to shift focus which was definitely noticeable. And, since the iPhone’s cameras aren’t par-focal, you can see the edge of the frame move when it shifts from a close focus to a far one, or vice-versa. But, still, this is a remarkable achievement for a smartphone camera. Apple really played up how huge this is and how this will transform cinema and whatnot. Now, I don’t know if that’s true but I can definitely sense the logic in Apple’s pitch.
To further fortify this professional high-ground, Apple added a second feature to the Pro iPhones this year and that’s ProRes Video. Quite an apt name, huh? So, the iPhone 13 Pro and the 13 Pro Max can now shoot ProRes Video at 4K30 FPS, except for the 128GB version which can only shoot at 1080p 30FPS. For the unaware, ProRes is a video format Apple developed back in 2007 and is used in the industry to record and edit cinema-grade professional videos. It’s a very serious recording format that professionals use to edit videos on a high-scale. So, seeing it on iPhone is quite an interesting sight.
ProRes allows you to keep all the data you captured while filming a video so that you can manipulate the video’s values in post to your liking. This is similar to shooting in RAW which also allows the user to really dial-in the details and configure the final shot to look exactly like they want it to. This kind of feature obviously caters to only professionals so it’s fitting that it’s only available on the “Pro” models. ProRes video also takes up a lot of storage. 10 minutes of 4K ProRes video can take up to 100GB, which is possibly why Apple limited ProRes to only 1080p on the 128GB model. Last year’s iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max introduced ProRAW image format to take RAW photos that you could edit afterwards so it was only a natural step that Apple would do this for video next.
Apple A15 Bionic, the new SoC
By now you must be wondering what powers all this tech and what enables the iPhone 13 to have such killer camera features. Well, under the hood, the iPhone 13 is packing the new Apple A15 Bionic SoC. It’s a generational upgrade over the A14 Bionic of yesteryear. Like the A14 Bionic, the A15 features 2 high-performance cores and 4 efficiency cores along with 4 GPU cores on the standard models. But the Pro models get 5 GPU cores this year. The extra GPU core on the Pros can be alluded to the extra performance cost of the camera features on the Pro models. Or, perhaps Apple just needed a way to differentiate between the Pro and non-Pro models this time. Because, the Bionic SoCs in iPhones have been the same across the board for a while now and the A15 Bionic is the first chip in a long time that’s actually different between the non-Pro and Pro variations.
Apple tells us that the CPU performance of the A15 Bionic is 50% faster than the competition while the 4-core GPU (non-Pro models) performance is 30% faster and the 5-core GPU (Pro models) is 50% faster. Once again, we don’t know who or what Apple is comparing to or what the performance metrics are here. We just have to take Apple’s word for it and believe them. There is very little Apple let known for the A15 Bionic on-paper so we can’t compare it ourselves either. All we know is that it’s fabricated on TSMC’s 5nm process and it has 15 billion transistors on board, which is quite the jump from the 11.8 billion that were present on the A14 Bionic last year. Apple also says that this is the fastest processor ever put in a smartphone which is most likely true because the A14 Bionic last year, which Apple claimed to be the fasted, was actually the fastest.
The iPhone 12 was already an incredibly powerful phone and it always topped the benchmarks beating every single competitor in its class. So, it stands to reason that the A15 Bionic inside the iPhone 13 will carry a similar performance delta. By now, we’ve come to expect nothing but the best out of the new iPhones each year and this year will certainly be the same. We don’t have exact numbers to pit against the two, but that doesn’t matter because the A14 was already the fastest smartphone processor in the world so the A15 can only go up from there. Apple is once again only besting itself here just because it can as the average user would never be able to notice the difference.
You notice a difference when there’s a shortcoming in the previous generation product. The A14 Bionic was already so fast that it covered most people’s needs without even stretching to its full potential. There was nothing to complain beforehand so there will be nothing to complain about now. The A15 will be a beast, just like its predecessor. A purchasing decision based solely on the SoC is nonsensical because both the A14 and A15 Bionic are top-performers that will satisfy even the most demanding users.
This year, Apple is introducing a new 1TB storage tier for the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. This is likely to accommodate the ProRes support that will most certainly eat at your storage. But, not only that, Apple has actually bumped up the baseline storage option from 64 GB to 128 GB across all iPhones. On top of that, Apple is also adding a 512 GB option for the non-Pro iPhone 13 models that was not available before on the iPhone 12.
Each year, Apple shuffles the iPhone’s colorways to create interest and keep things fresh, while the classic black and white models stay afloat each time. This year is no different. The non-Pro iPhone 13 models will be available in 5 colors. The black and white colors carry over, but the purple and green, unfortunately, don’t. The blue and red return as well, but they’re slightly changed. The new red is actually a deep red and not a saturated pink like it was last year. Additionally, the blue is a bit more muted and subtle as compared to last year. That being said, there’s actually a new (light) pink color available with the iPhone 13 non-Pro models.
Moving on to the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, the black, silver, and gold colorways make a return pretty much unchanged. However, there is a new blue color in town. Apple calls it “Sierra Blue” and it’s basically a sky blue color that’s much less vibrant and intense than the Pacific Blue we saw on the iPhone 12 Pros last year.
Like the iPhone 12, the iPhone 13 is still Lightning across the board. It’s a real shame because with the advent of ProRes video, it would’ve been great to finally see USB-C make its first appearance on an iPhone. But, oh well, we are still stuck with USB 2.0 speeds when we need to transfer ProRes video from out smartphone to our computers.
Apple knew that people would be furious or, at least, disappointed with this so they deliberately ignored talking about charging in their entire keynote. Not once did they mention or show the iPhone 13’s Lightning port so they could avoid negative press. Heck, even the iPad mini announced right before the iPhone 13 has a USB Type-C port but Apple is stubborn to include it on their iPhones.
The entire iPhone 13 lineup also supports 5G, just like the iPhone 12. The satellite calls rumor turned out to be false, unfortunately. The connectivity is the same here as well, mmWave and sub-6GHz, but the iPhone 13 will have more antenna bands than the iPhone 12. Apple also mentioned that it would extend its 5G support to over 200 carriers in 60 countries and regions. MagSafe is also back and unchanged from last year. Speaking of unchanged things, the iPhone 13 box will not come with a charging brick, just a Type-C to Lightning cable.
The water-resistance is also the same as last year, which is IP68. The iPhone 13 is still a glass sandwich with ceramic on the back and front. The materials are unchanged from last year as well – a stainless steel body for the Pro models and an aluminum chassis for the non-Pros. Apart from that, we see the same antenna bands, same buttons, and same dimensions on the iPhone 13 models as compared to iPhone 12.
This is one thing that everyone would actually hope for to be the same and, fortunately, it is… only for the Pro models. The iPhone 13 starts at $829 and the iPhone 13 Mini starts at $729. That’s $100 more than what last year’s equivalent iPhone 12 models cost. The price here is extremely difficult to justify seeing as these phones are much more of an incremental upgrade than their Pro contemporaries.
Speaking of which, the Pro models do cost the same as last year which makes them a much better and more enticing deal. The iPhone 13 Pro starts at $999 while the iPhone 13 Pro starts at $1099. The maxed-out balls-to-the-walls version of the iPhone 13 Pro Max will run you $1599, just in case you were wondering.
Should You Upgrade?
Now that you know the whole deal, it’s clear whether an upgrade is called for or not. In my opinion, if you are already rocking the iPhone 12 or even the iPhone 11, an upgrade to the new iPhone 13 seems pretty pointless. The only thing holding me back from just dismissing the iPhone 13 right away is that 120Hz ProMotion display. At the end of the day, the average consumer does not care about ProRes video or how they can mimic focus racking on their smartphone. They only care about the main things such as the screen and this year’s iPhone just happens to pack a significantly better screen.
Yes, the slightly bigger battery and smaller notch do pitch a strong argument for the iPhone 13, the difference here is again negligible and one that will likely be overshadowed by next year’s release. The cameras, while they may be an overall upgrade from last year, are such a marginal step-up that an upgrade based on those alone is not worth it, unless you are a professional who actually values the camera features. For everyone else, this seems like this is an S year you can easily pass on.