iPhone 13 and 13 mini.
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David Imel for Engadget

iPhone 13 and 13 mini review: A subtle upgrade that's all about the cameras

How badly do you want the new Cinematic Mode?

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On paper, the iPhone 13 and 13 mini aren't much to get excited about. Apple's subtle refinement on the iPhone 12 models will be familiar if you've paid attention to developments in the Android world. Some of the changes are impressive, like bringing the iPhone 12 Pro Max's excellent camera hardware to smaller phones and lower price points. Others, like a slightly smaller notch, bigger batteries, brighter displays, faster chips and expanded 5G support feel incremental. Still, they add up to make the iPhone 13 mini and iPhone 13 feel like worthwhile upgrades, especially to those looking to upgrade from older iPhones.

Design

If you’re coming from an iPhone 12 or 12 mini, you might not notice a huge difference in this year’s models. The physical refinements include a smaller notch, a rearranged camera module that protrudes slightly further than before along with a new pink color option. I adore this hue — it’s similar to the “Not Pink” shade Google used on the Pixel 3, but because of the glass covering the iPhone, it looks paler and more iridescent.

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iPhone 13

Pros

  • Capable cameras with useful customization options
  • Speedy performance
  • Beautiful build and colors

Cons

  • 60Hz screen lags behind the competition

Apple shaved 20 percent off the front camera notch, which is nice, but it’s still significantly larger than the punch-hole designs over in Android land. The smaller size also didn’t make a huge difference in daily use. Of course, that notch houses hardware for Face ID, which is more sophisticated than any punch-hole camera at the moment. Given there isn’t a fingerprint sensor on current iPhones, a beefier face-recognition system is warranted and I guess we’ll just have to put up with the notch until Apple can figure out a better approach.

A green iPhone 12 and pink iPhone 13 with their backs facing the camera. You can see their dual cameras. On the left, the pair of sensors are stacked on top of each other. On the right, they're laid out diagonally. The module on the right is also slightly wider and taller, and the cameras themselves are slightly bigger.
David Imel for Engadget

The main way to tell the iPhone 13 and its predecessor apart is by looking at the camera module. Instead of stacking the pair of lenses vertically, Apple laid them diagonally. The bump is also a little bigger and thicker and the extra wobbling this causes is mildly annoying. Also, this does mean your old iPhone 12 cases won’t fit.

Otherwise, the iPhone 13 and 13 mini are physically very similar to last year’s models. They both feature anodized aluminum and glass frames with flat edges with what Apple calls its “ceramic shield” covering the front.

Both the iPhone 13 and 13 mini are a hair heavier and thicker and have the same display sizes as before at 6.1-inch and 5.4-inch respectively. The iPhone 13 is heavier than the Galaxy S21, too, despite having a smaller screen. Though, its density, glass covering and shiny metal edges do make it feel more premium.

Display and audio

Unlike the iPhone 13 Pros, which have faster 120Hz screens, the iPhone 13 and 13 mini have similar displays to their predecessors. Apple says the panels are 28-percent brighter. When I set the iPhone 12 and 13 to max brightness and held them up on a cloudy day, I did notice the newer phone had a teensy bit of an edge. But the difference isn’t big enough that you’d know without having them side by side.

A black iPhone 13 mini and pink iPhone 13 standing in front of some books on a shelf, with their rears facing the camera.
David Imel for Engadget

Besides that, the iPhone 13’s screens haven’t changed much. The thing is that just about everywhere else you look, though, phone displays are faster. I had been using the Pixel 5 and iPhone 12 before reviewing the iPhone 13, and even Google’s 90Hz panels make browsing Twitter and Reddit feel smoother.

If you’ve only used a 60Hz screen so far, you might not feel like you’re missing much — the iPhone 13’s display is still vibrant and crisp. You’ll enjoy watching Instagram or TikTok videos, for sure. But as someone who’s experienced the good stuff, I can tell you that you’re missing out.

As for the iPhone 13’s speakers, they’re basically unchanged and are good enough to hear the voices in your favorite creators’ clips or the background music of YouTube videos. In a pinch, they’ll even do a decent job streaming your favorite songs, offering clear vocals and adequate bass. As expected, though, the bigger iPhone is louder and has a fuller sound than the mini.

David Imel for Engadget
Image Credit: David Imel for Engadget

Cameras

The bulk of the iPhone 13 and 13 mini’s upgrades are around photography and video. Apple improved both the rear sensors here and the ultrawide lens is supposed to let in more light than before. Sadly, a lot of the notable additions are contingent on the A15 chipsets, meaning things like Cinematic Mode won’t be coming to older iPhones.

For example, the faster image signal processor (ISP) on the chip means things like nighttime photos won’t take as long. I certainly didn’t have to hold the iPhone 13 still for as many seconds as the iPhone 12 when I used both of them to shoot a candlelit globe in a super dark room. The difference was probably about one second, which sounds insignificant, but can feel like forever when you’re struggling to remain motionless.

The ultrawide photos I shot with the new phone were actually darker than the iPhone 12’s, but they were better exposed overall. Buildings against the night sky had cleaner lines, less noise and a more neutral tone than those from the iPhone 12. Google’s Night Sight on the Pixel 5 still rendered more details in the shadows, though, and I preferred the cooler images it produced.

Photographic styles on the iPhone 13
David Imel for Engadget

I used to prefer photos from Pixels because Apple’s pictures had a yellowish tinge. But with the iPhone 13s, Apple is introducing a way to better match users’ individual preferences called Photographic Styles. It’ll let you choose from one of five profiles: Standard, Rich Contrast, Vibrant, Warm and Cool, which differ in contrast levels and color temperature.

You can tweak these modes to your preference, too. But at their original settings, my favorite Style was Vibrant. Unlike filters, this felt more like a set-and-forget kind of thing — nice for people like me who have never been into Apple’s default treatment. Overall, the iPhone 13 took colorful and crisp shots, though compared to Google’s images they were needlessly brighter with obvious HDR effects.

In addition to the hardware and software improvements I’ve already mentioned, the company also updated its HDR algorithm to better accommodate every person in the scene. It also worked to enhance video quality, promising better dynamic range, details and highlights. Plus, you can now record in Dolby Vision in 4K resolution at up to 60 frames per second.

But the most intriguing new video feature (and arguably of all the camera updates) is Cinematic Mode. Using the A15 chip’s neural engine, the iPhone 13 can create a Portrait mode-like effect in your clips, keeping your selected subjects in focus while blurring out the rest of the scene. You can tap on parts of your viewfinder to change focal points as you shoot or let the iPhone decide for you by analyzing who and what’s in the scene.

Cinematic mode on the iPhone 13
David Imel for Engadget

On its own, Apple’s system is pretty clever. The iPhone 13 did a great job of identifying faces (both human and canine) in my shots, and yellow or white boxes appeared to indicate potential things to focus on. As my subjects turned toward and away from the camera, they became clearer and blurrier respectively. But when I tried to exert more control and adjust the focal point, the system struggled. Sometimes, my intended subject remained blurry even after I tapped on its rectangle. Other times, the iPhone didn’t follow the person I selected after they walked behind an obstruction, though that’s a reasonable situation.

When it did perform as expected, Cinematic Mode produced a pleasant effect that gave videos a professional air. But at the default intensity, the blurriness looked strange or artificial. The outline of my colleague’s head was stark against the softened background and I had to adjust the F-stop to the highest (f/16) to get a more natural feel.

It’s worth noting that Cinematic Mode only works in 1080p at 30 frames per second, even if you’ve set your camera to record at a higher quality.

Cinematic mode is also available via the 12-megapixel selfie camera, which offers Photographic Styles too, and both features were just as effective via the front sensors as through the rear.

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In low light, the iPhone 13 took selfies that were slightly blurry compared to the Pixel 5 and Galaxy S21, but when I was well lit, Apple’s camera delivered images that were just as sharp as the competition. It even had a more neutral tone than the other two, with a more accurate white balance (though Samsung was pretty close).

iOS 15

I covered most of the changes coming via iOS 15 when I tested the beta, including things like Focus modes and SharePlay. Focus modes, which lets you set custom home pages and notification profiles based on your location or time of day, is still one of the most useful new features on any smartphone platform in recent years. Meanwhile, SharePlay won’t be available until a later release.

An iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 next to each other with their screens facing the camera.
David Imel for Engadget

Each time you open a relevant app, like Photos or Tips, Apple shows you what’s new this time around — like Memories set to tunes from the company’s Music library. Safari also had a redesign (and a few tweaks during the beta window), primarily making it easier to browse and organize your tabs.

I’ve never been a big Safari user, preferring Chrome for its convenience, but it’s nice to see Apple update its interface for easier navigation with one hand. Chrome and Safari are pretty similar on iOS, although Google sadly still has its address and search bar at the top of the screen. If you prefer, you can also go back to the traditional layout in Safari.

Other noteworthy iOS updates include Live Text in Photos, which makes finding specific pictures from the Spotlight search much easier. The Maps and Weather apps also received a refresh, while Shared With You in Messages makes it slightly easier to find things you and your friends chatted about. Since most of these will be coming to older iPhones, though, iOS 15 features are unlikely to sway your decision on whether to upgrade this year.

We’ll have a more in-depth review of Apple’s latest OS soon, but for now, I’m pleased with the level of control iOS 15 offers and look forward to testing out a stable version of SharePlay.

David Imel for Engadget
Image Credit: David Imel for Engadget

Performance and in use

There are some annual updates that we take for granted nowadays, like imperceptibly faster processors and incrementally improved battery life. Though it’s not obvious, Apple says one of the iPhone 13’s key updates is an internal redesign that allows for a bigger battery, among other things. Also new in the A15 are the GPU, ISP and video encoder and decoder, which made using the camera super snappy. Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that Apple doubled the storage of the base iPhone 13, so you now get 128GB at the entry-level. Finally.

I spent most of my time on the iPhone 13 and 13 mini shooting pictures and video, browsing my feeds, shopping for completely unnecessary things, messaging my friends and completing round after round on the New York Times Crossword app. Every now and then, I had to wait for a page to load on the mini, while the bigger phone rarely lagged. I can’t tell if the delays I encountered had to do with my internet connection or if the smaller device was actually slower. Their scores on Geekbench 5 are about the same, so I suspect it was the former. Overall, though, both the iPhone 13s sped through tasks like launching and switching between multiple apps, snapping photos in rapid succession and uploading Instagram posts.

Frankly, the main thing holding both models back is the display. As mentioned, pretty much every other flagship phone has a faster screen now, and even the Pixel 5’s 90Hz panel feels noticeably faster. Whenever I reflexively started scrolling my list of Instagram Story viewers or Twitter timeline or pretty much anything on the internet, it felt like a drag on the new iPhones. I went right back to the Pixel 5 or iPhone 13 Pro any time I knew I was going to spend a long time scrolling.

Battery life

Despite their brighter screens, Apple said the iPhone 13 and 13 mini should last up to 2.5 and 1.5 hours longer than their predecessors respectively. While the 13 mini did beat the 12 mini by sticking around almost a whole day on light use, the 13 hours and 19 minutes score on our video rundown test is still shorter than the average smartphone. It’s a pity; I love the size of the iPhone 13 mini — it’s just so much easier to use with one hand. But the greatest drawback of any modern phone this small is a lack of endurance.

A pink iPhone 13 on a mustard-colored couch with its rear facing the camera.
David Imel for Engadget

The iPhone 13, meanwhile, outlasted its predecessor and generally hung around for almost two days. The Pixel 5 and Galaxy S21 also clocked similar runtimes — it’s nice that most flagships these days have fairly long-lasting batteries. I'm still running our full battery tests across all of the new iPhones, including the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max, and will update this review with comparative figures shortly.

Wrap up

This is a story we’ve told over and over again, each time with the same conclusion: While this year’s iPhones aren’t major improvements over their predecessors, they offer just enough changes that might tempt you to upgrade, particularly if you’re still on an iPhone 11 or older. The iPhone 13 and 13 mini feel like they should have been called the 12s and 12s mini, thanks to a largely similar design and few major upgrades from the previous models. If you have an iPhone 12, you need to decide if the longer battery life and photography updates are worth however much the upgrade will cost you. Our review of the 13 Pro and Pro Max is coming later this week, so you can check that out to see if things like the faster displays and macro photography features would be worth picking up one of those.

As for how Apple’s latest compare to recent Android flagships, you’ll find they’re all almost on par when it comes to hardware. The biggest difference is the faster screens on Androids, and those who prefer fingerprint sensors to Face ID will only find them on non-Apple phones. Those are good reasons to stick with Android. But on software, Apple’s thoughtful approach with Focus modes and privacy on iOS makes it appealing to those who want greater control over how much of their lives they want to give up to their phones. Switching ecosystems will always be a struggle, and with the iPhone 13 and 13 mini, Apple has yet to give people a compelling reason to do so. But, as expected, they’re excellent phones with little to complain about.

Key specs (iPhone 13)

Processor: A15 Bionic with 6-core CPU

Storage: 128/256/512GB storage

MicroSD card support: None

Display: 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED with HDR

Display resolution: 2,532 x 1,170 (460 ppi)

Rear dual cameras: 12MP f/1.6 wide-angle camera with sensor-shift OIS; 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide camera (120-degree FOV)

Front camera: 12MP f/2.2 TrueDepth camera

Operating system: iOS 15

Battery: "Up to 19 hours video playback"

Charging: Lightning port with fast wired charging at 20W (up to 50 percent in 30 minutes); Support for MagSafe wireless charging up to at 15W; Qi wireless charging at up to 7.5W.

Dimensions: 5.78 x 2.82 x 0.30 inches; 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.65mm

Weight: 174 grams; 6.14oz

Fingerprint sensor: No

Waterproofing: IP68

NFC: Yes

Headphone jack: No

Key specs (iPhone 13 mini)

Processor: A15 Bionic with 6-core CPU

Storage: 128/256/512GB storage

MicroSD card support: None

Display: 5.4-inch Super Retina XDR OLED with HDR

Display resolution: 2,340 x 1,080 (476 ppi)

Rear dual cameras: 12MP f/1.6 wide-angle camera with sensor-shift OIS; 12MP f/2.4 ultra-wide camera (120-degree FOV)

Front camera: 12MP f/2.2 TrueDepth camera

Operating system: iOS 15

Battery: "Up to 17 hours video playback"

Charging: Lightning port with fast wired charging at 20W (up to 50 percent in 30 minutes); Support for MagSafe wireless charging up to at 15W; Qi wireless charging at up to 7.5W.

Dimensions: 5.18 x 2.53 x 0.30 inches; 131.5 x 64.2 x 7.65mm

Weight: 141grams; 4.97oz

Fingerprint sensor: No

Waterproofing: IP68

NFC: Yes

Headphone jack: No

Photos by David Imel (@DurvidImel)

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