iPhone 13 review: is it worth upgrading for?

There was a time when Apple would release one, maybe two handsets at its annual Autumn event and fans would either opt for the high-end model or a lesser equivalent. In recent years, however, the Cupertino tech giant has been increasingly adding variations to the range in order to appeal to a broader range of buyers. This year’s September 14 event included four different handsets with the moniker iPhone 13.

At the lower end of the specification and price spectrum is the iPhone 13 mini, which starts at £679. At the top end is the iPhone 13 Pro Max, which, when bought with the maximum 1TB of storage, will set you back £1,549.

Then there are the mid-range handsets, including the iPhone 13 (from £779) – the subject of this review – and the iPhone 13 Pro (from £949). Although these four handsets technically fall within the same iPhone 13 range, the iPhone 13 mini and the iPhone 13 are a tad inferior in terms of design and features versus the more expensive, “professional” 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max.

In this iPhone 13 review, we put the original handset, from which the others’ names stem, to the test to see if there is still a place for such a mid-range phone in the iPhone series in 2021.

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iPhone 13 review: summary

Key features:

  • £779 (128GB); £879 (256GB); £1,079 (512GB)
  • 6.1-inch, Super Retina XDR display with Ceramic Shield protection
  • IP68 (waterproof for 30 mins up to 6 metres)
  • iOS 15
  • 5G
  • Apple A15 Bionic Chip with 16-core Neural Engine
  • 12MP dual‑camera system on the rear, with Wide and Ultra-Wide sensors
  • 12MP TrueDepth camera on the front with support for FaceID
  • Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles
  • 19-hour battery life (video playback), 75-hour battery life (audio playback)
  • MagSafe and Qi wireless charging up to 15W

Pros:

  • Clear and vibrant display; makes content and games shine
  • Takes professional-looking photos, especially in low light
  • Great battery life

Cons:

  • Lacks the power, performance, and camera advancements of the Pro range
  • 60Hz refresh rate may not suit hardcore gamers

The iPhone 13 is available to buy SIM-free with prices starting at £779.

What is the iPhone 13?

The iPhone 13 is Apple’s latest mid-range handset, released alongside three other models – the iPhone 13 mini, iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max – at a virtual launch event in September 2021.

It is the successor to the iPhone 12, released in September 2020, and it comes with the same 6.1-inch, True Tone, Ceramic Shield display, and the same IP68 waterproof rating. However, it also comes with a number of upgrades. Most notably, an improved 12MP dual-camera setup, the addition of Apple’s “fastest, most efficient processor ever”, and improved battery life. Plus, new storage options, new video and photography modes, and a host of new software features in iOS 15.

Under the hood, the iPhone 13 is powered by the A15 Bionic Chip with a 16-core Neural Engine – alongside a 6-core CPU and 4-core GPU – in a system designed to make the handset better equipped at handling more intense tasks such as machine learning and AI programs, high-end games, and streaming high-quality video. This setup is also said to have been optimised to help the larger battery last longer than on previous models – up to 2.5 hours longer each day than the iPhone 12.

There is a wide and ultra-wide sensor on the rear in the 12MP dual-camera system, accompanied by a 12MP True Depth sensor on the front. All of which have been optimised to work with iOS 15 and support new modes, including Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles. These new software additions help you take better and more professional looking photos and films.

What does the iPhone 13 do?

  • Takes professional-style photos and up to 4K video thanks to improved dual-camera setup and the new Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles
  • Supports biometric security with FaceID, used to unlock the hardware as well as apps and online accounts
  • iOS 15 brings spatial audio, a new Portrait mode, and new Focus features to help users reduce distractions when working, driving or sleeping, as well as Live Text, which allows users to copy text from images
  • Media streaming with the Apple TV app installed by default. This app acts as a remote control for Apple TV streaming boxes; a library for video content purchased from the iTunes store; and a hub to find and watch Apple TV Plus shows (for subscribers)
  • Netflix, BBC iPlayer, All 4, ITV Hub, SkyGo and Disney+ are available from the Apple App Store, as are millions of apps
  • A full charge lasts up to 19 hours when watching videos, or up to 75 hours over audio
  • MagSafe compatible, offering peak power wireless charging, up to 15W, alongside support for standard Qi wireless charging hardware
  • Support for 5G (when available)
  • Smart Data mode saves battery life by automatically shifting iPhone to 4G when 5G speeds aren’t needed
  • The iPhone 13 can be used to control and manage smart home devices via HomeKit
  • iCloud support means you can sync content, purchases, and downloads across multiple Apple devices, including Macs, other iPhones and iPads
  • Available in off-white, black, red, blue and pink

How much is the iPhone 13?

The Apple iPhone 13 has an RRP of £779 and is available at a number of retailers off-contract.

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Is the iPhone 13 good value for money?

Apple made a significant step-change in hardware when it launched the iPhone 12, and many of these improvements have carried over onto the iPhone 13. Suppose you’re already using an iPhone 12. In that case, the advances in camera technology and software features – many of which are available on iOS 15, regardless of which handset you’re running – may not warrant spending another £800. Plus, unless you’re after a new colourway, you won’t be upgrading to the iPhone 13 for its design changes.

However, if you’re running older handsets or are due for an upgrade, the iPhone 13 hits a sweet spot. It’s powerful, durable, its cameras are great and, now with double the storage compared to before, its price point makes it good value. We can’t say it’s cheap, because it’s not, but if you’re looking for a lot of bang for your buck, you can’t go wrong with the iPhone 13.

iPhone 13 rear

iPhone 13 features

The iPhone 13 takes the features of the iPhone 12 and, largely, raises them to the next level. It runs on the latest version of Apple’s mobile software – iOS 15 – and, as is the case with every new Apple release, the hardware onboard the handset has been designed to work as efficiently and effectively as possible with this new operating system.

Most importantly, this means that the battery life on the iPhone 13 is superior to all like-for-like iPhones that have come before. Apple claims the combination of the optimised hardware and new software, as well as a larger battery, means the iPhone 13 will last up to 2.5 hours longer than the iPhone 12. You can read more about this in the iPhone 13  battery section below.

It also means that the improved 12MP dual-camera hardware on the rear and the True Depth camera on the front of the iPhone 13 can take full advantage of the new Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles software found across the iPhone 13 range. We explain more about these additions in the iPhone 13 camera section below.

Elsewhere, iOS 15 includes what Apple describes as “new ways to stay connected.” A number of existing features have been redesigned – namely how notifications look and appear, the way the Weather app showcases air pollution, rain levels and the hourly forecast, and how Apple Maps displays routes and walking directions with 3D and AR features. Wallet now adds support for home keys, and there are new privacy controls in Siri and Mail to protect them both from unauthorised use.

There are also new Focus features designed to reduce distractions. In addition to the existing Do Not Disturb options, you can enable Personal Focus, Sleep Focus and Work Focus settings. Each one lets you disable notifications at certain times. You can set it so that only certain people can contact you when Focus is enabled, and you can ask Siri to send a message to people who contact you during this time, telling them that Focus has been switched on. This also comes with the option to share these Focus settings across all connected devices.

However, the most useful additions include the ability to search for photos directly from the Search bar at the top of the screen instead of going via the Photos app and the new Live Text tool. This uses the neural engine in the A15 Bionic Chip to recognise writing in a photo or image and allows you to cut, copy and share this text as if you were copying from a document. There’s also a small feature that Apple introduced in iOS 14 that works perfectly with Live Text. This allows you to copy text from a photo on your phone and automatically paste it onto your MacBook or iPad from a shared clipboard. This may seem insignificant, but it’s been a game-changer in terms of productivity.

The phone itself comes with a whole host of pre-installed apps including Camera, Photos, Health, Messages, Mail, Music, Wallet, Safari, Maps, Siri, Calendar, iTunes Store, App Store, Notes, News, Weather, Reminders, Stocks, Calculator, Voice Memos and many more. That’s not to mention the free apps iMovie, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, GarageBand, Apple Store, iTunes Remote, and Clips. The new App Library storage feature from iOS 14 means that these apps aren’t too unwieldy, but manually removing those we don’t want is a little tedious.

Another downside to having all of these pre-installed apps, plus the operating system, is that they eat into your device’s storage. 15.1GB of storage, to be precise. Plus – as with all Apple products – it’s not possible to physically expand the storage on the iPhone 13. Thankfully, storage options are much improved, by default, on the iPhone 13. The entry-level handset now has twice as much storage than on the iPhone 12, at 128GB, and this now rises to 512GB. You can remove any or all of these apps or pay for up to 2TB of iCloud storage for an additional cost should you need to, but it’s an ongoing pain.

Security-wise, there is a FaceID sensor embedded into the True Depth camera on the front of the device, and this camera and sensor now sit on a slightly smaller, redesigned notch at the top of the display. Despite its smaller form, we didn’t notice any discernible delays in unlocking the phone with this sensor.

iPhone 13 rear

iPhone 13 design

Very little, visually, has separated iPhones for some time. From a glance, it’s difficult to determine between the different models but look closely, and you will see some upgrades and tweaks.

As mentioned, the notch on the iPhone 13 is smaller – by around 20% – than that seen on the iPhone 12. This doesn’t make a huge difference to 6.1-inch screen real estate as videos and games still have to fit around it, but it is a noticeable tweak.

The iPhone 13 is marginally thicker and heavier than previous iPhones, but it’s barely tangible, and we’ll take that hit for the improved battery life, more powerful processor and the increased number of 5G bands needed to make this phone super fast.

On the rear, the new camera modules are positioned diagonally rather than one above the other. The iPhone comes in new colours – starlight, midnight, blue, pink and red, the latter being from the PRODUCT(RED) partnership, which raises money for AIDS charities.

Every other measurement is identical to the iPhone 12, including the IP68 water-resistant rating. It has a Lightning port, and there’s still no sign of the iPhone range getting USB-C ports like the latest iPads; the power button, which can also be used to enable Siri, is found on the right-hand side of the handset, opposite the volume buttons on the left. The speakers sit on either side of the charging port.

iPhone 13 screen quality

Just as the design of the iPhone 13 has remained largely the same, so too has the screen and sound quality. It has the same 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED display, with the same resolution that was first seen on the iPhone 12. It’s also toughened by the same Ceramic Shield. As was the case with its predecessor, Apple promises that this shield gives the iPhone 13 four times better protection and durability when dropped. The back glass has also been strengthened through what Apple calls a dual ion-exchange process, making it “the toughest glass on a smartphone” – we haven’t put this through any rigorous tests, but anecdotally the iPhone 13 does feel sturdier than previous models. All that said, we’d still not feel comfortable using it without a case.

The iPhone 13’s OLED display is crisp and clear. Support for the P3 wide colour gamut means colours look vibrant and realistic, particularly when the phone is the highest brightness setting, which itself has been boosted 28% to 800 nits for SDR and 1,200 nits for HDR content. This makes games and HD content shine, almost literally. Plus, because each OLED pixel has its individual light source, it helps make blacks look deeper and darker and helps improve contrast. Elsewhere, the display has native support for Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HLG.

For the lower price point, you do get a lower 60Hz refresh rate on the iPhone 13 display versus the 120Hz seen on the Pro models. For everyday tasks, you’ll barely notice this. However, if you’re a keen gamer, it will present a point of difference that might see you needing to move to a Pro model.

 iPhone 13 camera

As has been the case for as long as we can remember, the camera improvements that come with each iteration of the iPhone are usually a major – and in some cases, the main – reason to upgrade to the latest model. The iPhone 13 range and its new camera technologies are no exception.

Despite, on paper, the hardware looking near-on identical to that seen on the iPhone 12 – a 12MP dual-camera Wide and Ultra Wide system on the rear and a 12MP True Depth camera on the front – Apple has taken it to another level through a number of software and sensor upgrades.

Firstly, the Wide rear camera sensor is larger, meaning it captures 47 per cent more light. This improves the detail and contrast of images taken in low light, while a new sensor on the Ultra Wide Camera helps reveal more of the dark areas of a shot with less noise. This makes it better for us indoors, especially as the winter nights come in and the weather takes a turn. The Neural Engine inside the phone and an advanced image signal processor in the A15 Bionic Chip help enhance images and videos further, making shots more steady.

Both the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini have Night mode, Deep Fusion, and HDR video recording with Dolby Vision seen on the iPhone 12. However, the latter has been upgraded to support 4K at 60 fps on all cameras (up from 4K at 30 fps on the iPhone 12). Night mode helps take even better photos at night, while Deep Fusion captures multiple shots at multiple exposures and “fuses” them together to present the best possible image.

As a result of the sensor upgrades, we found ourselves using the Night mode feature less often because the low-light performance was more than good enough in a large number of scenarios.

iPhone 13 cameras

Secondly, Apple has added some great new features, including Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles. The former uses what’s known as “rack focus” – a technique used by cinematographers in feature films. It’s used to guide the viewers’ attention by switching focus between subjects and adding a depth-of-field effect.

Users can mirror this effect on the iPhone 13 in Cinematic Mode and create professional-looking videos, with the same focus options seen in films and TV shows. We didn’t find this feature quite as easy to use as the demonstrations would suggest, but our videos looked incredible when we did master it. We almost couldn’t believe we’d filmed them.

The new Photographic Styles feature is decent, albeit not quite as impressive or impactful as Cinematic Mode. Each time you take a photo, the iPhone will show you the balanced, true-to-life image alongside four alternative styles – vibrant, rich contrast, warm, and cool. As you cycle through these styles, iPhone 13 uses a “deep semantic understanding” to apply different adjustments to different parts of the photos and change their overall appearance.

In many respects, it’s similar to adding a filter to the photo; however, Photographic Styles is more intelligent because it makes these adjustments while taking each individual person’s skin tone into account. This may not sound like a big deal, but adjusting the warmth of a photo and treating each person’s tone the same results in an overall “washed-out” appearance. It also doesn’t represent their skin in a realistic way, which can mess with the overall balance of a photo. At face value (excuse the pun), the differences may not be huge, but having the option to boost our photos with minimal effort is always welcomed.

The True Depth camera on the front, which also houses the FaceID sensor, has had fewer upgrades and tweaks, but it does support Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles, so you can snap and film selfies using these new tools, and it supports the same Night mode, Deep Fusion and Dolby Vision HDR recording, up to 4K at 60 fps. The latter will be of particular interest to vloggers looking to produce professional-quality content.

iPhone 13 battery and performance

When it comes to performance, Apple made a lot of the power and capabilities of its new A15 Bionic Chip during its launch event. It claims its new 6-core CPU is up to 50 per cent faster than the competition, “the fastest in any smartphone”, while the new 4-core GPU is up to 30 per cent faster.

In everyday use, it’s hard to discern these speed increases and confirm just how much faster they are, but we never once had any problems with lag on the iPhone 13. Switching between apps and tasks is instantaneous, and we are yet to experience any slowdowns, even when streaming high-quality content from the likes of Netflix. This power boost, combined with the Super Retina Display and support for Dolby Vision, also makes gaming quick, responsive and immersive. As previously mentioned, the 60Hz refresh rate is lacking in comparison to the more expensive iPhone models, and it was detectable when playing Fortnite – not enough to affect our performance, but enough for us to notice.

When it comes to battery life, though, the iPhone 13 comes into its own. According to Apple, you’ll get an extra 2.5 hours of battery life when using the iPhone 13, compared to the iPhone 12. This means the phone will last up to 19-hours when watching videos and up 75 hours when listening to audio.

Of course, day-to-day use combines a mixture of video, audio and other tasks, so while these numbers are a good guide, they don’t reflect real-world use. They also seemingly don’t do the iPhone 13 justice. In our tests – in which we used the phone as we would normally do over the course of a week and recorded how long the phone lasted in between charges – we averaged an impressive 29 hours. Our daily use typically includes streaming at least one episode of Married at First Sight, sending WhatsApp messages, playing Sim City, watching TikTok and a couple of audio calls.

Not only is this impressive on its own, and is undoubtedly because of the way the software and hardware have been optimised to work perfectly with one another, but it’s impressive when you take the other advancements into consideration. Namely, the improved brightness and the extra behind-the-scenes work being done by the Neural Engine when filming video and taking photos.

iPhone 13 in hand

iPhone 13 set-up

Setting up the iPhone 13 – as with all Apple products – is straightforward. Especially if you’re an existing Apple customer, you simply sign in to your account and let the phone do the hard work for you, pulling in your existing settings, app downloads and syncing all relevant data from your latest backup.

You can additionally set up or disable FaceID, Siri and sharing settings via the step-by-step guide. Or choose to manually update the tablet if you want to limit which apps are installed on the iPhone 13.

However, Apple has added a couple of new features to make this process easier. The first allows you to temporarily use iCloud Backup to move your data to the new device, even if you’re low on storage. Currently, if you don’t have sufficient storage either on the handset itself or in the cloud, you have to delete apps, remove content and so on to make sure everything is backed up.

With this new feature, Apple now gives you as much iCloud space as you need to complete a temporary backup, free of charge – additional iCloud space usually comes with a fee – and for up to three weeks from when you buy the iPhone.

Plus, if you’re moving from an Android phone to iOS, Apple has added some new tools to its Move to iOS app. It’s now easier to move Photo albums, files and folders, and Accessibility settings over. If you’re not already an Apple customer, you’ll need to create an Apple ID and manually download the apps you want.

Our verdict: should you upgrade to the iPhone 13?

Out of all of the new handsets released by Apple at its September 2021 event, the iPhone 13 makes the least sense on paper. If you can afford to buy a handset outright, it makes more sense to stretch slightly and buy the entry-level Pro model. Similarly, if you want a mid-sized phone, the iPhone 13 Pro offers much more in the same form.

In reality, however, the iPhone 13 makes a lot of sense. It has a number of “pro” features without the need to spend “pro” prices. It’s fast enough to do everyday tasks and play everyday games, its screen is high-quality enough to play high-quality content, and it now comes with double the storage. Not to mention the fact it’s a relatively affordable way to get Apple’s new Cinematic Mode, which is worth a chunk of money on its own if you’re into shooting videos. You don’t get all the bells and whistles seen on the Pro range, so there are some sacrifices to be made, but it’s very clear why Apple has continued with its four-way handset release – the iPhone 13 offers the most appeal to the widest group possible.

Rating:

  • Features: 5/5
  • Screen quality: 4/5
  • Design: 4/5
  • Camera: 4/5
  • Battery life and performance: 5/5
  • Set-up: 5/5
  • Overall rating: 4.5/5

Where to buy the iPhone 13

iPhone 13 off-contract

iPhone 13 on contract

Not sure which is the best iPhone for you? We’ve compared the iPhone 13 vs iPhone 12 to help you decide. Don’t forget that Apple products should see good discounts during Black Friday 2021, so bookmark our iPhone Black Friday deals page for later.

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