Apple iPhone 13 review: Everything you need to know | Tom’s Guide November 9, 2021 – Posted in: Smartphone news

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The iPhone 13 (from $799) doesn’t seem very new when you first look at it. But when you start using this flagship, you realize that it delivers a lot more than a smaller notch. 

The new iPhone’s display is brighter than its predecessor’s. The battery life is longer. And Apple has improved an already great camera with new sensors and computational photography features that make you feel like a pro (even on a non-Pro phone).

Yes, the A15 Bionic powering the iPhone 13 is once again the fastest chip in the land. But it’s more about what this chip lets you do. This includes Cinematic mode, which adds depth of field to your videos while automatically shifting focus, and Photographic Styles for changing the look of your pics.

More iPhone 13 reviews: Our verdict is in

The regular iPhone 13 has some flaws. The charging is still relatively slow compared to some Android phones. And I don’t like that only the iPhone 13 Pro models get a 120Hz display and telephoto zoom. But based on my in-depth iPhone 13 review, this new iPhone is the best phone for the money.

Check out our iPhone 13 mini review if you want all the same features of the iPhone 13 in a smaller design. Want a 120Hz display and telephoto zoom? See our iPhone 13 Pro review. And our iPhone 13 Pro Max review is the place to go if you want the biggest screen.

Of course, if you decide you want to wait another year for the iPhone 14 before upgrading from your current Apple phone, then check out the seven biggest upgrades we want to see from the iPhone 14

iPhone 13 review: Price and storage

Available right now, the iPhone 13 starts at $799 for 128GB of storage (up from a meager 64GB on the iPhone 12), and that goes up to $899 for 256GB and $1,099 for 512GB. In the U.K. the entry-level model starts at £779, with the 256GB handset coming ins at £879, and the 512GB model hitting £1,079. 

These are hardly cheap phones but you can save with trade-in offers from Apple as well as from wireless carriers, and there are plenty of discounts available. Do make sure to check out our iPhone 13 deals page for the latest offers. Also be aware that some iPhone 13 orders have annoying delays — but Apple is working on it.

iPhone 13 specs: All models compared

iPhone 13 mini iPhone 13 iPhone 13 Pro iPhone 13 Pro Max
Starting price $699 $799 $999 $1,099
Storage 128, 256, 512GB 128, 256, 512 GB 128, 256, 512, 1TB 128, 256, 512, 1TB
Screen size 5.4 inches 6.1 inches 6.1 inches 6.7 inches
Resolution/ppi 2340 x 1080/476 2532 x 1170/460 2532 x 1170/460 2778 x 1284/458
Adaptive refresh No No Up to 120Hz Up to 120Hz
Processor A15 Bionic A15 Bionic A15 Bionic A15 Bionic
Rear cameras Dual 12MP (Wide, ultrawide) Dual 12MP (Wide, ultrawide) Pro 12MP (Telephoto, Wide, Ultra Wide) Pro 12MP (Telephoto, Wide, Ultra Wide)
Zoom None / 5x digital None / 5x digital 3x optical / 15x digital 3x optical / 15x digital
Front camera 12MP TrueDepth 12MP TrueDepth 12MP TrueDepth 12MP TrueDepth
Colors Red, Starlight, Midnight, Blue, Pink Red, Starlight, Midnight, Blue, Pink Graphite, Gold, Silver, Sierra Blue Graphite, Gold, Silver, Sierra Blue
Size 5.2 x 2.5 x 0.3 inches 5.8 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches 5.8 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches 6.3 x 3.1 x 0.3 inches
Weight 4.97 ounces 6.14 ounces 7.2 ounces 8.5 ounces
Water resistance IP68 IP68 IP68 IP68
Battery life (video playback 8:41 10:33 11:42 12:16

iPhone 13 review: Design and colors

There’s really two design changes of note for the iPhone 13. First, the cameras on the rear are now arranged diagonally instead of vertically.

iPhone 13

Second — and more importantly — the notch is now 20% smaller while still delivering the same great TrueDepth camera system and Face ID you’d expect since the iPhone X ushered in this feature four years ago.

iPhone 13

Honestly, the smaller notch doesn’t make much of a difference in day-to-day use of the iPhone 13. When watching videos in landscape mode side by side at full-screen, I didn’t find either notch that distracting.

I did appreciate the mini notch more when using apps with a white background in portrait orientation, such as Gmail. However, the notch on the iPhone 13 mini swoops down a bit more despite being narrower.

iPhone 13 buttons held from the side

The button placement is slightly different on the iPhone 13 versus the iPhone 12. The power button is lower on the right side, and the same thing goes with the ringer switch and volume buttons on the left side.

iphone 13 from the back

Otherwise, the iPhone 13 offers the same tough CeramicShield display up front, durable glass back and flat edges. And you get the same IP68 water resistance as before. Unfortunately, the iPhone 13 doesn’t offer Touch ID, an upgrade many of us would have appreciated since Face ID doesn’t work well with masks. I didn’t need a sensor in the display like many Android phones now support; a Touch ID sensor embedded in the power button like on the iPad mini 6 would have been fine. 

For now, it appears the iPhone 13 is having a problem unlocking with the Apple Watch in some cases. Apple has acknowledged the issue and says a fix is coming soon. 

The iPhone 13 comes in five colors, including Pink, Blue, Midnight, Starlight and (Product) Red. I tested the blue model, which is a fun shade without being too loud. And I continue to appreciate the color-matched aluminum frame Apple includes with its entry-level iPhones.

iPhone 13 review: Display

Alas, the iPhone 13 doesn’t boast the adaptive 120Hz refresh rate of the iPhone 13 Pro, but it’s still a stellar OLED panel. This Super Retina XDR display is now 28% brighter than the iPhone 12; it’s also rated at 800 nits, compared to 600 nits for last year’s phone.

iPhone 13 home screen

In my testing, I wouldn’t say the brightness difference is dramatic, but it can help when you’re trying to view the iPhone 13’s display in direct sunlight.

iPhone 13 (left) and iPhone 12 Pro (right)

The overall display quality continues to be stellar. When watching the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections, I was mesmerized by the neon code encircling Neo as he walked down the street, and in another scene I could make out individual hairs on Neo’s beard as he stared up into the sun.

iPhone 13

On our lab tests, the iPhone 13 averaged 795 nits of brightness, compared to 569 nits for the iPhone 12 and 702 nits for the Galaxy S21. The iPhone 13 also registered 78.1% of the DCI-P3 color gamut and 110.2% of the sRGG color gamut, where higher numbers are better. The iPhone 12 hit 81.1 and 114.5 and the Galaxy S21 77.4 and 109.2. 

The iPhone 13 panel’s color accuracy is stellar, too, as it achieved a Delta-E score of 0.26 (lower is better.) That compares to 0.29 for both the Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12.

iPhone 13 review: Cameras

There’s much more to the iPhone 13 cameras than just a new diagonal arrangement of the lenses. The wide camera now gathers 47% more light than the iPhone 12, thanks to a larger camera with 1.7μm pixels.

iPhone 13

Another plus is that the ultrawide camera can now capture four times more scene and its newer sensor delivers better low-light performance along with less noise.   

If you’re not a fan of the iPhone’s usual color temperature — or you just wanted more control over your photos — you’ll appreciate the Photographic Styles feature. In the Camera app, you can switch from multiple styles, including standard, vibrant, rich contrast, warm and cool.

Image 1 of 5

iPhone 13 photographic styles - Warm

Warm (Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

iPhone 13 photographic styles - Warm

iPhone 13 photographic styles - Vibrant

iPhone 13 photographic styles - Standard

iPhone 13 photographic styles - Rich Contrast

Image 5 of 5

iPhone 13 photographic styles - Cool

Cool (Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

iPhone 13 photographic styles - Cool

I tried out the feature with a series of portraits, and I appreciated the difference between styles. For example, the rich contrast mode made the shot look less hazy, while the vibrant setting made the coleus plants pop more along with the tree in the background. It’s not that easy to switch this effect on the fly, as you have to tap a setting and then select the style you want, but I like that you can customize your own styles. 

In this photo taken at the Manasquan reservoir in New Jersey, you can see how superior the iPhone 13’s camera is compared to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. The water looks more vibrant and translucent, and the iPhone 13 does a better job rendering the shadows around the wood. 

The iPhone 13 also delivered a better looking shot of these Halloween decorations. The orange pumpkin sign looks more vibrant and brighter, as do the surrounding real-life pumpkins. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s pic is plenty sharp but looks a bit flat.

In many shooting situations, the iPhone 13 was on par with the iPhone 12, but I did notice a marked improvement in Night mode. While the result is a bit on the fuzzy side, the iPhone 13 captures a brighter pink in the hydrangea flowers and the surrounding leaves are brighter.

iPhone 13 review: Video

The iPhone 13 is the rare smartphone that can make you feel like a director as you shoot videos. And that’s thanks to a new feature called Cinematic mode. This effect brings depth of field to your footage and automatically changes the focus to various subjects depending on what’s happening in the frame, such as someone turning their head to talk to another person. You don’t have to lift a finger and it works (almost) like magic.

When shooting my three dogs playing with my daughter, I was really impressed when the iPhone 13 placed the focus on the pup that was closest to me at first, and as he left the frame my daughter and older golden retriever automatically came into focus. The bokeh effect on the background is something other smartphone makers have attempted, including Samsung, but the Galaxy S21 Ultra isn’t smart enough to switch the focus from subject to subject in real time.

iPhone 13 cinematic mode

Cinematic mode isn’t perfect, as the iPhone 13 sometimes took a second to recognize faster moving subjects (our younger golden retriever). A bigger drawback is that this mode is capped at 1080p, as you can’t record Cinematic mode in 4K. But overall, it’s a cool feature I think a lot of people will want to try, especially for social videos on TikTok.

The overall video quality from the iPhone 13 is stellar, with improved noise reduction, better dynamic range and enhanced semantic rendering that can identify skin, faces, the sky and more. As I swept around the Manasquan reservoir with the iPhone 13 and iPhone 12, I especially noticed less noise in the blowing leaves from the iPhone 13’s footage. And in a separate 4K clip, I got lost in the gentle waves lapping against the sand.

iPhone 13 review: Performance and A15 Bionic

The A15 Bionic doesn’t offer dramatic performance gains over the A14 Bionic powering the iPhone 12, but it didn’t need to just to remain the fastest chip in any phone. As with the A14 Bionic, the A15 offers a 6-core CPU and 4-core GPU, but there’s now a 16-core Neural Engine for machine learning and AI, up from 8 cores on the previous chipset.

Apple says that the iPhone 13’s CPU is up to 50% faster than the competition while the GPU can handle graphics rendering 20% faster. Before we get into the benchmarks, I think it’s important to talk about how swift this phone feels in everyday use. 

Genshin Impact game on iPhone 13

In a game like Genshin Impact — an open-world adventure combat title — the animations and particle effects felt console-quality as I climbed mountains, explored sweeping landscapes and tried to battle enemies. I was equally impressed by the Seek app, which instantly identified plants when I pointed the camera around my backyard. 

Seek app on iPhone 13

On Geekbench 5, which measures overall performance, the iPhone 13 scored 4,129 and 1,684 respectively. That’s considerably better than the 3,859/1,593 turned in by the iPhone 12, and it destroys the Galaxy S21’s scores of 3,302/1,048. 

The iPhone 13’s graphics performance also impresses. On the 3DMark Wild Life benchmark, the new iPhone hit 55.9 frames per second. That’s just a bit higher than the iPhone 12 (51 fps), but the Galaxy S21 Ultra mustered only 33 fps.

We didn’t see much of an improvement on our video editing test using Adobe Premiere Rush. The iPhone 13 took 25.9 seconds to transcode a 4K video to 1080p compared to 26.5 seconds for the iPhone 12. The Galaxy S21 took 1 minute and 2 seconds.

Check out our iPhone 13 benchmarks results page to see how all four models perform and how they compared to the Android competition. 

iPhone 13 review: Battery life and charging

Apple says that the iPhone 13 lasts up to 1.5 hours longer than the iPhone 12, thanks to a bigger battery, more efficient display and the A15 Bionic chip. But our testing showed even better results.

On the Tom’s Guide battery test, which involves continuous web surfing over 5G at 150 nits of screen brightness over cellular (AT&T’s network in this case), the iPhone 13 endured for 10 hours and 33 minutes. That’s more than 2 hours longer than the 8:25 time that the iPhone 12 turned in. The best result we saw from the Galaxy S21 was 9:53.

iPhone 13

To see how all four iPhone 13 models fared, check out our iPhone 13 battery life results summary, which includes comparisons with more Android phones. 

Unfortunately, the iPhone 13 offers the same charging speeds as before. The new iPhone got to 51% capacity in 30 minutes with Apple’s 20W charger. Other phones on our fastest charging phones list are much speedier, such as the OnePlus 9 Pro

The iPhone’s 15W MagSafe charger is a bit slower, but some may find it more convenient because it’s magnetic and doesn’t involve the Lighting port.

iPhone 13 review: iOS 15

iOS 15 delivers some welcome improvements to your iPhone, many of which focus on shared experiences. FaceTime has improved audio and a cleaner interface, and a future update will let you listen to music or watch movies or TV shows with friends or family. And the Messages app delivers a new Shared with You section for photos, articles and more to make it easier to keep track of all the different links friends text your way.

iPhone 13

I personally appreciate the new Focus feature in iOS 15, which lets you filter notifications based on what you’re doing. And notifications themselves have been refined, complete with a new summary view so you don’t get overwhelmed by constant alerts.

iPhone 13

Other iOS 15 highlights include a redesigned Safari (I actually don’t like the address bar at the bottom, but Apple lets you change the location), a more full-featured Weather app and an enhanced Maps app with more detail and better road views. Last but not least, Live Text bites off Google Lens by recognizing text in real time via the camera when you want to look things up or get translations.

iPhone 13 known problems

Thus far iPhone 13 owners have encountered a few problems. For example, some iPhone 13 users are finding that the phone won’t unlock with an Apple Watch, though a fix apparently is on the way. In addition, some iPhone 13 owners are complaining about the touch display not being responsive enough in some cases, which could be an iOS 15 issue. 

On the iPhone 13 Pros, there are complaints that the cameras are automatically switching between lenses without warning, and Apple will be rolling out an update that will enable users to turn this off. And the ProMotion displays on the iPhone 13 Pros are not running at 120Hz with some apps, which Apple will be addressing in an update. And developers need to optimize their apps as well. 

See our iPhone 13 problems roundup for more info. 

iPhone 13 review: What about the Pixel 6?

The closest Android has to an iPhone is Google’s Pixel line, which is out now. While the Pixel phones don’t sell in numbers that even give the iPhone 13 pause, they do offer serious competition when it comes to cameras. Google and Apple trade blows on who has the best camera phone and this year is set to be a major battle.

With Google taking a page from Apple’s playbook and going with its own silicon (named Tensor), the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have some incredible AI and machine learning capabilities, especially with speech recognition and photography post-processing. We have a Pixel 6 Pro vs. iPhone 13 Pro Max face-off if you want to see how the two top dogs perform against each other and we’ll be pitting the Pixel 6 against the iPhone 13 soon.

iPhone 13 review: Verdict

The iPhone 13 improves on what was already the best iPhone for most people by introducing a bunch of welcome enhancements. I especially like the longer battery life, as the iPhone 12’s endurance was underwhelming even for a 5G phone. I wouldn’t recommend that iPhone 12 owners upgrade to the new iPhone, but the iPhone 13 is worth it if you own an iPhone 11 or older device.

iphone 13 from the back

I don’t think many people will care about the smaller notch. What truly stands out on the iPhone 13 is the camera. The low-light performance is even better now, and computational photography features like Cinematic mode and Photographic styles flex the A15 Bionic’s muscles in ways that go way beyond benchmarks. 

I’m also glad Apple doubled the starting storage at 128GB, as that move was overdue and puts the new iPhone on a par with Android flagships. I’d like to see Apple offering faster charging next time around — be it via USB-C or MagSafe — as well as a 120Hz display.

The bottom line is that the iPhone 13 is a fantastic phone and raises the bar for what you think a camera phone can do.