iPhone 13 Pro & Pro Max review: The ultimate flagships

By Miles Somerville

October 7, 2021

Design iPhone 13 Pro leaves very little to be desired as far as the design is concerned. The 13 Pro represents the second iteration of the stainless steel flat-edge design with a frosted matte glass back, and one year later, I’m still a big fan of the design language. The feel in the hand and usability is generally better for me with some sort of case, as a result of the hard edges, but other than that I have no complaints.

The larger iPhone 13 Pro Max is my daily driver, and I personally have no problems with the size. While it doesn’t bother me, I think Apple should consider tweaking the proportions for next year’s Pro Max iPhone, as I’ve heard from many users that the Max is just too wide for their hands – and compared to flagships like the Galaxy S21 Ultra or OnePlus 9 Pro; the iPhone 13 Pro Max is definitely a wide phone. Making the iPhone Pro Max more universally useable would only be celebrated.

Smaller Notch & Larger Camera Lenses The notch housing the earpiece speaker, camera, and FaceID sensors is now 20% smaller in size. There’s nothing Apple’s done from a software standpoint to take advantage of this small increase in space on the display, but the smaller size of the notch is pretty noticeable if you’ve got a 12 series model to compare. With that being said, I believe the selling appeal of this update to the average consumer is likely going to be trivial. More people will pay attention once the notch is actually eliminated.

The camera lenses have also gotten noticeably larger in size, and I think this was more of a symbolic move than a technical one on Apple’s part. Apple has consistently put an emphasis on the Pro models’ camera system, so I believe that Apple increased the physical size of all the lenses to visually emphasize the performance of the cameras even further.

ProMotion Display Apple introduced ProMotion for the iPad Pro more than five years ago. Now we finally have ProMotion on the iPhone. The display is capable of a 120Hz refresh rate, but it won’t necessarily be running at 120Hz all day. ProMotion utilizes an adaptive refresh rate, so depending on the task, the display could be at 10Hz, 30Hz, 120Hz, or somewhere in between.

The primary benefit of an adaptive refresh rate is to preserve battery life. If the display is running at 120Hz nonstop, you’re not exactly going to have an all-day battery. Thankfully, ProMotion is doing its job, because Apple hasn’t compromised battery performance in a noticeable way on either of the Pro models. The only other change to the display outside of ProMotion is an increased maximum brightness. The new max for standard content is 1000 nits, which is 200 more than last year’s model. As far as daily usability is concerned, this is something I’ve struggled to find any value in coming from the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The difference in brightness is more noticeable on camera than in person.

A15 Bionic Performance Modern iPhones in general are incredibly fast and smooth the majority of the time. It’s never an issue to endlessly game, browse the web, or capture photos and videos without a hiccup. So the 10% increase in overall power that the A15 provides is pretty negligible for day-to-day performance compared to last year. There’s a new 6-core CPU with a 5-Core GPU and 16-core neural engine. While the A15 is a very capable processor, the performance isn’t going to necessarily wow you unless you’re coming from a X or earlier.

Cameras As per tradition with the Pro model iPhones, the camera is where you’ll find the bulk of the new features for this year. On a hardware front, very little has changed. The main wide-angle lens now has an f1.5 aperture instead of an f1.6, and the Ultra-wide Lens now has an f1.8 aperture instead of an f2.4. The Telephoto lens, however, has actually dropped down to f2.8 from f2.0 in the 12 Pro. This comes as Apple has increased the focal length of the lens from 58mm on the iPhone 12 Pro to 77mm on the iPhone 13 Pro.

Macro Mode My personal favorite camera feature is the addition of a macro mode for the ultra-wide-angle camera. I haven’t tried every smartphone with a macro lens, but the iPhone 13 Pro has the best macro lens I’ve seen by far. The detail coming out of photos in macro mode is pretty astonishing, and I think that’s ironic given the fact that the Ultra Wide angle lens is generally the lowest quality lens of the three.

Photographic Styles Photographic styles is the biggest software feature for the 13 Pro’s photosystem. The feature is essentially live customizable photo filters. There are five different presets to choose from, and within those presets, you can tweak the tone and warmth. I think this is a pretty useful feature for preplanned photography. It gives you a basic sense of what photos could look like with an edit before you fully commit to it. I’m probably not going to use it much personally, but I can definitely see the value.

Cinematic Video Apple’s big video feature being pushed for the 13 series is cinematic video. This is effectively portrait-mode video with new focus locking features. Because it’s an entirely software-driven process you can actually edit what the camera “focuses” on after the fact. I don’t think this feature is as innovative as Dolby Vision HDR video recording, which was last year’s major video feature, but you can definitely bet on other companies trying to emulate this effect for their future smartphones.

Battery Life Arguably my biggest complaint with the standard iPhone 12 Pro was battery life, and that’s why I’ve stuck with the Pro Max as my daily driver. The battery on the Max phones has always been great and this year is no different. Even with the 120Hz panel, battery performance seems even better than last year. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is a truly all-day battery smartphone. I can easily get seven hours of screen-on-time with light to moderate usage throughout the day. 

9to5Mac’s Take Unless you’re coming from a 12 Pro or Pro Max, these devices are a pretty huge update. If coming from an 11 Pro or earlier, you’re going to get the new design, loads of new camera features, better performance, ProMotion, and the best battery life the iPhone has ever had.