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The new iPhone 13 range from Apple shoots great video and excellent lowlight photos. Photo: Ben Sin

Review | iPhone 13 smartphones: Apple raises the bar for shooting video with Cinematic Mode and a processor that’s second to none

  • Apple puts its superior software to good use, with the iPhone 13 models offering glitch-free integration with other Apple products
  • The new iPhones take great lowlight photos and the video camera and processor are the best on the market

Apple’s new iPhone 13s are here and I’ve been testing all four models for the past week. How do they stack up against last year’s iPhones – and the Android competition?

Design and hardware

From the outside, the iPhone 13 series looks very similar to the iPhone 12 series. The four phones come in three sizes: 6.7 inch (13 Pro Max), 6.1 inch (13 Pro and 13) and 5.4 inch (13 Mini).

The Pro phones have an extra zoom camera that the non-Pro models lack. The only noticeable physical changes from last year, other than new colours, are the smaller notch on the front for the selfie camera and larger camera module size.

The Apple iPhone 13 range. They have smaller notches than previous iPhones. Photo: Ben Sin

The smaller notch is a superficial change, as the gain in display is minimal. But there’s a good reason for the increase in camera module size: the image sensors in the new phones’ main 12-megapixel cameras are bigger than those in Apple’s 2020 models, with the Pro phone seeing a significantly bigger jump.

The Pro models’ exclusives include a 120Hz display refresh rate and a macro photography mode. The high refresh rate brings noticeably more fluid animations, and it looks particularly impressive on the giant iPhone 13 Pro Max display.

Chinese consumers rush to pre-order Apple’s new iPhone 13 online

Inside, all four iPhones run on the new 5nm Apple A15 Bionic silicon chip and have bigger batteries than last year – they’re a bit thicker and heavier too.

The usual flagship smartphone features like wireless charging, stereo speakers, excellent haptic engine, and IP68 water and dust resistance are all here, creating one polished, if familiar, package.

Software and features

The two iPhone Pros (left) have an extra zoom camera. Photo: Ben Sin

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with iPhone software, and the new iOS 15 running in the iPhone 13s hasn’t changed that dynamic.

Let’s start with the negatives: I dislike iOS’ draconian home screen grid, which forces apps to sit in a top-down order and doesn’t allow a more dense grid even if the screen size can easily afford it.

The Pro Max, for example, has a much larger screen than the Mini, but they have the exact same home screen grid. Why hasn’t Apple given us the ability to run two apps in a split-screen view yet? This is multitasking 101.

The Apple iPhone 13 Pro notch (front) compared to the iPhone 12 Pro notch (back). Photo: Ben Sin

Conversely, I love the synergy between devices afforded by Apple’s brilliant software: I record a voice memo on the Apple Watch, the audio file shows up on my iPhone within seconds; I can access my MacBook’s desktop files on an iPhone’s File app via iCloud. Every app is optimised for iOS and free of some of the bugs that pop up in Android from time to time.

Most important, Apple’s software optimisation for video recording is still best in class.

Performance and battery life

An ultra-wide angle image captured using the Apple iPhone 13 Mini. All four models have improved ultra-wide sensors. Photo: Ben Sin

For the cameras, the ultra-wide lens has been upgraded for the Pro models, gaining a faster aperture (f/1.8) compared to the f/2.4 (the non-Pro models mostly bring back the same specs here). These upgrades – increasing image sensor size and faster aperture – help the Pro cameras pull in more light than before, improving lowlight photography.

The biggest addition to the iPhone 13 phones this year, though, is “Cinematic Mode”. Essentially “Portrait Mode” for video, Cinematic Mode adds artificial background blur (bokeh) to videos, making them appear more professional and cinematic, with focus changes highlighted by shallow depth-of-field.

Other phone brands, from Samsung to Huawei, have tried adding artificial bokeh to videos before, with mostly underwhelming results: edge detection was terrible, and the overall effect looked fake.

Niche camera-centric phones like Sony’s Xperia 1 III have a manual video mode that allows shifting focus points mid-video too, but the process is complicated, and the bokeh effect isn’t as strong as what the iPhone can conjure with software smarts.
Cinematic Mode on the Apple iPhone 13 is a new feature that essentially adds an artificial digital blur to the background. The iPhone 13 allows post-shot adjusting of focus points and degree of blur. Photo: Ben Sin

Apple, to no surprise, got it right. Not only is edge detection around the subject much better, the degree of blur in the background can be adjusted in real time or after the recording is finished. Focus points, too, can also be adjusted after the fact – but you likely won’t have to, because Apple’s intelligent face tracking works well.

While those knowledgeable about cameras will still be able to spot the artificial bokeh within seconds, I think the effect is convincing enough that many people could be tricked into thinking iPhone 13 video footage was shot with a “real” camera.

Considering how popular Portrait Mode has been in smartphones, Cinematic Mode is going to be a hit on social media.

A lowlight photo captured by the Apple iPhone 13 Pro. Photo: Ben Sin

Elsewhere, performance is top notch all around. Apple’s silicon has always outperformed all rival mobile chips and this one keeps the streak going. Whether on benchmark numbers or video export times, the A15 Bionic beats any Android device.

Battery life varies depending on the size of the device. The Pro Max has superb battery endurance, able to go a full 14-hour day out with heavy use and still come home with 30 per cent juice.

The middle two models, under the same scenario, would be returning home with around 10 per cent battery. The Mini would likely run out of battery by hour 14.


A nighttime photo sample captured by the main camera of the iPhone 13 Pro Max. Photo: Ben Sin

The improved battery endurance, lowlight photography performance, and game-changing Cinematic Mode amount to just enough of an upgrade to justify replacing your iPhone 12 if you use the cameras a lot. For those owning an iPhone 11 or older model, the upgrade will seem massive.

The best Android phones from Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi still have more immersive screens, better zoom cameras and, in the case of their foldables, a unique form factor, but the iPhone is a really polished slab smartphone with the best video camera around.

The iPhone 13 Mini starts at HK$5,999 in Hong Kong and US$699 in the US; iPhone 13 starts at HK$6,799 and US$799; iPhone 13 Pro starts at HK$8,499 and US$999; iPhone 13 Pro Max starts at HK$9,399 and US$1,099.