Like with other recent Apple releases, Apple’s new iPhone 13 and 13 Mini — up for preorder now, with shipments slated for Sept. 24 alongside the 13 Pro and Pro Max — are refinements to a working formula rather than reinventions of the iPhone.
The who, what and how
Who this is for: If you currently have an iPhone 11 or older, now is an excellent time to opt for a new iPhone. Both the 13 and 13 Mini offer a much faster experience in a more modern build than those earlier iterations of the iPhone. The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini also boast the best cameras we’ve tested — notably, the upgraded hardware and software allow you to capture an image in almost any scenario without the introduction of lower-quality elements. These upgrades, while notable, don’t differ wildly to what the iPhone 12 offers, so those with last year’s device shouldn’t feel a need to run out and upgrade.
What you need to know: With the iPhone 13 Mini and 13, Apple stuck with the modern and flat design akin to last year’s new iPhones but upgraded the dual-camera system, slimmed down the notch and increased the battery life. What’s more is that the entry-level storage has been doubled to 128GB from 64GB for the same price. And let’s be clear — aside from screen size, the 13 Mini and 13 are identical in terms of features.
How this compares: The iPhone 13’s performance is closely aligned with the iPhone 12. Power users will notice that photo exports finish faster and gaming is a bit more seamless. The camera, both physically and with the software, does offer a noticeable improvement. Those with an iPhone 11 or older, though, will see a more noticeable speed improvement with using apps and taking photos and not notice a slowdown in everyday or intense use. While you still can’t use two apps at once, having many open in the background won’t slow down performance or decrease the battery.
The biggest difference year over year is with the camera — and we’re not just talking bigger lens size (which accounts for the new diagonal layout).
The primary camera is still a 12-megapixel wide lens that works for almost any scenario. You’ll get detail-filled images that are properly lit and accurate with colors. Aiding in delivering these improvements is the largest sensor yet in an iPhone, which, as a rule of thumb, means higher-quality photos.
The other piece of the puzzle is less blurry shots with stabilization built into this lens. It was a big help against shaky hands after a long day of shooting and managed to deliver a clear shot even with a decent tremor moving through the hand holding the device. It’s not professional-level, but it should increase your Instagram game. It first premiered on the iPhone 12 Pro Max in 2020, so it’s nice to see it trickle down to the 13 and 13 Mini.
The main 12-megapixel lens is a nearly perfect lens, and no matter the occasion or area, we could snap a clear photo with the iPhone 13 or 13 Mini. Comparatively, with an iPhone 11, even playing around with lighting settings and angles we couldn’t mimic the end results we got on the 13.
The second shooter on the iPhone 13 and the 13 Mini is a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens with an upgraded sensor inside. It’s nearly on par with that of the iPhone 12, but the core advantage here is better performance with less noise and more details across low-light or daylight shots. Even with a slightly fish-eye perspective, the ultrawide here could capture a view of a nighttime scene while handling the brightness of the moon, street lights and moving vehicles. It’s not night and day year over year, but Apple has reduced the noise of these types of hard-to-shoot scenes.
With either of these lenses, you won’t need to fuss around settings — it is just point and shoot, while Apple’s processing and software takes care of the rest. Apple upgraded the iPhone 13 with Smart HDR 4, which intelligently analyzes a shot before you hit the shutter button. It’s a step further than scene detection from other manufacturers like Samsung or Google in that it’s very versatile for a shot of anything — be it people, pets, animals or buildings.
Samsung has long offered a Pro mode on the Galaxy S21, which lets you customize white balance, contrast and all that jazz. Apple’s new Photographic Styles is the closest thing to a Pro mode yet, which lets you make customizations to how the phone will take a photo before you hit the shutter button. It’s sort of like filters on steroids, as it dynamically adjusts for any given shot. You can pick from five (standard, vibrant, rich contrast, warm and cool) and adjust the tone and warmth on a slider. Each lens has its own take, but we’ve been especially liking warm, which doesn’t oversaturate but skews the colors in a realistic way by adding in more gold or orange. Similarly, the cool setting will add in some hues of blue, while rich contrast focuses on the darker side of the spectrum for a sharper look. Given that it’s software, though, it would have been neat to see this or an aspect of this arrive as a software update to the iPhone 12.
You also still get Night mode, Portrait mode and other classic iPhone shooting modes on the 13 and 13 Mini. Night mode does a more leveled job of lighting shots, especially landscape ones, while Portrait mode is improved year over year with better blur near hairlines on both people and animals.
And here’s the gist with photos — while the experience is pretty similar to that of the iPhone 12, models older than an iPhone 11 aren’t as seamless and effortless to take a shot. Yes, the act of hitting the shutter and framing it is the same, but the benefits of the iPhone 13 analyzing the shot and working to ensure it’s balanced throughout makes a big difference in the end result.
The other new feature with the camera is Cinematic mode, which adds focus into whatever you’re filming. Let’s say you have multiple people, dogs and objects in a shot. The iPhone will identify the focal point or you can select it for that to be in focus and the rest to be blurry, but you can also switch it up on the fly. Cinematic mode is kind of like Portrait mode for video, but it’s also quite similar to a racked focus approach you’ve likely seen in TV shows or movies.
Fast performance from the A15 Bionic
Powering the iPhone 13 Mini and iPhone 13 is the Apple-made A15 Bionic processor. It’s designed in-house and is uniquely attuned to all of iOS’ needs, so much so that it runs the just-released iOS 15 like a champ directly out of the box. From opening apps to typing away with some gaming, FaceTime calls and web browsing in between — everything feels pretty darn instant.
And it should be, considering it’s a 6-core CPU, 4-core GPU and 16-core Neural Engine all tossed into a single chip. That’s a lot for a smartphone, but it’s not a significant jump. With most tasks, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 feel pretty much in sync. At times a photo edit in Pixelmator would wrap a second or two faster, but no giant leaps year over year.
That’s not to say it isn’t fast, though. We used the iPhone 13 Mini and 13 for both work and play with nearly 30 apps constantly running at once. The 13 was effortless to use with productivity-centric apps like Outlook, Slack, Chartbeat, Mail and Trello while also being seamless with personal apps like TikTok, Instagram, Messages, Music or Safari. Everything just opens as it should and glides right along. We were hard-pressed to make the iPhone 13 slow down and ultimately couldn’t make that happen.
Now, those with an older device, even an iPhone 11, will notice some improvements with speed and overall efficiency on the device. Apps opened a bit faster and it was evident with games. For instance, Real Flight Simulator was ready to take to the skies about six seconds faster on a 13 compared to the iPhone 11.
You’ll also have ample room for apps, music, photos and messages with a starting internal storage of 128GB, double the usual 64GB of years past.
Battery life gains
Apple promised better battery life with the iPhone 13 Mini and iPhone 13 — specifically one and a half hours longer than the 12 Mini, and two and a half hours longer than the 12. This is being done thanks to a physically larger battery inside the 13 Mini and 13, along with some optimizations and efficiencies of the A15 Bionic.
With both the iPhone 13 Mini and iPhone 13, we had no issue making it through a full day of use. We started at around 7:30 a.m. each morning and didn’t make it back until close to 10 p.m., when we’d see the battery level start to trickle down. That’s nearly a 15-hour day filled with ample tasks like calls, messages, web browsing, some gaming and content capture. Safe to say, you shouldn’t have any battery issues with either phone. The 13 Mini did show a battery alert about 30 minutes before the iPhone 13.
Both devices charge via a Lightning port on the bottom, and when you pair that with a fast wall charger you can indeed fast charge the iPhone 13 or 13 Mini. You can also wirelessly charge the iPhone 13 or 13 Mini on the back with a MagSafe or Qi-enabled wireless charger. And yes, since there’s a magnetic array in the back, the iPhone 13 does work with other MagSafe accessories like the MagSafe Battery Pack.
As we do with every device we test at CNN Underscored, we ran the iPhone 13 Mini and iPhone 13 through our battery test gauntlet. In it we play a 4K video on loop with the brightness set to 50% and volume at 30% with the device in airplane mode. We also ensure that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are turned off and play the video on a loop until the device dies. We monitor the test with two cameras for redundancy. The iPhone 13 Mini lasted for 13 hours and 35 minutes, while the iPhone 13 lasted for 14 hours and 15 minutes in this endurance test. The iPhone 12 lasted for 12 hours and 30 minutes, while the 12 Mini remained on for 12 hours and 45 minutes. This falls slightly behind Apple’s promised battery life boost.
A smaller Face ID notch in 2 screen sizes
It has been a long time coming — four years specifically — but the iPhone’s notch is getting smaller with the iPhone 13 family. The TrueDepth sensor on the iPhone 13 Mini and 13 is 20% smaller, with much more space on the left and right, though it is slightly taller. And the newfound space on the left and right sides for now gives the status bar a bit more room.
For instance, you can comfortably see the time and a recently used function on the right with wireless information and a visual representation of the battery on the left. You also have ample room to swipe down with a finger for Notification Center (on the left) or Control Center (on the right). You don’t lose any of the functionality and, in fact, it’s the same set of sensors and tech to power a secure authentication.
The TrueDepth sensor is a notch in the OLED screen — measuring 5.4 inches on the 13 Mini and 6.1 inches on the 13. Both displays performed terrifically in our testing by delivering vibrant and accurate colors with deep blacks that make for an immersive experience. With gaming in a title like Catalyst Black or NBA Live Mobile, on-screen elements appear smooth and rich.
The only other noticeable change with the displays is a higher maximum brightness, which is handy when using the iPhone 13 Mini or 13 in direct sunlight. You can make the display brighter to combat the natural lighting to see details clearly or even just see elements on the screen.
What’s still missing from the iPhone 13 Mini and 13 is a 120Hz refresh rate, which makes the display more natural and smoother. Apple finally added it to the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max as “ProMotion,” and we found it to deliver a big improvement, but it’s still not found on base models. While it’s something you likely won’t miss unless you’ve used it, it would have been nice to see, considering other phones — some at lower price points — do in fact feature it. The Galaxy A52 5G, the Galaxy S21 family and even some OnePlus options do in fact have this refresh rate already, most of which come in at similar, if not lower, price points.
A similar modern build
Apple is sticking with a flat candy bar-like design that is a modern take on earlier iPhones. Flat aluminum edges build out the hull, with a screen on the front and a glossy glass back.
Both phones are just 0.30 inches thick and super easy to grab. You can easily use the 13 or 13 Mini with just one hand, though the latter is super portable. Buttons are all slightly lower on the sides of the iPhone — volume up, volume down and the silencer switch are on the left, while the power button sits alone on the right. It’s a noticeable change that does make it a bit easier to reach them, depending on hand size.
You’ll charge the iPhone 13 or 13 Mini through the Lightning port on the bottom, which is flanked by speakers or wireless charging on the back. Lastly, the SIM card slot is on the lower left side. There’s also no headphone jack, but you shouldn’t be expecting one since Apple ditched it with the iPhone 7. As for colors, you get your pick out of five and they’re all pretty muted. Apple’s never followed the flashy route of other OEMs like Samsung or OnePlus; the iPhone has always been a little quieter. The 13 and 13 Mini come in blue, Midnight (black), pink, Product Red and Starlight (a light silver). The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini are both IP68 rated for submersion in water or other liquids up to 1 meter for as long as 30 minutes. That also means it can handle spills of all sorts.
One big thing to note: The main camera module on the back of the 13 Mini and 13 is physically larger. This is to accommodate the upgraded camera hardware, but it does result in you needing to specifically get a case for the iPhone 13 Mini (not the 12 Mini) and the iPhone 13 (not the 12 or 13 Pro).
Let’s talk about 5G … again
So, for the second year, the iPhone has 5G, and ironically enough, not much has changed in a year. The device itself is still ready for 5G to hit prime time with support for two core network standards here in the United States: mmWave and Sub-6. But as was the case when testing the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, there isn’t a lot of 5G to go around, so it’s really an act of future-proofing.
You’ll really see two main types of 5G on the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini: 5G and 5G UW. The former is standard 5G, which truth be told is very similar to 4G LTE. It’s the Sub-G network standard, which is easier to roll out and gives speeds comparable to 4G LTE — think around 200 to 300 Mbps. The difference is that it’s a five-lane highway compared to a three-lane highway, meaning you’ll have ample room and shouldn’t experience slowdowns. Verizon and AT&T offer this throughout the country, and we successfully connected to it on both devices in New Jersey and New York.
The 5G that you’ve likely been dreaming about — or more likely pondering — is 5G UW, which uses the ultrawide mmWave spectrum. And these are the promised super-fast speeds that are comparable to fiber lines being connected to your home. Here’s the problem, though — mmWave is a lot harder to roll out and for your phone to connect to. Still a year later, cell sites for it are hard to come by from AT&T and Verizon. But when you do, you’ll need line of sight with a cell tower and no one blocking it since, in our testing, that can disrupt the connection. When you do find it, though, you will see upward of 1,000 Mbps for upload and download speeds, which is seriously impressive.
So unless you’re in a community with mmWave, it’s really not that mind-blowing of an experience. The good news is that opting for an iPhone 13 Mini or 13 does future-proof you in that respect. But just don’t buy it for the promise of 5G.
If you’re in the market for an iPhone and have an 11 or older, now is a really ideal time to upgrade. You’d benefit from the refreshed modern flat look and score an iPhone that we’d imagine will stretch in year three or four with ease on all fronts. The A15 Bionic inside is more efficient than the A14, which delivers longer battery life. And if you care about photography that just works, the iPhone 13 has two lenses that really let you capture some great content. If you have an iPhone 12, though, there isn’t really something glaring that you’re missing.