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Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: The ultimate upgrade

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Apple has honed and mastered a design language that has progressively evolved since the release of iPhone X in 2017, and even though, in 2020, the iPhone 12 series represented the biggest visual change to the iPhone in half a decade, it was still a derivative of the all-screen notch based design.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro review: The ultimate upgrade
The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max may look almost identical to their predecessors, but fundamentally every aspect of the phones has received a dramatic upgrade apart from the exterior. And even if these updates didn’t happen, the iPhones would’ve been likely the best phones -- but the wide breadth of the update on the iPhone 13 Pro line makes this one of the most holistic upgrades Apple has made to its hero product. I say this because superficially, the iPhone 13 announcement has been viewed as one of the more tepid updates Apple has conjured in recent memory. If you own an iPhone 12 series device then upgrading to any of the iPhone 13 models would not be the wisest decision. However outside of that, Apple has undersold and over delivered with an update that enhances the fundamentals of the iPhone by leaps and bounds. There are so many things in the new iPhones that Apple hasn’t even talked about -- it will surprise and delight you in ways most recent iPhones haven’t. But if you’re yearning for a change in looks and feel, then this isn’t the phone for you.
Apple has honed and mastered a design language that has progressively evolved since the release of iPhone X in 2017, and even though, in 2020, the iPhone 12 series represented the biggest visual change to the iPhone in half a decade, it was still a derivative of the all-screen notch based design. Apple drew inspiration from the geometric design language of iPhone 5, which was much loved and it created a jewel-like marble that was ergonomically compromised but by far the most visually impressive smartphone I had ever seen. Its build quality, thanks to the use of surgical grade stainless steel and ceramic shield, also made it perhaps the most well-built modern smartphone.
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Apple hasn’t changed things because if you look around -- no phone can match the visual panache of this design language. Additionally, it retains the iconic iPhone design language -- so everyone recognises it is an iPhone. Even in 2021, this design language stands the test of time. But there are refinements and changes to make it even more appealing. The notch is smaller by 20 percent as people have started to feel a distaste for it. At the same time, both the Pro and Pro Max have become ever so slightly larger because Apple has added a bigger battery and also a bigger and bolder camera system. Yes, this is a small compromise on the ergonomics, which were already not that great, but overall, these changes make it a more delightful phone.
People who find Pro Max too big should suffice with the Pro. Last year, the Pro Max offered a superior camera and a bigger battery -- this year the cameras are the same and the battery is large enough on the Pro to last an entire day with even very hectic usage. The Pro Max should only be used by people who want the massive 6.7-inch screen.
And yes, the screens on these new iPhones are just mind-blowing. Display Mate has said these are the most sophisticated screens that they have seen on the phone and rated them the best in the business. Apple has added 120Hz dynamically refreshing pro motion technology but on the iPhone, it can hit more refresh rates than even iPad Pro. The screen can become ridiculously dim and extremely bright so it is just stunning to use in any scenario. It supports HDR and watching video on this phone is miraculous. But day-to-day use also feels more fluid. Not that the iPhone needed the crutch of a high refresh rate panel to make it more responsive, now it has the one thing that Android phones have had for the past couple of years. This gives the iPhone also an edge in gaming, which can be transformative, as the iPhone has always had the most powerful GPU and this is a phenom of a gaming machine with its horsepower rivalling that of the PlayStation 4 Pro.
Apple has also upgraded the stereo speakers, which sound louder and richer. Apple hasn’t talked about this but the moment you fire up these new iPhones you can tell. The other aspect of audio that’s improved is the call quality -- Apple now uses the latest Qualcomm X60 modem, which is sure to help with call quality, while sipping less power and giving better network, 4G and WiFi performance, apart from theoretical 5G capability, which likely wouldn’t arrive before 2023 in India. But iPhone users use their phones for at least two-four years, which means this capability will be relevant for people who don’t change their phones every year.
The A15 Bionic chip is fiendishly fast. It is the fastest mobile system on chip building on the legacy of the A14 bionic. But this refresh is about efficiency and distributed computing. Apple has enhanced the neural engine, it has beefed up the ISP and on the pro models, there is also an additional GPU giving its graphical element 5-cores apart from the 6-core CPU. This is on the latest 2021 TSMC 5nm process, which also enhances efficiency coupled with the new 5nm X60 modem by Qualcomm. The result is that at every step Apple is shaving off power consumption -- be it from the main CPU, the GPU, the modem, the display while it has ramped up the size of the battery.
The gains on the CPU side are modest at around 15 percent, but the GPU bump is as much as 50 percent better than iPhone 12. The iPhone is the best gaming phone out there. It is not even fair now that the GPU has got such a bump and Apple has added a high refresh rate panel. The iPhone is also the preferred development platform for many gaming developers, its software APIs like metal make things easy and it has the customer base that pays for apps. And if that’s not enough it has Apple Arcade, which has a bevy of great games that aren’t available on any other platform. Apple also has a great accessory ecosystem and its gadgets even have support for Xbox and Playstation controllers.
I played Pascal’s Wager and it looked astoundingly gorgeous on the phone. I even played Call of Duty Mobile, which was locked in terms of frame rate, and it just played superbly. Apple is packing desktop-class performance inside a phone, but this isn’t something new for long-time users.
The thing that will trigger the upgrade is the new camera system on the iPhone 13 Pro Max. It gets a troika of 12-megapixel sensors, coupled with a LiDAR. Now, this may sound rather timid in front of things like a 50-megapixel sensor on phones like Mi 11 Ultra, but believe me, these new cameras by Apple are a work of magic. Apple has increased the size of the sensor by 50 percent on the main wide-angle camera that means it absorbs more light. It has also opened up the aperture to a wild f/1.5 coupled with its sensor-shift stabilisation system and new ISP — it pretty much takes the best photos of any smartphone in the market — in either low light, bright light, ultra-dark situations where the night mode now detects stars, and supports tripods and even portrait mode.
If iPhone 12 Pro Max was a jump for Apple, iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are an even bigger jump. Apple has outfitted the ultra-wide camera with a monstrous f/1.8 sensor, which works wonders in any given lighting situation and has also now upgraded the telephoto lens to 3x optical zoom with a 77mm frame. Apple has gone back to shallower aperture here at f/2.8 but now night mode works with this camera. The ultra-wide camera also now supports epic macro shots, which now makes this the most complete camera system you can get on a phone.
These upgrades also enable the hero feature of iPhone 13 Pro Max — Cinematic mode, which enables rack focus and a DSLR like bokeh effect. It works reasonably well when given good light, though decidedly the technology is at an early stage just the way portrait mode was when it launched with iPhone 7. But it can be a cool tool for creators and influencers, but in its current form, it isn’t something that filmmakers will use per se. The other big feature is Pro-Res, which will be deployed as a software update at a later date probably in a month or so. But generally, talking about video, iPhone 13 Pro line is astoundingly good. Video is shake-free and clear and very usable in ultra-dark situations as well. It does 4K video in HDR Dolby Vision at up to 60 frames per second and when coupled with its onboard microphone, which also has been seemingly upgraded — it is a portable camcorder.
There will be phones, which have better zoom or perhaps can do slightly better portraits or can take bright shots in low light that look like morning, but no phone gets everything together in one go. Sure it lacks a pro model, but Apple in its simplistic way has its solution in Photographic Styles, which allows one to give the shot a colour palette that is embedded in the photo itself. So this is for people who don’t like the neutral iPhone style, you can get closer to a warmer and brighter style of a Samsung camera system or even a cooler contrasty colour scheme of a Google Pixel. iPhone 13 has all the toys.
Apart from the camera — the main reason that will draw anyone to the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max is the superlative and long-lasting battery life. Apple’s devices have always had middling battery life, these phones have an exceptional battery life that no flagship phone will be able to match. The Pro Max has the better battery life as it is a true 2-day battery life phone, but even Pro will deliver around 9 hours of screen on time and 36 hours of usage, which can be stretched to 48 hours if the phone is used frugally.
IOS 15 is another solid update by Apple that adds new tricks like SharePlay, FaceTime support for Android and Windows, a new Focus mode that will help with productivity and also a bevy of user interface improvements that keep the iPhone experience fresh. That being said, out of the box, app support and iOS 15 stability has been less than perfect, which Apple has started to tackle with bug fix updates, though this version of iOS forges the polish Apple’s software is usually known for.
They may look the same, but nothing is same apart from their looks. Apple has completed the most comprehensive update to the innards of the iPhone, which makes the new 13 Pro models not only the best phones on the planet but also the most useful phones. And for that, you need to pay a hefty price — though now it starts with a 128GB model and Apple has even added a 1 TB tier. Go figure, but this is the ultimate upgrade.
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