Review: iPhone 13 delivers super-quick performance and long battery life - but no 120Hz

Can someone who needs the biggest and best be happy with a standard iPhone?
Can someone who needs the biggest and best be happy with a standard iPhone? Photo credit: Newshub

There's one thing you accept early on as a technology geek and that is you're always willing to pay a bit more to get bigger and better gadgets before other people.

So once Apple started offering iPhones with bigger screens, and then Pro Max models with better cameras and processing power too, I was all over it, knowing the technology would eventually work its way down to the non-premium phones.

But a few months of unemployment last year gave me pause. Suddenly forking out so much money for the very top specification phone, laptop, earbuds or any other gadget wasn't very sensible.

I haven't had to buy a new phone since those dark days of redundancy but it's nearly certain that either myself or a loved one will have to purchase one soon.

So could someone who, for so long has made their love of technology part of their identity, be happy with a standard iPhone 13 instead of the iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max? Surely not!

It's probably not a surprise, therefore, I went into my hands-on experience with Apple's new non-Pro phone with a degree of trepidation. 

I've been using the iPhone 13 for a few days now and here are my thoughts.

The good

Unboxing an iPhone always feels a little like Christmas morning when I was eight years old and got my first computer; that wee flurry of excitement as you open the packaging and glimpse the beauty underneath.

iPhone 13
Photo credit: Newshub

While the iPhone 13 doesn't have the glorious rubber keys of that 1982 ZX Spectrum 48k, it oozes style right from the start.

The 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR screen, refresh rate aside, is beautiful, bright and colourful and offers a decent 800 nits of brightness for when the sun is shining.

It's also a ridiculously quick phone.

The chip inside, the A15 Bionic, is substantially quicker than last year's A14 - which was already way faster than the Snapdragon 888 used in many flagship Android mobiles.

It handles switching between apps with no problems and, even with more than 50 apps open at one time, there was no noticeable slowdown.

In a head-to-head against one of the Pro models I would have needed super slow motion to pick a winner when launching apps. You are getting your money's worth here, for sure.

Games were also a pleasure to play, with Fantasian, Asphalt 8+ and Alto's Lost City looking fantastic and with no glitching or other issues, even with multiple apps open.

iPhone 13
Photo credit: Newshub

Perhaps the biggest positive of the new iPhone 13 is the battery life. It's verging on sensational, in my view.

Apple has delivered a bigger battery promising 2.5 hours more life per day over last year's 12, although it hasn't specified what the increase in mAH is to deliver the improvement.

An independent test has shown, at full, non-stop usage, the battery goes two hours longer than previously

My experience more than backs that up performance. After heavy usage to try out its functionality over a vastly extended workday, I still got nowhere near draining the battery.

After charging up overnight I then left it sitting around, using infrequently for the odd text and email check and to take a photo or two. After 48 hours it was still sitting at over 65 percent battery.

Once the initial 'I've got to keep touching this phone and playing with it' phase is over, I anticipate only having to fully charge every second day - and given the screen quality and speed, that's pretty damned good.

It also means when Auckland opens up again I can rest easy if I head somewhere overnight and leave my Lightning cable behind. Let's not mention USB-C charging, eh?

I was also surprised by the quality of photos taken. I was prepared to find more faults with the camera, having come from using a 12 Pro with better tech and a telephoto lens.

The iPhone 13 features a new look, Y-shaped camera system and a new image sensor that Apple says allows for 47 percent more light from the main camera. It also has a new ultra-wide 12MP camera.

iPhone 13
Photo credit: Newshub

Even lacking the extra lens I struggled to tell the differences between photos from last year's Pro model. When it comes to front-facing selfies, I'm even prepared to give the 13 the edge over the 12 Pro for depth of colour.

Of course, if you really want the best photos possible, you're going to want the iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max, which also offers aperture benefits as well as the additional lens.

But if you're a basic point-and-click type who uses their phone to take pictures primarily for sharing on the internet, I can't see you being disappointed by what's on offer here.

I would have liked to have spent a bit more time trying out the new 'Cinematic' video mode, which a colleague found a little "hit and miss". Unfortunately my bubble is very small and with no pets or additional people, I haven't been able to spend the time necessary to give my opinion.

It's worth noting the internet response has been mixed to the Cinematic mode thus far, with excitement at the potential it offers to amateur filmmakers, but also frustration at its limitations.

The bad

There were only a couple of things with the iPhone 13 that raised my hackles a little.

The first, I expect, is something that will be resolved via a future patch and so hopefully won't be a long-term issue.

Still, there's something freaky about videos glitching in Facebook's Messenger which turned sweet, funny moments from my four-year-old nephew into something that resembled a horror movie, ghostly body parts and all.

Trying on different versions of the new iPhone made clear that they're not consistent either. Some videos glitch more on some phones than others. I even had a couple which were fine on one phone but nearly unwatchable on another.

The other issue is more annoying. The iPhone 13 Pro models offer 120Hz refresh rates this year, but no such luck for the standard model.

iPhone 13
Photo credit: Newshub

And, frankly, that's really not good enough at this point. Samsung introduced 120Hz displaying 18 months ago in Aotearoa with its popular Galaxy S20 range - and the functionality has been available for longer with other manufacturers, often in handsets much cheaper than a new iPhone.

It's one of those things you might not notice until you try a phone with a fast refresh rate. Once you've experienced smooth scrolling and transitions it's really hard to go back to 60Hz as a standard. The world just seems that bit more jittery.

Gaming is even better at the higher refresh rate - although you do get a knock-on impact on battery life with 120Hz over 60Hz so that may negate some of the great work Apple has done there.

A side-by-side comparison with a Pro model really highlights just how much better the user experience is at 120Hz and, at this point, it feels like Apple's holding back just so the Pro models have a wee bit more differentiation from the non-Pro model.

I don't think it's too much to expect from a company that is constantly pushing the boundaries of technology and is known for innovation to have this as standard - so while you might not be angry about it, I sure can be.

The verdict

I'm shook. I was polite earlier when I said I was feeling a little trepidation over using the iPhone 13. I flat out expected to hate it.

Those preconceptions were quickly knocked out of me, however, by a phone which delivers a performance which didn't have me missing much of either the Pro or Pro Max models.

iPhone 13
Photo credit: Newshub

I'm in a privileged position where I get to play with gadgets nearly every day, so sometimes I forget that people have to make hard decisions and sacrifices when it comes to choosing even ubiquitous items such as mobile phones.

The iPhone 13 starts at $1429 in Aotearoa, with the Pro model's baseline $1799. They have the same sized screens and the same chip with a smidge of extra graphics processing power in the Pro.

Essentially you're paying an extra $370 for 120Hz refresh rate and some extra camera tech. 

And, while that might mean something to nerds like me, I'm not sure if it matters quite as much to the general public - even if 120Hz absolutely should be a standard on these phones.

That's particularly true when the photographs are still very good quality and, to my eyes, every bit as good as what I've taken with last year's iPhone 12 Pro.

So to answer the question I asked myself at the start, could I be happy with an iPhone 13 instead of the iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max?

Yes. And I've already got the Lego sets I'm going to buy with the savings picked out. Just sort out the bloody refresh rate, eh, Apple!

Newshub was supplied with an iPhone 13 for this review.