Why you can trust ZDNet
ZDNet independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.Our process
'ZDNet Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNet's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNet nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNet's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
I've been primarily using the iPhone 13 Pro Max for the past week, with occasional testing of the smaller iPhone 13 Pro. This year, other than display size and battery life, there aren't any meaningful differences between the two. They offer an identical experience.
The iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max are two of the best iPhones I've ever used, thanks to an upgraded camera system, improved battery life and a display that's easy on the eyes. But there's more to them than that. Let's dive in, shall we?
What's in a name, anyway?
Even though Apple skipped using its familiar "S" naming convention for the 2021 iPhone lineup, the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are very much an "S" upgrade as far as design is concerned. Including new colors, there are three noticeable tweaks to the exterior of the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max. The biggest change is the size of the camera array on the back of the phone. The camera lenses are more spread out and much larger than the iPhone 12 Pro.
It's important to note that due to the size of the camera array and the side buttons being shifted down ever-so-slightly, you'll very likely need to get a new case if you're upgrading from an iPhone 12 Pro.
A more subtle but still noticeable tweak Apple made to the design involves the True Depth camera system -- or "notch", as it's commonly called -- on the front of all iPhone 13 models. It's been shrunk down, horizontally at least, by 20%. However, It is a little taller.
The new Pro colors include starlight blue, silver, gold and graphite. The colors aren't as bright and vivid as they are on for the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini, thanks to the matte finish of the stainless steel housing.
On the bottom of the iPhone is where you'll find Apple's Lightning port. It's a decision that's drawn criticism for not adopting USB-C for faster transfers and charging speeds and praise for not creating more eWaste by forcing users to switch to a new connector.
I get both sides of the argument, but I tend to agree with the USB-C crowd, but only for the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. One of the core features of the new iPhone 13 lineup is its new camera features like Cinematic Mode and the forthcoming ProRes Video feature (more on those in a minute). Cinematic Mode alone is going to encourage users to record more video than they have in the past -- at least that's been my experience thus far -- and waiting for iCloud Photos to back up long clips, or using Lightning to transfer the videos over to my MacBook Pro, isn't as quick as it would be if the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max had a faster USB-C connection.
Much as Apple is slowly doing with its iPad lineup by methodically adding USB-C as it refreshes each model, I think Apple should start by adding USB-C to the Pro iPhone models and then slowly bring it to the rest of the iPhone lineup a year or two later.
The size of the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max has stayed the same. The 13 Pro's display measures 6.1-inches, while the 13 Pro Max stays at 6.7-inches.
Performance, camera features and battery life
When you filter down all of the changes and upgrades Apple made to the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max, you're left with better performance, improved cameras and longer battery life.
Some of those improvements, such as performance, are hard to quantify outside of synthetic benchmarks. I can say that in my daily use over the last week, the entire iPhone experience feels smoother and faster than it did on the iPhone 12 Pro. Part of that is due to the ProMotion display, which changes the refresh rate of the iPhone's display between 10Hz and 120Hz, based on what you're doing.
It's a feature that's noticeable from the moment you turn the phone on the first time, even if you don't realize what exactly looks different. The screen doesn't have any more pixels than the previous model, but it just looks better.
The other part of the performance boost I've noticed is thanks to Apple's new A15 Bionic processor. The processor has a 6-core CPU, 16-core neural engine, and in the Pro models, it has a 5-core GPU. All of that adds up to a quick experience, regardless of what you're doing. Be it recording a video, using an augmented reality app or bouncing between Excel, Safari, Messages and Slack.
Storage amounts for the Pro line start at 128GB, and go all the way up to 1TB, doubling with each price point. It's the first time a 1TB iPhone has been available -- we sure have come a long way from the original iPhone's 4GB of storage.
The increase in storage is welcome, simply because of the upgrades Apple made to the cameras.
Apple is calling the camera system on the Pro lineup a "Pro 12MP camera system." That breaks down into one telephoto camera, a wide camera and an ultra-wide camera. The telephoto has an increased optical zoom of 3x, up from 2x -- the ultra-wide stays at 2x optical zoom out.
It took me a day or so to get used to the extra optical zoom in the telephoto, often forcing me to back up just a little bit more. This year, there are no differences between the camera systems in both iPhone 13 Pro models.
The cameras in Apple's iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max continue to set the bar for future smartphones, and new software tricks are pushing them even further.
When taking a still picture, you can now use what amounts to be a series of photo filters on steroids. The iPhone's new Photographic Styles allow photographers to fully customize whether the photos they take have more saturation or are more true to life, for instance. There are a total of five photographic styles, all of which you can adjust to your liking.
I happen to prefer the default style that's more true to life, but I'd be lying if I said there are times when the more Samsung-like approach of rich contrast doesn't have its own place in my photographic arsenal.
The show's real star is the new Cinematic Mode that adds a feeling of depth -- either in the foreground or background -- to videos captured with the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max.
Surely you've seen a clip in a movie or TV show where the foreground is completely in focus, but the subject or item in the background is completely out of focus. After a second or two, the focal point changes, and the background is now in focus while the item that is closest to the camera is now blurry.
The iPhone 13's camera can now do that without any special equipment or editing tools. And, for the most part, it does really well at it. I've only seen Cinematic struggle with identifying a subject and properly applying a bokeh (or blurry background) in low light conditions.
Here's a short clip that shows the majority of my experience with the feature:
The only thing I had to do to capture the above video was select Cinematic from the list of modes in the camera app. The phone handled the rest of the process. Something important to note is that any video captured with the new video mode will be limited to 1080p at 30fps; hopefully, Apple is able to bring 4K capture to Cinematic mode in the future.
One aspect of Cinematic Mode that really shows how powerful the A15 processor is is when you edit a video and adjust the focal point. In other words, you're able to go into the Photos app and alter the final version of the video -- telling it to lock auto-focus on to a subject or reverse the order of what's in and out of focus. Or ditch the focal feature altogether, reverting to a standard video.
A quick comment about macro photos: I've always been a fan of macro photographs. I even owned an Olloclip lens attachment for an iPhone years ago that allowed me to take close-up shots of random objects. So when Apple announced the iPhone 13 would have a macro mode without a dedicated lens like Android phones typically do, I was pretty excited.
So far, the results have been great. Here's a shot of some sweet potato french fries from a local restaurant I took early on during my time testing.
Currently, there isn't a toggle to switch between normal and macro mode -- the camera app recognizes you're getting close to an item and transitions on its own. But the effect is somewhat jarring as it shifts, often forcing you to reframe the shot. Apple has told several outlets it will release an update that adds the option to turn auto-switching to macro mode on or off.
The third tent pole of the iPhone 13 lineup is improved battery life. I spent most of my week testing the iPhone 13 Pro Max, which has the biggest battery pack and longest advertised battery life out of the latest crop. And I can confirm, it's fantastic. It doesn't just last through a normal 16 hour day, but it often has enough charge to get me through about 12 hours the following day. In other words, I wake up on Monday a 6 am, and I don't have to charge it until around 6 pm on Tuesday.
Last year, I decided to switch from the larger iPhone Pro model to the standard iPhone 12 Pro for the first time in years. I don't regret the decision one bit, but after testing the Pro Max, I realized how much peace of mind the extra battery life brings with it. And with the larger screen, I'm able to review documents that I had been reaching for my iPad Pro to look at instead of using the iPhone 12 Pro.
In fact, I enjoyed going back to the larger model so much; I ordered the 256GB iPhone 13 Pro Max for myself this morning. I won't come anywhere close to using all of that storage. Still, I opted for that model because of another video-related feature that is set to debut via an upcoming iOS update called ProRes Video. The iPhone 13 Pro or 13 Pro Max with 256GB of storage or more will be able to capture ProRes video at 4K/30fps, while the 128GB model will only record 1080p/30fps. I'm not entirely sure if I'll even use ProRes, let alone at 4K, but I wanted the option nonetheless.
All of that to say -- the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max have a great, Pro-quality camera system right now, but we don't know the full story of what Apple is going to do with it. And so, we wait.
The iPhone 13 -- any of them -- weren't designed and built for someone who just bought an iPhone 12. They, arguably, aren't even meant for someone who had an iPhone 11.
So, if you currently have an iPhone 12, don't feel compelled to upgrade unless you really, really want a couple of extra hours of battery and some fancy video features. To anyone else, even iPhone 11 users, the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are worthwhile, expensive and meaningful upgrades.
We'll have a review of the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Mini next week. In the meantime, if you've already received your iPhone 13 order or are waiting for yours to be delivered -- which model did you go with and why? Let us know in the comments below.