Apple iPhone 13 review: Most incremental upgrade ever
The truth is that smartphones peaked a few years back.
After so much progress, miniature computers have reached incredible speeds, their screens have gotten bigger and brighter, and their cameras produce images that make amateur photographers look like magicians.
The problem with so much great innovation is that upgrades are now so iterative that it’s hard to know what to write about each year. This is especially the case with Apple’s iPhone 13, which may be the most incremental update to the iPhone yet.
The latest iPhones are just 10 percent faster than last year’s models. (For reference, in 2015, the iPhone 6S was over 70 percent faster than its predecessor, the iPhone 6) Its most attractive new feature, a higher screen “refresh rate” on the $1,000-plus model, was the speed when opening. Makes it easy to scroll through apps and text – hardly a game changer.
The pace of innovation in smartphone cameras also seems to be slowing down. Apple executives described the iPhone 13 cameras as “dramatically more powerful” and the “most advanced” of the iPhone, mainly because they can capture more light and reduce noise. But in my tests, the improvements were minor.
All of this is to say that the annual phone upgrade, which companies like Apple and Samsung associate with massive marketing events and advertising campaigns to boost sales for the holiday shopping season, has become a marvel of technological innovation. In fact, upgrade is now a celebration of capitalism in the form of ruthless growthism.
What better way to photograph that slow motion than with smartphone photos? To test the iPhone 13 cameras, I bought a special tripod to hold the two phones side by side so I could take nearly identical photos of my dogs at the same time. I compared shots taken with the new iPhones, last year’s iPhone 12, and the three-year-old iPhone XS.
When I got the results, I was really surprised at how well the iPhone XS camera stacked up against the latest models. And the iPhone 13’s camera was barely any better than the iPhone 12’s.
Enough words. Let my dog photos guide you on the latest iPhone.
To compare photos taken in broad daylight, I took all the phones and my dogs, Max (that little corgi) and Cobbler (that brown Labrador) to a park in Richmond, Calif. In a test shot sitting next to each of them in the other shade, the iPhone 13 and 12 photos were hardly different. The iPhone 13 did a somewhat better job at capturing shadows.
In one test, compared to the $1,000 iPhone 13 Pro with the iPhone XS, the $1,000 model released in 2018, both pictures of dogs in bright sunlight were clear and detailed. I will tell you that the iPhone 13 Pro produced images with more vibrant colors.
But in a test on a shaded path in the middle of the woods, a photo taken with the iPhone 13 Pro left the cobbler blown away by sunlight; The shadows and lighting looked more natural as captured by the three-year-old iPhone. Apple disagreed with my assessment. (you be the judge.)
The improvements in the new iPhone cameras were most visible in low-light photos taken with Night Mode, which captures multiple pictures and then fuses them together while making adjustments for colors and contrast. Low-light shots of the Max sitting on a balcony just after sunset were clearer when taken with the iPhone 13 Pro than with the iPhone 12.
Low light was one area where the three-year-old iPhone XS couldn’t compete as its camera lacked a Night Mode. In the same test, Max was wrapped in darkness, except for his beautiful white mane.
The iPhone 13 cameras also have a new video feature called Cinematic Mode, which uses algorithms to automatically focus on faces — even those of my dogs — as they move around. I would have a hard time imagining why someone with ambitions to become a filmmaker would use this mode, but I can think of a few TikTokers who might like it.
So in short, the iPhone 13’s cameras are a bit better than last year’s iPhones. Even compared to the iPhones from three years ago, the cameras are much better, if you care about taking good pictures in the dark.
How important is night photography? I questioned Jim Wilson, a longtime staff photographer for The New York Times, as he was taking pictures of the new iPhone for this review. He said it would be an important feature for people like him, but not as important for casual shooters.
“Sometimes I wait until night to make a simple scene different and exciting,” he said. “But for most people who aren’t professional photographers, it doesn’t make sense.”
The fact that the smartphone has stabilized is not a bad thing. This means you can enjoy it for years to come without losing anything major. And when upgrading feels right, you’re in for a piece of mature technology that’s incrementally — though not dramatically — better.
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