Does the phone that ‘just works’ offer enough to compete with its more maximalist rivals?
My very first smartphone was a law firm-issued Blackberry.
Now, the moment I typed that, I had to pause. Does a Blackberry even count as a smartphone? The launch of the iPhone in 2007 so completely reshaped the definition of a smartphone that its keyboard-toting predecessor barely qualifies as one today.
My next phone was an Android and I’ve been on Android now for over a decade, which is why I’ve taken the semantic liberty of describing myself as a “lifelong” Android user.
A few weeks ago, Apple was kind enough to send me an iPhone 13 to use so I could write my impressions of using an iPhone after having only used Android devices so far. It’s been a fascinating couple of weeks, but was it fascinating enough to draw me away from Android?
Read on to find out.
First, some background. While I’ve never used iPhones, I’ve been a Mac user on the desktop for many years. I also have an iPad Pro, mainly for reading magazines.
Yet somehow, I’ve always been wary of iPhones. Some of it was technical – I didn’t fancy Apple’s approach to the OS itself. Some of it was cost – these things cost more than I was ever able or willing to spend on a phone.
But I was still always intrigued by the devices, mostly because they almost always featured the most powerful processors, regularly had excellent cameras, and every once in a while would come out with interesting and game-changing features. So, when I opened up the iPhone box, I was genuinely excited.
To get the basics out of the way, this is the non-Pro iPhone 13 and starts out at Rs 79,900 (although available cheaper now) for the base 128 GB model. The model I have is the 512 GB which sells for Rs 1,09,900.
Now, at the outset, I ran into problems because I couldn’t port my WhatsApp backup to this iPhone 13 (yes, I tried that method you’re thinking of and no, it didn’t work), so I had to use it as a secondary phone. I popped my second SIM into it and used it as much as I could bear to be away from WhatsApp. I used it to watch videos, scroll Twitter and Instagram, make phone calls, and generally mess around with the device.
The hardware itself is excellent. The slab-edged design looks premium and feels immaculately built and finished. The design is a true classic and not even its ubiquity takes away from the feeling that you’re holding something truly special in your hands. It’s also worth noting that the compact size feels like a really nice change from the giant slabs that are the norm in smartphoneland. I’d go so far as to see it’s the most premium-feeling device I’ve used.
Now we come up against my first major disappointment with the phone – the 60 Hz screen.
The 6.1” display itself looks stunning with excellent colours and contrast, and top-class sunlight readability. But a 60 Hz refresh rate feels primitive. Everything just feels jerkier, from app loading to scrolling to swiping. Add to this the fact that iOS believes in slow animations, and you get a few extra microseconds to marvel at this baffling cost-cutting/product differentiation decision.
Think about it. This phone has the most powerful mobile phone processor in the world by some distance, but basic interactions still feel rougher than a Poco X3 Pro that costs about a quarter of the price and runs a chipset that’s years old. The thing is, I’ve seen what Apple can do with 120Hz on my iPad Pro, and it’s silky smooth and unimpeachable in every regard. Apple really needs to face up to the fact that in 2022, 120Hz is table stakes at this price point.
The rest of the hardware is pretty standard. The camera bump features the two-camera array with a normal and ultra-wide, the buttons are clicky and satisfying, the alert slider is a superb feature that every phonemaker should copy (and sadly only OnePlus does), the haptics are excellent, and the stereo speakers are loud and clear. In fact, this is the first phone I’ve heard that matches up to the Poco X3 Pro in terms of sound quality. The iPhone 13 has a bit more detail while the Poco has a smidge more bass, but they’re very close.
The phone is in general very fast, smooth (as smooth as 60 Hz can be) and completely lag- and stutter-free. I did encounter the odd bug (such as the YouTube app randomly freezing up) but overall there’s very little I have to complain about in the way that it functions. Like every iPhone fan will tell you, “it just works” – but it’s the matter of how it works where I have a few quibbles.
I’d mentioned earlier that my reluctance about iPhones stemmed from Apple’s approach to iOS. My broad philosophical issue with it is that everything has to be done only in one particular way. Apple has optimised every interaction to work in the way they deem best. Now, if you also agree with it, then you will have no problems whatsoever, but if you want to do things a little differently, then you’re stuck.
My first annoyance was, of course, FaceID. I’ve used FaceID for some time now on my iPad Pro and I've always hated it. Compared to fingerprint sensors (even the in-display fingerprint sensors that have sadly replaced the much faster capacitive sensors), FaceID is slow and less reliable. It’s better on the phone than the tablet, of course, because the angle is more often than not correct, but even then, in my experience, FaceID just doesn’t work as well as fingerprint sensors. Add to this the fact that the device doesn’t unlock straight to the home-screen, requiring you to swipe up (or tap the back) every time, and the whole process of unlocking the phone feels more cumbersome than necessary.
Once unlocked and in, the phone overall feels genuinely great. The stunning screen is a joy to read and watch things on. After a little while, you get used to the 60Hz also. Everything is utterly consistent and stable, and I can really imagine how the “it just works” maxim has evolved over time.
But once again I must pipe up with complaints. The lack of a universal back gesture or button is a real irritant coming from Android. The swipe to go back works in certain circumstances, but not in certain others, at which point you have to reach your finger all the way to the top of the screen to tap a back arrow. This just feels unnecessary. Compared to gesture navigation or button navigation on Android, the latter of which is my preference, this feels simply inconsistent.
You do get used to it after a few days though, but the fact that you don’t have a choice to tweak it doesn’t sit well with me. Let me get my tweakability complaints all out of the way right here. On Android, I customise my SwiftKey app to a great degree, I finetune the size of the keyboard, specify the long-press duration, and so on. Neither of these options is available on iOS. You can’t set the battery indicator to show a percentage, can’t access the iPhone’s file system, notification management is simply inferior compared to Android.
I’ll stop now but you get the drift.
This approach extends all over the OS. If you’ve only ever used iOS, you’ll probably have no idea there are features that you’re missing. But if you’re switching from Android and you are used to really getting your hands dirty with the device, you’ll find the iPhone a little too restrictive. If you’re not that nerdy, you may well not care.
What I loved
Now that I have the whines out of the way, let me focus on the things I loved about the iPhone 13.
The battery performance is simply stellar. Whether it is the way it sleeps or the way the device uses battery while it’s in use, it’s more frugal than any Android phone I’ve ever used. The battery life is so good that you don’t mind the glacially slow charging (although you do resent the Lightning cable in a world that is almost entirely USB-C now).
The camera, just like the screen, has been de-featured to make the Pro line more attractive, so it misses out on a telephoto unit. I personally really like using the telephoto and find its absence disappointing, but if you don’t mind that, the camera and its performance are excellent. Just like all other smartphones these days the iPhone 13 also gets a bit heavy-handed at times with the computational photography, with faces getting brighter and so on. But even so, the iPhone 13 does this much less than most others. Most of the time, the photos that you get out of it have excellent colours, great dynamic range and contrast, and just look very appealing.
The photographic styles feature is also very useful, and allows you to lightly tune the look of the photos to your tastes. Pictures of people look excellent (except when it occasionally brightens skin tones). The ultrawide also produces very pleasing images, although the lack of autofocus on this unit feels like an avoidable compromise. As always the iPhone offers best-in-class video, and even cinematic video, while still a bit rough around the edges, is enjoyable to play with.
There are also ecosystem benefits like universal copy-paste, Handoff and AirDrop that work really nicely if you have other Apple devices.
Conclusion: Should you buy it?
If you’re an iPhone user with an iPhone 11 or older, this is a sensible and worthwhile upgrade for you to make. You won’t share any of my complaints, and you won’t mind the 60 Hz screen because you’ve not used better.
But I would struggle to recommend an iPhone 13 to anyone else. If you’re in the iPhone ecosystem and you can afford it, get one of the Pro models. The 120Hz alone is worth it, not to mention the telephoto lens. Yes, it will set you back well north of a lakh of rupees, but it also gets you that 3-lens iPhone cachet that is unmatched.
If you’re using a recent Android flagship, I can’t really recommend switching to this. Yes, there are apps that are better coded on iOS, and there are a few areas like exporting 4K video etc where the more powerful A15 Bionic processor will beat your Android handily. Apple also offers superior privacy and generally better longevity, and if these are priorities for you then it might be worth a look. But there’s too much lacking in this iPhone 13 for me to actually recommend it outright.
Now for my personal conclusions. I enjoyed my time with the iPhone 13. It was fun to immerse myself in a new OS and figure it out, and I actually found myself getting used to it, and started to enjoy how nicely it played with my Mac and my iPad. But apart from these ecosystem related perks, I didn’t actually find anything that would entice me to switch from Android. And when you consider the fact that this iPhone 13 sells for Rs 79,900 it really makes no sense when you can get so much more bang for your buck in the Android camp.
This iPhone 13 was sent to the reviewer as a loaner unit for review purposes. The unit will be returned on completion of the review. Apple has been given no advance information about the content of this review and exercises no copy approval.
Contact the author on Twitter @vinayaravind.