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The iPhone 13 Upgrade Edition
If you haven't already pre-ordered an iPhone 13, there's a pretty good chance that you're not entirely sure if you need one at this point. That's fair, especially since a lot of people are perfectly happy with the iPhone they have, even if it's a few years old. If you currently have an iPhone 11 or iPhone 12, the iPhone 13 will be a better device, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's worth it.
If your device is older (say an iPhone 7 or 8), you'll probably see enough of an improvement across the board to make it worth the upgrade. That's especially true this year when both Apple and carriers have a number of promotions that can get you a nice discount on a new device.
In that case, the biggest question is which iPhone you should get. Here's what you need to know:
For most people, the iPhone 13 is the easiest option to choose. The camera system is improved from last year, most notably by adding better optical image stabilization on the camera sensors. The 1X camera, which Apple calls the "wide" camera, is improved as well, letting in 47 percent more light, so you can get better shots, even in low light.
It also gets improved battery life over the iPhone 12, and has a brighter display. Both of those are improvements that you'll notice as you use the device every day. Apple also doubled the storage on the entry-level model to 128GB, making it a reasonable option for most people. The iPhone 13 starts at $799.
iPhone 13 mini
There's a pretty good chance this will be the last iPhone mini. I think it's possible that this year's model may stick around and possibly be rebranded as the iPhone SE, but it seems clear that while the mini iPhones have a pretty loyal base of users, that group just isn't big enough to convince Apple to keep investing in the size.
Of course, if you're really, really happy with your iPhone 12 mini, and were really hoping to upgrade next year, you might just want to buy this year's model to convince Apple there really is a market for a full-powered, small iPhone. I'm not sure it will work, but either way, the iPhone 13 mini will likely last you well into the future. It starts at $699.
iPhone 13 Pro/Pro Max
Unlike last year, where the iPhone 12 Pro Max had a better camera system, this year, these two devices are identical with the exception of the screen size. That makes the decision a lot easier for a lot of people.
If you want the very best camera system you can get on a smartphone, go for the Pro models. If you have to have the biggest display available, get the Pro Max. Otherwise, get the Pro.
In addition to the camera improvements--which include Cinematic mode for video, and Macro photography for stills--this year's Pro models also get a 3x optical zoom, which is equivalent to a 77mm focal length. The sensors also have larger pixels, meaning they can absorb more light, more quickly, making for better images in low light situations.
The Pro models get ProMotion, which dynamically adjusts the refresh rate of the display between 10Hz and 120Hz based on what you are doing. That means that scrolling is very smooth. Apple even says it calculates the speed of your finger moving on the display and chooses the appropriate refresh rate accordingly.
The other real benefit of ProMotion is that it makes for far better battery life. The Pro Max gains almost 20 percent more battery life compared to last year's model. That's even with a brighter display. The iPhone 13 Pro starts at $999 and the iPhone 13 Pro Max starts at $1099.
By the way, you can still buy the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini. For that matter, you can still buy the iPhone 11 for $499 or the iPhone SE for $399. Basically, Apple is competing with the likes of Samsung, OnePlus, and Google not by offering new low-priced options, but by keeping its older models around at greatly discounted prices.
It's actually a brilliant strategy that doesn't get a lot of attention. Apple has a phone at $399, $499, $599, $699, $799, $999, and $1099, all of which have at least an A13 Bionic processor--which isn't slow by smartphone processor standards. All but two of those options have 5G (the iPhone 11 and iPhone SE are 4G LTE). If you're looking to save a few hundred dollars, I'd have no problem recommending any of those devices.
Bonus Thoughts About About the iPad mini
Of all the iPads that Apple makes, the iPad mini is actually the easiest to recommend. Do you want the small one? Get the iPad mini. Unlike the iPad Air and iPad Pro, where the distinctions are more nuanced, the stand-out feature of the iPad mini is that you get a fully-featured tablet with iPadOS in a smaller form factor. If that's important to you, this is the one you want.
Of course, there's more to it than that. Because, while the mini is obviously the smallest iPad, it's actually the second-most powerful, with the new A15 processor. And, the name might make you think it's a smaller version of the iPad, which, it isn't. Until this year, it did share a similar form factor with the round Touch ID Home button at the bottom.
Now, Touch ID has been moved to what Apple calls "the top button," presumably because it's on the top of the device if you're holding it with the selfie camera at the top. That move made space for a larger screen-to-body ratio, following in the footsteps of the iPad Pro and iPad Air.
Maybe its only drawback is that, compared with the entry-level model, it's quite pricy. That's because it isn't a smaller version of that device. In fact, I think the fairest way to describe the iPad mini is as an iPad Air mini.
I even asked Apple about this since it can be confusing if you think that this is a smaller version of the "iPad." Obviously, Apple is a fan of all the products it makes, but it's clear to me that in form factor and performance, the Air is the closest sibling, not the entry-level iPad.
In fact, compared to the base iPad, the one you can buy for $329, the iPad mini is quite a bit more capable. It has a much faster processor, the new Touch ID sensor, and support for the second-generation Apple Pencil.
That's the one that magnetically connects and charges instead of having to stick it in the lightning port on the bottom. To date, that's still the worst industrial design choice I think I've ever seen from Apple. It may not have a larger display, but it certainly has a better one.
There are advantages to having something small. In my week of using the iPad mini, it was the perfect second device. I didn't use it for heavy work, though that's only because the 8.3-inch Liquid Retina Display is a little small for writing or photo editing. As for reading, however, it's probably the best "reading-in-bed" device I've ever used. It's certainly a better one-handed device than my 11-inch iPad Pro.
I can see it being useful in a variety of work applications as well, especially if what you use an iPad for most are apps that work well on that size display. Mostly, however, it's a device that fills a space no other iPad can--literally.
Apple likes to point out that the iPad mini is a full-featured iPad in a smaller form factor, making it perfect for applications where space is at a premium but you still need performance. During its introduction, Apple made a big deal of the fact the iPad mini is perfect for pilots and doctors. Apparently, pilots strap the mini to their legs, and doctors can easily drop them in a lab coat pocket.
I didn't try either, but I can see why it would be appealing in a lot of work-related use cases. Ultimately, the iPad mini is the smallest iPad, but it's nice to know that doesn't mean you have to compromise. That's a big deal.
The new iPad mini starts at $499 with 64GB of storage, but I'd recommend the 256GB model, which is $649. The 5G cellular version starts at $649