One of the challenges inherent to reviewing new iPhones year in and year out is telling a story: a narrative through which I can best express my experiences testing the device(s). My conceit is solid—focusing squarely on accessibility rather than camera comparisons and Geekbench scores—that puts me in a unique place amongst my peers in the reviewer racket. Even with my arguably niche perspective, however, I strive to tell a story; I strive to give context to technology that feels more enriching and informative than simply stating whether a product is good or bad, accessible or inaccessible. With Apple, there is always a hook from which I can hang my lede.
Thinking about the iPhone 13 and 13 Pro has proven challenging. What I wrote following last month’s announcement of the new smartphones remains as apt now as it did a few weeks ago: the honest-to-goodness truth is these iPhones have the least applicability to accessibility than any in recent history. Aside from ProMotion, there is nothing more to remark on the iPhone 13 lineup that I didn’t say last year about the iPhone 12. This isn’t to suggest Apple’s latest and greatest iPhones are unremarkable; it’s just their accessibility story isn’t particularly new or novel to these specific phones.
Apple sent me review units of all four iPhone 13 models—the 13, 13 Mini, 13 Pro, and 13 Pro Max—for testing. (For those curious, the 13 is pink and the 13 Pro Max is Sierra Blue.) I’ve spent the last couple weeks mainly testing the 13 and 13 Pro Max, along with my personal 12 Pro Max for reference’s sake. I have not used any review unit as my daily carry phone (I don’t really go anywhere these days, fully vaccinated though I am) but have used them plenty puttering around the house and sitting at my desk.
What’s Old Can Still Be New Again
In my aforementioned piece on Apple’s September event, I also said the iPhone 13 line feels spiritually like an S-year update despite Apple retiring that nomenclature. The company probably would push back on that characterization because they are more capable devices, but I think it’s accurate. That the iPhone 13 inherits the same industrial design of the still-for-sale iPhone 12 embodies that ideal; the color finishes are new, but they’re the definition of incrementalism. By and large, the iPhone 13 hardware is exactly that of its predecessor save for faster guts and nicer cameras.
But newness is relative. From an accessibility point of view, anyone coming from an iPhone 11 or earlier—that is to say, an iPhone with the previous design language—surely will notice and appreciate the iPhone 13’s new-to-them design. As I argued a year ago, the flat-edged design and OLED screen both have significant implications for accessibility. The flat edges should make holding the phone easier and more secure since your fingers have a platform on which to rest. Likewise, the brightness and sharpness of the OLED display should make reading text or looking at images easier. And MagSafe, the magnetic charging technology introduced with iPhone 12, makes charging more accessible because one needn’t have to test their hand-eye coordination by finding the Lightning port and plugging in the cable. All told, if you are a disabled person coming to iPhone 13 from an older version, the “new” attributes of iPhone 13 ought to compel. In this context, the faster A15 Bionic system-on-a-chip, better cameras, and better battery life will just be the proverbial icing on the cake.
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One notable difference to iPhone 13 versus the 12 is weight. In particular, the 13 Pro Max feels considerably heftier in my hand than the 12 Pro Max. The increase isn’t unbearable, but it’s definitely there. It’s worth pointing out to serial upgraders like me who crazily get a new phone every year and are sensitive to such things as weight.
A much-ballyhooed feature exclusive to the 13 Pro variants is ProMotion, which finally comes to the iPhone after being an iPad Pro-only thing for several years. The vast majority of reviewers and enthusiasts, particularly YouTubers, have greeted ProMotion’s arrival with a hero’s welcome not too dissimilar to soldiers returning from war. Which is to say, Android phones have had high refresh rate screens for some time, and people are rejoicing Apple decided to do it too. After all, why limit yourself to 60Hz when you can be 120? On paper, the sentiment is perfectly logical. ProMotion is a cool technology; iOS smartly adapts such that the system throttles refresh rate up or down accordingly depending upon whatever the computer is doing.
From an accessibility standpoint, though, ProMotion’s practical relevance is questionable. In a nutshell, whether the iPhone 13’s display is 60Hz and the 13 Pro’s is 120 is largely immaterial to someone with a vision impairment—obviously to a Blind person, but also to someone with low vision like myself. The simple reason for this is our eyesight is so poor that we literally cannot discern a meaningful difference in screen quality between the iPhone 13 (or the 12 Pro Max) and that of the 13 Pro. As a reviewer and self-professed nerd, I know ProMotion is technically present and working; as a practical matter, I have zero sense of it. In short, ProMotion makes not the slimmest difference in my usage except for perhaps giving me better battery life.
It’s key to mention here that I’m not implying ProMotion is bad or worthless or nothing to be excited about. Most “normal” users, the non-nerds among us, likely won’t be able to tell a noticeable difference between an iPhone 13’s display versus a 13 Pro screen either. What I’m arguing is nuanced: once again, especially for people with low vision, ProMotion has so little impact that it just as well not exist. The aforementioned love for it by the hardcore nerds feels like nothing more than another mark on a spec sheet checkbox that only the good-sighted can appreciate. If you are one of those people, I salute you. I am genuinely happy ProMotion makes a difference for you. To me, however, I am decidedly meh on ProMotion except ideologically.
In broad strokes, my (in)experience with ProMotion is an apt illustration for why accessibility-oriented reviews such as mine—again, I have a strong conceit—is so valuable. Every one of my journalist peers has recommended the 13 Pro models due in large part to ProMotion; get the Pro if you want the nicest screen because the refresh rate is higher. Their analysis is not wrong, per se—as an objective measure, the 13 Pro does have a better screen. The problem is, ProMotion is only truly useful if you are someone who can, you know, actually see the screen clearly. To otherwise choose a 13 Pro for ProMotion is prioritizing a spec sheet over actual sensibility. 99.9% of reviewers aren’t going to question whether ProMotion has real benefit to someone with low vision. That I (and others like me) are calling attention to it shows precisely why accessibility in mainstream technology coverage matters so much. In the case of ProMotion, my experience with it is literally unlike anyone else in the tech press.
The Bottom Line
Generally speaking, the iPhone 13 lineup is great. It’s better than last year’s crop.
As an accessibility matter, don’t upgrade for ProMotion if you can’t see well. Do upgrade for the tactile design changes if you’re coming from an older iPhone. And of course, there isn’t any reason not to upgrade if you’re in Apple’s inertia-inducing iPhone Upgrade Program. The new iPhone will always be better than the last one.