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It’s that time of year again: the latest Apple devices have arrived. We spent time with all of the company’s new products and reported back on their successes and missteps. First, Cherlynn Low tested out all four of the new iPhone 13 models to see which are worth your money this year. Valentina Palladino spent time carrying around the redesigned iPad mini, which does everything a small tablet should. Also, Devindra Hardawar found one more reason to recommend the Dell XPS 15, and Mat Smith took some average selfie’s with the ZTE Axon 30’s “invisible” front-facing camera.
On paper, Cherlynn Low says there’s not much to get excited about when it comes to the new iPhone 13 and 13 mini. The incremental upgrades like the bigger batteries, better displays and faster chips all feel like standard, annual improvements. The key features of the new handsets are the enhancements made to the cameras. The rear sensors have been improved, the ultra wide lens lets in more light and the A15 chip has a faster image signal processor.
Cherlynn particularly liked the addition of Photographic Styles, which allows the user to choose a profile of contrast levels and color temperature for photos. And she said Cinematic Mode, which blurs out the background behind a subject, was the most intriguing of the new video features. But at its default intensity, the blurriness looked strange and artificial — and Cinematic Mode only works at 1080p/30fps, regardless of the quality you’ve set your camera to record.
Other aspects of the handsets were largely similar to previous models: the speakers are still good enough for video watching, and both phones easily handled switching between multiple apps, uploading photos and other tasks. However, Cherlynn was quick to point out that the phones still feature 60Hz screens, which made them feel laggy in comparison to handsets that have speedier displays. Overall she said that, as expected, they’re excellent (if a bit boring) phones with little to complain about.
Cherlynn Low says make no mistake about it: The one thing that really makes the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max stand out is the new ProMotion display. With faster screens that can adjust their refresh rates depending on the task, the handsets are finally able to take advantage of their big OLED displays, whether you’re watching video or simply scrolling social media. The two new models are also 25 percent brighter for better outdoor viewing and, thanks to the 5-core GPU on the Pro, able to handle graphics-intensive tasks more quickly.
Cherlynn said that the A15 Bionic chip combined with the faster refresh rate made everything from YouTube and music streaming to Catan gaming and chatting with friends seem much more responsive. The two new Pro models also have an additional telephoto camera and a new macro photography mode, but all of that power comes with extra weight. The 6.1-inch 13 Pro is 7.19 ounces and the 6.7-inch 13 Pro Max clocks in at 8.46 ounces; Cherlynn said the bigger handset was uncomfortable to use one-handed for more than a few minutes. If that isn’t a dealbreaker, then she says either of the phones would make a worthy upgrade for iOS users.
While the iPad mini has a dedicated fan base, it hasn’t changed much since its debut nine years ago. But the 2021 release of the tiny tablet features enough upgrades to make it feel like a smaller iPad Air. Valentina Palladino says that the new “all-screen” design, flat edges, TouchID-capable top button, second-gen Apple Pencil support and USB-C charging all provide a much needed refresh for the tablet. The bezels helped her keep a comfortable grip on the device while reading and making FaceTime calls, and the lightweight 100-percent recycled aluminum body made it easy to tote around.
Valentina also liked that the new design allowed the second-generation Apple Pencil to magnetically stick to the right edge of the tablet. She reports that the mini makes a capable digital notebook thanks in part to the Pencil and the Quick Notes feature in iPadOS 15. Additionally, she said the A15 Bionic chip and the larger screen make it easy to use the device in place of an iPhone for a wide variety of tasks including video streaming and light gaming. However, the new mini only comes in 64GB and 256GB models — with a $150 price difference between them — and those are notable differences in capacity and cost. Valentina says the significant update will be great for small-tablet lovers, but she’s not sure if the iPad mini will win over others in the market for a standard-sized iPad.
Devindra Hardawar was already a fan of Dell’s excellent XPS 15 laptop, but he says the addition of an OLED screen makes the whole package even better. The star of the show, the 15.6-inch display, has some of the thinnest bezels on the market and uses a 3.5K OLED touchscreen that supports Dolby Vision HDR (of course, this panel costs extra, and there are two LCD options to choose from, too). While watching the new Matrix trailer, it displayed true blacks, brilliant elements like explosions and juggled scenes with bright and dark aspects.
Devindra said he’d never had as much fun scrolling through websites due to the incredibly crisp text. The only additional improvement he could think of was a faster refresh rate, however, he had no complaints about the performance from the eight-core Intel i7 CPU or the 45-watt version of NVIDIA’s RTX 3050 Ti GPU, which transcoded a one-minute 4K video file into 1080p in 35 seconds. Devindra says you can expect it to tackle most intense workloads with ease, and although it’s not a gaming machine, it’s capable of reaching 70fps in Overwatch at the highest graphic settings.
A sequel to the Axon 20, ZTE’s Axon 30 touts an improved 16-megapixel, under-display camera (UDC) with a dedicated chip that keeps the area consistent with the rest of the screen. In practice, Mat Smith was pleased to report that the UDC is nearly invisible but he was less impressed with the resulting photographs. His selfies had fuzzy details and suffered from lens flares and washout due to strong backlighting. Mat got much better images when shooting with the four-camera array on the back, which includes a 64-megapixel Sony sensor.
However, the Axon 30 has more to offer for its $500 price tag: The smartphone also features a 6.92-inch AMOLED screen with 2,460 x 1,080 resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate. And it’s powered by a Snapdragon 870 processor, which handled everything Mat threw at it from Stadia gaming to video streaming. It also has a stand-out battery that lasted two days of typical use with the 120Hz refresh rate off, and the handset can recharge to 100 percent in under an hour. Mat liked the new MyOS 11 skin, which closely mimics the stock Google experience, save for a few shortcuts and widgets. But the smartphone lacks wireless charging and certified resistance against dust and water, and Mat says the 5G support isn’t great in the U.S. as it will only work on T-Mobile’s midband 5G network.