Apple iPhone 13 mini full review

Where to start with the iPhone nobody wanted?

After reportedly disappointing sales of the 12 mini - accounting for just 6% of sales, these were so disappointing that Apple had to scale back production - many pundits, including this one, advised the company to shelve the small-handset project and stick to big phones.

But Apple decided to give it one more year. Come 2022, chances are iPhone buyers' choices will be large or really large, and perhaps we'll regret that we didn't appreciate these pocket rockets while they were around.

In our in-depth iPhone 13 mini review we test the device's speed, camera and battery performance, evaluate its design and ease of use, and generally help you decide if this phone - the last of a dying breed, it would appear - is the right one for you.

For general advice on grabbing a bargain, take a look at our roundup of the best iPhone deals.

iPhone 13 mini review: Design

Design & build: Small wonder

The physical design has barely changed from last year, with the same squared-off edges and iPhone 4-style nostalgia aesthetic as on the 12-series handsets.

Apple habitually goes four or more years between chassis redesigns (the iPhone SE from 2020, in one of the company's more extreme examples of recycling, was based on a design from 2014), so this is hardly unusual, and it's not a bad thing in any case: the 13 mini is a great-looking and beautifully constructed device. I'm just warning 12 mini owners not to expect meaningful visual change.

iPhone 13 mini review: Side on

Of course, the device's USP within Apple's range is its size, and while this evidently doesn't float the boat of the average iPhone buyer, I love the convenience and portability of the 5.4in screen and 140g body. I've been using an iPhone 12 Pro for a year, and expected to find it difficult adapting to a smaller screen - but in fact, the opposite was the case. I found the screen perfectly usable for games and TV, and was mainly struck by how small the phone felt in my pocket. Several times I panicked and thought I'd left it behind somewhere, but no: it was there, I just couldn't feel it.

That 140g figure is slightly up on last year, incidentally, and the 13 mini is also a quarter of a millimetre thicker than the 12 mini; I can't possibly imagine you'll notice either change. A more significant change is the switch from a vertical to a diagonal alignment on the rear camera lenses, which Apple hasn't justified in technical terms but I can only assume is designed to accommodate larger sensors within a camera module of comparable size. It may also be intended as a badge of honour: look at me, I've got the new phone.

Colour choices

Note that Apple, as usual, has taken the opportunity of an iPhone launch to rejig the colour options.

iPhone 13 mini review: Colour options

The iPhone 12 mini was available in purple, green, blue, red, white and black. Apple has dropped the green and purple options for 2021 and added pink, but even the colours that have stuck around have been tweaked: (Product)Red is now substantially darker, blue is lighter, and black, rebranded as Midnight, has a touch more blue than last year.

(White has also been rebranded, as Starlight. It looks largely the same, with perhaps the merest hint of gold, but I've not taken a close look at a Starlight handset.)

Screen

Like the 12 mini, the 13 mini features a 5.4in (2340x1080 at 476ppi) OLED screen with a notch - but there are some changes when you look closer. For one thing the notch is narrower than last year: not dramatically so, and Apple hasn't implemented any obvious changes in iOS's interface to take advantage of the extra space in the 'ears' (this may happen in iOS 16), but it's enough to make the general experience slightly more pleasant and the notch slightly less intrusive.

iPhone 13 mini review: Notch

Apple has also ratcheted up the screen's maximum brightness in typical use, from 625 to 800 nits. (The maximum HDR brightness remains 1,200 nits.) I wasn't hugely conscious of this change, but then I never found it necessary or desirable to push up the brightness on the 12 mini. As before, this simply seems like a very bright, sharp, colourful and vivid display that does the job of pretending not to exist: it's supposed to be a transparent window into a digital world rather than a design element in itself, and almost universally achieves this.

Note there's no ProMotion: that's the screen tech in the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max that adjusts the refresh rate depending on the requirements of whatever the phone is doing at a given time, in order to produce silky animation when necessary while preserving battery life on other tasks. You can read more about that in our iPhone 13 Pro review.

Camera tests

I took the 13 mini out for a series of real-world camera tests, comparing its performance with that of last year's 12 - which it should obviously surpass - and the iPhone 12 Pro, which it also beats, according to an impressive report from DXOMark.

iPhone 13 mini review: SmartHDR camera test

We started with the now-traditional test of Smart HDR: shooting a subject with the sun directly behind them.

(This is generally a terrible idea that you should try to avoid, simply because of the complex lighting demands it places on your camera and the overexposed skies and underexposed subjects that will frequently be the result. But there will be occasions when you can't help it, and in any case the yearly improvements in phone cameras have become so small that we have to push the devices into ever more difficult scenarios in order to demonstrate them.)

The theory behind Smart HDR - Smart HDR 3 on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, and the new Smart HDR 4 algorithm on the iPhone 13 mini - is that it captures multiple exposures and intelligently combines them to find the optimal settings for each section of the image. That way it can bring out the detail of your shadowy subject without overexposing the sunny sky.

The results were counterintuitive, with my own personal preferences running in exactly the wrong order. All three did a decent job - you can easily make out detail on the subject's face and clothing, despite the challenge of the backlighting - but the 13 mini felt the weakest overall. Whereas the 12 and 12 Pro both brought out vivid colours from the scene, the blue sky and pink dress in particular, the 13 mini added a noticeable grey cast. Perhaps this was more realistic (I don't remember it being this gloomy, however); but it's certainly a less pleasing outcome artistically.

I will add that the 13 mini captured a bigger image than the others (3024 x 4032, rather than 1536 x 2048), so it's capable of deeper cropping before you lose clarity.

Bizarrely, the 12 handled skin tones best of the three. But this may have been the lucky result of changes in conditions between shots, so let's try another.

iPhone 13 mini review: SmartHDR camera test 2

All three phones maintain an impressive level of detail on the near surface of the tree, which in reality was cast in shadow by the bright sun poking through the branches. The 12 mini appears to have caught the most detail, although it's also the most plagued by lens flare; it's very subjective, but I'd say I like the 13 mini's rendition best of the three, offering more definition than the 12 Pro with a less intrusive sun than either of the others.

iPhone 13 mini review: SmartHDR camera test 3

One more test of Smart HDR versions 3 and 4 shows once again that the 12 and 12 Pro are perfectly capable of capturing detail despite intrusive backlighting, and that the 13 mini's improvements are more about reducing the dazzle of the light source while maintaining foreground detail, rather than improving detail.

However, just to reiterate that the 13 mini's sensors are superior and produce larger images that are better able to stand up to extreme crops, here's a hard close-up of the leaf in the previous picture.

iPhone 13 mini review: Hard crop

Note that the 13 mini doesn't get the new macro capabilities offered by the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max, so don't expect to take world-beating close-ups of ants.

Portrait mode

The 13 mini offers Portrait Mode on both front and rear cameras, and I found its depth perception decent in testing.

As you'd expect, it renders a more accurate bokeh effect with the twin rear lenses. Even with a bright sun behind the subject the 13 mini produced a clean and defined edge, and an artistically pleasing treatment of stray locks of hair: in focus, but with a softer edge.

Using the front camera for a Portrait selfie with two subjects the 13 mini struggled a little more with the fine details, although the overall effect was pleasing. When I zoomed in I noticed that this time stray hair was lost in the blurred background - an understandable failing given that in this context the effect is produced through software rather than glassware, but still mildly disappointing.

I'm a fan of Portrait Mode in general but it doesn't feel like it's moved forward significantly since the 12 mini.

Low-light photography: We own the night

Talking of features that were also offered by the previous model, let's talk about low-light photography. I took the 13 mini out at night to test out its rendition of Night Mode, the feature first rolled out on the 11-series iPhones which turns night into day and produces images that are technically incredible but (in my view) slightly artistically suspect.

Interestingly, the 13 mini seemed far more flash-prone than the models I've tested in previous years. Whenever I took a night-time photo it would activate the flash by default, even though that's rarely a good option - you'll illuminate the subject, but the background will be basically black.

Deactivating the flash manually I got Night Mode to kick in, and this performed solidly, with the night sky transformed from near black to a light grey and respectable detail visible in both fore- and background. But as before, and because of the long exposure, I found it very susceptible to shake. It's very important to brace the phone against a knee (or use a tripod, ideally) to get sharp results.

Video: Let's get Cinematic

I've left one of the most interesting camera upgrades to last. And that is Cinematic Mode, a rough analogue to Portrait Mode for video capture.

This mode is activated in the same way as Portrait Mode, with a dedicated slot in the Camera app's carousel of options. It works in real time as you shoot, detecting faces automatically and adjusting the focal length to them; but you can tap different areas of the frame and direct the focus elsewhere. (This is non-destructive, however, and you can edit the video later to focus on something else.)

I've seen reviewers describe this mode as a gimmick, and wonder when it's likely to be used: those making short films can have fun with it, of course, but how many of us do that? But my sense is that, like Portrait Mode, it may end up as the default that I use nearly all the time (when shooting people, at least). I like the effect, think it's executed well, and can't really see any downsides to using it since you can always remove it afterwards.

Speed tests: Hot stuff

As is traditional, all four 13-series iPhones have the same processor: the A15 Bionic, the latest and fastest mobile system on a chip to roll out of Apple's factories. That isn't to say that they will produce identical performance, however, since the 13 and 13 mini have 4GB of RAM, whereas the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max have 6GB.

Still, the iPhone 13 mini is capable of outstanding processing performance, and produced elite numbers throughout our benchmarking. In Geekbench 5's CPU test it scored an exceptional 1725 (single-core) and 4622 (multi-core), compared to 1594 and 4094 by the iPhone 12 mini. That's a year-on-year increase of 8.2% and 12.9% respectively.

As ever, we have to warn that this theoretical improvement will be far less noticeable in real-world use, for the simple reason that the 12 mini's A14 chip is comfortably fast enough to run anything on the App Store. I found the 13 mini slick and responsive throughout testing, but I feel exactly the same about my 12 and 12 Pro samples, and you'll probably be in the same position if you're still using an 11-series iPhone.

Rather, this is a question of future-proofing: the A15 and A14 are both very fast now, but the A15 will still be fast for roughly a year longer than the A14 as app developers gradually introduce more demanding elements to take advantage of the more powerful hardware.

Graphics: Really hot stuff

Another difference between the standard and Pro handsets this year is the number of GPU cores they're equipped with: the 13 and 13 mini have four, while the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max have five, and the latter are the ones to go for if you want the absolute best possible graphics performance. But again, the 13 mini gives a great account of itself in testing.

In the most demanding Aztec Ruins (High) section of the GFXBench Metal test, the 13 mini recorded an exceptional frame rate of 51.5fps (averaged across three runs), compared with an equivalent figure of just 42fps for the 12 mini. Its superiority was less obvious in other sections, but only because they weren't demanding enough to harness its power.

Note that the Sony in the above set is of course running the open rather than the Metal benchmark, although it gives us an approximate idea of comparative performance.

Battery performance: Not much better

One of our reservations about the iPhone 12 mini - and indeed about the SE (2020), being seemingly a weakness inherent to small-form iPhones - was its relatively poor battery performance. That's not a total surprise, given that Apple is obliged to use a smaller battery in such devices, but was a worry nevertheless.

I'd love to be able to say that Apple has put such concerns to bed, but I don't think that would be completely true.

iPhone 13 mini review: Battery performance

Sure, the company talks a good game. Battery performance was a major theme of the presentation, in which Apple said the new mini would last around an hour and a half longer than its predecessor away from mains power; while the estimates on the specs page have jumped from 15 to 17 hours for video playback, from 10 to 13 hours for video streaming, and from 50 to 55 hours for audio.

(Aside from the yearly software optimisations that enable Apple to draw more performance from the same hardware, the 13 mini actually has a larger-capacity battery than the 12 mini, having jumped from 2227mAh to 2406mAh.)

But in real-world use, things didn't seem massively different.

Just like last year, the mini generally proposes Low Power Mode at some point in the evening (this happens automatically when it hits 20%), and usually finishes the day somewhere between 10% and 20%. There was one anomalous day on which the phone made it to close of play on 25%, which is great, but there was another when it scraped home with 4%, which eagle-eyed readers of our 12 mini review will have spotted is even lower than the 7% which was that device's worst day.

Looking on the positive side, it might be noted that the 13 mini never failed to make it through a full day on a single charge, and usually did so with reasonable ease: that, surely, is the main threshold of acceptability for a phone's battery performance. But I would retort that batteries degrade from the first day you use them, and because I was testing a brand-new sample this is the very best performance you can expect. A full day of use is indeed the minimum expected performance; but a year down the line you may not be able to depend upon it.

So much for subjective testing: what about the hard numbers? The 13 mini lasted 6 hours 33 minutes in the Geekbench 4 battery test, compared to 8 hours 11 minutes for the iPhone 13, 9 hours 15 minutes for the 13 Pro and a whopping 11 hours 41 minutes for the 13 Pro Max. It's very much the runt of the litter in this respect - but do please note that Geekbench is a demanding test designed to push phones to their limit, rather than a representation of typical usage.

Price & availability

The iPhone 13 mini went on sale on 24 September 2021, and is available to buy right now.

The 13 mini starts at £679 / $699 / AU$1,349: it's the cheapest of Apple's late-2021 iPhones, but far from a budget option. Here's the full price list:

  • 128GB: £679 / $699 / AU$1,199
  • 256GB: £779 / $799 / AU$1,369
  • 512GB: £979 / $999 / AU$1,719

That's the RRP, and the price you'll pay if you buy direct from Apple. But other retailers are likely to undercut Apple with small discounts at first, and larger ones after the initial flurry of interest starts to die down.

You can find good deals with the help of our guide showing where to buy the iPhone 13 mini. And you can quickly scan the lowest price across a range of retailers with our automated table, embedded below.

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Verdict

I doubt this is going to change anyone's mind.

I will repeat much of what I said last year: this is a super-powerful phone with a great screen and cameras in a convenient, highly portable chassis, and it has an awful lot to recommend it. If you're in the overlap of the Venn diagram between 'wanting a small iPhone' and 'being prepared to pay top whack for it', this is a brilliant choice for you.

The problem is that very few people appear to be in that overlap zone, and one would imagine that most of those bought the iPhone 12 mini last year. And the improvements from the 12 mini are not significant enough to justify an upgrade: Cinematic Mode is appealing, but the other changes to the camera setup are difficult to detect in any but the most artificially demanding conditions, while the additional processing power won't be felt until a year or two down the line.

My sense is that most potential 12 mini customers were put off by one (or more) of three factors: the screen was too small for their liking; the battery didn't last long enough; and the price was too high. The first and third have not changed, and while Apple talks a good game about the second one, it doesn't appear in testing to have changed a great deal.

So it's another 4.5-star review, and it gets my personal recommendation. But I can't see this phone turning around the fortunes of Apple's small-phone division (the next iPhone SE, being both small and relatively cheap, is the key release), nor can I see Apple releasing an iPhone 14 mini next year. Which is a shame, really, but understandable.

iPhone 13 mini review: Rear cameras

Specs

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