iPhone 11 Pro to iPhone 13 mini: Is it an upgrade or downgrade?

The first cell phone was made in 1973, its weight was measured in pounds, not ounces, and you needed a briefcase , backpack, or large handbag to lug it around. To quote George Costanza, over the next 4 decades, cell technology was all about, well, shrinkage.

The Razor in all its glory!

Multi-national tech corporations began an arms race to make their phones smaller and sleeker. Motorola raised the game in the early ’00s with the Razor, which set the standard for how a flip phone should look and feel, and even after touch-screen phones like the iPhone set a NEW standard, Apple, Samsung, et al kept fighting to make them thinner and lighter, keeping the screens in the 3.5 to 4 inch range, while shrinking everything around them.

I remember when the Samsung Note first came out with it’s (then) massive 5.3 inch screen — and much larger footprint — going in the complete opposite direction as the rest of the industry. To me, it felt like Samsung realized that, unlike Apple, they couldn’t make their phones slimmer and smaller without without compromising too much on battery life. (Why? Because Apple’s special sauce was in tailoring their iOS software to the hardware at inception, so that each generation could either improve on battery life or at least stay the same, despite overall size shrinkage. Samsung, dependent on Google software, didn’t have the luxury of that kind of deep, deep integration.) Samsung’s solution? Put in bigger batteries! And hide those bigger batteries behind bigger screens! And then market the screen size as the real improvement!

And it worked. The entire industry started going that way as people realized that there ARE advantages to bigger screens. Or at least, people simply bought into the “bigger is better” ethos of marketing. But not me. As my phones started getting bigger, my pockets kept complaining. When the iPhone 12 mini came out last year, I was really tempted to get it…until I read about its really poor battery life. I decided to keep my iPhone 11 Pro from the year prior.

But now, with the iPhone 13 mini? And its bigger battery with longer battery life? Not to mention improved cameras, software, and chips? Is it worth ditching the larger, more “pro” iPhone 11 Pro?

Let’s find out….

Midnight green iPhone 11 Pro on the left; Starlight iPhone 13 mini on the right

At first glance, the iPhone mini doesn’t look THAT much smaller than the “regular” sized iPhones. But the millimeters shaved off in each direction really does make a difference. It’s hard to convey in words, or even in pictures, but once you’ve handled the mini, it really does feel like reaching into a time machine and pulling out a phone from 2012 — except with a much bigger screen.

iPhone 11 Pro with pinky shelf
iPhone 13 mini

One way to illustrate the difference: with the full-sized iPhone 11 Pro, I’d constantly need to use my pinky as a “shelf” to keep the device from sliding out of my hand when using it one-handed. The mini works just find without having to do that.

Physically, I prefer the mini, no doubt about it. So round 1 goes to the new phone. But what about those cameras?

According to Apple’s tech specs, the two cameras on the iPhone 13 mini — the super wide angle 0.5x lens and the so-called “normal” 1.0x lens — have larger sensors and better image stabilization than even the cameras on the iPhone 12, let alone the iPhone 11. The result is better low-light performance, at least theoretically. The catch? The iPhone 11 Pro has a third lens for telephoto shots (a 2x optical zoom). So if you really want that lens, the mini is out of the equation.

One easy way to tell how much you use that telephoto lens? If you have a Mac laptop that syncs with your iPhone photo library, then just open up the Photos App on your computer and create two new “smart albums.” Set one album to display all the photos taken with your iPhone 11 Pro. Set the other album to only display photos taken with the telephoto lens of the iPhone 11 Pro. (Here’s a link to a more detailed description of how to do that.) I had over a 1000 photos taken with the iPhone 11 Pro, but less than 200 taken with the telephoto lens — so less than 20%. And most of those 20%? Not the kind of photos I’d be sharing with family anytime soon. Turns out, I rarely used the telephoto lens when it came time to photograph my kids, and when I did, the results weren’t great (it doesn’t perform as well in low light as the other cameras). Most of the my telephoto shots were pictures taken for more practical purposes — like getting the phone number off of a billboard or capturing the license plate of a bank robber, you know stuff like that.

So I think I can actually go without the telephoto lens. Keyword: Think.

On the video recording side, the iPhone 13 includes one brand new feature missing in the iPhone 11 — “cinematic mode.” This is more-or-less the video version of “portrait mode” — where the iPhone uses software to create an artificial focus point and then blur what it thinks is the background behind it. Unlike portrait mode, though, which came out the gate feeling like a beta feature not ready for primetime (but got much better!), the new cinematic mode feels like a refined feature from the get-go. Does that mean it’s useful, though? Depends. Reviewers have called it everything from a “gimmick” to “actually really cool and usable.

As for the battery life and overall performance: The iPhone 13 mini might very well have a longer battery than the 12 mini — every reviewer seems to agree on that, and out of the box, the iPhone 13 mini battery life does last a little longer than my two year-old iPhone 11 Pro. AND the newer phone does feel a bit snappier to use than the older phone, as should be expected.

So the verdict? In most areas, the iPhone 13 mini is either an improvement over the older pro model or at least no worse than it, despite its smaller chassis. Assuming you want the smaller size (why else would you be reading this far into my post?), then the only real detriment to the 13 mini is the lack of that telephoto lens. If you determine you don’t need that lens, then this might be your last chance to buy a iPhone the size of the mini while it still has top-grade components. (There are rumors that Apple is going to either discontinue the mini-line entirely or make it a discount phone with outdated internals.)

That’s what I did.

But if you do want that telephoto lens, then I’d say keep the iPhone 11 Pro. If the battery life in your two-year-old phone is sagging, then just make an appointment at an Apple Store to get a new battery installed there. Apple’s battery replacement program costs $69, a small price to pay if you want to keep the phone for a third year — or beyond — as you wait to see what Apple does next. Who knows, maybe next year, they’ll release a mini-sized phone with three lenses? (Hey, a Tech Guy can dream, right?)

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