The 3 Year Upgrade Cycle: From iPhone XS Max To iPhone 13 Pro — A Lot Has Changed… Or Has It?

Ren Willis
14 min readNov 2, 2021

(Now With Gif Ratings)

A Long, Long Time Ago

Three years ago, in the Fall of 2018, two things happened. We were prepping to move to Hong Kong and the iPhone XS & XS Max were released to the world. My partner and I were using the iPhone 6s and 7, respectively, and while the devices were servicing us quite well, both were locked-in to Verizon which clearly wouldn’t work for the next 3 years in Asia.

So with the release of the new phones and our impending expatriation, it was time to upgrade and go unlocked. An iPhone XS for my partner who preferred smaller devices and the XS Max for me. I was ready for a big honking screen.

At the time, the XS Max felt like an amazing upgrade. The main reason I switched to iPhones in NYC permanently with the iPhone 6 was the cameras. The 7 improved on it, and the XS Max, of course, improved on that! That, along with the huge screen without the giant bezels and gaining a 2x telephoto lens, I was ready to start our 3 year Hong Kong experience.

Hong Kong: Shot on iPhone XS Max

The TL;DNAFROATYOP (the too long; don’t need a full review of a three year old phone) is that the iPhone XS Max is a great device. Full stop. The really good camera and battery life, along with that big nice screen traveled the world multiple times over and went on more hikes and adventures than I could count servicing both personal and work duties like a champ.

My tech lust always wanted the latest iPhones released over our time there, the 11 and 12 Pros were so enticing! Better this and better that, but it would always subside. I was really happy with the XS Max and once Covid really kicked in, we were essentially locked in Hong Kong anyway, so there really wasn’t any reason to upgrade.

A Very Chiang Mai Christmas in Thailand: Shot on iPhone XS Max

Homeward Bound

Cut to Fall 2021, our time in Hong Kong is up and it’s time to repatriate to the good ol’ US of A or, more specifically, move to Baltimore, Maryland. We landed at the end of August and a couple weeks later, the iPhone 13 family of phones was announced.

Three years of camera upgrades including wider angle & 3x telephoto lenses, marco mode, and a night mode (yes, I know that last one wasn’t new)! Three years of spec updates. New 120hz high refresh rate screens. Better battery life. 5G & faster wifi. The latest processors. Squared off designs with better screen real estate usage.

Hell. Even a smaller notch. Why not.

I was hyped! 3 years of updates? This is going to be insane. Everything I could want in an upgrade was there, ready and waiting. So when we got to our new home in Baltimore, I pulled the trigger and ordered two 256GB iPhone 13 Pros in Graphite (one for each of us), sat back, and waited for my order (there was a one month backorder wait).

The Death Of The Annual Upgrade

Bloggers and youtubers often compare new devices to last year’s and have to nitpick over incremental updates and if they are “worth it”. But let’s be honest, that’s not how most people live, now more than ever. People hold on to their devices longer and longer and they should! Not only do devices like the iPhone run wonderfully for years and get tons of updates along the way, it’s also a more sustainable way to approach tech (and really everything). From phones to clothes to bikes to everything, get the best you can for your budget then use the hell out of it for as long as you can.

We were historically on a 2 year upgrade cycle under the old carrier contracts, but after using our XS/XS Max devices for three years, there’s no doubt with a little care and attention, a three-plus year upgrade cycle is not only “doable” but the right thing to do. Like I said, my XS Max traveled the world many times over and took many a tumble while exploring along the way, but always with a case on it. It ended up in better-than-very-good condition and 94% battery health. Ready to move on to its next owner!

Tasmania, Australia: Shot on iPhone XS Max

Sure, it’s hard when that New Device Lust (nom nom nom) kicks in after the announcement, those damn keynote addresses are so UNF! or when the internet starts flooding with reviews and posts on reddit, but trust me, it fades.

The Reviews, Oh My!

So with a month before our devices would arrive, I had plenty of time to dive into the reviews and oh my were they amazing.

The Verge Goes Goo Goo over the Pro Pro

The Verge, especially Nilay Patel, has always been notoriously hard on the XS/XS Max camera — his favorite words being “garbage” or “trash” (side note: he says the same about the sound on the OG Airpods which sound totally fine, but whatever). But now we have “The Best Camera!” oh snaps and an elusive 9 rating!

That’s like getting an 11 at The Verge with the 8.5 meme adjustment

And generally, around the internet reviews were very positive, from either a really nice iterative update on one of the best phones already around (the iPhone 12 family) to one of the best devices on the possible on market to OMG there’s nothing better. — ya gotta love tech blog/vlog reviewers.

Before you know it, I was checking on my order status daily just to see if by some miracle they’d beat the estimated delivery date. And well, they did.

After an hour or two of transfering content, setting it up, and getting everything just the way I liked it, my iPhone 13 Pro was ready to blow me away!

Okay, Enough Jibber-Jabber, On With The Comparisons!

The big update, the star of the show, if you will, should be the camera, right? And yeah, we’ll get to that in a sec, but let’s do a quick run through of some of the the other key bits and features.

That Camera Module Evolution, Tho!

The Display

One word: Wowzers.

This was unexpected. Currently, aside from my phone, I have gone all in on the Apple ecosystem over the years. I have an Apple Watch 5, the M1 Macbook Air, and the 2020 iPad Pro 12.9. The iPad Pro already had the 120hz Promotion display. Coming from previous iPad Pros that didn’t, I really didn’t see much of a change going to the higher refresh rate.

But holy wut! On the iPhone it was immediate and ridiculous. The iPhone XS Max was a simply a “very good display” and absolutely 100% totally fine all day every day, but from the second my homescreen zoomed out into focus, the smoothness was so obvious and apparent. The analogy in my head was like someone turned on “motion smoothing” from the TV world, but in a good way? If that makes any sense. Everything looked and felt hyper real and I love it.

Verdict: Major Upgrade, hands down, bar none, etc.


Honestly, I forget 5G even existed until after setting up the new phone, I went to run some errands, looked down and saw the “5G” with 3 bars on display. Speed was never an issue on the XS Max and now it’s even less so. Give me a strong LTE signal and I’m a happy camper. Apparently the Baltimore 5G coverage is pretty damn good. Who knew! 5G is very fast, which is great, I’ll take it. A forgotten perk.

Wifi and processor upgraded speeds have been great and welcome too, of course. Not “needed” per se, but anything that speeds up a garageband or iMovie export is always appreciated. Faster is always better! But note, I did test out exporting one of my songs, “You Found Me In Baltimore”, a fun little rocker with lots of vocal layers.

And I only saved 5 seconds. YMMV, I’m sure in heavier workloads, like a 15 min iMovie, you’ll see bigger gains.

Verdict: Solid Upgrade, but the XS Max with a solid LTE signal is still an amazing device.


I’ve only had the phone for a week but so far the battery seems absolutely fine, I really don’t even think about it which is probably the ultimate compliment.

I’ve been on bike rides, spent days volunteering, and been on 5G when out and about, but generally my phone stays on chargers when I’m near one. Like I said before, 3 years on the iPhone XS Max, I ended up with a 94% battery health rating (oopah, just checked, I just today dropped to 93% lol). I’m not about to change my habits, but it’s comforting to know that Apple’s focus on battery, between larger batteries, smarter display refresh rates, and the work done through software and the silicon that my battery confidence is higher than it’s ever been — And I’m someone who used to own the HTC Evo which maybe had a screentime of an hour or 2 max!

But man o’ man did it come at a cost. One of the reasons I dropped from a Max to a regular was the weight — as much as I loved the big screen, I got tired of “lugging a phone”. Welp, the lol’s on me. I went from a caseless weight of 208g to a caseless weight of….. 204g. FUUUU! This little fella is a brick of a phone, especially once you slap a case on it (Apple’s cases are notoriously heavy).

My poor partner went from the XS to the 13 Pro and now has to lug an extra 27 grams now! And yeah, they immediately noticed & complained. Sorry beebs.

Verdict: Solid Upgrade — but probably a major upgrade for most people, but that weight penalty hurts.

Okay, Okay, Let’s Get To The Cameras

Alright, let’s do this. The reason for the season… the cameras. First, a quick run down of the specs.

What does all this mean? From a dual lens set up of a basic “wide” to a 2x telephoto to a real wide angle lens, a good basic prime, and a 3x telephoto, all with updated glass and newer & bigger sensors all the the juicy things a photographer’s mouth would water over.

Sooooo…. how much better were the photos? Well, see for yourself. Let’s start with an easy shot, a nice well lit setting outdoors.

NOTE: These photos are not edited outside of rotating one of the parking garage ones (or where done on purpose and mentioned). These were all shot with the phones side by side at the same time.

What do you think? Clearly the 13 Pro has better color and a sharper image, but what happens when I add some saturation, contrast, and sharpen the XS Max photo…

Which one is which?

Suddenly, the difference feels like it might come back to software processing. Okay, so not off to the best start.

Let’s try something else. Was walking on a trail when a light rail train came through. So, bright day, off & on shadows, and moving colorful vehicle.

Clearly the sky is better and generally the colors are more saturated. The trees way in the background on the right look a little sharper, but again, not a massive upgrade so far.

Let’s go for a walk in the neighborhood on a partly cloudy (and chilly day).

Getting hard to tell much of a difference in some of these shots.

Ho’boy. Moving on. Sunsetting and we were walking in the neighborhood.

Not gonna lie, I think the XS Max actually wins on this round. The car that’s driving in the road looks better and the mural looks a bit clearer, no?

Let’s get darker.

Now it’s after dinner, night time, we just finished celebrating me quitting my job and we pass by the iconic Cafe Hon on 36th Street.

Okay, NOW we are talking. Finally, the 13 Pro shows its prowess. Whites are whiter, colors are less yell and sad, and we have a nice usable photo.

Now, let’s go indoors. Rainy day, bedroom really dark from the cloud cover and mostly shut blinds. I look down the little hall into the bathroom getting just a whisper of light…

Okay, the iPhone 13 Pro is able to pull in more light, the artwork above the toilet is definitely brighter. But it’s not overwhelming.

Alright, lets go to some really challenging lighting scenarios. A parking garage during a daytime rainstorm.

Clearly the 13 Pro wins this round. The sky is less yellow, the buildings are coming in a littler clearer, and the wet ground looks cooler and better.

Let’s check out the view, eh?

Once we got some light back in action, the differences start to shrink. XS Max is still less saturated, more warm, and less sharp, but again, that really could come down to processing over camera hardware upgrades.

Let’s kick it up a notch. Let’s go somewhere really dark. Let’s go back in the closet (lol). It was daytime, but I closed the closet door, only a little light sneaking in through the cracks on the floor. The iPhone 13 Pro did a 3 second exposure where the iPhone XS Max never got Night Mode.

This one wasn’t even close, but honestly, it shouldn’t have been close. Night Mode is a iPhone 11 feature and newer.

There are 3rd party apps that do Night Mode on older iPhones, I tried them in the past and they work fine, but definitely better to have it built in.

Last one, MKBHD made a big todo about the natural shallow depth of field up close with wider aperture and bigger sensor. Well, show me what you got!

Mmm… Bokeh

Please Note: please pay no mind to the furniture in the back, it’s shit rental furniture since our apartment is still on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean on it’s way to the Port of Baltimore (and not one in California thank the godless universe).

Who doesn’t love a natural depth of field on a close up shot? This is great for, not only separation of normal subjects but, of course, portrait photography. Big sensors, nice wide apertures, win-win.

But, What About The Other Cameras?

Okay, so it was hit or miss on the main Apples-to-3-Years-Better-Apples comparison. Yes, it’s absolutely better. Colors are better, images are sharper, and it can handle dark shots better and give great DoF. But for basic “document your life” snapshots, really diminishing returns, eh?

But that’s not the only camera upgrades! We also got a real wide angle lens and 3x telephoto dammit!

Well, first off, the true wide angle camera is a dream for a couple hikers like us. Being able to get more scenery and get a better sense of climbs, descents, and movement makes a real wide angle so great in the arsenal.

The wide angle lens is an absolute blast for photos and videos when out and about. It’s just… fun.

And the telephoto? 3x vs. 2x zoom? I’ll take it. We always come across furry lil’ friends while hiking.

No no no. Actual real animals. Any “enhance” we can get to get a little closer without disrupting their anxious little lives is always appreciated. I didn’t see any animals out and about this day, but there was someone on a boat out on a lake.

Okay, 3x vs. 2x isn’t the end all be all, but again… we’ll take it. And while the photo isn’t as saturated as the XS Max photo, it is more realistic, so it’s a win.

So What Did We Learn Here Today?

First and foremost, there is absolutely no reason to be on an annual upgrade cycle, and it’s even hard to justify a “every 2 years” cycle — if you are in the iPhone ecosystem. It’s literally a waste of money and a sustainability nightmare. If you watch the Apple keynote address every year and convince yourself that yes, you need the newest and latest and greatest, guess what?

Second, the XS/XS Max cameras are good actually. Suck it Bloggers. The old adage rings true once again — it’s not the camera, it’s the person behind it. Add in the ability to edit or use 3rd party camera apps or whatever, and then finally consider 99% of this stuff ends up on a image compressed social media post, I meeeeeeannnnn… Save yer money.

And Third, a “but also”: This is a great upgrade from the XS Max. The prime lens photos look great, but the addition of a wide angle & stronger telephoto brings me close and closer to a DSLR kit lens set up which, to me, is or should be the main goal of smartphone camera development. From wide angle to maybe about 5x telephoto and seamless transition across the range. No, we aren’t there yet, but we are getting closer and closer. The iPhone 13 Pro is as close as you can get in the Apple ecosystem. My hope is that in 3+ years we’ll may even virtually be there.

Stop Thinking About Your Smartphone Camera And Start Using It

So whether you have the latest smartphone from Apple, Google, or whatever or if you are rocking one from 2, 3, 5 years ago, it’s all good! Use it, love it, embrace all that it has to offer. Don’t fret about the latest device.

Maybe you got the iPhone 7 still:

Shot on iPhone 7

Or even an iPhone 6:

Shot on iPhone 6

Or hell, maybe you still got the Samsung GS3!

Shot on Samsung GS3

It don’t matter! Just go out and shoot!

Ren Willis