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Apple Watch Series 7 review: It’s all about the screen

The main difference between Apple’s Watch Series 7 and the Series 6 is just a larger display, but it makes an outsized impact on a device as small as a watch. Apple also generally enlarged the UI, making things easier to read and navigate. To make better use of the bigger canvas, the company also added some new watch faces and a full QWERTY keyboard for replying to messages.

The other changes to the Series 7 are less obvious, like a new SiP (system-in-package), faster charging and overnight respiratory tracking. For those coming from the last generation, this might not feel like a significant upgrade. But the larger display does make a meaningful impact for anyone that’s upgrading from a Watch SE, Series 5 or older.

Design and hardware

Even though its screen is bigger, the Series 7 still manages to retain basically the same footprint as its predecessor. It’s a hair heavier than the Watch SE and Series 6, which makes sense since its case is slightly larger. Unlike previous generations, which came in 40 and 44mm sizes, this year you can choose between 41mm and 45mm. The difference is barely noticeable at first. 

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Once I turned the screen on, though, I was struck by its roominess. This was when this main design change became obvious. Apple used a refractive edge here to make it seem like the display curves slightly along the sides and it helps the face feel even more expansive. The bezels have been whittled down to just 1.7mm (0.07 inch) compared to last gen’s 3mm.

Oh, and a quick shout here to its durability: It’s the first Apple Watch to be certified IP6X for dust resistance. Since I’m in reviewer mode, I've been very careful to avoid situations where I might damage the device. But I’ll admit I’ve already dropped the Series 7 once and it survived without a scratch, thanks to Apple’s crystal covering that the company says is more crack resistant than on the Series 6.

Now, you’re probably not comparing an Apple Watch to Android or Wear OS, but in case you were curious, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 is noticeably lighter than the Series 7. It also has a round face and thinner body. But really, if you’re an iPhone user, you’ve probably never even thought about a Galaxy watch.

A big screen difference

Depending on which Apple Watch you’d been using before, the jump in screen size may be less obvious. It’s increased more than 50 percent from the SE and 20 percent from the Series 6. Either way, the more spacious UI is helpful. Buttons for entering my passcode stretched out over the edges, and I didn't need to aim as carefully to strike the right keys. It's easier to hit the right settings in the control center, too, and I can see more of my friends’ messages at once. My heart rate and time passed during workouts are more readable as well. Those with visual impairments will also appreciate that there are new larger font size settings available.

Engadget

Though most buttons are between 12 and 27 percent larger, app icons are still squished together. That’s a problem for those of us who use the grid view for all apps, but not so much if you’re in list view.

The extra space also means Apple was able to introduce a full QWERTY keyboard for replying to messages by typing or swiping on the screen. Compared to handwriting, dictating or emojis, a keyboard offers a bit more flexibility, especially when the system correctly picks up your swipes. But because it’s so cramped, the accuracy rate is maybe 60 percent, and I still preferred using dictation. Plus, the new screen may be big, but it’s definitely not big enough to make tap typing possible. Still, it’s a good option to have.

In addition to enlarging most of the elements across the UI, Apple also added new faces that can display more information at once, like the Modular Duo. There’s also a Contour style that pushes the clock’s digits all the way to the edge where they warp and “melt” over the sides like in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. The remaining two are a Portrait face that we already saw in the watchOS 8 beta, and World Time, which is helpful for interacting with people in other countries. I used Modular Duo the most, though it’s not very attractive, and when I wanted something prettier I just switched to one with my face as the wallpaper instead. (Just kidding: I use the “Artist” design or a cute animal background.)

The new Modular Duo screen is the most useful. It lets you place two expanded complications on top of each other, while still showing the time and an additional small complication at the top. You can choose to show the world clock with a timer or your favorite stock’s performance with Apple Music, for example. I went with a Spotify controller and the Weather forecast. Though the latter worked well, showing me hourly temperature and sunlight data on the screen, the Spotify complication was, in a word, trash. It just shows the words “Tap to play music,” and I’d have to waste a tap and a second to pull up playback controls.

A second doesn’t sound like much, but when I’m out running or juggling my groceries, I don’t want to waste that time holding up my arm and watching my screen for more than a fraction of a second. I’m not going to harp on this because this is more of a Spotify problem than an Apple Watch issue, but given how many people use the music app, it would do both companies good to make this complication work better. I’d love to see more useful complications from other apps too.

One last note on the Series 7’s screen: Though its actual peak brightness hasn’t changed, Apple has tweaked the system so that the Always On display is up to 70 percent brighter when you’re indoors. This way, it’s easier to read if you have your hand hidden below a table while you’re at a meeting.

Battery life, charging and performance

That pretty much sums up all the screen-related updates on the Series 7. But there are a few other noteworthy upgrades. The most significant of these is that it charges faster, and in about 10 minutes, I got close to 10 percent capacity. It reached almost 100 percent in under an hour with the new cable that Apple includes in the box. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch SE only got to about 60 percent in an hour.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

You’ll need both the new charger and the Series 7 to get these faster charging speeds, by the way. It’s the coils on both the watch and the wireless disc that enable the higher rate, so this isn’t something you can get just by running out and buying a new accessory. As someone who’s constantly forgetting to charge my watch until I'm about to run out the door, I appreciate the faster speeds. That said, I still wish smartwatches in general lasted longer and took less time to charge.

Speaking of the battery, the Series 7 promises the same runtime as its predecessor, which is to say, about 18 hours. I generally found myself getting about half a day more from the new watch than the SE, despite the lack of an Always On display on the SE. The Series 7 usually stuck around for a day and a half, almost two, with the screen set to Always On, and tracking between three and five workouts. I also used the device to send plenty of messages and map my walks while I ran errands with the GPS on. That endurance is impressive given the larger screen, but it’s worth noting that I haven’t used the watch for sleep tracking yet.

The battery efficiency can be partly attributed to Apple’s new S7 system-in-package (SIP), which is based on the same processor as the S6. In general, I didn’t feel much of a difference between the Series 7 and the SE when launching workouts or getting Siri to text my friends. The Apple Watch has been and continues to be a responsive device that feels as fast as, if not faster than, its Android counterparts.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Sleep tracking, watchOS 8 and other updates

One area where Apple continues to lag the competition is sleep tracking. While companies like Fitbit and Samsung can use their wearables’ heart rate monitors to detect what sleep zone you’re in, Apple still doesn’t offer that. And you’ll need to make sure you have the Sleep Focus mode on (either manually or by setting a schedule) before the Watch will log your slumber. The others are all able to automatically tell when you’ve gone to sleep and don’t need you to set a schedule. In fact, Fitbit has been doing it since 2015.

The Series 7 does usher in a new feature that logs your respiration rate while you sleep, and then tells you your breath-per-minute rate the next morning. Cool. Respiratory tracking is something that’s coming via watchOS 8 and isn’t exclusive to the Series 7, and the same is true of features like the new Mindfulness app, guided meditation sessions, redesigned Photos app, SharePlaying Fitness+ workouts and more. This means they’re less likely to sway your decision on whether to get the Series 7 if you already have an Apple Watch. The main things exclusive to the Series 7 are the Modular Duo and Contour watch faces, larger font sizes and buttons, and the QWERTY keyboard.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Wrap-up

Though the differences between the Series 6 and 7 seem minor, it's worth a reminder that most people who own last year’s model likely aren’t looking to upgrade yet anyway. For anyone else who’s looking for a new smartwatch, the Series 7 will be a satisfying purchase, especially if you’ve never used one before. WatchOS is a capable and comprehensive system that can help you track your workouts, automatically log your sessions, prompt you to be more active and mindful of your mental health all while being a great extension of your smartphone. It’s not the best at sleep-tracking, though, so if that’s a priority you might prefer a Fitbit. Despite its relatively high starting price of $400, what Apple offers is currently the best in the market, especially for the iOS ecosystem.

Google turns its AI on traffic lights to reduce pollution

Poorly timed traffic lights don't just waste precious minutes. Like Google's chief sustainability officer Kate Brandt pointed out at a media event yesterday, they're also bad for the environment and public health. The company unveiled a slew of sustainability-centric products and updates today that aim to help users make more informed, environmentally friendly decisions. But it's also been working on a project that could use AI to make traffic lights more efficient and, as a result, decrease pollution in general. 

When your vehicle stops at an intersection, that idling time leads to wasted fuel and "more street-level air pollution," Brandt said. Google's new project would use AI to measure and calculate traffic conditions and timing at a city's intersections, then time them more efficiently. Brandt said one of the company's AI research groups has been able to accurately calculate and gather this data and train a model to optimize inefficient intersections. 

Google has run pilots at four locations in Israel to date, in partnership with the municipalities of Haifa, Beer-Sheva and the Israel National Roads Company. The company says it's observed a "10 to 20 percent reduction in fuel and intersection delay time" so far. Google didn't share any details on the average daily traffic in those intersections, though a video clip from the event showed a fairly busy junction. The company also didn't explain how the AI would work with current systems and the lights around specific intersections.

"It's early days," Brandt said, "but on the back of these promising results, we are now beginning new pilots in Rio de Janeiro and speaking with other cities around the globe." Though we're likely still at least years away from having AI manage our traffic intersections, this is one of the steps towards the vision of completely smart cities that the industry has collectively been working on for years. 

The idea of letting AI decide when to let vehicles stop or go can seem unsettling at best and potentially risky, but the goal of improving traffic light efficiency is a worthwhile one. Hopefully, with rigorous testing and safety measures in place, we may actually be able to reduce a significant amount of wasted fuel and exhaust-based pollution.

Google's Nest Renew program can help you use more clean energy at home

Google's latest effort to help you make more environmentally friendly decisions is all about your power grid. The new Nest Renew program is a suite of features that look at the times of day when the electricity feeding into your home is cleaner and turning your compatible Nest thermostats on or off accordingly. Renew arrives in a by-invitation preview in the coming weeks, and will be available for free in the continental US when it launches publicly. 

At the heart of Nest Renew is the understanding that at any given time, the power grid in your neighborhood contains a mix of clean and traditional energy. In the early afternoon, perhaps, there could be a higher concentration of electricity from solar sources, while a windier day could mean more power from turbines is coming through. Depending on the region, power grids could be getting their electricity from a diverse mix of sources. According to Nest product manager Jeff Gleeson, "a smart dynamic electric grid really needs smart homes." 

Nest Renew will not only automate some of this decision-making for you, but it can also give you insights on the type of power coming into your home. First, a new feature called Energy Shift will let those with a Google account and compatible Nest Thermostat automatically activate heating or cooling during times when your grid is cleaner. 

Google

Because Google can now see how carbon-intense a grid is, it can start cooling, say, earlier in the day when solar energy is more available (and your home is approaching your temperature limit). Gleeson told Engadget that the company doesn't think people will notice a difference with this change, and stresses that "customers are always in control." 

If your thermostat kicks in before you want it to, you can always dial it back down, and you'll know the device is making a Renew-related decision thanks to a green leaf that will appear onscreen. For those whose energy provider charges based on time-of-use, this can also help you save money.

Nest has had the leaf symbol on its product for years as an indicator of more power-efficient temperature control. Now, you can earn leafs by doing things like using Energy Shift, joining monthly challenges to do things like running your laundry on cold. When you accumulate enough leafs to hit milestones, you can vote where Google sends its funds (from a list of its Energy Impact partners starting with non-profits GRID Alternatives and Elevate). 

Google

In addition to automatic adjustments via your thermostat, Nest Renew will provide monthly "impact reports" that not only tell you the difference you're making, but also display when the electricity coming into your home is greener. With this data, you can choose to run the laundry, dishwasher or charge your devices earlier or later when your grid is cleaner.

Renew is a free opt-in program and works with the third-generation Nest Learning Thermostat, the Nest Thermostat E or the most recent Nest Thermostat. Google is also offering a Premium tier for $10 a month in select parts of the US. It will unlock a Clean Energy Match feature that will exchange renewable energy credits (RECs) for what it estimates to be the same amount of fossil fuel-based electricity you use at home each month. This way, even if clean energy isn't available when you need to use it, you can at least assuage your guilt over using non-renewable power. Premium members will also get a unified bill that shows their monthly subscription to the program as well as their usual utility charges. 

Gleeson said Nest has been working on this program for years, and in that time it has teamed up with utilities and energy providers to encourage enrollment in residential programs, among other things. For Nest Renew, it's teamed up with eight Distributed Energy Resource Management Systems (DERMS) providers to help shape the program to meet their respective zero-carbon goals. 

Through the Nest Thermostats, increased visibility and marketing and relevant rewards programs, Google hopes to get more people enrolled in green energy utilities offers and programs. The company also wants to help utilities "bring more renewables online" and accelerate the process either by supporting them in building or buying renewable infrastructure, according to head of energy partnerships Hannah Bascomb.

Google's slew of sustainability-minded announcements today demonstrate a continued commitment towards the "carbon-free future" that CEO Sundar Pichai wrote about a year ago. In what Pichai called "our third decade of climate action," Google plans to operate on carbon-free energy 24/7, help more than 500 cities reduce 1 gigaton of carbon emissions and enable its partners to reduce carbon emissions all by 2030. Nest Renew is a part of a wide-ranging set of updates today across Search, Maps and more to help Google's users make more-informed, environmentally friendly decisions.

Google shuts down Plex banking service less after less than a year

The Google graveyard is getting more crowded. After announcing the Plex mobile-first bank accounts in November last year with Citibank and a few other financial institutions, Google is pulling back from the product. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company is "abandoning plans to pitch bank accounts to its users." 

A Google spokesperson told Engadget that it's "updating our approach to focus primarily on delivering digital enablement for banks and other financial services providers rather than us serving as the provider of these services."

Plex was initially positioned as an easy mobile-first way to open bank accounts, with Google providing the technology and app design and banks and credit providers backing the finances. It sounded more like a way to help institutions that didn't yet have a modern, competent app to team up with Google on one, which might be why major names like Bank of America and Capital One, who already had existing apps, weren't on the list of partners.

According to the Journal, a Citibank spokesperson said it plans to recommend other accounts to people who had already signed up for the Plex waiting list. The publication reports that the waiting list numbered about 400,000 people, and that the pandemic had thrown plans off schedule. The Journal also noted that "As late as this week, several banks were under the impression that the project would still move forward."

Though the Plex branding is going away, Google does appear to want to stick around in the financial services business. The spokesperson said that "We strongly believe that this is the best way for Google to help consumers gain better access to financial services and to help the financial services ecosystem connect more deeply with their customers in a digital environment.”  

It may not a complete abandonment, but Plex joins a long list of other Google products that were cancelled or discontinued, like the Home Max speaker, Clips camera, Google+ and more.

iOS 15 update to fix Apple Watch unlock bug is here

If you've had your iPhone set up to unlock with your Apple Watch and recently upgraded to an iPhone 13, a software bug may have prevented you from continuing to use this. Thankfully, a fix is here and once you install it, you shouldn't have to resort to Face ID (or worse, typing in your passcode) anymore. The latest iOS 15 update (iOS 15.0.1) is here and according to the changelog, it brings bug fixes "including an issue where some users could not unlock iPhone 13 models with Apple Watch."

Apple added the unlock with Watch feature in watchOS 7.4 earlier this year to make it easier to get into your iPhone while you're out and masked up. This feature later got broken with a subsequent iOS and update and required another over-the-air package to fix. Apple recently acknowledged that this was also not working on some iPhone 13 models, and said it would roll out a solution soon. The iPhone 13 only started being available on September 24th, so this issue was at least caught early. Though it's nice that the update is here days later, it's interesting to see the trouble the company has had with this feature in the last few months. 

Engadget Podcast: Do you trust an Amazon robot in your home?

This week, Cherlynn and Devindra go over the news from Amazon’s devices and services event, especially its intriguing Astro robot for the home. With the company’s history with data collection and security cameras in mind, we discuss the questionable merits of such a device. Then, we delve into the news from Google’s Search On event (also this week) and Facebook’s own slides about research that said Instagram is detrimental to teens.

Listen below, or subscribe on your podcast app of choice. If you've got suggestions or topics you'd like covered on the show, be sure to email us or drop a note in the comments! And be sure to check out our other podcasts, the Morning After and Engadget News!


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Hosts: Cherlynn Low and Devindra Hardawar
Producer: Ben Ellman
Livestream producers: Julio Barrientos, Owen Davidoff, Luke Brooks
Graphics artists: Luke Brooks, Kyle Maack
Music: Dale North and Terrence O'Brien

Google wants to streamline the tricky process of assigning addresses in rural areas

There are many places in the world that don't have an address system, which can restrict the opportunities available for people who live and work in those areas. Without an address, you can't get mail or packages, nor can you vote or sign up for bank accounts, for example. Emergency responders can't even find you easily if you don't have an address. Google's open-source Plus Codes system has been around since 2015 to help assign addresses to places, matching a series of letters and numbers to a set of latitude and longitude coordinates.

But, according to Google, "previously, creating addresses for an entire town or village could take years." The company is releasing a new tool today called Address Maker that would make mass generation of these codes easier for governments and organizations. Google said that governments and non-government organizations (NGOs) in Kenya, India, South African and the US are already using Address Maker, "with more partners on the way."

Anyone can enter one of these codes, which look like "P2J5+7C," into Google Maps and see where that place is or get directions. For people who already have existing addresses that are long or complicated, these could be helpful in making sure your contacts find you at the correct spot. If you've ever tried to send a package to an industrial area in a country you're not familiar with, you'll probably find Plus Codes helpful, too.

Google

Address Maker is a free Android app and shorted the previously years-long process to a few weeks, Google said. Based on an animated render, it appears you can outline segments on a map and add addresses for multiple structures within the area at once. You can check out Google's page for more help, especially if you're part of a local government or NGO.

Amazon's biggest innovation is being cheap.

As Amazon’s executives took the stage one after another yesterday to introduce the world to the company’s “next big leaps forward,” a sense of deja vu crept up on me. It only grew stronger as the event progressed, with many new Amazon products seeming incredibly familiar. The company has been criticized in the past for borrowing designs of popular goods and selling them for a lot cheaper.

That’s not an uncommon practice of course — massive retailers all over America like Walmart and Costco have offered lower-cost store-brand lines forever. But none of them stage flashy keynotes to tout their products as “innovations.” While Amazon has indeed brought certain unique technologies to the world in the past, this year the company’s “innovations” seemed to be more of it doing what it does best: undercutting the rest.

Halo View: Twinning with Fitbit

With the Halo View, Amazon is essentially adding a display to its existing screenless health-tracking band. But the View’s shape and style are so similar to Fitbit’s Charge series it’s hard to differentiate the two. Sure, there are only so many ways you can stick a rectangular display on a wristband, but Amazon’s mimicry doesn’t stop there. It also introduced new Halo Fitness and Halo Nutrition services today that will offer guides on working out and eating better. 

Amazon

That’s basically Fitbit Premium, which offers guides on working out and eating better. Oh and Fitbit’s $10-a-month service also provides tips on meditating and sleep. Amazon’s subscription costs just $4 per month after a trial period, though, and the $80 Halo View is $100 cheaper than the new Charge 5. The View probably won’t do as much as Fitbit’s trackers, which are quite sophisticated. Still, considering the price, Amazon will likely sell a lot of them.

Amazon Smart Thermostat: Lose the frills for a fraction of the price

Amazon teamed up with existing thermostat brand Honeywell to make a Smart Thermostat that will work with most existing 24V HVACs (most common for residential HVAC systems). You can control it with a separate Alexa-enabled device and set custom routines for heating and cooling. The company hasn’t released much more information about its thermostat yet, but from what we can see, the device has the rounded-rectangle shape of an ecobee smart thermostat with the color scheme of a Google Nest product.

Lots of existing smart thermostats by brands like ecobee, Sensibo and Google’s Nest do more things, but Amazon is seriously undercutting the competition by selling its version for just $60. The Nest Thermostat that was launched last year costs $130, while an ecobee 3 Lite goes for $170.

Blink cameras: Competing with Google for much cheaper

Competition in the security camera space is pretty stiff, so it isn’t very surprising that Amazon and Google both borrow a lot from each other. Amazon unveiled a new $50 Blink video doorbell camera today, alongside a set of outdoor cameras. One of these is the $40 floodlight camera mount that calls to mind Google’s Nest Cam with integrated floodlight. To be fair, though, Google did only introduce a wireless, battery-powered doorbell camera after Blink, so it appears the borrowing is mutual here.

The difference, however, is once again in pricing. Blink’s video doorbell is less than a third of the price of the $180 Nest Doorbell. Google’s floodlight-cum-security camera is $280, while Amazon’s mount (with a camera) is half that at $140.

But at what cost?

It’s no secret that Amazon’s business model has a lot to do with knowing what people want and changing their prices accordingly. But how can it make things so cheap? In addition to pure economies of scale and multiple reports of questionable (at best) labor practices, the company also offers goods at reduced prices in exchange for sticking ads on your devices. The ad-supported versions of Kindles and Fire tablets often go for $20 to $30 less than their stock counterparts.

With the breadth of devices Amazon offers, too, the sheer amount of data it could collect purely for the sake of selling you stuff is huge. With the smart thermostat, it could detect a dip in temperature in your region and suggest you buy from its in-house brand of winter wear. Or maybe your child’s been reading a book on a Kindle, and the company later serves ads for collectibles from that title on its new kid-centric Glow video-calling device. Or how about a subsidized version of the Astro robot that roams your house or follows you around with an ad on its face? Amazon also talked about a “vision of ambient intelligence” — which sounds very similar to the concept of “ambient computing” expounded by Google for years. But because Amazon’s products are so much cheaper, it could succeed at stuffing Alexa in so many more places in our lives.

Plus, with all the data it’s gathering from your shopping habits, whether it’s on one of its devices or the Amazon app, the company can afford to sell you something at a lower profit margin. The company said in its privacy notice that it’s “not in the business of selling our customers' personal information to others.” But it’s presumably using that data to understand the types of things you’re more likely to buy and put that stuff in front of you. It’ll probably make more off of you in the long run if you’re using the cheap Fire tablet to browse its store.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything Amazon unveiled today was a cutrate version of something else. We got an update on the Ring Always Home Cam, which was first announced last year. You’ll soon be able to sign up to test it out. The home security device is a little drone that can fly around your property at your command to see if anything’s amiss. No mainstream tech giant has launched something similar yet, though, so Amazon isn’t undercutting anyone on this.

Still, it seems like the company’s strategy for its flagship products is similar to that of its Basics line: Take a good idea, tweak it and sell it for loads cheaper. It’s not terrible; We could always use affordable, reliable devices. But Amazon is not innovating: It’s the Costco of consumer tech.

Follow all of the news from Amazon’s fall hardware event right here!

Amazon unveils $80 Halo View fitness band to take on Fitbit

Amazon is expanding its wearables portfolio, after introducing the screenless Halo fitness bandlast year. Today, the company announced a new version with a screen called the Halo View and it costs just $80 — cheaper than the original. It also announced new programs called Halo Fitness and Halo Nutrition as additions to the existing Halo subscription program.

The new Halo View looks very similar to Fitbit's Charge series, with an AMOLED color screen and haptic feedback. It will display your activity history, live workout tracking, sleep scores, blood oxygen levels and, according to Amazon, "text and move notifications."

The device has an optical heart rate monitor, skin temperature sensor and accelerometer, and is swim-proof. Amazon said it should last up to seven days and a full charge will take "under 90 minutes." While we don't have a complete spec sheet yet, the company's press release currently doesn't mention an onboard microphone. Not only does this mean you might not be able to use a voice assistant or dictate any replies to messages, it also indicates the company's controversial Tone feature might not be supported.

As a refresher, Tone was launched with the original Halo, and, with your permission, used that band's mics to listen to you throughout the day. It would then detect the way you're speaking and tell you if you sound stressed, angry, happy, excited and more. The idea was that your tone of voice was a better indicator of your mental health and how much distress you might be experiencing. 

But not only did the idea of Amazon policing the way you speak sound dystopian, in practice it also wasn't very useful. I tested the Halo's Tone feature and it wasn't always accurate, especially since I couldn't recall every single instance it logged, and the system doesn't record snippets of audio to remind you, either (for better or worse).

I've reached out to Amazon to confirm if the Halo View has onboard mics, and will update this post when we hear back. Meanwhile, the View is available in three colors, green and lavender, though you can also swap the bands out for something you prefer. 

Like the original, the Halo View will not only cost you some money for the hardware, but you'll also have to spend an additional $4 a month to use many of its features. Body composition, activity intensity and scores, movement health guides, sleep scores and stages are things you won't get without paying the fee.

This story is developing, please refresh for updates.

Follow all of the news from Amazon’s fall hardware event right here!

iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max review: Apple saved the real upgrade for the Pros

A phone can be endowed with the fastest processor in the world, but if it’s saddled with a slow screen, it could still feel sluggish — especially when compared to a similarly equipped device with a faster panel. That’s why the iPhone 13 Pro’s most important new feature is its ProMotion display.

But ProMotion is only included on the Pro and Pro Max models this year, making it one of the features that differentiate them from the iPhone 13 and 13 mini, not to mention last year’s 12 Pro. For an extra $200 to $300, the Pro series also offers an additional telephoto camera, a new macro photography mode, as well as more power and endurance. But are the iPhone 13 Pro’s new cameras and screens worth the extra money?

Design

Before we get into those features, though, there’s one thing you should consider: weight. At 204 grams (7.19 ounces), the 6.1-inch 13 Pro is heavier than both the 12 Pro and the iPhone 13. The 13 Pro Max, which has a 6.7-inch screen, outweighs last year’s Pro Max and Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra. While I didn’t mind the regular Pro, it was uncomfortable to use Apple’s biggest flagship one-handed for more than a few minutes at a time.

David Imel for Engadget

In addition to being heavier than last year's models, the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are a bit thicker, too. They also have larger rear camera modules and slightly smaller display notches. Otherwise, Apple hasn’t strayed far from the 12 Pro’s design. These phones have similar stainless steel enclosures with glass coverings, and are rated IP68 for water and dust resistance.

Even the colors available are familiar: The typical trio of graphite, gold and silver are now accompanied by Sierra Blue. Personally, I prefer this paler shade to the Pacific Blue offered on the last generation.

Display and audio

I realized something when I started testing the iPhone 13 series last week: Basically everything I do on a phone requires scrolling. That includes browsing social feeds, looking for the right component on a spec sheet, reading through old conversations, creeping on my Instagram viewers and reading articles, to give you a non-exhaustive list.

This is why Apple’s new ProMotion screen on the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max is a big deal, and also why it’s kind of annoying that it took the company so long to adopt this technology in the first place. Google was already a little behind when it added 90Hz panels to the Pixel 4, after companies like ASUS and OnePlus had already introduced higher refresh rates. Nowadays, this tech isn't just for premium, top-tier Android devices either.

David Imel for Engadget

This is hardly the first time Apple is late to adopt a new technology. But it is worth emphasizing that the faster screens on the iPhones make a real difference. Like many Android phones, the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max adjust their refresh rates depending on what you’re doing. They can go as low as 10Hz when you’re looking at a static image, or up to 120Hz for scrolling and compatible games.

The benefits might not be obvious at first, but when you go back to a slower screen, you’ll quickly notice the jagged artifacts they produce.

Aside from ProMotion, the iPhone 13 Pro’s OLED displays are also 25 percent brighter than their predecessors, which is nice for outdoor reading. But without a side-by-side comparison, the difference is subtle at best.

Regardless, I enjoyed watching the visual perfection that is Doja Cat’s Kiss Me More music video on the iPhone 13 Pro’s True Tone display. The rosy, cotton-candy hues looked vibrant and her individual lashes were clear. The stereo speakers also did a respectable job of delivering crisp audio with adequate bass. Other things like voices and instrumental background music in videos and games all came through clearly as well.

Cameras

Apple says the iPhone 13 Pro’s rear cameras have received the “biggest upgrade ever,” touting “next-level hardware that captures so much more detail.” The triple 12-megapixel setup includes a primary sensor with a large f/1.5 aperture, a 77mm telephoto lens and an ultra-wide option with a 120-degree field of view. Night mode is now supported on all three of the cameras, so you don’t have to compromise on wide-angle or close up shots in low light. There’s also a new macro photography feature thanks to the updated ultra-wide lens, along with software like Photographic Styles and Cinematic Mode.

Those two modes are also offered on the iPhone 13 and 13 mini, and you can read my review of those phones for more details. In short, Photographic Styles lets you easily customize and set a sort of default for the contrast levels and color temperature of your images. Meanwhile, Cinematic Mode is good at identifying faces and people in a scene and blurring out everything surrounding a subject, but it struggled when I tried to change the focal point. The system is also a little wonky at outlining individuals, and stray body parts like thumbs and ears can get eaten up in the artificial blur. I found that adjusting the intensity via the f-stop setting helped keep this problem at bay, but the trade-off was less of a DSLR-like look in the final video.

David Imel for Engadget

One feature the Pros have over the regular 13 is macro photography. With this generation, you can get as close as two centimeters away from your subject and not lose focus. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t offer a way to manually enable a macro mode; the system automatically switches to the close-up camera when you get all up in something’s face.

The iPhone 13 Pro was generally accurate at detecting when I was trying to get a tight shot, but it kept changing back and forth between macro and regular views. Sometimes it would continually focus and refocus on the flowers behind the buds I was trying to shoot. The latter is a more understandable issue; every little hand tremor is magnified when a camera is zoomed that far in, making it hard to latch on to a subject. Not to mention something in motion, like a leaf in the wind. But that’s all the more reason to give users manual control.

Apple has said it will be releasing a software update soon that should prevent the camera from switching in and out of macro mode, which I of course can't vouch for yet.

When it worked as expected, macro mode delivered surprisingly great results. My shots of a closed flower bud and the vein system on a leaf’s surface were impressively detailed, showing individual hairs on the stem and petals. Close-ups of a fried fish clearly rendered the oil oozing out of the batter.

You need to make sure to let enough light shine on your subject, though, because my shots of a bee inside a flower were dark and splotchy. But that’s basically Photography 101; it’s not an issue specific to macro mode.

In general, the iPhone 13 Pro took sharp, colorful photos rivaling my sample shots from the Pixel 5 and Galaxy S21 Ultra. Apple’s default treatment renders pictures that are typically brighter and sometimes more saturated, but with Photographic Styles you can pick a look that you like and stick with it. I’m not a fan of the iPhone’s aggressive HDR effects compared to the Pixels’ more neutral landscapes, but frankly we’re at a point where Samsung, Google and Apple are generally on par in terms of sheer quality.

The iPhone 13 Pro’s upgraded sensors also really improved low light performance. I took photos of the moon peeking through some clouds in the middle of Manhattan skyscrapers with the S21 Ultra, Pixel 5 and iPhone 13 Pro, and they were all clean and sharp. They differed a bit in color temperature, but it’s not noticeable without a direct comparison. Google still retains an advantage with Night Sight, though; it produces photos that are significantly cleaner, brighter and richer in detail.

David Imel for Engadget

As for the 13 Pro’s front camera, it’s pretty much the same as the iPhone 13’s, and that’s not a bad thing. You’ll still get Cinematic Mode and Photographic Styles via the 12-megapixel True Depth sensor, and though selfies were a little soft in low light, they were otherwise sharp.

Because these are Pro-series phones, Apple also threw in support for ProRes videos in addition to its ProRAW format for stills... or at least it will eventually. ProRes won’t be available until a future iOS 15 update arrives at an unspecified date, but it promises to preserve colors at high quality. And, thanks to the A15’s hardware acceleration plus video encoders and decoders, you’ll be able to record in the format at up to 4K resolution (1080p for the base 128GB model) and 30 frames per second.

iOS 15

Speaking of, the iPhone 13 series runs iOS 15 out of the box, and I was able to test most of the new features when I tested the beta version. Focus modes, for example, let you set custom home pages and notification profiles based on your location or time of day. It’s one of my favorite new features on any smartphone platform in recent years because it allows people without a separate work device to switch off from work when they please.

David Imel for Engadget

Since most of iOS 15’s new features will be coming to older iPhones, though, they’re unlikely to sway your decision on whether to upgrade. We’ll have a more in-depth review of iOS 15, but suffice to say I appreciate the level of control it offers. I’m especially looking forward to testing out SharePlay, which hasn't rolled out yet, but will let you watch shows with or stream your phone screen to friends over FaceTime.

Performance and battery life

The main difference between the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro’s processors is that the latter uses a beefier 5-core GPU. This means that graphics-intensive tasks like gaming or video editing should be executed more quickly. I made a trailer in iMovie and while I had to wait 51 seconds for it to finish exporting on the iPhone 13, it took a mere 15 seconds on the Pro.

The iPhone 13 Pro’s A15 Bionic chip is similarly powerful in less-intensive tasks. I played rounds of Catan, watched various YouTube videos, chatted with friends, played music and snapped photos in rapid succession — all without any delay. And I know I’ve already said this a lot, but I have to stress again that the faster screens here just make most tasks feel more responsive.

In the week or so that I’ve had the iPhone 13 Pros, I’ve only needed to charge them twice. Granted, I spent most of the first few days focusing on the iPhone 13 and 13 mini, using the Pros predominantly when I was doing intensive camera testing. But when I switched over to the more-premium devices, the iPhone 13 Pro lasted almost a full two days before needing a charge. Battery levels dipped more quickly when I was playing games and exporting videos, but not so much that I had to worry about running out of juice.

Considering its higher refresh rate, that’s an impressive runtime. I’m still running battery tests across the iPhone 13 lineup, and will update this review with more empirical results as soon as that’s done. For now, though, it’s clear that despite the ProMotion displays, the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max can last longer than a day.

David Imel for Engadget

Wrap-up

With faster screens, superb performance and long-lasting batteries, the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max are excellent phones. If you’re on a device older than a 12 Pro, you should consider upgrading just for the new ProMotion displays. Though the cameras also got a noteworthy improvement, I’m not sure they’re going to be the biggest draw. It’s honestly hard to spot the difference in quality between photos taken by Apple’s recent flagships.

Features like Cinematic Mode, Photographic Styles and macro cameras are nice to have, but won’t define your iPhone 13 Pro experience. And though Apple was playing catch up to Android flagships by finally introducing 120Hz screens to its phones, there are now fewer things that Samsung and Google offer that the iPhones don’t. But for basically anyone who uses iOS, the iPhone 13 Pro (and Pro Max, if you don’t mind its weight) is a worthy upgrade.

Key specs (iPhone 13 Pro)

Processor: A15 Bionic with 6-core CPU and 5-core GPU

Storage: 128/256/512GB or 1TB storage

MicroSD card support: None

Display: 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED with ProMotion up to 120Hz

Display resolution: 2,532 x 1,170 (460 ppi)

Rear triple cameras: 12MP f/1.5 wide-angle camera with sensor-shift OIS; 12MP f/1.8 ultra-wide camera (120-degree FOV); 12MP f/2.8 77mm telephoto camera

Front camera: 12MP f/2.2 TrueDepth camera

Operating system: iOS 15

Battery: "Up to 22 hours video playback"

Charging: Lightning port with fast wired charging at 20W (up to 50 percent in 30 minutes); Support for MagSafe wireless charging up to at 15W; Qi wireless charging at up to 7.5W.

Dimensions: 5.78 x 2.82 x 0.30 inches; 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.65 mm

Weight: 7.19 ounces; 204 grams

Fingerprint sensor: No

Waterproofing: IP68

NFC: Yes

Headphone jack: No

Key specs (iPhone 13 Pro Max)

Processor: A15 Bionic with 6-core CPU and 5-core GPU

Storage: 128/256/512GB or 1TB storage

MicroSD card support: None

Display: 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR OLED with ProMotion up to 120Hz

Display resolution: 2,778 x 1,284 (458 ppi)

Rear triple cameras: 12MP f/1.5 wide-angle camera with sensor-shift OIS; 12MP f/1.8 ultra-wide camera (120-degree FOV); 12MP f/2.8 77mm telephoto camera

Front camera: 12MP f/2.2 TrueDepth camera

Operating system: iOS 15

Battery: "Up to 28 hours video playback"

Charging: Lightning port with fast wired charging at 20W (up to 50 percent in 30 minutes); Support for MagSafe wireless charging up to at 15W; Qi wireless charging at up to 7.5W.

Dimensions: 6.33 x 3.07 x 0.30 inches; 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.65 mm

Weight: 8.46 ounces; 240 grams

Fingerprint sensor: No

Waterproofing: IP68

NFC: Yes

Headphone jack: No

Photos by David Imel (@DurvidImel)