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Buy an iPhone 13 or iPhone 12? How to decide what's best for you

Apple's iPhone 13 is the better choice in many cases, but the iPhone 12 may be a good pick for some.

The iPhone 12 is an excellent phone, but should you still buy it now that the iPhone 13 is here?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's new and improved iPhone is here. The iPhone 13, which debuted at the company's September event, runs on iOS 15 and features a bunch of camera upgrades, longer battery life, upped storage and a new A15 Bionic processor. But now that the iPhone 13 is available for purchase, does it still make sense to buy an iPhone 12

The iPhone 13 mirrors last year's iPhone 12 lineup with standard, Mini, Pro and Pro Max versions. (Here are all the differences between the iPhone 13 models, and here are CNET's reviews of the iPhone 13, 13 Mini, 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max.)

If you're on the fence as to which path to take, that's understandable. But don't stress. This guide spells out if you should consider buying an iPhone 12 or iPhone 13 depending on your needs. You can also consider the older iPhone 11 or iPhone SE. This way you can feel confident you've made the right call. 

Read more: Best iPhone for 2021: Which one of Apple's phones is right for you?

If you're still using an outdated iPhone, you may be trying to decide whether an immediate upgrade to an iPhone 12 makes sense. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Using an old, outdated iPhone?

One of the best reasons to snap up a new phone is if your current one is hopelessly outdated. If you're upgrading from an older iPhone, like the iPhone 11, and are trying to decide between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13, the iPhone 13 is probably the better bet. 

Apple's 2021 iPhone comes with a collection of useful updates. The iPhone 13's battery life is supposed to be more than two hours longer, it offers double the storage space at the base level and features better cameras than the iPhone 12. The iPhone 13's A15 chip is also a year newer than the iPhone 12's A14 Bionic chip, meaning it's likely you'll receive future iOS updates a year longer if you go with the iPhone 13. 

But, there are always exceptions. The iPhone 12 is a great phone that still has plenty to offer in terms of performance and camera capabilities. For owners of older iPhones like the iPhone X series, going for the iPhone 12 gives you an advanced A14 Bionic chip, plus an OLED screen. Just those two enhancements represent a massive upgrade over phones from just a few years ago.

That said, if your phone still turns on and functionally does everything you need it to do, just get the iPhone 13. Phones as far back as the 2015 iPhone 6S are able to run iOS 14 and are compatible with iOS 15, so there's no reason to make the jump unless your phone is truly broken. (However, Apple only provides software updates to its phones for a finite amount of time, so wait too long and eventually you'll be locked out of the latest OS.)

The need for 5G speed

5G wireless isn't available everywhere and its capabilities have been a little overhyped. That said, the iPhone 12 was the first iPhone compatible with 5G. So if you have a burning desire to connect to 5G cellular networks and have access to one, then the iPhone 12 will scratch that itch immediately. Of course, the iPhone 13 also links to 5G, so opting for either would fulfill your 5G desires.

Living with a damaged iPhone screen is never fun.

Jamea Martin/CNET

Cracked screen, failing battery and other reasons to get that new iPhone now

Living with a device that's been damaged or functions poorly is rough. For example, it's hard to ignore a fractured screen since you see the defect daily. The same is true of a failing battery that can't hold as much charge as it once could. If your iPhone suffers from these types of frustrating issues, an immediate upgrade may be justified. However, with all the upgrades announced for the iPhone 13, you may want to buy the 2021 iPhone instead.

The iPhone 12's ceramic shield screen held up well during our torture tests.

Chris Parker/CNET

iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 have a ceramic shield display

One of the iPhone 12's big improvements is the material of its display. Apple calls it "ceramic shield" glass. Made by Corning, the ceramic shield glass covering the phone's display is harder than most metals. Indeed, we can confirm the iPhone 12's ceramic shield's toughness. When we put the iPhone 12 to the test, the handset came through with flying colors. The iPhone 13 also has the same ceramic shield glass on its display. So if you're a huge klutz prone to slips and drops, springing for either the iPhone 12 or iPhone 13 is a wise move.

New features for the iPhone 13 

The iPhone 13 comes with a few brand-new features that the iPhone 12 lacks. The new iPhone is the first to boast a 120Hz display and an option for 1TB of storage for its Pro models. Right now the iPhone 12's screen has a 60Hz refresh rate. The faster refresh rate will translate to smoother, snappier scrolling through apps and websites. 

Apple gave the iPhone 13 an enhanced camera system. All four of the iPhone 13 models have an improved 12-megapixel main camera and a better ultrawide lens and sensor. The new hardware paired with the phone's A15 Bionic chip means a handful of improvements and new features, including being able to capture 47% more light. The iPhone 13 also features a new cinematic mode to make your videos appear more film-like, and the Pro and Pro Max models will gain the ability to capture ProRes videos later this year.

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Price may be the deciding factor

As the saying goes, money talks. The standard base model of the iPhone 13 costs $799 for 128GB of storage, which is $100 more than the starting price of the standard base model of the iPhone 12 with 64GB of storage. But, if you compare the current price of the 128GB storage option for both phones, there's only a $50 difference between the iPhone 13 and $749 iPhone 12 and the new features on the iPhone 13 seem to justify the increase in price.

Here are the iPhone 13 and iPhone 12 prices compared: 

iPhone 13 and iPhone 12 pricing compared


64GB 128GB 256GB 512GB
iPhone 12 $699 $749 $849 NA
iPhone 13 NA $799 $899 $1,099

Plus, many carriers are offering substantial discounts on the iPhone 13, which means if you have a phone to trade in you'll end up paying a lot less than the listed price. But, if you don't qualify for any of the carrier offers on the iPhone 13, choosing the iPhone 12 could still be a great way to save a little bit of money.

For more, here's how the iPhone 12 compared with the iPhone 11, every difference between the iPhone 12 models (the Pro models are no longer sold on Apple's website), whether you should buy an iPhone 11 or iPhone SE and everything in iOS 15. You can also take a look at all the products announced at Apple's September event including the Apple Watch 7iPad Mini 6 and updated entry-level iPad.