The iPhone 11 is good. Some of its most touted features might feel more like gimmicks, and I definitely miss a few features limited to the pricier Pro. Still, with its brilliant camera and a handful of other new bits, this is a phone you can upgrade to with little of the usual guilt.
This year Apple did away with the confusing branding that marked the last two generations of phones. There’s no oblique letters or weird Arabic versus Roman numeral situation. There’s the iPhone 11, which starts at $700, the slightly smaller $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro, and the slightly larger $1,100 iPhone 11 Pro Max.
The primary difference is the two Pros have larger batteries, a 50mm “zoom” lens, and much better displays. The cool features Apple talked about at its event last week, including “slofies,” the A13 Bionic processor, Night mode, improved image capture, ultra-wideband, and an ultrawide lens, are present across all three devices.
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So if you’re considering an upgrade for slofies or better night photography, you can save $300 to $400 and just get the iPhone 11. Apple refusing, for the most part, to hamstring the most affordable iPhone in its 2019 refresh is a wonderful thing.
Apple still holds it back, though. In some cases it’s minor—the phone’s glossy glass is slippery and more prone to fingerprints than the matte oleophobic back of the Pro, and the bezels are a hair bigger. But other differences are not so minor. In our battery test, in which we set the brightness of the display to 200 nits and stream a YouTube video until the phone dies, the iPhone 11 gets over 12 hours. Impressive compared to the 9 hours the iPhone 8 got and decent versus the just under 12 hours the XR lasted. But the Pro lasted over 13 hours, and the Pro Max lasted over 15 hours. Apparently, battery life is a Pro kind of thing.
The Pros both have higher-quality displays, too. The 11's LCD is very, very good for an LCD and in our testing hit a respectable 550 nits indoors—just barely brighter than the Pros. Outdoors it suffered though. It was nearly 150 nits dimmer than both Pros when tested in direct sunlight.
Worse, it’s kind of fuzzy. The iPhone 11's 6.1-inch LCD has a 1,792 by 828 resolution and 326 pixels per inch. That leaves everything feeling a lot less clean compared to the 458 pixels per inch in the Pro’s 5.8-inch 2,436 by 1,125 display or the Pro Max’s 6.5-inch 2,688 by 1,242 display. It’s especially noticeable where the bezel meets the display. With the Pros, there’s a very crisp delineation between the bezel and the display. With the iPhone 11, there’s a very slight gradient.
As for the features found across all the new iPhones. Some of those new features feel a little less critical than others. A new ultra-wideband radio should make Airdropping files faster, but it only works with other devices that have a compatible (right now, that’s mainly just the new iPhone).
The Ultra Wide camera feels distinctly like a gimmick too. I want you to take a moment and sort through the last dozen or so photos you took. Recall the moments before you hit the shutter button. Did you feel the need to step back and get more of the subject in frame? Or did you feel the need to step forward? If you’re like me, you tend to zoom in, not out. I don’t need to zoom out from a 26mm f/2.0 lens to a 13mm f/2.4 lens.
Particularly because that Ultra Wide camera has issues with low light. Shooting in the shadows during the golden hour seemed to dramatically affect the quality of images from the Ultra Wide camera versus the Wide one.
My more significant issue with the Ultra Wide camera is that it’s just ridiculously distorted compared to the Wide camera. The edges of the frame curve with the lens. It requires you to fix the distortion in photo editing software or to embrace it fully.
Embracing the distortion does mean you can pull off some really dramatic and artsy shots, like the ones below of a neon sign or the shot of my dog sniffing the sun. I ultimately found myself thinking of the ultra-wide-angle as something more akin to filters in Portrait mode. It’s cool, and it gives me neat flexibility, but it’s unnecessary most of the time.
Night mode, on the other hand, is a revelation. Apple is very late to using computational photography to improve images taken in dark settings. Google beat it by nearly a year, and Samsung introduced a dedicated night mode with the Galaxy S10 this past March. With the new A13 Bionic chip, Apple can lean heavily on the phone’s CPU to crunch numbers in photos.
Mostly, Night mode works like magic, but there are caveats. The mode only works with the Wide camera. So there won’t be any ultra-dramatic ultra-wide shots. Also, your subject can’t move around, and you have to hold the phone pretty still for one to two seconds (it depends on how low the light is). You have to wait for the phone to process the images too. So there’s a slight gap between tapping the shutter button and getting your picture.
The A13 Bionic CPU and a new, improved front camera also mean better selfies and slightly faster Face ID. It will be responsible for powering the new Deep Fusion mode, which combines a series of photos to make one super sharp photo, that’s expected later this year too. Plus slofies, the silliest new feature in a phone.
Slofies are just as easy to shoot as a slow-motion video with the rear camera—and just as subject to proper lighting. Don’t try and pull off a slofie in a dark bar, or you’ll be as disappointed as I was. Slofies in good light are fun, and I’ve no doubt the creators (teens) of Tik Tok will find new and spectacularly delightful uses for the feature.
Oddly enough, the part of the camera that impressed me the most was also one of the least widely touted features: the dynamic range. Dynamic range is critical to a good photo. Better dynamic range means way more details in really bright and really dark areas of your photos.
The feature was most noticeable when I was shooting the sunset. I could see all the details in the shadows and still get a bright sun and sky. Apple’s been steadily improving the dynamic range in its camera module, and the difference between photos shot on the 11 and my two-year-old iPhone X are so dramatic I have a powerful desire to upgrade.
In fact, I probably will. I’m not crazy about the size of the phone—I just find it too large and uncomfortable to use with one hand. That, plus better battery life and more flexibility in the rear cameras, has me eyeing the Pro over the iPhone 11. Apple could benefit from producing an iPhone 11 you can hold in your hands without being a giant. But the low price and delightful array of vibrant colors make the 11 a damn fine option versus the Pro. If you don’t have last year’s iPhone, and you’re looking to upgrade, you won’t be disappointed. This is a superb phone.
- Much improved camera sensor means fantastic dynamic range.
- The Ultra Wide rear camera gives you move flexibility, but the distortion on it is so dramatic it can be distracting.
- Slofies are nice.
- Night mode is magic.
- Battery life and the display could both be better.