The iPhone 11 Pro is a beautiful phone. There I said it! The matte glass back is elegant. The OLED display is slightly brighter than I expected, which is clever. The trypophobia-inducing camera bump is sleeker than it looks in photos, and the ability to zoom in and out is pretty cool. The iPhone 11 Pro is a little faster.
These are all gentle little upgrades from the iPhone XS, and they’re nice. They are, unfortunately for some, all you get. Still, I want this phone because it’s just a little bit nicer than the phone I’ve got.
It’s a tired argument to point out how iPhone innovation has stalled. Ten years ago, these little pocket computers were transforming our lives on an annual basis with new features and design upgrades. These days, we’re squinting at specs and doing math to figure out if upgrading to the latest device makes sense for the near future. The one big new thing for all smartphones, 5G, won’t even matter to most people for another year or two or more. And while some Android phone manufacturers are getting creative with new features, most people are now waiting longer to upgrade, giving the major players less motivation to reinvent their devices completely. That seems to be exactly how Apple decided to build the iPhone 11 Pro: surely better but not yet transformative.
My problem is that I don’t want to care. I like my iPhone XS just fine. The iPhone 11 Pro isn’t all that radically different, but it is better. It looks better. It feels better. When I use it, I feel good. I don’t care that it can’t support 5G. I don’t mind that Apple left off a bunch of rumored features. I find myself marveling over the little, better things. The matte glass back really does feel luxurious. The display is crisp. The new camera system rocks. I wonder what I could do with this slightly better A13 Bionic processor. I like the iPhone 11 Pro, and given the choice, I would buy it over the more pedestrian but still excellent iPhone 11. Then again, I am falling in line with Apple’s very smart marketing.
It would be convenient—and save me a bunch of money—if I could just say that I hate the iPhone 11 Pro. Not the case. I want the damn thing, not because it has a million new mind-boggling tricks but because the few new things are impressive and make the whole experience better. I’m part of the Apple Upgrade Program, so it’s relatively easy for me to trade in my XS for a Pro. I still wouldn’t recommend that folks with an X-series phone upgrade to the 11 Pro. But I dare you not to hate what Apple’s done with its latest masterpiece.
Now that my demons are on full display, let’s talk about what makes the iPhone 11 Pro special: the camera. And some other things but mostly the camera.
The iPhone 11 Pro is the first and only iPhone to sport three cameras on the back. The setup includes the Wide and Telephoto cameras seen on the iPhone XS as well as a new Ultra Wide camera. This gives the iPhone 11 Pro the ability to zoom in and out. The inclusion of the third camera is also a big differentiator between the Pro and the basic iPhone 11, which only has the Wide and Ultra Wide cameras. (This means the cheaper iPhone 11 does not have an optical zoom in.) It also feels like a bit of a trick. The optical zoom-in has made the second camera on an iPhone feel special since its first appearance in 2016. So if you’re deciding between the regular 11 and the 11 Pro, consider that you’re paying for the telephoto camera more than anything.
All the cameras are better, though. This was immediately obvious to me when I started taking photos with the iPhone 11 Pro and compared them to the same shots from the iPhone XS, Google Pixel 3, and Samsung Galaxy S10. The iPhone 11 Pro photos were sharper, more vibrant, and more accurate than those of the competitors. In fact, the difference between the XS and the Pro was so significant, I felt like a dumbass for buying the XS based on the belief that its camera was better than the one on the iPhone X. It was, but by contrast, the iPhone 11 Pro camera feels like a completely new and amazing thing.
The biggest deal, to me, is Night mode. It’s mind-blowing, and it’s only available on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. Basically, Night Mode allows you to take photos in near darkness. The option is triggered automatically in the camera app, so you don’t have to bother remembering to turn it on. A little moon icon in the corner of the camera app appears and tells you how long the exposure will last, and then, when you take the photo, you’re given a little countdown that reminds you to keep the camera still. Even if you do wiggle a little, the iPhone will pick a keyframe for sharpness and fill in the details with a composite of additional frames. Given the darkness, you’d expect the finished result to be grainy or blurred, but it’s clear and sharp if a little tinted.
I compared Night mode to Google’s similar Night Shift feature on the Pixel 3, and for lack of a better cliché, the difference is like day and night. Apple’s new low light magic can snap useable photos in near darkness, and the results are dramatically different than the same photo from the Pixel 3 camera, which tended to over brighten photos taken in very dim environments creating an unnatural, washed-out look with inaccurate colors. In my tests, Night Mode makes the iPhone XS and Samsung Galaxy S10 cameras look like jokes in low light. I should reiterate, however, that Night mode is available on both the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro. Again, the addition of the telephoto camera and more optical zoom capabilities is what you get by going Pro.
The Telephoto camera does feel essential to me. Pressing and holding any of the zoom options in the camera app also brings up a wheel that lets you toggle between a bunch of different focal lengths for more precise zooming. This makes framing photos more intentional, but it’s evident that the Ultra Wide camera introduces some pretty weird distortion, some of which almost looks like a fish-eye lens produced them. I’d also point out that using the focus wheel itself could be smoother, as the sensitivity feels slightly off and it’s easy to notice when the app switches between the three cameras. Regardless, I can already tell that these new zoom options will change the way I take photos with my phone.
More than anything, though, the quality of photos taken with iPhone 11 Pro is supreme. Thanks to the new A13 Bionic processor, the phone takes computational photographic magic tricks to a new level. This is most apparent in the sharpness of the photos. Apple has mercifully fixed the smoothing issue that people complained about on the iPhone XS camera—the one that made details look super soft if you looked closely.
Meanwhile, the new iPhone handles difficult lighting situations, like literally shooting straight into the Sun, with remarkable results. Later this year, Apple says it will release a new feature called Deep Fusion that uses machine learning and neural networks to make photos even sharper and more lifelike. This will be available on both the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro which, again, are two very similar phones in terms of significant features.
You can probably see by now that I’m feeling conflicted about the little differences between the $700 iPhone 11 and the $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro. Based on my inventory, there are only five fundamental difference between the two devices. The third camera is one of them. Then, there’s the OLED display on the Pro versus the LCD on the 11—that’s two. The third is the dumb little fact that the iPhone 11 Pro comes with an 18-watt charging brick in the box, whereas you’ll have to pay $30 to get that for the cheaper iPhone 11. Fourth is the better battery life on the iPhone Pro. Battery life is better on all the devices, but Apple says there’s are four more hours of battery on the iPhone 11 Pro than on the iPhone XS. (Five for the iPhone 11 Pro Max.) We struggled to kill these devices in our battery tests. Our iPhone 11 Pro stayed alive well over an hour longer than what Apple’s specs state. Our iPhone 11 Pro Max last an additional hour and change.
The fifth thing is what gets me. It’s the design, and it is gorgeous. From the front, the iPhone 11 Pro looks just like the iPhone XS and the iPhone X before it. The notch is still there, and the bezels on the sides are still kind of big compared to, say, a Samsung Galaxy S10. However, the new Pro model is very slightly thicker and wider than its predecessors. The lock button is also slightly lower on the right side of the device, likely to accommodate the new camera bump. I’m tempted to call it a big bump, but it’s remarkable how well Apple has integrated it into the device’s design. In a way, it’s a smaller bump than what’s on my tired XS, because it doesn’t stick out as much. It blends into the glass on the back.
That matte back glass is also lovely as hell. It’s annoying how much I like it. The glossy glass back on my iPhone XS always seemed fine, and now I can’t believe how aggressively it attracts fingerprints. The iPhone 11 Pro, by contrast, has that silky smooth matte finish as well as a new oleophobic coating that keeps fingerprints at bay.
Apple also says that the new glass is the toughest glass it’s ever put in an iPhone. I learned all too quickly, however, that it’s still not all that tough. In less than a week, I managed to scuff up the front of our iPhone 11 Pro Max review unit. The scratches definitely came from a rivet on my jeans, the same rivet that has scratched the front of my iPhone XS and my Google Pixel 3. It’s an awfully aggressive rivet, but it still stinks that iPhone glass can scratch so easily. It’s also my fault for never using a screen protector. (They bug me!)
The more time I spent with the iPhone 11 Pro, the more I dreaded going back to my XS. The more time I spent with the iPhone 11, the more I wished I were using the iPhone 11 Pro. The cheaper iPhone 11 is excellent and offers almost all of the same features as the iPhone 11 Pro. The iPhone 11 Pro, however, looks and feels like the superior device that it is. That premium feeling will cost you at least 300 more dollars, but if you’re someone who really wants to own the best things, that feeling might be worth it.
If you’re someone who thinks that the new “pro” moniker on this iPhone means you can do your job better, you’re hallucinating. You do get that one extra camera on the iPhone 11 Pro, but there’s nothing specific to professional smartphoning going on here. Apple did have a demo that showed how the iPhone 11 Pro could record simultaneously on more than one camera, giving videographers the ability to get multiple shots with one device. This feature is also coming to the iPhone 11, XS, and XR. The iPhone 11 Pro is just the fanciest iPhone you can buy right now. Even if it doesn’t turn you into a Hollywood director overnight, you will feel good using the iPhone Pro. Apple is selling a feeling, after all.
The problem is, I’m kind of buying it. While I haven’t made up my mind about upgrading from my (scratched) iPhone XS, I’m sure I’d go for the iPhone 11 Pro if I did decide to get a new device. Cosmetic damage aside, I also don’t need a new device. But I want an iPhone 11 Pro. Even if you don’t want it, you’re going to have a hard time not loving it.
- Beautiful, if subtle, design upgrade
- Three camera array is handy if you love to zoom
- Night Mode is crazy good
- Most features also available on the much cheaper iPhone 11