By Jason Snell
September 29, 2019 4:00 PM PT
iPhone 11 review: It’s one louder, isn’t it?
We all like to remember the huge leaps forward, but much of the progress Apple makes is incremental. Even when the devices come in the same wrapper, new technologies are being added on the inside. That’s especially important to keep in mind in a year such as this, where all of Apple’s new iPhones are incremental updates to old models.
If you’re using an iPhone 8 or earlier, these new models will bring with them all the new features Apple has added to the product line since the iPhone X in 2017. The upgrade is a bit less dramatic if you’re coming from an iPhone X-class model, since externally these models are dead ringers for the iPhone X/XS (iPhone 11 Pro), iPhone XS Max (iPhone 11 Pro Max), and iPhone XR (iPhone 11).
You’ve got to hand it to Apple—the most notable incremental improvements Apple has made to these models might be in the two most important features to smartphone users. First there’s battery life, and in the iPhone Pro models Apple has made an especially surprising leap. Then there are the cameras, because our phones are now the primary way we visually document our lives.
So yes, these are iPhones very much like ones we’ve seen before. But in true Apple fashion, they’re also improved—and in the best ways.
The new default
Before we get to the features of these products, let’s consider how they’re marketed and sold. In fact, perhaps the most notable feature of the iPhone 11 product line isn’t the products themselves, but how they’re arranged.
The $1,000-plus phones that were front and center in 2017 and 2018 are still there, but they’re now properly marketed as what they are—high-end “pro” models with more features at an extra cost. Nestled in the sweetest spot of the price list is the iPhone 11, no adjectives required—the successor to the iPhone XR, but $50 cheaper than that model. The perception that “the new iPhone costs $1000” is no longer true. After two years with the iPhone 8 and iPhone XR as low-cost alternatives to the real iPhone, the iPhone 11 is the new iPhone, it costs $699, and it’s not a compromise or last year’s model repackaged.
I realize that those of you who are reading this tend to buy new iPhones more frequently than the general public and are more likely to buy an iPhone Pro or an iPhone Pro Max, but it feels important that Apple is placing the iPhone 11 at the center of its product line. The 6.1-inch screen is larger than I’m used to, but a decade of smartphone sales have made it pretty clear that people prefer larger screens. For those who have more specific tastes—whether it’s for a larger or smaller screen, the higher quality of OLED, or a third zoom camera—Apple provides more options at a premium price.
My daughter just started college, and she’s taken her very first new iPhone with her. It’s a purple iPhone 11, and she loves it. It’s not a hand-me-down or last year’s model for a cut-rate price, it’s this year’s iPhone, and while there might be more expensive options, this one is the default, not a compromise.
Let’s also consider the narrative about Apple trying to goose iPhone revenue in an era where sales are flat by raising prices. Yes, the top of the iPhone price list is the most expensive that it’s ever been. But with the iPhone 11, Apple has cut $50 off the starting price of last year’s iPhone XR. (Granted, this is the same starting price as the iPhone 8 in 2017, and it’s $50 more than the iPhone 7 was in 2016.) Still, I wasn’t expecting Apple to cut the starting price of any iPhone ever again, and here we are.
Behold the camera bump
When Apple unveiled the iPhone 11 Pro on September 10, the very first image displayed was a beauty shot of the camera bump on the back side. Yes, it’s distinctive looking—some are even creeped out by it—but it’s hardly the device’s most attractive feature.
The choice speaks volumes—both about how important cameras are to iPhone users and about what Apple considers the most important new feature on the new iPhones. It’s all about the cameras. Betting on improving the photography experience in a smartphone is the safest bet in the technology world.
I use the phrase “the photography experience” because these days, competition in smartphone photography goes way beyond upgrading camera hardware. Still, it all starts with the cameras. Apple has added an “ultrawide” camera to all models, meaning the iPhone 11 now has two and the iPhone 11 Pro has three.
For the iPhone 11, while it’s a bummer that there’s no telephoto lens—it’s the feature I missed most from the iPhone XS when I was using the iPhone XR—it does mean that this phone can do “real” portrait mode for rear-camera shots, if any version of Apple’s algorithmically generated fake bokeh effect can be considered “real.” On the iPhone XR, which lacked a second camera, Apple had to use machine-learning to make a guess about the person (and it was always a person, that’s all the machine-learning algorithm was trained on) who was the subject of the shot, and then make its best guess in applying a blur effect to everything else. 1
Having a second camera means that the iPhone 11 can generate a proper depth map based on the parallax between the two cameras, and as a result it can take portraits of just about anything, not just people—in other words, the depth effect of the iPhone X and iPhone XS is also available on the iPhone 11. (The iPhone 11 Pro, on the other hand, now gets to shoot portrait mode with either the 1x “wide” camera or the 2x “telephoto”, when it was previously constrained to just the 2x camera.)
With two cameras on one model and three on the others, Apple has invested some effort in making the iPhone feel like a device with a single lens, rather than two or three different ones. Zooming on video, for example, will hand off from one camera to another, with software there to smooth over the discontinuity. (Sort of. In my test shots, you can very clearly see the moment where the software switches between cameras, as details change and colors slightly shift.)
My favorite example of this multiple-cameras-in-one approach is a new feature that captures stills or video from both the camera you’re currently using, as well as the camera that’s wider than that one. This is turned on by default for video, but not for stills, which I find an odd decision. The idea here is that if you end up missing something that’s just outside the frame, you can re-crop your video or still to reveal what’s outside the frame, because it was captured by the wider angle. Apple’s also applying some machine learning to videos and stills to automatically make such adjustments.
The result is a sort of bad-shot insurance, which is a great idea. It does take up extra room on your phone, though the extra data from shots that you don’t edit is discarded after 30 days. In practice, you’ll want to frame all your shots perfectly rather than relying on Apple to stitch in data from a different camera in an attempt to retrieve lost data—but of course, in reality we all make mistakes and miss interesting shots and this feature gives you a sort of do-over. It’s a good idea, and it’s not hard to imagine that the future of phone photography will be multiple cameras, all shooting simultaneously at full resolution at all times, allowing you to reframe shots and even travel slightly forward or backward in time to get just the right moment. Our “photos” are already usually single images generated by the processing of multiple exposures—that’s how Apple’s own Smart HDR works, for example—and that approach will continue to become more sophisticated as the technology advances.
Speaking of how the hardware can drive the software when it comes to photography, the wide camera on all these phones has a new 12-megapixel sensor that has 100 percent focus pixels. These are pixels on the camera’s sensor that are devoted to gathering information about the light coming into the sensor, rather than capturing image data themselves. Apple has been amping up the percentage of these on its sensors for a while now, but that “100 percent” figure implies a full saturation. The focus pixels help enable the Camera app’s new night mode, which uses a combination of machine learning and long exposures to generate images in dark conditions that would otherwise render nothing but grainy, blurry messes.
Apple nailed this feature. Yes, as with anything in photography, it’s all about the conditions and what you’re trying to accomplish. But if you want to take a picture of a loved one in a dim restaurant or walking around in twilight, you will be impressed with the results. I found that night mode shots consistently revealed details that my own human eyes didn’t resolve when I took the picture. One night, I was walking down a street in my hometown and I took a shot across the street of a house, a driveway, a tree, and a car. Sure enough, the night mode photo rendered it all in stunning clarity, especially when compared to the same shot taking from the iPhone XS.
But what was truly stunning was the sky. I hadn’t noticed that it was a clear night, and there was enough light around that any stars in the sky weren’t readily apparent, but the resulting night mode shot revealed a clear, starry sky.
Apple was a little behind its competition in adding a low-light feature like this, but this implementation is the best I’ve seen. It comes on automatically, but you can adjust the duration of image capture, and a very clever “image fading in” effect provides you clear feedback that you need to keep holding still while capturing the shot. The iPhone’s sensors even detect how shaky your grip is so that it can make a guess about what it’ll need to do in order to capture the best image. (And if you put your phone on a tripod, you can take shots up to 28 seconds in length.) If you find yourself frequently struggling with taking pictures in low-light, this feature alone justifies the upgrade to these new models.
There are so many camera features new to the iPhone 11 that I can’t really give them all their due, but I will point out that these phones are capable of generating 4k video at 60 frames per second with extended dynamic range, so that shadow details and highlights are visible in the same shot. In the iPhone XS, this was possible only at 30 frames per second, because of the method Apple uses to enhance dynamic range: it captures two bracketed frames, one darker and one lighter, and then merges them into a single bracketed frame. I will point out, again, how staggering it is that those devices had the power to shoot 4k video at 60 frames per second, and merge one of those frame pairs every thirtieth of a second.
Welp. The iPhone 11s can do extended dynamic range at 60 frames per second for 4k video, meaning that behind the scenes, they’re capturing 120 frames and merging them together.
I also need to mention again that these phones are capable of shooting full-quality video from two cameras at once. You see this when it’s capturing from the wider camera to provide you with the ability to crop outside the frame of what you shot, yes, but third-party apps also have access to this feature, and there’s no time limit on it. So a director or documentarian could roll 4k video on two lenses at once (using third-party software, not the Camera app) or even shoot with the (4K!) selfie camera to provide a reverse shot of an interviewer without any extra hardware.
Finally, let’s consider the camera bump design itself. At this point in the evolution of smartphone hardware, it’s impossible to disguise the fact that you’ve got a cluster of sensors and flash LEDs on the back of your device. As with the notch on the front of its phone screens, Apple has decided to embrace and emphasize it rather than halfheartedly attempt to minimize it. The glass back of these phones (Apple will proudly point out they’re made from a single piece of glass, camera bump included) has even been textured to highlight the bump. On the iPhone 11, the back is glossy and the bump is matte; the reverse is true on the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max. It’s a small thing, but I think it shows that if there’s going to be an enormous sensor housing on the back of every iPhone, Apple’s going to put it front and center and show it off.
A dead phone is the worst feature
Your phone’s no good if it runs out of battery. And there’s nothing worse than spending mental energy strategizing how you’re going to get through a day with your phone—when to charge, when to use Low Power Mode, or maybe you should invest in an external battery pack? You shouldn’t need to worry like that. It’s no way to live.
Over the years Apple has been pretty aggressive with its iPhone battery-life targets, by which I mean that it’s been content to offer phones with arguably bad battery life in order to keep them thin and light. At any point over the years, Apple could’ve given back a few millimeters and ounces and created a chunky iPhone with legitimate all-day battery life. It has always declined.
Not this year. The iPhone 11 Pro is thicker and heavier than its predecessors, although I found the change in dimensions and weight to be utterly un-noticeable in my hand and pocket. It’s no coincidence that this year both models took their biggest steps forward in terms of battery life ever, by four (Pro) and five (Pro Max) hours. (The iPhone 11 only offers an hour more battery life than the iPhone XR, but that model offered Apple’s best battery life ever.)
Apple likes to talk about the change, but here are the numbers it provides, for what it’s worth: up to 17 hours of video playback on the iPhone 11, 18 hours on the iPhone 11 Pro, and 20 hours on the iPhone 11 Pro Max. In reality, everyone uses their phones differently, but it’s a huge step forward regardless.
According to Apple, this improvement in battery life isn’t just due to a larger battery with improved battery chemistry. The new A13 Bionic processor has not just improved in terms of speed, but in terms of energy efficiency. The four low-power CPU cores, which are designed for more lightweight computing tasks, use 40 percent less power while running up to 20 percent faster. Even the energy-sucking high-performance cores, which kick into action when the iPhone needs some serious computing power, use 30 percent less power than those on the A12 while running 20 percent faster. Apple claims the GPU uses 40 percent less power, and the eight-core Neural Engine uses 15 percent less.
The Super Retina XDR display on the iPhone Pro models is 15 percent more power efficient than the iPhone XS display. And Apple also will sometimes swap out the parts it used on previous models for newer parts that don’t offer any improvements in terms of speed or functionality, if they’re more power efficient.
In other words, yes, the battery is bigger—but that’s not the whole story. Perhaps this is a development that was going to happen regardless, but it does seem that after all the discussion and debate about the life and efficiency of iPhone batteries a few years back, perhaps Apple decided to take it as a challenge to focus even more on battery life. Regardless of why it happened, though, the result is the longest battery life of any iPhone, by a long shot.
Lapping the field
It’s a funny era we’re in. I could tell you more about Apple’s A13 Bionic processor, which powers all three of the new iPhones. It’s faster than the A12, yes. It’s more energy efficient, which explains some of the improved battery life in this generation. Apple has continued to iterate on its recent processor designs, which mix two high-performance processor cores with four power-efficient cores and an Apple-designed GPU.
If you’re coming from an iPhone that’s a few years old, you’ll notice the additional processing power—not only in regular use, but from the features enabled by that power (like all the improved photography features I described earlier). If you’re coming from last year’s models, will you notice? Probably not. And that’s okay.
Apple has lapped the field when it comes to processor design. The latest Android phones, running on the latest Qualcomm processors, are still slower than last year’s iPhones, which ran the A12 Bionic. With the A13, Apple has pushed the ball forward again. If you buy an iPhone you can be confident that you’re buying the most powerful smartphone on the planet—until next year’s iPhone takes the crown, of course.
There’s a lot more
There are many more upgrades in these phones that I can’t dig into in depth for this article, but are worth mentioning. First among them is the U1 chip, which merits a name and a mention on Apple’s marketing pages but wasn’t mentioned on stage when the phones were introduced. This is probably because Apple is planning a new accessory that works with the U1 chip, and that accessory hasn’t been announced yet.
In any event, the U1 chip makes the iPhone 11 family the first smartphones with support for Ultra Wideband, a technology that shows an enormous amount of promise for precision location, AR, smart home tech, and even keyless entry for cars.
The iPhone 11 also has longer Bluetooth range, as I discovered by wandering away from my iPhone with my AirPods in (as I often do) and not experiencing the hiccups and breakups and disconnections that inevitably follow. Apparently, the expanded range is just enough to let me go get something out of the pantry in the garage while my iPhone’s sitting in the kitchen, and I appreciate that.
Apple tells me that the iPhone 11 Pro models support faster LTE, which is great, but it’s also worth noting that as 5G cellular technology is starting to arrive, these phones won’t work with it and next year’s probably will. Right now 5G is not much of a thing, but it will eventually become one and these phones will never be a part of that. I’m not sure a lack of 5G is a reason to hold off on buying an iPhone 11, but it’s worth noting if you’re someone who is concerned about your ability to connect to high-speed 5G networks in the future.
A couple features are also missing from these phones, most notably 3D Touch, which has been retired across the line with this update. (The iPhone XR never had it, but it’s been a mainstay in the iPhone line since the iPhone 6S.) Now it’s gone. I rarely used 3D Touch for anything but turning on the flashlight or camera from the lock screen or moving the text-insertion cursor around, so I can’t say that I will deeply miss it. The feature was so hard to discover that I doubt most users will, either. (The replacement, Haptic Touch, works by tapping and holding—and while it could be tweaked to be better, it’s an acceptable substitute.)
Then there’s two-way wireless charging, a feature that these iPhones do not have, but were rumored to have. There might or might not be hardware to support the theory that this was a feature that was disabled by Apple in software because it didn’t work to Apple’s satisfaction.
I have to admit, I never thought this feature was worth getting excited about. I roll my eyes at those Samsung ads where a friendly person at a cafe offers to charge another cafe patron’s phone by setting them back to back. Wireless charging is slow and inefficient. It would take a long time for a substantial transfer of power between devices. Yes, there are some edge cases where it might make sense, but in general this seems like a technology that has been rolled out in major smartphones not because it’s practical, but because it adds a check box to a feature list and enables some gauzy marketing video of happy cafe dwellers doing a smartphone mind-meld. It’s much ado about nothing.
What’s next for iPhone?
I sense a lot of malaise in coverage of smartphones these days. Incremental improvements are great, but are there no worlds left to conquer?
I think there are, but they’re going to be hard to conquer—which is why nobody has really conquered them yet. One of them is overall resilience of the physical device. Apple is trying, a little bit, with the iPhone… but it’s still got a long way to go.
The glass on the iPhone 11 models is, according to Apple, a newer formulation than last year’s models, and is the “strongest glass ever.” I accept and appreciate this information. It’s amazing what you can do with glass. I’m sure that if you dropped an iPhone 11 1000 times, and an iPhone XR 1000 times, you’d end up with dozens fewer broken phones with the new model.
That said… iPhones should break less. I know that there’s only so much you can do when you’re a glass slab living in a world where Newtonian physics applies. But if we’re looking for frontiers for phone development, a phone that doesn’t shatter when you drop it has to be high on the list.
Apple has gone a long way toward improving the water and dust resistance of the iPhone. It feels like if you get your phone wet or accidentally drop it in the pool or the toilet you stand a much better chance of whistling past the graveyard and pretending that it never happened. And yet, Apple still does not warrant the iPhone against water damage.
Current ads for the iPhone 11 Pro show the iPhone getting slammed with various items, submerged in a cake, and hit by a barrage of sprinklers. I get the theory—this iPhone is the toughest one yet—but the fact is, if some water from those sprinklers gets inside the iPhone and damages it, Apple won’t stand by the product. They’ll blame you, and you’ll be paying to fix it.
So there’s another place for Apple to push the iPhone: a device that’s water resistant enough for Apple to guarantee that if you take it in the pool with you, it won’t break. We’re not there yet, no matter what the ads say.
While we’re imagining future iPhones, I should mention that after spending a year with an iPad Pro and a house full of modern Mac laptops, the lightning connector now seems old and out of place. I am slowly collecting USB-C cords and adapters, but my iPhone requires different ones, and more than once I have brought a cable with me that turns out to have been the wrong one for the job. I applaud Apple including a robust USB-C charger in every iPhone 11 Pro box; the next step is to take the entire line to USB-C and call it a day.
These go to 11
As incremental upgrades go, the iPhone 11 family is pretty great. Focusing on cameras and battery life was the right call. Apple has lengthened its lead on the processor front while doing a good job of catching up to the state of the art in computational photography.
Most importantly, the iPhone 11 is a great mix of features at a very good price, and it’s now the default model in the iPhone family. That’s a decision that benefits Apple’s entire product line and properly places the iPhone 11 Pro models in context in terms of price and functionality. If you already have an iPhone X-class phone, you probably don’t need to upgrade this cycle. But if you’re desperate for a new iPhone that will give you more battery life or let you shoot better photos and video, this is the update for you.
Portrait mode is still portrait mode, so far as I can tell—there are often still weird failures that make the effect fall apart, but you can always turn the effect off after the fact or scale it way back. And sometimes it looks great. ↩
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