This year I’ve written two iPhone reviews. This one has my testing results of the new iPhone 11 models. The other, found here, is an advice column for the many readers we’ve heard from who have older phones—I’m looking at you, iPhone Sixers!
One day, I’ll tell my grandchildren of a time before the iPhone 11.
I’ll regale them with stories of portable chargers the size of cinder blocks strapped to the backs of our phones. I’ll tell them how we scoured walls in search of power outlets. I’ll describe the panic that set in when the red empty-battery icon dipped below 5%.
In the scheme of iPhone upgrade history, the new iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max sure seem boring. Same designs…but new colors! Cameras…but three of them! Glass…but stronger?! After a week of testing, I can tell you that’s mostly just smoke-and-mirrors marketing, except for one thing many of us have wanted all along: phones that are a bit heavier and thicker—but work when we damn well need them to. Yes, longer battery life.
If you haven’t been following along, here’s the lineup, which arrives Friday:
• iPhone 11 ($699 and up): An upgrade to last year’s iPhone XR, it has a 6.1-inch screen that covers the whole front (no fingerprint sensor) and two cameras on the back. The LCD screen isn’t as nice as the OLED on the pricier models, but I promise you won’t even think about it.
• iPhone 11 Pro ($999 and up): The smallest of the bunch with a 5.8-inch OLED screen, it now has three cameras on the back.
• iPhone 11 Pro Max ($1,099 and up): Identical to the 11 Pro, save for a 6.5-inch screen.
Apple has been talking up these phones’ cameras, and it’s true: If you enjoy taking pictures, especially of kids or pets, they do have some great tricks. The wide-angle camera is sure to have people mistaking me for Ansel Adams. The newly added night mode, while a bit buggy, is an improvement over previous dimly lit, washed-out shots.
Now, as we review my key findings, promise me you’ll follow my annual advice: Regardless of what you’re upgrading from, choose which features matter to you most, and try to ignore Apple’s marketing machine.
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All Day, Every Day Battery
Last year, I upgraded to the iPhone XR purely for its all-day battery life. After my daily routine of quite-heavy phone use, I have about 5% to 10% still remaining by my 11:30 p.m. bedtime—with no extra charging during the day.
All three new iPhones met or exceeded that in my real-world use. However, my video streaming tests didn’t always show as big of a leap in battery life as my actual usage—nor as big as Apple’s battery-life claims. Battery testing is a tricky thing. Between screen-brightness settings and our countless app options, we all use our phones differently. Here are my notes on all three phones.
iPhone 11: In my full day using the 11 as my primary phone (email, a lot of Twitter and texting, phone calls, too much tapping through Instagram), I was left with a 15% charge by 11:30 p.m. The iPhone 11 streamed video on YouTube for 13 hours and 20 minutes—about 20 minutes longer than the XR. (Apple promises an extra hour of battery life.)
iPhone 11 Pro: With the 11 Pro as my primary phone, I was left with just under a 10% charge at 11 p.m. That’s far longer than I used to get with the X but not as long as with the 11. The 11 Pro streamed video on YouTube for 13 hours—three hours longer than the XS.
iPhone 11 Pro Max: On 11 Pro Max battery-testing day, I was left with a roughly 20% charge by lights out. I could go to sleep and wake up with enough juice to get me through the morning. Even after a grueling day of camera testing at the New York Renaissance Faire, it had 25% left, while the other two were in the dreaded 10% territory.
Why are the Pro phones lasting so much longer? The screen and processor are more power efficient, but they also have bigger batteries—part of the reason they’re a fraction of an ounce heavier and 0.02 inches thicker.
Miracles happen, my friends. After more than a decade of including the rinky-dink five-watt charging cube in the box, the Pros finally include faster 18-watt chargers. They went from zero to 50% in just 30 minutes.
Two Cameras or Three?
After snapping 1,000 photos in over a dozen settings with a bevy of smartphones—the new models, older iPhones and even some Android competitors—here’s my assessment of the new camera features.
Wide shots: How hard is it to just step back for a wider shot? That was my thought when I heard Apple was adding a wide-angle lens to the iPhones. I was wrong.
I found myself using the ultra-wide-angle lens on all three phones all the time. Landscapes look great but so do tighter shots—like one of my son standing in the hallway, which looked like the work of an artist, with minimal fisheye distortion.
Night mode: In low-light situations (a dark restaurant, a night flight), the camera automatically goes into night mode, indicated by a little yellow icon. Snap a photo and it prompts you to hold still for a few seconds. In the background, the camera system gathers multiple images and then forms a brighter, crisper shot than you’d get in regular shooting.
It feels like a magic trick, and I ended up taking pretty impressive illuminated shots. But the Google Pixel 3’s Night Sight mode produced low-light photos that were often even better.
I also learned two important things: to tell my subjects to freeze like mannequins, and to hold my breath so I don’t move during the pause. Movement can cause funky light streaks. That’s why I wish the feature were easier to disable. Plus, the new sensors in the wide-angle camera improve regular low-light shots, too. (Night mode and the camera app also froze from time to time—one of several iOS 13 bugs I encountered during my tests.)
Portrait mode: For the most part, portrait mode—where the phone artfully blurs the background—looks the same as it has for years. It doesn’t always blur edges perfectly, but it’s a nice option. On the iPhone 11 Pro, you now have a choice of shooting portrait mode with the wide or telephoto lenses.
On the basic iPhone 11, it’s only available on the standard wide-angle lens. But unlike the XR, the 11 now lets you shoot portrait mode with your favorite pet. I can confirm it works with dogs and birds alike.
Video: If you shoot a lot of video, you’ll notice improved stabilization. At the Renaissance Faire, I handed the iPhone 11 Pro Max and the older iPhone XS Max to a knight on horseback for a joust. Both shots are still bouncy, but the Pro’s footage is smoother and easier to watch.
Perhaps even more significant, you can finally switch lenses for shooting. Zooming in and out, from one lens to another, is smooth, but I did find the cameras sometimes struggled to quickly refocus.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
What were your initial thoughts about the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro, and has reading this review changed them? Join the conversation below.
Battery and camera weren’t the only iPhone 11 highlights, though they were certainly the biggest. I didn’t really test the added water and dust resistance, but I did discover one thing by accident: The supposedly more durable glass still isn’t scratch resistant. When I carried two iPhones together during a shoot, the cameras on one rubbed against the screen of another, causing some permanent scratches. Best advice: Don’t carry two iPhones at once.
As for your buying decision, with its price-to-feature ratio, the $700 iPhone 11 has the broadest appeal. However, there are far more choices than just these three phones, as I cover in my other column.
Last year’s XR is now a great value at $600. If you’re a photography nut and are OK spending over $1,000 for the absolute best, the Pros are there for you. Just don’t be mad when next year’s iPhones—potentially with 5G connectivity—blow them away.
Heck, you could also buy the Pro Max, just so you can tell your grandchildren about the iPhone that finally lasted more than a day on a single charge.
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