Does little to justify its expense over the iPhone 11
It’s the best iPhone ever made. Faster, more durable, longer lasting, and with a better camera than ever. But it doesn’t advance the state of the art in a way that justifies its price over the regular iPhone 11.
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If you were to ask people what they want in a new smartphone, they would probably say they want it to be fast, have a long-lasting battery, be nice and durable, and have a really awesome camera.
It just so happens that’s what you get with the iPhone 11 Pro. It’s also what you get with the iPhone 11, which costs $300 to $400 less than the Pro. The Pro is certainly an upgrade, but it doesn’t do a lot to justify its “Pro” moniker or very “Pro” price.
Still, the iPhone 11 Pro is a tremendous iPhone, with some noticeable (and not-so-noticeable) improvements over last year’s iPhone XS. As good as it is at what it does, it’s hard not to think Apple could have done more to justify the big price gap over the iPhone 11 and the “Pro” name that comes with it.
Note: This review refers to the iPhone 11 Pro as a single entity, though we tested both the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max. The only difference between the two phones is that the Max is larger and has a little bit longer battery life. It’s best to just think of the iPhone 11 Pro as a single product that comes in two sizes.
With each new iPhone, the camera gets better. It’s often the thing people notice and care about more than anything else. That’s true this year more than most—while the iPhone 11 Pro has other improvements over previous iPhones, that camera grabs people’s attention.
Apple’s high-end iPhones have had a wide and telephoto camera duo on the rear of the phone for a couple years now. The iPhone 11 Pro adds a third, ultra wide, camera. It is, in a word, fun.
Landscape photographers will enjoy it and you can get taller panorama photos, but I think even average everyday users will find themselves using ultra wide quite often. You can get more people in a shot without backing up, or capture that big statue or sculpture without having to stand so far away that people walk in front of you. The distorted perspective effect of a wide lens makes subjects look larger, which can create a real sense of scale. If a telephoto lens makes things intimate, a really wide angle lens makes them expansive.
But the iPhone 11, the “non-Pro” model, has this same camera. It’s the telephoto camera that distinguishes Pro from non-Pro, and honestly, it’s just not that big a deal. I found it far more useful to zoom out than to zoom in. The telephoto camera is better now, with a wider f/2.0 aperture that lets in a lot more light than the f/2.4 telephoto camera in the iPhone X and XS. You’ll get better shots in poor light and a nicer natural bokeh.
The existence of the telephoto lens permitted the iPhone XS to do something the iPhone XR could not: shoot portrait mode photos of any subject. Now that both models have an ultrawide lens, they both gain that capability. It’s nice to take portrait mode photos with the standard wide-angle lens (which you could not on the iPhone X or XS), but it’s just one more way the Pro fails to distinguish itself from the standard model.
Better sensors and a much more powerful A13 Bionic processor combine to produce much better photos than the iPhone XS, which was already one of the best cameras on a smartphone. Detail and dynamic range is improved, and color accuracy is really on point—this phone produces some of the most true-to-life colors of any smartphone I’ve seen, while even the best Android phones sometimes get a little aggressive with making the colors “pop” and sharpen things up with a post-processing filter.
The selfie camera is now 12 megapixels instead of 7, with a field of view 15 degrees wider (85 instead of the 70-degree field of view on previous iPhones). Both make a significant difference. You’ll get clearer and sharper shots in more conditions, and group selfies are easier than ever. I appreciate that it’s not so wide as to be unnaturally distorting. It’s not the front-facing equivalent of the ultra wide camera on the back.
This wider front camera is supposed to enable a wider field of view for Face ID, too. While Face ID is lightning fast on the iPhone 11 Pro, the expanded field of view is hardly noticeable. You still have to do that awkward lean if it’s flat on your desk.
When you hold the phone upright, it automatically crops down to the old 70-degree view. You can make it wider again with just a tap, and rotating to landscape mode automatically switches to the wider angle (you can narrow it with just a tap). The front camera can record 4K 60fps video now, and even slow-motion video (which Apple insists on calling “slofies” and will probably have its 15 minutes of fame and rarely be used again).
Finally, there’s Night mode. When this was introduced on the Google Pixel and followed on other Android phones, iPhone users were understandably upset that they didn’t have the same feature. Now, Apple has their own version of Night mode, and it’s done in a very Apple way.
When it’s dark enough to warrant its use, Night mode automatically engages, and will ask you to hold your phone still from one to three seconds while the screen brightens, as if developing a photo. The resulting photos are often full of grain and noise, but the same shots without Night mode are even worse, in addition to being so dark that you can’t see anything at all. Night mode shots are much brighter and more colorful, but not unnaturally so, as we’ve seen in many Android phones—it doesn’t turn night into day, it just captures a shot that looks like what your eye might see at night.
Get ready for social media to be bombarded by night mode shots, because it really is a fantastic feature that makes impossible shots possible.
It’s also entirely automatic, instead of a separate mode. And while you can disable it, you unfortunately can’t force it on. That feels like an oversight; I’ve already run into several situations where I think Night mode would have helped but it was just bright enough not to engage. Night mode doesn’t work on the ultra wide camera for some unknown reason, and it doesn’t work on any previous iPhone—I think Apple could certainly solve both shortcomings, if it wanted to.
As good as the iPhone 11’s camera is, it’s about to get better. An upcoming “Deep Fusion” technology will take the computational photography capabilities of the camera to a whole new level. Apple promises some of the sharpest, most accurate shots we’ve ever seen, a dramatic improvement over the current photo processing, which is already quite impressive. We don’t know exactly when this camera upgrade is coming, only that it is scheduled for this fall.
The best smartphone for video gets even better
The iPhone XS had plenty of competition for still photo quality, but its overall video quality was top of the heap. Since then, the best Android phones have perhaps taken the crown, but the improvements in the iPhone 11 should be enough to steal it back.
You can shoot up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second on the rear cameras while still benefitting from extended dynamic range and image stabilization—features that were only available up to 4K30 on last year’s models. Add in the ability to smoothly zoom in from ultrawide to telephoto and you’ve got a powerfully capable video device.
You can see small transitions when making the transition between the ultra wide, wide, and telephoto lenses, and each one has slightly different quality characteristics—they are different sensors with different lenses, after all. But Apple has done a very impressive job matching color and exposure as much as possible to create the smoothest transitions when switching cameras that I’ve ever seen.
Stealing a page from some of the latest Android phones, Apple has a new Audio Zoom feature. When you zoom in past 1x while recording video, background noise will be diminished and the audio will focus on your subject. It’s a really noticeable effect, especially when standing in a noisy environment like next to a street or a fountain, but it’s not so aggressive as to sound completely unnatural.
A better camera interface, too
The camera interface has been given some really thoughtful improvements.
Tap-and-hold on the shutter button and you’ll start recording a video rather than taking a series of photos in a burst. A swipe to one direction to lock video recording on, swipe the other to take that burst shot. I’ve needed to take a spontaneous video far more often than burst photos, and I think most users would appreciate this change.
The “dial” interface for smoothly zooming in and out is a much easier way to get precisely the right shot than pinch-to-zoom, too.
Now, features like changing the aspect ratio, choosing filters, and setting a timer are accessed in a features bar that appears when you swipe up on the camera modes and disappears when you swipe down. It’s a good place for this stuff, and leaves plenty of room for future expansion without cluttering the interface.
It would be really nice to change video resolution and frame rate in the camera interface instead of the Settings app, but Apple still hasn’t gotten the memo on that.
When you’re shooting with the telephoto or wide angle lens, the black bars on the side of the main viewfinder show what would be captured by the next widest lens. It’s a nice way to quickly assess whether you should take a wider shot.
Frustratingly, all of these improvements, save the wider-angle preview, could easily be brought to prior generation iPhones. They should have been part of iOS 13, not exclusive to the iPhone 11.
The fastest phone money can buy
Apple’s A-series processors are second to none. The A12 Bionic in last year’s iPhone XR and XS was the overall fastest mobile CPU on any smartphone, and had nearly the fastest GPU. This year, Apple says it has made significant improvements in the A13.
According to Apple, the new A13 Bionic uses TSMC’s new second-generation 7nm process, which improves energy efficiency and allows for higher clock speeds. The results are impressive. According to Apple, pretty much every part of the A13 is 20 percent faster than before: the CPU (high power and high efficiency cores), the GPU, and the Neural Engine. In addition, there are new machine learning accelerators in the CPU—separate from the Neural Engine—that perform matrix multiplication operations six times faster.
Power efficiency is improved, too. Apple says the Neural engine uses 15 percent less power, the big CPU cores use 30 percent less power, the little high-efficiency CPU cores use 40 percent less power, and so does the GPU. There’s a catch, though. Apple says these power improvements are, “for those applications and tasks that don’t need more performance than the A12.” In other words, the GPU uses 40 percent less power when running at the same speed as the GPU in the A12—when it clocks up to run 20 percent faster, that power savings is reduced or lost.
No matter how you slice it, this is a crazy-fast and very efficient mobile processor. Benchmarks aren’t the be-all and end-all of performance measurement, but they’re a good way to run the same exact tasks in the same exact way on different hardware. So let’s take a look at a few.
In the new Geekbench 5 test, the single-core performance of the A13 is about 20 percent higher than the A12, which was 20 percent faster than the A11. Where multi-core performance took a 16 percent leap from the A11 to the A12, this year it takes a 30 percent improvement in the A13. Compute performance keeps climbing by 40 percent year-on-year.
No other phone is even close to these numbers.
3D graphics performance takes a big leap in the iPhone 11 (perfect for those Apple Arcade games). In the 3DMark Sling Shot tests, the A12 didn’t improve performance over the A11—we theorized that it might be hitting a memory bandwidth bottleneck. Whatever the reason, the A13 is now much faster in this strenuous test—we’re talking 50 to 60 percent!
In the older Ice Storm Unlimited test, which is a better representation of simpler 3D games, the A12 was 17 percent faster than the A11, and the A13 is almost 30 percent faster than the A12.
Apple said the A13 has the “fastest GPU ever in a smartphone” (although it also said the A12 “still leads the pack,” which just isn’t true). While the A13 is not quite the fastest in the Sling Shot Extreme test, it is faster than any other mobile processor in Sling Shot Extreme Unlimited, and it’s dramatically faster in the Ice Storm Unlimited test. It’s difficult to compare performance between such different platforms as iOS and Android, but as far as we can tell, Apple is right: the fastest GPU in a phone is the A13 Bionic.
One tough area for smartphones is sustained performance—the processors are very fast during short bursts of activity, but when they run flat-out for a long time they get hot and start to slow down. Apple says improved thermal design on the iPhone 11 Pro and improvement in the A13 design give these phones much better sustained performance than previous iPhones. It’s a tough thing to measure, but my anecdotal impression is that it’s true. You can play high-end games for an hour, and while the phone definitely warms up, it doesn’t get as hot as prior iPhones did, and performance maintains its extremely high levels throughout.
Every year, Apple sets the bar for mobile system-on-chip design, and it’s safe to say they’ve done it again with the A13 Bionic.
Tremendous battery life
The iPhone 11 Pro is slightly thicker and heavier than the iPhone XS (you won’t really notice), and all that space seems taken up by a bigger battery. There’s also a more efficient OLED display and better battery-saving features in the A13 processor.
Apple says that together, it all adds up to an extra four hours of battery life in the iPhone 11 Pro, compared to the iPhone XS. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is supposed to go five hours longer than the iPhone XS Max.
We can’t really replicate whatever real-world usage scenarios Apple concocts to come up with those figures, but the iPhone 11 Pro is a certifiable battery giant.
In our battery benchmark, where we run the Geekbench 4 battery test with the screen at a constant brightness of 200 nits, the iPhone 11 Pro lasted 37 percent longer than the iPhone XS—about an hour and a half more. The iPhone 11 Pro Max saw almost the same improvement, which works out to a nearly two-hour longer running time.
With the iPhone 11 Pro Max I have routinely gone for eight hours of screen-on time, without doing anything to the least bit conservative. In fact, much of that time has been spent playing games, which are notorious for running down your battery. That’s just phenomenal. You might be able to make your iPhone 11 Pro battery run out before the end of the day, but you’d have to try pretty hard.
While we’re on the subject of battery, we should note that the iPhone 11 Pro comes with an 18-watt USB-C charger in the box, and a Lightning-to-USB-C cable. This is, frankly, several years overdue. The regular iPhone 11 still comes with the 5-watt USB-A power adapter, which is a joke. There’s no reason the richest company in the world should be so cheap with a $700 phone.
Charging speed is quite good. Using the included 18-watt adapter, I charged a dead iPhone 11 Pro Max up to 32 percent in just 20 minutes, and about 50 percent in half an hour. One hour of charging brought me to 83 percent, but the charge rate starts to get pretty slow after that (as it does with nearly all rechargeable batteries).
A better display that sort of isn’t
One of the key improvements in the iPhone 11 Pro, one of its “pro” features, is supposed to be its display. An OLED display with the same resolution as last year’s iPhone XS, it is now both brighter and more energy efficient (at equivalent brightness).
Apple says that the display goes up to 800 nits during normal viewing, and 1,200 nits when viewing HDR content. Frankly, you won’t really be able to see it. Side-by-side with the iPhone XS Max, my iPhone 11 Pro Max doesn’t really look any different when viewing an HDR showcase like Blade Runner 2049. Both look gorgeous, but you have to really pixel-peek, holding both phones side-by-side, to see a difference.
In bright daylight it was a little easier to see that the iPhone 11 Pro’s display got brighter when doing normal tasks, but the difference isn’t so stark that you’ll suddenly be able to use your phone at the beach without shading it. If you weren’t holding it next to last year’s iPhone, you wouldn’t even notice the difference.
Apple has taken to marketing the iPhone 11 Pro’s display as “Super Retina XDR,” going so far as to claim it delivers the “experience” of its forthcoming Pro Display XDR. There’s no such thing as “extreme dynamic range” or XDR, it’s a made-up Apple marketing phrase, and the iPhone 11 Pro’s mobile display doesn’t come close to matching the 10-bit color or brightness of Apple’s new pro studio monitor.
None of which is to say that the iPhone 11 Pro doesn’t have an amazing mobile display. It does! It’s just barely better than the fantastic OLED display on last year’s iPhone XS.
Built to last (probably)
Most smartphones are fragile, which is why about 99 percent of them are stuffed into a case. The iPhone 11 Pro has a new frosted glass back made out of a single piece of glass, even the camera bump. Apple says this is the toughest glass in a smartphone, and the iPhone 11 Pro is the toughest iPhone ever.
We’re not about to smash a bunch of iPhones to put that to the test, but a lot of YouTubers who specialize in that sort of thing have. They unanimously praise the durability of the iPhone 11 Pro; it’s not indestructible by any means and you can definitely still shatter it with a particularly nasty drop or scratch it up in your bag, but it it appears to be a lot more difficult to cause serious damage than on any iPhone before. It’s also more waterproof than ever before: up to 30 minutes at a depth of 4 meters, which is better than most competing phones, too.
If you’re going to spend over $1,000 on a phone, it should be built to last. It should also look good, and while the iPhone 11 Pro doesn’t look a lot different than the iPhone XS from last year, there are a few minor changes worth note. The big square camera module on the back isn’t as much of an eyesore in person as it at first appears, and within a couple days you stop noticing it. The frosted glass gives the phone a matte finish that is preferable to the glossy, fingerprint-magnet finish of the iPhone XS. And the new fourth color, Midnight Green, is a fantastic addition.
What exactly makes this ‘Pro’?
There’s no doubt that the iPhone 11 Pro is the best iPhone Apple’s ever made. One expects that the similarly-priced models continue to get better from one year to the next. But what exactly makes this a “pro” phone?
Apple says the Pro features are Pro Design, Pro Performance, Pro Camera, and Pro Battery. That’s a bit of a stretch. The regular non-Pro iPhone 11’s performance is virtually identical. Its cameras (front and back) are every bit as good, it even has the ever-useful ultra wide camera, it just lacks the telephoto camera. Its battery life isn’t quite as long as the iPhone 11 Pro, but still excellent—“lasts an hour longer” isn’t the difference between pro and non-pro, if you ask me.
The difference is the design and the display, which is so marginally improved over last year’s model that you have to hold them side by side to notice the tiny differences in brightness, and even then you might be stumped. Apple also puts an 18-watt USB-C power adapter in the box with the 11 Pro, but it doesn’t get any credit for doing something it should have done years ago, and should do on the base iPhone 11, too.
Apple is unifying its branding in a way that makes sense to me. MacBook and MacBook Pro. iMac and iMac Pro. iPad and iPad Pro. Now iPhone and iPhone Pro. (Drop the “Max” name, Apple. Just call it the iPhone Pro and say it’s available in two sizes, as you do with the iPad. We get it.) It’s not that the name is bad, it’s that the product doesn’t yet fit it. There’s not enough to distinguish the vastly more expensive “Pro” models from the standard model.
You get a telephoto lens, an OLED display instead of LCD (it’s a really nice LCD, though…many people won’t care), and construction with stainless steel rather than aluminum around the edges along with a couple other cosmetic changes. That’s it. That’s what you pay $300 to $400 more for.
Why not replace the Lightning port on the Pro iPhone with a USB-C port, as with the iPad Pro? Why not include a 120Hz ProMotion display, another iPad Pro feature we’d love to see on iPhone? Why not support Apple Pencil, even if you’re not going to make a unique phone-sized one? Why not 5G support? While 5G isn’t really a thing just yet, it’s hard to look at a $1,000 phone launching at the end of 2019 without any 5G support at all and say “yeah, that makes sense, that’s a good long-term investment.”
The iPhone 11 Pro is the best iPhone, but it’s about 50 percent more expensive than the regular iPhone 11 and just not that much better. It’s hard to justify that price gap to most buyers.
Should you upgrade?
There’s a better iPhone every year, of that you can be certain. That doesn’t mean one should upgrade every year, of course. As is usually the case, those with an iPhone XR or XS should probably hang on to it for another year, while those with older phones will see a more dramatic improvement when they upgrade.
You can get almost all the important improvements of this year’s iPhones in the iPhone 11 for hundreds less than the iPhone 11 Pro. With the most important camera features no longer exclusive to the high-end model, and 3D Touch gone from all models, and an even larger price gap than ever before, we’re put in an awkward position. The iPhone 11 Pro is undoubtedly the best iPhone, and one of the best smartphones a person can buy, period. How can you not love the fastest, longest-lasting, most-durable, best-camera iPhone ever? Thus, it gets a very high rating.
At the same time, it doesn’t really break any new ground. It does everything the iPhone XS does better, and it adds features Android phones have flaunted for awhile (Night mode and ultrawide cameras), but it’s hardly the revolution the iPhone X was, and still doesn’t have any 5G capabilities. It’s difficult to recommend over the basic, non-Pro iPhone 11, which is very nearly as good and costs a third less. If Apple is going to continue the Pro branding and drastic price gap, it needs to do more to justify them both.
I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life - over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.