iPhone 11: Help you decide

iPhone 11 Pro review: Nothing ‘Pro’ about it, just the best iPhone ever

Nothing about this phone justifies its ‘Pro’ designation, but it nails the fundamentals better than any iPhone ever.

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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.

iphone 11 pro benchmarks battery IDG

The battery life of last year’s iPhone XS was very good. This year’s iPhone 11 Pro is great.

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.

iphone 11 pro adapter Jason Cross/IDG

You finally get a decent charger in the box. Better late than never.

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.

iphone 11 pro hdr Jason Cross/IDG

Apple says the display is brighter for HDR content, but I had a real hard time seeing a difference. The iPhone XS Max is on top, iPhone 11 Pro Max on the bottom.

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.

iphone 11 pro sunlight Jason Cross/IDG

There’s a small difference in brightness in very bright daylight, but without a side-by-side comparison you wouldn’t notice. iPhone 11 Pro Max on the left, iPhone XS Max on the right.

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.

iphone 11 pro buttons Jason Cross/IDG

I’m not sure why the buttons and mute switch on the iPhone 11 Pro (right) are lower than the iPhone XS (left), but they are and it makes them easier to reach.

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.

iphone 11 pro cameras Jason Cross/IDG

That midnight green color is great, and the awkward camera array doesn’t seem so weird after a few days.

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.

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