In a season filled with new phone releases like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and the Google Pixel 4, the new iPhone 11, 11 Pro and Pro Max impressed me early on. Apple packed its latest phones with a new ultrawide-angle camera, an A13 processor, Night Mode for photos, iOS 13 and one of the best all-around camera systems found on any phone today. In addition, the two pro models have improved battery life.
Over the past two months, I used the iPhone 11 as my daily driver and the 11 Pro as my work phone. During that time, CNET has also done in-depth tests dropping the phones, submerging them underwater and comparing their cameras to other phones. Here are my thoughts on both these phones over the course of my usage.
iOS 13: From buggy to stable
When I first got the phones the software felt rough. The camera app on the iPhone 11 Pro frequently froze and crashed. Screens didn’t always scale and rotate properly. After seven software updates, I’m running iOS 13.2.3 now and everything seems relatively stable.
That being said, there are a few things about iOS 13 that need some work. When I send someone a text in Messages, and put my phone down on the table, I inadvertently hit the Dictation button all the time. I’m right-handed and the microphone icon is at the bottom right of the Messages keyboard. This drives me nuts.
The home screen on iOS is also tedious. I wish there was more flexibility for organizing app icons to make them easier to reach. Samsung’s One UI changed the Galaxy phone interface to be simpler and more natural to use. In Samsung One UI app icons, popup windows and folders utilize the lower part of the screen. This makes the phone easier to use with one hand.
On the iPhone, app icons fill the home screen the same way you read a book: left-to-right, top-to-bottom. It would be wonderful if I could freely move icons to any part of the home screen. And if that’s not possible, just having an option to fill the screen from the bottom up would help with one-handed use.
Some of these issues are solved with the built-in feature known as Reachability, which slides the entire display down so that the top fills the bottom of the phone temporarily. The downside is that it requires an extra swipe before and after you open an app at the top of the screen. Allowing me to move app icons where I wanted would largely make Reachability unnecessary, at least on the home screen, and save me from having to perform extra swipes.
In iOS 13 on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, I also have the hardest time getting Select/Select All tool to appear for choosing text. I don’t know if this has to do with the lack of 3D Touch on the new iPhones or if it’s straight up a bug. But when I’m trying to select a word or a phrase, I can’t get the right tap pressure or duration to get the Select/Select All tool to popup. And sometimes when it does, the tool goes away too fast. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but it’s annoying.
Speaking of annoying, in iOS 13 when you create a new note in the Notes app, and type a sentence, it is automatically formatted as a title. I hate this because I just want to start typing the actual body of my note, especially when I’m making a list. In previous versions of iOS title formatting wasn’t on by default. Now there are probably people out there who would love to begin right at the title. I’m not them. If you’re a non “title” person like me, you can resolve this format anarchy by going into Settings > Notes > New Notes Start With and change it back to “body,” which lets you begin writing the actual body of your note.
Battery: iPhone 11 Pro battery life has really improved
On the inside, both phones are exactly the same. They have an A13 processor and the same amount of RAM even though Apple doesn’t share exactly how much. I didn’t notice any difference in performance between the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max.
But in terms of battery there are differences. In my use, the 11 Pro lasted longer on a charge than last year’s iPhone XS. I can typically go a day and a half between charges on the iPhone 11 Pro. And I can easily stretch that to two days with Low Battery mode. On the 11, I got a solid day of use out of it on a single charge. If I’m not using it heavily playing games or watching videos, it can last a day and a half. But if you want the best battery life, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is the way to go.
The new iPhones all have wireless charging and support fast charging, but only the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max comes with the 18W charger needed to use fast charging. It’s curious how something as mundane sounding as fast charging really changed my use patterns with my iPhone. I’ve gone from charging my phone overnight, to charging it over my lunch break with the fast charger. But it’s aggravating that the 11 doesn’t come with this charger and that if you want one, you’ll have to buy it separately. To make matters worse, Apple charges $29 for the 18W fast charger and $19 for the cable.
The iPhone 11 is an ideal phone for a photographer
When I first got the phones, I thought the new ultra-wide camera might be more of a gimmick. But I later became a fan of how it can show more of a scene in my frame. For example, I was at O’Hare airport in Chicago and wanted to take a photo of a dinosaur skeleton wearing a Bears jersey. I couldn’t get the whole dino in frame with the main camera, but when I switched to the ultra-wide angle camera the entire skeleton fit into my photo. (For the record, I am not a Bears fan.)
I also like how the ultra-wide angle camera challenges me creatively. I have to hold the phone differently to avoid getting my fingers in pictures. Also, the ridiculously wide field of view distorts shapes and forces me to find interesting ways to frame my subject. For example in the picture below of the Milwaukee Art Museum, I was able to find an angle that exaggerated the building’s curved lines to make them look even more dramatic.
The new phones also have, which is a new processing technique that makes photos taken under medium-to-low light sharper with less image noise. It offers improvements, albeit subtle ones, for photos taken indoors and with the Pro’s telephoto camera. Look at the pictures below of a pay phone I took in a dimly lit subway station. One is taken with the iPhone 11 equipped with Deep Fusion and the other with the iPhone XR. The iPhone 11 photo is sharper and has less image noise and less noise reduction blur. The best way to think about Deep Fusion is not to think about it and just let the iPhone do its thing.
When I first got the 11 and 11 Pro, I tested Night Mode out heavily. It’s absolutely impressive how it can seemingly see in the dark. I like that it just starts working. I don’t have to think about toggling on a button or changing a camera mode. While some might like having more control over Night Mode, I like just being able to take a photo. Check out the Night Mode photo below of the Chicago Water Tower.
The iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max have a third telephoto camera and the iPhone 11 does not. For the most part when I was using the 11, I didn’t miss having a dedicated telephoto camera. If I needed to punch-in on a photo, a 2x crop of a picture taken with the main camera worked fine. With the Pro models, it was nice being able to switch to the telephoto camera. And compared to the XS, the updated telephoto camera on the 11 Pro combined with Deep Fusion processing had better image quality. But having the telephoto camera on the pro models is a bit like the famous scene from This Is Spinal Tap when Nigel Tufnel explains how the dials on his amp go to 11. “If we need that extra push over the cliff, know what we do? 11. Exactly. One louder.”
The selfie camera is a welcomed upgrade. I can really notice the improvements when shooting videos. Colors, especially skin tones, look more flattering, objects and faces are sharper and have better contrast.
Video capture is one area Apple is consistently ahead of its competitors. Extended dynamic range, which is kind of like HDR for videos, now works across all 4K frame rates, meaning I can now record 4K video at 60 frames per second of a scene with really bright and really dark areas. It’s kind of amazing how Apple is able to get that kind of image quality off such a tiny image sensor. It’s also fun to be able to record video with that ultrawide-angle camera, especially the way camera movements become operatic in scope. Also, I like that I can finally change the video resolution and frame rate straight from the Camera app instead of having to dive into Settings.
One criticism, however, is that in low light, videos suffer from image noise and heavy noise reduction smear. Most other phones struggle with this though.
For more on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro cameras, check out our comparisons below:
Design: Durability and OLED vs LCD screens
I’m a monster and I don’t use phone cases. This means my phones take the full force of everything. Even after a few accidental drops, the iPhone 11 Pro doesn’t have any cracks, dents or fine scratches from keys and coins. However, there are two deep scratches on the screen and I’m not sure how I got them. I believe the iPhone 11’s camera bump may have rubbed up against the screen of my iPhone 11 Pro while inside my backpack.
Part of me knows that most people are not going be in this scenario with two phones scratching each other. But the other part of me sees the two scratches on my 11 Pro display and is exasperated. Lots of people put their phone in a bag. And even if they don’t have a second phone in the same bag, they probably have a lot of other things that might cause such deep scratches.
Alternatively, my iPhone 11 took a few spills to the pavement, but the screen and glass back still look like new. The only noticeable flaw is a tiny scratch on the aluminum band.
CNET editor Lexy Savvides put both the 11 and 11 Pro through a series of intense tests underwater and dropping them. Her phones fared much better than my 11 Pro. Check out her testing:
As for the screen, the OLED display on the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max has a higher resolution than the LCD screen on the iPhone 11. When I look at the phones side-by-side, the screen on the iPhone 11 Pro looks better than the iPhone 11. It’s brighter and I really enjoy watching videos and editing photos on it. That said, even side-by-side, the differences between the two screens can be hard to notice. The LCD screen on the iPhone 11 is no slouch. The colors are accurate and I never had any issues with it.
iPhone 11 vs. iPhone 11 Pro: Here’s which one should you get
The iPhone 11 Pro is absolutely the best iPhone ever made, but the iPhone 11 represents one of the best values for a flagship phone you can buy today. Despite the differences, the iPhone 11 is essentially 85% of an iPhone 11 Pro, but costs 30% less. That’s an amazing value and one of the reasons why the iPhone 11 received a CNET Editor’s Choice award.
For most people, including myself, the iPhone 11 is more than enough. I’d pay $50 more for the 11 to upgrade the storage from 64GB to 128GB. But here is the wrinkle: size. I love the size of the iPhone 11 Pro. It’s a bit smaller than the 11 and could be the reason to go Pro. It also works the other way around, too. If you want the biggest screen and longest battery life, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is there waiting to fill your pocket and empty your wallet.