Apple iPhone 11 Review

CNet

When you first hear the names of Apple’s new iPhones — the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max — you may have some questions. Where’s the iPhone X? And what makes the iPhone Pro… Pro? What happened to last year’s XS and XS Max? This year’s new phones are polished sequels (literally and figuratively) to the three we got last year.

For some people the iPhone 11 just needs to be better than the XS. And it indeed is. But for others, it’s nice to know where Apple stands in the larger landscape of phones. There are wild 5G speeds on the horizon, plus bizarre and expensive foldable phones like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. And then there’s the more expensive $799 (£669, AU$1,049) Google Pixel 4, which actually makes the $699 (£729, AU$1,199) iPhone 11 look like an even better value.

Apple did a great job with new features, including some serious camera improvements like Night Mode for taking photos in dimly lit situations and Deep Fusion, a new way for the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro to process photos taken in situations where the lighting is bright enough for you to see, but nothing like being outside on a sunny day. 

But there’s a good reason why the company named its more expensive and fancier phones “Pro” this year: Price. Apple is smartly targeting the $699 iPhone 11 as the phone for most people, in the same mold as the iPhone XR ($599 at Apple) last year. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Essentially, the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro are 85% the exact same phone. If you want a dedicated telephoto camera with 2x optical zoom, different size options, a better screen and finish, you’re going to pay 30% more. That is not to say the $999 iPhone 11 Pro and $1,099 11 Pro Max aren’t great phones. It’s just that the iPhone 11 is actually that good. And that is why Apple’s “value” phone with its wonderful cameras, solid build (which survived CNET’s drop and water tests) and iOS 13.2 earns the iPhone 11 a CNET Editors’ Choice Award.

Still starts at 64GB

The $699 iPhone 11 model gets 64GB of storage, which is probably fine for many people — and it’s a $50 price drop from last year’s iPhone XR base model. 128GB for $749 probably makes more sense if you’re shooting any video and 256GB for $849 should only be a consideration if you’re shooting a lot of video. The Pro phones add a 512GB tier that you won’t need unless you’re shooting in 4K for a living. See the chart at the bottom of this review for complete pricing details, including UK and Australian prices.

Colors: iPhone 11 is the fun phone

For whatever reasons, Apple is still making the lower-priced iPhone 11, the one that comes in fun colors. There are two new colors, called green and purple, that are more like mint green and lavender. These new pastel colors replace the blue and coral options from last year.

I have the green iPhone 11. Its color is pleasant, and the aluminum case color is much closer to seamless with the glass color. The glossy glass back feels the same as last year’s XR. So does the rest of the phone — except for the dual cameras, which are raised up from the back and placed in a frosted glass camera square.

In contrast, the iPhone 11 Pro models all have metallic shades: silver, space gray, gold and a military-esque midnight green. The three cameras seem more industrial (maybe imposing). The back glass is matte, instead of glossy. They’re made of steel instead of aluminum. And the Pro phones feel significantly denser. They pack larger batteries, and the steel adds weight.

I like that the iPhone 11 follows in the footsteps of the iPhone XR and is the middle-size phone again with a 6.1-inch screen — compared with the two iPhone Pro models at 5.8 inches and 6.5 inches. I’ve come to favor the smaller iPhone 11 Pro, like the iPhone XS last year.

Cameras

Over the past few years, Apple has made impressive strides in camera quality, but so have many other phone makers like Samsung, Huawei and Google. The camera arms race is something that hard-core photographers study closely, but I’d argue it’s gone way past what most people need. The iPhone 11 cameras are some of the best for photos and video capture that you can buy today.

The 11 comes with a new ultrawide-angle camera, Night Mode for low-light photography, Deep Fusion processing for better indoor shots, faster autofocus and overall sharper images with more accurate color reproduction. For a more in-depth look at the camera differences between this year’s iPhone and last year’s, read our iPhone camera comparison between the iPhone 11 with Deep Fusion and the iPhone XR. The ultrawide offers a radical change in perspective that can be dizzyingly unique visually. This won’t become your go-to camera, but it’s just a blast to use.

More stabilized video, and better overall video

I already loved the iPhone’s video functions. I shot some test footage on the new phones, and was curious about the extra processing stabilization. The iPhone X and XS were already good enough for me to walk around and shoot Apple’s event demo room. The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro do it better, but I found the wide camera was a bit smoother than the ultrawide one.

The video doesn’t use Night Mode, but videos did look better in darker spaces. Still, video in seriously dark places comes out darker than photos (even without Night Mode). We used some video footage in our review video, check it out.

Slow-mo selfies and the wider selfie cam

The wider-angled front-facing camera is welcome. It can digitally zoom in or out to accommodate a wider view that includes more people and background. The 12-megapixel front-facing camera looks better and I was happy with the results, but you have to be artful with the wider camera. Sometimes I ended up looking like a little face in a mountain of shirt.

Speed, yes, but really, battery life

After conducting our formal battery tests and living with the iPhone 11 for over a month, we found the battery life is about the same as last year’s iPhone XR. In our streaming video tests the iPhone 11 lasted 13 hours and 52 minutes compared with the iPhone XR’s time of 12 hours and 7 minutes in the same test. In daily use, the iPhone 11 has been lasting about a day and a half.

The A13 processor and RAM are the same on all the new iPhone models (4GB RAM, and a seemingly equally fast processor by benchmarks). It’s a bit faster in single tasking, and a bigger leap in multitasking. Graphics performance, in theory, looks great, coming closer to last year’s iPad Pro.

Some other things to note

The LCD display is the same as last year, and it’s totally fine. Apple’s imposing-sounding Super Retina XDR display on the iPhone 11 Pro models is technically higher-res, more vivid and brighter than the iPhone 11’s display. But when you compare them side by side, most people (including me) are hard-pressed to find a difference. Apple does a great job with its LCD Liquid Retina display in the iPhone 11. It doesn’t feel like a compromise except when looking at dark images with subtle light details. Oh, and the notch is exactly the same as before. I’d rather it weren’t, but at least I’m used to it now.

A U1 chip with spatial awareness

Ultrawideband (UWB) is a technology that can offer location features more accurate than Bluetooth. This year’s iPhones have a new U1 chip that could come to other devices or even rumored Apple location tags later this year. Apple promises that with the U1 chip, AirDrop will now work more precisely by pointing one iPhone 11 toward another iPhone 11. It could also improve AR by locating beacons in a space. The U1 features aren’t coming until Sept. 30 with iOS 13.1, so we’ll check back then.

Choose the even-less-expensive XR?

The iPhone XR, the direct ancestor of the iPhone 11, now sells for $100 less, starting at $599. If you’re not interested in a wide-angle camera or night photos, I’d say go with that. If you got the XR last year, the iPhone 11 definitely isn’t enough of a reason to upgrade. 

What does Pro do for you?

If you couldn’t tell, I think the standard iPhone 11 has everything you’d need for the price, except for that telephoto lens. Whether or not that extra camera lens, an extra boost of battery life, a more vivid OLED display and a stainless-steel body add up to a worthwhile $300 upgrade depends on how much you value those features.