An Objective iPhone 11 Pro Review: Huge Strides in Camera and Battery Life

The opinions on the new iPhone 11 Pro (and Pro Max) seem to vary wildly across the Internet so far, from ‘boring upgrade, no innovations’ to ‘most amazing iPhone ever’ and, as ever, the truth lies somewhere in between. While it’s true that there’s little here that’s new in the industry, what Apple has worked on have been the things users have been asking for most, namely an ever better camera system and better battery life. These two aspects have been so massively improved that they transform how I think of an iPhone in 2019. Here’s my iPhone 11 Pro review and to say I was impressed would be an understatement.

iPhone 11 Pro Review

Readers might know that I’m mainly an Android user, hence the ‘objective’ in the title here – the editor didn’t want a reviewer to be accused of being an Apple fanboy(!) Every year, I get the new iPhone flagship in for review, and every year I end up reluctantly returning it as I just can’t justify the £1000+ retail price. However… there are genuine highlights for the iPhone 11 Pro in imaging, in particular, that have changed my behaviour and I’m keeping this one (as part of my twin SIM, two phone set-up(!), along with a Google Pixel).

iPhone 11 Pro Review

Much has been made of the ‘tik-tok’ cycle at Apple, with a major release (tik) and then (often) a polish of that same design for the following year (tok). Most reviewers have rated the iPhone 11 Pro as – unexpectedly – another ‘tok’ (following the iPhone X ‘tic’ and the iPhone Xs ‘tok’) but I disagree. It’s true the basics (screen, design) boast only iterative improvements, but the single biggest features prized by users in 2019, in any phone, regardless of price point, are camera image quality and battery life. And both of these take a big step up in the iPhone 11 Pro. So, yes, it’s a ‘tic’ from me.

Even so, the traditional geek view of ‘iterative improvements’, as here on the Apple iPhone 11 Pro range, is that they’re underwhelming, but I beg to disagree again, since it’s all a question of perspective. It’s true that Apple is conservative in terms of features and components (chipsets excluded), but there’s a compound effect of year after year of ‘iterative improvements’ growing into phones which are substantially better, and (most significantly) with very few steps ‘back’ along the way. 

Apple has been improving the iPhone – obviously – since its launch in 2007, gradually building in and refining features and technology pioneered on other handsets in the Symbian, Windows and then Android worlds, including AMOLED screens, Qi charging, high end cameras, and stereo speakers, while keeping the best of Apple’s own ideas on the hardware front, not least the payment-grade Face ID system and the pioneering ‘Bionic’ processor series. 

Along the way, the only step back I can think of is the removal of the 3.5mm audio jack, something which still rankles for many people in 2019, but let’s not revisit that old complaint yet again! In contrast, Android phone manufacturers (I can think of several examples) keep on shooting themselves in the foot by removing features and reducing functionality in subsequent models (evidenced by jack removal – again – and replacing fast capacitive finger scanners with slower and less reliable in-screen versions).

Curiously, each iPhone flagship generation sees me having a favourite ‘size’ and for the 11 ‘Pro’ series it’s the standard, not the ‘Max’. Partly because it’s just about the most power – computing and especially imaging – in such a small package in the industry, partly because I still can’t get my head around the unwieldy ‘iPhone 11 Pro Max’ name. Everything in this review also applies to the ‘Max’ variant, except that the Max has (obviously) a slightly larger 6.5” display and has higher battery capacity, which I’ll come to below.

With both battery life and imaging getting a big boost for the ‘11 Pro’, they’ll each get their own section below – they deserve it.

iPhone 11 Pro Design

We’re talking heft here, but in a good way. The stainless steel chassis feels as if it means business, yet the 188g weight is not unmanageable. The 5.8” display, at 1125 by 2436 pixels, is nominally the same as on previous iPhones, but the 11 Pro’s has a new tech label: Super Retina XDR, with better contrast overall and the ability to pump out up to 1200 nits of brightness in some parts of HDR video playback. It’s made by Samsung and it’s right up there with the best displays in the phone world – Samsung’s own, for its flagships in the Android world (which I also have here for comparison).

iPhone 11 Pro

Things are all new on the back, with a new grippier, less fingerprint-prone matt finish on the glass – we’ve seen this on other phones, but it’s a great move. Even if most Pro users do opt to keep their £1200+ phones in a case 24/7! Shown here, of course, is the all-new ‘Midnight Green’ colour, almost militaristic and it looks as cool as the tech is inside.

iPhone 11 Pro rear - 'Midnight Green' is almost 'gun metal with a hint of green', but putting 'gun' in a phone colour title would just be way too provocative!
iPhone 11 Pro rear – ‘Midnight Green’ is almost ‘gun metal with a hint of green’, but putting ‘gun’ in a phone colour title would just be way too provocative!

(Talking of cases, Apple has moved all the side buttons down a couple of millimetres – this doesn’t sound a lot but it does mean that you can’t use your old ‘Xs’ cases even temporarily while your 11 Pro case is on order, since the button cutouts won’t line up.)

iPhone 11 Pro Camera

The biggest physical change (since the Xs) is the addition of an ‘ultra-wide’ lens, of course, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. A bigger deal for day to day photos is the improved Smart HDR system, now with ‘semantic rendering’. The Smart HDR already takes a batch of photos and merges them together to provide cleaner output with higher dynamic range, but this is now enhanced with intelligent recognition of different scene elements (sky, faces, shrubs, buildings, flowers, and so on), each of which is subtly enhanced in appropriate ways. 

iPhone 11 Pro
We all laughed a little when we saw the leaked renders, but in person the camera cluster looks functional and impressive, meaning business!

Similar ‘AI’ scene recognition systems on many competing Android phones aren’t as sophisticated, in my testing, though the Google Pixel 4 is just around the corner and this will I suspect have similar intelligence in terms of ‘knowing’ what you’re shooting at and adjusting details and enhancements as needed. But the iPhone 11 Pro is arguably ahead right at this moment.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so here are photo samples, from all three lenses. It’s important to note another genuine innovation here – Apple syncs data from all three cameras, so that they all focus identically in real time and with the same white balance applied. In practice, this means that you can zoom in and out and you hardly notice differences in subject handling as the phone switches cameras. This is especially impressive when shooting video and makes it possible to move from lens to lens as needed (using a slide-out on-screen ‘analogue’ zoom wheel) without jarring transitions – at least for consumer-shot video.

1x example photo
1x example photo, a nice easy scene in sunshine!
Zoomed shot, 2x
The same scene, but now at 2x with the telephoto lens, see a couple of images below for a 1:1 crop.
Wide angle shot, 0.5x
The same scene but with the new wide angle lens…
1:1 crop from the main lens shot...
1:1 crop from the main lens shot. There are some artefacts, but nothing too untoward.
Example panorama
Example panorama – iPhones have always done panoramas well, and the 11 Pro is no different. Stunning results at high resolution.
Interior example shot
Interior example shot – the iPhone manages to brighten up this church scene, quite a bit gloomier to the eye.
Interior example shot, 2x zoomed
Interior example shot, 2x zoomed, the iPhone 11 Pro does a good job on all that stained glass detail…
Example photo, 1x
Another sample photo, taken in a HDR setting, with bright highlights and shadowy detail – the image is stunning.
Example wide angle photo, 0.5x
And, because it’s new to the iPhone, here’s the wide angle shot, as is. A bit of a fish eye effect, but that’s normal for wide angle lenses. A software option to try and correct the verticals would have been nice though, Apple?
Example low light shot
Example low light shot, appearing as it did to the human eye, with only the main pub name blown out. A very creditable photo, using a degree of Apple’s new Night mode.
Example night time shot
Shot at dead of night and it was WAY darker than the shot makes it seem. Apple’s new Night mode showing what it can do, though note that you can swipe down on the timer if you don’t want the Night mode long exposure effects.

I’ve shot everything in 4:3, the default, but note that you can now shoot in 16:9 or square aspect ratios if you prefer – this option is apparently an iPhone 11 exclusive, oddly.

The camera UI has been tweaked for the iPhone 11 series to (optionally) show part of the scope of the ultra-wide angle shot behind translucent controls when you’re actually intending to use the main lens. Which is super cool and you have to wonder why no one else has thought of this yet. 

Note the translucent 'wide' preview as part of the UI

Even better, having taken a standard shot, if you accidentally chop something out of the frame and wish, after the fact, that you had taken a wider angle photo, you can multi-touch ‘out’ inside the Photos ‘Edit’ cropping UI and – magically – information from a ‘behind the scenes’ wide-angle shot is spliced in around your main shot. When this works – and saves the day – you’ll punch your air in triumph.

Screenshots, photo editing
Turning on the ‘Capture outside’ setting and (right) oops, I’ve chopped off the end of the church!
Screenshots, photo editing
So it’s into ‘Edit’ mode and then on the cropping tool. On the right here, I’ve used multi-touch pinch to bring in detail from the ‘behind the scenes’ wide angle shot.

I guarantee it! ‘Photos capture outside the frame’ is an optional feature that’s not on by default, so go dig it out and enable it!

As you saw above in the photo examples, Apple now has a true Night mode, i.e. taking multiple shots while handheld in low light to composite a mocked up long exposure, working more or less as it has on competing Android phones for the last few years, though Apple should take credit for it a) working more realistically (i.e. it often mimics what your own eyes can see, after they’ve adjusted to conditions, rather than going all hyper-real), and b) for Night mode coming on automatically when needed, rather than a user having to manually stop, think, and activate a special mode. 

There’s a subtle indicator in the UI, with a bottom-left control that turns yellow (from white) in low light to indicate that Night mode is possibly going to being employed. It’s a bit of a cr*pshoot as to whether it’s actually going to trigger though. You have to trust Apple, mash the shutter button and… hope! It (usually) ‘just works’, though. In very dark conditions, where you actually want a dark photo, it’s also possible to turn Night mode off by dragging the right hand side slider down to ‘zero’. But – again, just trust Apple, they have teams of people calculating when all this is really needed.

Screenshot, Night mode

Video is even better – here’s a video sample, showing footage from all three of the iPhone 11 Pro’s lenses, and especially the silky smooth transition between lenses, with no jarring changes in focus or white balance. There’s even a slide-out zoom wheel in the UI, letting you zoom from 0.5x to 10x in ‘analogue’ fashion (in the 1080p mode tested), beautifully moving from lens to lens.

All the iPhone 11 Pro cameras shoot video at up to 4K/60fps, though if you want to move between lenses while shooting then you have to drop down slightly to 4K/30fps. The front camera now shoots at 12MP and at 4K/60 fps, with a slow-motion option that I won’t dignify with commentary here. ‘Slofies’, apparently. Give me strength….(!)

General selfies look great, with improved algorithms and HDR processing. No complaints here.

Example selfie!

iOS 13 out of the box

As per usual, the major new version of iOS (covered elsewhere on Android Beat) has been released a few days before general availability of the new phones, which ship with it out of the box. I won’t go over all that’s new in iOS 13, but the system-wide (optional) Dark Mode is a huge step forward for Apple (again mimicking other OS from the past) in getting good power savings from its AMOLED screens. It also looks uniformly gorgeous, especially out and about at night, where your eyes are saved from blinding white that ruins your human ‘night sight’! Dark Mode can be set manually or it can be set to turn on automatically at sunset, with controls/toggles available in the Settings app and also in Control Center. 

Photos also got a complete overhaul for iOS 13 with a new tab that curates your library and shows you a selection of highlights organized by time, plus a new photo editing interface with more powerful tweaking tools. You can also now edit video in Photos directly, at least the basics: cropping, straightening, applying filters, adjusting colour, etc. 

At the time of writing this review, iOS 13.0 on the phone had several day to day bugs, not least freezes in the camera viewfinder, but iOS 13.1 is imminent and I’m sure Apple will make sure their flagship is stable again in very short order.

Spatial audio

Media playback is something that we all enjoy on phones, with Apple rolling up support for Dolby 5.1, 7.1 and Atmos sound into this generic term ‘Spatial Audio’. Which is fair enough, general consumers only need to know that the speakers in their phone support all the different audio codecs and optimisations that they’ll come across.

Certainly, playing back Netflix movies and YouTube music videos have never sounded so good on the iPhone. Given that the sound comes from an earpiece speaker and a port on the bottom of the phone, the illusion of balanced front-facing speakers is impressive. The sound is pretty loud and there’s even some bass. Maybe not the absolute ‘best’ speakers in the phone world, but certainly very good.

3D what?

When Apple introduced the idea of the pressure-sensing 3D Touch, for the iPhone 6s range in 2015, I was very skeptical. A new UI paradigm that added 20g per phone in new hardware, that people needed to learn, that was unintuitive in a feather touch-capacitive world, and so on. 

Four years later, Apple has essentially admitted that few people ever used it and that it was a tech blind alley, reverting to what the rest of the industry has been doing for a decade, i.e. holding a touchpoint for context-sensitive actions and options, with no ‘pressure’ needed. Apple calls this ‘Haptic Touch’ and ties in recognition of long presses with its Taptic Engine for mechanical feedback.

Screenshots
Long pressing on Photos (for example) shows its ‘3D-touch-like’ quick actions…

The coolest feature of 3D Touch, in my view, had been to press in on the keyboard to get direct cursor control, but this has been mimicked by a long press on the space bar – not quite as convenient, but hey…. it’s still there, and it works just fine:

Direct cursor control still

The biggest bonus for Apple is that they get to ditch the pressure-sensing layers in the display and save weight that they could use for the extra battery.  Talking of which…

iPhone 11 Pro Battery life

How long a phone lasts on a battery charge is a mix of many factors, not least screen brightness, signal strength, and the applications run. However, like for like, Apple claim that the 11 Pro will run for four hours more per charge than the Xs before it. This is made possible by a bigger battery (around 400mAh larger, at 3046mAh, i.e. an extra 15%), a more power-efficient display, and a more power-efficient processor. Put the three factors together and I estimate (up to) 10 hours Screen On Time per charge, though the phone never got remotely close to running out by bedtime, so it’s still early days in this respect.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max (which I don’t have in hand) includes a 3969mAh battery, up from 3174mAh (so around 25% more), and reviewers are seeing the same gains across the board as for the smaller model.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of battery life to an end-user – battling a phone battery’s charge state is one of the biggest hurdles in modern urban life, so it’s great to see Apple take a serious stride in this department.

And when it’s time to charge, Apple has also taken a big step (for Apple, at least), with the inclusion in the box of a 3A (15W) charger, so three times faster than that shipped with the Xs range, though admittedly a shadow of what’s often shipped in the Android world in 2019 (some phones now go up to 50W and beyond). Still….

Curiously, the mains adapter outputs through a USB Type C connector (perhaps for extra compatibility with newer iPads and Macbooks), with a Type C to Lightning lead in the box. It’s now almost a certainty that the 2020 iPhone 12 Pro will have Type C on the phone and then Apple’s products will charge harmoniously again. (I suspect a Type C to Lightning adapter will be included for those helping charge family legacy iPhones, at least for one phone generation.)

Storage

There are two ways to look at what Apple is offering for the iPhone 11 Pro. Firstly, to even offer it with 64GB in the first place is a little crazy, since 4K/60 videos eat up storage at half a Gigabyte per minute of footage – so film a family event for editing later with, say, 20 minutes of video, and that’s 10GB gone, i.e. a sixth of your entire storage, in one go. 

With this viewpoint, 64GB total is crazy (in fact, you only get just over 50GB free out of the box) and the 256GB variant is then effectively the starting point for the iPhone 11 Pro. So factor in the extra cost!

On the other hand, I’ll defend Apple’s decision to start at a low capacity – I know many iPhone users who live quite happily within 64GB for their entire ownership. Media is all streamed, they rarely shoot video and even with the extra data needed occasionally for iPhone 11 ‘extended frame’ photos they won’t get close to running out of room. 

(Plus, you don’t have to shoot video at 4k/60 – for most casual use, I maintain that 1080p/30 is absolutely perfect and with HEVC encoding it’s only 60B per minute of footage, almost ten times smaller than 4k/60. I’m just saying…)

I’d like to have seen the 64GB cheaper, of course, but that’s Apple pricing for you. But I’m still OK with seeing this variant in the line-up. Genuine ‘pros’ just need to allow for buying the 256GB version!

Frustrations

With so much positive so far, I also have to share a few frustrations with the iPhone 11 Pro range… We’ve had AMOLED screens for several generations of iPhone now, and there’s one trick that AMOLED enables – ‘always-on display’, with the screen just lighting up the pixels needed. I owned a Nokia S60 smartphone with always-on AMOLED display in 2009, ten years ago. Since then the tech has become almost obligatory in the phone world when AMOLED screens are involved, with very few exceptions. Yet there’s nothing equivalent in the iPhone world, you still need to lift the phone physically to see the time and date and notification icons. Very frustrating in 2019. I do get that there’s a battery hit, but it’s slight on most phones, a few percent a day and it should at the very least be something a user could turn on in Settings.

Secondly, with the new iPad Pros now offering USB Type C and thus 100% compatibility with standard USB disks, it’s a shame that we’re not there yet in the iPhone ‘pro’ world. As it stands now, you’re limited to low power, older USB disks plugged in via a (separately sourced) Lightning to SD or USB lead, in order for iOS 13 to see external files and allow them to be opened in selected applications. Almost every 2019 phone in the wider world over $100 is now USB Type C, but it seems that it’ll be 2020 before Apple switches for their own handsets, for the iPhone 12 Pro.

Thirdly, there’s no reverse Qi charging, as on just about every other 2019 flagship from the Android world. With AirPods now Qi chargeable, this would have been an easy and appropriate thing for Apple to add. Again, perhaps the focus on battery life got in the way here? Regardless, it’ll – again – be in the iPhone 12 Pro next year, I’ll wager.

iPhone 11 Pro Review Verdict

The iPhone 11 Pro is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best iPhone I’ve ever tested. It’s not perfect, as detailed above, but then the imperfections are, in this case, because of where iPhones sit in Apple’s multi-year product planning; the company likes to wait until they’ve mastered an existing technology before launching it to the world to their fans.

As an iPhone with insane build quality and battery life it wins. As the highest performing stills and video camera-phone in the world (and yes, I also have a Huawei P30 Pro) it wins. Though if you really are a ‘pro’, as per the name, I’d suggest getting the 256GB variant, which adds nigh on another 20% to an already expensive phone. If you can afford this, perhaps on a meaty monthly contract, then get the iPhone 11 Pro (or its horribly named ‘Max’ sister) and you’re good to go for at least four years

However – and you can probably guess where I’m going already here – if the prices of the ‘Pro’ range appall you then note that you get most of the capability above, minus the stainless steel, but with the extra (popular) 128GB variant, if you simply buy the vanilla ‘11’, which also comes in at almost £500 cheaper (UK prices, SIM free).

It’s a compelling line-up for iPhone fans – well done, Apple.

If you have any questions about the iPhone 11 Pro then please drop me a line in the comments below.