Despite slowing smartphone sales, Apple’s mobile devices still send totally sane people with jobs to maintain and babies to raise and bills to pay into an existential crisis over which premium phone to buy. This year, there are a few versions of iPhone to choose from, just like last year. There are the more powerful and more expensive Pro models—a $999 iPhone iPhone 11 Pro and the gargantuan $1,099 iPhone 11 Pro Max—made for people who prefer to ride the bleeding edge of mobile technology.
And then there’s the iPhone for just about everybody else: the iPhone 11.
The iPhone 11 is a very good phone. It is not a “Pro” phone, and it is not the most innovative smartphone available. But it starts at $699, even less than the $749 starting price of last year’s iPhone XR, the handset to which it’s the clear successor.
The non-Pro 11 has the same processor as its more expensive siblings and has a camera that puts it on par with competing devices from other manufacturers. If you can manage to wade your way through the mucky waters of Apple marketing terminology and distinguish what it is from what it’s being positioned as, you too will find that the iPhone 11 is a very good phone.
This is a review of that phone. Along the way, I’ll offer some comparisons notes on last year’s iPhone XR and XS, as well as the new iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max. But if you’re more interested in this year’s new Pro models, you can read about those (and their cameras) in a separate review.
Dollars and Sense
The iPhone 11 costs $699 for a base model with 64 gigabytes of internal storage. For years, Apple offered a paltry 16 GB of storage on its base models—barely enough to install the usual array of basic apps. But now 64 GB is the new 16 GB, which means it’s not much. Bumping up to 128 GB will cost you $749, the starting price of last year’s iPhone XR, and 256 GB will cost you $849.
Apple is heavily promoting trade-in deals for old iPhones that could bring the price of the iPhone 11 down as low as $399. But only phones in good condition will earn you top dollar at trade-in. According to Apple’s website, my working iPhone 8 Plus with shattered glass can be recycled “for free” (while Apple reuses some of the parts) but won’t get me a cost reduction on a new phone. If you’re looking for something even less expensive, last year’s iPhone XR now starts at $599. These are good prices for iPhones.
The iPhone 11 Pro with 64 GB costs $999 and creeps up to $1,349 for 512 GB of storage. The iPhone 11 Pro Max starts at $1,099 and costs a whopping $1,449 for the maximum amount of storage. But, hey, this hefty phone will make up for the weight lost in your wallet … right?
Even Samsung’s biggest and highest-end phone, the Galaxy Note 10+, costs less than the maxed-out 11 Pro Max, topping off at $1,199 for 512 GB of storage (though a 5G model costs more). LG’s G8 ThinQ and V50 ThinQ phones cost less. Huawei’s P30 Pro costs less; so does the the OnePlus 7 Pro. And Google’s Pixel 3 XL is now just a mere $599, although that model will be outdated once new Pixels arrive in October.
A lot of what I wrote about last year’s iPhone XR still applies to this year’s new iPhone 11. It is a remarkably similar rectangular package of aluminum and glass and liquid crystals. The iPhone 11 has an anodized aluminum frame with slippery glass on the front and back. Apple claims this is the most durable glass it has ever used in its phones, and since I have yet to drop this phone like I have with almost every other iPhone I’ve owned or borrowed, I can’t vouch for this. (Yet.)
Having also used the stainless steel iPhone Pro and Pro Max over the past few days, I prefer the matte backs of those phones. But the iPhone 11 comes in brighter colors—in addition to black, there’s white, red, pale yellow, soft purple, and seafoam green—and I like them. The iPhone I’ve been carrying for the past six days is the seafoam green color. I personally would go for the purple, but all of the lighter colors make it easy to spot the phone when fishing it out of your Mary Poppins bag.
It has a liquid-crystal display, which Apple calls Liquid Retina HD. Previously I’ve said that the visible differences between an iPhone with an LCD and an iPhone with an OLED were not enough to warrant spending extra bucks on the latter. This is probably still true. If you’re upgrading to the iPhone 11 from another phone with an LCD display, you won’t notice much of a difference. But after using a phone with an OLED display for several months and then switching to the iPhone 11, the LCD just doesn’t look as nice. It feels harsher on the eyes, and media looks different on it.
The size of the iPhone 11 is also worth considering. As much as I like the phone overall, its in-between size is awkward for my small hands. It has a 6.1-inch diagonal display, compared to the 5.8-inch display on the iPhone 11 Pro and the giant 6.5-inch display on the iPhone 11 Pro Max. All of the new iPhones this year are thicker than last year’s too.
A lot of people would gladly sacrifice impossible thinness for much better battery life. The internal components in the new iPhones have been redesigned to squeeze as much juice out of these slabs as possible. But I didn’t particularly like carrying the iPhone 11 in my hand for extended periods of time, and it felt uncomfortable to hold it while running. And since the smaller iPhone XS has been discontinued, this forces people with small hands to at least consider the more expensive iPhone 11 Pro.
It’s worth mentioning, for those who plan to upgrade from an iPhone 7 or 8: The iPhone 11 has no Home button and no headphone jack. It unlocks with a passcode or by scanning your face with Apple’s forward-facing TrueDepth camera. The iPhone 11 does, however, still charge via Apple’s proprietary Lightning port. All of the above applies to the iPhone 11 Pro phones too. And all of the new phones will ship running iOS 13, Apple’s latest mobile software.
The iPhone 11, along with the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max, runs on Apple’s new A13 Bionic processor. Apple claims this system on a chip is packed with the fastest CPU and the fastest GPU ever shipped in a smartphone and that its dedicated machine learning unit, the chip’s eight-core neural engine, offers the highest level of machine-learning performance available on a mobile chip. These chips are undoubtedly some of the greatest evidence of Apple’s continuing innovation, though most people don’t care to hear about the number of transistors in a chip. They just want to know how fast the new phones are.
The phones are fast. Downloading apps is fast. Switching between apps is fast. Processing and editing photos is fast. Apple Pay is faster on this phone; Face ID feels slightly faster. FaceID supports more face angles too, which means that, as I write this, I can lean over the iPhone 11 resting on my coffee table and it will unlock. AirDrop feels like a dream and may get even better once a later update to iOS 13 enables Apple’s new U1 chip, which helps nearby iPhones find each other. The new phones also support faster gigabit LTE than previous phones and, whenever it’s widely available, Wi-Fi 6.
Two of the more obvious benefits of this new A13 Bionic processor is that it’s supposed to greatly improve the battery life on these new phones; and it offers improved image signal processing. This means better photos and videos.
The camera has been one of the most important features of a smartphone for several years. But in the era of double-digit smartphone generations, it’s even more important as a means of measuring tangible, visible gains from phone to phone. The most common question people ask me when they’re considering an upgrade is, “How much better is the camera?”
If the iPhone 11 stood alone in this year’s iPhone lineup, then its main point of comparison would be last year’s iPhone XR, and it would be clear: The camera is better. This year’s iPhone 11 has two rear lenses, a wide-angle lens and an ultrawide lens with a 120-degree field of view. Last year’s iPhone XR had a single lens, and any depth effects added to photos were done computationally. This means the iPhone 11 now captures enough information to take better photos from the start—and especially portrait photos.
Case in point: Last year’s iPhone XR could capture a portrait photo of a person but not a pet or object. The iPhone 11 now takes portrait photos of my cat, which he is pleased about. Just kidding: He is indifferent, per usual. The iPhone 11 (and the iPhone 11 Pro) also has an automatic night mode, which instructs you to hold the camera steady for a few seconds while it grabs enough information to produce a decent photo in a dark bar or restaurant. The selfie camera has been improved too, a kind of cruel joke of inevitability; as you grow older, front-facing cameras get sharper, with wider angles.
The iPhone 11 doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. It has to be compared with the triple-lens cameras on the iPhone 11 Pro phones and with other leading smartphone cameras.
The iPhone 11 is a very good camera, and in a lot of situations it even performed better than last year’s top-of-the-line iPhone XS. But the iPhone 11 Pro takes noticeably better photos, whether standard photos, portrait images, or night mode pics. In Portrait photos of my colleague Lydia, the iPhone 11 Pro captured truer colors and more of the details of her face, like smile lines and freckles.
And in some instances the Google Pixel 3 still took better photos in low-light settings than the iPhone 11 did. The Pixel captured the better “night mode” shot of a flower arrangement in a dark bar, and the better photo of my friend Kayla sitting in a low-light sushi restaurant. Sunset shots captured on the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ and the OnePlus 7 Pro looked richer, with more contrast, than the muted shot captured on the iPhone 11; but those photos also had artificial-looking orange casts.
Apple is also touting an upcoming camera feature called Deep Fusion, which will stitch together multiple frames to capture an optimal composite image. But that feature won’t be added to the iPhone’s camera until later this fall. This kind of feature delay, particularly one that relies on machine learning, is not unheard of in smartphone land. Apple announced Portrait mode for the iPhone 7 Plus a month before it shipped in a software update. Google did the same with Night Sight on the Pixel 3.
I haven’t yet been able to dive quite as deeply into the video capture modes across all of the top phones on the market (and there’s only so much testing you can do on three new iPhones in less than a week). But the video features on the iPhone 11 are improved from the video capture on the iPhone XR and even the iPhone XS.
All three phones capture 4K video at 60 frames per second, but the iPhone 11 has something called extended dynamic range, which is like HDR for video. This means the phone actually captures 120 fps and uses the extra frames to process highlights and lowlights in the video. The videos I took of my still-disinterested cat on the iPhone 11 look more appealing, with deeper colors and an undeniable crispness, than the videos captured with older iPhones. Video stabilization, already extremely good on iPhones, is better too.
The front-facing camera has a brighter flash and captures slow-motion videos, which Apple has dubbed Slofies. They are fun, and I’m afraid they might stick.
It would be a stretch to say that the camera on the iPhone 11 has wowed me or has set a new standard that other phone makers will have to race to match. The iPhone 11 Pro, with its funky three-lens camera module on the back, is noticeably better. But one area where Apple deserves credit is in the overall packaging of its camera features and the design of the app’s interface.
Smartphones are now cluttered with so many features that it can be hard to figure out what’s what, which can actively discourage people from trying all the newfangled things. On many premium Android phones, for example, the wide-angle icon is a cluster of—trees? When you select the Pro mode on Samsung’s Galaxy Note10+, there are no fewer than 17 photo options available, some of which cut into the frame of the viewfinder.
The iPhone 11, on the other hand, shows you straightforward 0.5X or 1X optical zoom options, while the iPhone 11 Pro shows 0.5X, 1X, and 2X. You don’t have to swipe to get to night mode on the new iPhones; it happens automatically and is also available as a quick button in the top of the camera app. To get to more advanced camera settings on the iPhone, like aspect ratio, timers, or filters, you simply swipe up from the main menu, and at no point do any of them get in the way of the photo you’re trying to frame. You can even switch between still photo mode and video mode now by just holding down the shutter button. Apple’s camera artistry lies in its simplicity.
The iPhone 11’s battery life is very good, partly because its LCD screen sips less power, partly because of the more efficient A13 Bionic chip, and partly because the battery in it is bigger than the battery in last year’s iPhone XR or XS (though it is not bigger than the battery in the iPhone Max models). Last Friday, I unplugged the iPhone 11 at midday when it was fully charged. I am a heavy phone user; I get a lot of notifications, I stream media, I use maps, and I frequently crank up the display’s brightness. By bedtime that night, I still had 56 percent battery life. At 10 am Saturday, I set out to run errands with the phone’s battery at 46 percent and hit the 20 percent “low battery” mark while I was getting ready for dinner that evening.
It’s a subjective and imprecise test, and I wasn’t able to run similar tests with all three new iPhones (not all have SIM cards right now) within the same time frame. But I was happy with the battery life, which is always a key factor for me in deciding which phone to buy.
While all of these features add up to a phone that’s impressive, there’s nothing about the iPhone 11 that’s particularly innovative. Its display uses last-generation LCD technology, and it has the same refresh rate as early iPhones. It doesn’t have an in-display fingerprint sensor. It doesn’t support 5G networks. It can be charged wirelessly, but the back of the phone itself doesn’t function as a Qi-enabled charge pad. And when it comes to the iPhone 11’s camera, particularly when compared to the shooter in the Pixel, it really feels like the phone is playing catch-up.
But I still think the iPhone 11 is a very good phone, even if it’s not a futuristic one. Its faster processor, camera upgrade, and long-lasting battery will be enough to sway those who have been putting off buying a new phone. And the iPhone 11’s price is a lot more palatable for some people than the cost of an iPhone 11 Pro or even a premium Samsung phablet.
Whether to buy the iPhone 11 really comes down to three things: how much camera you want, what software ecosystem you want to live in, and whether you’re comfortable with the chasm that exists between Apple’s marketing of its phones and what they are.