iPhone 11 review: The best $700 iPhone Apple has ever
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.
Read more: iPhone SE 2020 review
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.
While the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max (left and top) have three 12-megapixel cameras, the iPhone 11 (right) has only two.
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.
Editors’ note, March 30: Five months after Apple launched the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, the phones still represent two of the best that you can buy today. In February, the Galaxy S20 launched at a starting price of $999. Technically it’s the most affordable phone in Samsung’s current generation. Compared to the Galaxy S20, the iPhone 11 is an absolute steal. The original review, published on Sept. 17, follows below.
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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.
Up close with the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max
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.
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 iPhone 11 can switch between a wide angle and ultrawide-angle lens. The iPhone 11 Pro can do the same, but also offers a telephoto camera to get closer to your subject.
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.
This plate of scallops truly takes center stage when photographed with the iPhone 11 ultrawide-angle camera.
Night Mode is a key feature that helps Apple catch up to similar capabilities from Google, Huawei and Samsung. And so far, Apple’s version is impressive.
A shot of Brooklyn Bridge Park at night, making colors pop. More saturated colors are part of Night Mode’s vibe.
Night Mode, how it works and when it doesn’t
Like the Google Pixel 4, the Huawei P30 Pro and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10, taking startling low-light photos seems to be in every phone-maker’s computational wheelhouse now. Apple’s version brightens photos, captures less image noise and does all of this automatically. The way it works is when you open up the default camera app, the phone determines when it’s dark enough to go into Night Mode. At this time, there isn’t a manual way to trigger the mode.
Night Mode uses adaptive bracketing and takes a series of photos, some with a longer shutter speed, others with a shorter one. The iPhone then fuses all the photos together to reduce motion blur and brighten shadows. When I took handheld Night Mode shots the sequence would take about 3 to 5 seconds. When I put the iPhone on a tripod I got a 10-second time and was even able to manually override that for a 28-second Night Mode shot.
I took a photo of a tree in my backyard that was in complete darkness. Below is a shot with the iPhone 11 using Night Mode and another with last year’s iPhone XS.
The HDR-like feel of the photos keeps some of the night effects, but at other times the photos can end up looking like day. Night Mode can be turned off by tapping the icon and sliding the timer off, but so far it’s been an improvement in nearly every instance.
It’s not a perfect tool: Faces can get blurred, detail can be lost. But still, I’ve been wowed. The Night Mode effects work the same on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, but the Pro also gets a telephoto camera that can use it.
You can’t use Night Mode in the ultrawide-angle mode, though. That camera ends up looking a lot darker, and it doesn’t have optical image stabilization, either. That’s true on all this year’s models.
Frame the shots right, and the ultrawide-angle camera can do fun things.
Ultrawide angle = drama camera
The newest camera has an ultrawide 13mm equivalent lens that is just a plain fun to use. If the main wide camera is like a business suit and the “tele” lens is a sporty blazer, then the ultrawide is the equivalent of a Hawaiian shirt. It’s obviously different and really changes the way you shoot. It won’t be great in every situation, but it can be equal parts handy, like when shooting in smaller spaces, and artistic, adding drama to a mundane scene.
Apple balanced the distortion so there’s a little (which you want for that ultrawide look) but it’s not horrible. I immediately found angles on my subjects that made them look larger than life. Best of all, you can use the ultrawide lens when shooting video. In fact, during a recording you can switch between cameras. Apple even put a cool zoom effect to transition between lenses.
Without a doubt, it can make for stunning shots. Ultrawide cameras are another new trend across phone cameras. Apple promises a few extra benefits here. The iPhone 11 gets an improved ultrawide-angle Portrait mode that can work with close-ups of your pets and other things. All the phones get an expanded-view viewfinder that now previews what’s outside the shot, which can help you know when to use the ultrawide lens.
The ultrawide camera works for photos and videos.
A funky extra also captures some ultrawide camera data in a Quick Take video, when you press and hold the camera button in the Camera app. It looks to pull in people who might be out of frame. So far, I haven’t had this mode work for me yet.