What Makes an iPhone ‘Pro’ Anyway? A Better Camera
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What does “Pro” really mean? In Apple’s world, “Pro” is both a brilliant and nebulous marketing phrase. It’s an extension of a naming convention—there is already a MacBook Pro, and a Mac Pro, and an iPad Pro. The word is supposed to signal that something is better, or more advanced.
In the case of the iPhone 11 Pro and the larger Pro Max, the word “Pro” equates to a nicer build and a more capable camera than the less expensive iPhone 11. The iPhone 11 is a very good phone, but the Pro phones are aspirational objects; new glass slabs to load with the productive and creative and high-resolution elements of our lives, and rectangular on-ramps to Apple’s growing subscription services.
So if you’re one of those productive and creative people, and you’re thinking of going pro, here’s what you need to know if you’re considering the iPhone 11 Pro or Pro Max.
With these Pro model phones, Apple is maintaining the same pricing it had last year. The iPhone 11 Pro costs $999 for a model with 64 gigabytes of internal storage, which is barely enough for anyone considered a “pro” user. Bump up to 256 GB or 512 GB and you’ll end up paying $1,249 or $1,349, respectively. The iPhone 11 Pro Max caps at $1,449, for the maximum amount of storage.
That is nearly $1,500 for a phone. There are all kinds of justifications for this price, including but not limited to a) Apple’s mobile processors now perform better than some desktop processors, and b) a person’s smartphone might be the most important device in their life. Anyway you slice the pie, it’s a lot of dough. For comparison’s sake, Samsung’s most expensive phone, the Galaxy Note 10+ with 5G, tops off at $1,399.
Apple is accepting handset trade-ins, which might reduce the cost if you have an older iPhone that’s in good condition. The $999 iPhone 11 Pro, for example, goes down to $599 if you have a working iPhone X that you’re ready to unload. But Apple’s website indicates that your old phone is only worth something if the “body is free of dents and scratches” and “the touchscreen and back glass are undamaged.” Good luck with that, ye owners of fragile phones.
The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max have stainless steel frames, while the cheaper iPhone 11 is made of aluminum. All three new iPhones this year are thicker and heavier than their predecessors (iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR). The iPhone 11 Pro Max, in particular, is a chonk of a phone, to use the internet’s current parlance for fat cats.
I personally would not buy the iPhone 11 Pro Max. It’s too much. It has a 6.5-inch diagonal display, while the iPhone 11 Pro has a more reasonable 5.8-inch diagonal display, same as last year’s iPhone XS. The iPhone 11, meanwhile, falls between the two, with a 6.1-inch display. It’s unfortunate that Apple’s solution for people with smaller hands is a small-ish phone that also happens to be one of the more expensive models—unlike the fan favorite iPhone SE, which was both small and inexpensive.
All three new iPhones have what Apple claims is the most durable glass on any iPhone. However, the back of the Pro phones have a textured and less slippery matte finish, and it’s one that I prefer, given my track record for shattering phones. The Pro phones also come in colors that are more understated than the iPhone 11’s pastels, contributing to the gravitas of the Pro’s.
One of the key differences between the pro models and the regular, nonpro iPhone 11 is the display technology that Apple uses in each. Apple is calling the display on the Pro iPhones “Super Retina XDR,” which is a way of saying it’s an OLED display with an extremely high resolution. It also happens to be the brightest screen in an iPhone, with up to 1,200 nits of maximum brightness. The iPhone 11 has an LCD, and while it’s also a high-resolution display and has the same True Tone color technology, it’s not nearly as luminous or rich as the Pro displays.
(L-R): iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPhone 11, iPhone XSPhotograph: Lauren Goode
There are other improvements over last year, like the new A13 Bionic processor, which speeds up Face ID, boosts battery like, and helps performance across the entire phone. You can read more about those enhancements in my review of the iPhone 11.
Apple says the A13 Bionic also strengthens the capabilities of the iPhone 11 Pro’s camera. So now, we need to talk about that camera.
Third Eye Open
Photograph: Phuc Pham
This three-lens camera on the back of the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max looks as though it was borne out of the nest egg of an alien ship. Other smartphone makers have stacked three lenses in an elongated loop. Apple has decided to cluster these in a stamp-like square, as though it is stamping its mark and staking its claim in the settled land of three-lens phones.
The more critical thing is what the camera can do. It’s one of the biggest differentiators between the iPhone 11 Pro phones and the more modest iPhone 11. The iPhone 11 has two lenses, a wide-angle and ultrawide-angle lens with a 120-degree field of view. Both use 12-megapixel sensors. The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro max have both of those lenses and a telephoto lens. The wide-angle lens has an f/1.8 aperture, the ultra-wide has a f/2.4 aperture, and the telephoto has an f/2.0 aperture.
On the iPhone 11, you have two optical zoom options, the native 1x view of the camera, or the 0.5x zoom out from the ultrawide-angle lens. The Pro phones add a third option of a 2x zoom from the telephoto lens. The front-facing camera has been upgraded to a 12-megapixel camera from a 7-megapixel one, and has a new wide-angle option as well. Wide-angle selfie modes are the software equivalent of selfie sticks, and when done well, they’re great. Samsung, Huawei, Google, and others already have wide-angle front camera options on their premium phones, so it’s about time Apple caught up.
Both the iPhone 11 and the new Pro phones have a new “Night Mode,” which is automatically activated in dark environments and tells you how long you’ll have to hold the phone steady for to capture an optimal shot. I already love it. It’s so much more intuitive than swiping through settings to find a dedicated night mode. The additional camera lens on the back of the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, combined with the image signal processing in the phone’s A13 Bionic chip, means that the Pro phones perform even better in low light than the iPhone 11 does. The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max also take better Portrait photos.
But, while Apple says frequently that its integrated hardware and software enable it to do magical things with cameras—and in some cases, that’s true—that doesn’t mean every shot taken on the iPhone 11 Pro phones was the best photo.
In some cases, the photos I took on the iPhone 11 Pro Max were clearly sharper, brighter, and even more (you hate to say it) professional-looking than the iPhone 11 photos of the same scenes or subjects. The iPhone 11 Pro Max captured the best Portrait Mode photo of my colleague Lydia, showing accurate colors, picking up on details like wisps of hair and freckles, and handling highlights and sunlight well. A beach sunset photo captured on the same phone expertly captured the contrast between dark rocks, a glassy ocean, and the sunburnt sky. A photo of yaki onigiri captured in harsh overhead light showed excellent detail, right down to the charred rice.
When pitted against other leading smartphones, the iPhone 11 Pro Max wasn’t always the obvious standout. The Google Pixel 3, a less expensive and soon-to-be-outdated phone took crisper photos of a floral arrangement in a very dark bar. An iPhone 11 Pro Max photo of my friend Kayla, captured in a dark sushi restaurant, showed a lot of detail in easy-to-miss spots like her hands, or the slight wrinkles of her shirt. But Kayla, a video producer, and I both agreed that the color and temperature of the photo was off, whereas the Pixel 3’s photo, while cooler, was more true to life.
iPhone 11 Pro Max
Apple has promised that another upcoming camera feature, called Deep Fusion, will produce even better photos, by grabbing a series of frames both before and after you press the shutter button and creating a composite. That feature is not available to test yet.
If the iPhone 11 Pro still photos don’t sway you, then maybe its videos will. All three new iPhones shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second, as did the phones last year. But this year’s video capture comes with extended dynamic range, which means the phone is actually capturing 120 frames per second and using those extra frames to produce videos with better colors and higher contrast. The short video clips I’ve shot so far do look better than the videos on my iPhone XS.
All of the new models of iPhone now apply software image stabilization to 4K video at 60 frames per second too. Pro shooters might be pleased with another small addition: The Lightning port on the new iPhones now supports LED flash accessories.
Plus, the front-facing camera now shoots video in 4K, and captures—wait for it— “slofies.” These are slow-motion selfies. My editor and I sat there for several seconds shooting a slow-motion selfie before we realized, that was it. That’s all a slofie is. Still, it’s fun.
My review of the iPhone 11 notes this as well, but Apple has done an excellent job adding new camera features while decluttering the camera app itself. The new features are easy to find, and in some cases, as with Night Mode, happen automatically. You can switch from photo mode to video mode just by holding down the shutter button. At no point do the photo or video settings appear within the actual frame of the photo you’re trying to take. The new photo-editing features that ship with iOS 13 are robust, without being overwhelming.
At least one feature has gone missing, though: The option to store a “normal,” non-HDR photo has disappeared in camera settings. All of your photos will be captured in Apple’s Smart HDR mode by default, unless you toggle that off.
Finally, there’s battery life. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is going to give you the best battery life of any iPhone—up to five hours more than the battery life of last year’s iPhone XS Max.
In my experience, it took me about 23 hours to drain the battery of the iPhone XS Max from 94 percent (I took it off the charger a little early) down to 57 percent. That’s a whole day on less than half a full charge. The Max hasn’t died on me yet, as I’ve been intermittently charging it over the past week. The iPhone 11 Pro is supposed to add an extra four hours to last year’s iPhone XS battery claims, though I have not yet been able to thoroughly test that assertion.
The extended battery life on the iPhone 11 Pro Max is still not enough to convince me to buy a chonky phone. If I had to choose between all three new iPhones, and budget was not a factor, I would buy the iPhone 11 Pro. The smaller size is right for me, and its camera is a step above the two-lens camera module on the iPhone 11.
Does that make it a “Pro” phone? The answer to that is about as subjective as the quality of a smartphone photo in 2019.