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Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire
Great price for great performance
Two cool cameras and Night mode
Excellent battery life
No 2X optical zoom camera
Liquid retina display makes your black bezel border a bit larger
64 GB storage at base price is half as much as I want
An affordable iPhone that does not skimp on power, performance, and battery life. You may miss the telephoto lens and an OLED display, but you will probably love Night Mode and that $699 price tag.
I could save you some time here and tell you to read the iPhone XR review I wrote last year before reading this one. That’s how similar the new Apple iPhone 11 ($699) is to last year’s popular, affordable iOS handset.
That Apple didn’t touch the chassis (it’s still a 6.1-inch screen in a 5.94-inch x 2.98-inch x 0.33-inch body, it still weighs exactly 6.84 ounces, and the LCD-based Liquid Retina Display is the same 1792x828 pixel resolution) might give you pause, but it shouldn’t. In broad strokes, the iPhone 11 is an expert refinement of a high-quality smartphone.
There are some notable changes and they boil down to this:
Let’s start with the name. By renaming the iPhone XR the Apple iPhone 11, Apple has reset the bar for its base model iPhone. Sure, even when we had an iPhone 7, we got the 7 Plus, which added a 2X optical zoom lens, but that larger phone was a an extension of the best Apple had to offer and the only reason the base iPhone didn’t have a telephoto lens was, at least back then, Apple probably couldn’t fit it in the same chassis (granted, I’m guessing here).
Now, though, if you say, “I’m getting the iPhone 11,” you’re not really talking about the apex device. This is the most affordable iPhone that offers a lot, but also has a few feature caveats.
I’m not trying to turn you off from the iPhone 11. In fact, I think it’s an excellent product. I loved the original iPhone XR because, despite the trade-offs, it offered unmatched (except for the iPhone XS and XS Max) power, amazing battery life (better than the XS) and it let you use the wide-angle camera in portrait mode.
The iPhone 11 keeps all that’s good and upgrades it in a handful of useful ways, all while not pushing the envelope or nudging the iPhone 11 out of the “more affordable” space.
While I have the benefit of comparing my iPhone 11 side-by-side with the best Apple has to offer in mobile technology, those relying on the iPhone 11’s Liquid Retina display will be satisfied. It’s bright (625 nits, which is a fair bit lower than the iPhone 11 Pro) and has a decent 1400:1 contrast ratio, (which does not come close to what you can get on an iPhone 11 Pro).
While there’s no under-the-screen or physical fingerprint reader on the phone, it still has Face ID for unlocking, passwords, and mobile payments inside the True Depth Module, which Apple claims is faster, though I didn’t notice any significant difference. As with the iPhone XR, the True Depth Module is slightly larger on the iPhone 11 than it is on the iPhone 11 Pro. In addition, the black bezel that runs around the screen is a little bit thicker. In the age of edge-to-edge screens, this technology is starting to stand out more and more, and not in a good way.
Like the iPhone 11 Pro, Apple’s iPhone 11 is wrapped in hard glass. Unlike the Pro phone, the iPhone 11’s back is polished and the raised square, which houses the wide and ultra-wide lenses, a microphone, and the True Tone LED flash, is brushed. Underneath it all is an aluminum chassis. Like the iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone 11 is IP 68 rated, but it can only survive being under 2 meters of water for 30 minutes. On the other hand, most toilets have at most, a half a foot of water in them so I think this water resistance should have you covered. I did test water resistance by dunking the phone in a cooler filled with water. I even used it for some under-water videography.
I really like the 6.5-inch iPhone 11 Pro Max, but I think that, at 226 grams, it might be getting a little heavy. The 5.8-inch iPhone 11 Pro is probably my go-to-size, but for those who want to live in the middle, the 194 gram, 6.1-inch iPhone 11 is clearly the sweet spot.
If you can’t handle the large, three-camera configuration on the Apple iPhone 11 Pro, you’ll be happy to know that the iPhone 11 has just two cameras. They still sit in a raised glass square, but, with just a wide and an ultra-wide lens, the look is a little more subtle. Those two lenses, by the way, are exactly the same as two of the ones on the iPhone 11 Pro. What you lose is a 2X optical zoom (which is my favorite lens).
However, by replicating the functionality of the dual wide and ultra-wide lenses on the iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone 11 can now handle portrait mode photography on non-human subjects. This is a bigger deal than you think, at least for pet owners. With the iPhone XR, you couldn’t get that award-winning bokeh shot of Fluffy. With the iPhone 11, your four-legged friends can get ready for their Portrait Mode closeups. It also works just as well on inanimate objects. To prove it, I made a fire hydrant one of my portrait mode subjects.
Apple also updated the TrueDepth camera so it’s in line with what you’ll find on the Pro models. You can shoot 12 MP selfies and when you switch the phone from portrait to landscape mode, the camera automatically widens its view. There’s no wide-angle lens on the front of the iPhone 11. Instead, switching the orientation makes the camera un-crop the frame for a full 12 MP view. You can also force this change to full pixel view by tapping on the double-arrow icon. That same front-facing camera is now also capable of 4K 60 fps video.
In Portrait Mode, the choices have widened to include High-Key Light Mono, a black and white mode that turns the entire background white—it’s a pretty striking effect—and the ability to adjust the highlight with a slider. Apple’s done an excellent job with this front-facing camera and the portrait mode algorithm is now much better at capturing the top edge of my bald head.
In addition, back light compensation technology is, thanks to Smart HDR, stronger than ever. I’m continually surprised at how much color accuracy and detail the iPhone 11’s cameras can capture even in the harshest back light.
Obviously, you can also capture 4K 60 FPS video with the rear cameras. In addition, you can combine special features like 240 fps slow motion, panoramas, and time-lapse with the 12MP ultra-wide camera for some eye-pleasing effects. I had a great time using these tools in Times Square, New York.
The most exciting new camera feature is, by far, Night Mode. Apple is late to the night photography game, but I like their approach. The Camera app offers clear indication of when it's automatically launching Night Mode. You can turn it by sliding the exposure time to zero.
There’s a little yellow eclipse in the upper left-hand corner of the camera app screen. It also tells you how long the shutter will be open. When you hit the shutter button, the camera tells you to hold still as it takes the shot. Typical Night Mode shots take between 3 and 5 seconds. However, if you put the iPhone 11 on a tripod, it will happily hold the shutter open for up to 28 seconds. Nighttime star photography is possible with all of the new iPhones.
While the Apple iPhone 11 doesn’t feature Apple’s ultimate screen, it is plenty good. I enjoyed using it to run apps, edit photos, play games, browse the web, check email (who doesn’t love email), and watch videos.
Videos are enhanced by the iPhone 11’s new spatial audio capabilities, which makes audio (on 5.1 and 7.1 videos) sound like it’s coming from all around you. It’s a neat effect, and worked pretty well when I watched my copy of Iron Man. It's hard to say how often you might use this, considering how much we all use our AirPods (or the included EarPods) for more private listening.
All of Apple’s new iPhones ship with iOS 13, Apple’s significantly updated mobile operating system. The good news is that iOS 13 will be completely recognizable to anyone using iOS 12, but they will still notice quite a few important changes.
Chief among them might be the new Camera app, which makes sense since there’s so much new photographic capability.
The app has new ways of identifying the three cameras. Ultra-wide is described as 0.5, which I don’t really like. You can gesture up from the bottom edge of the image view to open a new drawer with extra features like the timer and HDR controls. In addition, the capture screen will now, in wide camera mode, always show you just how much more of the scene you can bring in with ultra-wide (these image portions appear behind the semi-translucent black bars on either side of the image capture area).
You can now basically switch seamlessly from taking a photos to video by holding down the photo button and then, if you want to stay in video, sliding it to the right.
Apple has also added some native video editing tools that let you crop, rotate, distort, adjust contrast, and add filters. Plus, you can do all these things without destroying the original video. Don’t like what you did? Go back and undo.
There’s also a new Photos App that has larger thumbnails, pre-playing videos and a new For You tab. I like it, though I think photo search will always be my most used photo tool.
iOS 13 also brings Dark Mode to the iPhone. For some, this is like the second coming: “How did we live without Dark Mode for so long?” For me, having the home screen, system screens, and email (among others) as light text on black backgrounds is okay, but not something I’ll use for any length of time.
iOS 13 has new Animojis—Cow and Octopus—which are just as cute as all the others and, thanks to Apple’s TrueDepth module, they do an excellent job of tracking your expressions. I especially like the Memoji stickers, which replace emojis with mood stickers based on your custom Animoji. I have sent a lot of these to my wife. She loves them (I swear).
Other iOS13 highlights include a more natural-sounding Siri, Siri Shortcuts as part of the platform (and easier to use!), Sign In with Apple (which is waiting for third-party partners to implement), and the QuickType keyboard which lets you swipe around the keyboard to type. Some love this last feature, but I simply can't get used to gesturing to type.
The iPhone 11 is running the same A13 Bionic CPU as the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. It also has, according to Geekbench 5, roughly 3.75 GB of ram (slightly more than what was reported on the Pro). Benchmark numbers (1263 Single Core, 3405 Multi-Core Score, and 6242 Metal Score) were basically in line with what I got on the iPhone 11 Pro.
This performance gave me confidence to do everything from editing 4K video to playing graphically intense video games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Asphalt 9: Legends. This is the beauty of a $699 iPhone 11: All the raw power without the expense.
Battery life on last year’s iPhone XR was surprisingly good and the iPhone 11 is, with mixed use, good for a at least a full day of use. You can tax it, though. I drained a quarter of my battery shooting 40 minutes of 4K 24 fps video (I do not regret it). You can still charge wirelessly on Qi-compatible chargers.
For connectivity, Apple upgraded to Wi-Fi 6 and added an Ultra-Wideband chip for what it’s calling spatial awareness. Later this year, a software update should add the ability to direct Air Drops by pointing your phone at your desired recipient. I’m sure developers will think of other cool uses for directional connectivity.
If you want a modern iPhone and are turned off by the iPhone 11 Pro’s hefty price tag, it’s hard to go wrong with the Apple iPhone 11. You might, as I do, miss the 2X optical zoom and, perhaps, wonder if that iPhone 11 Pro user is enjoying her OLED screen a little more, but I doubt it. Would the iPhone 11 be a better value with double the amount of storage? Yes. But that won't stop the iPhone 11 from becoming an instant bestseller. Oh, and do check out the green. It’s kind of glorious.