Hands On the Apple iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro

Apple scoots around 5G and still delivers a trio of exciting new smartphones

Apple iPhone 11 Pro
The Apple iPhone 11 Pro.

Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

It took me a beat to realize the new Apple iPhone 11 is actually Apple’s successor to the Apple iPhone XR and not the offspring of the high-end iPhone XS.

This subtle shift in the product line, which walks away from the iPhone “S” nomenclature and also repositions the baseline iPhone as a slightly less able device that you can buy for hundreds of dollars less than Apple’s most powerful smartphone, may be Apple’s smartest bit of rebranding.

First of all, it ends letter confusion: What does the “S” mean? Is “R” another way of saying “Regular?” It also lets Apple say that its latest iPhone starts at just $699.

Phil Schiller in front of iPhones
Apple Senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller announces the new iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

Apple Design Going a Different Way

Labels are not, obviously, as important as design and features, and regardless of which new iPhone 11 you choose—if you choose one—Apple has, with some important exceptions, raised the bar in many of the areas you care about most. They offer better and more cameras, more battery life, better resistance to the elements and, of course, they’ll all ship with iOS 13, which has a ton of useful mobile operating system updates.

In an event without any sign of former chief design executive Jony Ive, Apple also made one of its riskiest design moves. All the new iPhones, from the 6.1-inch iPhone 11 to the 6.5-inch iPhone 11 Pro Max (there’s a 5.8-inch Pro as well), feature a raised camera array square. On the iPhone 11, this area houses two 12 MP lenses (wide and ultra-wide), a microphone, and a flash. On the iPhone 11 Pro models, it adds a third camera.

The Apple iPhone 11
Apple iPhone 11. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

I noticed many of the commenters on Twitter were not kind to this new design, as they perceived it as a clunky design choice. But they’re reacting to photos of the devices. Seeing either phone in the flesh (or metal and glass) is a different experience altogether.

Touching the iPhone 11

I handled all three phones and, while the camera arrays are distinctive, they don’t stand out as much as you’d think. Part of this has to do with the somewhat remarkable process Apple uses to create the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro backs. It is a single piece of glass (a brushed back on the iPhone 11 Pro and glossy on the iPhone 11) that Apple milled down while leaving the camera array raised.

Apple iPhone 11 Pro
The 5.8-inch iPhone 11 Pro. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

It’s the kind of design trade-off I suspect many people will readily make just to gain access to Apple’s new 120-degree field of view ultra-wide 12 MP camera, which is on both models. All iPhone 11 models also have a standard wide 12 MP camera. The iPhone 11 Pro adds the 2X optical zoom camera.

The rest of the design, by the way, is largely unchanged. All the phones still have the notch for the TrueDepth Module, which now features a 12 MP selfie camera capable of slow-motion video for “slofies” (don’t look at me, I didn’t make that up).

Display Talk

From the front, I doubt anyone could tell the difference between these phones and the iPhone XR, XS, and XS Max. This is especially true on the iPhone 11, which has the same display technology and resolution as the iPhone XR. Apple did upgrade the bodies on all the phones to handle 30 minutes under up to 2 meters of water on the iPhone 11 and 4 meters for 30 minutes on the iPhone 11 Pro. These guys sound like they’re ready for a swim.

Like the iPhone XR, the iPhone 11 gets most of the cool colors. But the surgical steel iPhone 11 Pro is no slouch: It gets a new Midnight Green option (very classy). Each of these devices felt good and solid in my hands. I especially liked the feel of the iPhone 11 Pro’s brushed glass back.

The Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Apple's iPhone 11 Pro has a new high-res screen. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

Apple, naturally, pushed the visual envelope on the $999 iPhone 11 Pro, which has what’s called a Super Retina XDR display (it’s OLED), which is a name that should be familiar to those who followed the Mac Pro news from earlier this year.

I don’t know if the human eye can visually process 458 ppi, but I will say that the images and video (up to 4K 60 FPS) on the iPhone 11 Pro were stunning. Also, the sound, which now supports Dolby Atmos, was almost loud enough to overcome the very busy demo room.

Upgrading the Camera App

Consumers might be most interested in just how much Apple’s changed the camera and video apps to support all the new iPhone 11 and 11 Pro photographic capabilities. Instead of hard switches between lenses, Apple’s redesigned the native apps to support smooth transitions with swipes and arc scrolls.

Apple's Phil Schiller in front of projected image of three-camera array of iPhone 11 Pro.
Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

To put a finer point on the Camera Apps continuous awareness of all those lenses, the standard photo window simultaneously shows the ultra-wide image in the grayed-out areas on either side of the photo. In other words, you can see in real time how an ultra-wide shot might look. In addition, the native video app can now do some cosmetic video edits, managing brightness, contrast, and even letting you crop your video (something you won’t realize how much you missed it until you start cropping randos out of your video backgrounds).

Many of these photo features represent Apple catching up to the competition, but at least Apple always manages to put its own spin on the updates and, often, improve on the competition. In the case of Night Mode (finally!), Apple makes the feature automatic. That’s smart because most consumers don’t want to think about changing photo settings. The sample images I saw looked amazing, but until I take some of my own shots, it’s too soon to tell if Apple has truly raised the bar on low-light photography.

Under the Hood

All of this is backed by Apple’s new A13 Bionic CPU. It has 8.5 billion processors, which it uses to do some pretty impressive image-processing gymnastics. It helps the iPhone 11 perform a trillion operations on each image, but I was most intrigued by what Apple says is coming later: Deep Fusion. This is a cutting edge, Neural Engine-backed operation that somehow takes 9 photos before you even press the shutter and then one long-exposure one when you finally do. The engine then creates one properly exposed and detail-rich photo out of all that. Sounds crazy and I’m a little sad that we’ll have to wait for Apple to add it to the iPhone 11 Pro.

A grid showing the features of the Apple A13 Bionic chip.
Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

Despite the increased power, Apple claims that the iPhone 11 Pro gets 4 hours more battery life than the iPhone XS. I always take these battery performance claims with a grain of salt. Battery life largely depends on what you’re doing with the phone. All video might last 12 hours or more. An intense Apple Arcade game might eat up battery life more quickly. I’ll reserve judgement until I test these devices.

What Wasn't Mentioned for iPhone 11

Oddly there was no mention of new wireless charging features. Everyone expected Apple to unveil something similar to Samsung’s wireless PowerShare, which would’ve let the iPhone share power with, say, your wirelessly charging AirPod 2 devices.

Apple also mentioned improved Face ID speed multiple times, while avoiding the obvious under-the-glass fingerprint reader elephant in the room. It seems Apple may soon be the only major smartphone manufacturer who is not hiding biometric security under glass.

Finally, there was not a single mention of 5G technology. We all knew this was coming, or not coming, but it’s still a little frustrating. 5G will hit New York City and other major metropolitan areas throughout 2020, but the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro will not be ready.

Should you upgrade? Will you upgrade? It’s way too soon to tell. Apple made what I consider mostly the right moves here. It took the ultra-popular XR and upgraded it with another camera and, naturally, the latest CPU while keeping the price at a pleasing $699, and it pushed the envelope on the iPhone 11 Pro, perhaps at the expense of some design elegance, without raising the price.

The new devices go on pre-order Friday, September 13 and start shipping on September 20.