Apple held its annual iPhone extravaganza at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino yesterday, and while there were some surprises, those of us privy to the Apple rumor mill saw mostly what we were expecting. There was a new “Pro” variant of the iPhone, as well as an always-on Apple Watch display, a new 10.2-inch iPad, and some much-needed pricing and release figures for Apple’s upcoming media services.
But Apple’s showing was a familiar one, and nowhere was that more apparent than in its straightforward smartphone lineup. Last year, we saw Apple holding on to to the “X” naming scheme with the XS, XS Max, and XR. This year, it was back to numerics, with the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max. The Pro moniker may sound like a bold departure, but the structure of Apple’s lineup follows last year’s established pattern of a slightly cheaper model and two different-sized flagships.
Apple’s new “Pro” naming scheme mirrors the XS and XR from last year
That means interested consumers are in the same boat as last year: should you get the $699 iPhone 11 or the pricier $999 iPhone 11 Pro? If you want a fully kitted out iPhone 11 Pro Max, that will cost you $1,449, as is the case now with the largest, most storage-packed, premium Apple handset. To make the decision easier, it’s best to understand which phones pack which hardware and software features and whether the iPhone 11 Pro is a substantial enough upgrade to be worth shelling out, at a minimum, an extra $300.
We’ve highlighted the three standout aspects of the Pro and its larger Max variant as well as the three most disappointing features of those phones. That way, you’ll know what you get when you shell out for the more expensive iPhone, and you can decide whether it may make sense to get the standard 11 instead or hold off on upgrading entirely.
Best: significant battery life improvements
One of the most crucial features of any new smartphone is improvements to battery life, and Apple has actually made quite a leap here with the iPhone 11 Pro. The device now lasts four hours longer than the iPhone XS from last year, with the Max variant getting an increase in battery life of five hours.
That leaves you with 18 hours of video playback, 11 hours of streaming video playback, and 65 hours of audio playback. On the standard iPhone 11, you’re getting one hour docked from each of the video playback metrics but the same audio playback length. It appears the iPhone 11 is retaining the battery improvements Apple made to the iPhone XR that made it even better than its XS variants last year, but the company is putting more battery benefits toward the Pro this time around.
That’s nice to see, as it gives the pricier Pro an obvious advantage over the standard iPhone 11, albeit a marginal one. Apple can now say the iPhone 11 Pro has the best battery of any iPhone, and the four-hour and five-hour jumps over the XS and XS Max, respectively, are strong reasons to upgrade if you’re someone who burns through your phone battery before the sun sets.
While better battery life is a nice perk, Apple has increasingly leaned on its camera tech to market its newest and most expensive iPhones. That’s perhaps truer of the iPhone 11 Pro than any other mobile device in the company’s history. This go-around, the flagship iPhone has a triple-camera system compared to the standard iPhone 11’s dual-camera setup. You get one ultra-wide angle 12-megapixel camera, one standard wide 12-megapixel one, as well as a 12-megapixel telephoto.
The real advantage here is in the added telephoto lens, which the iPhone 11 does not have. That gives iPhone 11 Pro users 2x optical zoom in, 2x optical zoom out, and up to 10x digital zoom. Those zoom advantages carry over to video, where the iPhone 11 Pro has 6x digital zoom and the same optical zoom over the standard 11’s 2x optical zoom out and 3x digital zoom. You also get dual optical image stabilization on the Pro, thanks to the telephoto lens working in tandem with the standard wide one.
iPhone 11 Pro comes with a telephoto lens as part of its triple-camera system
How do all those numbers meaningfully translate to actual product features? Well, the Pro can make use of those three lenses simultaneously to enable photography tricks you can’t get on the standard iPhone 11. The one Apple specifically mentioned onstage is called Deep Fusion, a computational photography feature coming later this year the company says will combine nine photos, including one long-exposure shot, into a composite that includes the best features of each, all aided by artificial intelligence.
Another feature of the Pro uses the extra camera to zoom in on subjects in videos based on the source of audio, while video recording can be manually performed by any one of the cameras for more creative freedom around the look and feel of iPhone video. Portrait mode photography can also be captured with either the standard camera or the telephoto one.
Beyond those features and the added zoom capability, the iPhone 11 Pro shares almost every other camera element with the standard iPhone 11. That’s somewhat of a departure in how Apple has treated its lineup of smartphone cameras in the past, with the company usually reserving its better cameras for the Plus variants starting with the iPhone 7 Plus and then the flagship model when it introduced the iPhone X in 2017. Last year, the XR featured just a single rear-facing camera system while the XS and XS Max enjoyed dual-camera ones.
This relative increase in camera parity means both the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro will get Apple’s new Night mode, which will artificially brighten low-light photography, and the “Slofie,” Apple’s successful attempt at creating a cringey portmanteau for the slo-mo selfie. Both share the same standard and ultra-wide cameras on the back and the 12-megapixel TrueDepth camera on the front.
Best: prettier, denser OLED screen
If having the best smartphone screen you can buy still matters to you, then good news: Apple is still using its flagship iPhones to offer the latest and greatest in mobile display tech. The iPhone 11 Pro will come with what Apple calls a Super Retina XDR display in either 5.8 inches or 6.5 inches for the Max. While there doesn’t appear to be a huge difference between the Super Retina XDR and the Liquid Retina HD on the iPhone 11, it remains an OLED versus LCD decision.
With the iPhone X, Apple decided to move to OLED for its pricier variant. While the company managed to move its edge-to-edge design down to its cheaper phones starting with the XR, there will be a drop in quality when you go from the Super Retina XDR (2436 x 1125 pixel resolution at 458 ppi) to the Liquid Retina HD (1792 x 828 pixel resolution at 326 ppi).
Worst: Boring color options compared with the iPhone 11
It feels a bit unfair to gripe about color schemes as a “worst” feature of a new Apple product, but this is the second year in a row the company has offered up a range of colorful, eye-popping options for the standard iPhone and stiffed fans of its higher-end handsets by sticking with the same old space gray, silver, and rose gold variants. This time around, those who buy the Pro do have the option of the new “midnight green” color, which looks much nicer in real-world photos than it did on the Apple live stream.
But a random, one-off dark green isn’t enough to dispel the notion that Apple seems to think its apparently serious-minded Pro users don’t like playful colors. It would be nice to have all the perks of a Pro in a casing as distinctive as the Product Red shade, the bright yellow, or lighter mint-style green ones.
I understand an issue like this is likely related to Apple’s manufacturing process. Its pricier phones have different finishes and use slightly different blends of materials, and it would require a rather expensive retooling of its production lines to produce an iPhone 11 Pro Max in bright red versus standard space gray or silver. But it’s a true shame that Apple forces its users to make such drastic compromises over something as simple as color choice, which ultimately results in some consumers spending $1,000 or more on a device that looks painfully plain.
Worst: Not many “pro” benefits to help it stand out
This is perhaps a more controversial take on the iPhone 11 Pro, but its feature set and the differentiating factors that separate it from the standard iPhone 11 didn’t seem to scream “pro” to me. For one, it’s not even clear what a pro smartphone is supposed to look like. What does come to mind is an exorbitant Samsung device like the Galaxy Note 10 Plus that comes with a massive display, stylus support, and other features ostensibly marketed toward mobile power users.
The iPhone 11 Pro didn’t get its own dedicated Pencil stylus (and it’s not clear it ever should). Instead, Apple’s argument seemed to center on photography and videography, with the iPhone 11 Pro positioned as a better media creation machine for artists and online content creators. But the dual-camera and triple-camera systems on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro don’t seem different enough to warrant one being labeled a device for professionals and the other for amateurs. Both will be capable of Night mode and a vast majority of the same Portrait mode tricks, slow-motion capture, and video recording features.
That makes the $300 gap between the cheapest iPhone 11 and the cheapest iPhone 11 Pro an increasingly tough sell. You’re getting a nicer screen, those extra camera features, and more premium build quality. Apple also reserves its 512GB option for the Pro, which perhaps is important to the class of creator that primarily uses a smartphone and shoots a mind-boggling amount of 4K video.
Yet Apple didn’t make a convincing argument that this version of its more expensive iPhone is somehow now pro-grade (and therefore worth the extra cash) when it feels like it follows the company’s familiar annual refresh pattern. After all, the iPhone XR became Apple’s best-selling smartphone last year largely by justifying its price tag and existing as a coherent alternative to other similarly priced flagships. Meanwhile, the XS, and now the Pro, exist predominately to be the most premium iPhone, and that’s a pitch that grows less convincing every year.
Worst: No USB-C this year
Considering the magnitude of iPhone leaks that now occur each and every month of the year, it was no surprise that Apple’s iPhone 11 arrived with the same, frustrating Lightning port. We knew back in February of this year that it was likely that Apple would stick with Lightning for its 2019 smartphones, and that was more or less set in stone by the summer via additional leaks and reports.
But it’s still worth griping over the fact that Apple’s laptops and tablets now use a different set of ports than its smartphones following the switch to USB-C on the iPad Pro last fall. Making matters even weirder, the new iPhone 11 Pro ships with a faster-charging 18W wall charger that comes with, you guessed it, a USB-C port.
Thankfully, Apple includes a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box so the two included devices play nice. And while that’s a fine gesture, it also underlines the sorry state of Apple’s ecosystem: most iPhone users that also use Macs likely already own one of Apple’s $20 cables or its $20 USB to USB-C adapter just so the iPhone can be plugged into a MacBook. It’s dongle hell out there and due time that Apple makes our lives easier by making the full transition to USB-C as soon as possible.