By John Gruber
Atoms: We are not selling shoes this time…
A few weeks ago on my podcast, speculating on the tentpole features for this year’s new iPhones, I said that “iCamera” would be a far more apt name than “iPhone”. MG Siegler, writing about Apple’s event last week, had the same thought:
The iPhone is now officially a camera. I mean, it has been a camera for a long time. The most popular camera in the world, as Apple is quick to point out each and every year, a decade on. But now it’s really a camera, as today’s keynote made clear. The key parts of the presentations for both the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro were all about the camera. As Phil Schiller said in his portion: “I know what you’re waiting for, and I am too. Let’s talk about the cameras. Without question, my favorite part about iPhone.”
It feels like if Apple wasn’t so wedded to their own legacy branding — more on that in a bit — they would rename this thing the iCamera.
Apple’s not really going to do that, of course. But Apple spent the vast majority of the stage time for the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro talking about their cameras. They spent no time — not a word — talking about phone calls. It would have been weird if they did talk about phone calls. That’s probably the single biggest change in the landscape from 2007 to today. Back then, introducing the original iPhone, Steve Jobs spent a lot of time talking about phone calls and voicemail, and almost no time on the camera. It never ceases to amaze me that the original iPhone camera couldn’t even shoot video — at all — and within 10 years Steven Soderbergh was using iPhones to shoot feature films.
Driven by the iPhone, the word phone has simply taken on a new definition — a pocket-sized touchscreen personal computer with wireless networking and one or more cameras. Try convincing a six-year-old that a landline telephone is a “phone” — they won’t believe you.
If you want to know Apple’s top priority with the iPhones 11, just look at the back of the new iPhones. Remember when we thought the iPhone 6 camera bump was prominent? That it was something Apple might be trying to hide in marketing photos? With the iPhones 11, the camera system takes up an entire corner. It’s so large Apple had to move the Apple logo down to the center of the back. I’m not sure if it’s related to the lower position of the Apple logo, but for the first time, the iPhones 11 no longer say “iPhone”. The only two things on the back are the logo and a big camera system. They don’t have to rename it “iCamera” — these phones scream this is a camera just by looking at them. And if you insist upon judging Apple’s focus — no pun intended, I swear — for these new iPhones by what they talked about during last week’s event, this 24-second highlight reel says it all.
I have been using an iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max since last Wednesday. Most of what I have to say — and I think most of what one needs to know to understand them — is about the cameras. My biggest problem is that I wrote this review last year. I re-read my review of last year’s iPhones XS (regular and Max) and at almost every single paragraph I found myself wanting to say the exact same thing again this year. Not that these phones are the same as last year’s phones, but that the year-over-year improvements are equally impressive and at times mind-boggling.
Take this bit from last year’s XS review:
I’ve focused nearly the entirety of my testing on taking photos and videos side-by-side against my 10-month old iPhone X. Overall, I’m simply blown away by the iPhone XS’s results. Sometimes the difference is subtle but noticeable; sometimes the difference is between unusable and pretty good. The iPhone XS can capture still images and video that the iPhone X cannot.
That’s exactly the case again, this time with the XS in the “last year’s phone” spot and the 11 Pro in the “this year’s phone” spot. It’s an impressive year-over-year camera improvement one year after an impressive year-over-year camera improvement.
I’ll also crib this bit from last year’s XS review1:
It’s worth emphasizing — as I do every year — that normal people do not upgrade their phones after a single year. Most don’t upgrade after two years. They upgrade when their old phone breaks or gets too slow. Anyone upgrading to the iPhone XS from an iPhone 7 or older is getting a great upgrade in dozens of ways, and the camera system is just one of them. I’ve concentrated on comparing the iPhone XS’s camera to the iPhone X’s for two reasons. First, even though most people don’t buy iPhones annually, Apple releases a new generation of iPhones annually, so that year-over-year comparison feels like the natural way to measure their progress. Second, a fair number of people do upgrade annually, or at least consider it (enough people that Apple deemed it worthwhile to create an annual upgrade program), and for the people who own an iPhone X who are considering an upgrade to the XS, to my mind, the camera system is the one and only reason to do it.
Word for word, that holds up again this year, with one notable exception: there is a second reason iPhone XS owners might want to consider upgrading to an iPhone 11 or 11 Pro this year: battery life. It really is better. There’s my review of all three iPhone 11 models in a nut: the camera systems are remarkably improved year-over-year and battery life is noticeably longer.
Just like last year with the XS and XS Max, the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are best thought of as two sizes of the same phone, pretty much like the two sizes of iPad Pro. Same A13 chip, same amount of RAM, exact same cameras. There are some minor software differences — the 11 Pro Max offers the choice between standard and zoomed display modes, whereas the 11 Pro offers only standard; on the Max, apps like Mail and Notes show their source lists of mailboxes/folders in an iPad-like two-column layout when the phone is in landscape orientation — but if you simply think of them as two sizes of the same phone, you won’t be wrong. I prefer the smaller 11 Pro size, and that’s the model I spent the most time with over the last six days. But henceforth in this review, when I write about the iPhone 11 Pro, I mean both the 11 Pro and the 11 Pro Max.
Second, also just like last year with the XR and XS, the regular iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro are far more alike than they are different. The regular iPhone 11 is so much less expensive that it seems like there ought to be a catch (or multiple catches), but there is no catch. The two primary differences are right there on the outside. On the front, the iPhone 11 has an LCD “Liquid Retina” display with @2x retina resolution; the iPhones 11 Pro have OLED “Super Retina XDR” displays with @3x retina resolution and slightly smaller bezels — the edges of the 11 Pro displays are a bit closer to the edges of the device. Flip them around and you can see the other primary difference: the regular iPhone 11 has a two-camera system (wide and ultra-wide lenses) and the 11 Pro models have three-camera systems (wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto).
Apple claims the 11 Pro models can get faster LTE performance than the iPhone 11. I didn’t see anything notable running Speedtest here in Philadelphia, but I’m sure there are places where the 11 Pro gets faster LTE. And in my testing, the 11 Pro models scored about 5 percent higher than the regular iPhone 11 in the GeekBench 5 multi-threaded benchmark (single-threaded was equivalent). I ran the benchmarks five times and averaged the results, but that 5 percent difference could be within the margin for error. Bottom line, you can’t go wrong thinking that the only technical differences between the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro are the displays and the Pro’s telephoto camera. The wide angle and ultra-wide angle cameras are exactly the same.
Personally, I like that the bezels around the iPhone 11 Pro display are smaller, but even as a professional nit-picker I can’t say the slightly larger bezels around the iPhone 11 display are a big deal. As for the displays, my eyes simply aren’t good enough to see the difference in typical lighting conditions. Your mileage may vary on that front — my eyes are not great.
Apple has to manage a delicate product marketing balance. At last week’s introduction event and in their advertising, they present the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro as two distinct phones. But putting aside the material differences — the 11’s aluminum vs. the 11 Pro’s stainless steel; the 11’s glossy back vs. the 11 Pro’s matte back — it really just comes down to the display technology and the 11 Pro’s telephoto camera.
Here’s the pricing matrix:
|64 GB||128 GB||256 GB||512 GB|
|iPhone 11 Pro Max||$1,100||—||$1,250||$1,450|
|iPhone 11 Pro||1,000||—||1,150||1,350|
|Δ from 64 GB||$50||$150||$350|
This year’s 11 Pro models are the same prices as last year’s XS models. The regular iPhone 11, however, is $50 cheaper at each storage capacity than the equivalent XR model last year. Thus, the price gap between the 11 and 11 Pro is $50 higher than the gap last year between XR and XS.
Last year I called the iPhone XR the iPhone most people should buy. Its successor is the iPhone 11 and the same thing is more true this year than last, if only because the equivalent models are $50 cheaper. The iPhone 11 is the best phone for most people. And once again, to my mind, the sweet spot in the whole lineup is the 128 GB iPhone 11 — for $50 you get double the storage of the base model, and 128 GB is more than enough for typical users.
These might seem like two unrelated items, but they’re not.
3D Touch was introduced with the iPhone 6S. Every new iPhone after the 6S, with the exception of the SE, had 3D Touch — until the iPhone XR last year. Instead of 3D Touch, the XR offered “Haptic Touch”. Haptic Touch is like 3D Touch except it doesn’t really detect the force of your finger press. It seems to me the heuristic is more complicated than just a long press, but it’s more like a long press with a bit of pressure applied.
3D Touch was a great idea, but it never really took off for a few reasons. First, it was undiscoverable — the iOS interface never indicated what objects could be 3D Touched. Haptic Touch isn’t much better in this regard. Second, it always seemed to me that 3D Touch should have been a shortcut for a long press, and only a shortcut for a long press — a way to perform a long press without having to wait for the “long” part. Third, with the iPhone 6, SE, and XR, there were iPhones that didn’t even have 3D Touch, and no iPad has ever had it. So neither Apple nor third-party developers could design interfaces that assumed 3D Touch was universally available.
Imagine if only some iOS devices had touchscreens. If that were the case we’d see half-hearted, inconsistent support for multitouch across the system and in third-party apps. That’s what happened to 3D Touch.
So the good news is that switching from 3D Touch to Haptic Touch — along with changes in iOS 13 (and its sibling, iPadOS 13) — makes the whole thing more consistent across all iOS/iPadOS devices. Most iPhone users upgrading from a 3D Touch iPhone to an iPhone 11 or 11 Pro won’t even notice that Haptic Touch and 3D Touch are different.
The bad news is, Haptic Touch is a bit slower. With 3D Touch, when you pressed, the action was instantaneous. With Haptic Touch, because it’s sort of a long press with pressure, there’s a very brief pause before it fires. One shortcut I use all the time, every day, is the camera button on the lock screen. On the iPhone 11 models, it feels just a bit less responsive than on the XS I’m used to. When you upgrade to a new iPhone, even year-over-year, everything usually feels faster or at least the same. Not so with Haptic Touch. It’s just the slightest of delays — a wee bit of latency — but I notice it.
There’s also a shortcut that not many people know about, but when you show it to them, their minds are blown: with 3D Touch iPhones, you can 3D Touch and hold anywhere on the keyboard (that is to say, keep your thumb or finger pressed on the keyboard) and the keyboard turns into a virtual trackpad for moving the insertion point around any text editing field, exactly like moving a mouse pointer. With non-3D Touch devices (including iPads), you can still do this, but you can’t press anywhere on the keyboard to initiate it — you have to press-and-hold on the spacebar. I picked up this shortcut years ago and it long ago became second nature to me. It took me a few days to get used to having to start by pressing on the space bar. It’s a small regression in the user experience.
So why did Apple get rid of 3D Touch? As I wrote above, one reason is to bring a far more consistent experience across all iOS 13 devices. But another reason is that 3D Touch required an entire layer under the display. Removing the 3D Touch sensors freed up space that Apple could use for something else — and it seems as though they’ve put it to use by including bigger, higher capacity batteries. Apple has never advertised the capacity of iPhone batteries, and even off the record, they don’t want to talk about it. We’ll find out when iFixit does their teardowns later this week, but I’ll be very surprised if the iPhone 11 Pro batteries aren’t significantly bigger than their iPhone XS counterparts, and I suspect the biggest reason why is that 3D Touch is gone.
This theory — that removing 3D Touch made room for bigger batteries — fits with Apple’s advertised battery life improvements. The regular iPhone 11 “only” gets 1 additional hour of battery life compared to the iPhone XR. (I put “only” in dick quotes there because the iPhone XR had the longest battery life of any iPhone ever made — a 1-hour improvement over the previous champ is not bad.) But the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max are advertised as getting 4 and 5 more hours of battery life than the XS and XS Max, respectively. With so much of the internals shared between the 11 and 11 Pro models, I just don’t see how only the Pro models could gain so much more battery life unless the batteries are bigger in the iPhones 11 Pro than they were in the iPhones XS.
So to recap, here’s my theory. Last year’s iPhone XR didn’t have 3D Touch, so it had a bigger battery than it would have if it did, and that’s why it got noticeably better battery life than the XS models. The regular iPhone 11 gained one hour of additional battery life compared to the XR via various small efficiencies in the A13 chip and other components. The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max have bigger batteries than their XS counterparts, using the space freed up by omitting 3D Touch. They benefit from the same small efficiencies that give the regular iPhone 11 one additional hour of battery life, plus a few more hours from bigger batteries. (The new 11 Pros are also about 0.4mm thicker than the XS models, and about 10-18 grams heavier. The thickness is negligible, but they’re about 7-8 percent heavier. Good chance that’s all battery.)
Again, I miss 3D Touch’s instantaneity, but this is a good trade-off for longer battery life.
I haven’t run any sort of battery testing with these review units, but anecdotally, I definitely seem to get more battery life from the iPhone 11 Pro than I do with my iPhone XS. (According to Settings → Battery → Battery Health, my one-year-old, much-used iPhone XS’s maximum battery capacity is still 92 percent.)
I keep mentioning that the iPhone 11 Pro has a three-camera system and the iPhone 11 a dual-camera system. And I’ll mention that again. But what’s essential to understand is that you don’t need to know that the iPhone 11 camera systems consist of two or three discrete cameras. From the user’s perspective, they look and feel like a single camera with multiple zoom levels.
At times the seamlessness of this experience feels like magic.
For example, when shooting video, you can zoom in and out while shooting, and when you cross the 1x and 2x zoom thresholds, the camera system will automatically switch lenses on the fly. So far as I can see, there is no discernable sign of this in the resulting video. So using the iPhone 11 Pro, you can start filming using the ultra-wide lens at 0.5x, then zoom in and when you reach 1x, the camera system will switch to the regular wide lens. Keep zooming in and when you reach 2x it will switch to the telephoto lens. There’s no hiccup in the footage, and no difference in lighting or color. This works for 720p and 1080p at frame rates up to 60 FPS, and for 4K at 24 and 30 FPS. The exception is 4K 60 FPS — when shooting 4K 60 FPS, once you start recording, you’re stuck with the lens you started with.
Google garnered much deserved praise last year for the Night Sight mode on its Pixel phones. The iPhones 11 now offer a similar feature Apple is calling Night Mode. Nomenclaturally, this is a bit weird, because on Pixels, Night Sight is a separate mode, and on iPhone 11, Night Mode is not a separate mode — it’s a feature that kicks in automatically in extreme low light conditions — about 10 or fewer lux. (If you don’t want Night Mode, you can turn it off by tapping a button, much like you can manually control the flash.)
When Night Mode is engaged, it simulates a long exposure of 1, 2, or 3 seconds. You hold the phone still and when it’s done, you get an image that effectively makes the camera seem like it can see in the dark. With traditional photography, handheld exposures of more than 1/30th of a second start to get blurry. You just can’t keep your hands still for that long. Two- or three-second exposures handheld just aren’t feasible in traditional photography. Night Mode, on the other hand, doesn’t require anything more than casually steady hands. It’s like being able to hold your hands as steady as a tripod.
Some comparison shots, between an iPhone XS and iPhone 11 Pro with Night Mode. These photos were shot at Hop Sing Laundromat — Philadelphia’s finest North Korean cocktail bar — lit by nothing but candlelight. No editing was performed on any of the files, other than to allow Photos to export HEIC originals as JPEGs.
iPhone XS (original image file):
iPhone 11 Pro (original image file):
iPhone XS (original image file):
iPhone 11 Pro (original image file):
Portrait mode on the iPhone 11 Pro now has two lens options: 1x and 2x, for the wide and telephoto lenses, respectively. When using Portrait Mode, you must snap to one of these focal lengths — there’s no way to pinch-to-zoom to something in between like 1.5x. The iPhone 11 Pro’s telephoto lens has an aperture of f/2.0; the telephoto lens on the XS (and X before it) was f/2.4. A lower number for the f-stop means a wider aperture, which means more light reaches the sensor, which means it works better in low light conditions. If you ever tried using Portrait Mode in dim lighting with an iPhone X or XS, you were probably disappointed. You can’t use Night Mode while in Portrait Mode, but the iPhone 11 Pro’s faster 2x lens allows you to take Portrait Mode shots that the iPhone XS can’t. Example:
iPhone XS (original image file):
iPhone 11 Pro (original image file):
The iPhone 11 Pro’s Portrait Mode in low light is far from perfect — if you look closely, it loses the back of the rim of the cocktail glass. But the iPhone XS portrait shot of the same scene is unusable.
Another bit of magic. There are two new options in Settings → Camera: “Photos Capture Outside the Frame” (off by default) and “Videos Capture Outside the Frame” (on by default). When these options are turned on, when you shoot with the 1x or 2x lenses (wide or telephoto), the Camera app will use the next widest lens to capture additional footage outside the frame of the lens you’re shooting with. In post, this allows you to rotate the photo or video — typically, to fix a crooked horizon — without cropping. This seems to be, unfortunately, a bit buggy in iOS 13.0, but when it works, it’s amazing. At some point when Apple has more confidence in this feature, I expect it to be on by default for both video and photos.
Last examples — both taken with the iPhone 11 Pro in Portrait Mode. I’m finding Portrait Mode with the 1x focal length to be a lot of fun. The 2x lens is better for capturing a flattering photo of a person willing to pose for you, but the 1x lens is better for small objects and pets. This is Mochi. Mochi looks good in both of these shots, but I think the 1x shot works better. It’s more fun to get closer.
iPhone 11 Pro Portrait Mode, 1x (original image file):
iPhone 11 Pro Portrait Mode, 2x (original image file):
A few other observations about the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro camera systems:
Night Mode is not available for the ultra-wide 11 Pro lens — it doesn’t have focus pixels like the other two lenses do. Only the wide angle lens has 100 percent focus pixels, but the wide angle lens covers the entire area of the telephoto lens.
The ultra-wide lens is fantastic, though, for action video.
The ultra-wide lens is so insanely wide that I need to learn a new phone grip while shooting photos. I caught my finger in the frame several times while shooting ultra-wide photos. Here’s a picture of me holding the phone in a way that feels very natural, but which puts the middle knuckle of my middle finger in the lower left of the field of view of the ultra-wide lens.
The entire Camera app UI has been redone for the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. Among a host of changes, square photography is no longer a separate mode, which never really made sense. Instead there’s a row of controls that slide out of the shutter button area, and one of these controls gives you three aspect ratio options for still photos: 1:1 (square), 4:3, and 16:9. When you choose 1:1 or 16:9, you can later re-crop the photo in editing to get the full 4:3 frame. These aspect ratios are non-destructive, for lack of a better word.
The iPhone 11 Camera app is very different, but I took to it right away. It feels less like an app and more like a camera. It’s just great software.
There are two ways to access this new row of options (including flash, timer, and live filters). There’s a chevron button at the top of the iPhone display; tap it to hide/show the option buttons. What I find myself doing, though, is just sliding the controls out from the shutter area, sort of like pulling Control Center down from the top of the display.
The Photos app now lets you edit video in most, if not all, of the ways you can edit photos. Cropping, applying filters, adjusting brightness and contrast, etc. A lot of these features are computationally impressive. Applying filters to 4K video with no render time? On a phone? But my favorite new feature is so simple: you can trim video now without saving the trimmed version as a new video. So if you just want to trim a few seconds from the end of a clip, you don’t wind up with two videos in your library.
The new SF Camera font is delightful. Literally no one is going to buy an iPhone 11 just to get a slightly more industrial-looking font in the Camera app, but it’s a nice bonus. Update: OK, OK, we all know there’s at least one person who might buy an iPhone 11 just to get the new SF Camera font.
QuickTake seems the closest to marketing spite, by which I mean this is such a great idea that I really think it ought to be part of the Camera app for all iPhones running iOS 13. This is the feature where you can just tap-and-hold the shutter button in Photo Mode to shoot video instead. Previously, pressing and holding the shutter button shot a burst of stills. I want to shoot video way more often than I want to shoot a burst of stills. If you do want to shoot a burst of stills, slide the shutter button to the left. Slide the shutter to the right to lock it into video recording, so you don’t have to keep your thumb down on the shutter button. (Also: nice name.)
The review units loaned to me by Apple are all green: green iPhone 11, “midnight green” iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max.
The pastel green of the iPhone 11 is not my style, but it’s an intriguing color. Depending on the lighting, it sometimes looks almost like Tiffany blue. I feel like Apple is really trying to make this clear case thing happen, because they continue to put a lot of work into the new colors for iPhones.
Last week I described the 11 Pro’s midnight green as having “a bit of a Boba Fett feel to it”. I stand by that. It’s a very cool-looking green. It looks quite different depending on the lighting conditions, though. In sunlight, it clearly looks green. Indoors, however, it looks more neutral, and sometimes even look like dark gray. I pre-ordered a space gray iPhone 11 Pro for my personal use, not so much because I dislike the midnight green as that I’m boring that way. If Apple had replaced space gray with midnight green, I’d have ordered midnight green and wouldn’t have complained. It really is a neat look, different from any phone finish I’ve seen before. It’s no surprise that Apple’s first two iPhone 11 Pro TV commercials exclusively feature the midnight green finish. (Both spots also look like they take place in a spaceship corridor where Boba Fett would feel right at home.)
The glass backs of the iPhone 8, X, XS, and XR have all been glossy. So is the back of the iPhone 11. The 11 Pro back has a matte finish, though. I like it. I won’t say it adds a lot of grippiness, but it adds some, and it definitely makes it possible to tell which side of the phone is which by feel. The texture feels very similar to — if not identical to — the matte glass trackpads on recent MacBooks.
I ran into a handful of bugs over the last week. One time Messages completely froze, and the phone started getting very warm. Force quitting Messages didn’t help — I had to power-cycle the phone to get Messages working again. Several times the keyboard in Messages went entirely white. I could actually still type, but I couldn’t see the keys I was pressing. With iOS 13.1 coming just 10 days after iPhone 11 units get into customer hands, I don’t see the point in belaboring this, but 13.1 needs to be a lot more stable than 13.0. 13.0 feels like a late stage beta.
Here I am, 5,000+ words into this review of these three phones, and my gut feeling is that the best way to review them is simply to show dozens of photos and videos shot with them, compared to the same photos and videos shot with older iPhones and competing Android phones. “Show, don’t tell”, is probably the best way to tell the story of the iPhones 11.
The battery life gains should be of interest to everyone, even those who don’t care about the camera, but if you’re not interested in the camera systems, I don’t see how there’s any way to get you excited about the iPhones 11.
Several times over the past few years, I’ve had conversations along the lines of, “I know they’re never going to do this, but wouldn’t it be cool if Apple made a real camera?” As the iPhone camera system evolves, I’m starting to think Apple is making a real camera, right under our noses — or perhaps better said, right in our pockets.
And let me just add this for those who insist that it’s some sort of problem that the iPhones 11 — no matter how improved their cameras are, no matter their longer battery life, no matter their faster yet-at-the-same-time more power-efficient A13 chips — seem like mere incremental upgrades over last year’s iPhone XS and XR models. When has it ever been different? Were you blown away when the iPhone 3G added 3G networking and GPS and nothing else and replaced the original iPhone’s wonderful aluminum case with cheap-feeling plastic? Did the differences between the iPhone 4 and 4S knock you off your feet? Do you honestly remember the differences between the 4 and 4S? Incremental year-over-year improvements are how Apple rolls. For the $700 it costs to buy a base model iPhone 11 — let alone the $1,450 it costs for a 512 GB iPhone 11 Pro Max — you ought to expect it to last three years or longer before you feel a need for a new iPhone.
I’m sure this footnote will put an end to this argument. ↩︎