If you decide you can live without a zoom lens and an OLED display, then the iPhone 11 has everything you need for a fairly reasonable price.
Picking an iPhone now feels a lot like picking a laptop. It used to be that the iPhone you’d be interested in would be “the new one”. Apple put paid to that whole idea years ago but now it feels like a legitimate exercise to line up all your options and compare the numbers. Or at least the features that matter to you. Because not only are there three new ones, including this iPhone 11, there’s also last year’s bestselling iPhone XR still on sale and cheaper than ever. So that’s four already.
This is not going to be a grand iPhone review, waxing on about innovation out of Cupertino, but it’s worth saying now that the iPhone 11 is a futureproof phone – it has the fewest features of the 2019 cohort but even these might be overkill for a lot of people. So let’s do it, let’s situate the iPhone 11 in the line-up to help you pick the right model. It won’t be as tedious as choosing a laptop, honest.
Dual cameras come to the ‘cheap iPhone’
For at least three years, it’s been conventional wisdom that Android has raced ahead when it comes to phone cameras. That doesn’t take into account the fact that the iPhone has always produced very sharp, bright, balanced images in good light and has always been very capable for video. But it’s fair to say Huawei, Google and the rest have offered more technically superior, not to mention versatile, camera hardware and software to Apple recently. Now with the iPhone 11 series Apple has caught up… and then some.
Next to the £629 iPhone XR, which as we said should be on your shortlist, the iPhone 11 offers two big improvements that will cut through. It’s a dual camera setup, with a second 120 degree, 13mm equivalent ultra-wide lens and there’s a new auto night mode that works a treat. The thing that’s missing here is the third telephoto lens of the 11 Pro but there is decent 5x digital zoom.
The ultra-wide is fun if you like to experiment, it’s not too distorted and Apple makes the most out of it. Just tap the icon in the camera app to toggle between 1x (regular wide) and 0.5x (ultra wide) when shooting still photos or video.
There’s also the handy option to always capture shots with the ultra wide too, as a sort of backup if the main lens doesn’t get everything in the frame; the idea is they’re stored for 30 days in case you want to switch. Elsewhere, there’s a few minor photo extras, such as the very stylised High Key Low Mono effect in Portrait mode and the slow motion selfies.
A night mode that’s worth the upgrade
But the auto night mode is essentially the reason to upgrade to the iPhone 11. Take that away and it’s difficult to make the case – right now at least, remember that futureproofing – why you shouldn’t just buy an XR.
You can’t manually trigger night mode (classic Apple) but it’s very sensitive to the extent that the icon will pop up in the corner even when you’re in a semi badly lit room. You can turn it off and play around with the slider that changes the extended shutter time to, for example, two or three seconds for taking a variety of long and short exposures.
It’s all very quick and intuitive to use and the results are immediately obvious. The larger main sensor helps for low light video too, though stills are where the real nighttime action is. There’s also no night mode on the ultra-wide angle lens and the difference is, forgive us, night and day.
As long as you keep your hand still, and the optical image stabilisation on the main camera does help here, the night/poorly lit scene is illuminated in a way that doesn’t necessarily look very natural but does produce extremely usable images. So good that in side-by-side comparisons with rival flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S10, for instance, it now comes down to personal preference which look you prefer.
Spec and battery boosts that add up
Even putting the new features of iOS 13 to one side – dark mode, Find My and revamped privacy controls are a few that stick out – Apple has made tweaks here and there. None turn the iPhone 11 into an entirely different experience to the iPhone XR but nonetheless you might want to pay for them.
There’s an hour extra battery, which doesn’t hurt, and Apple’s claim that the 11 can go for 10 hours of video streaming is on par with what we’ve seen in our testing. There’s no 18W fast charger in the box (unlike with the Pros) and we haven’t been able to test out whether it can go from nought to 80 per cent in 30 minutes yet. But if you want to buy one, it costs £29.
Throw the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max into the mix and the 11 Pro only offers one more hour of regular use over the iPhone 11, a neat example of how narrow the gap between this £729 phone and the £1,000+ phone really is.
Apple also says this is now the “toughest glass in a smartphone”, down to it being strengthened via a dual ion-exchange. We dropped our iPhone 11 a couple of times and it survived unsmashed – only time will tell if iPhones can realistically go without cases long term.
It’s easy to forget that the audio performance of the iPhone, with good headphones, is excellent. Apple has put more effort into spatial audio this year, with Dolby Atmos support which now seems to be something of a standard across phones. Of course that relies on the quality of what you’re watching or listening to – we still think the stereo speakers lend themselves to music and podcasts more than movies and games, though.
Design and screen: must try harder
The new colours for the glossy back, including pastel green and purple, are fun but the sleek profile is long gone with a double bump on the back to accommodate the new camera setup. One ding is that the overall design does now look outdated next to the latest Android phones, due to the slightly large notch and fairly noticeable bezels, in a way that perhaps it didn’t last year.
It’s still well made and ergonomic but it’s tricky to see a way back to the clean lines with the focus so heavily on camera hardware. For the first time, part of an iPhone looks a bit ugly and that can’t be good for Apple’s street cred.
The 6.1-inch LCD display is still terrific. Side-by-side you’ll notice that the fancy OLEDs on the 11 Pro will go brighter or produce deeper blacks for those arthouse movies or photo editing you’re planning to do. But we don’t think it’s a problem that Apple has kept this screen tech one of the few points of difference between the real flagships and this very, very good go-to iPhone.
It seems a bit lax to have this display stuck on 326ppi, though. This has been the threshold for Apple’s Retina displays for aeons now and we’d certainly like to see a higher resolution next time around. The 11 Pro, by comparison, is a pin-sharp 458ppi on its smaller 5.8-inch screen. Perhaps after the success of the iPhone XR, Apple went all-in on this spec.
In the US, this is a $700 (£560) smartphone. For an iPhone this good, that’s incredibly affordable. Over here in the UK, £729 is a good price but it’s not exactly troubling OnePlus until you consider the quite generous trade-in program that’s worth checking out.
The iPhone 11 runs on the same A13 Bionic chip as the Pro models and that means that when features like Apple’s Deep Fusion computational photography tech, i.e its machine learning-powered camera feature that stitches together multiple images for even better results, come out of developer beta, the humble iPhone 11 will get that too.
It also has Apple’s U1 chip inside, which right now allows you to point your iPhone 11 at another iPhone 11 for quick, fuss-free AirDrops but could very quickly become key to Apple’s plans for precise, location tech.
Which is to say that for most people, this will be more than enough iPhone. The 11 offers enough to make it well worth the extra £100 over the iPhone XR and to be honest, it’s really quite difficult to find things to criticise with this phone.
This not an amateur device, far from it. Aside from the slightly better battery life, especially on the Pro Max, the iPhone 11 Pro isn’t solving problems with the iPhone 11, it’s just layering specs on top of an already excellent product. If you decide you can live without a zoom lens and an OLED display, we’d be very surprised if you missed them.