Choosing a new iPhone used to be easy. Apple premiered big changes with a new model number (say, “iPhone 4”) and made subtle changes next year in an “S”-branded sequel. Each year’s iPhone was either a tick or a tock, and once you bought in, you could upgrade every two years with either the redesign or the refinement.

Now iPhones are on a tick-tock-tock cadence, either matching or causing user shifts toward longer, three-year upgrade cycles. There were so many similarities between the iPhone 6, 6S, and 7 that it’s hard to remember how they changed, even though each was “the best iPhone ever” when it came out. Having spoken with many users of older iPhones, my sense is that people are so satisfied with their devices that they’ll only upgrade when their phones stop working properly or there’s some huge new feature.

If that’s the bar by which you’re measuring your upgrade needs, this is a good year to hold off if you can. Apple has introduced the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max, but once you look past their slightly different back glass, they’re decidedly S-series updates — really the iPhone XRS, iPhone XSS, and iPhone XSS Max, on the tick-tock-tock system. Minus their camera changes, which are admittedly non-trivial, they’d have barely any reason to exist as new models.

Reliable reports suggest that next year’s iPhones will be dramatically overhauled with improved screens, much faster cellular performance, and even better camera hardware. Need something to tide you over? Last year’s iPhones are cheaper and less different from this year’s than ever before.

So who should consider the iPhone 11 family? That’s a good question, and one I’ll answer below.

Apple’s name game

iPhone names became confusing over the last few years, thanks in part to the iPhone X (“10”) and the subsequent releases of the upgraded iPhone XS and semi-downgraded iPhone XR, which normally would have been called the iPhone 9. Now Apple has cleaned up the names: The iPhone XR’s sequel is the iPhone 11, while the iPhone XS and XS Max sequels are the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Following recent Apple precedent, the Pro name doesn’t mean anything except “more stuff” and “more expensive.” The iPhone 11 Pro doesn’t have a ProMotion screen, professional-grade cameras, or better processor performance. There’s also no linear progression from non-Pro to Pro screen sizes or body sizes, an issue Apple is expected to address next year.

Instead, the 6.1-inch-screened iPhone 11 has two rear cameras, while the two Pro models are respectively smaller (5.8-inch) and larger (6.5-inch) in size, each with three rear cameras. But unlike last year, where the entry-level iPhone XR oddly had the longest battery life of the three models, this year’s iPhones step up in battery life as you pay more.

Obscuring battery life for fun and profit

After years of providing largely accurate run time estimates for iPhones, Apple now deliberately obscures each model’s battery life. For the last two years, it has said only that new models outperform their predecessors by a certain number of hours, so only by working backwards from older models can you discern the following new estimates of maximum battery life:

  • iPhone 11: 15.5-16.5 hours for internet use or video playback.
  • iPhone 11 Pro: 19.5 hours of internet or video use.
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max: 21.5 hours of internet or video use.

While Apple isn’t doing consumers any favors by making these numbers difficult to calculate, it’s true that no single number captures how people use their phones. Real-world battery drain depends on how you use the device, including screen brightness, speaker volume, and the types of apps you run; games and video recording are among the most significant battery killers.

Note that Apple’s numbers are based on moderate rather than maximum screen brightness and speaker output — which tend to get brighter and/or louder every device generation or so — as well as wireless network configurations that can’t necessarily be held completely consistent from year to year. So unless you’re planning to keep your screen dim and steer clear of games, view these numbers as maximums and you’ll be satisfied. Bear in mind that you’ll also be enjoying superior screen and/or processor performance compared with earlier devices.

Above: Mophie now sells a $139 three-device wireless charger designed to refuel an iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods at the same time — a concept Apple suggested as AirPower, then cancelled.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

Screen and processor performance

Although every iPhone 11 version looks virtually identical from the front, their screens are different. The base iPhone 11 has a 6.1-inch “Liquid Retina” LCD screen with 1792 x 828 resolution — that’s less than a 1080p television, as spec obsessives pointed out with the identical iPhone XR display last year. You fall to a 5.8-inch size but jump to a 2436 x 1125 resolution with the iPhone 11 Pro, and climb to 6.5 inches at 2688 x 1242 for the Max version.

There are only two changes this year. Apple doubled the contrast ratio of the Pro models to 2,000,000:1 by increasing the typical (800 nits) and peak (1200 nits) brightness of the screen for HDR video playback, a tweak the company calls “Super Retina XDR.” In practice, I’d wager that 99.9% of users would have a hard time seeing any difference between this year’s and last year’s screens, or between the Super Retina XDR and 625-nits Liquid Retina displays under typical usage conditions. They’re all as bright, colorful, and pixel-rich as the eye can see, while lacking in only one major regard: They could all stand to be brighter for outdoor viewing.

Above: Night shift, a feature that automatically reddens the display at night, can mess with the new XDR screen’s color performance.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

This year, Apple removed the force-sensing 3D Touch feature from the Pro screens, replacing it with the same single-level “Haptic Touch” alternative found on the iPhone XR and iPhone 11. 3D Touch was only modestly useful and poorly adopted, so losing it doesn’t make much of a difference. To make up for the omission, all of the new devices now support Live wallpaper that you can touch to animate, a feature Apple withheld from the XR last year. The iPhone 11 also gets a larger and cooler collection of Live wallpaper choices than the Pro models — six variations of shifting colored blobs versus the Pro’s four particle explosions.

On the processor front, Apple’s new A13 Bionic chip takes a fine step up from last year’s A12 Bionic, boasting roughly 20% improvements in single- and multi-core benchmarks. Geekbench 5 tests across all three iPhone 11 models suggest they’re all using the same A13 variant with the same clock speeds, backed by 4GB of RAM. This enables them to offer superb, even Mac-beating single-core performance, with multi-core performance that only falls short of last year’s iPad Pro (Geekbench 5 benchmarked at 4600).

In some years, the A series chips take such big steps that you can see or feel the difference versus prior models, but that’s generally not the case for the iPhone 11 — except if you’re really looking for it within specific apps. A much-improved neural processor is capable of assisting in the background with more complex computational photography tasks, as discussed in the camera section below. And for games, the iPhone 11’s Metal performance is over 40% better than the iPhone XS’s, though still only 70% of last year’s iPad Pro (Geekbench 5 Metal score: 9145), which boasted Xbox One-rivaling performance in a tablet form factor.

Apple’s approach means that any iPhone 11 can outperform today’s fastest Android phones by a significant amount in direct computational comparisons — even including dedicated gaming phones based on Qualcomm’s somewhat obscure Snapdragon 855 Plus chipset. But that’s offset by Apple’s major weakness in 2019: its reliance on Intel 4G modems as competitors shifted to Qualcomm’s faster 5G modems.

Wireless performance and U1

To simplify a much larger discussion, Apple’s choice of Intel modems previously meant that iPhones only lost cellular speed races against Android flagships by small amounts. The differences were there, but not enough for most people to care. 5G cellular is another story, since the 5G to 4G performance gulf is huge: Users are already seeing speeds 7 times faster on average, and 20 times faster in some cases. If 3G to 4G was the difference between crawling and walking, 4G to 5G is the difference between walking and running.

There’s a lot of bad information out there on this topic, but here’s the truth: Early 5G networks are already operational in some countries, and over the next two years they’ll spread while improving in performance. Thanks to Qualcomm, every major Android OEM has either already started shipping 5G phones or will be doing so for the holidays. By next year, most new phones are expected to include 5G modems, enabling users to enjoy hugely faster downloads over the three years they might keep their phones.

While all the new iPhones technically support “Gigabit LTE,” cell tower realities mean that you probably won’t get any faster cellular performance from an iPhone 11 than last year’s models. In my testing with Ookla’s Speedtest, the iPhone 11 Pro typically saw the same mediocre 30Mbps 4G speeds as an iPhone XR, despite generation-better internal hardware. This isn’t anywhere near the device’s capabilities, but tracks with the latest studies of typical U.S. 4G download speeds.

The only time I saw the iPhone 11 or 11 Pro hit speeds in the 500-600Mbps range was over a Wi-Fi 5 connection with my 1Gbps home broadband service; the new phones notably include Wi-Fi 6, as well, for whenever Wi-Fi 6 routers become common. That’s excellent performance over Wi-Fi, but a OnePlus 7 Pro clocked 606Mbps on the same Wi-Fi 5 test — and hit nearly 500Mbps on a 5G cellular connection in Los Angeles.

Above: The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G can achieve cellular speeds akin to the iPhone 11’s fastest Wi-Fi speeds, if you’re near 5G towers.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

Unless you’re planning to upgrade again soon, buying an iPhone 11 means being stuck with 4G — albeit late-stage, multi-antenna 4G — during international 5G rollouts. The huge performance benefits of 5G were enough for Apple to abruptly switch to Qualcomm for next year’s iPhones, and for Intel to cease making smartphone modems. You can decide what’s best for your own pocketbook, but if you’re looking for a big leap forward to justify a new phone purchase, you’ll find it next year in 5G.

It’s also worth noting that Apple has added a new “ultra-wideband” wireless chip called the U1 to all three iPhone 11 models, saying only that it enables more precise device location for wireless data transfers. For now, the only way to test it is to AirDrop a file from one iPhone 11 to another, a process that doesn’t seem much different from before, but it’s possible that the chip will enable future accessories, such as Apple locator tags and/or wireless AR headsets. Until that happens, the chip is just a curiosity.

Cameras

Much has been made of the iPhone 11’s ugly rear camera squares, which have increased dramatically in size from what used to be called “camera bumps” in prior devices. But I’d argue the new cameras are the only reason to upgrade from a one- or two-year-old iPhone to an iPhone 11. While next year’s devices are expected to take another leap forward, superior photography is the sole way 2019’s iPhones stand out from 2018’s.

There are three key changes this year. First and foremost, each iPhone gains a 0.5x ultra wide-angle rear lens and sensor, such that the iPhone XR’s 1x rear camera moves to a 0.5x (13mm/120-degree FOV) + 1x (26mm) combination, and the iPhone XS’s 1x + 2x (52mm) rear camera becomes 0.5x + 1x + 2x. You’re not gaining more zoom-in capability; instead you get more zoom-out to capture larger landscapes.

Somewhat disappointingly, Apple’s updated Camera app feels like a work in progress rather than a finished product. Between an influx of new icons, semi-secret gestures, and a hidden tray for settings, the once simple Camera app has finally become more confusing than third-party alternatives. So while you can enjoy more features, you’ll have to teach yourself to use them, and re-learn some old ones, too.

There are more buttons than before, some inside a tray that opens when you press an arrow at the edge of the screen. Much of the UI can go transparent to provide a larger view for composing shots, aided by adding the output from two of the rear cameras together.

Shifting between the ultra-wide and standard lenses is fairly easy and fun, and if you learn the new app’s button-swipe tricks, you can quickly record a video while shooting photos, take burst photos, and open the tray to access settings. Oddly, in-tray icons duplicate persistent flash and Live photo buttons, while two Night Mode buttons appear out of nowhere when ambient light gets dim, disappearing otherwise.

The jury’s out on whether average users will appreciate the new 0.5x perspective more than a superior zoom lens. On the one hand, the ultra-wide angle introduces some obvious (and natural) distortion. But on the other hand, it’s likely to change the way many people take pictures and videos. With the potential to capture so much of a background, you’ll really begin to consider the ideal framing for a photo or video, while finding it easier to capture grand vistas without stepping backwards five feet — the larger world will suddenly feel closer at all times.

As a long-time photographer, I prefer the approach OnePlus took with the rear camera array on the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, which goes from 0.6x to 3x (5x total zoom) rather than Apple’s 2x (0.5x to 1x) range on the iPhone 11 and 4X (0.5x to 2x) range on the iPhone 11 Pro. This enables better close-ups and landscape shots that are nearly as wide. Additionally, OnePlus’s 1x camera can switch between 12- and 48-megapixel modes, while Apple’s is stuck at 12. One can argue about the practical value of a tiny 48-megapixel sensor, but it’s nice to have the option for additional detail when you need it.

Resolution does matter. The second change Apple made this year was bumping each iPhone 11 model’s front camera from last year’s 7 megapixel resolution, such that the front and rear cameras now all share 12 megapixel resolutions. You can now toggle the front camera between a full, wider frame or a more cropped view akin to last year’s, and record slow-motion 1080p video at up to 240fps (“slofies,” in Apple parlance), as well as 4K video at up to 60fps. I found perspective distortion from the wider angle to be a little distracting when moving around during FaceTime calls, but it’s not terrible.

Third, Apple is introducing two computational photography features: Night Mode and Deep Fusion. Night Mode is available now, automatically switching the camera to capture and composite multiple images to produce brighter images at night. In my testing, the feature works quite well — akin to Google’s Night Sight — while also benefitting from superior light gathering from the rear lenses. Any shot you take in dim light will look brighter than on even the best prior iPhones, and if Night Mode automatically activates, it will bring brightness and color levels up even further, assuming you hold the device still for a second or two to let it work its compositing magic.

Deep Fusion promises to rapidly snap nine images and take the best details from each to create an idealized final photo — a machine learning trick Apple is calling “mad science.” We’ll have to see how the feature actually works when it’s released, but it’s clear that computational photography is (belatedly) becoming a major enabler of next-generation cameras, and possibly the most transformational element of this year’s devices.

Going forward, I’d like to see Apple bring a 3x optical zoom lens and higher resolution sensor array to the rear of iPhones, while minimizing the front camera within a dot, or behind the screen. But reports suggest that it may instead just focus on 3D depth scanning by adding a time-of-flight sensor to the rear camera array and using a smaller front notch instead of the large ones we’ve seen over the last three cycles. Regardless, next year is likely to bring some major changes.

Charging and USB-C

One subtle but potentially important difference between the iPhone 11 and both iPhone 11 Pro models is a difference in chargers and charging cables. While the iPhone 11 comes with the same 5W USB wall charger and USB-to-Lightning cable found in many prior iPhone boxes, both iPhone 11 Pro models ship with 18W USB-C wall chargers and USB-C-to-Lightning cables.

Each of the last several iPhones has been capable of refueling faster when connected to an 18W charger, but Apple has sold the better chargers and cables separately until this year. Their inclusion this time signals that the consumer transition to USB-C is well underway, as you can use the same cable to recharge from USB-C ports on many laptop and desktop computers, as well as the latest iPad Pros.

One feature that’s not included with the iPhone 11s, despite rumors, is bidirectional wireless charging — the ability of an iPhone to refuel AirPods or an Apple Watch on the go. Each model is still capable of recharging using a wireless inductive charger, however, and there are a huge number of Apple-licensed (Mophie) and more basic, less expensive Qi chargers that make recharging as easy as resting your phone on a mat.

Above: Totalee is one of many companies now offering attractively minimalist Qi wireless chargers that work with iPhones.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

Apple-licensed chargers tend to be capable of refueling iPhones faster than standard Qi models, a factor that matters more in the iPhone 11s than before due to their larger battery capacities. If you really need high-speed charging and are willing to (breathe deeply) connect a cable to get it, the 18W adapter is the way to go.

Choosing a model, if at all, and conclusions

Assuming you’re seriously in need of replacing your iPhone right now, you have a fairly straightforward choice to make: the “good for everyone” iPhone 11 or one of the “better for some people” iPhone 11 Pros. I’d personally fork the choice this way: If you’re a serious photographer, go with one of the 256GB Pro models, picking one based on the screen size that best fits your needs; otherwise, choose the less expensive 11, preferably at a 128GB capacity.

If you follow this recommendation, you’re looking at the following prices for your investment:

  • iPhone 11: $749 (128GB). Save $50 by going with a tight 64GB storage capacity, which you may cramp with photos, but probably skip the $849 256GB model.
  • iPhone 11 Pro: $1,149 (256GB). Save $150 by dropping to 64GB storage, or go nuts with the $1,349 512GB model.
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max: $1,249 (256GB), again $150 less with 64GB, or $200 more for 512GB.

Make no mistake; Apple knows the models I spotlighted are in its sweet spots and deliberately sells just-uncomfortable-enough steps under them to bring people in the door and then compel them to spend more for extra memory. You could probably squeeze your favorite apps, photos, videos, and so on into 64GB of storage, but then you’ll need to worry about deleting things in the future to manage free space, and who wants to deal with that?

Picking the iPhone 11 over the Pro has advantages beyond price. You get to pick from six glossy colors, including new pale yellow and purple shades, a nice new mint green, a slightly flatter red than XR’s, and straightforward black and white versions. Meanwhile, the Pros come in space gray, silver/white, midnight green, and pink-hinted gold.

The Pro models have frosted rear glass with a glossy camera, the inverse of the 11, and use a much stronger Gorilla Glass variant to promise greater drop and water resistance than the base model — cases are still recommended. I really like the frosted glass look, though the previously black Pro is now decidedly closer to gray, matching the latest iMac Pros and Mac minis, while the green color is only barely visible, and the former white is closer to silver than Apple’s bright white Magic Trackpad.

Because I cover Apple professionally, I typically upgrade my iPhone every year regardless of whether it’s worthwhile or not, just to stay current with the technology. I also take lots of pictures and videos each year, so a non-trivial camera upgrade alone is enough to matter to me. But this isn’t the way most people operate, so with $699 to $1,449 (plus taxes) of your money on the line, I’m giving you the same advice I’d offer a friend: Pass on all three of these models if you can.

Apple’s tick-tock-tock strategy has yielded 2019 iPhones that are so similar to last year’s models that you’d have trouble picking them out of a lineup from the front — and might not like looking at them from the back. Due to improvements in Android designs, screens, and cameras, this isn’t a year when Apple is destroying its rivals on anything except chip performance. Even then, it’s a laggard in modems and will need until at least next year to catch up.

The iPhone 11s are best suited to hard-core Apple fans who update frequently, and users who can’t or don’t want to wait until next year when huge changes are guaranteed. If you’re in one of those camps, you’ll be very happy with Apple’s latest incremental updates; otherwise, I’d recommend saving your money for 2020.