I had been thinking of upgrading to the iPhone XS for a while now because I was ready to accept the notch life and get some more screen real estate. I’m glad I didn’t. I was in the US last month long enough that I was able to get myself a (PRODUCT)RED™ iPhone 11 and an Apple Watch Series 5. After more than a month of daily use, I’m ready to sum up my thoughts in this iPhone 11 review.
Who should upgrade to iPhone 11?
If you have an iPhone 8 or earlier, you can consider upgrading to the iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro. If you already have an iPhone X, or XS or XS Max, I don’t think you need to upgrade. Besides, the 11 is not really an upgrade from a XS or XS Max. It’s an upgrade from last year’s iPhone XR.
I had the iPhone 8 Plus for a couple years and I wanted to upgrade. I bought an iPhone XR for a friend and was debating with myself whether to wait for the 11 or get the XR for myself as well. As the phones hit the stores on September 20th, and I was in the US till 23rd, I went to the Apple store and decided to get an iPhone 11 for myself at just $100 more than the price of an iPhone XR.
Why iPhone 11 vs iPhone 11 Pro?
First of all, I hated the design. Ever since the leaks hit the sites, I found the camera design on the rear ridiculously ugly. I was frustrated when the iPhone 11 Pro was announced as it shattered what little hope I had that the final design would look better. If you ask me, this is my most hated Apple design so far, dethroning the previous king which is the way you charge the Magic Mouse 2.
While the Pixel 4’s camera design somehow made iPhone 11 Pro cameras look better (who knew that was possible!), an argument could be made that you don’t really look at the back of your phone every day to see how ugly it is.
This is my most hated Apple design so far, dethroning the previous king which is the way you charge the Magic Mouse 2.
This might be a good trade-off given that the camera technology on the iPhone 11 Pro is really, really good. And when the advanced computational photography (Deep Fusion) hits iOS, those cameras will only become smarter.
But there’s another thing to consider, the price. The iPhone 11 is $300 cheaper than the iPhone 11 Pro. Is $300 extra worth the extra camera technology that you’re getting? The answer depends on the user. I had just purchased a $2000 camera (Full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R) so I wanted to save every bit I could on the phone.
Side note: All photos of the iPhone 11 and Apple Watch Series 5 were taken using the Canon EOS R.
Since I didn’t necessarily need the absolute best camera on the phone, I decided to save the money and go for the iPhone 11. Till now, I don’t regret that decision.
Getting used to Face ID
Face ID is not a new technology at this point. It’s been there since the launch of iPhone X. At that time, I decided not to go for a brand new tech (as is my motto with most things tech) and instead opted for the iPhone 8 Plus.
About two years later, I’ve jumped to the Face ID culture. If you’re upgrading to any of the iPhones this year — iPhone XR, 11, 11 Pro, or 11 Pro Max — you have no way but to get used to the Face ID. So this section may be relevant to you.
My experience with Face ID has mostly been positive. I mean, it works when it works. Throughout the day, I don’t have to think about it. I just look at the phone and it’s unlocked. However, the problem arises when I’m trying to unlock at unusual positions — like when I’m in my bed.
But it strikes me as one of the cases where I have to adjust myself so that the tech works for me while it should have been the other way around.
For example, if I’m unlocking my phone in the morning while still lying on the bed, the iPhone constantly fails to read my face. I figured out that it was having issues for one of three reasons: i. My face was too close to the phone. ii. My face was partially blocked by the pillow. iii. The orientation of the iPhone was not symmetrical to my face.
With Touch ID, I didn’t have to think about them. I’d press the home button and it would unlock no matter what position, orientation, or distance of the phone was in relation to my face. With Face ID, I have to make sure it’s at an adequate distance with no blockers.
I mean, it’s obvious. The sensor needs to read my face without any blocker to unlock. But it strikes me as one of the cases where I have to adjust myself so that the tech works for me while it should have been the other way around. And I’m not happy about it.
You may have noticed that I have a special edition of the iPhone. It’s called (PRODUCT)RED™.
From Apple: “A portion of each purchase goes towards counseling, testing, and medication to prevent mothers from passing HIV to their babies. So far, you’ve helped us raise over $200 million for (RED).”
Of course, that wasn’t the primary reason why I went for a (PRODUCT)RED™ iPhone 11, I’m just saying that it’s a good thing Apple has been doing.
This is most noticeable when I’m working on my desk, the phone is lying on the side, and I want to unlock it. Previously, I could just rest my finger on the home button and it would unlock. Now, I have to lift it or position my face in a way that it can read me. It’s a small thing, but do it enough times and it gets annoying.
On the upside, the Face ID works reliably almost always. When I set up the phone (and Face ID), I had some facial hair. (See how much here.) But after coming back home and trimming the facial hair, the iPhone 11 failed to recognize me anymore. I had to unlock using the passcode each time.
Fortunately, the phone has what’s called “alternative look” that could be set up from the settings, similar to setting up other fingerprints. I’ve done that and it hasn’t given me any problem ever since.
There’s an entire army out there storming the comments section on YouTube and Facebook asking the very important question, why Apple has failed to get rid of the notch while there are notch-less phones from other brands out there.
I don’t have an answer to that, but I can tell you for certain that I’ve stopped noticing the notch from day 2.
Every iPhone X, XS, XR, and now 11 and 11 Pro users I’ve spoken to, all of them shared a similar story. The notch stands out when you keep looking at it on pictures and videos on the web. As soon as it becomes a part of your palm, you stop noticing it.
I think the iPhone X users noticed it more than I do since most apps weren’t updated to take the notch into account. So apps and games must have looked weird with the notch. However, these days, most apps are designed with the notch in mind, so you don’t really notice that it’s there.
The funny thing is, I notice the notch only on the system status bar. Because it takes up a significant amount of space, the system can’t show all the icons that I should be seeing.
The saddest victim of that is the battery percentage. I couldn’t get it to show on the status bar simply because there is no space. When I turn on VPN, the VPN icon isn’t there all the time to remind me to turn it off when not needed anymore. Similarly, when Hotspot is active, there is no blue indicator at the top. It’s on the top left corner that is very easy to miss.
I realize I’m nitpicking at this point, but I should do this for the sake of preparing you as you’ll encounter these little inconveniences too if you upgrade to the latest iPhones.
Goodbye 3D Touch; Hello Long Press
I was surprised when some of my colleagues said they weren’t using 3D Touch on their iPhone that much. I used it every single day. Because 3D Touch is a silly name, let’s just call it what it truly is: Force Touch.
I force touch the Safari icon every day to show bookmarks or reading lists. I force touch the camera app icon to open the video camera or selfie mode directly. When browsing the web, I force touch links to see a preview and open it in a new tab if I’m interested in that link. I also force touch the Philips Hue app icon to quickly change the lights in my room to different scenes.
The good news is, while the 3D touch’s technology is gone, the interface is still sort of there. Instead of applying force, you just long press on any app icon and you get what was previously the 3D touch menu. Apple calls it Haptic Touch and the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max have it too.
To be honest, it didn’t take me too long to get used to it, as I don’t mind not having to apply force on the screen. But it does mean if you want to rearrange your apps, you will have to long-long press (that is, long press, see the context menu, then keep pressing to see the app icons start to wiggle). Alternatively, you can long press and then tap “Rearrange Apps” so the app icons start wiggling.
I’m not sure why Apple has decided to get rid of the 3D Touch technology, especially since it’s still there on Apple Watch Series 5, but I shouldn’t ask this while there are more important questions like why they still have lightning connector on iPhones despite making the jump to USB-C on iPads and Macs.
Display, Sound quality, Form Factor
iPhone 11 does not have the best display Apple has to offer especially compared to the 11 Pro. However, it’s a damn good display. You could probably notice a difference if you put both side-by-side. But you don’t do that every day. So you don’t notice any slight loss of display quality on the iPhone 11.
I enjoy looking at the display. It’s bright, contrasty, and lacks the saturated look of the OLED displays. You may like that look of OLED displays that most Samsung devices have, but I personally like the true-to-life color that’s on the iPhone 11.
The sound quality is a definite improvement from the 8 Plus. Even when the alarm (Radar) rings, it has an echoing effect that I really like. It gives you a sort of theatrical feel. Apple says iPhone 11 speakers have Dolby Atmos. It’s kind of tricky to explain or even differentiate since I’m not an audio expert nor an audiophile, but I can tell you one thing, the sound sounds amazing! 😁
The iPhone 11 is really comfortable in hand. It’s narrower when compared to the iPhone 8 Plus that I previously had. My friends tell me my phone got smaller even though, in reality, the display size is bigger.
I like that Apple doesn’t go for wide-body phones. Instead, it’s longer diagonally. That means even though the phone’s screen size gets bigger, they fit comfortably in hand.
The red iPhone 11 is a bit darker in shade compared to the red iPhone XR that my friend got. You wouldn’t notice the difference if you didn’t have them side-by-side, but I wanted to mention just in case the shade makes a difference to you.
You will also notice from the pictures that depending on the lighting condition, the ‘saturation’ of the red increases or decreases a little bit.
Cameras – The king of the hill bump
If you watched Apple’s iPhone event this year, you must’ve noticed that when they were talking about the iPhone, the entire focus was on the camera and the capabilities of them.
I’ve found iPhone 11 cameras to be a mix of good, great, and ugly.
The good is that the main camera packs a good punch in almost all lighting conditions. In bright daylight, the pictures are sharp and have a true-to-life feel to the color. They don’t feel oversharpened or oversaturated in any way. I’ve always been a fan of iPhone shots in broad daylight. So it was no surprise that the picture quality kept getting better.
New this year is the Night Mode. iPhone’s camera game was not in the front line thanks to Google’s Pixel phones and a bunch of other Android phones that had really great night mode cameras. However, with iPhone 11 (and certainly the 11 Pro), Apple is back in the game.
How are Night Mode photos?
The night mode shots are awesome. It’s the “great” part of the camera. I was originally frustrated when I noticed that the night mode shots were like long exposures. I mean, as someone who dabbles in photography, I knew you get a brighter shot if you increase your exposure time. But that means you get a blurry shot. Every tiny movement will show up blurred because of how light works.
And then, my mind was blown when I came across this article by Austin Mann and tested it on my iPhone to prove that he was right.
A bunch of wizardry goes on when you tap that shutter button in night mode. In traditional cameras, the sensor is exposed to the light taking one, long, continuous exposure (shot). As a result, the image is brighter, but every movement is blurred out. It’s how they take those waterfall pictures where the water looks like cream soup.
However, the iPhone seems to work a bit differently. I don’t know how differently for sure, but if Austin Mann is correct, it takes a bunch of shots at varying durations and then blends them together so that any action (movement) in the scene is in one quick snap (therefore, frozen and sharp) and everything else is brightened up by the longer exposure.
The result? Really great night pictures that don’t even try to look like they were shot in daylight.
As Austin Mann puts it:
One thing I love about Apple’s approach to Night mode is the strategic balance of solving a technical problem while also caring deeply about artistic expression. When you look at the image above, it’s clear their team didn’t take the let’s-make-night-look-like-day approach, as some of their competitors have. Instead, it feels more like an embrace of what it actually is (night) while asking, “How do we capture the feel of this scene in a beautiful way?”
Ultra-wide: a new perspective, an ugly rendition
I have to be honest, I really like the ultra-wide lens in the iPhone 11. It shoots images in an unusual perspective. You get more in the shot. Even though I’ve had many lenses for my DSLR cameras, I’ve never had any ultra-wide lens, so I appreciate the new perspective this lens unlocks for me.
Unfortunately, it’s just the perspective that’s good. Everything else is ugly. I first noticed it when I felt that the pictures shot on the ultra-wide lens weren’t nearly as sharp as the regular camera. After digging into Google’s second and third search result pages, I found that others shared a similar experience.
Let the light dim even a little and the picture quality on the ultra-wide lens drops to the floor.
While the main lens packs all the night mode and portrait mode goodness on the iPhone 11, the secondary, ultra-wide lens packs nothing but a wider view. It doesn’t have a night mode. It doesn’t have good sharpness. It lacks clarity and color. Let the light dim even a little and the picture quality on the ultra-wide lens drops to the floor.
I was seriously disappointed with this. I mean, I really do love the ultra-wide perspective. But the lack of good quality anywhere other than broad daylight makes the secondary camera almost useless if you want to take any usable shots indoors.
Look at the samples below. One of them is taken with the night mode in the main camera while the other one was shot in the ultra-wide camera. The difference is staggering.
Of course, the camera performs a lot better under ideal lighting conditions, but you can still notice the drop in quality when compared to the main camera.
The iPhone 11 does not have a third zoom camera. I’m used to the 2x optical zoom lens on the iPhone 8 Plus. I miss that lens quite a bit. When I got the new phone, I was like, it’s okay, an ultra-wide lens is better for creative shots compared to a zoom lens.
Sadly, in my experience, the ultra-wide camera is a disappointment, at least on the iPhone 11. I’m not sure about the 11 Pro.
Shot on iPhone 11
Here’s a gallery of shots taken on the iPhone. Photo resized for web optimization, so the actual quality is a tad better. If you want to dive into these shots in full size, you can download here.
Wrapping up – the iPhone 11
If I had to sum everything up in a single paragraph, I’d just say, I’m happy overall with the purchase of this $699 smartphone. It looks good. It works fast. It has a great display and enjoyable sound quality. Face ID works great when in the right orientation and angle. Cameras are mostly great. Though the ultra-wide camera performs poorly in low light situations, the main camera makes up for it with superb quality night mode photos that blend technical achievement with artistic essence.
And finally, the phone packs powerful hardware that makes apps and games launch and works really, really fast. I did run into occasional issues when the phone completely froze for several minutes and then it resumed working, but I believe that was an iOS flaw that might have already been fixed with the latest update to 13.1.3.
Whether this will be your first smartphone or you’re upgrading from an iPhone 8 or earlier, I think the iPhone 11 makes for a solid purchase. It’s the best bang for bucks in Apple’s garden. Unless you need the absolute latest and the best camera on an iPhone, you don’t really need to get the iPhone 11 Pro (but if you do, you won’t regret that either! 😁 ).
Whichever you get, think about getting an Apple Watch Series 5 too to complement the iPhone!
So, what do you think? Let me know your questions, thoughts about any of the latest iPhones or experience if you already got one of them. I hope you found the iPhone 11 review useful and informative in some way. If not, let me know that too. 🥺