iPhone 11 Pro review roundup: massive jump in camera quality, battery life claims deliver

The iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro reviews are out. The top line appears to be that Apple is meeting its promises, with industry-leading cameras and a notable jump in battery life.

Read on for some choice summaries from all the publications who got review units today …

Last year, The Verge’s Nilay Patel was one of the leading publications to criticise the iPhone XS Max’s efforts at Smart HDR, complaining that contrast was reduced and colors were flat. For the iPhone 11 Pro, it seems like Apple has dramatically improved its image processing algorithms in addition to upgrading the actual camera sensors.

In his review of the iPhone 11 Pro, Patel says that the iPhone 11 Pro photo quality now outclasses the Pixel and the other Android flagships overall. However, Patel pointed out that the iPhone’s performance in low-light and some other scenarios, like heavily backlit portraits, was not as good. Patel was impressed with the iPhone’s Night Mode though:

Speaking of night modes, it’s also really impressive, and it preserves a ton more detail than the Pixel. Apple’s Night mode comes on automatically in the dark with a suggested exposure time, which you can tweak or turn off if you want. The Pixel shot here looks more dramatic, but look a little closer: the iPhone has preserved all of the detail in the brick and graffiti, which is basically gone in the Pixel shot.

It’s not a universal win, and we’ll have to wait and see how Deep Fusion affects the output images. The reviewers did not get test the ‘computational mad science’ technology, which Apple has promised to ship in a future software update later in the year.

MKBHD has yet to publish a full review of the new phones, instead opting to do an unboxing of the new green-colored models:

WIRED was less enthusiastic than The Verge in regards to camera quality, generally agreeing on improvements to photo detail but criticized the color accuracy. Interestingly, the publication says that Apple has removed the setting that let you save the normal photo alongside the HDR-processed image. Now, it’s all HDR or no HDR. WIRED said it preferred Apple’s Night Mode as it comes on automatically and doesn’t require you to find a second special shooting mode like the Google Pixel experience. WIRED wholeheartedly praised the new iPhone battery life.

In my experience, it took me about 23 hours to drain the battery of the iPhone XS Max from 94 percent (I took it off the charger a little early) down to 57 percent. That’s a whole day on less than half a full charge. The Max hasn’t died on me yet, as I’ve been intermittently charging it over the past week. The iPhone 11 Pro is supposed to add an extra four hours to last year’s iPhone XS battery claims, though I have not yet been able to thoroughly test that assertion.

It’s not clear how strenuously WIRED was testing its devices but assuming average use, dropping from 94 percent to 57 percent over a 24 hour period on the iPhone 11 Pro Max is a remarkable feat.

The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern also reported positive battery life results, especially for the Pro models:

iPhone 11: In my full day using the 11 as my primary phone (email, a lot of Twitter and texting, phone calls, too much tapping through Instagram), I was left with a 15% charge by 11:30 p.m. The iPhone 11 streamed video on YouTube for 13 hours and 20 minutes—about 20 minutes longer than the XR. (Apple promises an extra hour of battery life.)

iPhone 11 Pro: With the 11 Pro as my primary phone, I was left with just under a 10% charge at 11 p.m. That’s far longer than I used to get with the X but not as long as with the 11. The 11 Pro streamed video on YouTube for 13 hours—three hours longer than the XS.

iPhone 11 Pro Max: On 11 Pro Max battery-testing day, I was left with a roughly 20% charge by lights out. I could go to sleep and wake up with enough juice to get me through the morning. Even after a grueling day of camera testing at the New York Renaissance Faire, it had 25% left, while the other two were in the dreaded 10% territory.

Images via TechCrunch

TechCrunch also echoed what The Verge said about the new HDR algorithms, that the iPhone 11 Pro generates images with much better balances of contrast and color, compared to the ‘flat’ photos taken by iPhone XS. Matthew Panzarino was particularly impressed with the iPhone’s new Night Mode:

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: iPhone 11’s Night Mode is great. It works, it compares extremely well to other low-light cameras and the exposure and color rendition is best in class, period.

I have this weird litmus test I put every new phone camera through where I take it on a dark ride, like Winnie the Pooh, to see if I can get any truly sharp usable image. It’s a great test because the black light is usually on, the car is moving and the subject is moving. Up until this point I have succeeded exactly zero times. But the iPhone 11 Pro pulled it off. Not perfect, but pretty incredible all things considered.

A common thread across all the write-ups is that Apple’s implementation of Night Mode successfully brightens the scene without making the image look weirdly synthetic or thematically wrong. The New York Times said ‘the result was that photos taken in low light without flash look brighter, in a natural way’.

The upgrades to the front camera are also universally praised. The front camera has been upgraded from a 7-megapixel to a 12-megapixel sensor, and now you can switch to landscape to get a wider range selfie shot.

Apple continues to forge ahead with video, and basically everyone agrees the iPhone offers the best video quality available in a phone. The iPhone 11 Pro can record 4K at 60 FPS on the ultra-wide, wide, zoom lens, and front camera. The back cameras can also run in the extended dynamic range mode, whilst maintaining full 60 FPS frame rate, which helps retain detail in low-to-medium light scenes.

Experiences with the improved multi-angle Face ID appear mixed. TechCrunch said they could not really see a difference compared to the iPhone XS, but USA Today’s anecdotal testing was the opposite:

Improved Face ID: With an assist from iOS 13, Apple’s facial recognition authentication system Face ID is faster and works from a wider angle. I was able to get past the lock screen with my mug even when the phone lay on a table or when I approached the screen from a bit of a distance and not quite face-on.

It sure seems like what Apple focused on — big improvements to cameras and battery life — is backed up by the experiences of the reviewers testing the phone. However, a lot of the reviews ended with a reiteration of the modern smartphone narrative: the new phones are good, the older phones are good. The rapid pace of smartphone change has undeniably slowed down. You shouldn’t feel compelled to upgrade every year, but when your time comes to trade in your old iPhone, the iPhone 11 Pro series has a lot to offer.

We’ll have our own hands on and reviews with the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max later this week. The iPhones go on sale on Friday, September 20.

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Avatar for Benjamin Mayo Benjamin Mayo

Benjamin develops iOS apps professionally and covers Apple news and rumors for 9to5Mac. Listen to Benjamin, every week, on the Happy Hour podcast. Check out his personal blog. Message Benjamin over email or Twitter.