In each of the past 12 years, Apple has, without fail, released a new iPhone. Some have been massive upgrades that show a clear step-change over what the company—and the industry—has produced. Others have spotlighted internal upgrades without changing much on the outside, and some have seemed to just be a fresh coat of paint.
I expected the iPhone 11 Pro Max to mainly be external changes, plus a new camera. Apple has quietly slipped to overhauling the design and feel of its iPhones every three years—having previously released a new design every two years. It felt like an admission, as evidenced in earnings reports, that Apple’s flagship product had lost a little of its luster. The 11 Pro Max, aside from its massive camera bump, looked quite similar to the last two phones Apple has produced. It didn’t seem clear that there would be a reason to buy this very expensive smartphone over other recent iPhones.
And then I spent a week with it.
What’s good about the iPhone 11 Pro Max
You can argue that having three cameras on the back of your top-of-the-line smartphone is table stakes in 2019. And just having a lot of cameras doesn’t lead to the phone being able to take good pictures. Apple always has very good cameras in its phones. For this one, chief marketing officer Phil Schiller doubled down on the quality of the camera by declaring that the “Pro” part of the name relates to how good its cameras are.
Three 12-megapixel cameras, including a telephoto lens that allows for 2x zoom, and a new ultra-wide-angle camera, can create photos with a 120-degree field of view. It makes for some pretty dramatic shots:
The phone also does a fantastic job of pulling out colors and capturing great detail, even zoomed in. Here are a few of the favorite shots I’ve taken recently:
Night mode works
Apple introduced a new mode that’s uses AI to help brighten images shot in dimly lit places. Similar to features Google’s Pixel 3 and Samsung’s newer phones have, it generally works really well. On a work trip to Seattle last week, I took a photo looking out of a high-rise window at night, expecting nothing to come out great. I was stunned with what I got:
This mode also managed to recently make a dimly lit burger (one of the best in New York, it turns out) look pretty fantastic, even though the bar was so dark I needed a candle to read the menu:
Great video features
The powerful A13 Bionic chip that powers the iPhone 11 Pro Max is more than capable of shooting extremely high-quality 4K videos at 60 frames per second. Even something as random as tossing fish around Seattle’s Pike Place market looks fantastically smooth:
(And that was shot in HD, not 4K, as I’d forgotten to switch over to 4K.)
Excellent battery life
One of the most common complaints with each new iPhone launch is that Apple has traded thinness for battery life. Not this time.
The iPhone 11, about as thick as last year’s models, has dramatically improved battery life. Apple claims the iPhone 11 Pro Max will get five more hours battery life over the iPhone Xs Max. I was pretty shocked at how true this appears to be. In the past, on days I had to rely on my phone for hours on end, I would’ve been nervously checking the battery status every few minutes. Now, with the 11 Pro Max, I was able to get an amazing amount of work done on a single charge. At Amazon’s press event last week, the wifi wasn’t working so I was on my phone for the better part of nine hours, posting photos and taking notes. After all that time, I still had more than 50% of my charge left. I expected to have about 10% to 20% left.
Apple includes a large 18W charging brick in the box with the iPhone 11 Pro Max, along with a Lightning-to-USB-C cable. Combined, the phone charges very rapidly. Apple says the phone can get about 50% charge in 30 minutes when using this setup.
Seems more durable
It’s a weird thing to say about a phone that has a glass front and back: The 11 Pro Max feels sturdier than other recent iPhones. Apple is running an ad campaign highlighting just how strong the new Corning glass on the iPhone is. Yes, it seems to say this every year. Yet a few early drop tests seem to show this phone is coated in a glass like no other. It’s also water resistant up to 4 meters for 30 minutes, and apparently dust proof. That just about makes me feel comfortable taking this phone to the beach without a plastic baggie.
More a feature of the iPhone’s new operating system, iOS 13, rather than the 11 Pro itself, dark mode looks excellent here, and in most instances, is easy on the eyes. Apps that haven’t updated to include a dark mode yet now feel like an assault on your senses.
What’s not so good
The name is very long
It sounds more like a mid-range sedan than a new Apple product.
The camera bumps are madness
In announcing Apple’s investment in Corning two years ago, chief operating officer Jeff Williams described how the original iPhone design had a plastic screen. Steve Jobs demanded that it be glass, because it felt better. It took a lot of work, but Apple did pull it off.
Jobs demanded things be perfect: Would he have accepted the massive, awkward, triptych of camera lenses sticking out of the back of the 11 Pro Max?
The camera “innovation” that got the most time on stage at Apple’s launch event was the new slow-motion video selfie function that produces what it calls “slofies.” They can make the mundane look dramatic, or just even more mundane:
It’s surprisingly slippery
I don’t know if it’s the new glass, or the size of that camera bump. I found that phone slips off of almost every surface that isn’t 100% flat. The new brushed finish on the back does feel lovely in your hand, though.
You still can’t use it on a table
Apple says that FaceID, the security system that uses all the sensors on the front of the phone to authenticate the user, is 30% faster than on older phones, and can be used from a wider set of angles. I didn’t notice a dramatic change in its abilities, and it’s still annoying that if I want to check a notification on my phone when it’s on the table, I have to pick it up to unlock it or deftly type in my six-digit PIN code. I miss TouchID.
The great display is nothing new
The 11 Pro Max features a massive 6.5-inch OLED display that looks sharp and vivid. It can represent 16 million colors with depth and brightness. While perhaps not as vivid as some of its competitors (I still think Samsung takes the cake with smartphone displays, at least those available in the US), it’s still a beautiful display. The main problem: It’s pretty much identical to the one found in the iPhone XS Max last year.
Still the same design
Other than the massive, trypophobia-inducing camera bump, the design of the phone is nearly identical to last year’s Xs Max (itself just an elongated version of the the iPhone X). It’s somewhat strange to come up with a new “Pro” nomenclature for this phone, like the MacBook Pro or iPad Pro, and not have a new, original design for it, like Apple’s laptop and tablet have.
It’s very expensive
This is not a cheap device. Other than a few more fanciful devices, like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, it’s pretty much the most expensive phone out there. The 11 Pro Max starts at $1,099 for the 64 GB model, and goes up to $1,449 for the 256 GB model, before taxes and fees. That’s a lot of money for a telephone.
Should you get one?
If you’re using an older iPhone
For owners of the iPhone 7 and models that came before it, this will be an absolutely massive upgrade, well worth it if you’re planning on holding onto the device for more than a couple years. The battery life alone—if it can hold up over the long run—makes this an essential upgrade. I haven’t liked a new iPhone this much in years.
If you’re using a newer iPhone, or thinking about switching from Android
The answer here is less clear. Apple has the best ecosystem of devices to support its smartphone. Still, newer Android owners won’t necessarily find much that they can’t get already. For newer iPhone owners used to FaceID, high-quality cameras, and massive displays, the reason to upgrade is also less clear. The excellent battery life still remains a plus, and the additional camera is great. You’d still be spending a lot of money just for that.
The bottom line
Most of my qualms with the iPhone 11 Pro Max were quite minor, aside from the price. This is the best, most complete iPhone Apple has released since the iPhone 7, which itself was a perfecting (or rehashing, depending on your perspective) of two older iPhone models.
Apple might be dragging its heels on new iPhone designs more than ever before, but at least it is upgrading the experience as much as possible in the meantime.