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Apple's iPhone 11 lineup gives people what they want: Cameras, battery life and a good price

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iPhone 11 review: Lots of small improvements that add up to a solid phone
Key Points
  • The iPhone 11 is $50 cheaper than last year's iPhone XR and offers significantly better battery life and cameras. It's for most people.
  • If you need more, such as a better screen, a zoom camera and even longer battery life, consider the iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max.
  • But these are incremental improvements, and if you're holding an iPhone X or later, you're probably OK holding on to it for a bit longer.

I've been testing all three of Apple's new iPhones — the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, since last week.

They're great phones, as most of Apple's recent iPhones have been.

Despite this, Apple's iPhone sales have plateaued in recent years. People are holding on to their phones longer, and they're shying away from devices that cost more than $1,000. The features you get each year aren't as jaw-dropping as they used to be, which is why makers such as Samsung are trying crazy new things, like folding displays. But they don't always work as expected, and they come at sky-high prices.

The iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Instead of trying to blow our minds with experimental features, Apple is methodically making improvements that make day-to-day use better. It's not looking to get everybody to throw away their existing iPhones and buy new ones — instead, it just keeps improving the phones a little bit every year so when your old one wears out, you'll be pleasantly surprised by how much better the new ones have become.

To attract people who think the iPhone has gotten too expensive for them, Apple's new iPhone 11 starts at $699. That's $50 cheaper than the $750 iPhone XR from last year and is a heck of a price for what you get inside.

Apple also added a lot inside this year, though it might be hard to tell with a quick glance at the phone, or even after just holding it for a few minutes. Instead, the focus is on what consumers have been asking for: great cameras and awesome battery life.

Most people who are looking to upgrade should buy the iPhone 11. But folks who want the whole buffet of what Apple can pack into a phone should consider the iPhone 11 Pro ($999 and up) or the larger iPhone 11 Pro Max ($1,099 and up).

Here's what you need to know.

The iPhone 11 (two holes) is for most of us

One wide angle and one ultra wide angle lens on the iPhone 11.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The iPhone 11 hits everything most people need out of a phone. I got all-day battery life out of it, found it plenty fast for games and switching through apps, thanks to Apple's new A13 Bionic processor. It never felt "slow" to me, so you don't need to worry about your phone being sluggish just because it's cheaper than the Pro models. It's just as fast.

iPhone 11
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Those two prominent black holes in the back are a fashionable way of announcing that there are two cutting-edge cameras inside. It's the most noticeable design change from previous models.

The new ultra wide-angle lens is a lot of fun and can capture more people, or more of a scene, in a picture. When you don't need that, there's the regular wide-angle lens. And, since there are two cameras this year, I was finally able to take portrait pictures of my dog and objects, not just humans like on last year's iPhone XR. Portrait pictures are the sort that blur the background of a picture to make it look more professional. Apple uses two cameras to do this, one to sense the depth of a subject.

My dog Mabel in portrait mode from iPhone 11
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I also like Apple's new "slowfies," a new slo-mo mode for the front-facing camera that let me record myself in slow motion. I thought it would be a gimmick, but the effects are pretty funny — like me spinning around in my desk chair in slow motion, and I think people are going to have a lot of fun with it.

Apple's new color choices keep the phone fresh, particularly the green model Apple sent me that has a seafoam hue. You can choose from red, yellow, purple, white, blue or black, too, which should help it appeal to people who don't want another boring phone color. The glass back adds a premium touch and it's glossy like last year, with aluminum sides. I like the matte finish on the Pro models with the stainless steel accents, which looks even more premium.

The iPhone 11
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple also includes stereo speakers — something that similarly priced phones don't always have — and it makes a difference when you're watching a movie or listening to music. Instead of sounding like audio is coming out of just one side of the device, audio fires from both sides with a surround-sound effect.

iPhone 11
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I can't think of much bad about the iPhone 11, but there are just some things that are better in the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, if you're willing to pay at least $300 more.

The 11 uses an LCD screen, for example, which means you don't get the deep blacks and bright whites in movies that you do with the OLED panel on the more expensive iPhones. Most people probably won't notice this, though people like me who play with gadgets all day definitely do.

iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Also, Apple includes only a 5W charger with the iPhone 11, which is too slow for a modern phone. It should have included the 18W charger that comes with the iPhone 11 Pro models, since it supports the ability to charge faster. If you do buy this (it costs about $40 from Apple or cheaper from Amazon), you can expect a 50% charge-up in about 30 minutes. Without it, you're looking at several hours to juice up the phone. So, buy the 18W charger.

Finally, I wish Apple made the screen run a little bit more to the sides of the phone. Like the iPhone XR last year, the black bezels around the edges are a little large compared with competing phones on the market from companies such as Samsung. It's an aesthetic thing.

The Pro and Pro Max (three holes) if you want the cutting-edge

The iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max in midnight green.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

First things first: What's going on with those three cameras on the back? Kinda funky-looking, right?

The 3 camera lenses on the iPhone 11 Pro.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Last year, Apple had two lenses on its high-end phones: one regular camera and one 2x zoom camera. This year, there's a third that adds the wide-angle lens that's also on the regular iPhone 11.

I took the iPhone 11 Pro Max out to lunch and used the regular wide-angle lens to capture a picture of a flag pole in front of the restaurant:

An example of wide angle on the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Then the 2x zoom lens to get a closer look at the building:

An example of 2x zoom on iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

And then the super wide-angle camera to grab the entire scene:

Ultra-wide on the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It captures a whole lot, and developers will build support into apps so that advanced camera professionals can shoot from different lenses at the same time, even while filming video. You also get the slowfie camera that's on the regular iPhone 11 up front.

These cameras work together to capture portrait pictures, which I still love to use for snaps of my dog, Mabel. Lots of other cameras do this now, but Apple remains one of the best at getting it right.

Zoom on the iPhone 11 Pro Max still maintains tons of detail in this picture of Mabel.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple also added a new night mode to the camera, which is awesome. It brightens up the scene in dark areas, such as bars or just on a dimly lit street. You can see how well this works in two pictures my wife took of me outside a restaurant.

This one is with night mode off:

Night mode is off here.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

And here it is on:

Night mode on
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You can see how much brighter it is, and the colors pop way better. Some shots lose detail, especially if there isn't at least some light source around you. The Google Pixel did better in one situation where there was very little light, for example. But, iPhone users who have never had this will like it a lot.

The iPhone 11 Pro max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Cameras aside, these also offer really good battery life. Apple says the iPhone 11 Pro Max is its longest-lasting iPhone, with 5 hours of additional battery life over last year's iPhone XS Max.

I found that iPhone 11 Pro Max lasts well beyond a normal day of use. In one case, I woke up at 2:45 a.m., drove up to San Francisco for TV, flew home to New York City and still had battery life when I finally got to bed at midnight Eastern. It had been in airplane mode for some of this, but I was still impressed. You can expect an additional 4 hours of battery life with the regular iPhone 11 Pro over last year's iPhone XS, too.

Point is: You get all-day battery life, which is still what mostly matters to me.

Also, for the first time ever, Apple is including a fast charger in the box. The 18W unit lets you charge the iPhone to 50% in 30 minutes. So, even if you are running low, you'll be able to fill up faster than before.

Watching John Wick 3 on the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The screen is great, especially if you like watching videos from iTunes like I do. I downloaded "John Wick 3," which supports 4K HDR and surround sound audio from Dolby. It felt like a mini movie theater in my hand, on a par with the Galaxy Note 10+, which is also great for watching movies on the go. In normal use, though, the screen feels a lot like the iPhone XS Max from last year.

Playing Grimvalor on the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

But speaking of normal use: It seemed like it just whizzed around everything, especially when loading graphics-heavy games like Grimvalor or opening and closing apps. I don't think last year's iPhones are slow by any means, but this did feel just a hair faster at everything. You'll really notice an upgrade if you're coming from something like an iPhone 6 or iPhone 7, but keep in mind the performance will be similar on the cheaper iPhone 11, since it has the same A13 Bionic chip.

iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There are a couple areas where I wish Apple had gone a little bit further. First, the screen seemed like it is prone to getting scratched pretty easily, and I thought I was keeping it protected. Buy a screen protector.

Second, the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max all still support 7.5W wireless charging, which isn't as fast as the 15W Samsung's new Galaxy Note 10+ supports. Wireless charging can be slow, so I wish Apple had upped the ante here. On that topic, I also wish it added reverse wireless charging as some reports said it was going to, so that I could drop my AirPods on the back of the new iPhones to charge them up. It's a feature Samsung has in its new phones, and it's pretty fun.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max is big!
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I also wish the Pro models moved to USB-C instead of Lightning. My MacBook Air and iPad Pro both use the new standard, and it would have made it a lot easier for me to just carry a single cable around. I get it, though: Fans are going to be mad whenever Apple does make this switch, since it means having to buy new accessories to replace Lightning.

Finally, I noticed the cameras can sometimes be slow to focus, especially when moving between the lenses. I've seen this on other phones, and it fixes itself in about a second. It's not a big deal and likely something Apple can fix in a software update.

Should you buy them?

The iPhone 11 Pro Max
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I still like the iPhone better than its Android competitors. Apple's support is better than that of every other phone maker. You get software updates for years after you buy it — and, unlike lots of Android phones, right when that software is launched for all iPhones. And Apple's ecosystem of services, which includes News and will soon include Apple TV+ and Arcade, is unmatched.

If your iPhone is several years old or starting to wear out, the iPhone 11 series is worth a look.

I feel like a ton of people I talk to still have an iPhone 6, iPhone 6s or iPhone 7. All of those people should consider the new iPhone 11 family and pick the one that fits them best.

Almost everyone in this boat will find that the iPhone 11, which starts at $699, is the phone for them.

The iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max are for people who want the best iPhones you can buy today, and who are willing to pay for a better screen, better battery life, improved water-resistance and one more camera lens over what you get in the iPhone 11.

It's the phone you probably want if you're a hardcore fan who uses Apple's annual upgrade program and trades last year's model for the new one each year. But, you'll pay more: The iPhone 11 Pro starts at $999, while the larger iPhone 11 Pro Max starts at $1,099. Since I wanted the cream of the crop, I went with the iPhone 11 Pro Max. But I live for this stuff.

Also, the iPhone 11 Pro might appeal to people with smaller hands. As funny as it sounds, the 11 Pro has a 5.7-inch screen that's smaller than the 6.1-inch on the iPhone 11.

On the other hand, if you have an iPhone X or last year's phones, you probably don't need to upgrade unless you're on Apple's annual upgrade plan.

Instead, you might want to wait one more year for Apple to add 5G — which you don't need now — and other changes that are expected. Those phones will tide you over just fine and will run Apple's new iOS 13 software perfectly.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10+
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you're absolutely convinced you don't want an iPhone at all, consider waiting for Google's Pixel 4, or check out Samsung's Galaxy Note 10+, which is huge but offers faster charging, an amazing screen and fast performance.

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