iPhone 11 Pro: Hands-on first impressions

iPhone 11 Pro is here and, yes, that's the official name — which I'm super happy about. Sure, iPhone Pro would be even cleaner and more in keeping with iPad Pro and MacBook Pro, but with products like the iPhone, where Apple keeps multiple generations in the lineup, it makes the feature sets and price points easier to keep track of. 11 is higher than X, even XS or XR, therefore newer and better.

And Pro, whether you agree with its use on phones or not, is easily understood as shorthand for higher-end.

Just much better branding than last year overall.

1. iPhone 11 Pro: No 5G

I'm going to get this next point out of the way immediately. No 5G on the iPhone 11 Pro. On any iPhone. Still. Mostly because there's no real 5G in the real world yet either.

Sub-6 5G, which is really like LTE++, may roll out over the next year or so, but mmWave 5G, which is the real next-gen speed boost, is kind of joke right now. All you have is really expensive, really hot chipsets that need almost as many RF windows as you have surfaces to mount them on, and still lose signal if you turn around or sneeze between the beams.

If it actually ships as a cellular technology and doesn't just become a city core broadband solution, then it'll probably be worth the trade-offs to include it.

But that isn't today.

Also, no bilateral inductive charging, which despite the rumors may not have ever been a thing for iPhone 11, no USB-C which is a legit bummer given how ubiquitous it's become, no Apple Pencil support despite me wanting it so bad, the industrial design is almost identical to last year and the year before, because phones are like cars and watches these days, and haptic touch instead of 3D Touch, which I think I'll miss but is also much more consistent and eliminates the collisions between long-press and deep press.

But I'll have to try it out for a while to figure out the real tradeoff.

2. iPhone 11 Pro: Super Retina XDR

Apple's calling the display Super Retina XDR now. A throwback to the Pro Display XDR or extreme dynamic range introduced a few months ago at WWDC 2019.

Now that 6k desk-sized LCD isn't this phone-sized OLED, but I think what Apple is referring to here is the 2 million to one contrast ratio and peak brightness of 1200 nits and sustained brightness of 800 nits, which does extend the high-dynamic-range of last year's panels to a more ludicrous extreme.

The resolutions remain the same, but Apple's again gone back and redone them down the materials level.

And sure, Samsung manufacturing may fabricate those panels based on their industry-leading OLED process, just like Taiwan Semiconductor fabs the A-series chipsets, but no one calls those TSMC chipsets. They're Apple-designed and these panels are Apple specced, just like the Galaxy S panels are Samsung electronics specced.

I love HDR deeply, truly, so I'm really looking forward to testing these new displays out. Especially with the new spatial audio feature that uses an Apple-flavored version of Dolby Atmos to really place sound around you.

Just queue up my movies already.

3. iPhone 11 Pro: Battery Life

Speaking of chipsets, these new iPhones Pro feature the new Apple A13 Bionic. Yes, same name 3rd year in a row. Yes, I was hoping it'd be called something like Psionic by now, but I don't every time get what I want.

Basically, with A13 Apple has pushed machine learning throughout the architecture. Not just the neural engine, but the CPU and GPU as well.

Apple calls it the fastest chipset ever in a smartphone, which honestly means the fastest chipset since the A12. Qualcomm is doing way better work lately but, seriously, Intel should be quacking in their fabs with what Apple's doing here.

The efficiency, performance, graphics, and neural cores aren't just 20% faster each, they use 40, 25, 30, and 15% less power respectively.

There are also two new machine learning accelerators for matrix math that, frankly, I want in my pro Macs stat.

But the real kicker is it does all of this while also providing up to 4 hours more battery life for the regular-sized iPhone 11 Pro and up to 5 hours more for the iPhone 11 Pro Max. So, if you had an iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max, you'd get 4 or 5 more hours respectively doing that same workload.

You can also fast-charge them up to 50% in 30 minutes with the new 18w USB-C adapter. USB-C on the adapter end, remember. Still Lightning on the iPhone end.

There's also a new U1 chip, separate from the SoC, that uses ultra Wideband technology for ultra-precise positioning.

Apple's only saying it'll let you do things like point your iPhone at someone else's in a group for AirDrop to prioritize that person, for example, but it's not hard to imagine it'll be key to a bunch of location… and item finding technology and products eventually.

4. iPhone 11 Pro: Cameras

I still love that Apple ships feature sets, not chipsets. They don't just slap an extra, ultra-wide-angle camera on the back of the phone, el oh el the color matching and sensor quality, and call it a day.

No, they add a new, effective 13mm I think, ultra-wide camera to the existing effective 26mm wide-angle and 52mm telephoto, but they make them part of a unified system.

For example, they're all color calibrated to match at the factory and they all update each other in real-time so you can switch between them quickly and consistently, with the same color and quality.

It's basically going from zoom out to standard to zoom in at the touch of a button or spin of a dial. And the interface will even hint at the wider angles to remind you they're there, ready and waiting.

You can also do portrait mode off both the telephoto and the wide-angle now, so basically XS and XR style, though with new lens models.

There's a new night mode, which is a weird name because unlike some other phones it's not actually a separate mode. It's automatic when light falls below a certain level. It's also not a complete after-effect like some other phones.

It takes a few seconds to prime, then you get a real-time preview, just like you've always gotten on iPhone for everything from portrait mode to Portrait Lighting, then when you shoot the picture it takes about as long to render out as Portrait Mode used to back on the iPhone 7 Plus.

Or, at least, that's what it sounds like. It was way too bright in the hands-on area to shoot anything really dark. The sample photos looked great though, with really accurate colors, good dynamic range, and great detail.

And unlike some other cameras, they didn't look like fake day. They looked like lit up night.

But, sample photos. So I can't wait to try it out for myself and see how it holds up.

There's also a deep fusion mode coming later this year that Apple demoed on stage, again like they originally did with Portrait Mode on the iPhone 7 Plus.

It takes nine shots, including 8 in advance and one long exposure when you hit the shutter, and then uses machine learning to pixel-by-pixel plow through the image and make it as impressive as computationally possible.

Again, we only saw demo pictures on stage, but the texture and detail were ridiculous.

The video camera can now shoot with interleaved extended dynamic range even at 4K 60 frames per second, which is silly great.

And, on the front, you get all the same new Face ID and selfie slofie goodness I spoke about in the iPhone 11 video.

5. iPhone 11 Pro: Upgrade?

Now, all that said, unless you're a geek who gets every new phone every time because new phone, or you're on an annual update program, or you just fell in love with this new camera system and simply have to have it, even asking if you should upgrade from an iPhone XS to an iPhone 11 Pro is a silly question.

Apple is making both iOS and iPhones to deliberately last longer than ever before. The more pertinent question is, if you have an iPhone 6s or an iPhone 7, should you upgrade.

And, I'd say, especially if you went for the Plus model of either and you need to start looking to replace it, the iPhone 11 non-Pro may be perfect for you.

But if you want this display and battery life and most importantly, camera, then you may want to consider spending your next few years with the iPhone 11 Pro or Pro Max.

Much more to come.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.