The iPhone 11 Pro is a smartphone that’s half a decade in the making. After a week spent with it, we’re sure it’s been worth the wait
The gargantuan office buildings in Apple Park HQ are all arranged in one giant circle. If you get lost in this palatial mecca of open-plan design, fruit trees and lush green football pitches, just follow the trail of solar-powered path lights. You’ll get where you need to eventually. Plus, they’ve got inbuilt WiFi to help pass the time.
What does this all have to do with the iPhone 11 Pro? Well, Apple’s most expensive phone feels like it has finally arrived. Until now, it’s gone through something of an identity crisis.
First it was the "Plus", because it was the biggest iPhone. Then it was the "X", because… it was two numbers better than the iPhone 8. Last year, there was the XS and the XS Max, which sat above the cheaper XR. And who even knew what was going on anymore?
In the same timeframe we’ve seen the unveiling of Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, Apple Pay and even an Apple-made credit card. All of them very much deliver exactly what they promise.
Thankfully, 2019 represents a return to focus for Apple’s all-conquering smartphones, and that’s especially true for the iPhone 11 Pro. You won’t need a pimpled store assistant to tell you the difference between this device and the "standard" iPhone 11. Just one look at its backside will do the trick.
You see, the "Pro" stands for three things here: big screen, big battery life and even bigger camera. Sat on a clear-glass island of its own in the device’s top left-hand corner, the iPhone 11 Pro’s triple-lens camera is a beast, but its gargantuan nature is more than compensated for by the photographic abilities it crams into the palm of your hand.
Comprised of a wide-angle, telephoto and a new ultra-wide angle lens, the Pro gives you pictorial flexibility like never before. Especially if you haven’t used a similar setup on the recent Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus or Huawei P30 Pro. Its triple-lens camera gives you a shot at doing justice to the spectacular. Not your dog. Not your dinner. The properly, jaw-droppingly spectacular.
There’s a reason you can’t take good pictures of the Grand Canyon anymore. A standard focal length just can’t do justice to that kind of awesome scale. So you end up with a truncated glimpse of the happy couple and what looks like a giant sinkhole behind them.
Napa Valley isn’t the Grand Canyon, but it does have a more readily available supply of Sauvignon Blanc. So it was our first port of call when testing out the iPhone 11 Pro’s triple-lens camera. The idea being that every with every snap we’d have the choice of zooming up close, sticking with a usual mid-range shot or dragging the frame out to showcase as much of our lush, green surroundings as possible.
In truth, we thought the ultra-wide shot was going to be a luxury. The kind of thing you use for holiday vistas, the odd crammed group shot and not much else. In reality, it’s less of a practical necessity and more of pictorial playmaker. Subjects look bigger and more dramatic when you dive in for a close-up. Reflective surfaces such as water fountains and mirrors take a trip towards the psychedelic. Even everyday point-and-shoot fare is lent a curvature and personality that wasn’t there before.
As impressive as the Pro’s ultra-wide lens is, it’s nowhere near as much as a game-changer as its new Night Mode. Traditionally the bane of smartphone cameras, low-light conditions can cause all manner of issues with your photos. So Night Mode is here to combat blurriness, desaturated colours and graininess around the edge of the frame. In other words, pretty much everything that can go wrong when you try and do justice to post-work drinks that have crawled into "tomorrow".
It does a very similar job to the Night Sight mode found in Google’s Pixel 3 phones, and by that we mean it is astonishingly good. Turned on as standard when conditions are suitably dim, it allows you to capture photos that simply weren’t possible with previous iPhones. Down in the most dingy wine cellar imaginable, the effect lights up a carving of a cherub as though it's The Omen’s Damien. In a more everyday dining conditions, there’s just a whole lot more light, clarity and colour to shots that you probably wouldn’t have bothered with before and certainly wouldn’t have graced your Insta feed.
While it’s worth remembering that both Night Mode and an ultra-wide camera lens are also available on the iPhone 11 (ie the non-Pro phone), the iPhone Pro is still the device of choice for those who take both their photos and video seriously. Remember, it’s the only iPhone to feature that third telephoto lens for optical zoom, as well as being Apple’s only handset to support 4K video recording at a silky smooth 60 frames per second across all its cameras. And later this year, Apple has promised to further flex its computational photography muscles via Deep Fusion: a Pro-exclusive that sounds like a Derek Zoolander pose but will actually combine nine triple-lens shots into one detail-packed photo.
If the iPhone Pro’s triple-lens camera represents a clear and obvious step change from the iPhones of old, then its Super Retina XDR display sits on the more subtle end of this spectrum. At least, until you feed it the kind of footage that’ll best showcase its new-found abilities.
So named to draw parallels with Apple’s recently announced Pro Display XDR for Mac Pro, both the iPhone Pro’s 5.8in screen and the Pro Max’s 6.5in screen have a greater brightness and contrast ratio than ever before. So whites look cleaner and more resplendent, and colours have that little bit more punch.
If you happened to have piled millions of dollars into the imminent launch of your very own TV streaming service, you’d want your subscribers to experience Jennifer Aniston heeling it up in this kind of fidelity. Not fussed by the prospect of Apple TV+? The iPhone 11 Pro’s display will do the same for HDR (high dynamic range) shows from both Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video. That means Stranger Things, Our Planet and even Fleabag’s iridescent cringe all look resplendent.
Although you won’t see the very best of the iPhone 11 Pro with more everyday fare, it still makes an opulent fist of things. Premier League turf is green and lush without proving irradiant, the trailer for HBO’s Watchmen adaptation proved suitably shadow-drenched, and – most importantly of all – the photos and footage you capture yourself are sharp and colourful without looking unnatural.
Whatever your viewing habits, both the Pro and Pro Max offer significantly more battery life than their predecessors. Apple’s claims the 11 Pro has four hours more stamina than the iPhone XS and the 11 Pro Max has five hours over the XS Pro Max. That’s partly due to the combination of a more efficient Super Retina XDR display and a larger battery, but Apple’s latest A13 Bionic chip plays a significant part in this equation.
Not only is this processor 20 per cent faster than its predecessor, it’s also a much more efficient device in terms of its power usage. To the extent that we pretty much squeezed two days' usage out of our Pro Max, which is ample. Especially when the 18 watts fast charger that’s boxed with both Pro phones will top them up to 50 per cent charge in just 30 minutes.
If the iPhone 11 Pro’s display is a welcome if iterative improvement on last year’s XS, it’s a similar story with its new matte-glass backside. A neat little flourish to distinguish this as the more luxe device when compared to the clear and shiny posterior you’ll find on the iPhone 11. Underlining this theme of "serious = Pro", Apple’s most premium smartphones come in classy-if-sombre shades while the iPhone 11 is treated to brighter, pastel delights.
Put it this way, you can’t imagine any of Succession’s cast turning up to Waystar Royco towers with a luminous purple iPhone 11. Except maybe Cousin Greg. Surely, the military green Pro will be the colour option of choice any self-respecting corporate schemer?
As you’ve no doubt gathered, with the Pro Apple is sticking close to the head-turning standard first set three years ago by the iPhone X. Although time has somewhat familiarised us with its charms, this still makes for a svelte and lightweight smartphone to carry about. The infamous "notch" remains in place and FaceID remains. This means there’s no inscreen fingerprint scanner seen in several rivals, although Apple’s biometric alternative remains a hassle-free means to both unlock your phone and breeze through the self-checkout kiosk via Apple Pay. Face ID is also a little bit faster and more adept at recognising your mug from awkward angles thanks to some new tweaks in iOS 13.
There’s no support for 5G, which is probably the Pro’s most obvious "missing" feature. At least right now, that’s really not anything to be fussed about. In London 5G signal is so patchy that you can’t receive it on Oxford Street with some networks. And if you’re the kind of person who can afford a 5G contract, you can afford an iPhone next year when it inevitably shows up in the next Pro.
What’s in a name? From a week spent with the iPhone 11 Pro, we’d say plenty. Apple hasn’t just slapped a new "Pro" label on its top-tier device and left it there. You don’t need some kind of creative licence to own a Pro, you just need to be sure that it represents the best iPhone you can get. That it does, and by a clear margin when compared to both the iPhone 11 and last year’s models.
Thanks to the imperious combination of its triple-lens camera, its Super Retina XDR display and unprecedented battery life, the Pro can go toe-to-toe with any rival you care to mention. And of course it fits snugly into the Apple ecosystem of apps, streaming services and beyond. For a lot of people it’ll be the iPhone they’ve been waiting for, and you kind of feel that’s the case for Apple as well.
After half a decade looking for direction, the top-tier iPhone has finally arrived. Just like the MacBook Pro and iPad Pro before it, this is the one that’ll get things done and then some.
The iPhone 11 Pro is available from £999 at apple.com. The iPhone 11 Pro Max starts from £1,099. Both handsets are available at a discount of up to £250 via Apple's iPhone trade-in scheme.