iPhone 11: The CNN Underscored user guide

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Fri September 20, 2019

Apple's new $699 iPhone 11 hits a significantly lower price point than the $999 iPhone 11 Pro and $1,099 iPhone 11 Pro Max. But after a few days of steady use on all three devices, I found the 11 to be quite comparable to the Pro versions.

Apple leveled the playing field with this year's lineup by bringing premium features like dual cameras and a lightning-fast A13 Bionic chipset to a $699 iPhone.

You'd be hard pressed to find a better value in a smartphone.

It's all about the camera

The dual cameras in the top left corner are huge for a phone at this price point. By comparison, its predecessor, the still-available iPhone XR, has one lens, and is only $50 less. That's kind of wild.

With the 11, you get a 12-megapixel wide and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens paired with a sizeable LED flash. Yes, it still creates a slight camera bump on the back, so it doesn't lie completely flat. However, most cases, like Apple's iPhone 11 Clear Case, factor this in and compensate so you can lay the device flat.

The two cameras look similar, but are different on the inside. The 12-megapixel wide lens provides a standard field of view, but hitting the button to go ultra-wide, gives you an expansive 120-degree field of view. The updated camera interface enables you to see both views simultaneously, one from the primary camera view mainframe, and the other from a sub-frame along the margin. (See this in action above.) You can also hit the arrow at the top of the screen to access settings.

This camera swap functionality, along with the new camera app, goes above and beyond what Samsung offers in Note 10 or S10 apps. The updated user interface on the iPhone 11 is light in comparison to the hundreds of options you get in the base camera app on Android devices. Apple gives you options for flash, live photos, ratio, timer and even live filters.

These same controls also apply to video and all the other modes of capture.

Take a look at several of my favorite shots with the iPhone 11 and see for yourself.

The range of vibrancy and contrast is high across formats. From portrait to ultra-wide, you get an incredibly wide dynamic range that is on par with a DSLR.

In my tests with portrait mode, the second lens made a significant difference. The camera homes in on the hairline and blurs where it ends. The blur effect is fully adjustable, as is the type of portrait mode shot-- even better you can make these live before shooting or after you've taken the shot. Applying the new high-key Mono effect switches your subject from color to black and white and whites out the background, making the image look like a studio shot taken in front of a white seamless background.

The front-facing camera is equally impressive. The 11, like the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, has a True Depth Sensor and 12-megapixel camera. It performs great for selfies, but now when you turn the phone from vertical to horizontal, it automatically increases the shot width, enabling you to pack people into a group selfie.

The iPhone 11 can also shoot front-facing video in slow motion 4K, which will no doubt introduce the "Slofie" to our culture. Sure, it's a little gimmicky, but I had a blast with it and expect to see them everywhere in the coming months.

So yes, the camera is great and a drastic step above the one on the XR. That said, it's possible avid photographers will opt for the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, not because the 11's cam isn't great, but because the excellent telephoto on the Pro models make that much of a difference.

We gotta talk about Night Mode

The iPhone 11 detects low-light situations and automatically turns on Night Mode. Similar to the technology that powers Google's Night Sight feature, Night Mode works by capturing a series of images at varying exposure levels (aka both light and dark) and merging them into a single image with optimal lighting and color. Keep in mind, this is low-light performance with no flash, and the results are dramatically impressive.

The iPhone 11 image colors are warmer than what we've seen from the Google and Samsung night modes, which opt for a cooler image. This adds more color to the image and makes it a little more life-like and detailed. In some instances we noted slight over-saturation, but overall, it delivers amazing quality in low, or even no light situations.

You can increase the amount of processing time to adjust the level of detail captured in Night Mode — the longer the processing time, the more photos the phone captures to merge. And as good as it is today, we can expect Night Mode to get better.

Long-lasting battery, but a slow charger

Apple's iPhone XR easily had the longest battery life of any iPhone, but Apple says the iPhone 11 gets an hour more than the XR through the combination of a larger battery, the efficiency of the A13 processor and iOS 13 improvements.

In my testing, using the iPhone 11 as a daily driver, its battery easily lasts a full day, one filled with email, phone calls, FaceTimes, lots of iMessages, gaming and plenty of other apps. It's hard to drain this battery to zero, and if you're judicious, you can probably squeeze a day and a half out of a full charge. It's awesome.

Less awesome, you only get a 5-watt charger in the box, so you'll need to buy a separate brick to take advantage of the 11's fast-charging capability. (The Pro and Pro Max both come with fast-charging 18-watt chargers.)

The display gets the job done

Right off the bat, this isn't an OLED screen, so if you're coming from an X, XS or XS Max, you will notice a downgrade in display quality. It's not as vibrant, bright or contrast filled as an OLED. For most people, this 6.1-inch Liquid Crystal Display (Apple's LCD technology with rounded corners) does a fine job, and those upgrading from an iPhone 8 or older will definitely see an improvement.

It's technically a 1792x828, 720pHD display, which is a little disappointing. It's basically all screen except for several bezels, and it's a big display that, for some, will make the iPhone 11 a two-handed phone. Holding the display next to that on an 11 Pro will show the significant difference. Videos and photos are blurrier than on the OLED. Most apps, however, fit the display well, and even small text (like the terms and conditions upon setup) is easy enough to read.

A nice look and feel

The dual cameras on the back, new color options and a sleeker finish make it feel more-high end than its $699 price tag. I've been using the new green color, a very pastel-like hue that gives off classic pool design vibes. You can also buy it in purple, yellow, white, black and red.

You still get a lightning connector on the bottom along with two speakers, but Apple doesn't include a headphone dongle in the box this year. The power button and SIM card slot are on the right, while the volume silencer and rocker are on the right. It has an aluminum frame with a matte finish on the sides, while the back and front are glass. It's an IP68 certification, so you can take it up to 2 meters in water for up to 30 minutes. It's also tough, as Apple worked on the glass and materials to make it strong.

The phone is smooth and allows for a firm grip, but the glass back is a fingerprint magnet, as you might expect, The Apple logo is now a bit bigger and in the middle of the device, and the regulatory info word "iPhone" is no longer on the back.

Overall, it looks clean and feels a lot better.

The A13 Bionic makes iOS 13 and the iPhone 11 zippy

Apple gave all the 11s the A13 Bionic chipset. It's a mouthful to talk about everything that entails, but know that it's seriously impressive tech, especially for a smartphone. The full chipset contains a CPU, GPU, neural engine and plenty of improvements for machine learning. All of this works together to give you a smooth, zippy experience.

It's also important to remember that Apple has the benefit of making both the hardware and the software. Those teams can work together to ensure performance, and it succeeds here. I really didn't experience any major hiccups, and yes it was running iOS 13 before the final release on September 19.

Installed apps such as phone, mail, photos, FaceTime and messages ran swimmingly. It was easy to multitask, and it wasn't an issue having almost 30 apps open in the background at once.

I took a stab at several titles from the new Apple Arcade, including Mini Motorways. It's not that graphic intense, but it involves user input and rendering an entire ecosystem of cars with sound. Everything worked perfectly, with no dropped frames rates.

Bottom line

The iPhone 11 is an obvious choice for someone who wants a new iPhone. It comes in new colors. You get two spectacular cameras. The front-facing camera can record Slofies and do Face ID. You get the speedy A13 Bionic Chip and can take advantage of all of iOS 13 has to offer. All of this is paired with a sleek design that makes this feel like a flagship product.

The only thing you sacrifice here versus the more expensive Pro models are the superior triple camera and OLED display. For most people, that's well worth the money in your pocket, and anyone coming from an iPhone 5, 5s, 6, 6s, 7, 8, SE, or even XR, is getting a worthy upgrade.

You can see our thoughts on the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max here, but it's safe to say the iPhone 11 is hard to pass up at $699. It's CNN Underscored's go-to choice for a smartphone.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.