iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max: The CNN Underscored user guide

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Fri September 20, 2019

I used to think the iPhone X was a prosumer device, or at least that it was when it launched. But over the past few days, I've changed my mind. After using Apple's iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, the first iPhones with the pro tag, I've seen what a prosumer smartphone really can be. These are truly impressive devices.

On the surface, little separates the Pros from the entry-level iPhone 11. It's really just an additional camera and an OLED display. Is that enough to make these iPhones true prosumer devices? And are they worth the huge jump in price, from $699 for the 11 to $999 for the Pro and $1,099 for the Pro Max?

Let's discuss.

The 3-cam system

Simply put, those skeptical about the three cameras need not worry. It's a big improvement. Really big. From the ability to get even more out of your shots to improvements in the image architecture, the immense color range is, at times, jaw-dropping. Apple upped its image processing game and it is courtesy of proprietary software and the A13 Bionic chip. It really does a terrific job with managing different objects or people in an image along with reflecting color (and the many ranges associated with it) in a lifelike image.

You should have a lens for any scenario:

  • 12-megapixel wide lens
  • 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens
  • 12-megapixel telephoto lens

A professional photographer typically carries three lenses with a DSLR. The iPhone 11 Pro packs all three of those lenses into a tiny square cut out on the back of this phone, along with a sizeable LED flash. The lens cutout isn't flush to the device, so you can't lay the phone flat on its own, but any case will compensate for the bump and give it an even back.

All iPhone 11s also come with a redesigned, more intuitive camera interface that allows you to easily switch between the three lenses. Even better, the iPhone knows to pre-prime, or prep, the other lenses. This way, there is no delay if you're quickly switching between lenses.

The coolest thing about the new interface is the ability to preview the ultra-wide lens when using the wide, and preview the wide when using the telephoto. While using one lens, you're able to simultaneously see what the other lens view looks like from a subframe at the edge of your primary view. It's a game-changing feature, and one the Samsung S10 and Note 10 lack.

With video, you can capture at up to 4K at 60 frames per second with all three lenses. However, the viewfinder video takes up the full display, so you can't preview the other lens views. You can still easily switch between the three lenses, however, and that's what sets this apart.

The streamlined interface is really easy to use -- you just point and shoot. But if you want, you can adjust a number of settings, like adding live filters, ration, flash control, timers and live photo controls. For those who want am even more advanced camera experience, the App Store has plenty of third-party apps that take advantage of what these devices can do.

Apple's popular portrait mode is still on the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. The detail on the background is stunning. The range of colors, from bright white clouds to dark and light blues on buildings, offer a dramatic contrast, while your subject is crisp and clear, prominently front-and-center. You can customize your shot even more using portrait lighting modes: natural light, studio light, contour light, stage light, stage light mono and the new high-key light mono.

You can also apply high-key light mono, which keeps the object in focus but blows out the background. It can give you a stark image, especially when it puts the person or object in a black and white tone. Even better, you can cycle between all the lighting modes while editing.

You also still get time-lapse, slo-mo and pano.

Another addition is the upgraded front-facing camera. The true depth sensor, which powers Face ID, now houses a 12-megapixel lens. It supports slo-mo videos, which Apple calls Slofies. They're a little gimmicky, but I'm sure they will be all the rage on social networks. And now, when you take a horizontal selfie, it will expand the field of view of the camera, so you can include everyone in the frame.

Apple has also joined the low-light club by adding Night Mode to the 11 phones, following Google and Samsung. Apple's Night mode works by taking multiple photos at different exposure levels, and different levels of brightness, and merging them into a single image with optimal lighting and color. The iPhone's Night Mode 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.

This triple-cam setup really is the best feature of the Pro and Pro Max, and it's all so easy to use. It's a pro-level camera system, but you don't need to be a pro to use it.

Brighter, more vibrant OLED display

Apple has improved the quality of the display on both the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. When held next to the 11, it shows a dramatic difference. Even from a quick glance, you see more detail, more color and an overall better-looking display.

The 5.8-inch display on the 11 Pro features a 2436x1125 resolution, which comes to 458 pixels per inch. The 6.5-inch display on the 11 Pro Max has a 2688x1242 resolution, which comes to 458 pixels per inch. Both of these are true tone, so the phone will detect ambient light and the screen will auto adjust the tone for optimal viewing. Elements like HDR and wide color displays make the screen up to 1,200 nits bright. So yes there is a lot of tech in the display, but this is what essentially powers the vibrancy of the display.

Apple calls this display a Super Retina XDR, and it works incredibly well in direct sunlight. The combination of an OLED panel with high brightness makes for a winning combination. It all adds up to one of the best displays I've used on a smartphone.

The only downside with the display is the removal of 3D touch and the entry of haptic touch. This first premiered on the XR and is now on all three 11s. You now long hold on the screen for varying degrees. For instance, to move apps, you long hold on an app, pull up a menu and tap rearrange apps. It takes a while to get used to but likely made more room under the display. The downside here is that peek and pop is gone, the feature which first premiered on the 6S and became a fan favorite. I'll miss the ability to hard press the keyboard to move the cursor around, but hopefully, haptic touch will grow with more features.

Heavier than the XS, but sleek

There are some changes in design as well. The glass on the back has been exchanged for a slight texture matte glass finish. It looks sleek and reminds me of the feel on the Apple TV remote. The camera module in the top left corner has a glossy finish, but with a lot packed in there, it's hard to smudge. The Apple logo is also square in the center, the only branding.

The bottom features the lightning connector and two speakers. The power button and SIMcard slot are on the right, while the volume rocker and silencer live on the left. The frame of the device is a high-end polished stainless steel.

Apple hit a home run with the colors. I'm a big fan of the midnight green. It looks badass and even better in-person than it does online. You can also get the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max in gold, silver or space gray.

While these phones weigh slightly more at 188 grams and 226 grams, respectively, they're not what I'd describe as heavy. If anything, it makes them feel more substantial.

Better battery life

Onstage, Apple VP Phil Schiller said the 11 Pro gets up to four hours more battery life than the XS, and that the 11 Pro Max gets up to five hours more battery life than the XS Max. I found that you'll easily get a full day of use with either of these phones and that they do both outperform the XS and XS Max. In my testing, I did quite a bit with them. I took notes, sent emails, took countless selfies, played games, streamed music and video, made calls, sent awkward autocorrected iMessages, and much more. Doing all that, I still got a full day of use out of a full charge.

Although the 11 still comes with a dinky 5-watt block, Apple gives you an 18-watt charger with the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, so you can finally fast-charge out of the box.

These are very fast phones

For 2019, all the iPhones are powered by the A13 Bionic chipset. This processing unit is made of a CPU, GPU and neural engine. 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.

In comparison to the experience on an iPhone X and or XS Max, the 11 Pro and Pro Max operate much smoother on the new OS13. Apps open faster, you can keep upward of 30 apps open in the background, and shouldn't experience any slowdowns.

Titles from Apple Arcade performed well, and the enhanced sound quality on the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max made for a cinematic mobile experience.

Bottom line

So we set out asking the question: Are the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max prosumer devices? Well, the camera is a powerhouse, offering extraordinary quality as well as three-cam versatility. The battery life is excellent, and the display is one of the on any smartphone today. They're also powerful, agile beasts thanks to the A13 Bionic chip.

So, yes, the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max are solid prosumer devices, and clearly the most advanced iPhones ever.

But are they worth the extra money? That depends on what is important to you. For $699, the iPhone 11 is a very solid phone. But if you want to retire your DLSR, you gotta go Pro. Or if you want the super vibrant and crisp OLED display, you gotta go Pro. If you the larger screen, the 11 Pro Max is for you. And if you simply want the latest, most advanced new flagship iPhone for 2019, then yeah, the 11 Pro or Pro Max are for you.

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