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iPhone 11 Pro Max In-depth Review: A Real “Pro” Smartphone, At Last

Huawei’s P30 Pro. Oppo’s R17 Pro. Samsung’s A9 Pro. Few batted their eyelids when the Android field brazenly labelled their devices Pro, but God forbid Apple’s top-of-the-line smartphones bear that coveted postfix. The iPhone 11 Pro Max has arrived. Some say they’re a boring update, others say Apple has finally caught up with the pack.

Nonetheless, flak surrounding Apple’s “Pro” nomenclature has only increased since its launch with several tech commentators like Marques Brownlee and Jonathan Morrison decrying the device’s furtive claims to “Pro”-dom. 

Apple’s Phil Schiller went so far as to justify its inclusion – the iPhone 11 Pro devices will be a powerful, reliable tool for pros, but as user-friendly and accessible for the rest of us.

After all is said and done, everyone does have a point. As it goes, Apple in this iteration has done the usual. Upgrade the silicon. Bump the camera specifications. Improve the battery. Boring? Maybe.

But as with most things, this upgrade is more nuanced than it seems. Most of the improvements translate into real life benefits, and it’s right there that we judge them.

1. Upgrade the silicon

The A13 Bionic chip didn’t seem special on the keynote stage, but it’s something. The A12 Bionic was already breathtaking – being able scrub through multitrack 4K projects smoothly in the palm of your hand, blaze through long sessions with the most demanding mobile games, all while seamlessly swiping through the smooth navigation through your email, chat and social media apps.

And a small improvement it is not. In fact, it is clear that Apple’s marketing is struggling to keep up with demonstrations to showcase the power of their proprietary silicon. Sure, people occlusion in AR, top-tier graphics with equally impressive frame rates, and power efficiency to boot. 

But that’s already been done and dusted on the A12 Bionic. The A13 Bionic just makes more room for the future, if anything.

The real limitation is the lack of 5G networking. But with the technology still in its infancy and infrastructure slated to take years to mature, 5G remains a bit of a novelty and a sales pitch at this point. Even in China and the US, where 5G has seen the most implementation, connection is limited to a precious few spots in the vast countries, and moving a few steps in either direction gets you dropped back to 4G.

The iPhone 11 (L) and iPhone 11 Pro Max (R) contain the powerful A13 Bionic chipset. Image: Ian Ling

Instead of clickbait 5G connectivity, Apple has opted for the fastest-in-class gigabit LTE and WiFi 6 modems.

Again, it’s all marketing drivel, but Geekbench 4 CPU benchmarks show the iPhone 11 Pro Max dished out a single-core score of 5480 over its predecessor the iPhone Xs Max’s 4805. Multicore performance similarly outshone last year’s iPhone Xs Max with 12512 to 10934.

In terms of graphics, 3D Mark’s demanding Sling Shot put the iPhone 11 Pro Max at 3809 against the iPhone Xs Max’s 2921.

That’s anywhere from a 14% to 30% improvement in terms of scores. But that’s just benchmarks, and in real life, both phones outperform almost anything you can throw at it. It’s crazy fast, and there’s frankly nothing crazy enough to stress test these phones – not yet at least.

2. Bump the cameras

“It’s just a third ultra-wide”. “Apple’s just copying the ultra-wide-angle from Huawei, Samsung and LG”. “The triple cameras are ugly”.

True, true, and true … but again – more complicated than it seems.

Design & Implementation

While the phone itself retains most of the design of its predecessor the iPhone Xs Max, the triple camera array is now rearranged in a triangular fashion, with each lens retaining its own bump, and with the microphone and improved TrueTone flash unit (twice the brightness!) offset to resemble a shocked Pikachu when rotated 90º clockwise.

These are housed on a rounded circle bump, glossy on the 11 Pro models against the rest of the matte body. In my opinion, it’s likely a genius way to hide an otherwise massive camera bump. Under most conditions, the glossy square actually looks concave, sinking into the phone’s body. This does wonders for aesthetics if you so choose to not use a case.

Ultra-wide Camera

In any case – the inclusion of the ultra-wide angle is very welcome. It’s much, much more useful than a telephoto, especially when travelling. Natural and urban landscapes, cramped interiors or majestic façades – the ultra-wide-angle shooter sucks it all in.

At a 13mm equivalent, it’s a hair wider than its Samsung and Huawei counterparts. That’s insignificant in most situations, but where it really shines is in terms of distortion and consistency. 

While still not perfect, the ultra-wide camera on the iPhone 11 Pro Max has a lot less linear distortion. This is especially evident when shooting architecture and man-made structures with perfectly straight lines. On the Huawei P30 Pro, lines appear slightly less straight and mars its otherwise perfect camera scoresheet. 

The ultra-wide angle camera on the iPhone 11 Pro Max allows for unique perspectives. Image: Ian Ling

Furthermore, in video, the iPhone’s colour- and exposure-matched lenses make sure that transitions appear a lot less jarring than on the Samsung or Huawei (the Pixel 3 uses a single camera, so no jars there). This also means a more consistent, uniquely iPhone tonality and quality.

Unfortunately, the ultra-wide angle does lack Night Mode functionality. That’s a pity given that the ultra-wide, like on other phones, lets in less light with its tighter aperture.

Night Mode

Night Mode itself, however, stands strong against Google’s Night Sight and Huawei’s own Night mode. 

Amongst the three devices, each has their own pros, cons and quirks. Being software-powered, results are far from consistent and were dependent on minute details in the shooting conditions. Haze, types of street lighting, resilience to hand-shake during the capturing period, and the colours available in the scene all confound the final results.

In a practical comparison, it’s evident that the iPhone lights up the scene adequately and with the magic and pizzaz of its competitors – and requiring even less time awkwardly standing in the cold, still night with arms outstretched.

Though users are unable to trigger Night Mode manually, the camera allows for it to be turned off or turned up to a longer “exposure”. This three-stage option offers different “exposure” lengths based on shooting conditions detected, ranging anywhere from Off-1s-2s in a dimly-lit café to Off-10s-28s in absolute darkness when the phone detects it is on a stable platform like a tripod.

The simplified UI for night mode on the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Image: Ian Ling

I would have preferred a manual setting for the functionality, but Apple’s implementation means much, much less clutter in the camera interface. 

Camera Interface

Speaking of which – boy, is the camera interface on the iPhone 11 devices revolutionary. 

It’s already common knowledge that Android phones (Huawei in particular) based their camera app UI on iOS, but iOS 13 on the new iPhones take it to the next level.

Time-Lapse, Slo-Mo, Video, Photo, Portrait and Pano modes used to reside on a skeuomorphic horizontal cylindrical slider, leaving other controls for Live Photos, Flash, Timer and Filters kept out of reach at the top of the interface, requiring thumb gymnastics to access these features.

On the iPhone 11 phones, these are all now kept under the horizontal slider, accessible by swiping up. The zoom options will also be kept right above the slider, now visibly marked as “.5”, “1” and “2”, transforming into a big, convenient zoom wheel. It was already available on previous iPhones, and it means you don’t have to look like a tool pinching away at your iPhone display while trying to zoom.

The iPhone 11 phones have a simplified camera interface that is much easier to use. Image: Ian Ling

For comparison, Google’s Pixel phones keep their Night Sight functionality tucked away in the tab on the extreme right, although a pop-up appears under the right conditions to whisk you away to the appropriate interface. Huawei requires a similar mode change to access its Night shooting functionality. 

Video

The iPhone reigns supreme. Video stabilisation is miles ahead when compared to Huawei and even Samsung’s offerings, even with their advertised “Super Steady” feature. The Google Pixel 3 XL isn’t worthy of comparison – its stills might be the best in the field by a small margin, but we’ve all got to trade something off, don’t we?

Features on the Samsung Note 10 demand direct comparison. The zoom microphone on both phones function well, but the iPhone seems to have an edge in audio channel separation and natural-sounding audio. 

The Video Bokeh on the Samsung Note 10 is laughable, for now. Don’t sweat it, iPhone.

One of my favourite features of iPhone is its ability to take the smoothest handheld motion time-lapses that frankly make mobile gimbals obsolete. The iPhone 11 Pro Max wasn’t advertised to have made improvements in this way, but it seems to have been improved.

Apple’s iOS 13 means video clips can be graded, cropped, rotated and fine-tuned within the Photos app. Now, that’s impressive – and it’s (most likely) available on your iPhone, too.

3. Improve the Battery

One hour for the iPhone 11 over the XR. Four hours for the iPhone 11 Pro over the Xs. A whopping five hours for the iPhone 11 Pro Max over the iPhone Xs Max.

This alone is sufficient to convince me to overlook Apple’s tongue-twister 2019 nomenclature, and even the shocked Pikachu camera array. 

But it doesn’t stop there. With the iPhone 11 Pro models, Apple is finally including in the box an 18-watt fast charger – the same one included with the 2018 iPad Pro, complete with USB-C to Lightning cable.

That delivers a 50% charge in 30 minutes, and saved my skin days ago at a conference when I woke up to a 20% charge. 

A shower, shave and change later, it’s all ready with a 75% charge, which lasted well and comfortably into the night. I’d say Apple’s not launching a Smart Battery Case this year, and will be willing to wager an unhealthy sum, but I’m no gambler.

For reference, my phone currently displays 77%, and it’s eight and a half hours since I took it off the charger in the morning. Granted, I hadn’t played any games or performed anything close to demanding on the phone, but that’s ludicrously good as iPhones go. Great job, Apple.

4. Everything Else

The devil is in the details, and it was the small things that stole my attention.

Super Retina Display XDR

Touted to bring on board technology from the headline-grabbing, 6K resolution Pro Display XDR, the iPhone 11 Pro phones have improved displays that dish out additional brightness that peaks at 1,200 nits for the most extreme HDR (therefore extreme dynamic range, or XDR) content. 

In my experience, the iPhone 11 Pro Max does dish out a slightly higher sustained brightness that can outshine the sun, but so could the iPhone Xs Max. It’s close to a tie-up, but the former seems a notch brighter. 

Its peak brightness of 1,200 nits is difficult to test given there’s simply a lack of XDR content readily accessible.

To Apple’s credit (or discredit), the Liquid Retina Display on the iPhone 11 (which is likely unchanged from the iPhone XR) is still difficult to distinguish from the more “Pro” displays from the expensive iPhone models. 

Make of that what you will, but display technology is arriving at a saturation point, and Apple’s Retina implementations seem to be class-leading at the moment. Nevermind the marketing spiel of pixels, resolution and aspect ratios.

iOS 13

A large part of why the iPhone 11 phones seem like such a big upgrade is the refreshing redesign that comes with iOS 13. Safari with Download Manager? Yes. QuickPath Keyboard? Yes! Redesigned Find My, Maps, Reminders and Photos apps? Yes, please! 

Dark Mode? Why, yes, please and thank you!

Sure, it’s available as a free upgrade to all iPhone models from the iPhone 6s onwards, including the iPhone SE and the recently-released 7th-generation iPod Touch. But that’s the beauty of it. What makes the latest iPhone 11 phones seem sleek and sexy can be enjoyed by customers with devices from yesteryear – some reassurance that the iPhone 11 Pro Max will, too, enjoy this privilege when it enters its golden years.

We’ve covered most of our favourite features on iOS 13 here, so we won’t drag this any longer than necessary.

Redesign

Much of the iPhone 11 Pro Max remains the same from the iPhone Xs Max. From the button placement, stainless steel frame, to even the antenna bands cutting through the bottom speaker grilles causing the same travesty of asymmetry.

The few differences: apart from the redesigned camera area and square camera bump, the Apple logo has been centralised and iPhone branding gone. The buttons have also been slightly lowered presumably for improved ergonomics. The front is exactly the same. 

While Apple announced the iPhone 11 phones will be constructed of an apocryphal “strongest glass on a smartphone”, the heavier form factors as a result of beefed-up batteries might threaten durability. The iPhone Xs Max from last year stood up as one of the strongest in the field, but as physicists know: Force = Mass x Acceleration, and the mass is a full 20g up.

Not available yet

iOS 13’s Sign in with Apple is something we’re particularly looking forward to. We’re frankly sick of having to deny email, friends list and personal data privileges to slightly questionable sites when signing up with Facebook.

Another feature that has yet to be implemented is the spatially-aware AirDrop enabled with the new U1 silicon. Some suspect Apple is waiting to reveal a set of tags to track your belongings with the redesigned Find My app.

Topping the list is Apple’s so-called Deep Fusion mode on the iPhone 11 phones. Iconically showcased on a sweater during the keynote, Deep Fusion takes nine exposures during and before the shutter click to squeeze as much fine detail as inhumanly possible for an ultra-detailed, ultra-sharp end product.

Being yet unreleased, it means that our comparisons of the iPhone 11 Pro Max aren’t representative of their true potential and we would just have to wait a là Google’s Night Sight for the final verdict.


Apple’s Phil Schiller introduces the iPhone 11 Pro. Image: Apple

The iPhone 11 Pro starts at SGD 1,649 (USD 999) for the 64GB model, with 256GB and 512GB models coming in at SGD 1,889 (USD 1,149) and SGD 2,199 (USD 1,349) respectively. The larger iPhone 11 Pro Max starts at SGD 1,799 (USD 1,099) for the 64GB model, with SGD 2,039 (USD 1,249) and SGD 2,349 (USD 1,449) for the 256GB and 512GB models respectively.


Ian Ling
http://uncommontragedy.com
Ian is the resident Tech Monkey and Head of Content at VR Zone. His training in Economics and Political Science is at the basis of his love for journalism and storytelling. A photographer by passion, and an audiophile by obsession, Ian is captivated by all forms of tech that makes enthusiasts tick.

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