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Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max Review

Posted October 16, 2019 | Apple iPhone | iOS | iPhone 11 Pro Max | Mobile | Windows


Apple’s best iPhone is powerful, capable, and smart enough to draw interest from the Android crowd. Only its high price tag stands in the way. Well, that and some inherent limitations in iOS that Apple doesn’t seem to be in any rush to fix.

Design

The iPhone 11 Pro Max retains the attractive stainless steel and glass design of the previous two iPhone flagships families—the iPhone X and XS—but with a larger, square cutout on the back to accommodate the new triple-lens camera system. A new Midnight Green color joins previous Space Gray, Silver, and Gold versions, and is quite attractive, in my opinion.

That said, many have complained about that camera cutout and the weirdness of its three large lenses. I think it looks fine—maybe it just grows on you—and I spend far more time looking at the front of the phone than the rear anyway.

Another potential issue is that the iPhone 11 Pro Max is heavier and a bit thicker than previous iPhone flagships, an interesting reversal of Apple’s previously relentless pursuit of ever-thinner and lighter devices. That’s not a problem, in my eyes, and it was done for the right reasons, since battery life is apparently much better than was the case with the iPhone XS Max. But the weight of this handset is considerable compared to that of most recent Android flagships too. The OnePlus 7T, in particular, feels wafer-thin and paper light by comparison. The iPhone just feels dense.

Not that any iPhone would care. But let’s put some numbers to these claims. The iPhone 11 Pro Max weighs almost 8 ounces, compared to just 6.9 ounces for the taller Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ and just 6.7 ounces for the OnePlus 7T. So the iPhone is roughly 15 percent heavier than either.

Display

Apple has long had some of the best displays in the industry, and it turned things up a notch (ahem) for the iPhone 11 Pro series, which features an even brighter display that can hit 800 nits in bright sunlight and an incredible 1200 nits when viewing extreme dynamic range content. Naturally, it needed a new name, so Apple calls it a Super Retina XDR display. Whatever, it’s excellent.

From a specification standpoint, the Super Retina XDR display is a 6.5-inch OLED panel with a 2688 x 1242 resolution, 458 pixels per inch, and curved corners that match the design of the device. Apple says that that the iPhone 11 Pro Max is “all-screen,” but it’s not: There are prominent bezels all around, and a huge notch occluding large swaths of the display at the top.

Apple’s forgiving fans will tell you that you get used to the notch, and in this case, at least, I must agree. It’s only problematic when watching a video.

As for the bezels, I’ve overcome the problem by using a dark wallpaper, which helps to hide them. But with an 83.7 percent screen-to-body ratio, the iPhone falls well short of being “all-screen” compared to the Note 10+ (91.0 percent screen-to-body ratio) and the OnePlus 7T (86.5 percent screen-to-body ratio).

What really sets the display apart from those in other smartphones, of course, is Apple’s excellent True Tone technology, which measures the ambient light around you and adjusts the display dynamically to make the on-screen images look more natural. There’s nothing quite like it in the smartphone world, and it works alongside other display features, like its Dolby Vision and HDR10 support, wide color gamut, and Night Shift to provide the best possible viewing experience.

Hardware and specs

The iPhone 11 Pro Max is powered by Apple’s A13 Bionic chip and its third-generation Neural Engine, a reported 4 GB of RAM (Apple does not disclose this figure), and 64, 256, or 512 GB of solid-state storage, depending on the model. A couple of points about performance: The oft-cited benchmark-based superiority of Apple’s A-series chipsets is pure nonsense; this handset is in no way that much better, from a performance perspective, compared to modern Android flagships. That said, performance is excellent, and I’ve never experienced any weird hitches or issues, as I do sometimes on Android.

Inside, you’ll also find the most extensive LTE band support in the industry for excellent worldwide coverage, “dual-SIM” support (really, an eSIM plus a SIM tray), and Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), which is still rare but could result in much faster speeds if you can find compatible Wi-Fi networks.

The iPhone 11 Max also includes excellent and balanced stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos sound and spatial audio capabilities that make watching videos, in particular, quite enjoyable. (You know, other than that notch.) The battery is quite large at 3969 mAh, and battery life has been stunning. Apple claims that it gets 5 hours more battery life than its predecessor; it has never come close to running out of a charge during even my heaviest days of usage. I often just forego charging it overnight.

On a related note, Apple has finally included a Lightning-to-USB-C cable in the box, so you can charge the iPhone using a modern Mac or PC without a dongle. And the bundled 18-watt USB-C power adapter is a first, and it provides fast charging capabilities. Previously, you needed to buy the cable and power brick from Apple at an additional cost to get fast charging. The bundled brick is bigger than the old 5-watt unit, of course, and it gets warm while fast charging. You can charge to about 50 percent in just 30 minutes, which is solid. (The iPhone also supports Qi wireless charging.)

Cameras

After years of offering good but not market-leading camera systems in its iPhone flagships, Apple has really rebounded in 2019: The camera system in the iPhone 11 Pro Max sits very close to the apex of photographic quality in the smartphone market and will satisfy virtually anyone’s needs. I still prefer the always-on HDR and nighttime/low-light performance of recent Google Pixel and Huawei flagships overall. But the iPhone 11 Pro Max comes very, very close.

Apple provides three different rear lenses in this handset: a 12MP ultra-wide lens with an ƒ/2.4 aperture and 120-degree field of view, a 12 MP wide (primary) lens with an ƒ/1.8 aperture, and a 12 MP telephoto lens with an ƒ/2.0 aperture, 2x optical zoom, and surprisingly good 10x digital zoom.

If you’re familiar with iPhone X-class camera systems from the past, or are considering an upgrade, that ultra-wide lens is the big new hardware addition, and while Google poo-pooed this capability at its Pixel event this week, I think the iPhone’s ultra-wide capabilities are both useful and fun. And Apple is smart to show what an ultra-wide version of a shot will look like in the Camera app by allowing the full scene to show through behind the user interface. This will make users select this option more often. And the results are often breathtaking, if a little bit skewed.

The iPhone has always nailed the basics when it comes to taking photos: The Camera app is quick and the resulting snapshots are usually of very good quality. But this year, Apple has upped its game quite a bit by taking more advantage of the computational photography functionality that Google’s Pixel lineup is so famous for. And it now goes well beyond the meh results of portrait mode shots to include such things as night and low-light photography.

It’s not possible to decide which smartphone delivers the best night and low-light shots, and I’ve found that all Google Pixels, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and P30 Pro, and the 2019 OnePlus flagships all deliver excellent quality in these conditions. Likewise, Apple, an also-ran in the past, is right in the mix now, and depending on the conditions and the scene, the iPhone 11 Pro Max can deliver night and low-light shots that rival the best of the competition. Look, no one is going to choose a phone because of this one feature, and most certainly no one is going to switch platforms. But if you were worried that iPhone was being left behind in this category, rejoice. Its night and low-light performance is excellent.

Out in the world in a variety of conditions, the iPhone 11 Pro Max delivered mostly consistent results, though the quality varied from just good to truly excellent depending on the scene. It’s not possible to force HDR to be always-on, like I’d prefer, so many shots are a bit washed out, though it’s not as problematic as is the case with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ or the OnePlus 7T. Instead, Apple uses a feature it calls Smart HDR to determine how shots should be created. And here, again, the quality is very, very close to the top, and just below that of the Pixel and recent Huawei handsets.

While I’m not a huge fan of Apple’s Portrait mode capabilities, there are some improvements here, thanks to the additional lens and ever-improving AI. But edge detection problems are still very real, with hair being a particular problem. I do like the post-shot Portrait mode editing capabilities, however, where you can turn a portrait into a completely different kind of photo, albeit one that might show some helmet hair.

One area where Apple does dominate is video: The iPhone 11 Max Pro, in particular, can deliver stunning 4K video at 60 fps with extended dynamic range and software-based stabilization that can rival a hardware gimbal. I’m not personally into this, but Apple has also improved its on-device video editing capabilities, letting you use the most common editing tools right on the iPhone.

In a nice touch, Apple also lets you switch from Photo mode to creating a short video by holding down on the shutter button. That’s smart, and it avoids you needing to switch modes or take your eyes off the scene you’re capturing.

Finally, there’s the front-facing selfie camera, which uses a single 12 MP wide lens with an ƒ/2.2 aperture and what I assume is a fixed focus. It’s used for Face ID too, of course, so it has Apple’s TrueDepth technology for facial recognition, and it can even shoot 4K video at 60 fps for some reason. But the big news here is software-based: This camera can be used to take short slow-motion selfie videos, which Apple calls slofies. And no, I did not test this. But here’s a nice food shot!

Security

Face ID is the gold standard in mobile facial recognition, and Apple has made it even faster with the iPhone 11 Pro Max. When you lift the device, the display wakes up and Face ID quickly recognizes your face, as indicated by an on-screen lock icon that visually unlocks. Then, you can swipe up on the display to explicitly give your consent to sign-in, a key step that is missing from Windows Hello in Windows 10. This addresses a concern I have with Windows Hello where just being in front of a device can indicate that you wish to sign-in, whereas I prefer to explicitly do so.

It helps, too, that Face ID is as secure as it is fast, unlike any Android-based facial recognition system that I’ve used. (We’ll learn soon if Google’s new facial recognition solution in the Pixel 4 is any good.) I realize there are those in the Apple ecosystem who still prefer the firm’s now-outdated Touch ID fingerprint sensor. But how do I put this delicately? They’re wrong. Face ID is faster and more consistent. It’s just better. In fact, it is almost certainly the single best way to sign-in to any smartphone.

Unique hardware features

Apple’s iPhones have long included a hardware ring/silent switch, and the iPhone 11 Pro Max continues this tradition. It’s very useful, and while it’s arguably a bit less capable than the OnePlus three-position slider, which also offers a vibrate option in addition to ring and silent modes. But it works fine, and it displays little pop-ups to indicate the mode you’ve selected.

New to iPhone 11 Pro series is the new Apple U1 ultra-wideband chip, which is used for spatial awareness. There’s not much use for this capability yet, but when you’re nearby other iPhone users with the same U1 chip, you can more easily share with them using AirDrop.

Like previous iPhones, the iPhone 11 Pro Max utilizes a Lightning connector instead of the industry-standard USB-C connector used by the rest of the market. This is good and bad: I happen to prefer the smaller size and snugger connection provided by Lightning, for example, but you’ll need to be sure you have a proprietary cable at the ready if you ever need to charge it.

Also, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is water, spill, and dust resistant. You can submerge it in water up to 12 feet for up to 30 minutes. No, I did not test that.

Software

I’m no fan of iOS, which is antiquated and doesn’t even let you position home screen icons where you want them on-screen. But I also recognize that many simply don’t care about this and only use iOS for its often-superior apps. And iOS 13, while buggy in its initial release, does bring some useful additions, including most notably an excellent Dark mode. Just be sure to keep it updated.

On the bad news front, Apple’s ongoing efforts to lock in its users have apparently intensified in recent years: The iPhone 11 Pro Max ships with other 40 Apple apps—I counted 43!—and while few of them are truly crapware, quite a few of them are anticompetitive offerings aimed at convincing users to ignore superior third-party alternatives. Fortunately, many can be—and were—uninstalled. Because they’re superfluous.

Still, as someone who very much prefers Android, some of the weirdisms in iOS really rankle. Apple and third-party apps all provide settings interfaces that are only accessible from the system Settings app and not from the apps themselves; this overloads Settings unnecessarily and forces the user to go somewhere else to make app settings changes. And naturally many third-party apps still have their own settings interfaces in addition to what’s in the Settings app.

It’s a bad design. And that somewhat colors my view of this handset. I’m so used to the unfettered customization capabilities in Android that using iOS feels like going back in time, and not to a happy time. It’s weird to me that Apple has done such a good job in some areas, in hardware, software, and services, but has ignored some basic needs for so long.

Pricing and availability

Apple’s products are always on the luxury end of the spectrum, and the iPhone 11 Pro family doesn’t benefit from the price cut that its less capable but still desirable sibling, the iPhone 11, received. Instead, you’ll pay a hefty sum to join the Pro club, with iPhone 11 Pro Max pricing starting at $1100. And that’s with just 64 GB of RAM. If you want a more acceptable and future-proof storage allotment, you can choose 256 GB and 512 GB versions instead—there’s no 128 GB offering, which would be my choice, or storage expansion capabilities—for $1250 and $1450, respectively. Yep, you can spend about $1500 on an iPhone.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max is available in Space Gray, Silver, Gold, and, new to this year, a stunning Midnight Green, which I selected along with a matching leather case (for an additional $40).

Recommendations and conclusions

Whatever recommendation I make here will likely fall on deaf ears: You either want an iPhone 11 Pro Max—or any iPhone—or you don’t, and you can justify its price tag to yourself or you can’t.

If you do fall under the spell of Apple’s hardware products, I can at least commiserate: The firm makes beautiful devices, and while I can’t understand how some of the limitations in iOS have persisted for so long, I do see the appeal of the hardware. Helping matters, Apple has suddenly vaulted into the rarified group of smartphone makers that provide the very best cameras in the market, and that alone will sell some iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max handsets this year.

For the majority who prefer Android, like me—or just can’t stand Apple, they’re out there—they won’t be swayed by any of this. The price tag is, to my mind, unjustifiable, and the limitations in iOS constantly get in my way. Moving to an iPhone from Android would likewise be problematic, though I don’t discuss the issues in this review. Let’s just say that you’ll encounter fewer issues if you really do embrace the Apple ecosystem. I can’t do that, and I certainly can’t recommend doing it.

For all that, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is an excellent smartphone flagship. It’s as good or better than anything the Android world has to offer, and its camera system is very close to the top of the market. If you can get over the price, put up with iOS, and embrace or at least work around Apple’s lock-in strategies, you’ll be quite happy with the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Excellent camera system
  • Beautiful industrial design, build quality
  • Face ID is fast and secure
  • Fast, smooth display
  • Excellent performance
  • Finally, a bundled fast-charging power adapter

Cons

  • Far too expensive
  • iOS is too limiting
  • Huge notch

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