iPhone 11 Pro Max Revisited: the best Camera iPhone so far
Does it still hold up to its 'Pro' moniker?
Apple announced three new iPhones: iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max, back in September last year. Amongst the three, the 11 Pro Max starts at $1099 (Rs 1,17,100) and goes all the way up to $1449 (Rs 1,50,800). While during the initial days of the launch, I had no intention to switch to a newer iPhone, it was only when I got my hands on one that I realized, it was time! The one I tried out was the 11 Pro. However, it was its elder sibling, the 11 Pro Max, that I eventually upgraded to!
Yes, upgrade! I had been using an iPhone 7 Plus earlier.
As you may have guessed by the title, this article is about my long term take on the iPhone 11 Pro Max. But, before we delve into my experience, I would like to put it out that, during my time with the 7 Plus, I did use some of the newer generation iPhones — albeit sporadically. So, I wasn’t completely oblivious to the newer models and had an inkling of what to expect from Apple’s latest offering.
Now that that has been established, here are my thoughts on the iPhone 11 Pro Max, after using it as my primary device for close to 6 months.
One of the striking changes that appear instantaneously with the iPhone 11 Pro Max is the refreshing new frosted glass finish on the back, which is a departure from the glossy glass-finish from the previous models. The switch to a frosted glass surely gives the phone a more appealing look and makes it immune to the fingerprint smudges. However, it does come with a few shortcomings, with the most critical of them being slipperiness. Yes, the frosted glass makes the device feel slippery in hand, which is one of the main reasons why I prefer to use it with a case.
Aside from the use of new material on the back, another visual difference that catches eye readily is the position of the Apple logo. Compared to its previous generations, the Apple logo on the 11 Pro Max now sits centrally-aligned, vertically. The change in position of the logo makes the back look aesthetically appealing and gives the elements a more symmetrical look.
The 11 Pro Max comes in four colorways, with the addition of a new color, Midnight Green, which Apple introduced exclusively on the Pro models. So, depending on the color you opt for, the sandwiched metal frame, built up of stainless steel, can vary (in color) to be harmonious with the device’s body. In my case, it is gray, which, after using for all these months, has managed to hold up pretty well. Although, as I already mentioned earlier, my phone stays in a case most of the time, and only seldom times does it come out of it in a week. As a reason, I can hardly find out any minor scratches or scuffs on the frame. And, this further extends to the back as well, which has barely any visible scratches and has managed to retain the new look vibes.
Talking about the difference in experience coming from an iPhone 7 Plus, the device certainly feels hefty and substantial in hand. The curved chassis around the edges gives it a comfortable and easy-to-hold grip in hand. Thus, ensuring there is no need for finger gymnastics when trying to reach all corners of the display. However, as already mentioned, the glossy finish on the back makes the device more prone to slipping off of the hand, which can be worrisome for those who use the phone without a case.
Moreover, coming in at 6.22-inches height, the iPhone 11 Pro Max seems like a two-handed device for a majority of people. However, it does not come across as a point of concern with my usage. As, for someone with fairly big hands, who also happens to be coming from almost an identical sized phone, a similar experience can be expected. Needless to say, the reachability feature, which can save you some finger gymnastics and can come in handy at times when it gets difficult to reach the top part of the display.
Moving from the design, the other aspect that the 11 Pro Max shines in is the display. The phone features an OLED, which comes in at 6.5-inch, and uses the Super Retina XDR panel. As the acronym in the name — XDR — short for eXtreme Dynamic Range, suggests, the display is a significant upgrade over the HDR (High Dynamic Range) panel (from previous models) with respect to different elements like brightness and contrast.
What’s impressive about the XDR panel is that it offers up to 1200 nits of brightness, which is impressively bright even in outdoor settings — particularly when compared to its predecessors. [For reference, displays on most flagship smartphones today peak in anywhere between 500-1000 nits of brightness]. To add to that, the display also boasts a 2 million-to-one contrast ratio that takes a more realistic approach at displaying content on the panel, with sharp, vibrant, and natural-looking color representation. All of which certainly make a noticeable difference in the overall viewing experience.
In addition to brightness and contrast, another feature that aids with better viewing experience on the 11 Pro Max’s display is True Tone, which helps reduce eye strain by adjusting the color temperature of the display according to the ambient lighting situations. I, personally, have True Tone (and Night Shift) enabled on my device. And honestly speaking, it is an indispensable feature you can’t live without once you are used to using it on your phone.
For those unaware, this is Apple’s third attempt with OLEDs on their iPhones. And compared to their previous attempts, which suffered issues like color shift and burn-in (in few instances), the panel on the latest models seems to have eliminated such issues. So even with extensive use, there have been no issues with the display in terms of color saturation levels or screen flickering. Neither has there been a burn-in problem that I have come across so far.
All these additions and improvements reflect well and add to the experience on the 11 Pro Max, especially if you are upgrading from non-OLED iPhones (like the 7 Plus), which have an LCD panel that is not as sharp and vibrant as its OLED counterparts. So when it comes to consuming content, the experience is, unsurprisingly, pretty delightful — the blacks appear deep and dark, and the colors are unarguably sharp and accurate — as has always been the case with iPhones. Even on the older models, which came with an LCD panel, display calibration has never been a point of concern for the company, and their panels have been well-known for accurate color reproduction and depiction, while also being adequately sharp and bright.
Lastly, talking about the infamous notch — taking into account the fact that the phone has a pretty huge notch at the top, the overall experience during content consumption or gaming has never come across as a major concern. For, as you end up spending more time with the device, you eventually get used to the notch. And after a point, forget about its existence in the first place — which is exactly my personal experience after switching from a non-notch display. At this point, we can only hope Apple is working on shrinking that “Kinect”- like looking notch at the top to come up with something that does not compromise on the Face ID’s functionality and yet looks aesthetically pleasing.
While we talk about experience, the other thing that can be a major deterrent for some, particularly for those who game on their phones, is the refresh rate. As was the case with most manufacturers in 2019 that started featuring a 90Hz panel on their flagships, Apple did not jump on to the bandwagon, and instead held on to the 60Hz panel with its latest offerings. And to be honest, there’s not much I find myself missing out on with a 60Hz panel in terms of day-to-day usage. Of course, a 90Hz or even a 120Hz panel on some phones does give them an edge over the 11 Pro Max, in no way does that come up as a complete experience-altering feature, at least for now.
Aside from a frosted finish back and a Super Retina XDR display, another exceptional feature on the iPhone 11 Pro Max, is its brain — the A13 Bionic. The A13 Bionic is the latest chipset powering the current-generation iPhones, including the newly-released iPhone SE 2020, and is the most powerful chipset on any smartphone in the market.
It is built on a 7nm TSMC node and comprises of a 2+4 architecture that includes 2 large performance (aka Lightning) cores and 4 smaller efficiency (aka Thunder) cores. Assisting the processor is an eight-core Neural Engine, which serves in machine learning operations, and happens to be the secret sauce behind features such as Siri Suggestions, Face ID, and other ML (Machine Learning) and NN (Neural Network) operations. One of the biggest advantages that Neural Engine holds over, say, a regular CPU or GPU is energy efficiency, which happens to be a crucial factor in smartphones.
Moving to the performance bit, with the A13 Bionic taking care of all the operations and helping in computing and crunching those numbers real quick, the 11 Pro Max is, inarguably, a stupendously fast device compared to its competition. From basic operations like app opening to complex ones such as portrait, Deep Fusion, or other computational image prowess, the device does not break a sweat. In the same vein, when it comes to AR (Augmented Reality) apps such as SkyView, SketchAR, and the likes, the phone continues to perform at its optimal without incurring any hiccups or slow-down in performance.
When it comes to gaming, which has, of late, become a key metric to gauge a phone’s performance, the 11 Pro Max performs outlandishly good across various graphics-intensive titles like Call of Duty Mobile, Fortnite, PUBG Mobile, and Asphalt 9, to name a few. Although I do not actively play games on my iPhone, the times when I did play titles like CoD or PUBG, the game ran very smoothly at the highest graphics settings with no hiccup whatsoever. And despite the display offering a 60Hz refresh rate only, the experience was still smooth and extremely responsive.
However, one thing that came up as a concern a few times, especially in the past couple of months (since it’s summer here in India), the temperature on the device certainly seems to rise a few games down the line. To an extent where it can sometimes get tough to touch the back of the device — particularly close to the proximity of the rear camera module and the power button.
For years, the optimization on iPhones (or even iPads), which is largely plausible due to Apple’s authority over both hardware and software, has paved the path for an uncompromising experience at large. And this is clearly evident with the company’s latest offerings that hardly struggle to strike the right balance required for a seamless experience. Besides, it is a well-known fact that, despite having lesser RAM, the iPhones outperform most other smartphones — a large reason for which has to do with their control over both aspects of the device: hardware and software.
Although the 11 Pro Max performs consistently well with multiple apps running in the background and does not end up losing the state on these apps, sometimes, when there are multiple games open in the background, I did notice some apps/games losing their state. While some speculate that it has to do with less RAM onboard, this is not necessarily the case always. Since a lot of the times, the current software release can also be responsible for poor memory management and other related issues — particularly when the device has been functioning well until an upgrade to the latest release — which is the case with my device that started running into such issues ever since I upgraded to iOS 13.4.
One of the prominent concerns with smartphones these days is the battery life. And it all began when manufacturers started pushing larger capacity batteries on their phones along with support for fast-charging solutions to help refill the juice quickly. The idea behind which is to offer more battery life on the device, and when it discharges, provide a faster charging solution to refuel it again.
With the iPhone 11 Pro Max, Apple has made its way to the two-day battery club, which manages to offer up to two-days of battery life on the device on a single charge. That is, however, granted that you do not spend hours playing games. In which case, the battery falls short of its two-day promise and instead varies in mileage depending on your use-case.
While initially, back when the phone was launched, it did not offer a consistent battery life, over time, with incremental updates to iOS, Apple finally resolved the battery issues. And as of now, with the current version of iOS – 13.5.1, the phone easily averages close to 8 hours of screen-on time (SOT) with medium usage. Not to mention, the mileage may vary depending on the use-case.
For instance, in my case, there have been times when I consumed copious amounts of content across different platforms for hours and played a few games of Call of Duty, and could still manage to get close to 6-7 hours of SOT — which is quite impressive. Alternately, some days, I ended up spending fewer hours on my phone, performing basic tasks like casual web surfing, listening to songs, replying to messages, scrolling through my Twitter feed (obviously), and could easily get the device to last for more than a day on a single charge.
When it comes to charging, the 18W charger (with USB-C to lightning) that comes bundled-in with the phone certainly helps the device to get to 100% much quicker. And compared to the company’s previous offerings, it is a pretty welcome change. Depending on whether you have the Optimized Battery Charging feature enabled or disabled on your device, the charging times can vary significantly. Although, when enabled, the charging times tend to go higher, Apple claims that the feature helps extend the battery span and prevents it from aging quickly.
However, one of my concerns — despite having the feature enabled and not charging the battery excessively and extensively — is that the battery health on my device has degraded down to 95%, which, in a span of just 6 months, seems unusual.
There is no denying the fact that iOS is one of the slickest and streamlined mobile operating systems out there. It might not offer a tonne of customizability options like Android, could lack in certain, so to say, “power user” features, and even have restricted access to different settings and core elements, it is certainly the best when it comes to getting things done on your device. Not to mention the promise of receiving guaranteed updates for a fairly long period of time, which makes it a solid contender for the most value for money device.
A lot of the times, we often hear people saying that, compared to iOS 12, which was a significantly stable release that offered consistently good performance through its life cycle, iOS 13, on the other hand, is more like a hit and miss with every other update. While this is not entirely true, there is no denying the fact that iOS 13 has had its own share of flaws back from its initial beta stages. But, over time, Apple has managed to do a decent job of eliminating the bugs and ensuring a trouble-free experience for its users. And hopefully, it continues to do so with the upcoming releases.
Aside from bug fixes and several trivial improvements, iOS 13 has also seen a bunch of new and exciting features, with the most significant of them being the dark mode. For, ever since Apple started adopting OLED panels for their iPhones, people have been actively asking for a dark mode, to get the most of the viewing experience on their display, and in turn, get better battery life.
iOS 13 also saw the addition of new and improved Siri Shortcuts, with features like conversational shortcuts and automation shortcut triggers to streamline the mundane tasks. Similarly, another exciting new feature that Apple released with iOS 13 was the introduction of Sign in with Apple, which makes it easier for you to sign in to accounts without having to fill out the form every single time. To add to the convenience, the feature also includes the option to hide your email, and instead use a unique address generated by Apple.
With iOS 13, Apple seemed to have listened to most feature requests by its users, and for the most part, has managed to live up to their expectations by offering some of these features. One of the most requested features of all time, on iPhones, has been the swipe to type feature, which Apple has been refraining from offering all these years, but finally decided to introduce with iOS 13. Although, with my time using the feature, I did come across noticeable errors with registering and recognizing swipes, which led to me disable the feature. Since most of these incorrect registering were incorrect misinterpretations of some of the most common English words, which goes to show that there’s a lot that Apple needs to work upon to make the feature better at recognizing swipes and registering words — before people can be completely reliant on it.
Besides some of the noticeable features discussed above, there are a few more additions to iOS 13 that Apple introduced over the course, such as Apple Arcade, Memoji, improvements, and tweaks to existing apps and services, better WiFi support and persistent personal hotspot, detailed glimpse at battery stats, smarter share sheets, among many more — all of which have worked in synergy to offer a good user experience on the 11 Pro Max. In summary, the latest iteration of iOS surely offers a pleasant experience overall, with faster app launch speeds, snappy Face ID, and a bunch of improvements and adds-ons that we have already discussed above.
Apple introduced the dual-camera array on its phones with the launch of the iPhone 7 Plus. At the time, the addition of a secondary (telephoto) sensor significantly helped the company pull up ahead of its competitors and continue to offer an unparalleled camera experience — in terms of both image and video. But, for the next two years, while there were some significant improvements to the camera, the devices faced tough competition from the likes of Google, Samsung, and Huawei. And therefore, they could not manage to hold on to the “best camera smartphone” title.
However, with the launch of the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which introduced a tertiary (ultrawide) sensor and the highly-requested Night Mode, Apple seems to have finally gotten back at clinching the title again. To run you through some numbers, the triple-camera setup on the 11 Pro Max includes a 12MP wide (primary) sensor with f/1.8 aperture, PDAF, and OIS, which is accompanied by a 12MP ultra-wide sensor with f/2.4 aperture, and a 12MP telephoto lens with f/2.0 aperture, PDAF, and OIS. For the uninitiated, the purpose of PDAF (Phase Detection Autofocus) is to create two separate copies of an image, and then depending on the difference in their phase, adjust the lens accordingly till they align in phase — to give a clearer and sharper image.
In my experience, the stills come out exceptionally well with the primary and the telephoto lens, but when it comes to the ultra-wide sensor, there were times — with not so good lighting conditions — when the sensor fell short to impress. And that is kind of expected since aside from the primary sensor, the other two sensors do not support Night Mode out of the box. So, in case you want to get the Night Mode working on all three sensors, you need to use a third-party app like NeuralCam to get well-lit and exposed shots under low-lighting conditions.
Talking about the Night Mode performance, the 11 Pro Max outputs pretty accurate images in low-lighting situations most of the time. It manages to strike the right exposure-and-contrast balance to offer natural-looking images even in dark settings. Thus, keeping the true essence of the image intact and not making them seem like they were shot with daylight. However, there are always some exceptions. And with the Night Mode, these appear in certain artificial lighting conditions when the surroundings are too dark, as, at such times, the camera can sometimes overexpose the subject. Although, over the course of iOS 13, it seems to have been getting better at keeping the color temperature and exposure levels under check.
Aside from the primary (wide-angle) sensor, the telephoto lens, which offers 2x optical zoom, also performs decently well at large. This has been particularly true with the earlier versions of iOS 13, as, with the recent updates, the sensor seems to struggle to maintain focus on an object, and sometimes requires multiple attempts before it can establish the focus on a subject. Another gripe that I have with this sensor is related to the amount of noise that it induces as you go past the 5x zoom mark. As a result, a lot of the times when I tried capturing distant objects, there was noticeable distortion and graininess in the image beyond the 5x mark.
Although this is somewhat understandable, as the range past 2x falls under digital zoom, there is some room for improvement on Apple’s part in terms of computation photography. Hopefully, the upcoming iPhones this year will get a better optical zoom range and leverage computational photography to get the most out of their hardware.
The addition of an ultra-wide sensor surely gives a new perspective to the imaging experience, and the company does a commendable job at maintaining the tonality of the image across all three sensors. Just like the other two sensors, the ultra-wide also works as advertised, and only seldom times does it introduce any artifacts or distortion in the image. For instance, when taking landscape shots, the lens performs a good job at depicting the colors, setting the exposure and contrast levels right, and correcting the distortion, if any. But, when you try to capture a scene with numerous objects in the frame, the distortion creeps in close to the corners, which sometimes makes the image look unnatural. However, some of these shortcomings are kind of doing nit-picking, as in general, the cameras perform exceptionally well.
Towards the front, the 11 Pro Max sports a 12MP shooter with an f/2.2 aperture and Smart HDR, which is a significant upgrade over the 7MP sensor on the older models. The images come out sharp and clear, and the camera manages to keep the output as is by preserving the skin tones and not over-softening the details — which is something that most smartphones seem to be struggling with these days. The portrait mode is also improved on the newer model and performs consistently well most of the time, except for certain lighting situations, when it fails to create a discernible separation between the subject and the background.
Moving right along and talking about video, which happens to be Apple’s forte for a long time now, the biggest noticeable difference on paper is the extended dynamic range and audio zoom. The extended dynamic range now supports shooting at 60fps, and the audio zoom, as its name suggests, allows you to zoom into different parts of the subject that appear in the viewfinder to get cleaner audio of their proximity.
Besides, the camera offers 4K shooting at 24fps, 30fps, and 60fps; 1080p shooting at 30fps and 60fps; slow-mo recording in 1080p at 120fps and in 720p at 240fps. With my usage, the video output has been consistently good every single time, with OIS kicking in to offer an impressively smooth and stabilized video. And as has always been the case with video recording on iPhones, the color depiction is pretty natural and close to the real-world. One of the concerns with older models — related to the lack of a better dynamic range — also seems to have been addressed on the newer models. As a result, the camera does a pretty good job of preserving the details and capturing the lighter and darker areas when panning through bright surroundings.
Similarly, the front camera also gets a few noticeable changes in terms of video. The most requested 4K shooting capability is now finally available on the front camera and supports 24fps, 30fps, and 60fps. In addition, the company has also introduced slow-mo recording on the front camera, which allows for 1080p recording at 120fps. Much like the output from the rear camera, the front camera also produces clear and natural-looking videos, while also offering a better dynamic range and maintaining the overall tonality of the scene.
While there are a few shortcomings on the iPhone 11 Pro Max, at the end of the day, it boils down to the overall experience provided by the device. Which, in this case, definitely manages to bring the best of both the hardware and the software to offer a well-rounded experience. Talking about ‘value for money’, although the device is priced steeper in the Indian market, the kind of experience — in terms of hardware (design and display), performance (A13 Bionic), software (iOS 13), including top-notch cameras, and most importantly, prominent emphasis on user privacy — does make up for that premium. Especially when you consider the likes of some of the other flagship offerings from top players in the industry — that are also climbing up the price ladder — the price for the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max is, at large, justified for what it offers.
Moreover, when you consider the mileage one can expect out of the device, which is usually a solid 3-4 years in case of iPhones, on average, there is not much left to complain. The software release cycle from Apple is supreme, to say the least, be it for their iPhones, iPads, or even Mac, the experience tends to remain the same through the years.
That said, if you recently got your hands on the iPhone 11 Pro or Pro Max, you can continue to hold on to it for the next couple of years, without incurring any issues or having to compromise in any aspect. Unless, of course, you want to get your hands on the latest pice of tech. In which case, we are only a few months away from Apple’s annual update cycle, wherein, we are expecting to see the next-gen iPhone — probably the iPhone 12.
To conclude, after having used the iPhone 7 Plus for close to three years before making the switch, it has been a radical shift in experience from different standpoints. One of the most significant changes, instantly noticeable after the upgrade, was the switch to an OLED, which made everything — from content consumption to gaming — feel immersive. All thanks to a bigger, sharper, and color-accurate display with narrower bezels. Similarly, another huge upgrade with the 11 Pro Max has been in the camera department. The addition of a new sensor, and the improved performance of the other two sensors with better optics and image processing, added a whole new level of excitement coming from a three-generation old model.
Last, but certainly not the least, the powerful A13 Bionic chip orchestrating every single aspect of the device’s performance and the very reliable iOS 13 — both of which come along to offer a well-rounded package for its price.