There's a consensus among those who follow the smartphone industry: Apple is usually not the first to introduce new technology, but when it does, it does it well.
And so, while Android phone makers are adding a fourth, or even fifth, camera lens to their handsets, the new iPhone 11 Pro is the first iPhone to have a triple-lens camera system, with the addition of a wide-angle lens.
To, arguably, no one's surprise, Apple's implementation of the wide-angle camera is arguably the best yet; it avoids the usual compromises of barrel distortion, soft focus or inconsistent colour science that plague some of the wide-angle options on the market.
This review is of the larger iPhone 11 Pro Max, but unless specifically stated, everything written applies to the standard model as well. There is also a third iPhone 11 model, whose hardware deviates from the Pro line enough that it requires a separate review.
Design and hardware
If you've held an iPhone XS Max, you'll know how the iPhone 11 Pro Max feels. The dimensions and shape are roughly the same, though the 11 Pro Max is slightly thicker to accommodate a larger battery, and has a matte glass finish that makes it significantly less prone to fingerprints; this has less grip than a glossy glass finish gives. Interestingly, the smaller iPhone 11 Pro keeps the glossy reflective glass back. The models' stainless steel sides and reinforced glass mean the handset could survive a drop or two.
The camera module has been redesigned into an eye-catching square shape, which houses a trio of 12-megapixel lenses " the standard lens, a telephoto lens and the aforementioned wide-angle lens. That all three lenses share the same megapixel count suggests Apple intends the quality of images produced by all three lenses to be consistent. That would contrast with the early wide-angle lenses from LG and Huawei, whose picture quality varied wildly from that of photos shot with their models' standard lenses.
Both Pro models have upgraded OLED display panels that get brighter (up to 800 nits) than those of the iPhone 10 range and support HDR 10 video playback.
Everything else is the same as before: the notch that houses the face scanning sensors is the same size, although Face ID unlocks a bit faster now thanks to an improved software algorithm, and the phone still charges via Apple's proprietary Lightning port (reliable rumours say next year's iPhones will finally make the switch to USB-C).
The 11 Pro gets the usual annual spec bump: it runs on Apple's new A13 Bionic, the most powerful mobile processor right now and likely to remain so well into next year.
Software and features
All the new iPhones ship with iOS 13 out of the box, but, surprisingly for Apple, the operating system is buggier than previous retail-ready versions. While trying out the phones I've seen the camera app freeze up and apps crash more than a few times.
Worry not. Apple has the best track record of all smartphone companies for providing timely software updates and patches, and iOS 13.1 has been promised for September 24.
As with all major software updates, iOS 13 brings a host of improvements and new features. The three I like most are "Dark Mode", which turns the phones' UI into either black or grey shades so it's easier on the eyes; the ability to swipe across the keyboard to type instead of needing to peck individually at the keys; and a more dynamic photo gallery that intelligently displays photos in varying sizes and grids, so superior images are easier to find.
Performance and battery life
The iPhone 11 Pro Max improves on the previous iPhone XS Max in two significant areas: battery life and camera performance. Apple says the iPhone 11 Pro Max's battery lasts "five more hours" than that in last year's iPhone XS Max; the figure is subjective, as each person has different usage habits, but I can say that the 11 Pro Max's battery does, indeed, last noticeably longer " enough for an entire 12-hour day of heavy use. Previous iPhones could not do that.
Still, Apple is playing catch-up here, as Android phones, most notably those from Huawei, have been offering all-day battery life for years. It is the other major improvements " in photography and videography " that may have put Apple ahead of the pack.
The wide-angle camera on the iPhone 11 Pro Max is excellent, offering a 120-degree field-of-vision without noticeable distortion. Apple has fine-tuned its camera software so that switching between the three lenses can be seamless if users rotate the zoom dial slowly.
I've tested dozens of phones with wide-angle cameras, and until now none can switch between wide-angle, standard, and telephoto zoom lenses without a noticeable delay or stutter.
Image quality " the colour science and dynamic range " is mostly uniform across all three lenses; again, this is something that few Android camera systems provide.
There's also a "Night Mode", which works similarly to those offered on Huawei and Google phones. It is designed to mimic a long exposure shot, but really the iPhone is capturing a series of images in quick succession " some underexposed, some overexposed " and then the phone's brain scans through the images to stitch together one well-lit and balanced shot.
Machine learning and neural processing are a strength of Apple's A13 chip, and the iPhone 11 Pro Max can pull off the computational photography trick faster than other phones. The results are great too " the samples here, taken in a dark alley, beat the night shots captured by the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and Vivo Nex 3.
Huawei's P30 Pro can still produce a brighter image in pitch black scenes, but Apple's camera processing has always been about keeping the original mood and tone of the scene instead of artificially injecting light.
As for video recording, the iPhone has been king for a few years now and the 11 Pro Max only extends Apple's lead. In addition to the seamless switching between the three lenses, the image stabilisation of the new iPhones is exceptionally good.
There are still some quibbles, however: the placement of the camera module so close to the corner of the phone means my hand often gets into the frame of the wide-angle lens. This doesn't happen nearly as often on phones with a centrally placed camera module, especially those placed high up on the phone, as is the case with the LG G8 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro.
Also " and this is baffling considering the phone's video shooting prowess " advanced settings for videography, such as adjusting the frame rate and resolution, are still buried within the main settings page instead of located in the camera app itself, as they are on Android smartphones. This makes changing shooting resolution a tedious process.
In a year of foldable phones, 5G-ready handsets, and 120Hz screens, it's hard to look at the iPhone 11 Pro Max and say it's a groundbreaking release. However, what Apple has done is address the previous weaknesses of iPhones (subpar battery life and lack of camera focal length versatility). The result is a refined product that doesn't have a glaring weakness.
Loyal iPhone users will absolutely feel a major upgrade if they switch to the 11 Pro Max, and who knows, maybe some Android fans can be won over by the advanced video capabilities too.
Dimensions: 158mm x 77.8mm x 8.1mm
Weight: 226 grams
Display: 6.5-inch 2,688 X 1,242 OLED panel
Battery: not disclosed
OS version reviewed: iOS 13
Processor: Apple A13 Bionic
Cameras: 12-megapixel f/1.8 main sensor; 12-megapixel f/2.4 wide-angle lens; 12-megapixel f/2.0 telephoto lens; 12-megapixel selfie lens
Memory: 64/256/512GB ROM (RAM not disclosed)
Colours: "Midnight" green, silver, gold, space grey
Price: US$1,213 (64GB); US$1,379 (256GB); US$1,596 (512GB)
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