Here we go, then: this year, Apple has turned its flagship up to 11, and branded it ‘Pro’ – to the Max! Or something. The point is, Apple reckons this is the best iPhone ever.
Spoiler: it is.
If you want the iPhone with the best screen, the best camera, and the longest-lasting battery – and an iPhone that for the most part gives anything Android a solid kicking – this is the phone to go for. But whether you should grab one over the iPhone 11 depends on how much you care about the things it does meaningfully better than its sibling.
Let’s dig in…
Design: natural class
If anything, the 11 Pro Max feels a touch drab compared to the 11. Apple’s decided you don’t want a brightly coloured phone when going ‘pro’. The gold, space grey, silver and midnight green models all look swish, but are restrained compared to the 11’s snazzier shades.
In the hand, the 11 Pro Max is grippier than its predecessor – although if your phone costs over a grand, you’re going to put it in a case. It’s a touch thicker and heavier than the XS Max, although not to the point you’d notice unless you moonlight as a set of scales.
Design-wise, there’s little radical here, bar the technically impressive single piece of milled glass for the back. Although that entertainingly if anything serves to draw even more attention to the divisive camera bump. It’s now a feature and a design feature.
Display and sound: looking good
In an on-paper specs punch-up against some Android phones, even this iPhone may be bruised. But in the flesh, you’d need absurdly high standards to not be impressed with the gorgeous 6.5in display. You get 2688×1242-pixel resolution at 458ppi, with deep blacks, superb contrast, and great colours.
The screen is bright – 800 nits, ramping up to 1,200 in HDR. Dazzling sunlight still proves troublesome, but crank up the brightness and you’ll spot all the fine details in games and movies – until your own retinas are seared.
This of course is an area in which the Pro meaningfully trumps the 11. That device’s screen remains impressive, but put the two phones side-by-side, and you may notice a slight ‘graininess’/pixelation in the cheaper device.
Sound-wise, there are improvements, too, with spatial audio attempting to recreate surround sound from stereo speakers. The result won’t trouble your hi-fi system, nor even an iPad Pro, but it’s deeply impressive for a phone.
Camera: snap happy
All the mean kids at smartphone school now call the iPhone 11 Pro Max “three eyes”, but it doesn’t care, because it takes such great snaps. You can effortlessly switch between telephoto, wide, and (the new) ultra-wide lenses. Smartly, the Camera app at 1× or 2× ‘previews’ the wider scene underneath semi-transparent interface elements. Switching between lenses is instant; and a new QuickTake feature lets you shoot video by holding the shutter. (To get at Burst mode, you now drag the shutter left.)
Night Mode is borderline freaky. A crack of light is enough to get you something usable. ‘Merely’ low light often looks superb (see our gallery). Colour and exposure appear more natural than similar attempts on a Pixel 3, and fine details are impressive – although the feature’s requirement that the shot be taken over a few seconds of stillness obviously renders it unusable for moving subjects.
Again, Apple doesn’t always win out on paper, but its combination of hardware, silicon and software makes for impressive pictures that are high on detail, and with mostly natural colour. The only downsides are unavoidable warping you get from the ultra-wide, and needing to find a new way of holding your phone, so as not to block the new lenses.
In this test, I took Night Mode to the extreme – beyond what you’d consider for normal use. The first shot is a tiny arcade cab in standard daylight. The second is what the iPhone 11 Pro Max made of it with only cracks of light coming through two doors (which didn’t actually leave enough light for me to properly see). The resulting image obviously loses clarity, but you can still make out the details of the cab art. The third shot is the best Apple’s previous flagship, the iPhone XS Max, can do without a flash.
Performance: go motorin’ with the A13
As Apple gleefully noted during its keynote, last year’s A12 remains ahead of the competition, and the A13 blazes further into the lead. This means, short of coming across a really badly behaved app or game, everything’s going to run smoothy. Games fly. I had no issues shooting 4K video, and running more virtual instruments in a DAW than was strictly necessary.
Teardowns suggest there are 4GB of RAM inside this phone. (I didn’t crack open the review model to check, obviously.) But also, the A13 requires less power than the A12, meaning you get more clout for less juice. If you care about numbers, the GeekBench single-core clocks in around 1,335, and multi-core around 3,300. The former beats every Mac I’ve ever used, let alone other phones.
Performance slow-downs are mostly software and UX related, such as the abominable Mail redesign. However, there is one hardware snafu. 3D Touch is now gone, replaced by Haptic Touch – mostly used for accessing context menus from the Home screen and Camera from the lock screen. The new system is only fractions of a second slower, but the net feeling is a slightly odd touch of lethargy.
Battery: all juiced up
Last year, the iPhone XR held the crown for longest-lasting iPhone battery, and Apple reckons the 11 beats it by an hour. Astonishingly, though, the 11 Pro Max reportedly gains up to five over its predecessor. This is down to a combination of factors: removing the Touch ID screen layer; a fractionally larger device; the more efficient A13 chip.
In actual use, battery life as ever depends on what you’re doing. I’m seemingly perfectly capable of chewing through battery life at insane speeds, and on the final day of review took a 20 per cent chunk out of it in an hour, due to some relentless faffing on Twitter, podcasts and games while on 4G. On Wi-Fi, though, you’d be unfortunate to not get through a day – and all my tests did see a meaningful improvement over the iPhone XS Max.
Notably, you now also get an endearingly chunky 18W power adapter in the box – no more 5W charger nonsense. It’ll charge a drained 11 Pro Max halfway in about half an hour. (11s only get the standard 5W charger. Mwahaha.)
OS and software: forever appy
As we noted in June and again in our beta yourself iOS 13 tips piece, Apple’s latest OS has a raft of useful new features, including revamped Photos editing, a redesigned Reminders app, Dark Mode, QuickPath swipe typing, and Apple Arcade.
However, it’s been buggy, text editing has turned into a spectacular faff, and the irritating Home indicator still cannot be disabled. Some way from perfection, then, but unless you’re an irreverent tinkerer (or a fan of retro-game emulators), it’s hard to argue Android has the lead here.
One area where iOS remains far in front is apps and games. Beyond the basics, where there’s broad platform parity, you can simply do more on your iPhone, whether that means work, play, or creativity. That said, when you’ve an iPhone in many ways as powerful as a MacBook Pro, you do wonder whether Apple might finally throw in the towel, let you connect a screen, keyboard and pointing device to the iPhone, and unleash its take on DeX.
Verdict: the best iPhone ever
Is this the best iPhone ever? That’s easy: yes. Should you buy it? Well, that’s a mite trickier, largely on account of the price. It’s perhaps notable Apple now leads with trade-in prices on its website, perhaps attempting to soften the blow and lessen the chances of your bank account having a heart attack.
Even if you’re well-prepared, £1,149 is the starting point, and for that you only get a meagre 64 GB of storage – which cannot be upgraded. So, really, you’re looking at a £1,299 outlay for the 256 GB model (and there’s a 512 GB one at £1,499 for the really flush). The equivalent iPhone 11 is £879 – over 400 quid cheaper. And there’s also a ‘sweet spot’ 128 GB model of that device, priced at £779.
If you’ve no need for the third camera, and/or can’t see any meaningful difference between the displays in an Apple Store, go for the 11 over the Pro Max. Unless you absolutely have to have the best, of course, in which case you’ve probably already made up your mind anyway.