Apple has upgraded the iPhone XS Max to become the iPhone 11 Pro Max and lost the Roman numerals in the process. That's ushered in a slightly new approach, sitting alongside the iPhone 11 (replacing the iPhone XR) which closes the gap between the "pro" and the "normal" phone.

The iPhone 11 Pro brings with it a new camera system as Apple looks to push back against rival flagship devices and offer greater photography prowess alongside the normal blend of buttery smooth interaction and plenty of power.

So is this first Pro iPhone worthy of the name?

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A design that might divide

  • 144 x 71.4 x 8.1mm, 188g
  • IP68 water resistance 
  • Divisive triple camera

The iPhone 11 Pro Max is similar in design to the iPhone XS Max it replaces, with the main visual difference being the addition of an extra camera on the rear and a new matte glass finish. The front of the phone features a new display but with the same notch as we've seen with the iPhone X and XS models. While the notch hasn't changed, Face ID is improved - it's faster and accessible from a wider range of angles - so we're happy to stick to the notch and the sensors it contains.

There are lots of changes, but the big change on the back is the new camera enclosure. It features three camera lenses in a triangle formation within a raised part of the glass back. Interestingly the back of the phone is all the same piece of glass, rather than it being a separate section. The raised element is polished to stand out from the matte finish making it look like Apple has simply inlayed the camera enclosure - but it hasn't. Unfortunately, that polished finish gives it a rather cheap acrylic look and it's the camera that's drawn the most criticism to the new design.

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The glass rear is now tougher, as well as Apple boosting the waterproofing up to an IP68 rating which means you can submerge the Pro Max in water up to 4 meters for 30 minutes - enough to survive spilled drinks, down the toilet, or a dip in the pool - as well as subject it to a few knocks and bumps. Be warned though, Apple tells us it's not unbreakable - as time will tell.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max comes in four colours: space grey, silver, gold, and a new midnight green. Because of the new matte finish the colours are a lot more muted than before and that has a knock-on effect of making this model not look as big or shiny as it did before. It's an optical illusion, of course, because it's virtually the same size as the XS Max, but it's something we didn't expect to feel. Perhaps it's just that the finish is slightly more subdued overall.

Aside from the new camera enclosure, colour and finishes, the design stays the same as the XS Max. There is still a Lightning socket at the bottom, rather than USB-C, between the speaker grilles as well as volume and power buttons on the side.

Apple fans will notice that the logo has moved to the middle to avoid being too close to the cameras, and like the MacBook laptop ranges, the back just features the Apple logo. The iPhone branding and associated words have now gone for a cleaner look.

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A Pro Max screen

  • 6.5-inch OLED display
  • 800 nit typical brightness, 1200 nit max
  • 2688 x 1242-pixel resolution for 458ppi 
  • HDR 10 and Dolby Vision support

The iPhone 11 Pro Max features the company's largest phone screen that comes in at a whopping 6.5 inches. Aside from keeping screen technologies like Apple True Tone, the display also now offers up to 1200 nits brightness, ample for HDR video playback, and a two-million-to-one contrast ratio, which is twice that of the iPhone XS Max. Apple calls it the Super Retina XDR display.

The move to the new display delivers two further outcomes: a better battery life because it's a much more efficient display (combined with a new processor), and we lose 3D Touch. Like the iPhone XR, the 11 Pro Max will feature Haptic Touch instead, and to be honest, we think that's for the better - it's easier to use.

That OLED display is as lovely as it sounds. Colours are bold and crisp, whether it's watching a movie, playing games, or viewing back your photos, and it's both fast and responsive. The improvements are so good that you can easily see the difference when viewed next to the iPhone XS Max; compare it to and older model and things are even more impressive. It also trumps the iPhone 11, which lacks HDR and the sharpness offered here.

There's detail, there's punch in HDR, with support for Dolby Vision meaning your iTunes movies or Netflix content really pops, making this a great phone for consuming media, along with the boosted audio which we'll talk about in a second.

There is still something of a bezel around the visible area of the display, however. This is now a look that came in with the iPhone X, so it would be easy to say that this aspect of the phone's display hasn't really moved forward. That's true, but at the same time, there are disadvantages of getting too close to the edge of the device - the pursuit of an "all screen" front isn't always as beneficial as it might seem.

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A long needed audio boost

  • Dolby Atmos and spacial audio support

One of the more interesting new features is the introduction of spatial audio and support for Dolby Atmos. The former uses the speaker in the base of the iPhone and the ear speaker at the top of the phone and some Apple virtualisation software to create a sound stage that gives the impression that the sound is coming from all around the phone rather than just at its base.

It's incredibly clever and works really well. It's system-wide too, so it works on everything from games to movies rather than asking developers to encode anything special and certainly makes a difference to how you enjoy your content through the speakers. It's been some time coming too, with rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S10 offering AKG-tuned Dolby Atmos speakers to great effect.

Apple's version works so well as we couldn't tell the difference when listening to Dolby Atmos movies like Detective Pikachu and Lego Movie 2 when compared with Apple's own spatial audio system. We suspect there's not a lot of difference under the skin - but the net result is the same: that the iPhone has great speakers on it and that's a boon for gaming, watching ad hoc YouTube videos, or sharing with friends.

A hardware lift - with battery gains

  • A13 Bionic processor
  • 18W fast charger included in the box
  • Pro models feature more RAM than standard iPhone 11

This year, Apple has moved to the A13 Bionic, an upgrade from the iPhone XS Max A12 Bionic as it incrementally steps up the power. The processor is faster, but in use doesn't feel like by a huge amount - Apple claims it is 20 per cent faster than the A12 Bionic. That's not to say it's slow, but game loading times for example against the iPhone XS don't feel like they've moved forward drastically.

That's pretty much the trend across mobile devices at the moment - the reported gains don't always change the experience for day-to-day tasks, because everything is fast anyway. We suspect that the extra processing power is to cope with all the computational needs of the cameras and to future proof against apps yet to appear, like the AR revolution that may or may not happen. 

While the iPhone 11 Pro, Pro Max and iPhone 11 all feature the same processor the Pro models have more RAM (a number Apple hasn't shared) giving them a slight boost in performance over the 2019 standard iPhone 11 model - although there's a fairly big price difference too. Between the Pro and the Pro Max the specs are identical apart from the size of the battery and the size of the display. This bigger model is about that larger screen and a promise of a longer battery life rather than any other benefits.  

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Beyond the "pro" power, there is also fast charging, as found in the iPhone XS, but this time Apple actually includes an 18W charger in the box. This is actually a big deal, because you previously had to buy this separately - and faster cabled charging really is superb.

There's also the inclusion of a new chip that at the moment isn't being used. Called the U1, it will allow you to locate other devices with the same chip (i.e., other iPhone 11 handsets) and directionally share things through AirDrop. The software update to iOS 13 isn't due until the end of the month, and because it also needs the receiver to have the same technology, the roll out will likely be slow.

Battery life naturally varies on how you use it, but the iPhone 11 Pro Max battery is huge. A day walking around London, shooting pictures and video for testing, general usage, and games during two 1-hour train journeys still gave us around 35 per cent come a late bedtime, while a lazy Sunday at home resulted with virtually no travel and little amount of notifications meant 58 per cent of battery left at the end of the day.

Anecdotal numbers, sure, but if there's one thing we're learning about bigger phones it is that they have bigger batteries and the iPhone 11 Pro Max claims to offer 5 hours more than the iPhone XS Max. That's enough battery to get you through a heavy day - and that's always welcome.

What the iPhone 11 Pro Max doesn't have

  • No 5G
  • No reverse charging

One disappointing exclusion from the spec sheet is 5G connectivity. It's something the networks were probably hoping for having launched 5G in 2019, but instead it gives us something to look forward to with the iPhone 12.

While the omission perhaps won't be felt today, it will be if you're planning on buying this phone and holding on to it for a couple of years. With 5G in its infancy you're not missing out on too much right now, but that's going to rapidly change over the next year. Yes, Apple is on the back foot as far as 5G is concerned, so if 5G is something you're going to want, then be prepared to trade-in your Pro Max in 2020 for a 5G model.

Another feature that was rumoured and available on other competitor devices is reverse charging. That's the ability to let you wirelessly charge your AirPods or Apple Watch from the back of the device. It would be a handy option and given the addition battery life we've been enjoying, there is plenty of scope to do it. Rumours still suggest that the feature could be software enabled in the future, but for now we'll have to wait and see.

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That headline triple camera system

  • Triple camera system
  • Ultra-wide lens added
  • Night Mode
  • Front facing camera also upgraded

What the iPhone Pro models are really all about is photography, with three lenses to make sure you can make the most of whatever situation you are presented with. While Apple was one of the first to offer a telephoto lens, rivals have added more and more functionality in recent years - and this is the response. The camera is the biggest upgrade on the 2019 iPhone and rightly so.

You now get a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, 12-megapixel main and 12-megapixel telephoto lens on the back, giving you the equivalent of .5x, 1x, and 2x optical zoom respectively from the three cameras. In camera terms, that's a 13mm wide angle, 26mm standard and 52mm telephoto.

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The new part here is the ultra-wide angle lens that will allow you to get much more of what you see in front of you into the frame. It's a trend we've seen from other smartphone manufacturers and one that really lets you do something fun and new. It's also something that's added to the cheaper iPhone 11, so if you want those features at lower cost, Apple is giving you options.

The camera app in iOS 13 now shows you what you could be taking a photograph of, with an always-on preview of the ultra-wide lens greyed out at the edges of the frame, and it's easy to switch between the three lenses either by the press of a button or with a swipe of the finger through the zoom toggle.

We love the new creative possibilities that the camera offers, but you need to be careful as your fingers can now creep into the photo (you're holding the iPhone wrong), buildings can look to be falling over and kids can be stretched out to be taller than they are. That's all part of the wide-angle fun: it gives your photos a new look.

Apple has been criticised of late for the iPhone's poor performance in low-light situations and night mode is the reply. Rather than forcing you to make the decision of whether to use night mode or not, Apple's approach is to turn it on or off automatically. That will give you an "exposure" of anything from 1-30 seconds, depending on a number of factors, to give you a clean and clear shot in low light conditions.

Regardless of whether night mode kicks in or not, the iPhone 11 Pro Max's low-light photography skills are vastly improved over the iPhone XS Max from 2018. Night mode is easy to use - as long as you keep the phone steady and the subject steady - and we've had some great results. But we've also had great results when night mode hasn't activated - it's just a better camera when shooting in dull conditions overall.

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Unlike Portrait mode there is no post editing, so you can't dial back the experience and at times it can be overly aggressive. But colours stay faithful, and as long as you and the subject say relatively still, the results are fantastic.

The front facing camera has also been upgraded. It's now also 12-megapixels and you can now record slow-mo selfies (Apple calls them "slofies"), but it doesn't support front-facing night mode suggesting the technology is more than just software based.

For all the improvements, there is added complexity in this camera and we're not sure it's all necessary. There are various menu systems, hidden controls, swipes, hold and swipe, slide, tap and scroll commands. There are menu buttons that appear and disappear, symbols that will have little meaning to most users, and directional instructions littered on the screen at almost every turn.

If you were hoping for a simple point and shoot experience, that's long gone and in some ways that's a shame. The aim should be to point, shoot, and get the photo you want, because if things get complicated, they'll get ignored. That, at least, is one benefit of the night mode - it works when it needs to, but even then, the way it's presented on the display seems to be more fussy than it needs to be.

Once you've taken your pictures Apple has added a load of additional features to make editing them even more advanced. Auto-adjust is the next evolutional step to the "magic wand fix everything" feature and now lets you see what it has changed in terms of things like shadows or brilliance. You can either opt to move the auto slider, or move the individual sliders.

Then there's Auto crop where the software will use AI to crop, straighten, and correct your images as well as the ability to capture the area outside the frame of the photo or video to improve composition.

The options are certainly aimed at appeasing the Pro market, and no one can complain that Apple hasn't upped the options available to those who want them. 

Verdict

The iPhone 11 Pro Max is the top dog, the big daddy, the pro of the Pros when it comes to the iPhone range. When compared to the 2018 iPhone 8 or the iPhone XS, the specs on this device are monster and it's clear that Apple is pushing hard to retain dominance in the flagship space.

But the camera is the striking new feature here. The new three camera set up is very impressive, and while features like portrait mode still aren't perfect, it's a drastic improvement on what was available before. That also presents something of a problem: the iPhone 11 carries the ultra-wide camera, it also has the great night mode, and it's just about as powerful - but it's a lot less money, making it a serious consideration as a cheaper alternative.

As phones become more and more advanced, we have to ask ourselves what we need them for. Apple's answer this year is that you'll want to upgrade to the iPhone 11 Pro Max because of the camera.

While the rest of the phone is powerful and impressive, it's the camera that is the focus and thankfully for Apple, the feature that shines the most. 

Also consider

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Apple iPhone 11

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If you don't need the zoom camera, the OLED display and some of the other features the iPhone 11 Pro Max offers, then the standard iPhone 11 might be the one for you. It's considerably cheaper, offers much the same power and the same software experience. 

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Samsung Galaxy S10+

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Probably the biggest rival is the Samsung Galaxy S10+. Wonderful display, loads of power and a great design. The camera is versatile but not quite as impressive as Apple's latest, but Samsung presents software enhancements over Android that bring plenty of joy. 

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Huawei P30 Pro

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Don't underestimate the Huawei P30 Pro. More than any other, Huawei has been the driving force pushing the smartphone market forward. It has stellar battery life, an outstanding camera - there's just the (not insignificant) issue of whether it's going to hang on to Android or not.