Sunday 20 October 2019

Adrian Weckler: My week with the new iPhone 11 Pro Max

From €1,279 or less with operator subsidy

Impressive camera work makes for a photographer's dream

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

After a week using the new iPhone 11 Pro Max, I would upgrade to it for two reasons: the cameras and the battery life.

I should disclose that when it comes to cameras, I'm slightly biased. Regular readers know that for me, the camera system on a phone is about half the reason I choose it.

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So while the new iPhone 11 Pro Max looks and feels almost exactly the same as the outgoing iPhone Xs Max, that one additional feature is enough to turn my head. And turned it is.

The main improvement here is the addition of a third, extra ultra-wide (13mm) angle lens, something I've been waiting on for a long time. A handful of other top flagship phones added this focal length in 2019 and I love using it. (If you're not familiar with what an ultra-wide focal length is, go to Daft.ie and look at the interior shots used for townhouses or apartments; they always look a little roomier because of the ultra-wide lens used.)

Other than the extra flexibility this ultra-wide feature gives you for landscape, sky, architectural and interior still photos, the real fun starts when you use it for video.

It is then that you're reminded of just how good the stabilised video on the iPhone system is. For those who are unfamiliar with this, it may even seem like the biggest 'wow' factor of the iPhone 11 system.

I walked and then ran with the iPhone recording 4K video, and the smoothness of the video coverage was fairly astounding.

Companies that make stabilising 'gimbals' for smartphones and cameras may have just lost a big chunk of their business.

iPhone 11 Pro Max
iPhone 11 Pro Max

Because the A13 processor under the hood is so powerful, I think that this phone can effectively be used as a video camera for all but high-level, professional-use cases.

The clarity and sharpness from this extra 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens is good, but not quite as good as from the other two ('1x' wide 26mm and '2x' telephoto 52mm) 12-megapixel lenses. If you zoom in on images, you'll see a little bit of softness compared with the other lenses.

But this is normal: no phone has razor-sharp ultra-wide shots because of the physics of how an ultra-wide lens works.

I'm also gratified that the phone adds a new 'night mode' that transforms very dark situations by holding the camera up for a few seconds. The only quibble I would have is that it's an automatic feature that can't be manually activated as on other phone systems; you're at the mercy of whether the iPhone thinks it's warranted or not.

It's worth mentioning that the 12-megapixel selfie camera is boosted, being slightly wider in terms of its focal length now too, which is helpful. It's also more powerful, with enhanced portrait modes and the ability to shoot better video (including a new slow-motion mode at 120 frames per second, which Apple has dubbed a 'slofie').

That's not the only talking point around the cameras. Since the phone was launched, another question has been asked of them: do they make the back of the iPhone 11 Pro Max look ugly? Are those internet memes comparing the new camera layout with a cooker hob justified?

I have a slightly biased view on this in that I'm a camera enthusiast and regard lenses as both interesting and elegant. So yes, I love the look of this camera array when it's in my hand. I'd even welcome more. As to why they need to be bunched up in a corner of the phone, it's possible that if they were arranged alternatively in a vertical or horizontal line, some part of your hand might block whatever lens was at the end.

Otherwise, the aesthetics and dimensions of the iPhone are almost identical to the iPhone Xs Max. I love the matt finish on the rear of the phone, even if this is largely academic to the majority of us who will put cases on it. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is very slightly thicker and heavier than the preceding iPhone Xs Max, but not that I have really noticed.

One very positive side-effect to this is that the battery inside is larger, leading to the second main attraction of the iPhone 11 Pro Max: the extended battery life.

While this doesn't quite match the longevity of the likes of a Huawei P30 Pro (which has an insane battery life), it's now much closer. Apple claims that battery life on this model is up to five hours longer than last year's Xs Max and it feels like it. I know that battery life has always been a pain point for iPhone users compared with some flagship rival models. So this is actually a very big deal, especially for power-users or business people relying on it as a workload tool. If anything, Apple is underplaying it.

The 11 Pro Max's 6.5-inch LED screen is also improved, not so much in terms of speed (which was never really a problem with iPhones) but in brightness and contrast.

Its 800 nits maximum brightness can rise to an eye-watering 1,200 nits for brief spurts. Suffice to say that you won't have problems seeing the display on a sunny day.

And the glass is marginally tougher now, meaning it's a little less likely to spider-crack if it falls out of your pocket or off a table.

Are there downsides? Other than the high price, there's no 5G on board here, although there isn't much happening yet with 5G from Irish operators anyway.

In a nutshell, buy this for the incredible cameras and battery upgrade. Don't buy it if you're not that fussed about top-end cameras or battery life.

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