Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max: A Week Later

Posted on October 8, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in iOS, Mobile with 39 Comments

I’ve temporarily switched over to the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, mostly so that I can evaluate its camera system. Here’s a quick follow-up from my initial impressions of the new handset.

First, it’s a handsome and well-made phone. I purchased the new Midnight Green color and like it quite a bit, though of course I also purchased an iPhone 11 Pro Leather Case in matching Forest Green.

I still find the notch and bezels to be noticeably large, especially compared to the more modern Android handsets I’ve used this year. But like all things, you get used to them. And I’ve found that using a dark wallpaper background helps visually erase both the notch and the bezels.

The phone is pretty large, thick, and heavy. And I am absolutely OK with all of that: It delivers excellent battery life, possibly the best I’ve ever seen in a smartphone, at least in recent years. It feels substantial and less bendy than, say, the iPhone 6 Plus of yesteryear that I could literally bend with my hands.

I will never understand why Apple, all these years later, still doesn’t let iPhone (or other iOS device) users arrange the home screen icons where they want them. Given the chance, I’d place them at the bottom of each home screen, not at the top, so they could be more easily reached when using the phone normally, with one hand. This was always a problem, but it’s reached Defcon 1 with the larger iPhones of today.

I’ve often said that switching between iPhone and Android isn’t as hard as some make it out. But I’m finding that some seemingly small differences can be problematic. For example, Apple’s continued use of the Lightning port on its iPhones. I actually like Lightning in the abstract, and prefer its smaller size and tighter fit the larger USB-C used elsewhere. And yet. There are problems.

I’ve accumulated a lot of USB-C headsets this past year, thanks to Android’s embrace of this standard, and none of them work with the iPhone, of course. So the headphones I normally wear on walks are unavailable while I’m using the iPhone. When I go to the gym, I wear the Samsung Galaxy Buds, which are wireless earbuds. And those do work with the iPhone, albeit in a very limited fashion: You can’t customize the sound profile or other unique Galaxy Buds features because there is no software for that on iOS. And the headphones just work without any ambient sound capabilities, which makes them sound tinnier.

Facing a walk with this handset this morning, I was trying to figure out which headphones to use, and I had just about settled on using the terrible wired earbuds that Apple bundles with it. And then I remembered: I also have a pair of Beats PowerBeats 3 wireless earphones; those are technically made by Apple and would work fine. Problem solved, at least for me. Long story short, if you use wireless earbuds or earphones, moving back and forth between Android and iPhone should be a bit easier.

Another potential issue (for me) is the lack of system integration with Chromecast, which I use for both audio and video. But the handful of apps I need to use with Chromecast Audio—mostly Google Play Music, but also Spotify—both support Chromecast on iOS. And Audible supports Sonos, so I can at least listen to audiobooks while getting ready in the bathroom; our kitchen-based Google Home and smart display are, however, unreachable. Obviously, if I were an Apple guy, I’d go AirPlay or Sonos across the board where possible.

As a Google Fi user, I’m familiar with the issues in using a non-certified phone with the service. But the iPhone adds another layer of complexity where you have to manually update your MMS settings in iOS Settings and then must use the Google Fi app to get your voicemail. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s something you have to get used to.

The camera system has performed well so far. I used the iPhone to take shots at a recent Collective Soul concert and feel that the results—including the zoomed-in shots—are as good as anything I’d get with other phones.

The low-light functionality is markedly improved, but I would like to highlight two issues that other reviewers don’t seem to focus on enough.

The first is that the iPhone 11 Pro Max’s night mode, contrary to its name, is not a mode. That is, you cannot select night mode; it just kicks in when the iPhone feels it’s necessary. But the corollary to that is that you can likewise not disable night mode, and for the same reason; it just kicks in when the iPhone feels it’s necessary. And I don’t like that.

Don’t get me wrong: Most of the night mode shots I’ve taken are pretty damn good, though at this point I can’t claim they’re as good as what I get on the Google Pixel 3a XL or Huawei P30 Pro. Certainly, they’re in the ballpark, and I credit Apple for moving from zero to hero in just one product rev. This is a nice update. But oftentimes, when I don’t get the effect I want, there’s no recourse, and I can’t force the iPhone to get the shot I want. I can do that on the Pixel and P30 Pro.

This isn’t a big issue, but a side effect of the automatic night mode is that you don’t always know how the camera app will behave. Sometimes, you just take a shot, the shutter clicks, and it happens very quickly. But in some very dark situations, it goes into a prolonged pro-type mode with lots of visual gymnastics, and the camera app tells you to hold the phone steady, which you must do for seconds at a time. It’s weird when you’re not expecting it, which you would be if you could just select the mode in the first place.

The second big issue with night mode is that it only works with the main (wide) lens. So when I take a shot of my sunroom at night, you can see that the Hue Bloom colored lights in the corners are vibrantly represented.

But when I switch to the ultra-wide lens, night mode is no longer available. And the resulting shot is just darker and less colorful.

I’m sure Apple will “fix” this issue in the iPhone 12, but that won’t help me or anyone else that purchased an iPhone 11 series.

Food shots usually look pretty good

I’ll keep using it. You know, until the Google Pixel 4XL arrives. It never ends.

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Comments (39)

39 responses to “Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max: A Week Later”

  1. Rob Kowalski

    So far the iPhone 11 Pro camera looks excellent despite the lack of a toggle for a night mode. They always kill it in video performance as well and only improved upon it this year based on what I have seen in person and in reviews.

    Speaking of the Pixel 4XL. I was at my buddy's daughter's birthday party and a mutual friend was there. He works for Verizon and has been carrying the Pixel 4XL for over a month. He showed me the device and it was stunning. The facial recognition was outstanding and the limited camera samples I had seen in multiple lighting conditions continue to impress. He also said the battery life has been fantastic with the 90hz variable refresh rate display. I'm very excited to see the reviews of that device. I'll hang on to my 3a, but it looks promising.

  2. doubledeej

    If only someone would come up with a universal, manufacturer-agnostic connector for headphones.

  3. pecosbob04

    "I’m sure Apple will “fix” this issue in the iPhone 12, but that won’t help me or anyone else that purchased an iPhone 11 series." But wouldn't this most likely be a software fix that would port back to iPhone 11?

    • Chris_Kez

      In reply to pecosbob04:

      The wide angle lens has 100% "focus pixels", while the ultra wide angle does not. That is a hardware difference. Perhaps Apple could find an ultra wide angle lens that offers 100% focus pixels for the next iPhone. Perhaps they could find some way through software to remove that requirement; though that itself might require a more powerful processor. Regardless, I wouldn't be surprised if that kind of iPhone 12 improvement was not back-ported to earlier devices.

  4. cayo

    " Given the chance, I’d place them at the bottom of each home screen, not at the top,

    " so they could be more easily reached when using the phone normally, with one hand.

    Not really an issue. Just make sure that Reachability is enabled, then touch in the gesture area at the bottom of the display and swipe down... Easy. I use this all the time.

  5. bill_russell

    I think the things like enforcing the rigid home screen allows apple to be known for "optimization" and the tradeoff is fewer "seams" than with android, lets say, who tries to allow more flexibility and customization.

  6. Chris_Kez

    Paul, in the example shots of your sunroom at night, can you tell in the viewfinder that the photo will turn out differently for the wide vs ultra wide lenses? If cycling through the lenses shows you in real-time how the field of view and the lighting will look, I could live with that. If I didn’t know how the lighting would look until I took the photo and then reviewed it, I would quickly get annoyed.

  7. baskinrobbin

    I just switched over to the 11 Pro Max from a Nexus 6 (on Google Fi). I am amazed at the battery life. I only have to charge the phone every 3 days. With the Nexus even after swapping out the battery I couldn't make it through a day. There are definite quirks that make you want to scream but all in all it's an incredible phone.

  8. jaredthegeek

    I really enjoy your phone reviews but I do not envy you switching phones constantly. Its not that difficult but it gets old loading all the apps back on and doing the initial configuration piece.

  9. varase

    Actually, when light gets low enough, a circle with a moon sliver icon appears the top of the display. Touch that and night mode enables, showing you a scale where you can set exposure time.

    Setting it to zero (dragging the scale right) disables night mode.

    If the phone is on a tripod, exposure time can be set up to 30 seconds.

  10. wocowboy

    The dependability and universal functionality of the Lightning port on iPhones FAR outdoes the debacle of USB-C. I have read MANY articles on this site that go into great detail about all the problems Paul has had with USB-C ports in his phones over the years, with connectors breaking, losing contact, not having the same functionality across devices, and cables having varying degrees of functionality and cross-use amongst themselves and devices with no indication on the cable or device as to what each is capable of doing. None of that has ever been a problem with either a Lightning port or Lightning cable. Yes, cables can fray, but that is a completely different matter from buying a cable that might be capable of charging, but only at a certain voltage and not be able to control audio on a phone at all, without having any indication on the packaging or the cable as to what it is capable of doing. USB-C is a nightmare of compatibility and standards.

    • jgraebner

      In reply to wocowboy:

      The USB-C situation has improved dramatically over the last year or so and it is now pretty rare to run into an incompatibility. Regardless, for better or worse, it is now an industry standard and Apple really should switch over to it. Even Apple has now adopted it on pretty much everything except for the iPhone.

      Paul's example of headphones is a good one. Another one that comes to mind is that most cars released in the last 2-3 years have USB-C ports for charging and for connecting to the built-in entertainment system. Yes, you can get a Lightning to USB-C cable, but that is one more cable to have to keep track of. It's particularly a hassle for families like mine where some people have iPhones and others have Android.

  11. MikeGalos

    Paul, could you do a followup article that actually focuses on using iOS and the iPhone 11?

    This was an interesting article and a nice cautionary tale for those thinking of switching ecosystems but mostly the article was "My Android-specific accessories don't work as well on the competing ecosystem" and that's kind of a given and likely just as bad in reverse.

    I'm also continually amused by virtually every reviewer (and pretty much every user) talking about how pretty the various generations of iPhone are and then covering that industrial design that they paid so much for, both in money and trade-offs, with a case.

  12. will

    Have you tried iOS 13.2 Beta with the new Deep Fusion that is part of the standard lens? It is pretty good and I would recommend giving it a try.

    I agree that having some more control over the "night mode" would be good.

  13. wright_is

    Food shots usually look pretty good

    Food looks incredibly unhealthy! :-O

  14. adamhays

    Paul, as someone who's constantly switching between phones and platforms, how do you deal with moving back and forth between SMS on Android and iMessage on iOS? Do you experience any issues with that process? iMessage is what has continued to keep me on iOS despite all of the issues that I've experienced with iOS 13 as well as my desire for more customization and Microsoft integration.

    Also that food picture looks damn good and very not Keto friendly.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to adamhays:

      I don't do anything to move messages from phone to phone. You do have to go through a process with iMessage when you move off of iPhone.

      I haven't been on keto in a long time. I'm just generally low-carb now. But whatever, that's just a photo of a plate of food, not a picture of what I ate.

  15. Daninbusiness

    Thanks for the perspective! I am so tempted to ditch my Samsung S9+ for one of these new Apple phones, though there's no real urgent reason to do so.

    Also - I had no idea Collective Soul still tours! Good for them!

  16. yoshi

    You can toggle the night mode off. Where you see the yellow icon, with the shutter seconds displaying in low light, press that to disable the night mode. (Upper left corner)

    • waharris007

      In reply to yoshi:

      I came down to the comments to say this as well. You can force it not to use night mode, but I agree it is not intuitive at all. Also, for some reason I feel like I have to tap the flash indicator or the yellow night mode indicator several times before it figures out what I’m trying to do. Not ideal if you’re trying to capture something in the moment.

  17. wolters

    until the Google Pixel 4XL arrives. It never ends.

    Agreed...It never ends...I usually end up on a Pixel for the camera alone...I just hope the performance issues are resolved in the 4XL.

  18. mattemt294

    My google home stuff works fine with iOS as long as you have the google home app downloaded? Not sure why yours doesn’t work.

  19. mattemt294

    Also you can disable night mode. When the yellow night mode icon pops up before you take a shot you can tap it to adjust on/off or seconds of exposure

  20. Tony Barrett

    It continues to amaze me with how forgiving people are with Apple. The bezels are still obtrusively large, the size and weight is excessive etc, but it's Apple, so they can do what they like and everyone accepts it. If this were a premium 2019 Android phone with any hint of a bezel, or weighed more than 50 grams, it would be vilified! I'm sure Apple are saving their first full screen iPhone for 2020, 5 years behind Android, where they will be charging at least $1500 for the privilege. ;-)

    Also, with regard to 'night mode' on this phone. It's Apple everyone, and Apple will decide when this mode is applicable. You're not worthy or capable of making your own decision on when you want to use it, just the same as you're still not capable of arranging your own home screen icons. Though when, of course, Apple do decide to give you the ability to arrange your own apps (iOS 17 or 18 maybe), they'll do it in a way where they claim they invented it. Same old story.

    • baskinrobbin

      In reply to ghostrider:

      The bezels don't bother me, but I've always put my phones in a huge case to protect it for a couple of years.

    • Brockman

      In reply to ghostrider:

      Not an iPhone user myself, but I'll point out that the 11 Pro Max is the same dimensions as the Pixel 3XL; 4mm wider than the Huawei Mate 30 Pro; 4mm shorter than the Galaxy Note 10+. It is 1oz heavier than those last two as well. Those differences are not "excessive". Anyone who "vilifies" any of these flagships for their size or weight are dopes and should be ignored.

      The stock camera app is designed to be maximally enjoyable by the largest number of people, most of whom do not want to decide when to use Night Mode, Smart HDR, or Deep Fusion; they just want to take the picture and move on. More advanced or intrepid users are capable of using any of a dozen fantastic camera apps to do whatever they please.

      • toukale

        In reply to Brockman:

        Exactly, the average users do not care to play with setting, they just want to take their phone out and snap the picture and move on. Apple understand that, if you are a power user that wants all those control, get a third party (Lord knows there are more than we can count) app that put all those control at your fingerprint.

  21. jedwards87

    Paul you can turn Night Mode off on a shot by shot basis. Also you can adjust the exposure time by hitting the little moon icon at the top left of the screen. On a tripod you can adjust the exposure time up to 30 seconds. Pretty impressive.