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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