Revisiting the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max

Posted on April 5, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in iOS with 21 Comments

After a successful stint with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, I figured it was a good time to revisit another of my favorite 2019 handsets, the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Plus, I was preparing to switch from Google Fi to Mint Mobile anyway, so this seemed like an interesting way to get a fresh start.

I’m not sure how many of these write-ups I’ll do, but I thought it would be interesting for readers to have a better peek at something I do routinely anyway. Most recently, I wrote about the Pixel 3a XL again, and there are some interesting parallels between this iPhone and Google’s 2019 mid-market champion, which has emerged as a rare win for the Pixel team. (I’d like to reexamine the OnePlus 7T soon too.)

The most obvious parallel is how immediately familiar and reliable it is. Yes, there are a few iOS weirdisms—the inability to arrange icons as you wish on its home screens, the lack of punctuation keys on the default keyboard, and so on—but like everything else in life you adapt. Overall, it’s been a seamless transition, helped in large part by that transition to Mint Mobile, which has just gone swimmingly. No problems at all.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max, unlike the Pixel 3a XL, is, of course, an expensive handset: It still retails for the same $1100 that Apple announced back in September 2019, and you won’t see regular sales—and ever-decreasing prices over time—as you do with Samsung flagships. The only reasonable way to save money with Apple is to buy refurbished, and as of this writing, the only refurbished iPhones that are currently available include the iPhone X (2017) and iPhone XS series (2018). Or, you can do what I did and trade-in your current handset, preferably an iPhone, since Apple gives decent trade-in values on its own hardware.

But finding value isn’t as simple as spending less. Many things that are cheap to buy are just cheap, and won’t last for years, as will the latest iPhones. And if your intention is to use this handset for 3 or more years—perfectly reasonable—then even the iPhone 11 Pro Max, at $1100 and up, could be considered a good value. And this is absolutely a handset that is built to last: It looks modern and powerful … because it is modern and powerful.

As you may recall, my iPhone came in Midnight Green, which is very close to my favorite color. But because it’s covered in glass front and back, I had to get a case. Fortunately, Apple makes a Forest Green leather case that is literally my favorite color and is close enough to the phone’s natural color. (Silicon case fans can opt for the similar Pine Green.) The combination is attractive and seemingly offers decent protection.

The iPhone is also the heaviest phone I’ve ever owned, but because I was just using the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, which is about one toothpick less heavy, that was an easy enough transition. I imagine that my right arm will Popeye out nicely from the extra weight, which will be nice since I can’t go to the gym anymore. But seriously, while the weight is considerable, it also lends the handset a quality feel, like the door of a luxury car.

Its display is probably great, but coming off the superior Galaxy S20 Ultra display with its vivid colors and true edge-to-edge design, it’s not notable. Like many iPhone owners, I (unconsciously or not) chose a dark wallpaper that hides the large notch, but it’s another one of those things you get used to regardless. It only stands out when watching a video, which is rare anyway. The one thing that Apple gets right with displays, however, is True Tone, which adapts the white balance and color spectrum to always look natural, no matter the ambient light. There’s nothing like this in the Android world, where harsh orange lighting at night is becoming the norm.

When I reviewed the iPhone in late 2019, I hailed Apple’s incredible jump in quality.

“The camera system in the iPhone 11 Pro Max sits very close to the apex of photographic quality in the smartphone market and will satisfy virtually anyone’s needs,” I wrote at the time. “I still prefer the always-on HDR and nighttime/low-light performance of recent Google Pixel and Huawei flagships overall. But the iPhone 11 Pro Max comes very, very close.”

I am still of this opinion, though I’d add the latest Samsung flagships to the list of phones whose camera systems I prefer to that of the iPhone. For the most part, I’ve not been happily surprised by the quality of any of the pictures I’ve taken with it, the one exception being that I really like the ultra-wide camera mode (which is present on the S20 too, but not on the Pixel 4). The photos tend to be duller and flatter than I prefer. (Which others might point out is more realistic. That’s probably true.)

A reasonable drink shot

And while this isn’t a big deal for me, anyone who cares a lot about video needs to get an iPhone. This device can deliver rock-steady 4K/60 fps video without a hardware gimbal, and it even comes with excellent video editing software. Google and Samsung are years behind Apple in this area.

The best thing about using the iPhone, perhaps, is Face ID, Apple’s fast, consistent, and secure facial recognition system. This is especially true after the one-two punch of the S20 Ultra 5G’s terrible facial recognition and in-display fingerprint reader, both of which were slow and unreliable. This thing just works, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m wearing glasses or sunglasses, or what the lighting conditions are. It’s magic.

And while I certainly appreciate the compatibility of USB-C, I will just point out that I prefer Apple’s Lightning connector, which is smaller and provides a more secure connection. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is the first Apple handset I’ve purchased that provides a fast charger, too, so instead of that little 5-watt cube that most are familiar with, it ships with a larger (but not large) 18-watt charger.

Better still, the battery life has been incredible: As I do with all of my smartphones, I don’t charge it during the day or overnight. And when I get up in the morning, the iPhone always has over 80 percent charge, often much more. The Samsung was always in the 60s with similar daily usage.

As for the software, iOS hasn’t changed much in recent years, though Apple required far too many updates to get iOS 13 to a good place. I will say that many of the apps that I use on both Android and iOS are often better on iOS. Google Maps is my go-to example: Because making UI text bold is a system feature, Google Maps supports it, but only on iOS. So Google Maps on iPhone, ironically, provides a more easily-seen UI than it does on Android. That’s safer when you’re driving and navigating.

But it’s not just Google Maps. You see little niceties all across common apps when used on iOS. Fitbit, for example, lets you edit exercise details, something you can’t do on Android. If I forget to turn off an exercise on my wearable, I need to sign-in to the service’s website to fix it when I’m using an Android handset. (Not everything is perfect, of course. Third-party apps that play to Sonos, like Google Play Music, aren’t as reliable on iOS as they are on Android, with frequent pauses for some reason.)

Overall, the iPhone 11 Pro Max has offered a comfortable transition from Android, and I could see myself just using this handset going forward. I’ve had no major issues overall, and while the camera system hasn’t wowed me on this second pass, it’s still one of the best out there. And I think that’s where the iPhone sits, today. It’s comfortable. Maybe too comfortable.

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