+ Wednesday October 16th, 2019

Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max — The Ausdroid Review

Look, I know what you’re thinking. What on earth is an Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max review doing on Ausdroid? Isn’t the entire raison d’etre of the site being everything, well… Android?

Fear not, dear reader. The Ausdroid collective hasn’t sold out to Cupertino just yet.

The reality is that the mobile market in Australia is very neatly split along operating system lines. It’s a familiar story worldwide, and while both camps claim “innovation” as their prerogative, the reality is that there’s a lot of “borrowing” of concepts on both sides. The end goal is one that can only benefit smartphone consumers, because we should get better phones in both a hardware and software sense.

Also, and I figure this is important, before you gather up the pitchforks just because I might say something nice about an Apple device, I’m a fan of things that work, period.

Most of the time you’ll find me packing a MacBook, it’s true, but that’s largely because they’ve tended to break down slower than any Windows laptop I’ve owned over the years. Conversely, while I review a lot of smartphones, this year I’ve tended to return to the generally excellent Huawei P30 Pro because I really do like its superb camera and battery endurance. If you’re going to accuse me of being a rabid fan, it’s of products that deliver what they say they will.

With that preamble out of the way, despite what the name might suggest, the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max is part of the 13th generation of Apple iPhones. Confusing, isn’t it? But that’s what happens when you alternately announce “S” year phones and divert slightly into an SE model. It’s the current flagship of Apple’s smartphone line, which means it’s got the largest display screen of a current iPhone, the biggest battery, and the biggest asking price.

You’re almost certainly aware that there are plenty of Android alternatives that are cheaper. Indeed, outside the rarified air of phones like the Porsche Design Huawei Phones, and the predicted price of devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fold or Huawei Mate X, they’re all cheaper than most models of the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

So what’s Apple got that might tempt you to part with your hard-earned pennies?

Design: So far, so very Apple

The iPhone 11 Pro Max features a 6.5 inch 1,242 x 2,688 pixel OLED display, which means that there’s a host of Android phones that are technically sharper. Here we get into a certain quantity of optical tetchiness; while the display on devices like the not-coming-to-Australia Sony Xperia 1 wipe the floor with the iPhone 11 Pro Max at a technical level, at this size it’s not as though you’re staring at raw Atari 2600 style blocky pixels anyway.

Apple has won plaudits in past years for the clarity and colour accuracy of its displays, and the iPhone 11 Pro Max is no exception. This is a pretty display that can handle content with HDR+ and Dolby Vision if you’re streaming content of that type, although again you do start to stretch the real limits of your own visual acuity at those levels.

The design at the front is still very classic “Apple” though, which is the polite way of saying that from the front without close inspection, very few would pick this as the iPhone 11 Pro Max over 2018’s iPhone XS Max. There’s still a super-prominent notch where much of the Android competition has opted for teardrop notches, hole punches or pop-up cameras. Apple’s push for its own FaceID platform is the culprit here, as it seems that it can’t particularly shrink down the size of the additional depth-sensing cameras all that much.

At the back of course you’ll find one of the elements that Apple claims as “innovative” in the triple camera array. It’s innovative only in the sense that it’s one more camera than any other iPhone generation, given we’ve had plenty of triple camera (and more) setups across a number of Android phones to date. Presumably nobody showed Apple the Nokia 9 Pureview at any point during the marketing campaign, for example.

The design shift to triple cameras isn’t just a technical one, however. All 3 cameras have distinct external bumps, which means that the iPhone 11 Pro Max never sits properly flat on a desk unless you drop it in a case. I’m a big fan of putting cases on phones – I hate scratches – but for phones like this it’s a very smart idea, both to keep them stable and free of scratches.

If there’s a philosophical difference that underscores the difference between Apple and Google in this market, it’s one of control. Apple’s vision is essentially one of dogmatic control over just about every experience, where Google is considerably (but not exclusively) more laissez-faire in its approach.

This is a theme I’ll return to a little later, but for now it’s enough to note that Apple offers the iPhone 11 Pro Max in just 4 colour variants; the very well established Space Grey, Silver, Gold and a new “Midnight Green” colour. If you’re a fan of the shifting colour approaches found in phones like the P30 Pro, Note10+ or Oppo Reno 5G, you’ll find this rather plain.

That being said, while there’s maybe not as many colour choices as you get with some Android flagships, they are at least all offered here in Australia, where often we’re stuck with just one or two colours of a given Android phone officially landing on our shores.

Camera: Easy to use, but Apple is still playing catchup

Cameras are a vital part of the premium phone space, because the reality is that you can get a very good photo experience out of many mid-range phones these days. A flagship phone has to do more to justify itself, and the pressure is really on Apple here, because it simply doesn’t have a “mid-range” phone. The cheapest current generation model, the iPhone 11 would still cost you north of $1000, which isn’t mid-range by any sane person’s estimation!

The iPhone 11 Pro Max packs in triple 12MP lenses (f/1.8 + f/2.0 + f/2.4) at the rear, covering wide, ultra-wide and telephoto shooting modes. This is new territory in the iOS space, but already well-worn ground for Android phones, so if all you were after was that functionality, it would be relatively trivial to pick up a much cheaper handset.

The real value of a camera of course comes from the images you can capture from it, and here Apple has some advantages and some disadvantages relative to the current cream of the Android crop.

But again I have to return to the idea of control, and that’s because in the ideal Apple world, you’re going to use the supplied camera app as your primary camera app.

Let’s be honest here – most folks probably do this on Android as well, although it’s much easier to swap out a third-party app in the Google world if you’re notably keen. Apple’s camera app is one that’s been consistently used as the (ahem) “inspiration” for plenty of supplied Android camera apps – why yes, I am looking at you, Oppo – and that’s for a reason.

It’s a constrained experience that eschews presenting direct technical detail in favour of using Apple’s own AI-driven approach to getting good photos. Controls are kept relatively minimalist, which is not a bad thing for those who don’t want to think about features like pro modes where you can change apertures, or dedicated monochrome shooting modes. Quite where you are on your photographic journey may vary, but for the mass crowd it’s not hard to see the appeal of Apple’s highly controlled approach.

Apple’s tweaked its portrait mode for the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which fires off all 3 cameras at the rear to give it the appearance of depth sensing, even though there’s no dedicated depth sensor as there is on, say, the Galaxy Note10+.

Like most approaches of this type, it will intermittently misfire and grab focus in the wrong places, but again that controlled approach does make it pretty easy to grab good looking photos. It’s also one area where you can get more finicky with post-shot controls, changing the lighting style and intensity as well as adjusting features such as exposure, saturation and warmth all within the photos app. Again, very controlled and very Apple, but it’s not hard to use, and that works well to its target market.

Apple made a lot of noise about the quality of its low light shooting when it launched the iPhone 11 Pro Max, but then it really had to. I’ve tested every flagship phone of the past few years, and Apple’s long lagged behind leaders such as the Google Pixel (which, let’s face it, only has one rear lens until the Pixel 4 officially breaks cover). 2018’s iPhone XS Max was way behind the Pixel 3, and even further behind the Huawei P30 Pro, which remains my benchmark for low light quality.

To put this to the test, I grabbed a Pixel 3XL, Samsung Galaxy Note10+, Huawei P30 Pro and the iPhone 11 Pro Max and took them out night shooting at a nearby park. The objective here isn’t to get a “great” shot, but simply to see how well each phone’s sensors pick up low light images. They’re all using the same effective approach, which is to grab multiple exposures and combine them using machine learning to create theoretically pleasing images in very low light.

Again Apple’s control comes into play here. You don’t select night mode shooting at all. The iPhone Camera app does it for you, with an icon that fires up to show when it figures light is low enough. By default that gives you between a 1-3 second shooting period, which you can alter with a slider. Drop the iPhone 11 Pro Max onto a tripod and it will bump up to 28 seconds for shooting. So how did it compare?

Here’s the shot taken from the Samsung Galaxy Note10+:

Galaxy Note 10 Plus

The same shot taken with the Pixel 3XL:

Google Pixel 3 XL

And then my standard benchmark for “best” performance, the Huawei P30 Pro:

Huawei P30 Pro

And here’s how the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max handled the shot:

iPhone 11 Pro Max

Yeah, Apple, you’ve done a lot and come pretty far, but there’s still work to do. There’s a lot of noise there, and while it has a slight X-Files vibe to it, it’s not punching as hard as its competition. That may change when Apple’s AI-led “Deep Fusion” camera update comes through, but I can only test out what’s available at the time of review. By the time that launches, we’ll know more about the Pixel 4’s low light prowess too, and maybe the Mate 30 Pro as well. The battle lines still weigh heavily in Android’s favour here.

One area that Apple’s clearly put more work into is video shooting. It’s a notable weak point still for the Huawei P30 Pro – I’ve got big hopes here for the Mate 30 Pro when that finally reaches our shores – which suffers from lots of stuttering and rolling in its video modes, but the iPhone 11 Pro Max delivers silky smooth video at up to 4K 60fps. Mind you, again, you’ve got to head to the separate settings app to enable that, because again Apple is more about selling experiences than technical specifications.

Hardware: Apple’s silicon is fearfully good

Apple makes some very bold claims about is own ARM-based silicon, and in the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max (and its siblings) it’s represented by the Apple A13 Bionic processor.

There are some solid challenges in comparing the Apple A13 Bionic against cutting edge processors like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 or Huawei’s Kirin 980 (or for that matter 990, not that I’ve been able to test that… yet).

Android and iOS are different operating systems, and there’s a fair argument around the veracity and reliability of cross-system benchmarking tools that give something of a picture of how they compare.

If you do care, the A13 Bionic smokes the competition by a fair margin. Actually – and if you’re a die-hard Android fan, you won’t like this – even last year’s A12 Bionic still outpaced this year’s Android processors pretty handily.

Now, you can take the viewpoint that benchmarks can be gamed, though I’ve seen little that suggests Apple’s played in that pool anywhere near as much as contenders such as OnePlus or Huawei.

Android isn’t iOS, but Apple does have a genuine advantage in having that control – there’s that word again – over the whole design and build process for the iPhone, from hardware through to software. Google can play that game a little with its own Pixel devices, but only to an extent given that Android has to support so many more configurations and screen sizes. Apple’s able to heavily optimise, because it only has to program for around 4 generations of iPhone with small differences between each.

To give you an idea of the comparative difference, 2018’s Google Pixel 3 range was widely derided for having only 4GB of RAM on board. It was a cost-cutting move on Google’s part that led to lots of slow app performance and user problems, especially at launch.

Apple doesn’t talk much about internal components beyond the processor and storage, but iFixit’s teardown and benchmarks reveal that the iPhone 11 Pro Max is running on… 4GB of RAM.

The difference here is that the iPhone 11 Pro Max just doesn’t miss a beat even when I push it hard. That’s efficient memory management at work, and outside Google taking a much more direct role in Android’s developer guidelines, it’s an advantage Apple’s likely to retain.

One note of similarity between Apple and Google here is that you can still only get iPhones with fixed storage. The higher tier 256GB and 512GB models are fine, but quite why Apple insists on selling a titchy 64GB model befuddles me. Don’t buy that one, folks.

UI: Controlled and capable if you’re happy playing Apple’s games

While there have been plenty of “iOS-like” Android phones (again, yes, hello Oppo), the biggest change you’d hit if you did jump Android to iOS is in the way the UI works. Apple again is all about control, which means you’ve got to comply with its way of thinking about icons, folders and even access to the underlying app infrastructure.

Jail-breaking is still a thing in the iOS world, but it’s a very minor player against the vast quantity of users working within Apple’s own app store and icon-driven interface system. That means there’s no widgets to play with if you’re a fan, or for that matter app drawers.

Still, a lot of app development, including many of the very best apps to make their way to Android start life on iOS. There’s a lot of data that suggests that app developers have tended to make more money from Apple apps over time, which has created a cycle of developers tending to prioritise that platform.

Apple’s not letting that advantage go, and one way you can see that is with the Apple Arcade game subscription service that launched alongside the iPhone 11 generation. Yes, Google has its own incoming service in Google Play Pass, but again the philosophical control beast rears its ugly head, with advantages, I’d say, on both sides.

Yes, both sides. Google will let developers have apps inside and outside Google Play Pass, and it’s going to allow apps in there as well as games, which is far more flexible than Apple’s games-only approach.

However, Apple’s curating Apple Arcade and directly funding development of games for Apple Arcade, and keeping them all exclusive. All very Apple-style behaviour, but the actual games themselves are (mostly) very well refined titles as a result. Again, being able to limit them to just a handful of iOS devices means they’re more heavily optimised.

There’s a little bit of something for everybody – I’m rather enjoying The Pinball Wizard, Exit The Gungeon and Oceanhorn 2 right now for example – and a wider ecosystem of Macs and the Apple TV to play these games on in coming months. Comparatively Play Pass is largely a mobile play, with Android TV support but not browsing built in based on early reports. That’s again the advantage of controlling your own ecosystem end-to-end, as long as you’re happy playing Apple’s way, of course.

UI: Better battery life, but Android is still best

For the longest time, Apple’s battery life for iPhone models has been a rather painful joke at the expense of iPhone owners. It’s been woefully sub-par for premium flagship phones, so my interest was definitely raised when Apple said that the iPhone 11 Pro Max could handle up to 5 hours more battery life than last year’s flagship iPhone XS Max. Of course it didn’t namecheck any Android phones in that comparison, because that’s not how Apple measures these things.

The reality here after both benchmark testing and more day-to-day use is that the iPhone 11 Pro Max does have greatly improved battery life, and probably even more than its own 5 hour figure would suggest. It’s the first iPhone that I’d very comfortably say can manage multi-day battery life where other models might just crawl over that line.

Apple doesn’t reveal its battery capacity figures, but the online teardowns reveal a 3969mAh battery, just a squidge smaller than some Android flagships. Again Apple can benefit from full software control, but it still lags in real-world terms next to flagships like the Oppo Reno 5G or Huawei P30 Pro, both of which can manage many hours more again than the iPhone 11 Pro Max. That’s both in benchmark and real world testing, too.

One interesting aspect of the iPhone 11 Pro’s battery life is that it’s finally better than Samsung’s flagship 2019 phones such as the Galaxy S10 5G or Galaxy Note10+. That’s more a reflection of how Samsung has struggled this year to deliver really satisfying battery life, however. 2018’s Samsung phones in my testing and experience actually had better battery life than their 2019 counterparts.

While lasting through a full day even if you go out after work is a key metric and laudable, the reality here is that Apple’s still lagging behind the best Android can offer in battery life terms. You do have to rein in Huawei and Oppo’s more aggressive app-killing tendencies a touch to get that ideal sweet spot between battery life and actual usability, but even with that in place they’re still doing better than Apple can here.

While Apple’s adopted USB-C for its iPad Pro lines, there’s only one end of an iPhone 11 Pro charge cable that comes with USB C, and it’s not the end you plug into the phone. That remains on Apple’s own lightning plug, with USB-C connecting to the 18W supplied charger to top it up. Qi wireless charging is also supported, and internal examinations (and plenty of rumours) suggest Apple has toyed with reverse wireless charging. It’s not enabled in any way on the phone however, and there’s no guarantee it will be.

Should I consider buying one?

If you’re a die-hard Android fan, the answer was obvious before you ever clicked on this review, so I won’t insult your intelligence.

But what about in the wider market? It’s not hard to see why Apple’s controlled approach appeals to folks who don’t want to get down into the nitty-gritty of app tweaking, alternate launchers or even selecting camera resolution modes. Like it or not, Apple does make a phone that’s quite easy to use in the most part, as long as you’re essentially happy to do everything Apple’s way.

It’s also the only way to interface with the Apple Watch series, and there Apple does have a definite and absolute lead over its Android competitors.

Competition is a good thing for smartphone consumers, because as much as Apple doesn’t bother even thinking about Android outside of random keynote potshots at upgrade percentages, there’s little doubt that both camps benefit from being pushed by either side.

That being said… the iPhone 11 Pro Max is very nice, but it isn’t cheap.

I’m not entirely sure that Apple understands what the word “cheap” means, really, especially when it comes to the iPhone 11 Pro Max. The absolute cheapest… no, wait, the absolute lowest-cost iPhone 11 Pro Max costs $1899 outright, but that’s the model with just 64GB of storage on board.

Nobody should buy that model unless they’re installing nearly nothing and putting all their photos in the cloud. The 256GB model is a better bet, but it’ll deprive your wallet of a hefty $2,149. If you want the most storage you can get in an iPhone, the 512GB model of the iPhone 11 Pro Max will cost you $2,499.

Sure, Apple sells itself – quite successfully – as a premium brand, but that’s a lot of money to spend on any smartphone in 2019. You can argue the feature sets or philosophical control differences between Android and iOS all you like, and indeed this is the Internet, which was built for such matters. But in sheer price terms, the iPhone 11 Pro Max does not compare all that favourably to the premium Android market.

Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max 4 / 5

Alex Kidman  

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Alex Kidman is an Australian freelance technology journalist, who started working as a tech journalist back in 1998, which means he's clocked up over two decades working in the IT journalism industry. In that time Alex has worked or written for just about every significant technology masthead in the country, and plenty of international publications and sites as well.

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Daniel Narbett
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Daniel Narbett

Great review thanks. The tech and design of iPhones is always amazing (and I also use a Mac computer when possible). But, yeah, that ‘control’ thing – I tried switching back at the iPhone 4, and gave it a proper go for months – and then a few more months with jail break. But with android I can torrent easily, I can be weird and use a T9 keyboard, I can personalise *everything* with Nova launcher and Elixir and others (and sometimes pie control and automation apps) and for me those things *are* android. I don’t really know what a… Read more »

Morris
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Morris

Pretty fair review Alex, you praise the iPhone for its strengths but also highlight where it needs to play catch up with the Android flagships. Ultimately I agree that competition is best for us as a consumer.

BT
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BT

Great review Alex. Thanks for the write up.

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