An iPhone 11 being tested by Consumer Reports
Photo: Stephen Yang

What difference can a year make? In the case of the new iPhones just hitting stores, not much.

The new iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max look, feel, and operate a lot like recent generations of iPhone—you'll see a striking difference only if you compare them with models such as the iPhone 8 from 2017. But that’s not a bad thing. The new generation being rolled out by Apple builds on smartphones that are near the top of Consumer Reports’ ratings

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And the new phones do include improvements. Look under the hood and you'll find that compared with the iPhone X, XS, and XS Max, they have a faster processor, some new photography tricks, and the promise of better battery life.

The question is how much all that matters if you’re shopping for a new phone. We'll have full lab results in a week or so—our rigorous battery life and other tests take time—but we've already evaluated a number of the most interesting new features and have some early conclusions.

As a reminder, for anyone who doesn’t memorize iPhone lineups as though they’re MLB pitching staffs, the iPhone 11 is the closest Apple comes to an everyman phone, with a starting price of $700 and a slightly less luxe display and camera arrangement. The iPhone 11 Pro ($1,000 and up) and the iPhone 11 Pro Max ($1,100 and up) have somewhat fancier components, including OLED displays, which have become standard on the flagship models from both Apple and its biggest Android rival, Samsung.

Here’s what we’ve found so far.

New Camera Tricks

Images of a tree shot with Apple's wide and ultra-wide lenses.
The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max can snap photos in wide angle and ultra-wide angle.

As in previous iPhones, the most compelling new features are found in the new models’ cameras.

First, the 11 Pro and Pro Max both have three rear cameras. (The regular iPhone 11 has two.) All three of the phones have wide and ultra-wide cameras, which let you take a step back and fit more into your shot. The Pro and Pro Max also have a camera with a 2X lens, which takes you a step closer.

We found the new setup easy to use. To switch between cameras, you just tap on the buttons on the screen for the various lenses. If you swipe the buttons, you get a wheel that you rotate to zoom in and out.

When you’re holding the phone horizontally and framing a shot with the regular wide-angle lens, the camera will go into full-screen mode and show what an even wider shot would look like from the same vantage point.

Apple also introduced a Night Mode to help you take shots in low-light settings. We tried it out in one of our photo labs, after setting the ambient lighting at 12 lux, a measurement that corresponds to a dimly lit restaurant. We shot photos with and without Night Mode, using an iPhone 11 Pro, and with a Google Pixel 3a, which introduced a similar shooting mode last year.

The image taken with Night Mode was significantly clearer and less grainy than the one taken without Night Mode. But, in the conditions we used, the Pixel 3a performed slightly better than the iPhone for the low-light photo.

And, last, the front camera can now take slow-motion selfies, or as Apple calls them, Slofies. When I tested it out by switching to Slow-Mo mode while spinning around in my office chair, it worked pretty well. The feature kicked in a few seconds after I started filming and it did slow down enough for me to see the background circling by. 

Faster Chip, but Does It Matter?

the three Apple phones during our benchmark tests
Benchmark testing on all three phones confirmed that Apple's A13 Bionic chip is truly faster than last year's chip.
Photo: Stephen Yang

Apple says the A13 Bionic chip that powers all three new phones is its fastest yet—and the fastest in any smartphone. The question for phone shoppers is, how much does that really matter? A faster processor can help a phone open apps quickly, run graphics-heavy games, and edit videos, but smartphone chips have gotten so fast in recent years that it can be hard to notice further improvements.

We ran standard benchmark tests on the three phones, stressing the main and graphics processors by making them carry out a series of operations. For comparison’s sake, we ran the same tests on the iPhone XS Max, iPhone XS, iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy Note10+, Galaxy S10+, and LG G8 ThinQ.

And, yes, our testers confirmed that Apple’s new processor is significantly faster than those others’. On paper, it should help the phones perform better.

The toughest job most people will throw at a phone processor is a graphics-intensive mobile game. But when we placed an iPhone 11 Pro and last year’s iPhone XS side by side and played four popular games on them, we noticed only marginal differences between the phones.

During “Asphalt 9,” a racing game with detailed, high-quality graphics, the action was consistently smooth and responsive on both phones, with no slowdown or hiccups. The levels did load a split second faster on the iPhone 11 Pro, but that was noticeable only because the two phones were right next to each other.

It was much the same story with “Dota Underlords” (a chess-like strategy game from Valve), “Super Mario Run” (an action game from Nintendo), and “Fortnite” (a third-person shooter from Epic Games).

That’s not to say that the greased-lightning speed of the A13 is wasted in an iPhone. You can record multiple 4K video feeds at one time with the new iPhones and use a specialized app to edit them together. That requires a huge amount of processing power. In the future, gaming companies could release games designed specifically to take advantage of the new chip. Other benefits could emerge as well.

But for now, you really need to work to tell the difference between an iPhone with an A13 chip and one with last year’s A12. 

Improved Display?

Claudio Ciacci tests the brightness levels on the phones' screens.
Claudio Ciacci tests the brightness level of a phone screen.
Photo: Stephen Yang

Apple says its new displays can normally reach a maximum of 800 nits (a unit used to measure brightness), but when screening HDR (high dynamic range) video, it can reach upward of 1,200 nits.

Why is this important? For one thing, of course, a bright screen is easier to see when you're outside on a sunny day.

But it has additional significance if you're talking about video. When done well, HDR can make a video look more vibrant, colorful, and lifelike, with lots of detail in both dimly lit and bright parts of the image, such as the shadows in a nighttime scene and the intricate shapes of bright clouds. One factor that helps a display do a good job with HDR video is high peak brightness. 

In our lab, Claudio Ciacci, who heads TV testing for CR, was able to measure a brightness level as high as 900 nits on the new iPhone. “That’s pretty impressive,” he says, noting that “the better HDR-capable TVs, on a good day, hit 800.” For comparison, we also tested last year’s iPhones. They peaked at 750 nits. (These findings don't mean Apple is wrong about the phones' peak brightness; the results can vary depending on what test patterns or other source material a tester uses.)

Ciacci didn't conduct a full, formal test of the phone's capabilities using CR's HDR test patterns, but his quick evaluation was that they did a great job playing HDR movies. That can matter if you like watching movies on your phone, because streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon are providing an increasing amount of HDR content. 

Ciacci also looked at the phones’ displays to see how sharp they are. Apple says the Super Retina XDR Displays of its Pro models are “the sharpest ever.” But when Ciacci used test patterns to evaluate the resolution, he didn’t see a noticeable difference between the new phones and those from last year. 

Better Sound?

Elias Arias holds a phone in the Consumer Reports audio lab.
Elias Arias put the phones to the test in our audio lab.
Photo: Stephen Yang

According to our testers, the new phones offer comparable sound to last year’s models. They’re louder, too. But we also gave the Dolby Atmos technology a try.

This is generally found in high-end speaker systems. When you listen to soundtracks mastered with Dolby Atmos, it creates an immersive effect, allowing you to experience sound above you, behind you, all around you.

With the new iPhones, you do get a sense of sound moving from side to side and up and down, as you would with Dolby Atmos speakers, but it’s more of a small bowl of sound in front of your face. You’re not going to hear anything above or behind you. And the range of frequencies isn’t nearly as great.

But, keep in mind, these are phones. And like all phones, they have limitations. If you’re using them to play music, adjust your expectations accordingly. If you want bass, you’re better off connecting the phone to a wireless speaker

Should I Buy It?

iPhones in four different colors.
The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max have three cameras on the back.
Photo: Stephen Yang

In light of all that, are these phones worth buying? We can’t really say for sure until our full test results are in.

But, all things being equal, this might be the year to hold off, if you can. Though there are a handful of 5G models already on the market, Apple is widely expected to release its first one next year. And, by then, 5G connectivity should be significantly more available in the U.S.

If you already have one of last year’s models, there isn’t a lot of incentive to upgrade. These phones don’t come cheap, making it tougher to argue that you should buy one.

For that reason, the more basic, $700 iPhone 11 might be a good choice for people who need to buy now. For everyone else, it might be a good idea to wait. You can use the next year to save up for a potentially pricey 5G iPhone in 2020. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Consumer Reports measured the peak brightness of the new iPhone display using HDR test patterns, and that sound quality improved from previous iPhones. Non-HDR patterns were used, and the sound quality was comparable to last year's phones.