Over more than a decade of writing about technology, reviewing a new iPhone has long been one of my simplest assignments.
Year after year, the formula was this: I tested the most important new features of Apple’s latest smartphone and assessed whether they were useful. Assuming the newest iPhone worked well, I generally recommended upgrading if you had owned your existing smartphone for two years.
But with this review of the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max — which Apple unveiled last week and will become available Friday — I’m encouraging a different approach. The bottom line? It’s time to reset our upgrade criteria.
That’s because we are now living in the golden age of smartphones, when the gadgets’ improvements each year are far from seismic. Devices that debuted three years ago remain zippy and more than capable. Those with the iPhone 7 from 2016, for example, still have a very good phone with a stellar camera and fast speeds.
So now is the moment to ask: Do we really need to upgrade our iPhones every two years?
Based on my tests of the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, the answer is no. Don’t get me wrong: The newest models are nice. Apple has made them speedier, improved the cameras and lengthened their battery life. The new lineup also starts at a lower price of $700, down from $750 a year ago, which is a relief in an era of skyrocketing smartphone costs.
But none of this is enough to warrant an immediate upgrade if you have had your smartphone for only two years. The latest iPhones just aren’t a big leap forward from last year’s iPhones or even the iPhone X from 2017.
So here’s what I ultimately suggest: You should definitely upgrade if your current device is at least five years old. The iPhone 11 models are all a significant step up from those introduced in 2014. But for everyone else with smartphones from 2015 or later, there is no rush to buy. Instead, there is more mileage and value to be had out of the excellent smartphone you already own.
I tested the new iPhones for a week, starting with the $700 entry-level iPhone 11 with a 6.1-inch display, which I used as my primary phone for three days. Then I switched to the iPhone 11 Pro, the $1,000 model with a 5.8-inch screen, for two days. And then finally the iPhone 11 Pro Max, the $1,100 model with a jumbo 6.5-inch screen, for another two days.
Then I compared the results with my notes and photos from testing the iPhone X in 2017. What I found was that the iPhone 11 was better, but not profoundly so.
All the iPhone 11 models have a new ultra-wide-angle lens in their cameras, which provides a wider field of view than traditional phone cameras. This makes them handy for shooting landscapes or large group gatherings. The iPhone X lacks the ultra-wide-angle lens, but its dual-lens camera is capable of shooting portrait-mode photos, which puts the picture’s main subject in sharp focus while softly blurring the background.
The newest iPhones all have the same computing processor, A13 Bionic, which is about 50 percent faster than the iPhone X. While that may sound significant, the iPhone X is already incredibly fast at shooting photos and running apps and games.
The new iPhones all have longer battery life. Even after a day of heavy use, which included taking phone calls, using maps and shooting lots of photos, each iPhone had lots of juice remaining — at least 30 percent — by bedtime. After similar tests with an iPhone X two years ago, the battery had about 15 percent left by bedtime.
The back of the Pro models is composed of a rugged glass that makes them scratch-resistant. This is impressive, but if you’re spending $1,000 on a phone, you will probably protect it with a case that covers the back anyway — just as many iPhone X owners do.
The Pro models have OLED displays that are slightly brighter than the screen on the iPhone X.
There are lots of little things that are somewhat better on the new iPhones than on the two-year-old iPhone X. For early adopters who are keen to have the latest and greatest tech, those differences may add up to a substantial upgrade.
But for most of us, the upgrades won’t meaningfully change our phone experience.
The most noteworthy new feature on the iPhones 11s is the ultra-wide-angle lens. Using the ultrawide mode is simple and seamless: You pinch outward to zoom all the way out. On a beach, the wider view captured my dogs playing on the sand, the ocean waves and the adjacent highway.
The telephoto lens on the iPhone 11 Pro did an exceptional job zooming in on my dog Mochi’s snout as she shook some water off her head.
The new iPhones also have a new mode for shooting photos in low light. Once the camera detects that a setting is very dark, it automatically captures multiple pictures and then fuses them together while making adjustments to colors and contrast. The result was that photos taken in low light without flash look brighter, in a natural way.
Photos taken with the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro looked crisp and clear, and their colors were accurate. But after I finished these tests, I looked back at my archived photos taken with an iPhone X.
Those pictures, especially the ones shot with portrait mode, still looked impressive. Some of the low-light ones looked crummy in comparison with the ones taken by the iPhone 11s, but I wouldn’t recommend that you buy a new phone just to get better night photos. You could always just use flash.
Each year, the most common question I get from friends and colleagues is whether they should buy a new iPhone. So here’s a list of considerations in any decision about upgrading.
The simplest place to start is software. Apple’s newest mobile operating system, iOS 13, will work only on iPhones from 2015 (the iPhone 6S) and later. So if you have an iPhone that is older than that, it is worth upgrading because once you can no longer update the operating system, some of your apps may stop working properly.
For those with younger iPhones, there are ways to get more mileage out of your current device. While the newest iPhones have superb battery life — several hours longer than the last generation — a fresh battery in your existing gadget costs only $50 to $70 and will greatly extend its life.
If you have the iPhone 6S from 2015 and the iPhone 7 from 2016, the iPhone 11s are speedier, with camera improvements and bigger displays. That makes an upgrade nice to have but not a must-have.
But if you spent $1,000 on an iPhone X two years ago, then hold off. The iPhone 11s just aren’t enough of an innovation leap to warrant $700-plus on a new smartphone.
If you wait another year or two, you will most likely be rewarded with that jump forward. That might be an iPhone that works with fast 5G cellular networks, or a smartphone that can wirelessly charge an Apple Watch.
Patience has its benefits — and so will breaking free of the iPhone’s automatic two-year upgrade cycle.