After having both the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro in his pocket for the last few months, cnet’s Patrick Holland has made a decision about which one you should be buying.

This year has seen plenty of top-end phones released, with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and Google Pixel 4, yet the new iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and Pro Max were out to impress from the get go. Crammed into the new handset was a new ultra-wide-angle camera lens, an A13 processor, a new Night Mode for pictures, the latest iOS 13, and generally one of the best camera set-ups on any phone you care to mention. As an added bonus, the battery life has also been boosted.

For two months, Holland went about his daily business with the iPhone 11 and used the Pro as a work’s handset. In-depth testing was also undertaken to check out the durability and whether the camera rigs lived up to the promises of the stats. Let’s take a look at the phones and see which side Holland came down on.

The imperfections of iOS 13

When the phones landed, the initial impression from Holland was that the software was rough. There were issues with screens not rotating and scaling as you’d expect and the camera app was buggy – it froze or crashed a lot. It took seven software updates, but now you can run the phones of iOS 12.2.3 and you’re going to be relatively stable.

Apple still hasn’t got things perfected yet though. Some common issues you’re still going to come across include hitting the dictation button when putting your phone down after sending a message – you could catch some stuff in a text that you really don’t want to share. For right-handers, of which that will be most users, the placement of the microphone icon down at the bottom right of the Messages keyboard is nothing short of infuriating. 

The level of personalization on the home screen of the iOS leaves a little to be desired. There are few choices for organizing app icons to make them easy to bundle and find. Comparing it to the new Samsung One user interface; they’ve made it much more natural and intuitive and simple to use. The Samsung UI gives icons popup windows and folders that go across the bottom part of the screen, making one-handed use much easier. If Apple allowed for moving icons around like Samsung, then you’d be able to put your favorite apps at the bottom so you could work one-handed easier. 

Currently, as you add apps to the iPhone home screen, they land book-style – from left to right and from top to bottom. Imagine if you had the ability to shift the icons to anywhere you want on your home screen. Even a simple tweak of going bottom-up would make using it one-handed just that little bit easier.

Angela Lang/CNET

There is an in-built feature called Reachability; sliding the whole display down and bringing the top of the display to the bottom temporarily. It’s by no means perfect since you need to perform extra swipes either side of opening an app from the top of the screen. If app location was just customizable, Reachability would basically become defunct on the home screen at least, and there’d be no extra swiping needed. 

Another frustration that Holland came across was the difficulty in getting the Select/Select All tool for text to come up on iOS 13 for the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. It could be to do with 3D Touch being lacking on the new handsets or it could be an actual bug to resolve. Try selecting a word or phrase to highlight and finding the right pressure and duration of tap is near-impossible to get Select/Select All to come on, and even then it disappears far too quickly. Whatever the problem is, he’s getting annoyed and you might too.

Another weird little quirk that could get annoying is in the Notes app in iOS 13. When you write the first sentence of your note it gets automatically formatted as a title. Even if you’re just jotting something down and want to go straight to body text, it gives you a title, super annoying when you’re writing a list. It is possible to change your preference for how a note starts in the app, so you can resolve the formatting anarchy by going to Settings > Notes > New Notes Start With and change it to “body” if that’s how you want your notes to start.

A day and a half with the iPhone 11

The specs of both of the phones are an exact match. There’s the A13 processor and the amount of RAM is consistent, although you aren’t finding out how much. On a performance level, Holland saw no overall difference between the handsets he was testing.

Battery performance does have some differences, though. After a full charging, the 11 Pro went on for longer than last year’s iPhone XS. On the iPhone 11 Pro, you should be able to get about a day and a half between juicings, and this can be pushed to two days if you use Low Battery mode. Without gaming and heavy video usage, the iPhone 11 will also go a day and a half, but for best-in-class battery life, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is the one to beat.

iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. Angela Lang/CNET

Wireless charging comes as standard on all the new iPhones, as does fast charging, but you’ll only get the actual 18-watt charger you need for said fast charging in the boxes of the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. The idea that something as boring as fast charging can change the way you use the phone is strange, yet you can easily move from an overnight charge to a lunch break charge now. It’s more than a slight annoyance that you don’t get the charger you need for fast charging with the iPhone 11; you’ve got to pay out $29 for the charger and $19 for the cable from Apple, although there are cheaper compatible versions out there.

Checking out the iPhone 11 image

The addition of the ultra-wide-angle camera lens could easily have ended up gimmicky. However, Holland ended up enjoying the increased scene on screen. He was impressed with the lens allowing him to get a full-screen pic of Bears jersey-wearing dinosaur skeleton in a museum when he switched to the new camera option.

The photo on the left was taken with the main camera on the iPhone 11. The picture on the right was taken with the ultrawide-angle camera. Patrick Holland/CNET

There’s a creative challenge that comes along with the new ultra-wide-angle lens, too. You need to wield the phone differently if you don’t want fingers in frame. The super wide field also gives images and shapes a distortion that pushes the user to find better ways to frame subjects. An example is when shooting interesting buildings with unique curves, you can get a great exaggeration by playing with the distortions you get on the wide-angle.

When you’re taking photos in medium-to-low lighting conditions, there’s a new Deep Fusion feature that removes image noise and sharpens things up. On the Pro, there are subtle improvements in indoor photos taken with the telephoto lens. Holland took some pictures of a poorly lit payphone in a subway station, one with a Deep Fusion-equipped iPhone 11 and the other one with an XR. You can see the 11 image has a lot more sharpness and there’s plenty less image noise and less blur from the noise reduction too. It’s not something that you should be paying too much attention to, just let your phone do what it does and appreciate the results.

The Night Mode is a new feature for the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, and Holland went about some heavy testing routines, coming out impressed that the camera can basically see in the dark. There’s no button, no toggling or swiping needed to get the mode going. You might want to get more control over being able to turn it on, but it does make a point-and-shoot moment easier.

Missing from the iPhone 11 and featured on the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max is a third, telephoto camera lens. For zooming in on a photo, taking a 2x crop of the original from the main camera wasn’t an issue, but it’s nice to be able to switch to the telephoto lens on the higher level phones. When you look at the difference from the XS, the update to the telephoto camera, plus Deep Fusion processing on the 11 Pro definitely gives a better image quality. Remember the scene from This is Spinal Tap? Nigel Tufnel is explaining how his amp dials go up to 11, “if we need that extra push over the cliff, know what we do? 11. Exactly. One louder.”

The selfie camera on the phones is a definite welcome upgrade, and there are marked improvements when using the lens to shoot video. The processing of color, specifically skin tones, is much better and there is a sharpness and contrast to the images that were missing on older iPhones.

In general, capturing video has always been a place where Apple has excelled. 4K frame rates have been vastly improved with an extended dynamic range – think of it like HDR for videos. You can now achieve 60 frames per second when recording a 4K video even when your scene and really bright and dark patches. The tiny image processor size makes the image quality that bit more impressive again. You can even record video with the ultra-wide-angle lens, making things extra fun with almost operatic camera movements. One small but mighty change is also the ability to change the frame rate and the video resolution direct from the Camera app rather than having to hunt it down in the Settings menu.

If there’s one snag about the video capture, it’s that in low light settings there is image noise and lots of smearing from heavy noise reduction. It is, however, not a problem confined to Apple phone cameras.

Hard-wearing Hardware and Delightful Displays

When you refuse to use phone cases, your poor handset takes the brunt of everything that you can throw at it, like Holland’s handsets. After he managed to drop it a few times, there were still no cracks, dents or scratches to be seen, even after coming into contact with pocket coins. The two deep scratches that got onto the screen apparently came from nowhere. He suspects that a rubbing of the camera rig from one handset to the other whilst in transit. 

How many people are going to have two iPhones to bump up against each other is up for debate, but any display scratches are indeed annoying. Carrying your phone in your bag is par for the course, and even without a second iPhone to grind against, there’s plenty more that most people carry around that could cause the same issue.

On the flip side, Holland dropped his iPhone 11 on to the pavement more than once and the glass front and back still looked like new. There were some scratches on the aluminum, but that doesn’t affect much at all. 

There is a marked difference between the LCD screen that comes with the iPhone 11 and the OLED display packed into the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max. Even in a simple side-by-side comparison, the 11 Pro just looks better. The display is brighter, and editing photos and watching videos is much more enjoyable on the Pro, although admittedly the actual differences can be hard to notice. You’re not going to be disappointed with the LCD screen of the iPhone 11; the colors are accurate to what you’d expect. 

iPhone 11 vs. iPhone 11 Pro: Here’s which one should you get

Holland very enthusiastically declares that the iPhone 11 Pro is “absolutely the best iPhone ever made”, but doesn’t do down on the iPhone 11 and recognizes that it’s still great value for money. The 11 has about 85% of what the 11 Pro offers, but the price point is 30% lower. When looking for value, that’s quite the steal. 

An average iPhone user will find the iPhone 11 more than enough to satisfy their needs. Holland reckons the $50 extra to double storage from 64GB to 128GB is worth the investment. The downfall of the phone is, however, the size. The iPhone 11 Pro is slightly smaller than the standard 11 and that could be all the reason you need to go for the Pro version. For the biggest screen and the best battery, you can always for the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and you’ll be left with a full pocket and empty wallet to boot.