By Patrick Lucas Austin
September 24, 2019

How does one improve Apple’s iPhone, the smartphone that set the standard for what we carry in our pockets today? If you’re Apple, you simply add more to the mix, this time with the $699-and-up iPhone 11. It doesn’t change much visually, but its internal updates and new photography features are enough to make anyone with an old iPhone do a double-take. But is a new iPhone with a second lens really what you need? That depends on what you plan to do with it.

The iPhone’s design hasn’t changed much since the introduction of the all-screen iPhone X (and abandonment of the home button enabling TouchID fingerprint scanning). The iPhone 11, unfortunately, doesn’t do much to alter that formula, looking nearly identical to the iPhone that came before it, down to the same 6.1-inch screen that’s slightly too large for comfort. It does come in an array of bright, pastel-like colors, but once your appreciation of hues like Lilac wears off, you’ll wonder why it still looks so basic after all these years. At least its software has gone through some welcome changes.

Apple’s software is the iPhone’s strongest asset, and iOS 13 is no different. It’s made even more useful thanks to some vastly improved apps like Reminders, Maps, and Photos, and the introduction of the more subdued Dark Mode color scheme to nearly every aspect of the iPhone experience. It looks slick, and it’s no slouch — the iPhone 11’s A13 Bionic processor makes every action from image editing to switching between apps feel natural and fluid.

Privacy and security enhancements abound as well, in an attempt to provide peace of mind in a world where apps are watching whether you know it or not. iOS 13 makes it harder for apps to access information like location data without your consent, and Apple’s new Sign in With Apple ID will — pending widespread adoption — protect you from sites looking to gather as much data on you as possible by allowing you to hide your email address or use a dummy address instead.

iOS 13 even beefs up its more lighthearted elements, adding a wealth of Memoji customization options and stickers. The introduction of services like Apple Arcade outfit the iPhone with a library of curated, quality games free of ads and in-app purchases for five bucks per month, a small price to pay in order to avoid finding a game you enjoy only to be met with some “suggested” in-app purchases.

The new Apple iPhone 11 is displayed during a special event on September 10, 2019 in the Steve Jobs Theater on Apple's Cupertino, California campus.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

But you don’t need an iPhone 11 for iOS 13; it’s available as a free update for iPhones as old as four years. The appeal of the iPhone 11 itself — and its most striking change — is its camera system.

Unlike its XR predecessor, the iPhone 11 brings two rear lenses to the mix. The front-facing TrueDepth camera has the same 12-megapixel resolution as its rear counterparts, and features a neat zoom-out function you can trigger manually (or by turning your iPhone horizontally) to get a few more faces in your selfies. It also supports slow-mo recording, meaning you can adopt Apple’s marketing slogans and shoot some “slofies” for whatever reason.

The iPhone 11 adopts the camera arrangement previously used on the iPhone X and XS, slightly altering the formula with an ultra-wide angle lens instead of the previously employed telephoto lens. It uses the same wide and ultra-wide lenses present on the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max.

The ultra-wide lens allows for some stunning photography options, letting you capture a building from top to bottom, or a group shot containing all of your friends, guests, or audience members. Neat touches in the Camera app, like the use of the ultra-wide camera to show the potentially wider image waiting in the wings, make the overall photography experience more intuitive, and less dependent on you tapping through photo capture options.

While it’s nice to have the option, you’ll probably end up seldom using the ultra-wide lens for anything but your vacation. Unless you’re making a habit of taking pictures of skyscrapers, sweeping mountain vistas, or empty beaches, you’ll probably end up avoiding what amounts to a lens putting you even farther away from your subject. Yes, you can shoot those artsy angled photos, but mostly you’ll be dealing with shots resembling a first-person view in a video game.

Shooting ultra-wide photography, frankly, requires some skill to do well. I can’t see many folks doing what’s necessary to nail an ultra-wide shot, but who among us hasn’t wanted to zoom in on a friend’s face in order to snap a photo? In fact, the ultra-wide lens feels more professionally oriented, leading me to believe Apple’s placement of the more desirable telephoto lens on the iPhone 11 Pro is deliberate.

Depending on what you want, the iPhone 11 could be the $699 phone you’re looking for. It adds a second lens for shooting creative photos and flicks, and boosts battery life with its improved processor. But compared to its competition, it has room for improvement. That huge screen is a good movie companion, but its sub-1080p resolution and lack of HDR support compared to the dirt-cheap Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a leaves a lot to be desired. Its two-camera setup is, ironically, more suited to professionals rather than your average smartphone shooter. Yes, there’s wireless charging, but there’s no way to charge wireless devices like AirPods with it, a feature present on some top-tier Android phones. Its design, still simple and minimal, is also boring, and seemingly ignores the biggest complaint about today’s iPhones — their large size.

It’s hard to fault the iPhone as a whole: It’s a capable device that features a level of polish rarely found in Android phones. But it’s also a phone marred by various minor caveats, compromises Apple should have addressed by now.

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com.

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