Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds.
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The iPhone 11, Pro and Pro Max start at $699, $999 and $1,099, respectively. These new iPhones pick up a fresh palette of colors, longer battery life and a A13 Bionic processor inside that promises faster performance. But more than any other feature, it's the camera hardware and software that take the headlining role.
Keep in mind that we're holding off any final buying advice until we get a chance to fully test the phones, especially Apple's claims that battery life improves up to five hours over last year's models (for the iPhone 11 Pro Max).
Watch this: iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max are packed with camera features
Those three cameras on the back of the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max are Apple's biggest risks in a series that plays it safe this year. For many people, the
represents the gold standard for smartphone design and cutting-edge features like Face ID unlocking, which Apple says is now faster than before.
But despite bread-and-butter features, like support for Wi-Fi 6, the iPhone 11 trio fails to push the envelope, relying instead on the big camera change and smaller refinements to keep up momentum.
There's no 5G carrier support (we expect that to come in 2020), and none of the reverse wireless charging that was rumored to charge the Apple AirPods, Apple Watch and other phones of the back of the iPhone 11 -- as you can with the Galaxy S10 and Note 10 phones.
Without a strong suite of new features to tantalize buyers, Apple has its work cut out for it as it heads into the hyper-competitive holiday season and 2020. Phone sales are down. Competitors like Samsung, Google and Huawei are pulling ahead on camera tools and features. And then there's the question of 5G -- iPhone users will have to wait a full year unless Apple surprises us all with a special event before September 2020.
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We tried the iPhone 11 phones and here's what we think
CNET went hands-on with the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Max. In terms of overall design, they look strikingly like last year's iPhone XS,
iPhone XS Max
-- notch and all. The colors and finishes look and feel more refined -- and a lot less like fingerprint magnets -- than last year's phones, especially compared to the iPhone XR, which is equivalent to this year's iPhone 11.
The two iPhone 11 Pro phones get a new matte finish and steel case that look stunning, and feel dense. Maybe you think of that as gravitas. We think it's a bit hefty.
Watch this: Hands-on with the iPhone 11's ultra-wide-angle camera
You've heard that the midnight green shade is ugly, but photos don't do it justice. Chalk us up as fans -- we think it's actually a standout color that looks alluring in person. We're not sure the surcharge from regular iPhone 11 to 11 Pro is worth it for these new finishes alone, but having that telephoto lens does help round out the feature set for the pricier models.
What stood out most were the cameras, and the telephoto lens especially because that feels like the main difference between the iPhone 11 and the far pricier 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. All three phones share most of the other features, at least so far as we could tell during our brief hands-on time with the phone.
iPhone 11 Pro in Midnight Green isn't as ugly as you've heard
The new slow-mo video mode for the front-facing camera is fun, but not a must-have feature by any means. Still, we wouldn't be surprised if other phone-makers cribbed this one.
Swapping among the three camera lenses on the Pro and Pro Max feels seamless, and a new "Haptic Touch" feedback that Apple's using instead of 3D Touch is pretty easy to invoke on the sharp new display -- just hold down your finger.
Rear cameras: Wide, ultrawide, telephoto
The iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are all about the camera. Competing brands are no stranger to the three-camera system (or even four!), but this marks Apple's first time pairing a wide-angle lens with both telephoto and ultrawide-angle sensors.
We're working up a camera deep dive for you soon, but what you really need to know is that Apple wants to make it as easy for you to switch from the main 12-megapixel camera lens to the 13-megapixel ultrawide-angle lens to the 12-megapixel telephoto sensor, which you do from the main camera screen.
Apple Event: See the iPhone 11 and Apple Watch Series 5
Having used this type of system on other phones, like the Huawei P30 Pro and Galaxy Note 10 for example, it really can make photos more atmospheric or striking -- especially landscape shots -- when taken with the ultrawide lens. Apple says it will fit in four times the amount of scenery compared to the main camera.
On the flip side, a telephoto shot can make the difference between grabbing your picture or not when you're too far to really see the face or detail you're trying to capture because you're simply too far away. A concert, a cornice on a historical building, a celebrity behind a velvet rope. That sort of thing. Apple says it'll deliver a total of 4x optical zoom through its camera system, though the telephoto lens is specced out for 2x optical zoom.
Dedicated night mode is another thing that's become a base feature in premium phones. It's intended to make details brighter and reduce noise in low-lit conditions.
But the most interesting feature, which we won't see at the iPhone 11's launch (it'll come to all three phones) is Deep Fusion, which takes the best features from nine different images that the iPhone automatically takes. It uses machine learning to combine these disparate shots in a second, then serve up a compilation with sharper details than you'd get if you took it yourself. That's the theory, anyway.
The last feature we can't wait to try out is slow-motion video for the front-facing camera, but maybe that's just so we can say we took a "slofie." We're not sure if we're going to love to hate it or hate to love it, but yeah, one of those.
New iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max key specs
Two screen sizes: 5.8- and 6.5-inch OLED displays (both 458 ppi pixel density)
iPhone 11 Pro starts at $999 or $25 per month with trade-in (£1,049, AU$1,749)
iPhone 11 Pro Max starts at $1,099 or $29 per month with trade-in (£1,149, AU$1,899)
What's new in the iPhone 11
Six colors: black, white, yellow, purple, green, Product Red
A13 Bionic chip
64GB, 128GB, 512GB storage capacities
Hour more battery life than iPhone XR
Faster Face ID unlocking
Wi-Fi 6 support, but no 5G
Dual camera system with a 12-megapixel lenses: wide and ultrawide (switch by tapping on the screen)
Camera night mode
2x optical zoom
New portrait lighting in monochrome
12-megapixel front-facing camera (up from 7 megapixels)
4K video for both front and rear cameras, with slow-motion video for the selfie camera
Starts at $699 or $17 per month with trade-in (£729, AU$1,199)
Will the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max reinvigorate Apple's iPhones, or will excitement flag? Stay tuned as we weigh in on Apple's announcement and go hands-on when we see Apple's new iPhones after the event.
Scott Stein contributed to this story, which was originally published earlier this week and is frequently updated.