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The iPhone 13 is great, but Apple's $500 iPhone 11 is still a good buy in 2021

Commentary: Apple's iPhone 11 has all the basics for hundreds of dollars less than the iPhone 13.

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The iPhone 11 is a tempting choice at its new $500 price. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Apple's new iPhone 13, which launched Sept. 24, may be getting all the attention -- but it's only a part of the company's sprawling 2021 smartphone lineup. For those looking to pay less, Apple's 2-year-old iPhone 11 should not be ignored. With its new starting price of $500, the 64GB iPhone 11 is about $300 less expensive than the 128GB $800 iPhone 13 (with a carrier activation discount). Yes, it's $100 more expensive than the $400 iPhone SE, but there are plenty of upgrades that justify the extra cash. 

To be clear, there are several features you'll be missing out on by opting for the iPhone 11 over the iPhone 13 (or even last year's iPhone 12). The iPhone 11 lacks 5G support, newer camera features (like Cinematic mode), the iPhone 13's improved battery life, MagSafe accessory support and an OLED screen with better contrast. But if you don't mind sacrificing those features, which aside from the longer battery life are mostly refinements rather than must-haves, the iPhone 11 is an excellent choice. 

However, if you're trying to save money, it's worth checking out carrier deals on the iPhone 13. Some carriers and retailers are offering hundreds of dollars off the new iPhone 13 lineup if you have a qualifying device to trade in. But it's worth remembering that those deals usually come with certain conditions, and the value can vary depending on the phone you're trading in. Carriers also usually apply the savings through monthly bill credits rather than providing the full discount value up front. 

Read more: Is the iPhone 13 worth it? Before buying, see how it compares to all the other iPhones

Now playing: Watch this: Review: The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini check all the boxes
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The iPhone 11 nails the basics for hundreds of dollars less than the iPhone 13

The absence of 5G is probably the iPhone 11's biggest omission. But the good news is that you don't necessarily need 5G right now. Widely deployed 5G networks are only marginally better than 4G LTE. 

Even if superfast 5G networks were widespread, there aren't new apps or services designed to take advantage of those speeds. Since most phones now come with 5G at no extra cost, it's not a bad idea to buy a 5G phone. But you also won't be missing out on anything by skipping 5G for now.

Otherwise, the iPhone 11 has plenty to offer when it comes to the basics. If you're upgrading from an older model like the iPhone 8 or earlier, the iPhone 11's A13 Bionic processor will surely feel like a big speed boost. Apple just launched a new iPad that runs on the same processor, providing more evidence that the A13 Bionic has a lot of life left in it. 

The iPhone 11 was also the first smartphone to get Apple's U1 chip, which enables it to use the ultrawideband wireless protocol. In plain English, the U1 chip gives the iPhone more spatial awareness for features like faster AirDrop, turn-by-turn directions when finding lost AirTags and easier handoff capabilities when transferring music and calls between your iPhone and HomePod Mini. 

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The iPhone 11 was the first iPhone to get Apple's U1 chip, which enables turn-by-turn directions for finding lost items with AirTags.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You might not find yourself using any of those features. But the U1 chip's presence in the iPhone 11 provides some assurance that you won't be left behind should Apple launch new capabilities that require it in the future. 

The iPhone 11's 6.1-inch screen isn't as crisp as those of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13, and the contrast isn't as high since it uses an LCD panel instead of OLED. But it's still sharp enough to enjoyably watch movies and browse Instagram on. 

Battery life isn't as long as the iPhone 13's, but it should be about the same as the iPhone 12's, according to Apple's estimates. Again, you'll still see a noticeable boost if you're upgrading from an older phone. A new iPhone XS, for example, can last for an estimated 14 hours during video playback, while the iPhone 11 should be able to endure 17 hours. 

Another important factor to consider is storage. If you don't keep a lot of files, movies and photos locally on your phone and mostly lean on iCloud, the 64GB in the entry-level iPhone 11 is probably fine. The cheapest iPhone 13 comes with twice the storage, but you can still save a lot by opting for the 128GB iPhone 11 instead if you need more space. 

The iPhone 11 has many of the important camera features in the iPhone 12 and 13

The iPhone 11's cameras are also more than enough for anyone who wants to take high-quality photos with their phone, but doesn't need the most advanced camera available. It has both a 12-megapixel sensor with a wide-angle lens that has an aperture of ƒ/1.8, and an ultrawide-angle lens with an ƒ/2.4 aperture. 

That means you have the option of taking standard photos or images with a much wider field of view, allowing you to capture more of a scene without having to step backward. The aperture (amount of light the camera can take in) on this extra-wide lens is also the same as those of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13. So you shouldn't see much of a difference in image quality when capturing images in this ultrawide mode.

You'll also get features like night mode -- for better image quality in dim scenarios without having to use the flash -- and deep fusion, which improves detail and reduces noise. There's also a 12-megapixel front camera for taking selfies and making FaceTime calls, the same as on the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13. 

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The iPhone 11 has a great camera setup, with an ultrawide lens and Night mode.

Angela Lang/CNET

If you're upgrading from an older phone, you're bound to see a noticeable improvement in image quality. The iPhone XS, which only came out one year before the iPhone 11, doesn't have Night mode and also lacks an ultrawide lens for broader shots. (The iPhone XS has a telephoto zoom lens instead, unlike the iPhone 11.)

The biggest photography feature you'll be missing out on by not opting for Apple's newest iPhones is Cinematic mode for video, which Apple just introduced on the iPhone 13. This mode automatically shifts the focus so that it stays locked on the subject and provides a shallow depth of field to create a more filmlike aesthetic. Apple also introduced Photographic Styles on the iPhone 13, a feature that lets you save customized preferences to be used across different photos that automatically adjust as needed. 

While those features are great for mobile photographers and video producers, you don't need them to take a great photo with your iPhone. In fact, the winning shot in this year's iPhone Photography Awards was taken on an iPhone 7, a phone that's now 5 years old. 

The iPhone 11 has a lot more to offer than the iPhone SE

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The iPhone 11 (left) has a much larger screen than the iPhone SE (right) and a dual-lens camera.

Angela Lang/CNET

The $400 iPhone SE is the cheapest smartphone Apple currently sells. But there are only two reasons why you should choose it over the iPhone 11: You don't want to part with Touch ID, or $500 is beyond your budget.

Otherwise, the iPhone 11 is superior to the iPhone SE in just about every way. It has a dual-lens camera with Night mode and Deep Fusion, while the iPhone SE just has a single-lens camera without those features. The 6.1-inch screen is noticeably larger than that of the 4.7-inch iPhone SE, which most people will likely find more comfortable for reading and watching video. The iPhone 11's battery life is also much longer at an estimated 17 hours of video playback compared with the iPhone SE's 13 hours. 

The iPhone SE's best qualities are its low price and speedy A13 Bionic chip. But now that the iPhone 11 is getting closer to the iPhone SE in terms of price, it's harder to justify recommending the iPhone SE. Even if you are decided on Apple's smaller budget phone, it's probably best to wait if possible since a new iPhone SE is expected to launch in early 2022, according to Nikkei Asian Review.

All told, the iPhone 11 comes with many of the most important updates you'll want in a new iPhone -- especially if you're upgrading from an older model like the iPhone 8 or earlier. You won't get some of the nuances that Apple has introduced over the past two years, but the iPhone 11 is still an excellent value. At $500, it might be Apple's best budget phone yet. 

iPhone 11 vs. iPhone 13, 12, and SE

iPhone 11 iPhone 12 iPhone 13 iPhone SE (2020)
Display size, resolution 6.1-inch LCD Liquid Retina; 1,792x828 pixels 6.1-inch OLED; 2,532x1,170 pixels 6.1-inch OLED; 2,532x1,170 pixels 4.7-inch Retina HD; 1,334x750 pixels
Pixel density 326ppi 460ppi 460 ppi 326ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.94x2.98x0.33 in 5.78x2.82x0.29 in 5.78x2.82x0.3 in 5.45x2.65x0.29 in
Dimensions (millimeters) 150.9x75.7x8.3mm 146.7x71.5x7.4mm 147x72x7.65mm 138.4x67.3x7.3mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 6.84 oz; 194g 5.78 oz; 164g 6.14 oz; 174g 5.22 oz; 148g
Mobile software iOS 15 iOS 15 iOS 15 iOS 15
Camera 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultrawide) 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultrawide) 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultrawide) 12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 12-megapixel with Face ID 12-megapixel 12-megapixel 7-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K HDR video recording with Dolby Vision up to 4K at 60fps 4K
Processor Apple A13 Bionic Apple Bionic 14 Apple A15 Bionic Apple A13 Bionic
Storage 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM Undisclosed Undisclosed Undisclosed Undisclosed
Expandable storage None None None No
Battery Estimated 17 hours of video playback Estimated 17 hours of video playback Estimated 19 hours of video playback Estimated 13 hours of video playback
Fingerprint sensor None (Face ID) No (FaceID) No (Face ID) Home button
Connector Lightning Lightning Lightning Lightning
Headphone jack No No No No
Special features Water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging 5G-enabled; MagSafe; water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) 5G-enabled; MagSafe; water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM) Water-resistant (IP67); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging
Price off-contract (USD) $499 (64GB), $549 (128GB) $699 (64GB), $749 (128GB), $849 (256GB) $799 (128GB), $899 (256GB), $1,099 (512GB) $399 (64GB), $449 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £365 (64GB), £401 (128GB) £511 (64GB), £547 (128GB), £620 (256GB) £779 (128GB), £879 (256GB), £1,079 (512GB) £419 (64GB), £469 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$687 (64GB), AU$756 (128GB) AU$962 (64GB), AU$1,031 (128GB), AU$1,169 (256GB) AU$1,349 (128GB), AU$1,519 (256GB), AU$1,869 (512GB) AU$749 (64GB), AU$829 (128GB)