Technology

Back in the walled garden – my iPhone 11 review

Are Android and iOS really all that different? It turns out that after years of borrowing ideas from each other, they are actually much closer than anyone who hasn’t used both in the last couple of years might know. After a few disappointing Android devices where so many things were good, but there was at least one crippling deficiency, I decided to go back to the world of iOS with the compelling iPhone 11. After a month of use, here’s what I’ve found.

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I had a two year stint with iPhones from the 6s to the 7 after using something like a dozen different Android devices. However, after that time, I got tired of Apple’s slower pace of feature and design innovation, right as the only big design change they’ve made in the last five years occurred with the iPhone X. That year, I went back to Android with Google’s Pixel, lured by the fantastic camera and the promise of a Google designed Android experience. I never really noticed issues with the screen on the Pixel 2 as many reviewers did, but I certainly noticed memory management issues with the Pixel 3 XL, even after Google claimed to have fixed them with software updates.

 

With the recent updates to many flagship phones, I decided I was done with my Pixel 3 and tried out the OnePlus 7 Pro, which I reviewed earlier. Unfortunately, while I loved the huge screen for its vibrancy and the buttery smooth refresh rate as well as the snappy performance thanks to a blazing fast chip and tons of memory, the camera just wasn’t adequate for me, so I ended up returning it. When the new iPhone 11 came out, I initially thought I would try the Pro, being an early adopter who always needs the best things, but realized the additional $350 (I would have to get the 128gb Pro) over the regular 11 wasn’t worth it just for an extra camera and OLED screen.

 

However, at $700, the regular iPhone 11 is a bargain. Compared to the Pixel, it’s notably less expensive and is just about the same as the One Plus 7 Pro, even when on sale. While $700 isn’t cheap, compared to most of the other flagship phones out there, it’s on the lower end, a shocking turn for someone who tended to see Apple’s pricing as an unnecessary branding tax before.

 

One of my primary motivations for switching from iOS to Android a few years back was due to limitations with iOS itself. I felt Android did a better job with notifications, allowing instant action and triage of them in a way iOS just didn’t. iOS since added the ability to quickly reply to messages, delete emails, and other notification actions in recent versions. In other places, I preferred the openness of Android and the customization options like widgets, folders, and non-default applications for email, keyboards, and messages. In the meantime, Apple has partially opened up, adding the ability to set new defaults, while the default applications themselves have actually gotten better. Due to this improvement and convergence, iOS really doesn’t feel that different from Android now and I have a harder time finding any missing functionality from Android in iOS.

 

Additionally, the app space itself has largely converged. While in the earlier days of Android, the apps tended to be much more polished and refined on iOS, but more customizable and open on Android, things are much closer to parity now. Thanks to cross platform development toolkits, many applications are developed exactly the same for both platforms, so work exactly the same on both now. Android is big enough worldwide now to require stable and polished apps by the important developers, and iOS has continued to add more capabilities for apps to use.

 

Another factor in my switch was over my own shifting concerns on privacy and security. I never worried much about it in the past, but more recently worry about how these platforms soak up personal data and how they allow applications to also do so. I generally felt that Apple was better in this regard in that they collect less information as more data stays on the device, and prefer how iOS limits permissions like location data and even frequently reminds users of which apps are collecting this data, even showing it on a map.

 

One are that hasn’t been as noticeably different to me as I thought it might is with messaging. Much is made about how great, yet lock in inducing iOS’s iMessage is. Perhaps because I don’t use it on other devices since my laptop is a PC, I don’t feel it’s significantly different from any other messaging platform. Sure, it’s nice to be a blue bubble to my friends now, but changing back really doesn’t feel difficult or unlikely. Worse, whereas I could use Android messages for web on my PC before, I don’t have a way to send or receive iMessages other than from my phone now. Solutions I have found online like running a full Mac virtual machine seem like complete overkill. While I refuse to use WhatsApp, and have been trying to get away from Google Voice and Hangouts since it’s clear there’s no plan for long term support there, I’m more likely to experiment with Signal or Telegram as a result of iMessage’s restrictions.

 

One area that I absolutely love about the iPhone 11 is the camera. While I think it’s completely fair to debate if it’s better than the Pixel, that debate would come down completely to questions of aesthetic preference rather than quality. Put differently, both have exceptionally great cameras and while the Pixel was the clear camera champ for the last two years, the iPhone 11 clearly caught up and might actually be slightly better. While the Pixel prefers more contrast for a “artsy” or more evocative picture, the iPhone does the best job of capturing exactly what the scene looks like in real life, and only enhancing it when doing so makes it better for viewing, like in low light. The addition of the wide camera in the iPhone makes it great for taking pictures on vacation where large landmarks are otherwise hard to capture, and the same wider angle front facing camera helps make sure I can get my whole family in the shot.

 

Pictures come out great, and most importantly come out consistently good without requiring any manual intervention. I can tweak exposure settings if I really want, but I find I never actually need to. Almost no matter the setting or conditions, I end up with a pretty decent photo I’d at least consider sharing. For a parent of twin toddlers, being able to quickly get a pretty good shot is super important, and a reason I was growing dissatisfied with the Pixel 3 camera. Even though it took good pictures, often times I’d miss the moment I wanted to capture if the camera would take seconds to open up which was happening more regularly.

 

Another huge benefit with the iPhone is the batter life. To be honest, I haven’t had to worry about the battery life on any phone I’ve had in the last several years because I grew completely used to plugging in every night. However, while traveling and using a device heavily, I’d often need to top up the charge in the afternoon with Pixel phones and all the others I had earlier. Last year I realized that setting battery saver mode in the morning would usually mean enough power to make it through a full day. The OnePlus 7 Pro, thanks to a huge battery, was still able to make it through days of heavy usage even with that huge bright screen with the same trick. However, with the iPhone, I never even need to enable battery mode. Most days, I set my phone to charge at night and it’s still at over 70% which is incredible. It’s so good I worry about overcharging it and have considered going to once every other day charging. My portable battery packs have sat collecting dust in the everything drawer in my kitchen ever since.

 

Related to battery life, the iPhone brought me back to wireless charging after not having it on the OnePlus 7 Pro. While I like the super fast Warp Charging of the OnePlus which would give me something like 70% batter in under 20 minutes, wireless charging is super convenient. I’ve got wireless chargers on my nightstand, on my work desk, and even on the console of my car. Being able to just throw the phone down on one of these is so much nicer than fiddling with cables all the time. In fact, the only lightning cable I even own for the phone is the one it came with and I only use it in my wife’s car for CarPlay. The phone is charged 99% of the time wirelessly. All phones should have wireless charging, and I’m looking forward faster charging speeds coming as well.

 

Shifting from Android Auto to Carplay really isn’t all that revolutionary. In fact, by the numbers I think I had more Android Auto apps show up than I do on Car Play. However, maps and music through Spotify work pretty much the same on both, or at least do now that Apple finally added the ability to ask Siri for specific songs, artists, and playlists on Spotify, all of which works in the car as well, in iOS 13. While Waze and Google Maps both work in Car Play, I’ve been using Apple Maps more often thanks to the privacy and better integration in the car. It’s the only mapping app that works in the same view which shows currently playing music. In general I’ve found Google Maps provides the most accurate estimates on arrival times, Waze is the most creative with different routes to avoid traffic but can’t really be trusted too heavily for arrival times, and Apple Maps works best in the car, but isn’t great with rerouting or avoiding traffic, so I’ve ended up using a combination of all three at times like when there was a 45 minute slowdown on a recent drive. Running three mapping apps is the best way I’ve found to actually run down the battery on the phone.

 

Speaking of Siri, I haven’t really noticed much difference between her and the Google Assistant. Since I really only use either for setting timers, alarms, and adding reminders, they’re pretty much the same. I don’t use either to do things like look up sports scores, ask questions, or do any kind of complex task, so any differences are negligible to me. Siri seems to have improved its recognition and accuracy since my earlier iPhones, so I have to repeat myself less, but other than that the experience has remained the same for me.

 

An area I thought might be a concern with the iPhone, especially coming from the OnePlus 7 Pro was the screen. Since the screen is the main sacrifice made in the regular iPhone 11 versus the Pro, I thought it might be a subpar screen. However, it’s completely fine and in some cases, great. Even though it’s an LCD which are generally inferior to OLED panels, Apple makes great LCDs and for me, it’s honestly hard to tell any difference to an OLED. While the 90 Hrtz refresh rate of the Pixel 4 and the One Plus 7 Pro were very smooth feeling, iOS in general has incredibly smooth scrolling, so it is less of a noticeable difference than it is on Android. The brightness is good enough that the screen is visible and readable outside in the sunlight.

 

The only other area I was worried about in moving from Android to iOS was with unlocking the phone. I’d grown used to a fast and secure fingerprint reader on the Pixel phones, and even an in-display one on the OnePlus which was fairly flaky in my experience, but I believe that was mostly due to a screen protector I put on it. With the iPhone, I’d be unlocking entirely with FaceUnlock. Surprisingly, I’ve quickly come to prefer this to a finger print reader. While it’s sometimes less optimal, like when I have to take sunglasses off for it to work, there are others where it’s better, like when my hand is wet from sweat or water, or when wearing gloves. It’s incredibly fast and reliable, and the integration into the OS with payments and other authorization like reading passwords is fantastic. I would actually like to see it on more Android phones in the future.

 

I haven’t yet embraced the rest of the iOS ecosystem. I don’t have EarPods or an Apple Watch. I don’t use Facetime or iMessages on any other device. I own an iPad and MacBook air, but there’s essentially no connection between any of them in my normal usage. Using these more frequently would have more benefits and I know would work very smoothly, but I am afraid of the tradeoff of becoming even more locked in to Apple’s ecosystem. I’ll keep my Garmin smart watch and Jaybird and Bose headphones for now.

 

I initially had a lot of hesitation in switching from Android to iOs again. I’d done a similar experiment years ago and just couldn’t stay within Apple’s arbitrary confines. However, with Android growing and both Google and Apple making changes to encourage users to switch platforms, they’ve actually converged further and made a switch easier. Apple has torn down some walls as a result, but also improved restrictions that matter like with data privacy and location access that I’ve come to value. I can’t say I’ll stay forever, but one month in, I’m very happy with my green iPhone 11.