Apple’s iPhone 11 secretly offers the best iPhone value

The best budget iPhone has been on sale since last fall

The Pros

  • Full-sized screen
  • Two cameras
  • Metal design

The Cons

  • Not blazing fast
  • Ultra-wide instead of zoom
  • 60Hz LCD shows some age

With the reveal of Apple’s 3rd-gen iPhone SE and the rumours leading up to it, I started to wonder if Apple’s only iPhone that still features a home button is actually the best budget device the company offers.

It has a place in the iPhone lineup, there’s no doubt about it, but I think the iPhone 11 is a better buy that offers a more modern smartphone appeal at a price that provides a similar value proposition. Value shifts from person to person, but to me, a phone that feels nice in my hand, has a large screen, lasts all day and can snap great pics, is the sweet spot.

It doesn’t need to be the fastest or flashiest smartphone, but anything extra on top of what I’ve already mentioned, like waterproofing is awesome. Jam all those features into a phone under $800, and my interest is piqued.

As the iPhone 11 slides down Apple’s release ladder, it’s moved closer to my heart — I just needed the new iPhone SE to release for me to really see it.

I <3 the iPhone 11

The iPhone 11 was released in late 2019, and I got my model pretty much right at the end of December of the same year. It was my workhorse smartphone for about a year alongside a Pixel 3 until I ended up with an iPhone 12 Pro sometime in early 2021. After that, my girlfriend Alex started driving this little yellow iPhone 11. Keep all of this in mind as I praise and criticize this aging iPhone.

Leading out of that, my iPhone 11 still has 92 percent battery health. Though it’s not giving me the full day and a half to two days that it was supplying at launch, I’m still getting a day of battery life and five or more hours of screen-on time per day. For a three-year-old phone, this is pretty good and I expect anyone who buys a new iPhone 11 will experience even longer battery life.

When I benchmarked my old model, it held up, and the RAM and CPU are running optimally. Sure, COD Mobile didn’t look as clean as it does on my iPhone 13 Pro, but even while gaming, the phone held up. However, gaming and using the camera do make the device’s battery drop quite a bit. I’ll also note that the speakers in more modern iPhones offer a wider sound stage than the iPhone 11.

The rounded sides of the iPhone 11 feel nice, but I like how the more squared-off iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 are narrower. Still, what really matters is that this phone is aluminum and glass, so it feels premium — and, of course, it’s available in several fun colours. For this price, you’ll be hard-pressed to get a phone that feels this premium elsewhere. The most comparable phone that comes to mind is the first OnePlus Nord. But even then, that phone felt considerably cheaper.

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that my iPhone 11 has been subjected to way too many accidental drops (most of them with a case) and beyond a few minor scratches and scuffs, it’s still in relatively solid condition.

Does the iPhone 11 <3 me?

In day-to-day use, the iPhone 11 still holds up remarkably well, but when you compare it to some of the top phones available right now, it’s easy to see where the iPhone 11 falls behind.

For example, the LCD screen that looked a bit washed out in 2019, looks even worse in 2022. Compared to the Pixel 6’s screen, it’s not as punchy and the 60Hz iPhone 11 display is a bit grating to go back to after using 90Hz and above smartphone screens for the past year or so. I’m not sure if anyone with an iPhone that also has an LCD screen would really notice the quality difference, but once you make the jump to a higher-refresh-rate OLED panel, it’s noticeable when you go back.

When I began this test I restored my iPhone 11 with the backup from my iPhone 13 Pro and it was usable, but the lag I experienced was a bit heavier than I anticipated. After talking to MobileSyrup managing editor Patrick O’Rourke, he suggested that perhaps restoring from the more modern smartphone was bogging the iPhone 11 down. After this, I reset the device again and started fresh. After an hour of manually reinstalling my most-used apps, I got back to my life.

This time, the iPhone 11 felt a lot zippier and navigating the interface was a much cleaner experience than it was before the reset. When I’m in my last five percent of battery with low-power mode on, things still get slow, but 95 percent of the time, it’s smooth sailing.
With the new iPhone SE, you also get the addition of 5G. The iPhone 11 is LTE only, but even living in Toronto, 5G has yet to impact my life in any meaningful way. Sure, the technology offers faster speeds in some cases, but it’s not that much faster. Coming from newer 5G-equipped devices, I didn’t miss the additional speed boost the slightest as I stepped back in time with the iPhone 11 this week.

A turning point

My favourite thing about using the iPhone 11 again is being able to get a better sense of how far mobile camera systems have come in the past three years — or in some cases, how little they’ve improved.

There’s no doubt that the iPhone 13 and iPhone 12 feature better camera systems than the iPhone 11. Still, the camera advantages those devices feature often appear in niche scenarios and in most cases, all the iPhones produce very similar results.

The iPhone 13 can capture crisper images, and the ability to get more colour and detail in shadows and highlights is helpful for most shooting scenarios. But as someone that often looks to play with light and shadows, HDR is a tool I only use sometimes. In this regard, the iPhone 11 and its younger siblings all perform quite similarly. Even with HDR on, all modern iPhone cameras look pretty similar under most circumstances, with differences only really becoming noticeable when you look closely at photos.

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Low-light is a bit of a different story. The iPhone 13 in particular, has really pushed the needle forward on low-light photography, and the iPhone 11 can’t keep up. Sure, there’s a software-powered night mode, but it’s still not good at capturing highlights in dark areas. Often this would blow out neon signs at night. As with any camera, you can still take decent night shots once you learn its limitations and how to work within them, but it’s not as easy as the point-and-shoot mentality of a mobile camera from late 2021 and newer.

Regardless of this, you still get to play with a lot of camera here. All the sensors are 12-megapixels and the rear cameras feature 13mm ultra-wide and 26mm wide lenses. I wish one of them was a zoom lens instead of an ultra-wide since I find that more useful for my shooting style, but they pay off if you aim to use these for their intended purposes.

You even have access to modern Apple photography features like ‘Deep Fusion’ and ‘Portrait Mode.’ I even took one of my favourite portraits of all time of Alex with the iPhone 11 (see it above). The photo was shot off the cuff in my parent’s hallway a few years ago as the light hit just right, with a bit of help from the ‘Studio Lighting’ effect. I think I tweaked the skin tones slightly in post too, but I still can’t believe it came out of a phone.

A Cinderella story

In the end, if you're looking to pick up a larger iPhone for a lower price, the iPhone 11 is still a great choice in 2022. In the future, I'm going to take older iPhones more seriously, even in the two-three years after they've been released.

That said, after this test, I'm going to bump back up to my iPhone 13 Pro since I still really like 'Cinematic Mode' and the 77mm telephoto lens. However, if people ask me in the next few years if they should upgrade from their iPhone 11, I'll try to recommend a system wipe and new case instead as a more economical way to try and make the phone feel like new. Because in most circumstances, all iPhones feel the same.

Apple still sells the iPhone 11 starting at $679 in Canada. For more on the iPhone 11, check out our original review of the smartphone. You can find out 3rd-gen iPhone SE coverage here.

The iPhone SE might be the most affordable iPhone, but the iPhone 11 offers significantly more value. It has a nicer camera, a larger size and a really great battery life.