Every time a new version of a coveted device is announced, it can be tempting to go ahead and pre-order the shiny, new toy immediately — particularly when that shiny, new toy happens to be an iPhone. And hey, if that’s your jam, then go forth! But if you’re on the fence about whether you should get an iPhone 11, you might think about updating your existing iPhone to iOS 13 before shelling out for an all-new device. As the Washington Post pointed out recently, there are enough bells and whistles in the new version of Apple’s mobile operating system that you might not actually need a whole new device to give your phone situation a major upgrade.
Reading WaPo’s piece wasn’t the first time this thought occurred to me. While I was watching the Apple launch event on Sept. 10, I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of the features being touted in the iPhone 11 announcements were more about the software than the hardware. (All of the iPhone 11 models will ship with iOS 13.) The bulk of the iPhone 11 presentations were focused on the devices’ camera setups, because, honestly, the only big changes between the iPhone X line and the iPhone 11 line in terms of the actual hardware involve those cameras.
To be fair, those changes are pretty notable, particularly if you get a lot of use out of the iPhone’s camera and video capabilities. The regular iPhone 11 — the “budget” option ("budget" is in quotes because we’re still talking about a price tag of $699, which is, uh, A Lot) — bumps up the rear-facing camera system from one lens in the previous comparable model, the iPhone XR, to two, thus bringing it more in line with what the XS and XS Max had at launch. The two lenses are different in the iPhone 11 than they are in the XS models, though; the 11 has wide-angle and ultra-wide lenses in the place of the XS’ wide-angle and telephotos. Meanwhile, the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, which start at $999 and $1,099 respectively, have three cameras — the most of any iPhone model to date — allowing you to make use of wide-angle, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses. The front-facing camera on all three iPhone 11 models is also a step up from all of the X models; the new selfie camera is a 12MP TrueDepth camera instead of a 7MP one. New photo and video features like Night Mode, which automatically triggers when you’re shooting in low-light situations, the use of the shutter button to capture “QuickTake” video instead of burst photos, and the front camera’s ability to take slow-motion selfie videos (I refuse to call them “slofies”) will require the iPhone 11 line’s unique camera systems to use.
But beyond those functionalities, many of the other camera-, photo-, and video-related updates highlighted in Apple’s Sept. 10 presentation are just new features you’ll have access to when iOS 13 drops — whether or not you have an iPhone 11. For example, if you have the iPhone XR, XS, or XS Max, you’ll have access to the new Portrait Lighting tools in the Camera app just by installing iOS 13 on your existing device. And if you have any of the phone compatible with iOS 13 — that is, if you have an iPhone 6S or higher — iOS 13 will bestow upon you pretty much all of the fancy new features in both the Photos and Camera apps, from improved Photo Library curation to tons of upgraded photo and video editing tools. (A list of ‘em can be found here.)
The same is true of many of the non-camera-, photo-, and video-oriented features that are included as part of the iOS 13 software, rather than being specific to the iPhone 11 devices themselves. Dark Mode? That’s in iOS 13. The “QuickPath” swipe-to-type functionality? That’s in iOS 13, too. The three new Animoji (mouse, cow, and octopus) and the expanded Memoji personalization options? iOS 13. All of those privacy and security updates, including Sign In With Apple? Yep: iOS 13. Not to mention all of the tweaks that will have been made to tons of apps already native to the iPhone like Notes, Safari, Health, Mail, and more. The bottom line is that the things you’ll probably use the most — the features of the iPhone that are most essential for day-to-day life — will all be upgraded through the iOS 13 software update, not via the hardware involved in the new iPhone 11 line. Heck, the operating system is even faster overall than its previous incarnation, so even though there’s a speedy new processor in the iPhone 11 — the A13 Bionic processor — you might notice an improvement to your phone’s general performance just with iOS 13 alone.
Obviously whether or not you opt to get an iPhone 11, 11 Pro, or 11 Max hinges in large part on how you typically use your phone. If you’re, say, a professional photographer who increasingly uses your phone as your camera alongside your DSLR, or a travel journalist whose Instagram feed is as important to your work as your writing is, or even if you’re just a dedicated hobbyist, than the 11 line might be a necessary upgrade for you: In addition to the new camera hardware, you’ll also gain access to a few of the software functions in the Camera and Photos apps that will only work with that hardware. If, however, you primarily use your phone to send emails, keep track of your schedule, check how many steps you’ve taken today, and so on, then you’ll likely be able to get most of the upgrades coming for those features simply by installing iOS 13 on your existing device.
But hey, guess what? There’s an easy way to figure out whether the iOS 13 upgrade is enough for you, or whether it would behoove you to trade in your whole device: If the phone you already have is compatible with iOS 13 (you'll need an iPhone 6S or higher), start by downloading the new operating system onto it and see if it meets your needs. Give iOS 13 a try for a week, two weeks, a month, however long you need to assess the situation. Pay careful attention to how you use your phone and whether or not you find yourself at a disadvantage without the features that are only available on the iPhone 11 line.
If, at the end of your designated trial period, you do find that your experience would be improved with the iPhone 11-exclusive features, and you've got the budget to upgrade, then that’s probably a good indication that one of the new models would be a solid investment for you. If, however, you get what you need from an older device running on the upgraded operating system — and, indeed, notice an actual improvement in your experience with iOS 13 over iOS 12 — then maybe you can get away with hanging onto your existing device for a bit longer.
Both conclusions are absolutely valid; what’s more, if you find you don’t need the iPhone 11, but you still really want it and have the budget for it, then that’s valid, too: Go ahead and get yourself a new iPhone anyway. My point is that, although new device FOMO certainly is a thing, iOS 13 might go further towards assuaging it than you might think. It’s worth a shot, right? After all, it costs you nothing to install the new operating system. Anything that’s both useful in helping you make an informed life decision and free is a good thing, right?