The 5-point iPhone XR review: How Apple walks the fine line of greatness

When Apple packs its most expensive iPhone with all the latest innovations, it’s hard for anyone to get excited about the next step down the line. So after September’s debut of the $999 iPhone XS and $1,099 iPhone XS Max, no one was shocked that the more affordable iPhone XR’s late October launch didn’t feature throngs of queued-up customers or local news crews — it’s technically not Apple’s 2018 flagship product.

Despite the lack of lines, it’s safe to say that millions of people are considering iPhone XR purchases. Apple has blurred the definition of “flagship” this year in a new way, creating a two-phone “premium flagship” tier with the XS models, and a more traditional flagship in the $749 iPhone XR. Having previously made the mistake of wrapping last year’s components in a shiny new package, Apple instead made the iPhone XR so close to the iPhone XS and XS Max that it could almost fit between them rather than under them.

On paper, the iPhone XR and XS differences are conspicuous: It’s made from aluminum rather than steel, uses an LCD screen rather than OLED, and has one rear camera rather than two. But in reality, the phones are hard to tell apart other than the XR’s middle-of-road size and wider collection of color options. Since Apple put its latest processor and camera features into all of the XR and XS phones, they’re more alike than different.

Above: Despite a $250 starting price difference, the iPhone XS (left) and iPhone XR (right) have far more in common than not.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

The resulting iPhone XR is a sweet-spot flagship phone that sits underneath two premium flagships in pricing, with a larger lineup of older devices beneath it as Apple’s true midrange and low-end alternatives. Read on for the key details you need to know.

1. The XR could have been called iPhone 9

If you’ve seen the aluminum-framed iPhone 8 and the steel-framed iPhone X, you’ll instantly understand how the iPhone XR could have been called iPhone 9 — physically, it’s squarely in the middle of them. While the back and sides are substantially similar to the iPhone 8’s, the notched-screen front looks virtually indistinguishable from the iPhone X.

That means you lose the Home button in favor of a fully swipe-based interface, a change that I personally found very easy to learn and — apart from the absence of Touch ID authentication — strongly prefer over the prior design. As was the case with the iPhone X, eliminating the button and creating a notch for camera, speaker, and sensor hardware enabled Apple to fill more of the front with screen real estate.

On the iPhone XR, the remaining black bezel is perhaps 2mm thicker on the sides and bottom than on the X and XS, but its screen is over 7mm larger on the diagonal, so the difference isn’t obvious in daily use. The top notch is indistinguishable in size to the ones found on the iPhone X, XS, and XS Max, cutting out a segment of the display while leaving small nooks for the time and status indicators.

Since it looks half like an iPhone 8 and half like an iPhone X, why not call it the iPhone 9? External similarities aside, the iPhone XR is actually a step beyond the iPhone X internally, and Apple hopes the prospect of a more affordable iPhone X will win over price-sensitive Android customers. Even so, it needed to distinguish the less expensive model as a step down from the simultaneously announced iPhone XS, so it went with a letter one lower in the alphabet, which happens to jibe with automotive and camera branding.

It also decided to go with just one iPhone XR size rather than the two sizes offered in the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, and 8 lineups. This change makes it extremely easy for a customer to choose an iPhone XR — just go with the color and capacity you like, rather than fretting about screen size — but robs you of the chance to pick a smaller or larger screen size.

As a result, iPhone XR has only one screen option: a 6.1-inch LCD touchscreen. To get a major question out of the way up front: NO, you are not going to notice any huge difference — or probably even a small one — between the resolutions of Apple’s best-of-class “Liquid Retina” LCD and best-of-class “Super Retina” OLED screens. The iPhone XR’s pixels are too small to be seen individually by the unaided human eye, and though the XS models technically have more pixels, the distinction is arguably meaningless.

Above: The iPhone XR sits between the iPhone XS (left) and an iPhone 7 Plus (right).

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

That having been said, there are small differences in brightness and contrast between the OLED and LCD screens, though they will not practically matter for most people. Viewed straight on, the XR’s screen looks just a hint brighter at its peak than the XS and XS Max, but the difference disappears when the screen’s viewed off-angle. Similarly, the OLED screens’ blacks are a bit darker than the XR’s, but not in a way that will be noticed by 97 percent of users. Color rendition is for the most part identical.

People will actually notice the differences in iPhone XR, XS, and XS Max screen sizes, though again, they may not care about them. In raw pixel count, the XR’s 6.1-inch display has a 1,792 by 828 resolution, which sounds like a lot fewer pixels than the 2,688 by 1,242 resolution of the XS Max’s 6.5-inch display. But the XS Max’s numbers are inflated because the OLED screen uses more dots to represent each pixel.

In reality, the iPhone XR effectively squeezes the same user interface of the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max into a frame that’s only a little larger than the 5.8-inch iPhone XS. You’re actually able to toggle Display Zoom in the settings mode between filling the 6.1-inch screen with either Standard (XS Max) or Zoomed (XS) content, a difference that is subtle in practice. It’s hard to notice on the Home screen, but when you’re reading web pages or using other apps, more text and pictures fit on the XR’s display.

Apple’s decision to treat the XR like the XS Max gives the XR a surprising feature advantage over the smaller XS. When the XS rotates into landscape mode, Apple apps don’t split the 5.8-inch screen into left and right panes, a feature that was previously exclusive to iPhone “Plus” models. But the split-pane feature is offered on the bigger screens of both the iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XR.

The XR also comes with 12 exclusive wallpapers — photos of bubbles in various colors — and the same black-backgrounded dynamic wallpapers that debuted on the iPhone X. But the iPhone XR lacks the iPhone XS’s Live wallpapers, a series of animated bubbles.

That’s because the iPhone XR’s screen doesn’t have 3D Touch support, the pressure-sensitive “push harder on the screen” feature Apple introduced in earlier iPhones. In the years I’ve had access to it, I’ve used 3D Touch only a few times each year due to mediocre software implementation, and at this point I wouldn’t miss it if it disappears from every iPhone.

Instead, the XR has Haptic Touch, a quasi-replacement that only works with a handful of buttons (camera, flashlight) and neither activates the Lock Screen’s Live wallpaper nor triggers Home Screen shortcuts. Instead of a “thump” haptic to acknowledge a deep finger press, you just get a light confirmation tap when holding your finger an extra split-second on the screen. It’s not as useful or impressive as 3D Touch, but unless you extensively used icon-based shortcuts, you’re not going to notice.

From my perspective, the only factor that will turn off some people — specifically, users with smaller hands or pockets — is whether the iPhone XR is too big. If you thought the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, or 8 was too large, sorry; there’s nothing smaller in Apple’s lineup any more. Having split the difference between Apple’s regular and plus sizes, the iPhone XR is a pretty large phone. If you’re in the camp that’s been holding out for something more pocket-friendly, you’ll have to keep waiting.

2. Six color options and three capacities

Five years ago, Apple introduced the iPhone 5c — a repackaged iPhone 5 sold in one’s choice of five plastic shells — and thankfully, it learned a lot from that experience. Although it wasn’t much less expensive than the iPhone 5 it replaced, the iPhone 5c was quickly tagged as “cheap” and somewhat downmarket for Apple. Though some of the 5c’s middling color DNA is still evident in the iPhone XR, that’s pretty much the only thing this year’s “affordable” model has in common with its distant relative.

There’s nothing plasticky or cheap about the iPhone XR; instead, the all glass and aluminum housing is a small step forward from the iPhone 8 models, and it looks all but indistinguishable from a matte-finished iPhone X or XS. Except for a white model with a silver frame, Apple has colored the 7000-series aluminum to match whichever brighter color you choose for the rear glass. The light blue model I tested has an even lighter metal tint than I’d anticipated.

By contrast with the iPhone 5c, which was surprisingly hard to damage, the iPhone XR carries the same shatter and dent risks as most of its glass-and-metal predecessors. Apple has fortified the front glass somewhat to improve XR’s drop resilience, though the jury’s still out on how much better it will actually perform — no matter what Apple has said in the past about glass improvements, iPhones generally aren’t great at withstanding drops. Since the rear glass remains fairly easy to break, purchasing a drop-safe case is highly advisable.

Apple’s choice of iPhone 5c colors was mostly wan: plain white, meh pink, milquetoast blue, pale yellow, and neon green. The strongest of those colors, green, is gone in the new iPhone XR lineup, but the yellow, blue, and “coral” pink are modestly more saturated. Just like the iPhone 5c, I personally wasn’t thrilled with any of the new colors; they’re too mild, and don’t reach the technicolor heights of the iPod nano at its “nano-chromatic” peak.

But they’re thankfully accompanied by strong red, bright white, and dark black options that are each very nice — each highly similar to last year’s iPhone 8 versions. Thanks to these more common choices, there are enough options in the iPhone XR lineup to satisfy almost anyone.

A choice of capacities is the other important decision confronting new iPhone XR owners: 64GB ($749), 128GB ($799), or 256GB ($899) options come in $50 to $100 steps. You’ll have to pick the size that’s right for your needs, but the 128GB model strikes me as the best value this year. There’s no 128GB version of the iPhone XS, forcing customers to pay a steeper $100 premium to upgrade from the 64GB base model.

3. CPU, wireless and battery performance

Internally, the iPhone XR is substantially similar to the iPhone XS, sporting the same A12 Bionic CPU and GPU chip with 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) and Bluetooth 5.0 wireless support. Spec sheets suggest that the iPhone XR offers 2018-caliber horsepower that under most circumstances is indistinguishable from the iPhone XS.

Geekbench testing bears this out. The numbers for the XS and XR come out basically the same across multiple tests, with insignificant variations that in any case place the iPhone XR well above the performance of last year’s iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X. Benchmark scores for single-core (4818) and multi-core (11461) performance place this pocket-sized phone in the same league as a low-end laptop, with all the same graphics, AI, and AR horsepower discussed in our iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max review.

There are a few differences between the iPhone XR and iPhone XS, though. Whether they will matter to you depends on how much you use your phone each day, and how long you intend to keep your phone.

Apple’s devices don’t struggle with RAM like Android phones, and Apple stubbornly refuses to include more RAM than a device needs. Since the XR’s screen has fewer pixels to power than the XS or XS Max, it has 3GB of RAM (2.75GB usable) — the same as iPhone X — instead of the XS’s 4GB (3.67GB usable). You’re unlikely to notice this difference for now, but if iOS keeps growing larger, it might become meaningful in a couple years.

On the other hand, the iPhone XR has a larger battery than the iPhone XS and even last year’s iPhone 8 Plus — a 2,942mAh cell with about 10 percent greater capacity. Combined with screen and processor efficiencies, the XR promises up to 15 hours of internet use and 16 hours of video playback versus the XS’ up to 12 hours of internet use and 14 hours of video playback — it even surpasses the iPhone XS Max by one to two hours. I’ve found that the iPhone XS tends to fall short of last year’s X on any given day, so if battery life matters to you, lean towards the XR.

Last but not least, the iPhone XR’s cellular support is a step behind the XS and XS Max, promising “LTE Advanced” rather than “Gigabit LTE” cellular speeds. This is a confusing but important distinction between the devices — one that’s worth understanding.

The iPhone XS and XS Max support the latest 4G/LTE cellular towers, which are theoretically capable of delivering 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) download speeds under specific conditions with certain carriers. By comparison, the XR’s top cellular speed is closer to 400 megabits per second (Mbps), like the iPhone X. If those numbers don’t mean anything to you, bear two things in mind: Few people today have home internet service faster than 100Mbps, but in the next two years, many companies will be offering either home or cellular service at the 1Gbps level, with the promise of 5Gbps in the foreseeable future.

When I tested the iPhone XS and iPhone XR side by side at the fastest cell towers I’ve found in my area, both phones hit download peaks in the 150Mbps range — the iPhone XS hit 154Mbps on its best test, while the iPhone XR hit 150Mbps on one test and 158Mbps on another. Today, most users will find their performance to be virtually tied. But a year or two from now, more Gigabit LTE-capable towers will be in use across the world, and the XS will have the speed advantage.

4. Camera and audio performance

While there’s plenty of potential for confusion when summing up the iPhone XR’s cameras, I’m going to cut right to the chase: Even though XR only has two cameras compared with XS’s three, it is still a great point-and-shoot camera option. Apple has upgraded the XR’s front-facing camera to “TrueDepth,” enabling it to be used for everything from Animoji and Memoji to portrait mode photography. And the rear-facing camera is faster and better than the iPhone 8’s, as well.

The XR’s front camera is identical to what’s inside the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max: a 7-megapixel, fast-lensed (f/2.2) camera with a depth-sensor and software-stabilized 1080p video recording. When taking selfies, you can expect the same wider field of view, Smart HDR support, and low light performance noted in my iPhone XS review.

I saw no meaningful difference between front-facing shots taken with the XR and XS. Additionally, the XR’s front camera is capable of being used for Face ID biometric authentication, introduced in the iPhone X last year, and has the same slightly faster response times found in the iPhone XS. This year’s improvement of the Face ID feature brings it closer to feeling like a 1:1 replacement for Touch ID, though it’s still not quite there in responsiveness.

The rear camera is where things become more complicated. It’s the same as the iPhone XS’s “1X” wide-angle camera: a 12-megapixel, even faster-lensed (f/1.8) imager with optical and software stabilization, plus 4K video recording with up to 60fps support. For daytime photography and videography, you can expect the XR’s results to be identical to an XS using only its 1X lens — including various subtle and meaningful improvements that make photographs look the best they’ve ever looked on iPhones.

Somewhat unfortunately, Apple has differentiated the XR from the XS by yanking the latter’s “2X” telephoto lens, which is slower (f/2.4) but gives the XS and XS Max an optical zoom capability. The completely unedited, color-unadjusted photo below shows exactly what that means in practice: You lose the one-tap ability to fill your frame with a crystal-clear object in the distance, as well as the instantly optimized color correction that tap automatically includes.

For now, losing 2X support is the XR’s only major downside compared with the XS. If you’re interested in using Portrait Mode, it’s still there: the XR uses actual depth data when it’s taking pictures with the front camera and a software trick to estimate 3D depth for the rear camera. The bad news is that XR can only use this trick to estimate depth for faces, not objects, which means you won’t be able to do as much with the 3D Photos feature Facebook is currently rolling out.

However, because the XR Portrait Mode uses the XR’s fast f/1.8 “1X” lens rather than the XS’s slower f/2.4 “2X” lens, XR can actually take better noticeably portrait pictures in dim lighting conditions; the faster, wider lens gathers a lot more light. While both the XR and XS Portrait Mode are quick to display a “more light required” message in poor lighting conditions, the XR churns out an image that looks almost like late daylight, while the XS’s “portrait” is dusky — almost to the point of pointlessness.

It would be great if Apple added a toggle to the iPhone XS to let users choose whether to rely on camera depth data or its XR software algorithm to capture low-light portrait shots, since the XR’s results are better, and software’s the only difference. Until and unless that happens, each camera will have separate strengths.

Sonically, the iPhone XR is on par with but not identical to the iPhone XS. Despite its larger physical size, its speakers perform audio at the same peak volume and with the same general sonic balance, though if you listen closely, the smaller XS has slightly cleaner bass and the XR has modestly more sibilant treble. Users of wireless headphones and speakers likely will notice no difference between the models.

5. Pricing and conclusions

Because I actually buy iPhones rather than getting free Apple review units, my take on their pricing and affordability is different from those who rely initially or exclusively on loaners — for me, an iPhone is an investment of real money, and when prices go up or down, I feel it just like you do.

For that reason, I see the iPhone XR’s “affordable” marketing as a matter of perspective. With a $749 starting price for 64GB, it is indeed substantially less expensive than the $999 64GB iPhone XS, but it’s also $50 more than the starting price for last year’s iPhone 8. That’s certainly not cheap by any standard, as $749 could buy a premium phone from almost any vendor. And in typical Apple style, you’ll have to spend a little more to get the “just right” 128GB version.

Even so, there’s no question that the iPhone XR offers much better value for the dollar than the iPhone X, XS, or XS Max. Unlike the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, which were priced only a little higher than the value of their components, Apple’s prices for the X, XS, and Max — especially with extra RAM — are exorbitant, reaching levels that only wealthy customers and shareholders would find acceptable.

With the iPhone XR, Apple split the difference between iPhone 8 and 8 Plus prices, split the body size, and filled the middle-of-road chassis with as big a screen and as many modern components as it could muster. Consequently, there are so many upgrades in the iPhone XR that it would have been more worthy of skipping a numeral than the iPhone 8 was from the iPhone 7: a bigger screen, a TrueDepth front camera with Face ID, a faster and better rear camera, and the best mobile processor on the market, just to name a few.

Because Apple didn’t repackage year-old hardware in a cheaper housing, the iPhone XR’s inclusion of current-generation components makes it very easy to recommend to most people. Just like the iPhone XS, I would certainly not call it “future-proof,” particularly since much faster new phones are literally just around the corner. But assuming you can keep it in one piece, and accept its cellular speed limitations, the XS should last you a few years.

That having been said, several factors should weigh on your mind before purchasing the iPhone XR. First, Apple’s decision to go with a size between its prior iPhone 8 and 8 Plus devices will make XR an uncomfortable fit in some pockets and hands. It may be the ideal size for people who found the Plus phones too big, but it’s another step in the wrong direction for users who didn’t want phones as big as the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, or 8, and leaned towards the now-discontinued iPhone SE instead. Whether that’s an overall market trend or a fad, some people are certainly being left behind.

The second and third factors concern XR’s real-world longevity. As Verizon and AT&T are just beginning to roll out 5G networks, buying any 4G phone right now is like buying an old-school Casio at the start of the smartwatch age — an investment that will seem technologically antiquated in the very foreseeable future. It doesn’t help that Apple has made the XR from easily damaged glass and aluminum, which all but requires you to purchase a protective case.

If a family member or friend was shopping for a phone now and needed something right away, I would point right to the iPhone XR. For the price, it’s a better choice than the iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max unless the 2X second rear lens or potential Gigabit LTE service found in XS models really appeals to you. But if you’ve waited this long, consider holding out for next year, when early 5G phones have the prospect of delivering several years of even more impressive cellular performance. Because of 5G’s rapid onset, you can be certain that gigantic cellular speed gains are just around the corner, even if it Apple won’t be the first (or second, or third) to deliver them to customers.

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