The Apple iPhone XR is the third new iPhone this year, after the XS and XS Max – you can read my review here.
The iPhone XR is colorful, attractive, light and comfortable in the hand. It has a powerful processor, ground-breaking display, excellent rear camera (though only one) and exceptional battery life. Without spoiling any surprises, I’ll tell you now that in some ways it’s the best iPhone Apple has ever made. Here are the details.
How does it look?
You really can’t help but notice the iPhone XR. Like that other colorful iPhone, the 5C, this one is so distinctive that you’ll recognize it as an iPhone from quite a distance. That’s mostly down to the color choices. There are six of them: Space Gray and White which are both attractive, if a little – how shall I say? – safe.
There’s Blue which is that much brighter and a safe bet for someone who wants to make a bit of a style statement without going crazy. Then there are the three brightest, and in my view most beautiful, colors.
First of these is PRODUCT(RED) which is both eye-catching and impressive. Of course, buying this also means Apple will donate money to a worthy cause.
Then there’s Yellow: a mix of bright on the back, gentler on the matte edges, like the sun going in and out of clouds, if you’re feeling poetic.
And, best of all, Coral, which has a tangy acidity to it that I find irresistible.
Colors are very personal in the way they affect each of us, so your reactions may well be different.
But, suffice to say that Apple has certainly not been timid in coming up with its range of chosen colors, both in terms of shade and variety.
One glance tells you it’s an iPhone. I don’t mean the Apple logo, though, of course, that helps.
It’s the pillowed glass and aluminum band which have been with us since the iPhone 6 and the glass back which arrived last year on the iPhone 8.
As Apple is at pains to point out, this is one of the iPhone X series, that is, its features include an all-screen front and Face ID.
So, although many of the design elements have been with us for a while, it looks very modern and new as soon as you look at that display. And because it looks so like the iPhone XS and XS Max, you have to ask whether you need to splash out the extra cash on those pricier handsets.
It’s a question I’ll keep returning to in this review, but let’s put it in context with the prices of previous iPhones with larger screens, that is, 5.5 inches or bigger. That’s the size that arrived with the iPhone 6 Plus, with two more recent iPhones, iPhone X and iPhone XS Max raising the game with 5.8-inch and 6.5-inch screens respectively.
The iPhone XR has a 6.1-inch display, but in a chassis significantly smaller than the iPhone 8 Plus.
Plus-Size iPhone Prices
The Apple iPhone XR sits between the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max in terms of size, but is significantly smaller than either in terms of its price tag. And price is quite an important feature on this phone.
It’s not a budget phone or even the cheapest iPhone you can buy, though to lower your spending below the XR’s price ticket you’ll need to choose a phone from previous years that still happens to be in the range.
In fact, the iPhone XR arrives with the lowest debut price for a large-screen iPhone: $749. That’s the same as the iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6S Plus when they first appeared, and less than the launch prices for the iPhone 7 Plus ($769) and iPhone 8 Plus ($799).
All those phones, by the way, debuted with either 16GB or 32GB of storage, apart from last year’s iPhone 8 Plus which, like the iPhone XR, has 64GB capacity.
And this is a phone, remember, which shares its processor and many other components with the top-of-the-range iPhone XS ($999 and up) and iPhone XS Max (from $1,099).
On paper, it should be phenomenal value. Let’s see.
Only One Camera
Yes, this is the first big difference you notice when you look at the iPhone XR and iPhone XS from behind. That now-expected multi-lens camera is nowhere to be seen. Still, there are other high-end phones with single cameras, most notably the Google Pixel 3.
This sensor is identical to the wide-angle camera on the iPhone XS, that is the latest sensor from Apple and one that has been improved since the iPhone X with bigger pixels and more Focus Pixels, to make for faster autofocus. Apple could easily have fobbed customers off with last year’s sensor to save money but, and there’s a theme here, it has repeatedly blessed the XR with the same components as the iPhone XS only, in this case, with just the one, not the twin cameras on the pricier XS. I’m going to call this, when the XR has the same thing as the more expensive model, XS Match.
This means that for features like Portrait Mode, that single sensor must rely on software and machine learning to tell subject from background and adjust the focus level accordingly.
Well, this is something Google has done since the Pixel 2, so it’s not impossible.
Apple has done it and built in one of the killer features found on the iPhone XS, the adjustable depth of field slider so you can decide after you’ve shot how much background blur you want (XS Match!).
That’s not to say the XR can do everything the more expensive phone can. The software knows to look for human faces and uses this to engineer the Portrait Mode.
And only human, as my dog was disappointed to find out. Try and take a Portrait effect of a dog, cat, other animal or object and you’ll see an onscreen warning that no suitable subject has been found.
But at least it benefits from the improved algorithms that Apple has developed since it first introduced Portrait Mode. If you ever noticed blemishes on portrait mode effects – on more cameras than Apple’s – you’ll be glad to know they’ve got much better.
So, if your subject has their hand resting on their hip, like somebody who’s dropped a roll of carpet and not noticed, no longer will that triangle of background be in sharp focus because the software didn’t understand what was going on.
The wide-angle sensor is the better of the iPhone XS’ two cameras and it works very well here, though the different focal length from the telephoto lens means you have to go a little closer to your subject to shoot them.
This is a 12MP sensor but it’s the Apple specialties that make it an extremely good camera. These include those bigger pixels, extra Focus Pixels, advanced algorithms and neural network on the A12 Bionic chip. Most of all, perhaps, Apple’s cameras, including this one, rely on the irreproachably good taste of the Apple engineers so that even when the images are heavily processed, they look realistic and highly attractive.
Sure, there isn’t the multi-lens power of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, but this is a great snapper, easily the best single camera Apple has made.
So, where has Apple saved money to make the bill of materials low enough to drop the price so much? It’s actually not that easy to see, though here are a couple of obvious ones.
The iPhone XR uses an aluminum antenna band where the XS has a shiny stainless steel band. That’s definitely more opulent but the matte finish of the aluminum here is perfectly good. After all, it’s what almost every iPhone since the iPhone 6 has used, so we’re pretty accustomed to it. In each case, it’s color-matched to the rest of the phone, so there’s a gentle Blue tint, a gauzy Yellow or a muted Coral on the respective XR handsets.
Oh, and there’s one other place which is color-matched: inside the Lightning connector, there’s a perfectly-matched socket inside. It is very hard to see this and most people will never notice, but it’s there.
The level of waterproofing on the XR is not as high as on the XS. It’s IP67 instead of the higher IP68. So, it’ll survive in 1 metre of water for half an hour, but not the 2 metres that the XS can handle. Not exactly a deal-breaker.
One tiny design difference worth noting is that the grille on the base of the iPhone XR is symmetrical, unlike the iPhone XS which has seven holes on the right, four on the left. Some people care about these things.
The other big difference is a little more important, and that’s the display technology and resolution.
The resolution on all previous Plus iPhones has been 401 pixels per inch (ppi). On the XS and XS Max, this rises to 458ppi. Here it’s just 326ppi. But, since that’s the resolution of every single iPhone from the iPhone 4 onwards, it’s not a problem.
As Apple exec Phil Schiller has said, the numbers are less important that how it looks to you. And when you take a look at the screen here, it looks great: bright, detailed and highly attractive. It’s only when you place it alongside the gleaming XS screen that you can see it’s not as sharp, not as vibrant. The colors don’t match the brilliant vividness that OLED can deliver. But overall, it’s still good.
While We’re Talking About The Display
The thing about LCD is that you can’t bend it as you can with OLED, so the clever magic Apple pulled off with the iPhone X to hide the display driver and create a phone with no screen-free chin on the bottom, well, that’s not possible with an LCD, made of glass as it is.
That’s why the bezel on the iPhone XR is noticeably bigger than on the iPhone XS. But it’s still a remarkable achievement that no other company has yet been able to match. An even bezel around the edge, it looks like, though it’s actually achieved using anti-aliasing techniques to smooth how that bezel looks, along with how the company has precision-milled the glass, for instance.
In short, it’s a trick. But it’s a really, really good one.
But there is another downside to this display and that’s the absence of 3D Touch, that feature where pressing harder creates a different response from pushing gently. It pops open messages on the lock screen, closing them as you release your finger. It responds when you press on the torch icon on the lock screen, too.
I love 3D Touch. Apple has introduced something called Haptic Touch which produces a similar effect, but it’s not the same and, crucially, it’s not as quick. That’s because Haptic Touch requires a longer press before it activates and that delay is not something you would welcome when you’re trying to launch the camera to capture that perfect moment. It’s not much longer, but even so.
In fairness, most people have rarely used 3D Touch and won’t miss it. But I do.
Performance And Battery
The processor in the iPhone XR is the A12 Bionic (XS Match!). This is a very big deal because it’s phenomenally fast chip, even faster than last year’s A11 Bionic, which was pretty much unbeaten by rivals. It’s a 7nm processor, in other words there’s room for a lot of tech on it because each element is so small. The new Huawei Mate 20 Pro also has a 7nm processor and more are coming. Huawei announced its first, but this was the first to actually reach the real world, in the iPhone XS and XS Max.
It’s so fast that it really only uses its full potential in power-hungry games or the latest AR apps. Too fast? Well, at least that means that even if it slows down as phones are used to do, it’s got plenty of headroom there.
As for battery life, this is the one area where the XR actually beats the iPhone XS and XS Max. In fact, it’s the biggest battery Apple has ever put in one of its phones.
So, does it make a difference?
Phones generally never have enough battery life and while I’m still dreaming of those days in the future when our gadgets last for months or years between recharges, this is easily the best battery life I’ve ever got from an iPhone. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve seen on any phone, actually.
Here’s the thing, it’ll get you right through the day with no anxiety, and into the next day. If you’re a light user, you might not need to recharge every single day, though I’d suggest you do, just so you don’t worry.
Although there are lots of ways the iPhone XR is inferior to the XS and XS Max handsets, this phone is equal to it in so many ways that it is extremely appealing.
There’s only one camera but it’s as good as the wide-angle on the XS in almost every way except Portrait Mode, as far as my dog is concerned, at least. The processor is identical so it’s as powerful as the more expensive iPhones and, of course, it actually beats those iPhones in terms of battery life.
The crucial element, once again, is the price. As my Forbes colleague Gordon Kelly points out, you can almost buy two basic-capacity iPhone XR handsets for the price of one top-capacity iPhone XS Max ($749 for the 64GB XR against $1,449 for the 512GB iPhone XS Max, and in the case of UK readers, the prices are the same except with sterling signs, ie £749 versus £1,449).
And that’s not insignificant, when it comes to Apple prices, especially. Of course, this isn’t a cheap phone, but it really is tremendous value.
More than that, it has a display that looks great, does something genuinely new with an LCD display and has that invitingly good Face ID that works so well on the iPhone XS.
Add to that those gorgeous colors and I think this is likely to prove the most popular iPhone in years.
Remember, this one is not only $250 less than the cheapest iPhone XS, it’s also only $50 more than last year’s iPhone 8 Plus. In comparison to that, this is an absolute steal.
Actually, I’d argue that this, in terms of price and the components built into it, is the best-value iPhone ever.
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