Steve Jobs famously believed the devices his company produced would bring technology to the masses, but he was rarely willing to make the compromises necessary to bring that vision to fruition. Apple has only sometimes released products that were priced for everyone.
That trend continued in late September with the release of the flagship iPhone XS, a compelling, envelope-pushing product that is nonetheless priced out of range for many consumers. Enter the iPhone XR, a close sibling to the XS that trades the latter’s expensive OLED display for an LCD and a dual-camera system for a single camera among other things—all to bring the price down just enough so more people can buy it.
The iPhone XR is still not cheap—it costs about as much as Apple’s flagships cost at launch a couple of years ago. But the iPhone XR is an excellent handset that offers most of the iPhone XS experience for a price that customers were used to before things started getting a bit more expensive. (And, of course, the iPhone XR offers customers a bigger screen than they ever got for this price before.)
We previously reviewed the iPhone XS and XS Max at great length and detail, so for some subjects where there are no substantive differences between the XR and the XS, we’ll be linking back from this review to that one to offer more detail or context.
And since the XR is more like the XS than not, we tested it with two questions in mind: how is it different from the flagship, and is it a more attractive value with its lower price?
Table of Contents
|Specs at a glance: Apple iPhone XR|
|Screen||1792×828 6.1-inch (326PPI) LCD touchscreen|
|CPU||Apple A12 Bionic (2x high-performance cores, 4x low-power cores)|
|GPU||Apple-made A12 Bionic GPU|
|Storage||64GB, 128GB, or 256GB|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5, NFC|
|Camera||12MP rear camera, 7MP front camera|
|Other perks||Wireless charging, HDR, Face ID, augmented reality sensors, computational photography features|
Starting at $749, the iPhone XR is specced out like a flagship. It has Apple’s newest SoC, the A12, which has two performance cores and four efficiency cores. Apple claims the two performance cores are up to 15 percent faster than last year’s and that the efficiency cores use up to 50 percent less power.
Also included is an Apple-made GPU, which the company claims is up to 50 percent faster than the GPU in 2017’s A11 thanks to lossless memory compression. (Don’t worry—we verified these claims with benchmarks to come.) There’s also an Apple-made ISP.
The real focus of Apple’s efforts in the A12 is what it calls the Neural Engine: machine learning-specialized silicon that sees the biggest claimed performance improvements compared to last year’s phones. The A11’s Neural Engine could do 600 billion operations per second, Apple says, but the A12 can do 5 trillion.
The Neural Engine is used to power Face ID, augmented reality apps, some camera features, and numerous machine learning features like searches in Photos, various Siri features, and more. The goal was also to free up the GPU from handling machine learning tasks so it could focus on graphics—key for augmented reality applications.
The iPhone XR has 3GB of RAM, the same as last year’s iPhone X. It comes in three storage configurations: 64GB, 128GB (which might be the best fit for most people, but which is not offered in the XS phones), and 256GB.
Like the iPhone XS, the XR sports stereo speakers with wider sound than previous iPhones. They sounded good to us.
Claimed battery life is up to 24 hours for wireless talk time, up to 15 for Internet use, and up to 65 for wireless audio playback—that’s the highest claimed battery life of any iPhone Apple offers. The phone supports both Qi wireless charging and fast-charging when wired to a computer system or a beefier power adapter than the inadequate 5W one that’s included.
In terms of ports, there’s only one: Apple’s proprietary Lightning connection. As we said in the iPhone XS review, this choice is frustrating for users. USB-C—which is offered in the company’s newest iPad Pro models, by the way—has many advantages.
Yes, if Apple switched, existing customers would have to buy new dongles and accessories in some cases. But we’ve been using Lightning since 2012, so it wouldn’t be like Apple was jerking users around if it made the switch today.
The Lightning port is used for charging as well as data connections, and it can also be used for wired headphones, though Apple is clearly designing its phones with wireless headphones in mind now despite including mediocre Lightning earbuds in the box. Thanks to a chip unique to Apple-sanctioned products like AirPods or some Beats headphones, wireless headphones work very well on the iPhone; it’s obvious that they’re the intended way to go. But if you’re married to using your own wired headphones, you’re in for some frustration.
The XR has what Apple calls a “Liquid Retina” display. That’s a meaningless moniker—most of Apple’s products have LCD retina displays. Basically, it’s Apple’s term for an LCD display that uses the company’s anti-aliasing method to enable rounded corners.
Like the display in last year’s iPhone 8 or the one on the iPad Pro, the 6.1-inch LCD display here is about as good as LCD displays get on mobile devices—at least in terms of color accuracy. At 1,792×828 resolution, though, it’s not the sharpest. Pixel density is 326ppi. There are diminishing returns in sharpness, and this display is just past the threshold that it looks fine. But it doesn’t look great, and the difference is very noticeable next to the XS or XS Max.
Other display specs include a 1,400:1 contrast ratio, P3 wide color, a maximum brightness of 625 nits, and True Tone support, which adjusts the white balance of the display to fit in with the ambient lighting.
Cameras have grown in importance for the iPhone over the years, and it’s still a focus here—but it’s also the other big compromise besides the display when compared to the flagship.
The rear camera has a 12MP wide-angle lens (ƒ/1.8 aperture), a quad-LED flash with the same tone improvements introduced in the XS, optical image stabilization, and digital zoom up to 5x.
Most of the big new photography features in Apple’s new phones have more to do with the A12 SoC and Apple’s algorithms than they do with the actual optics. So even though this is a step down from the XS (the flagship has a dual-camera system), those new features appear here in both the rear and front cameras. That includes portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, and the not-too-shabby faux bokeh effect that Apple demonstrated on stage when it unveiled its new phones in September.
Smart HDR, which takes several frames and inter frames and analyzes all of them in real-time to produce what Apple’s chip and algorithms think is the best result in terms of highlights, contrast, and so on, is also supported on the rear and front cameras.
As for video, 4K recording at 24, 30, or 60fps is supported, plus 1080p at 30 or 60fps and 720p at 30fps. Like the XS, the XR brings extended dynamic range for video as long as you’re shooting at 30fps, and it records stereo audio for your videos. Slow-mo and time-lapse are still supported, and there’s digital zoom up to 3x. You can also take still photos (8MP) while recording video in 4K.
The front-facing camera, which is part of the TrueDepth array that also includes the IR sensing components that make Face ID possible, remains unchanged: 7MP, ƒ/2.2, and 1080p video at 30 or 60fps with the extended dynamic range. For a flash, the screen will just flash bright white to illuminate the subject.
The wireless package is pretty standard: 802.11ac Wi-Fi (2×2 MIMO), Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, and NFC support that now supports a new feature that allows you to use the phone with certain transit systems and the like, even if the phone’s battery level is too low to turn the device on.
And of course, there’s LTE. Here are the cellular bands Apple says the XR supports:
FDD‑LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 29, 30, 32, 66, 71)
TD‑LTE (Bands 34, 38, 39, 40, 41)
CDMA EV-DO Rev. A (800, 1900 MHz)
UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz)
GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
If you have multiple phone numbers or carriers, or if you travel internationally with regularity, you might get some mileage out of the new eSIM support, which allows you to store multiple functional phone numbers on the same phone. Only one can be used for your data plan, but you can make and receive calls with either one. A recent OS update, iOS 12.1, activated this feature and included various features to make using it easy—for example, you can now tell which number a call is being made to when it comes in.
We didn’t find call quality to be any better or worse than what you see in other recent iPhones.
Listing image by Samuel Axon