The iPhone XR Is Apple's New Real Big Deal

By Alex Cranz on at

Apple does not typically do budget devices, but as they go, the iPhone XR comes pretty close. While hardly cheap (a budget phone should be under £400, not £750!), it represents a calculated attempt at creating a more affordable device that isn’t a tremendous compromise. Something powerful enough that you can enjoy the perks of having the latest tech, without having to spend top dollar. And that’s an extremely big deal, especially if spending $1000 on a phone feels like too much for you.

If you’re trying to choose between the £750 XR and the XS and XS Max, which start at £1,000 and £1,100 respectively, you’ll find that there aren’t too many differences on paper. They all use the same Face ID that we loved from last year’s X. They all have a big notch and edge-to-edge displays. They’re running on the same A12 processor (you can read more of our take on that here). But the XR is much cheaper than the XS, and cutting the cost required quite a few compromises. The sides are aluminium instead of steel and it’s rated to IP67 instead of IP68 – which means it’s good for up to 30 minutes of immersion in 1 meter of water instead of 2 meters. It’s also sized oddly – finding itself smack in middle between the XS and XS Max instead of being larger or smaller than both. Yet the biggest two differences are the display and the cameras. The XR uses a cheaper LCD display instead of the vibrant OLED found in the XS, and it has only one camera on the back instead of two.

iPhone XR

WHAT IS IT? Apple's attempt at a big budget phone.

PRICE: £750

LIKE: The colours! The camera! The battery life!

NO LIKE: The size! The display!

Those are some notably major cost-cutting measures for a £750 phone. Consider that if you’re willing to ditch Apple, there are some loaded phones for a lot less: OnePlus makes a great £500 phone that includes dual rear cameras, an OLED display, and a current generation chipset! But Apple has always done “inexpensive” devices differently than the rest. In some cases, cheaper devices mean older models, like the iPhone 7 or the MacBook Air, that just stay in circulation way past their prime. In others, they are new underpowered devices, like the iPhone SE or 5c, featuring appallingly outmoded hardware. In both cases, the compromises have been painful enough to make the devices at least somewhat unappealing. With the iPhone XR, Apple has gotten its take on an affordable device right.

The heart of the device

The first thing you’ll notice on most iPhone XRs is the colour. The XR is the first phone Apple’s produced in a playful colour palate in a while. Besides the traditional white and black, there’s also a lovely red, coral, yellow, and blue. The colours are eye-catching, though the aluminium sides don’t match the vibrant glass backs. Consequently, the phone can look a little cheap, especially next to the stainless steel sides on the XS. But if you’re like me you’ll find yourself shoving it into a case at the earliest opportunity to protect all that glass and easily scratchable aluminium. And that means your eyes will be immediately drawn to the display.

Just like the XS and Max, the XR has a notch, and as with those phones, it gives it a sense of ostentatious luxury. At a glance, this phone looks expensive. The True Depth camera embedded in the notch gives the phone the ability to use Face ID which is just a hair faster than the Face ID introduced in last year’s iPhone X. If you’ve been reluctant to upgrade because you prefer Touch ID, you’ll need to come to terms with that on your own. Touch ID is gone. This phone, and likely all iPhones going forward, will rely on your face to unlock and I for one am entirely okay with that. (You can use an old-fashioned passcode if you don’t like your phone looking at you.)

The 8 Plus looks so silly in comparison.

Just below the notch is the first big compromise the XR demands – its 6.1-inch LCD display. I’ve been using a 5.8-inch iPhone X for the last year and have never thought that display to be too small, but next to the XR it feels minuscule. The 6.1-inch display packed into the XR chassis splits the difference between the enormous 6.5-inch display in the Max and the 5.8-inch display in the XS and X. The 8 Plus’s 5.5-inch display is also dwarfed by the XR’s despite having a larger body overall. However, you might feel about the notch you’ll find it difficult to look at an 8 Plus or older iPhone and not think they look positively lame next to the expansive display on the XR.

Now about that compromise. The XR display is not nearly as good as the display found in the XS or Max. Those devices use an OLED display with rich blacks and enviable contrast. The XR uses an LCD display, which can’t get nearly as black – so images look a little washed out in comparison and when watching content with black bars on the side, the notch sticks out in a way it doesn’t on iPhones with an OLED display.

The notch is nice, but the lower pixel density on the LCD display is noticeable.

Its 1792 x 828 resolution is much lower resolution than both the XS and last year’s 8 Plus, but you probably won’t notice that. What you will notice is the pixel density. The iPhone XR stoops to 326 ppi – the same as the iPhone 8. The XS, by comparison, has a pixel density of 458ppi, while the iPhone 8 Plus has a density of 401ppi. What this means is that you can see the pixels of the XR’s LCD more easily than you might other phones. The pixels are evident if you’re looking for them – you’ll need a macro lens, magnifying glass or excellent close-range visual acuity, but they’re there!

The 8 Plus versus the XR.

Surprisingly less obvious is the size of the damn thing. At 5.94 inches by 2.98 inches by .33 inches, the XR rests squarely between the XS (5.64 inches by 2.79 inches by 0.30 inches) and the XS Max (6.24 inches by 3.07 inches by 0.30 inches). It’s smaller than the Max, as well as the identically-sized iPhone 8 Plus. Meanwhile, it’s a little larger than the XS.

To get more specific, it’s about a third of an inch taller than the XS, and a third of an inch shorter than the XS Max. It’s also .19 inches wider than the XS, and 0.07 inches narrower than the Max. Those differences feel small, but they’re surprisingly crucial for a lot of potential buyers. You’ll absolutely notice the size if you’re used to smaller phones like the XS, SE, or even the standard 8.

Personally, I was put off by the size of the XR immediately, but after a long weekend with the device, I’ve found myself much less annoyed. Would I like a smaller budget phone that doesn’t compromise speed or display quality? Absolutely! Do I find the XR unusable in my teeny tiny hands? Nope! As with the Max, Apple has included a feature, deep in the Accessibility settings, that lets you drag the top of the phone down towards the middle of the display so you can access the absolutely vital systems drop down. It takes a little getting used to, and you’ll screw up activating it the first few times, but by the end of the weekend, I found myself to be something of a pro with the feature.

If size is a major consideration for you, I’d encourage you to go into a store and hold the XR in your hand – it’s the only real way to know if it’s too big for you and your back pocket.

You gotta have guts

The last time Apple made a serious attempt at a budget phone it was the iPhone SE – a device with a great body but a processor at least a year older than the other phones made by Apple. This time around, Apple is not asking users to compromise speed for price, and the XR has the same zippy A12 processor as the XS and XS Max.

In day-to-day use app use, like web browsing and checking your email, you won’t notice a difference between what it can do compared to the pricier phones or versus the A11 in last year’s iPhones. One exception is battery life. The A12 has worked wonders on the battery life of the phones that contain it. We saw this with the XS, which lasted about an hour and ten minutes longer than the X in our tests, and we see it again with the XR which lasted quite a bit longer than the 8 Plus, despite the 8 Plus having a larger battery.

The XR looks perfectly fine when you don’t have a nicer OLED to compare it to.

Things change when it’s next to an OLED though. The XR is on the left and the X on the right. Both are set to max brightness and True Tone is turned on. Besides the greenish tinge on the XR it’s also losing some detail – and because it doesn’t have HDR (the X, XS, and XS Max all do) there’s also some spots that are too dark and others that are too bright.

In our test, in which we set the brightness to 200 nits, turn off all radios except the wifi, and stream a video on YouTube until the phone powers down, the iPhone 8 Plus lasted a measly 9 hours and 10 minutes and the iPhone XR lasted an impressive 11 hours and 59 minutes. For comparison, the iPhone XS Max (3174 mAh) lasted 13 hours and 7 minutes, and the XS (2658 mAh) lasted 11 hours and 11 minutes.

The other noticeable change the A12 delivers is in camera performance. It lets the XR pull off tricks with a single lens that last year’s iPhone 8 (the only single lens phone from Apple in 2017) could not. This processor actually lets the XR properly compete with the 8 Plus, a phone with twice the number of cameras on the back.

Can you get by with just one camera?

And yes, one of the most important things about phones these days is the camera. From messaging to social media it’s just so central to much of what we do with our phones. The XR uses software and the A12 processor to, for the most part, deliver photo performance comparable to the 8 Plus. It has a wider lens (26mm versus 28mm) so it captures more of the world in a snap, but the images are sharp and vibrant (though, as with the XS, the Smart HDR feature can sometimes be too aggressive and result in smoothing effects critics have decried as unnatural beautification).

The XR has just one camera on the back. The cheaper 8 Plus has two – but more isn’t always better.

If you’ll notice I keep comparing the XR to the 8 Plus and not the XS or XS Max – that’s because there’s just a $50 price difference between the £700 8 Plus and the £750 XR. It feels like the more apt phone to draw comparisons to – especially when we talk cameras. Because the XR actually uses the exact same wide-angle lens and sensor as the XS and XS Max. The only difference, camera-wise, between the XR and Apple’s flagship phones is it lacks a telephoto lens.

So when I went on a long walk through Red Hook over the weekend, I left the XS and Max at home and carried just the XR and 8 Plus. I found myself not actually missing the telephoto lens (a 56mm equivalent) I from the XS. Sure it would have been more handy for snapping a shot of a sign well out of reach, but when taking pictures of a flower, my attempts at a macro shot with the XR were sharper and clearer than the 8 Plus despite the 40 miles-per-hour wind whipping my hand and the flowers all around.

The iPhone XR. Note the yellow isn’t quite as warm as on the 8 Plus, and that there is significantly more depth of field.

The iPhone 8 Plus, taken with the telephoto lens. Despite the zoom, you still lose out on the nice depth of field found with the XR’s single rear lens.

The XR also caught more details of the waves in this shot of the Upper Bay. And note the clouds – where you can again see more details thanks to the superior dynamic range of the XR. It simply caught more of the real world in a photo and translated it to the display.

The iPhone XR. The slightly wider angle lens means you capture the Statue of Liberty off to the right. But also note just how much more detail there is in the clouds.

No Statue, and less defined clouds.

The superior dynamic range helped in this photo of a street sign at night too. The red hand in the photo below is just a big orange blob when shot with the 8 Plus, but you can see each individual bulb with the XR.

In this very dark night shot you can make out a lot more details in both the crossing sign and in the building entrance behind it.

Everything is just more blown out.

But while the camera quality is impressive, there is one major shortcoming – the XR has the full Portrait Mode on the front cameras, but not on the back. Portrait Mode allows the phone’s cameras to mimic the creamy bokeh found in larger cameras giving you a nice blurry background that better highlights your subject. This typically requires two cameras placed by one another. Any iPhone with Face ID can do it on the front – making for attractive selfies. As two cameras are required phones like the 7 and 8 have been unable to do it. Only the 7 Plus, 8 Plus, X, XS, and XS Max could accomplish portrait photos with their dual rear cameras.

But despite having a single rear camera the XR uses software, and the sheer number crunching power of the A12 processor to accomplish a similar effect, with two big caveats. One is that it will only do three of the portrait lighting modes: Natural, Studio, and Contour. The Stage Light and Stage Light Mono modes won’t work – which means no all black background for portraits shot with the rear camera. But the second caveat has the potential to be the bigger one – the rear Portrait Mode only works with human faces. Teddy Ruxpin, Funko dolls, and my roommate’s cat do not count. A pop up will appear noting a human face needs to be in the frame for Portrait Mode to work.

It doesn’t recognise this boxer.

But it did recognise Thor.

At first, this felt like it could be a deal breaker, but I’ve always found using Portrait Mode with the rear camera to be a challenge. You have to have just the right amount of light and distance so snapping a quick pic of your cat is usually out of the question. Not having the pressure of pulling off a clutch portrait snap is kind of nice – even if I miss the flexibility it allows.

Less isn’t a bad thing

As we’ve said numerous times in this review, compared to the iPhone XS, the iPhone XR is full of compromises. If you want a brand new cutting-edge iPhone for under £1,000 you’ll have to sacrifice some of your rear portrait shots. And you’ll have to sacrifice the prettier display. Yet at this point, for most people, I think the sacrifices are acceptable. If you are a nerdy gadget lover, these are limitations that will seem disappointing. I assure you that in practice they are not.

The iPhone XR is really good, just as the XS, XS Max, X, 8, 8 Plus, and even the 7 and 7 Plus are. The improvements we’re seeing year to year are nice, but they’re rarely the kind of improvements that would motivate a person to go drop £750 or more on a phone.

In that respect, the iPhone XR isn’t a required upgrade to people owning the 8 or 8 Plus. It isn’t even required if you own the 7 or 7 Plus. But the upgrades are very, very good, and you’ll find yourself smiling as you appreciate the photos it takes, or as you relish the fact your phone can last through not just a cross-country flight, but the awful delays on both ends of the flight too.

The XR is good enough that I don’t miss the XS. Apple undercut itself, and we’re all better off for it.

README

  • It’s bigger than previous budget phones – small phone lovers should try before they buy.
  • The battery life is exceptional.
  • The display is definitely inferior to the OLED displays on the more expensive iPhones, but it’s not terrible.
  • The camera can’t do as much as dual lens cameras, but it does enough.
  • The camera’s dynamic range is a treat.
  • At £750 it’s the cheapest all-new iPhone you can buy.