Apple’s iPhone XR is an excellent smartphone that, had it been released before 2017’s iPhone X, would have been hailed as a major leap forward.
The fashionable handset has Apple’s largest-ever LCD on an iPhone, a single wide-angle camera capable of stunning portrait mode shots, ultra-hard glass covering, facial recognition, fast wireless charging, stereo audio, water-resistance, energetic color choices — and it costs just $749. But no matter how new it may seem, no product or technology exists outside the steady march of progress.
Though it doesn’t fit neatly on the continuum of the iPhone X line, the iPhone XR (pronounced “ten R”) is an important option between the $699 iPhone 8 Plus and the $999 iPhone XS. It’s the edge-to-edge screen, notched iPhone for people not willing to spend almost $1,000 for a smartphone. And yet, it would be misleading to call the third new X-series handset, which Apple unveiled in Cupertino last month along with the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, a step down.
Think of it, instead, as a mixture of carefully calibrated trade-offs to help lower the price without noticeably diminishing what makes an iPhone X special.
Sure, you give up the crisp blacks and incredible million-to-one contrast ratio of the iPhone XS and XS Max, but you still get a beautiful 6.1-inch screen on a chassis that, at 5.94-inches x 2.98 inches x 0.33 inches is visibly larger than the 5.8-inch iPhone XS, but also slightly smaller than the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max.
The technology and components in the module are exactly the same as on the more expensive iPhone XS and XS Max.
You lose 3D touch across apps and app icons, but retain the more-limited haptic touch, which works for the lock screen, keyboard, and control panel but nowhere else and takes a longer press than 3D touch to activate.
The iPhone XR substitutes matte recycled aluminum for the iPhone XS’s surgical steel. Viewed alongside the iPhone XS, it’s hard to miss the larger black bezel running around the edge of the iPhone XR’s liquid retina display. The iPhone XR is also 17 grams heavier than the iPhone XS and only 16 grams lighter than the substantially larger iPhone XS Max.
Covering the display is the same ultra-hard glass you’ll find on the iPhone XS and XS Max. The rear glass, while stronger than what you’ll find on the original iPhone X, is not the same strength as the display glass (Apple doesn’t say who makes the glass). As for overall strength, the iPhone XR took an unexpected three-foot tumble onto a hardwood floor without any scuffs or damage. I purposely avoided dropping it onto concrete. I’ll leave that test to these people.
Apple also downgrades the water and dust resistance from IP 68 on the iPhone XS and XS Max to IP 67 on the XR. As a result, the iPhone XR can only handle one meter of water, as opposed to two meters, for 30 minutes. While an accidental, extended dip in the pool or ocean might be problematic, the iPhone XR will easily survive a drop in the toilet or, in my case, a vase full of water. Just remember to dry it off and don’t plug it in for five hours. (Yay, wireless charging!)
Because of the iPhone XR’s LCD screen technology and the slightly more noticeable black channel on its circumference, the TrueDepth Module notch appears larger, but that’s misleading. The technology and components in the module—infrared camera, flood illuminator, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, speaker, microphone, 7-MP camera, and dot projector—are exactly the same as on the more expensive iPhone XS and XS Max. Likewise, features like the stereo speakers—one in the notch, the other at the bottom edge of the phone—the four microphones, volume buttons, power/sleep, and ring/silent are all the same.
Aesthetically, the iPhone XR is consistent with the rest of the X line, until you flip the phone over.
As mentioned above, the iPhone XR adds new hues to Apple’s lineup, arriving in six bold colors: black, white, blue, yellow, coral, and Product(Red). While I would’ve loved to walk around with a sky-blue iPhone, my 256 GB ($899) test unit is white (remember when a white iPhone was a huge deal?). This is also, by the way, the first time the candy-apple-colored Product(Red) edition is available on initial launch. As with other (Red) handsets, a portion of sales support the Global Fund’s fight against AIDS.
Aesthetically, the iPhone XR is consistent with the rest of the X line — until you flip it over. Aside from the screen, this is the other major difference between the XR and all other iPhone X-class phones: the single, rear camera. It’s a 12-MP, f1.8 wide-angle lens. There’s no companion 12-MP telephoto lens — just the quad-LED true tone flash and, between the camera and flash, a tiny microphone. It has the most significant camera bump of any iPhone, but a case will easily hide that.
Before I take a deep-dive into the camera—and why it could be the main reason iPhone buyers choose the iPhone XR over competing phones or even the iPhone XS or XS Max—let’s talk about what’s inside Apple’s most affordable X-series handset.
The good news is that the iPhone XR shares virtually every component found in the pricier iPhone XS and XS Max. The brains of the operation is the powerful Apple A12 Bionic, 7 nanometer CPU. It has the same neural net engine as on other iPhones. Apple pairs the A12 with 2.75 GB of RAM, roughly a gigabyte less than what you’ll get with the iPhone XS and XS Max. This has no visible impact on performance, and Geekbench scores between the XS and XR were virtually identical. Further, they easily surpass Android phones running Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 CPU.
All that horsepower gets used in the same ways on the iPhone XR, for things like ARkit two-powered augmented reality, silly animojis and memojis, and for portrait mode photography from the 7 MP TrueDepth camera in the front and the 12 MP camera on the back. The graphics engine is the same.
The combination of the A12 Bionic and an updated TrueDepth module is just as powerful and effective on the iPhone XR as it is on the XS and XS Max. Face ID unlocking is lighting fast and effective in virtually every kind of light.
On the connectivity side, there are few differences. The iPhone XR has NFC for Apple Pay and Apple also includes the same dual SIM support in the iPhone XR (one SIM is physical, one is electronic) — though, as is the case with the iPhone XS and XS Max, the feature is still not ready. I have, however, seen the dual SIM function in action on an iPhone XR. You can tell the phone is running dual SIMs because the little cell bars at the top of the screen are horizontally split in two. It’ll be a cool feature for world travelers when it finally arrives.
There are some small wireless differences between the iPhone XS (and XS Max) and the iPhone XR. While the iPhone XS has gigabit-class LTE, the iPhone XR has LTE advanced. Both have the potential to offer download speeds in excess of 1 gigabit per second. The iPhone XR also only has 2x2 MIMO, as opposed to the 4x4 MIMO found on the XS (and XS Max), which means the iPhone XR tops out at two streams of data to and from a cell tower at any given time.
Apple says the 12-MP wide-angle camera on the back of the iPhone XR is the same as the one you’ll find on the XS and XS Max. It has optical image stabilization, is backed by the same image signal processor, and the lens is protected by a sapphire glass cover. What this should mean is that you’ll get the same quality photos shooting with the XR you would with either XS device. You do, but there’s more.
In standard photo mode, wide-angle lenses from any of the three phones pull the same amount of information into the frame. However, if you switch to portrait mode, which allows you to defocus the background of an image (a bokeh effect), the iPhone XS and XS Max switch control to the telephoto lens. Usually, you’ll get a screen message telling you to move further away from your portrait subject. On the iPhone XR, the frame never changes, meaning your iPhone XR wide-angle portrait mode camera pulls in more scene details. The result? More dramatic images in portrait mode.
As with the iPhone XS and XS Max, the iPhone XR’s depth interpretation is generally excellent.
There are limits, though. While the iPhone XS and XS Max combine image information from both the telephoto and wide-angle lenses, the iPhone XR’s rear-camera portrait mode is essentially software based. As a result, it relies heavily on Apple’s image algorithms and will only work if it can identify a face—a human face—in the scene. Instead of messages telling you to move further back (you get those sometimes too), portrait mode on the iPhone XR using the rear camera tells you “No person detected.” Without a person in the scene, portrait mode won’t work.
Brace yourself: It won’t even work with your pet, no matter how much Fido looks like a human. Granted, I don’t have a pet to test this on.
Apple’s facial recognition technology is, when you’re using the camera in portrait mode, always looking for human faces. Recently, I stood in the busy intersection of New York City’s Wall Street and Broad Street, right in front of the New York Stock Exchange. There were dozens of people walking in every direction. I held up the iPhone XR, set the camera to portrait mode, and watched through the screen as people walked in and out of frame. On the fly, the camera would identify people and track the faces with a yellow box around their heads. If no one was in the frame, I got the “No person detected” message. If someone had their back to me, I got the same message. If I tried to take a portrait mode shot of one of the pigeons, I got the same message. Still, it was quite something to see how quickly the neural network worked.
This isn’t to say you can’t fool the algorithm with a statue. I have a Star Trek Spock figurine on my desk. The iPhone XR rear wide-angle camera, which is designed to be equivalent to a 26-mm lens, instantly turned on portrait mode for Leonard Nimoy’s logical visage. It’s worth noting here that Google Pixel 3’s single 12-MP camera can also shoot portrait mode shots and it doesn’t care if it’s a person or not.
Instead of five portrait mode image options—natural light, studio light, contour light, stage light, and stage light mono—the iPhone XR portrait mode camera has three: natural Light, studio light, and contour light. You can preview all of them live. I don’t miss dramatic stage light and stage light mono.
As with the iPhone XS and XS Max, the iPhone XR’s depth interpretation is generally excellent. In the Spock photo, for example, the figurine is holding his hand forward in a traditional Vulcan greeting. That hand, which is closer to me than Spock’s head, is out of focus, while Spock’s body and face are in focus and the background is out of focus. This shallow depth of field image is exactly as it should be. The ability to see more than just two planes in a depth image is a feat I have yet to see other portrait mode technologies reproduce. It’s not perfect. In this photo (above) of a man reading a physical book (not a prop!) in the subway, the algorithm struggled a bit with the edge of his face, pulling into focus a bit of a sign that’s obviously a good distance from the foreground.
I can obviously control the depth of field after I take the photo, sliding from f1.4 to f16 (the higher the f-stop number, the deeper the focus). However, while the iPhone XS and XS Max default to f4.5, the iPhone XR starts at a slightly shallower depth of field: f2.8.
Across all three phones, the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, the image quality is excellent: They all share the powerful Smart HDR technology that takes multiple frames in a fraction of a second and chooses the best elements and lighting to make the ultimate image, a feature that’s especially helpful in low-light imagery. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the effect of that wide-angle lens on portrait mode photography. I think that when people see what the iPhone XR can do, they may reconsider that iPhone XS purchase.
Apple’s iPhone XR is capable of shooting up to 4K, 60 fps video with optical image stabilization and slow-motion at 240 fps at 720p or 1080p in high efficiency file format, which only works with MacOS (High Sierra and above). The front, 7-MP true depth camera doesn’t have OIS, so it uses cinematic video stabilization, which uses extra pixels outside the visual frame to keep the video stable (it’s basically a very smart crop). These video features are identical to that of the iPhone XS and XS Max.
Video shot on the iPhone XR’s 12-MP camera looks and sounds good. There are four microphones recording stereo audio and thanks to the loud speakers on the face and bottom edge of the phone, you can hear the separation in playback.
Battery and The Platform
Some differences between this phone and its X-series counterparts lean more heavily in the iPhone XR’s favor. Though smaller than the iPhone XS Max, the iPhone XR is actually rated for better battery life, promising 15 hours of internet use and 16 hours of video—that’s two hours and one hour more, respectively, than the XS Max. In my own tests, I got more than 15 hours of mixed use with brightness set to high and display sleep set to “after five minutes.” That’s impressive and another reason iPhone consumers should seriously consider this phone.
Obviously, the iPhone XR runs iOS 12. Aside from the lack of 3D touch, I noticed no difference between the operation of the XR and the XS and XS Max. The iPhone XR is big enough to support split-view email in landscape mode (it’s not true split-screen because the inbox slides away when you select an email). It’s also a fantastic augmented reality device. I had a great time playing with Monster Park dinosaurs in my home office.
I also installed HomeCourt, which uses AR to analyze basketball shots (the Science of Shots feature requires a $7.99/month subscription). You place your phone on a tripod, and using the rear camera, HomeCourt uses AR to draw a virtual half-court basketball court on the ground (I adjusted it on screen by hand) and then tracks all your shots. HomeCourt can detect where on the virtual court you shot from and identify different shot types, including release time, release angle, leg angle, speed (for a layup), and vertical leap. The app doesn’t judge, but my assessment of my game is that I stink at basketball.
If you know iOS 12, then you know the experience on the iPhone XR. Siri is as ubiquitous and integrated as ever, responding to a softly spoken “Hey, Siri” query and popping up Siri shortcuts based on what it can glean of my schedule and activities.
There are moments when I can see the difference between the OLED iPhone XS screen and the iPhone XR liquid retina display. It is, after all, a lower-resolution than the iPhone XS, with 326 ppi (1792x828) versus 458 ppi (2436x1125) on the iPhone XS. The XS Max has the same ppi, but with more pixels. On the iPhone XR, there’s also that thicker black border and the slight shadow—when viewed from a certain angle—around the true depth module.
However, in day-to-day use across a wide variety of apps and activities, from games to movies and web-browsing to email, it’s not something you’ll notice unless, of course, you have an iPhone XS or XS Max to hold next to it, and even then, the human eye has trouble perceiving higher resolution than the 326 ppi retina-rating anyway.
These trade-offs—a thicker, heavier body (for its size), fewer pixels, more bezel, a little less water protection, no 3D touch, no optical zoom—might sound like a lot, but they really don’t diminish the iPhone XR in a demonstrable way.
Apple’s iPhone XR, its most affordable X-series handset, is still stylish, more colorful than the XS and XS Max, makes excellent use of its single 12-MP wide-angle camera, and is just as powerful as the others in its class. Plus, you’ll save $150 while still getting an impressive 6.1-inch display that’s larger than the $999 iPhone XS screen.
Put simply, there’s a lot of win in the Apple iPhone XR.