Apple iPhone XR Review

Posted on February 6, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in iOS with 33 Comments

I would have removed the Apple Clear Case, but it’s almost impossible to do so once it’s on

Apple’s unfairly maligned iPhone XR isn’t just the sweet spot of the new iPhone lineup, it’s the best of the lot by any objective measure.

Thanks to decades of marketing efforts by consumer electronics and personal computer companies, we’ve been trained to believe that better specifications on paper equate to a better product. But that’s not always the case; if anything, that’s probably only rarely true. Instead, the best products—electronic or otherwise—are those that combine the tangible and the intangible into something that is uniquely special.

The iPhone XR is such a product.

Yes, it lacks the superior and higher-resolution OLED display found in the much more expensive iPhone XS and XS Max. Yes, it features only a single rear camera instead of those iPhones’ more impressive dual camera systems. And yes, it’s made of aluminum where XS and XS Max deliver a more premium stainless steel to the Grey Poupon crowd.

No matter. The iPhone XR, despite these apparent deficiencies, still emerges as the best new iPhone. And I’m not the only one who has figured this out: The iPhone XR has been the best-selling iPhone since it launched, and that includes both new iPhones—meaning the models that Apple launched late last year–as well as the cheaper, older iPhones that it still continues to sell as well.

That may not surprise those who believe that price is the primary driving factor for that success. But I believe that price is only one element of what makes the iPhone XR so special. And that Apple would be wise to examine why this model is so successful and not just immediately abandon the design, as it did previously with the “unapologetically plastic” iPhone 5C. Unlike that rip-off, the iPhone XR has a future.

Design

Apple has only offered four major iPhone form factor designs over the past 11 years, debuting, in turn, with the original iPhone, the iPhone 4, the iPhone 6, and then the iPhone X. As an “S-year” release, the iPhone XR adopts the design of the iPhone X, but it does so with a different display type (see below) and using different build materials.

It doesn’t suffer for either change. Instead, the aluminum body looks and feels just as premium as the stainless steel used in the iPhone X/XS/XS Max, at least to me. And this change, while done for cost reduction purposes, also allowed Apple to offer the iPhone XR in multiple colors, many of which are quite bright and colorful. That will be a nice benefit for those that wish for something more exciting than white, space gray, or gold.

Whether this design will prove as iconic as the iPhone 4-style form factor remains to be seen. The large notch, certainly, is an intrusive but temporary measure while Apple and the rest of the industry evolves towards having cameras and sensors behind the display.

That is a very prominent and large notch you got there

But beyond that, I find the overall design to be modern looking and elegant and less bland and generic than the previous generation iPhones.

What’s interesting—or weird, perhaps—is that the iPhone XR sits in the middle, size-wise, between the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. And where the iPhone XS is a bit too small, and the XS Max is decidedly too large, the iPhone XR … is just right. Yes, this is subjective, and some people will prefer the size of one of the other models. But there is something just right about the iPhone XR from a form factor perspective. It’s the Goldilocks of the new iPhones.

Display

There’s been a lot of debate about the iPhone XR and its so-called “Liquid Retina” display, which offers a sub-1080p resolution and LCD-based IPS technology. But don’t be put off by any of this. Before Apple’s belated move to AMOLED displays with last year’s iPhone X, it had steadily improved the LCD displays in its iPhones and other devices. And the iPhone XR’s display is a stunner, specifications be damned, that only comes up a bit short when you closely analyze it next to that of an iPhone XS or XS Plus.

Which most will do only once, in an Apple Store.

Even then, I suspect, the differences will be minor. I don’t have an iPhone XS here anymore to test that theory, but I think a quick refresher on Apple’s “Retina” display branding will help explain why the 6.1-inch 1792 x 828 LCD display used by the iPhone XR works so well. Spoiler alert: It’s all about pixel density.

“It turns out that there’s a magic number [for pixel density] right around 300 pixels-per-inch,” Jobs said as he unveiled the first Retina display, which shipped with the iPhone 4. “When you hold something about 10 or 12 inches away from your eyes, it’s the limit at which the human retina can differentiate the pixels. They’re so close together … that things start to look like continuous curves. Text looks like you’ve seen it in a fine, printed book. At 326 pixels-per-inch, we are comfortably over that limit.”

The iPhone XR’s “Liquid Retina” display—yes, that term is terrible—also delivers 326 pixels per inch (ppi), exactly the same pixel density as the iPhone 4’s original Retina display. Which some take exception to, since it’s almost a decade later. But the iPhone XR’s display benefits from those many years of improvements in LCD quality, and it has many more pixels, too, thanks to its much larger size.

Point being, you can squint as much as you want, but you’re not going to see individual pixels. Silly marketing aside, the iPhone XR display delivers on the Retina promise.

You need a macro lens to detect any pixels on this display. Your eyes can’t see them

The XR display also benefits from Apple’s True Tone functionality, which I’ve really come to appreciate. True Tone examines in the lighting warmth in your environment and adjusts the display colors accordingly and on the fly, assuring that what you look at is as perfect as possible.

I only have one gripe with the display: Because it utilizes LCD technologies, the display must be surrounded by a backlight; with OLED displays, each pixel can be lit individually, making this unnecessary. And that requirement means that the iPhone XR’s display is surrounded by a bezel that is even thicker and more noticeable than that on the iPhone XS and XS Max, undercutting Apple’s “all-screen” claims.

And yes, it’s noticeable. As with the notch, I assume one could get used to it, but I found the thick, black bezel a distraction on the red iPhone XR I purchased (and then returned) back in November. So this time around, I went with a black XR, hoping that this color choice would minimize the effect. And it did. So my advice is to look at the colors in a store if you can, paying attention to the bezel, to see if that bothers you. Or to get a case that covers it up.

Hardware and specs

Like the iPhone XS, the iPhone XR is powered by Apple’s new A12 Bionic system on a chip, which is still the apex of smartphone performance here in early 2019. The handset can be purchased in configurations with 64, 128, or 256 GB of internal storage, with no storage expansion. The version I purchased has 128 GB of storage, a $50 upgrade that I feel is well worth the cost.

Apple doesn’t advertise this, but the iPhone XR comes with 3 GB of RAM, the same as last year’s iPhone X, but less than the 4 GB found on the iPhone XS and XS Max. That’s also less RAM than you’ll find on most Android flagships—the Pixel 3 family being an obvious and embarrassing exception—but I’ve never experienced any performance issues at all. And believe that iOS is much more efficient than Android regardless. (That the iPhone XR has a lower-resolution display than either the XS or XS Max probably helps, too.)

Also like the iPhone XS, the iPhone XR apparently supports dual-SIM capabilities, though here in the United States that is accomplished with an internal eSIM and a normal single SIM tray. I’ve only tested the XR with a Google Fi SIM card.

Apple “led” the way in removing the headphone jack from its smartphones, and I still miss it. But to be fair, Apple’s Lightning dongle works much better, and more consistently, than do any USB-C adapters I’ve used on Android.

The iPhone XR also offers basic water resistance functionality: It is IP67 rated, which means it can be submerged for up to 30 minutes in three feet of water. That’s not as impressive as what’s available with the iPhone XS and XS Max, but it should survive any toilet or sink dunking. Not that I would ever test this on my devices.

And the battery life is excellent, though I’ve yet to find a good way to test this. But the iPhone XR, by all accounts, provides the best battery life of any new iPhone, and better battery life than last year’s iPhone X and iPhone 8 Plus. It supports both wireless charging and fast charging, too. But the bundled charger is too underpowered to make that happen, so you’ll need to splurge on an expensive Apple or third-party charger (and cable) if you would like fast charging.

Cameras

The iPhone XR’s camera system is, perhaps, the single biggest difference between this handset and its more expensive siblings. Where the iPhone XS and XS ship with (identical) dual-camera systems on the rear, the iPhone XR makes do with a single camera, much like the older iPhone 8. As a fan of photography—camera quality is one of my most important considerations when it comes to choosing a smartphone—I had expected this to be a sticking point. It’s not: The iPhone XR camera is, in fact, excellent. And like Google’s Pixel line, it provides an interesting argument that single lens cameras, even in this age of multi-lens smartphone cameras, can still very much rise to the challenge.

I will get one obvious negative out of the way up front: The iPhone XR in no way provides any meaningful low light performance. So where smartphones like the Google Pixel 3/3XL and Huawei Mate 20 Pro have raised the bar in such scenarios, the XR is just more of the same. Meaning that it is competent enough, but nothing special.

In not-so-low-light conditions, the iPhone XR camera is excellent

And as a minor nit, the iPhone XR (like the XS and XS Max) cannot be configured to always use HDR and provide rich, contrasty, and Instagram-friendly shots out of the box. Instead, Apple’s camera app uses something called Smart HDR to apply these effects when it feels doing so is justified. And it works fine. I just wish there was a way to amp it up and leave it on.

In the most common usage scenarios, however, the iPhone XR camera is surprisingly good and color accurate. And while I cannot test this head-to-head with an iPhone XS, I would be surprised if there was much difference, overall, between the shots one might take with this phone’s camera and that of the XS. More to the point, I would have no issues using the iPhone XR on a daily basis. All I’d be truly missing, photographically, are those wonderful high-contrast low-light shots for which Pixel is most famous.

Like virtually any smartphone camera, the iPhone XR excels in ideal conditions

As is the case with the iPhone XS, the performance is excellent, and it offers the same basic camera features. That includes Portrait mode, but on the iPhone XR, the background blurring—or bokeh—is computational, since it doesn’t have a second lens. Portrait mode, of course, is kind of hokey on any iPhone, with all kinds of edge detection issues. I pretty much don’t ever use it. (Plus, you can only use it on humans, which is a strange limitation for a feature that is designed to highlight a foreground object.)

The iPhone XR handled this contrasty shot nicely

If you’re a camera geek, you’ll want to know that the iPhone XR’s rear camera is a 12 MP wide‑angle lens with a ƒ/1.8 aperture, so it’s identical to one of the iPhone XS/XS Max’s cameras. (Those iPhones have a second, ƒ/2.4 telephoto lens.) It supports optical image stabilization, 5X digital zoom only (no 2X optical zoom), Live Photos, and all the other Apple photo goodness you’ve come to expect.The front-facing camera, which Apple calls the TrueDepth camera, is a 7 MP unit with a ƒ/2.2 aperture that is identical to that on the XS and XS Max. It supports Portrait mode and Portrait Lighting, and it can be used to create a personalized Memoji if you’re a child. It’s used for Face ID too, of course.

Most people will be thoroughly satisfied by these cameras. And for the most part, so am I.

Security

Like the other X-branded iPhones, the iPhone XR loses the Home button and Touch ID and replaces that with a controversial new Face ID feature. With Face ID, “your face is your password,” as Apple says, meaning that the system uses facial recognition technology via front-facing cameras and sensors to securely authenticate you so that you can sign-in, install apps, make secure payments with Apple Pay, and more.

I’ve argued in the past that Face ID is less elegant, overall, than Touch ID. For example, it requires a swipe up on the display when you log-in, undermining the notion that you’re using only your face to sign-in. And it can be a bit unreliable, depending on conditions. But for whatever reason, I’ve found Face ID to work very reliably with the iPhone XR so far. And while that swiping up gesture is an additional step, it becomes second nature. Long story short, I’m coming around to this approach. And as always, you simply get used to what you’re using.

Finally, Apple also claims that Face ID is more secure than using Touch ID. I have no way to verify that. But it works quickly and reliably. And I think that most people will enjoy it once they get used to the lack of a Home button. (And get up to speed with all the new gestures.)

Unique hardware features

Beyond its lack of a headphone jack and a Home button, the iPhone XR doesn’t offer much in the way of unique hardware features. There’s an alert slider that’s been present on iPhones for years, which I like. And that’s about it. Apple doesn’t even bother to offer a headphone jack dongle for the Lightning port anymore, which seems unnecessarily cheap.

The iPhone XR does offer stereo speakers, and they sound fantastic. Given that some phones still ship with a single mono speaker—I’m looking at you, OnePlus—while others screw up the stereo separation (Pixel 3 XL) or rattle the sound off of the device’s glass covering (Pixel 3), this is very much appreciated.

Software

Apple’s iOS is rightfully dinged for its meager customization functionality, but it’s also a pleasantly minimalistic experience that offers excellent stability and performance. Yes, it’s the old “whack-a-mole” system of app launch, but that’s true of Android, too.

Less familiar for upgraders, perhaps, is the new iOS gesture navigation system. But if you’ve used any version of iOS on an iPhone or iPad in the past, and you have, you’ll adapt quickly. I find it all to be very intuitive.

Like the iPhone XS, the XR ships with a ton of built-in apps, including Apple’s stable of productivity and creative apps, most of which I find superfluous. But they’re easy enough to remove, at least.

Better still, iOS versions of apps are almost routinely superior to the Android versions of the same apps. This is even true of some Google apps, which is interesting: As I noted in my iPhone XS review, Google Maps takes advantage of iOS’s font scaling functionality and it’s easier to see as a result. We used it driving to and from Philadelphia last weekend and really prefer the iOS version.

Pricing and availability

The iPhone XR starts at $750 for a version with 64 GB of storage. Versions with 128 GB or 256 GB of storage are reasonable, at $800 and $900, respectively. In other words, even the most expensive iPhone XR is significantly less expensive than the iPhone XS, which starts at $1000.

That pricing differential makes the iPhone XR a unique value among new iPhones. But it also makes the XR competitive with most Android flagships, including some lower-cost entries from OnePlus, Huawei, and other Chinese hardware makers. No, the iPhone XR doesn’t necessarily match up with those phones from a specifications perspective. But in terms of real-world performance, quality, and overall experience, the iPhone XR is indeed competitive. Is, for many, the better choice.

If you’re coming to iPhone XR from an older iPhone, you should know, too, that Apple has, perhaps temporarily, raised the amount it will offer you for a trade-in. So you can effectively get an iPhone XR—or an XS or XS Max—for even less. Apple gave me a $250 trade-in value on a 128 GB iPhone 7, for example, and that really put this purchase over the top for me.

Recommendations and conclusions

Like it’s more expensive siblings, the iPhone XR is highly recommended. But where the iPhone XS and XS Max come with significant expenses, the iPhone XR does not, at least in terms of flagship handsets. And that changes the conversation quite a bit.

First of all, you’ll save $250 to $300 if you buy an iPhone XR instead of an iPhone XS, depending on storage. So you’ll need to decide whether the iPhone XR’s deficiencies, which I find to be mostly innocuous, justify spending that much more. I am here to argue that they are not, and I am keeping the iPhone XR (128 GB) that I just purchased. Indeed, I’m having trouble justifying a return to Android. It’s that good.

Speaking of which, that pricing also puts the iPhone XR in the same pricing bracket as many Android-based flagships. The OnePlus 6T is, of course, even less expensive, coming in at $550 to $630 depending on configuration. But the iPhone XR justifies the additional $100 or so because of its superior camera, wireless charging capabilities, and stereo speakers. The build quality and price puts Pixel to shame. And even the Samsung Galaxy S9+—which starts at $850 and will soon be replaced by a Galaxy S10+—is more expensive.

But I’m not sure that a lot of people pit Android against iPhone when it comes to upgrading these days. And if you’re all-in on the Apple side, the only plausible explanation for purchasing a more expensive iPhone XS is that you simply feel that you need or deserve the very best regardless of price. I get that, of course. But that’s a terrible way to rationalize a purchase like this.

Ultimately, I find myself returning again and again to the argument that I made when Apple first announced these iPhones back in September: The iPhone XR is the sweet spot in the new lineup. And it’s not just the best value, it’s the best new iPhone overall.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Premium design
  • Perfect size
  • Reasonable pricing (for an iPhone)
  • Excellent performance
  • Surprisingly good cameras
  • Wireless charging

Cons

  • Large notch
  • Thick bezels
  • No headphone jack
  • Bundled power adapter doesn’t support fast charging

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