The iPhone XR

There’s got to be a catch.

That’s what everyone has been thinking ever since Apple announced the iPhone XR alongside the XS and XS Max on September 12. Right? The iPhone XR seemingly offers too much of what the XS provides at a significantly lower price.

Well, there is no catch.

The iPhone XR is everything Apple says it is, and it’s the new iPhone most people should buy. I’ve been using one as my primary phone for the last week, and it’s a lovely, exciting device. Even some of the things I thought were compromises don’t feel like compromises at all in practice. Overall, yes, the XS and XS Max are better devices, but in a few regards the XR is actually better.

Let’s start with the price. For the equivalent amount of storage, the iPhone XR costs $250 less than an iPhone XS, and $350 less than an XS Max.

64 GB 128 GB 256 GB 512 GB
iPhone XS Max $1,100 $1,250 $1,450
iPhone XS 1,000 1,150 1,350
iPhone XR 750 800 900
Δ from 64 GB $50 $150 $350

But in practical terms, the difference is even more striking than that. 64 GB of storage is a credible baseline — a far cry from just a few years ago when storage started at a criminally meager 16 GB for the iPhones 6S in 2015, and 32 GB for the iPhones 7 in 2016. But the sweet spot for most people in 2018, in my opinion, is one tier above 64 GB.

I think my wife is a fairly typical iPhone user. Music, photos, podcasts, games. I just checked and her iPhone is using right around 64 GB of storage. She could actually save about 12 GB if she enabled the Offload Unused Apps feature in iOS. So she could get by with 64 GB, but she’d need at least 128 GB to be comfortable. I think a lot of iPhone users have similar storage needs.

But only the iPhone XR offers a 128 GB storage tier, and it’s just $50 more. If you want more than 64 GB with an iPhone XS, you’ve got to pay $150 more than the base price and jump all the way to 256 GB. So in terms of what I would actually recommend for most people — getting the storage tier one level above entry level — the 128 GB iPhone XR costs $350 less than the 256 GB XS and $450 less than the XS Max.

People who are looking for some way that iPhone XR purchasers are getting screwed have it backwards. If anyone is getting screwed on pricing, it’s XS and XS Max purchasers, who don’t have the option of buying a 128 GB device for just $50 more than the baseline 64 GB models. You can buy a 256 GB iPhone XR for $100 less than the price of a 64 GB iPhone XS — 4x the storage for $100 less.

In terms of what most people actually need and will use, storage-wise, the iPhone XR is $350-450 less than an iPhone XS or XS Max. That pricing difference is far more remarkable than any of the technical differences between the XR and XS iPhones.

So what actually is different? There’s the lack of a second rear-facing camera, the different display technology (LCD instead of OLED, without 3D Touch), the different materials (aluminum instead of stainless steel) and sizes, and a few other relatively minor trade-offs.

Camera

The entire front-facing camera array on the XR is the same as on the XS models. Same camera, same depth sensor, same improved Face ID performance.1 The iPhone XR’s lone rear-facing camera is exactly the same as the wide-angle camera on the XS — same lens, same sensor, and in my side-by-side testing, the exact same image and video quality.

For regular stills and video, the effect of not having a telephoto second camera is obvious: if you want to zoom in, image quality is noticeably worse on a zoomed image taken with the iPhone XR than with the XS, because the XR can only zoom digitally, not optically.

The difference is more complicated with Portrait Mode. The iPhone XS and XS Max shoot portraits using the f/2.4 telephoto lens. (They use the wide-angle lens in Portrait Mode, but only for computational help, not for primary image capture.) The iPhone XR does Portrait Mode using the f/1.8 wide-angle lens. An f/1.8 lens is about one full stop faster than f/2.4. And, as I covered in detail in my iPhone XS review, the wide-angle camera shared by the XR and XS also has a significantly larger sensor, which can gather up to 50 percent more light. By using the camera with the faster lens and bigger sensor, Portrait Mode on the iPhone XR works significantly better than on the XS in very low light scenarios.

Here are two shots of my son in a dark room at night, lit only by a nearby TV.

iPhone XS (original image file):

Low-light Portrait Mode on iPhone XS.

iPhone XR (original image file):

Low-light Portrait Mode on iPhone XR.

I have done no post-processing on these images other than to scale them to a smaller size, and I shot both with the iOS 12 Camera app. The original images, untouched other than converting from HEIF to JPEG when exporting from Photos, are about 2.2 MB in size.

Here are the same two images with a bit of editing in the iOS Photos app. For the XS shot, I turned up the “Light” significantly and applied the “Dramatic” filter. For the XR shot, all I did was apply the “Dramatic” filter. (I find “Dramatic” — along with its “Dramatic Warm” and “Dramatic Cool” variants — a good way to very quickly improve noisy low-light images.)

iPhone XS (full-size image file):

Low-light Portrait Mode on iPhone XS, after a bit of editing in the Photos app.

iPhone XR (full-size image file):

Low-light Portrait mode on iPhone XR, after a bit of editing in the Photos app.

In short, Portrait Mode is usable on the XR in some low light situations where it’s unusable on the XS.

With plenty of light, Portrait Mode is much better on the XS than the XR, simply because the XS telephoto lens is a much more appropriate focal length for portraits. And most of the time, Portrait Mode is useful when there’s plenty of light. I don’t want to make too much hay over the XR’s ability to shoot portraits in low light, because the XS models can just shoot regular still photos in low light and in a lot of cases that’s probably the way to go.

Portrait Mode on the XR has a few other limitations. For one, it only works with human faces. The subject’s face does not have to be directly facing the camera — the subject can even be in profile — but there must be a human face for the camera to recognize. It won’t work with dogs, and it won’t work with faceless mannequins. Portrait Mode on the iPhone XS, on the other hand, although optimized for human faces, will work with inanimate subjects, whether human-like or not.

Lastly, Portrait Mode on the iPhone XR does not offer the Stage Lighting or Stage Lighting Mono lighting effects. No big loss, in my opinion — I’ve never once shot a Portrait Mode photo that looked good with either of these effects. To be honest, I’ve shot over 300 Portrait Mode keepers in the last year, using the iPhone X and now XS, and I almost never use any of the lighting effects. I see the potential with them, but for now they all still look more gimmicky than good, especially the Stage ones.

Now what’s interesting about the differences in Portrait Mode between the XR and XS is that while the XR simply cannot do what the XS does (because it doesn’t have the telephoto second lens), the iPhone XS could, in theory, offer the XR’s Portrait Mode using the wide-angle lens. I believe Apple doesn’t allow this in the interest of simplifying the user experience. It’s easy to explain that Portrait Mode only works with human subjects with the iPhone XR. It would be confusing for most people to explain why Portrait Mode sometimes only works with human subjects but sometimes works with any subject, depending upon focal distance, if Apple were to enable wide-angle Portrait Mode on the XS — using the XR algorithm — today. Apple made the decision to keep XS’s Portrait Mode less fiddly — by always using the telephoto lens for image capture, at a fixed focal length — even though that means it doesn’t work as well as the XR in low light.

The most important bottom line comparing the iPhone XR to the XS is this: if you want to use the telephoto lens, the iPhone XS may well be worth a few hundred extra dollars for that reason alone. If you don’t care about the telephoto lens, on the other hand, you should almost certainly consider buying an iPhone XR instead of a XS.

Display and Battery Life

After the camera, the second biggest difference between the XR and the XS models is the display. The XS models use OLED; the XR display is LCD. OLED is generally “better” than LCD — much higher contrast ratio with deeper blacks, and for technical reasons OLED displays can get closer to the edges of the device, reducing bezels. But LCD has advantages — most noticeably energy consumption. Apple goes out of its way to disguise this in its iPhone tech spec comparisons, but the iPhone XR has the longest battery life of any iPhone ever made. The primary reason is that the XS and XS Max’s OLED displays use more power. All three new iPhones get good battery life, but it’s really interesting that the lower-priced XR gets the best.

Another difference is that the XR display is 2x retina and the XS displays are 3x retina. That’s 326 pixels per inch for the XR and 458 pixels per inch for the XS displays. More pixels per inch is better — but again, in general. The higher resolution of the XS displays contributes to their consuming more energy.

Yes, 326 pixels per inch is the same pixel density as the first retina iPhone, the iPhone 4 all the way back in 2010. But pixel density is not the only measure of display quality. The XR display is the brightest iPhone LCD display Apple has ever made. It looks terrific. To my eyes, the biggest difference between the XR and XS displays is the slightly larger bezel around the XR display — not the displays themselves. People who use an iPhone case — which is to say the vast majority of iPhone owners — may not even notice the larger bezel. And even without a case it’s not a problem, per se, and is really only evident when compared side-by-side.

I’m not aware of any other phone in the world with an LCD display with no chin or forehead. Getting an LCD display to extend from corner to corner is a legitimate technical breakthrough on Apple’s part. Also getting tap-to-wake working with an LCD — once you get used to tap-to-wake you simply cannot go back. The XR display is certainly a less expensive component than the XS’s, but in no way does it look like Apple has cheaped out. It’s an excellent, beautiful display.

The other notable display difference between XR and XS has nothing to do with what they look like, but what they feel like. The XR does not offer 3D Touch. This situation is a mess, in my opinion. Some iPhones have 3D Touch, some don’t, and no iPad (to date at least) has it. This means no iOS software can depend upon 3D Touch.

In its place, the iPhone XR offers “haptic touch”, but only in a few places where 3D Touch is used. For example, the Flashlight and Camera shortcuts on the lock screen. As far as I can tell, the heuristic for triggering haptic touch is just a long press. I don’t think it’s doing anything fancy like checking the surface area of the skin touching the screen to sort of fake the detection of a harder press. Whereas on the iPhone X and XS you press harder on the Flashlight or Camera lock screen shortcuts to trigger them, on the XR, you just press and hold for a short moment. I notice the delay, but it’s not bothersome.

But anywhere where a long press already has meaning, haptic touch can’t work. Most obviously, the home screen shortcut menus for apps. A long press on a home screen app icon already has meaning — it puts you in the jiggly-icon mode where you can rearrange and delete apps. iOS can’t use a long press on an icon both to enter jiggly mode and to open the 3D Touch shortcut menu, so the iPhone XR doesn’t offer these menus.

Where I miss 3D Touch the most is while editing text. A little-known but powerful feature in iOS is that while editing text you can 3D Touch on the keyboard to turn it into a trackpad for moving the insertion point around. iOS 12 introduced a feature where you can get into this mode without 3D Touch by tapping and holding on the space bar. That’s almost as good, but I’ve developed a strong muscle memory that I can get into this mode by pressing anywhere on the keyboard. With 3D Touch you can also force press again once you’re in trackpad mode to select text. There’s no way to do this on the iPhone XR. Update: Actually, you can select text — once in trackpad mode, tap on the keyboard with a second finger to enter text selection mode. Good to know, but more cumbersome than 3D Touch.

I don’t think the absence of 3D Touch is a dealbreaker for anyone, but it’s just weird that the iPhone XR is the first new iPhone since 3D Touch was introduced not to have it. (The iPhone SE doesn’t have 3D Touch either, but the SE was sort of only half new.)

Physical Attributes

Size-wise, the iPhone XR falls between the iPhone XS and XS Max. But because the XR has a somewhat thicker bezel surrounding the display, its relative proportions are a bit different. As a physical object, it’s a bit closer in size to the XS Max than it is to the XS. But its display is closer in size to that of the XS.2

What’s interesting, though, is how this size difference manifests in software. The XS and XS Max displays have way more pixels than the XR, but from a developer standpoint, the XR is not a new size. Developers (mostly) deal in points, not pixels. In the old pre-retina days, points and pixels were interchangeable — there was one on-screen pixel for each virtual point in the user interface. With a 2x retina display, like the iPhone XR, there are 2 display pixels in each dimension for every point, so a point, on screen, is represented by a 2 × 2 matrix of 4 pixels. On a 3x retina display, like the XS and XS Max, each point is a 3 × 3 matrix of 9 pixels. But the points are what correspond to the physical real-world size of on-screen buttons and text. In terms of points, the iPhone XR offers two display modes: standard and zoomed. You choose between these modes during initial setup, and you can subsequently switch between them in the Settings app. Standard mode is 896 × 414 points; zoomed is 812 × 375 points. These are the exact same as the standard and zoomed display modes on the XS Max. The iPhone XS only has one display mode: 812 × 375 points.

Effectively, this means that the iPhone XR is more like a smaller XS Max than it is a larger iPhone XS. And the difference between standard and zoomed modes on the iPhone XR is far more subtle than it is on the XS Max, because in both cases, zoomed is using the virtual screen of the iPhone XS (812 × 375 points). On the XR’s 6.06-inch display, that’s only a little bit scaled up from the iPhone XS’s 5.85-inch display. On the XS Max’s 6.46-inch display, that’s scaled up quite a bit.

The XR is also less dense — about 9 percent less dense than the XS and 7.5 percent less dense than the XS Max. There could be internal components that contribute to this, but the obvious explanation is that aluminum weighs less than stainless steel. I think this lower density works in the XR’s favor — it feels better, weight-wise.

The most visually striking difference, of course, is that the XR is available in a variety of cheerful colors. The black XR (which admittedly isn’t cheerful) looks a lot like the black XS and XS Max — it’s hard to tell them apart at a glance. The white XR (which is the color I’ve been using for the past week) is a much brighter white than the XS. The aluminum XR can’t compete with the premium look of the XS’s polished steel frame, but I think the white glass back of the XR looks better than that of the white XS models. It’s really nice — and a bit Stormtrooper-y. The coral, yellow, blue, and Product Red models all look great. I got another look at all of them last week when I picked up my review unit in New York, and to me, the Product Red phone in particular is striking.

Given that most people keep their phones in cases, do these colors matter? I don’t know. Maybe these colors will lead to a lot of people buying clear cases. Speaking of which, it’s a bit strange that Apple isn’t offering any first-party cases for the XR — at least not yet. To my recollection, the iPhone XR is the first iPhone since the 3GS to debut without first-party cases or bumpers from Apple.

Misc

  • The iPhone XS models support high-speed gigabit LTE; the XR does not. But this gigabit LTE support is the reason the XS models have asymmetric antenna lines, and thus asymmetric speaker grills on the bottom. The XR is nicely symmetric in both regards.

  • The iPhone XR uses the same glass on the front as the XS models — glass that Apple is describing as their “most durable glass ever”. But only the XS models use that same glass on the back. The XR uses some lesser quality glass on the back. Still supposedly scratch- and crack-resistant, but not as durable as the glass on the front.

  • Apple, for whatever reasons, has never advertised how much RAM is in iOS devices. But third-party utilities such as GeekBench can report on it. The iPhone XS and XS Max both sport 4 GB of RAM; the XR only has 3 GB. Ah-hah, I can hear you thinking, there’s another catch. I’m not so sure about that. 4 GB of RAM is, of course, more expensive than 3 GB of RAM, but in terms of making your device run faster or the user experience better, I’m not sure the extra gigabyte of RAM in the XS models will make a difference. The XS models might need more RAM because they have more than twice as many pixels to push around on screen. Memory is shared between the GPU and CPU on iOS devices, which is what allows some things, like image filters, to run faster than they can on desktop computers. I don’t think the XR has been shortchanged on RAM — I just think it makes sense that it needs less RAM to offer comparable performance because it has fewer physical pixels in its display. Also: RAM consumes power, so having less RAM also contributes to the XR’s longer battery life.

    Look for some dopes on YouTube to make a stink about this RAM difference, though.

The Bottom Line

I’ve focused mostly on the differences between the XR and XS models because, well, I covered everything else in my XS/XS Max review. But really, what matters most is everything they share — the same great A12 chip, the same great rear-facing wide-angle camera and front-facing camera system, vastly improved stereo speakers, and more.

The difference here isn’t about the XS models being A-team phones and the XR being a B-team phone. It’s more like the XS models are a bit luxurious — an extra camera, stainless steel frames instead of aluminum, OLED instead of LCD — and the XR is a bit more practical. But they’re all on the A-team in terms of quality and performance. The XR is actually better in some ways, notably battery life and low-light Portrait Mode photography.

Last year’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus were great new phones, but the differences between them and the all-new iPhone X were vast. They simply looked hundreds of dollars different. Not so with the differences between the XR and XS models this year.

It sounds too good to be true, but the XR is almost as good as the XS models at a far lower price. Dollar for dollar, the XR is almost certainly the best iPhone Apple has ever made.


  1. One small thing that’s nice about Face ID versus Touch ID is how much faster it is to set up with a new iPhone — especially if you set up more than one finger with Touch ID. Most people only go through this process once, when their phones are brand-new, but after testing three new iPhone review units and setting up my personal iPhone XS all during the last 6 weeks, it’s something I really noticed. I know there are people out there hoping that Apple will bring back Touch ID with an under-the-glass fingerprint sensor in the future, but I just don’t see that happening. ↩︎

  2. Apple advertises the XS, XR, and XS Max display sizes as 5.8, 6.1, and 6.5 inches respectively. But look at the exact numbers in footnote 1 on their tech spec page: “The display has rounded corners that follow a beautiful curved design, and these corners are within a standard rectangle. When measured as a standard rectangular shape, the screen is 5.85 inches (iPhone XS), 6.46 inches (iPhone XS Max), 6.06 inches (iPhone XR), or 5.85 inches (iPhone X) diagonally.” Apple has rounded 5.85 down to “5.8 inches” rather than up to “5.9 inches”, I presume to make it look like the XS and XR displays are more evenly spread apart. (By the Pythagorean Theorem, I think the iPhone XS display is actually closer to 5.86 inches.) And the iPhone XR display, at 6.06 inches, is only just big enough to justify rounding up to “6.1 inches”.

    Diagonal Delta
    iPhone XS Max 6.46″
    0.40″ (10.16mm)
    iPhone XR 6.06″
    0.21″ (5.33mm)
    iPhone XS 5.85″

    Apple’s marketing numbers — 5.8, 6.1, and 6.5 inches — make it sound like the XR display is 0.3 inches bigger than the XS when in fact it is only 0.2 inches bigger. The XS Max display is a full 0.4 inches larger diagonally than that of the XR — twice the difference between the XS and XR. ↩︎?

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