When Apple (AAPL) unveiled its iPhone X last year, its price tag sent many consumers’ jaws to the floor. Still, the $999 handset sold well, helping to drive the company’s earnings per share higher and making for a new prestige device for a prestige brand.
But if you didn’t want to drop a grand on a new smartphone and wanted the X’s sleek edge-to-edge look, you were out of luck. This year’s XS and XS Max aren’t any less expensive either, with the XS starting at $999 and the XS Max starting at $1,099.
That’s where the new iPhone XR comes in. The handset, available Friday, offers virtually the same design and functionality as the XS and XS Max, for hundreds of dollars less with a starting price of $749. Basically, this is the iPhone for everyone.
The sweet spot
The average smartphone user will have a hard time telling the difference between the iPhone XR and its pricier stablemates. It sports a similar design, with an edge-to-edge display, and lacks the Home button found on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. If you’re afraid of losing that button, trust me, you won’t miss it.
The XR, the XS, and the XS Max all come in different screen sizes — 6.1 inches, 5.8 inches and 6.5 inches, respectively. Outside of that, the other main difference is that the XR comes in a variety of bold colors. You might recall that Apple once sold the $549 iPhone 5c, its low-cost handset, in a slew of colors, though it didn’t sell as well as Apple hoped and the phone was eventually discontinued.
Unlike the 5c, however, the XR isn’t a low-cost device. It’s less expensive than the XS and XS Max, sure, but it’s also slightly more expensive than the iPhone 8 when it was launched in 2017.
There are more subtle differences between the XR and XS and XS Max, of course. Its 6.1-inch Liquid Retina HD screen uses LCD technology, rather than the Super Retina HD OLED panels found on the XS and XS Max. The benefit of using OLED is that it offers deeper blacks and more vibrant colors.
But the XR’s screen is no slouch. Every iPhone before the X has used an LCD screen, and they’ve all looked fantastic. The OLED adds an extra kick, sure. And if you’re the kind of person who wants to watch HDR videos, or like me, and wants the best of the best, then you’ll likely opt for the XS or XS Max. For the overwhelming majority of people, though, the XR’s screen will provide more than enough visual clarity and color.
It’s worth mentioning that building an LCD screen like the one found on the XR is incredibly difficult. Crafting the curved edges required both special hardware and software to ensure they looked perfectly smooth. It would have been easier to go with a regular rectangular screen, but then that would just be a retread of the iPhone 8’s and 8 Plus’s design. And with seemingly every new smartphone now packing an edge-to-edge screen, that would have been a no-go.
One of the tradeoffs of making that LCD screen is that the XR has an ever-so-slightly thicker bezel than the XS and XS Max. If you look at all three phones next to each other, you’ll see the difference, but otherwise you’ll never notice.
Overall, Apple has done a great job of ensuring the XR doesn’t look or feel like a less expensive device than the XS and XS Max. In fact, I actually prefer the color variety of the XR to the XS’s and XS Max’s colors.
Taking a shot
Apple’s iPhone XS and XS Max offer some of the best cameras you can find on smartphones. The XR packs the exact same wide-angle camera as both those handsets, which means you’ll get the same photo quality on the latest entry-level iPhone as you would from Apple’s top devices.
The XR captures HDR photos that are crisp and colorful. The same kind of impressive capabilities found on the XS — such as the ability to take pictures while facing a light source without causing images to blow out — are here and work wonderfully.
There is one trade-off, and this is likely the biggest one you’ll make in choosing the XR over the XS or XS Max: The XR doesn’t include a telephoto lens. I had initially thought going without the telephoto lens would be an easy call, but after a recent trip abroad during which my wife used an iPhone without a telephoto lens and I used the XS Max, I realize the benefits of being able to optically zoom in on a subject.
Shots that came out pixelated on my wife’s phone looked clear when taken with mine. It certainly comes down to whether you think you’ll be taking photos from a distance occasionally, or not. If you don’t think you’ll use the telephoto lens often, then it might be worth skipping. But after my experience, I found it extremely useful.
Despite the lack of a secondary lens, the XR can still take bokeh-style Portrait photos. Apple does this with a mixture of software features that allow you to capture a sharp subject and blurred background. The only downside is that you can’t capture Portrait photos of animals or objects, but you’re not going to do that often anyway.
Upfront, the XR has the same selfie camera and facial recognition technology as the XS and XS Max that lets you unlock your handset using Face ID and take Portrait-style selfies.
Performance and battery
While the XR is certainly less expensive than the XS and XS Max, it still packs the same A12 Bionic chip as the XS and XS Max. The XR does have 1GB less RAM than the XS, but again, you’re not going to notice much of a performance difference. I’ve been using the XS Max for weeks and switched over to the XR, but didn’t see a lick of difference when it came to launching or using apps.
The XR doesn’t, however, offer as much storage capacity as the XS or XS Max. All three phones have a base storage of 64GB, but the XS and XS Max jump from there to 256GB, while the XR jumps to 128GB. The XS and XS Max then top out at 512GB and the XR tops out at 256GB.
For the average user that 64GB is likely enough space, so 256GB isn’t necessary. But if you’re the kind of person who saves tons of movies, music and photos on your handset, you might want to go for the XS or XS Max for that 512GB.
As far as battery life, Apple says the XR will get better battery life than the iPhone 8 Plus, which is a long-lasting beast as it is. I was able to use the XR for the entire day which included using apps like Slack, Netflix, and Spotify, as well as checking my email and browsing on Google Chrome.
What’s more, Apple included the same wireless charging technology found in the XS and XS Max with the XR, so you don’t need to plug this bad boy in to recharge.
Should you get it?
If you’re in the market for a new iPhone, the XR is a no-brainer. It’s speedy, has an excellent battery life and packs a fantastic camera. If you’re the type of person who wants the best of the best, you’ll want to opt for the XS or XS Max.
But for most people, the XR is the iPhone to buy.
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