iPhone XR review

Apple has managed a marketing masterstroke with the iPhone XR: not only has it delayed the launch of the third of its trio of 2018 iPhones, thus creating some mystery around it, it’s also managed to make this seem like this year’s ‘cheap’ iPhone.

Yes, it’s cheaper compared to the recently-launched iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, but we’re talking $749 (£749 / AU$1229) compared with $999 (£999 / AU$1,629), which is hardly budget. To the average price-conscious, brand-neutral buyer this is a long way from a ‘cheap iPhone’. 

To the Apple fan who wants to stick with the brand though, the iPhone XR offers a much cheaper way to get a 2018 model without having to pay the sky-high prices of the XS duo, without sacrificing that much in terms of features – and with a cheeky little bonus for good measure.

While it’s impossible to know for certain what Apple is aiming to achieve with the later launch of the iPhone XR, the fact remains that it’s already enjoyed the buzz of the new iPhone XS launch, and now has a second bite of the, er, apple in terms of generating hyper around this ‘mystery’ phones. 

Well, Apple has either pulled a marketing masterstroke or screwed itself by launching late - as the XR is one of the best iPhones we’ve ever tested.

iPhone XR price and release date

The price of the iPhone XR is something that’s going to attract buyers: at $749 / £749 / AU$1229 for the 64GB model ($799 / £799 / AU$1299 for 128GB and $899 / £899 / AU$1479 for the 256GB) it’s far more affordable than the iPhone XS.

The phone is already available for pre-order, and goes on sale globally from October 26 2018.

What's new?

Compared to the iPhone XS, the iPhone XR is downgraded in a number of ways to hit that lower price point. 

That said, there are a number of key features that are the same: iOS 12 is the operating system that runs things, and it’s backed up by the wildly-powerful A12 Bionic chipset inside.

The notch contains all the same front-facing cameras and sensors as the iPhone XS, and the dual speakers still face the same way when pumping out sound. 

To the untrained eye, or someone not holding the iPhone XR and XS side by side, it might even be hard to instantly tell the two apart – but there are a number of key differences that we need to dig into.

Only a single camera

Arguably the most impressive thing about the iPhone XS is the camera, as it’s the only thing that feels significantly upgraded over the iPhone X. While the iPhone XR offers the same ‘standard’ lens as the XS, it lacks the telephoto second sensor, so has to do some fancy tricks with software to compensate.

This means you won’t be able to zoom in as far with the XR, as the telephoto lens offers (relatively) lossless photography at two times zoom, while portrait mode, where the background is blurred out, isn’t as effective.

You can still take a portrait shot and have the background attractively blurred to keep the focus on the subject, but unlike with the iPhone XS, you can’t take pictures of objects and animals in the same way.

This is due to the fact the software can’t identify those subjects as easily from the single sensor, where the additional hardware on the more expensive XS is able to draw on more info.

The Liquid Retina screen

Apple is never one to shy away from some marketing hyperbole, and the iPhone XR comes with a ‘new’ type of LCD, a screen that’s been designed to allow it to make this curved, ‘all-screen’ display.

The effect is much like the LCD screens Apple has made before, to be honest, as they’ve always been colorful and sharp, but with the new ‘Liquid Retina’ display things are supposed to closer to the high-end OLED screen.

We’ll delve more into the quality of the screen later in this review, but it’s one of the key differences you’ll want to consider if you’re thinking about going for the less-costly iPhone.

No 3D Touch

There’s one way to know if you use a feature on an iPhone, and that’s to take it away, and see if you miss it. Anyone coming from a later-series Apple handset will have had access to 3D Touch, where pressing the screen harder opens menus or activates different features in apps.

This feature has been removed for the iPhone XR, presumably to save money – instead you have to do a ‘long press’ to do the same thing. So if you ever accessed shortcuts by pushing harder on an app, or opened the torch with a harder prod on the lock screen… well, that’s gone.

We didn’t realise how much we used that feature before – and it’s irritating to not have something that feels like a real button to open the camera – but it doesn’t take long to get used to the alternative… it just feels a bit less premium.

Chunkier design

The iPhone XR is also a thicker design, with chunkier bezels around the side of the phone – hold it side by side with an iPhone XS and you’ll feel it’s clearly the cheaper model, with a thicker feel in the hand.

However, looking at it and handling it in isolation you’ll just feel that it’s a smooth, rounded design that apes the popular form of the iPhone 7 or iPhone 8 – basically, the iPhone XR is the all-screen version of those handsets, bringing a screen the size of those on the  iPhone 7 Plus or 8 Plus in a form factor that’s more akin to the smaller models.

Improved battery

Apple believes you’ll be able to get 90 minutes more battery life out of the iPhone XR than the 8 Plus, which is a big jump in real terms.

Well – and we don’t want to spoil the surprise a little later – we’d say it’s even better: the iPhone XR finally achieves the holy grail of all-day battery life in an iPhone.

Perhaps that’s giving Apple a little too much credit – after all, there are plenty of Android phones out there that can utterly smoke the iPhone range for power longevity, giving you far longer between charges.

Apple has offered terrible battery life for years, incrementally improving it to be ‘just good enough’, and the iPhone XR is the first iPhone we haven’t had a real worry about day to day – and that alone could elevate it to the heights of being the greatest iPhone ever created.

The design of the iPhone XR is both familiar and novel. For those used to the home button, its loss is going to be quite a jolt. It comes with a benefit though: the iPhone XR is all-screen on the front (bar the notch at the top) and gives you a more striking feel in the hand overall.

The rounded edges, as mentioned, are still in the same Ive-designed vein, feeling nice to the touch, and the metal back (finished in aluminum and glass, replacing the steel of the iPhone XS pair) also feels premium.

The glass on the front of the iPhone XR is meant to be among the strongest in the industry, and it’s the same material as on the iPhone XS – although we should warn you that we managed to either scratch or put a hairline fracture (we're not sure which, as it's so slight) on our iPhone XS within weeks.

The rear of the phone isn't the same strength of glass, but looking at the myriad crazy-paving iPhone screens on the train to work it appears the front of the phone bears the brunt of crashes anyway.

The iPhone XR has the same button layout as 2017's iPhone X, with the large Siri / lock button where the power key was previously, and the volume buttons and silencer rocker on the right. 

It's brilliant being able to mute the handset with a simple click on the side, but it still easily turns itself to the 'sound blaring' setting when you take it out a pocket or similar, meaning you'll get tunes blaring out, and only after a few seconds of glaring around to see who's left their phone's sound on will you realize it's, well, you.

The bottom of a new iPhone is still sadly shorn of the headphone jack – and no, to answer a question posed to us the other day, there's no chance of Apple ever bringing it back. Removing it from within the chassis offers too much space for designers to play with, so you're stuck with the Lightning connector on the bottom for getting audio out if you prefer things wired.

What's annoying here, however, is that Apple has decided to remove the adaptor from the box, where it was present with the iPhone X. You basically won't be able to use your expensive cans you already own unless you pay a bit more for some metal and glass to convert your normal headphone jack to the Lightning connection needed.

The speakers top and bottom emit stereo sound (which you can also record video in) although they’re not louder like on the iPhone XS pair, so you’ll not get the same level of volume or clarity pumping out.

That said, you will be able to take it into the shower to continue the tunes, although the XR is 'only' IP67 rated. We say 'only' as the iPhone XS pair are capable of being submerged for longer, as they're IP68, but in reality the level of water resistance on the iPhone XR is more than good enough for most people, meaning you can wash it if things are getting dirty.

Screen

If you're new to the all-screen design, let's get something out of the way right now: yes, the iPhone XR has a notch at the top. It encroaches into the screen, and it's no coincidence that Apple chose the 'planet' motif to advertise these phones, the black backdrop of which conveniently hides the slice taken out the top of the screen.

You will get used to this after a short while – it’s generally not that bad watching films generally, but it can chop out key information on some movies. However, the notch contains the important elements of the Face ID camera, the front-facing snapper for selfies, and all the other sensors in there which help your phone to work its magic.

The overall screen quality, as ever with an iPhone, is excellent, and the new 6.1-inch Liquid Retina LCD technology does a good job of delivering sharp lines and punchy colors. However, compared to the iPhone XS, it's not quite as good quality – with the poorer black reproduction is an obvious difference, and the sharpness isn't there either.

We also noted that some apps look a little low-res – the text in WhatsApp, for instance, doesn’t seem as sharp and that's because, well, the screen isn't as sharp.

Apple took great pains to tell us that the Liquid Retina display is one of the most advanced on the market, having been custom made for the brand to allow for the fully-rounded edges of the display that are uniform top and bottom of the phone.

That's fine, but you're not getting as many pixels packed in there, with a density of 326 pixels per inch compared to the 458 of the iPhone XS pair.

What's slightly annoying about the way Apple is presenting the iPhone XR is that there's this idea that the screen is 'edge-to-edge'. It's really not, thanks to that chunky old bezel around the sides of the phone, which really diminishes the feeling of quality when this handset is placed next to the iPhone XS.

Had Apple described the handset as 'all-screen' or just 'button-less' it would paint a fairer picture – there's just too much space taken up around the sides to call this truly edge-to-edge, especially when you see some of the handsets from the likes of Xiaomi or Oppo in China that really push things to the limit.

The iPhone XR’s screen also doesn't support HDR, which may not matter to most, but you won't get the same crisp and bright images when watching movies on the go.

You won't notice this in isolation, as the test footage we watched still seemed clear enough to the eye, but it’s something else you’ll notice if look at this phone side by side with the XS – and it's another area where you're sacrificing to pay a little less. 

iOS 12 is the new kid on the block in terms of the operating system on the iPhone, and it’s got a few neat flicks and tricks that play well on the new iPhone XR.

The two main ones are augmented reality (AR) being baked in even further, and becoming a big part of the mix for a few elements of the iPhone itself, and Memoji.

We’re still not convinced by the former, with many AR games proving to be too rough around the edges to be truly must-have titles.

We tried the game Elements (on the iPhone XS, but couldn’t bring ourselves to try again) and it just didn’t really work well, with very little tuition. Then we paid for a game so we would let a child play a title where you had to move around the room to drop blocks in the right way, and the perspective kept moving and it didn’t entrance them at all.

Apple’s also trying to push the new file format for AR in the shopping experience, where a few sites now let you place their wares in the real world. We pulled a bike out of thin air and had the chance to walk around it in real time… but we weren’t sure what we were getting from the experience.

It'll lock in real-size to start with, but we still felt like it was just a cool way to look at a slightly-cartoonish bike. Possibly a good idea in theory, if it could be used to remodel a room with furniture or decorations, but it’s thoroughly a novelty right now.

That said, we're very much not dismissing it. If you're wondering about whether something is worth having in your house and you can't go to look at it before ordering online, this could be a very nice way to do things in the future when more people adopt it.

It would be mega if you could scan a second hand item and upload it, so the buyer could inspect it properly - but we feel that's probably many years in the future.

Memoji is more fun, and you can spend a lot of time crafting each individual element of the face. The new A12 Bionic chip inside allows you to map a video onto your face during a call, with the neural engine able to work out where you feature are in real time and place the Memoji on top.

Talking of that A12 Bionic chip, the iPhone XR does whip along under the finger, although we can’t say it did anything out of the ordinary in terms of speed.

That’s not a criticism, by the way, as Apple phones always run smoothly at the start of their life (and, to be fair, generally continue to do so throughout). We did encounter a few bugs though, with things like notifications on the home screen hanging a little too long to be just processing and other apps taking a moment to come out of suspended animation when flipping between them.

According to Geekbench, the iPhone XR is equally as capable as the iPhone XS in terms of daily, easier tasks, but struggles a little with the heavier stuff - which is something we noted and could be part of the issue above.

That performance could well be due to the fact we’ve got 3GB of RAM inside this handset, rather than the 4GB in the iPhone XS - if you’re someone after a handset with real power, you might want to think about the upgrade to the iPhone XS.

In terms of the media experience on the iPhone, it’s never been easy to fault it (even if you really wanted to). The speakers not being louder isn’t that much of an issue, as people don’t always want to hear what you’re watching or listening to, and while the headphone jack issue is a real one, there are ways around it.

Siri still doesn’t get us all the time - especially when driving and you want to play a certain playlist. There’s only so many times you can ask for the same thing in an ever-clearer voice before you never want to do it again - and that drops to a single instance if you’ve got friends around laughing at you.

The movie-watching experience isn’t diminished by the lack of HDR or OLED display - you’ll even get more natural-looking scenes if that’s your thing. With 64GB, 128GB or 256GB storage options on offer, there’s very little chance you’ll fill this phone up with content if you go for the latter two storage sizes.

Apple still hasn’t put in any dedicated game modes like its competitors have (and that led to the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus winning gaming phone of the year at our recent TechRadar awards) and the AR titles it keeps pushing aren’t something we can see anyone really inclined to play with friends (although it would be cool if it caught on).

That said, the raw grunt this smartphone packs, combined with the raft of titles available on the App Store, it will offer something for any kind of smartphone gamer.

If you’re any kind of seasoned iPhone user, you probably won’t be that impressed by the iPhone XR’s camera. That’s not to say it’s not decent - it’s powerful at times, and often just takes a good snap without much work - but it’s not really improved the iPhone’s camera story that much.

Shorn of the secondary sensor, the iPhone XR’s camera doesn’t quite hit the heady heights of the XS duo. They really offer some stunning snaps at times, with incredible detail and brightness, and while the XR isn’t that far behind it’s not got the same wow factor.

Again, there’s nothing really to criticize it for, but we never found a photo that we truly were impressed by and wanted to share with friends. Perhaps that’s the curse of the LCD screen as well though - even when taking a photo that technically wasn’t different to the iPhone XS, the more saturated, vibrant color was instantly more appealing.

Where the iPhone XR struggles the most is in portrait mode - where the XS has hardware to do the job, the XR is just using a software algorithm to discern where the human ends and the background begins, so it knows where to blur.

This is generally quite effective, but side-by-side with the iPhone XS it’s a poor cousin. There is still fringing around sections of the subject, especially on body parts, and the level of blurring wasn’t as strong.

You can alter this in the settings afterwards, but it’s a little tiring to do so.

The Smart HDR mode still is working well - it’s not a lot different to previous HDR modes that Apple has offered, but does improve the quality of photos on a regular basis.

If you’re ever shooting anything with a touch of sky or cloud, the difference is marked - and the little flicker of Live Video, which just uses the raw video footage shot from the sensor, shows just how much things are improved when the moving image jumps into the final still and all the processing tricks that are in use.

In low light, things are pretty impressive - the processing doesn’t seem to massively ruin the quality of the shots when viewed close up and it really brings out the brightness of the scene - even offering more light than the human eye can see.

Overall, the camera quality on the iPhone XR is just fine, and will go toe-to-toe with a multitude of other handsets on the market. The Smart HDR capabilities of the iPhone XS are present, if not entirely as incredible as the more expensive model, and the low light performance continues to be on the right side of impressive.

The big loss here is the second sensor - yes, if you’re upgrading from one of the plus models you might still see a discernible improvement in image quality, as you might expect, but compared to the iPhone XS, this handset doesn’t have the same capability of background-blurred shots.

The front-facing camera is more impressive though, and you can take a good selfie with a blurred background here. Even with low, soft light it’s possible to get a decent background blur (especially if you crank the aperture after the shot is taken) and the lighting effects can make a real difference.

As seen last year on the iPhone X, the crop of the body is a little too harsh and means you probably won’t be using the Stage Light or Stage light mono settings too often (where they cut out the background) but overall we think the iPhone XR is one of the better selfie cameras around, if for nothing else but ease of use.

We won’t beat around the bush here. The iPhone XR completely backs up one of Apple’s big claims: that it offers the best battery life of any phone from the Cupertino brand.

Finally, we’re looking at an iPhone that can last for the whole day without giving battery anxiety. Of course, your mileage will vary with any phone, but we’re really impressed to see all the little tricks offered by the iPhone XS’ battery management (such as being able to be very power efficient when working as a car navigation system on GPS) but also just being able to go into a nice power-saving mode.

The only time we felt the immediate need to look for a charger was the morning after we accidentally left the iPhone XR off the charger overnight - and it was still chugging away just fine in the morning.

It’s hard to definitively state why this battery life is so much better on this phone than any other iPhone we’ve tested, as there aren’t that many differences to note.

The same engine runs at the heart of this handset, the A12 Bionic chipset that’s present in the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. The XR is supported by only 3GB of RAM, compared to the 4GB seen on the XS pair, but that’s more about general snappiness and heavy lifting in apps than any real, obvious, effect on battery life.

So with that covered, it must be the fact that it’s slightly larger and can hold a better battery pack inside, as well as the more efficient screen.

That LCD display seems to be the real success story here. It not only manages to offer an experience that’s not a million miles away from the high-end OLED displays that Apple’s pushed onto the more expensive phones, but is clearly more power-efficient.

For instance: we took the phone off charge at 5:30 AM. Some light messaging in the morning and then left in a bag until midday, and barely any charge had dropped, the standby battery retention pretty darn good.

However, after that it was quite an intensive period of use, with the screen fired for nearly six hours of the day with various different internet browsing, messaging, scrolling through Twitter - it was the kind of day that would be told around Camp iPhone as a true horror story.

However, despite that length of use, come 11PM we still had 22% of the battery life. That’s pretty impressive given we were properly pushing the iPhone XR to its limits.

Another example: using the XR as a hotspot on the way to work with some Bluetooth streaming has been a recipe for disaster in the past, but here we’re seeing a handset that didn’t even go below 90% battery life.

When you consider that some brands of handset have tricked into the 60% range for the same set of tasks in the past, that’s pretty useful.

You’ve also got the capability of wireless charging on offer as well, meaning if you do find the phone not charging from being wet, you can still shove the power in somehow.

The only weird thing here is the score in our battery test, where we loop a 90-minute video at full brightness and see the final result - it only managed a 20% drop, which is more than many other phones of cheaper price points.

However, the handset also started to get rather warm during this time too - so we’re going to have to try that one again as we were expecting less that 10% battery drop.

The iPhone XR is one of the best handsets Apple has ever made, and that’s mainly down to the excellent battery life.

The rest of the phone doesn’t really add much to to iPhone family in terms of pure specification or novelty, but it offers a more budget route into getting a handset launched this year.

There are some compromises on offer that we’ve listed, and some may irk more than others: long-pressing where previously one could push the screen the harder (the 3D Touch technology) going missing is something we’re surprised we wanted back, given we didn’t really think we used it much before.

The portrait mode on the camera becoming more software than hardware is something that needs to be thought about long and hard - if you’re just after a decent enough snapper in the iPhone world, this handset will do that for you, but you can get something much more effective on the iPhone XS range.

The lack of an HDR screen isn’t anything we could really muster up any feelings about, as we had to study extensively to see any real differences in the quality of the footage. The lack of an OLED screen is something that’s noticeable when placing the XR and XS handsets side by side, but many people won’t actually do that.

If you do, the thicker bezel around the edge as well as the chunkier feel in the hand will become apparent, but if you’re holding the iPhone XR in your local phone emporium and don’t compare it to the iPhone XS, you really won’t feel like it’s that chunky.

Should I buy it?

If you’re looking for confirmation that you’re not going to lose out massively by going for the cheaper iPhone, we can confirm you’ll be fine. Yes, you won’t be able to stretch the handset to the absolute limits of iPhone performance, but for most that won’t be an issue.

If you want the very best camera though, and you really crave the wow-factor that comes with an awesome portrait mode snap, then this might not be enough phone for you.

Equally, if luxury and the very best-looking iPhone is what you need, the again you should probably upgrade to the XS range.

Who's it for?

The person that will enjoy the iPhone XR is someone that’s due an upgrade or is struggling along with an iPhone 6S or iPhone 7 and wants to future-proof themselves a little.

The camera will be an upgrade, the battery life a welcome salve and the overall design a step forward. We’re never sold on the claims of the glass being ever-stronger - until a truly smashproof phone appears we’re not bothered) but it’s good to see that Apple is trying to stop one key hindrance by making the front of the phone a little hardier.

With a range of colors on offer, this is the more budget- and fashion-conscious iPhone buyer’s handset of choice - if you’re ensconced in the Apple way of things then you’ll find a lot to enjoy on the iPhone XR. 

Not convinced this is the phone for you? Try one of these instead:

iPhone XS

The obvious next step in terms of choice to the iPhone XR is the XS - or the XS Max if you’re after a bigger screen.

The cost is higher, certainly (in fact, a third more than this phone) but does bring a premium feel and the much-mentioned better camera we talked about above. One for the ‘hard’ iPhone fan who only wants the best and doesn’t like to balance cost with performance.


iPhone 7

Then again, if you are someone that’s really budget conscious, the iPhone 7 is still a pretty charming handset.

The first to lose the headphone jack (yeah, thought we should mention that one…) but it is less than two thirds of the price of the iPhone XR. It doesn’t have many of the features (although 3D Touch is in the mix) so this is truly one for those that want to save the most cash while entering the iPhone sphere.


iPhone 8

If you want to be a little more future proofed, then the iPhone 8 is stronger, longer lasting and comes in a nattier color than the iPhone 7.

Shape wise it’s identical, so don’t expect too much change here - but if you’re reading this review as someone that doesn’t want to spend too much on an iPhone you won’t find too much of a performance disadvantage, and you’ll even get a decent portrait mode if you plump for the 8 Plus.


Samsung Galaxy S9

A little left-field as a choice, given few people switch across - but those that we know who have jumped to the S9 from an older iPhone have managed it surprisingly easily.

The cost is a touch lower now than the iPhone XR, the camera better and the screen technology a lovely, fancy OLED mix. It’s not the most impressive Samsung in years, but if you’ve never experienced one before you could well be blown away if you don’t mind the idea of trying something different.

First reviewed October 2018



from TechRadar - Technology Reviews http://www.techradar.com/reviews/iphone-xr-review