Apple iPhone XR review: a brilliant balance of polish, features and price

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Welcome to T3’s iPhone XR review. If you’ve been thinking if Apple’s most affordable new iPhone if for you then this detailed guide is a great resource. Black Friday 2019 is causing the price on the XR to plummet, too, meaning that now is a great time to pick up the phone if you think it is right for you.

Apple iPhone XR review: price, models and build quality

The iPhone XR starts at £749, with 64GB of storage space. For £799, you can boost the storage to 128GB, or to 256GB for £899. This compares to a starting price of £999 (with 64GB of storage) for the iPhone XS, or £1,199 (64GB) for the iPhone XS Max.

We think the 128GB model is a real sweet spot here – 64GB is enough for anyone at a base level, but 128GB gives you that extra bit of freedom to store photos, videos and music on the phone without things getting shunted to the cloud. For the £50 upgrade price, that’s our recommended option.

It’s such a good option, in fact, it highlights what a shame it is that the iPhone XS models don’t have the same upgrade tier. The iPhone XS options are that you can jump from 64GB to 256GB for £150 more, or to a whopping 512GB for £350 over the base price.

The XR comes in six colours, which we love – plain silver and black are pretty boring by this point. The red is our favourite, but we’re big fans of the yellow and coral too. But you can take your pick, of course. It’s a bit of a shame there’s no gold (though the yellow has a fairly gold-like aluminium edge), but you can’t have everything.

The iPhone XR looks nearly identical the iPhone XS models, but it’s actually 0.6mm thicker, which is just about noticeable in the hand when you hold them together, but is pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things. 

It also has a bigger bezel than that the XS. The screen still has the curved corners and notch, but with a slightly larger black border around the side.

It makes it look not quite as premium as the XS – the closer the screen comes to the edge, the more futuristic a phone feels – but it’s not a big deal.

It’s a similar story with the finish. The glass on the front is the same highly durable material used on the XS, though the rear glass isn’t quite as tough. The sides of the body are aluminium (instead of stainless steel on the XS), which is finished with Apple’s usual precision.

Does stainless steel feel more premium? Yes. Does aluminium feel cheap in any way? Not here. The fit and finish is fantastic.

The iPhone XR’s screen has the same rounded corners as the iPhone XS.

Apple iPhone XR review: screen and speakers

The single biggest difference between the iPhone XR and the iPhone XS is the screen. The changes are pretty complex to dig into, so let’s lay it out piece by piece.

First, the iPhone XR’s screen size is 6.1 inches, which unique in Apple’s line-up. The iPhone XS is 5.8 inches, while the iPhone XS Max is 6.5 inches.

We think it’s a great size – it’s easier to use one-handed (for someone with admittedly large hands) than the Max, for example. It’s closer to the size of the 5.8-inch XS than the Max, and its increase isn’t really enough to say that you get a real benefit of going for a bigger screen from that third of an inch. But hey, if you watch videos on your commute, it is still bigger, and every little helps.

Interestingly, the iPhone XR and the XS Max show the same amount of content on-screen. Load up a website and you’ll get identical amounts of text. It will be a tad smaller on the XR, obviously, but it means that in many cases, you’re not necessarily missing out on viewing space by having this screen compared to the Max’s giant display. (You can make on-screen items appear a little larger, if you like.)

This also means that you get a bonus here that you don’t get on the iPhone XS 5.8-inch version – support for split-pane apps in landscape. Certain apps will choose more control options when held in landscape on the Max and the XR, but the regular XS doesn’t get them.

Now, as we said in our iPhone XS Max review, we don’t find split-apps to be all that when it comes to productivity, but we know some people love them, so if you’re using a Plus-sized iPhone now and are ready to upgrade, but don’t want to pay the Max’s prices, Apple just hit the sweet spot for you.

The second big difference from the XS is that the screen is lower-resolution than either of the iPhone XS models (even the smaller one). It’s 828×1792 (slightly lower than Full HD), with a density of 326ppi. 

This makes it a look a little weak on paper compared to the many mid-range Android phones that have FHD+ displays, but it’s fine in practice – it’s as dense as printed photos and magazines, and a far cry from truly low-res screens.

The iPhone XS has a 1125×2436 display, while the XS Max has a 1242×2688 screen (Apple uses what seem to be weird resolutions because they make it easier for developers to make apps that scale across the six different screen sizes iOS 12 supports). 

They’re both 458ppi, which is obviously a big step up in terms of detail, and there’s no denying that the difference is noticeable side-by-side. Photos and movies are clearly sharper on the XS compared to the XR.

iPhone XS on the left, iPhone XS Max in the middle, iPhone XR on the right.

But if we weren’t coming to it from a more expensive, higher-specced phone, it wouldn’t bother us… although you don’t need a more expensive model to beat it if you leave the Apple fold. 

The Huawei P20 Pro costs £200 less than the iPhone XR at about £550 these days, and packs a screen that’s also 6.1 inches, but with a higher resolution of 1080×2240. It’s OLED too, rather than LCD, which brings us to the next difference.

The XR has an LCD screen, while the XS models use OLED. Generally, OLED is considered the superior technology, because it has a giant contrast range, able to produce images that have subtle detail in dark areas.

LCD uses a backlight that shines through the screen, which means it can come out more grey than black, though good modern screens use localised dimming of the backlight to avoid that pitfall.

Apple, of course, uses pretty much the best LCD screens on the planet, and it makes the difference in screen tech pretty palatable overall.

Both the XS models and XR are rated for the same level of brightness, it’s just that the XS models can show more detail at the darker end.

Related to this is the fact that the XS models are rated as HDR screens, while the XR isn’t (though it can play HDR videos – you just don’t get the full benefit).

Firing up the likes of Blade Runner 2049 from the iTunes store is great for both showing the difference, but also demonstrating that the gap isn’t really night and day.

The simple fact is that the video looks clearly better on the XS’s OLED screen, but that it doesn’t look bad at all on the original. The punch is still there, it’s just nuance in the dynamic range that’s missing. And if that’s a sentence you don’t care about, then you probably won’t mind the difference really.

The iPhone XS Max is on top, iPhone XR on the bottom.

Forgive the darkness required to snap HDR effectively in the image above, and that the top screen got blown out a little in the lighter end, to show more of the dynamic range. 

The Max’s OLED screen manages to show more brightness (despite both being at the highest brightness level) and also more detail in the darker parts of the cake, thanks to HDR. The LCD iPhone XS screen can’t show the same wide range of both light and shadow detail, meaning the cake just gets dark and murky.

But you can see that the XR’s screen still has the drama where it counts. It helps that you have the same wide-colour gamut and brightness as the higher-end displays, because it means that you  get a vivid wow factor from the screen. But there’s a richness that’s missing as compared to OLED – it’s just a little less lifelike for photos.

We do want to quickly give props to the way Apple has managed to make LCD, a notoriously difficult technology to build in weird shapes, work with rounded corners and the notch. It appears to using a combination of cutting the corners and masking some remaining pixels in the curves, but in any case, making it look this good is kind of a big deal.

So the gist about the screen is this: yes, it’s clearly not as nice as the displays in the XS models, but it’s a million miles from feeling cheap, or bad.

Android phones that are cheaper do have it beaten in some spec areas – a higher resolution and OLED are powerful temptations – but Apple’s colour accuracy and clarity of viewing from any angle are second to none, so it’s not quite a clear-cut victory for the other phones.

Especially since Apple has one more ace up its sleeve: True Tone. We love this feature, which matches the colour temperature of the screen to the ambient light in the room. The idea is that a white image on the screen will look the same as a white piece of paper in the room. So, in a warm indoor light, you don’t get a harsh blue light from your phone when everything else is soft yellow.

Once you try a phone with it built in, going to anything else feels barbaric.

We’ve talked about video a lot, so let’s hear about the sound that got alongside it. Apple has included stereo speakers here: one at each end of the phone, so when you’re holding it in landscape, you get true stereo separation.

You can really hear things moving to either side of your head, giving the feeling of being right inside the sound.

It’s an impressive effect, and is more than just a checkbox on a spec list when you try it, though we know a lot of people will be using their headphones anyway.

The speakers are also just generally loud and impressive – great for podcasts and even music if you just don’t have a proper speaker to hand. Certainly, crappier portable speakers are unnecessary when your phone blares music out this solidly.

The iPhone XR’s camera includes an AI-powered Portrait mode.

Apple iPhone XR review: camera

The snapper in the iPhone XS is a 12-megapixel sensor that, like the iPhone XS, has a much bigger sensor than anything Apple has use before, which lets in more light and  offers a wider angle than previous models.

The difference compared to the XS models (or the iPhone X, and even the 8 Plus and 7 Plus) is that it only has one lens and one sensor. The other models feature a 2x telephoto (zoom) lens alongside a wide-angle lens. Here, you just get the latter.

Apple uses the twin-lens system for its depth sensing to make Portrait mode work, so this is the first Apple camera that can create a Portrait mode effect using a single lens, thanks to the AI calculation power of the A12 processor.

Having one camera instead of two definitely reduces the flexibility for photography that you have compared to Apple’s twin lens systems – having the option for optical zoom makes it easier to get the framing you want without losing detail, theoretically. If you’re think of upgrading from an iPhone 7 Plus, you might well miss this aspect.

However, you’ll also be able to get much more beautiful and crisp photos anyway, thanks to the improved sensor, so you’ll find it’s worth the change overall.

Apple’s cameras are undoubtedly one of the best in the market right now. The Google Pixel 3 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro probably just have the edge on it, but the difference is small.

The important thing is that it’s easy to get amazing images, because the low-light performance is exemplary, the Smart HDR feature means you don’t have to worry about difficult exposures in scenes that mix light and dark, and the rapid focus and response means you won’t miss a shot.

Images pack tons of detail even in middling amount of light, and look lifelike.

That’s all true across the range of iPhone XS and iPhone XR. But if you’re wondering which iPhone to get, you probably want to know about any differences.

As we said, the wide-angle lens is identical between models, as far as we can tell. You get pictures from the XS Max that are the same quality as from the iPhone XR.

The iPhone XR’s shot is on the left here, the iPhone XR’s is on the right. Subtle shifts in position aside, they’re the same. This was taken under kitchen spotlights

It’s when you get into Portrait mode that things become more complicated. The simple thing to note is that you will get different results from a Portrait shot on the XR than you would on the XS.

This isn’t about the quality of picking out the subject and applying blur to the background – this was excellent in all our test shots, with crisp lines of focus, and  convincing blur across the appropriate parts of person’s body as well as the background. Plus, like the iPhone XS, you can change the level of blur after you’ve taken the shot.

No, this is about the light, framing and lens distortion of the shots themselves.

Here’s an indoor Portrait mode shot, with very little light – the blinds are closed, the door is shut, and the lights are off.

iPhone XR on the left, iPhone XS Max on the right.

You can see that the iPhone XR is actually letting in a bit more light, because its wide-angle lens has a larger aperture than the telephoto lens on the iPhone XS. The difference is subtle, but the left image doesn’t have the same level of shadows on the left side of the face. Of course, you might prefer the shadows as an aesthetic effect, but that’s a different matter.

You can also see an effect from the lens’ wide-angle nature. To get the same framing for these two shots, the iPhone XR had to be held much closer to the face, which is a bit weird and intrusive in itself when taking a photo. But it also results in a slightly bulbous effect, where the nose and face are out of proportion. 

It’s a classic issue with wide-angle lenses and nearby objects. It means you may want to take Portrait shots a little further away with the iPhone XR. So let’s look at one of those.

iPhone XR on the left, iPhone XS Max on the right.

Once again, we’ve given it a tough lighting situation – a subject in shade, but with bright sunlight behind. The framing and appearance of the subject in both is fine – the background is a bit different due to the different focal lengths (the photographer stood in different places to take these two shots with matching subject size).

The iPhone XR has done a great job making the sky look vibrant on this sunny morning, but the person is a little dark – though there’s still good dynamic range in the shadows.

The iPhone XS Max gave us a less exciting sky, but the person looks much brighter and more pleasing, balancing the lighting in the shot overall. It seems like the better photo.

However, let’s take a look at 100% zoom:

iPhone XR on the left, iPhone XS Max on the right.

There’s tons more detail in the iPhone XR’s image! Our guess is that the iPhone XS Max’s shot, by creating such a brighter image through a lens with a smaller aperture, probably had quite a noisy shot, which it’s then applied a load of noise reduction to, resulting in soft details and artificially smoothed skin.

The XR gives us the real deal – stubble, small wrinkle lines and all.

It’s a funny conundrum then. Looking over a bunch of Portrait mode shots we took, it seems like the XR is better for detail, but the XS Max handles lighting a lot better and so gives you a shot that’s more aesthetically pleasing. You can also use it for closer framing without distorting the subject.

We should also note that the XR’s Portrait mode only works on people, so you can’t take pictures of your dog looking majestic, or your favourite cocktail against the sunset, with that background blur. On an iPhone with dual camera, you can take a Portrait mode of anything you can fit in the frame at the right distance.

Both the iPhone XR and XS have the same front-facing camera, and it’s pretty solid. It picks up light well, but does tend to lose detail. The Portrait mode works well (powered by the 3D-scanning Face ID sensor). We do think that Apple is falling behind the likes of Google a bit in this area, though.

Let’s finish up with video. First, it’s great that the XR, like the XS models, has stereo microphones to record stereo sound in videos. Again, when playing them back on speakers that make the most of the split, it gives you a great sense of being in the location.

The XR also has ‘extended dynamic range’ video, which works like HDR to capture more information in the highlights and shadows. But it’s not actually HDR, doesn’t conform to HDR standards, and doesn’t look different on HDR screens. The idea is to help you capture more detail when shooting the video, and it does a great job at that.

Like the Smart HDR stills mode, you can shoot video that mixes bright and dark areas without it looking rubbish. And then video in ideal conditions benefits from this too – you get beautiful detail in light conditions.

Overall, it’s a really great camera system, and though we ultimately prefer the flexibility of the iPhone XS’s dual lenses, and the brighter images we get from them in Portrait mode, this feels like a subjective opinion rather than something we can point to and say ‘This is definitely better’.

Which is fab, because it means you’re not getting a camera in the XR that feels like it’s suffering from being in the cheaper model – it feels more like a different approach to the same goal. One that happens to be cheaper.

The iPhone XR uses its space to pack in the same high-end processor as the iPhone XS.

Apple iPhone XR review: performance and battery

The iPhone XR uses Apple’s latest-generation A12 processor, which maintains the company’s colossal lead over the competition when it comes to speed.

It’s the same chip as both iPhones XS models, though it has 3GB of RAM here rather than the 4GB of the other phones. This is almost certainly because it has around half the number of the pixels as the iPhone XS Max in its screen to drive, meaning not as much memory is needed.

It doesn’t seem to make any difference to the actual performance in our tests – everything is instantly responsive, and blisteringly fast.

We mentioned that Apple’s chips are vastly faster than the competition, so here’s some context. The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is the hot new flagship for that company, is the best Android phone in the world in our estimation, and costs more than the iPhone XR. It’s also about 32% slower in Geekbench tests.

The iPhone XR’s score of 4,826 in Geekbench’s single-core benchmark puts it on par with laptop processors. The Mate 20 Pro scored 3,290 in the same test.

The gap is much smaller when it comes to multi-core benchmarks, with the iPhone XR’s score of 11,353 beating the Mate 20 Pro’s 9,714 by about 15%. But very few things you do on a phone are multi-core, so the single-core action is where it’s at.

The Mate 20 Pro doesn’t even feel slow in any way, of course, but there’s no contest when it comes to raw power. The potential for the chip in the iPhone XR is huge – whatever kind of app you want to load it with, from 4K video editing to 3D games, the iPhone XR can handle comfortably.

As we said above, this translates into iOS feeling faster than ever – opening apps, switching between them, and just generally going about your business is super-slick.

Apple has always put the smoothness of experience over things like customisability or the option to have split-screen apps on phones, which can lead people to feel like it’s wasting some of that colossal power compared to Android phones, but ultimately the two approaches come down to a matter of personal preference.

iOS 12 also adds the Shortcuts app, which is maybe the most powerful tool we’ve ever seen on a phone for flexibility, enabling you to create custom automations and scripts to perform complex tasks, triggered with a single button press or Siri command.

This is all shared between every new iPhone model – the key thing is that you don’t miss out on the quality of experience on the iPhone XR compared to the XS. Well, it’s almost all shared.

The lack of 3D Touch in the iPhone XR really surprises us – what’s its future now that it’s considered optional?

There’s one feature of iOS that isn’t supported on the iPhone XR: 3D Touch.

Every iPhone since the 6S has had the ability to press harder on elements on-screen to reveal extra context-sensitive options – it’s like a right-click.

Both iPhone XS models have it, but it’s missing on the iPhone XR.

This is a weird situation, because there are places where Apple has added new features to mitigate the fact that it’s gone. On other iPhones, you hard press the camera button on the Lock screen to instantly open to the camera app. 

On iPhone XR you have to press and hold on that button to do the same thing – which takes more time, and therefore isn’t really what we’d call a shortcut any more. However, you can also just swipe in from the right-side of the Lock screen to go straight to the camera app, which is much quicker, so is the better option by far… but it’s not obvious.

Similarly, you can hard press anywhere on the iPhone XS’s keyboard to turn it into a trackpad for moving the cursor anywhere in the text, then you can press more to highlight words or sections of text. On the XR, you can press and hold the spacebar to enter the trackpad mode, which is less instantaneous again, but works – though lacks the ability to select words.

In Control Centre, you can hard press buttons to access alternative options, such as different brightnesses for the torch. On the iPhone XR, you can long-press the buttons. This is the place where the change is least impactful (and will be familiar to iPad users anyway).

In the places where 3D Touch is actually useful or important, Apple has done a job we’d call decent, though not great, of replicating what it does. Because of this, we’d say it’s a shame that it’s gone, but not that big a deal overall.

But if you’ve been using it on iPhones for years, you might have got used to having the Peek feature of being able to preview website links before you tap them properly, and there’s just no substitute for that. It was a nice feature that we used a lot,  and while not groundbreaking, we’ve come to know it as part of the iPhone experience. It doesn’t feel right that it’s missing, even though you can live without it ultimately.

However, while that’s an area where the iPhone XR lacks compared to its more expensive siblings, there’s another area where it actually has the edge: battery life.

The iPhone XR’s battery life is especially impressive.

(Image credit: iFixit)

The iPhone XR has a battery capacity of 2,942mAh, which is over 10% more than the 2,658mAh battery in the iPhone XS (which it’s closest to in screen size), and not very far at all off the 3,174mAh battery in the iPhone XS Max.

But here’s the real kicker – with a lower-resolution screen to power, the battery can last longer. In our testing, while the iPhone XS Max can last a day of fairly intensive use, the iPhone XR is more likely to leave you with battery to spare.

These things vary wildly depending on the type of use, but over the course of a day, we tended to have around 15% more battery left on the XR than we would on the Max.

It’s not a truly transformative improvement, but it does cut down on battery anxiety. It could mean that you don’t get hit with the 20% battery warning here when you would on even the XS Max (which has longer battery life than the 5.8-inch XS).

It’s not quite the boost that the huge 4,200mAh battery in the Huawei Mate 20 Pro gives that phone – lasting slightly longer even than the iPhone XR, but with a very high-res OLED screen – but the fact remains that, if you value battery more than having the best quality screen on your iPhone (and remembering that this screen is still excellent), the iPhone XR is the Apple handset to go for.

Other final differences are that the XS has Gigabit LTE 4G capability (if you can ever get that anywhere) while the XR doesn’t, and the XR is rated for slightly better waterproofing (IP68 vs the XR’s IP67). Both should survive rain and the odd accidental trip into the bath, in any case.

The front camera and Face ID security sensor are identical to the iPhone XS, meaning it’s the second-generation face scanner, which we’ve found to be more reliable compared to the original iPhone X. It’s not a game-changing improvement, but all upgrades are welcome here.

The iPhone XR puts up a great fight against its bigger siblings and the Android competition.

Apple iPhone XR review: verdict

The iPhone XR kind of feels like it has suffered from the order that Apple has released its phones, coming out a month after the iPhone XS and XS Max. 

If this had come out first, it would be the baseline iPhone, and the XS would like the premium models, adding some lovely extra features in exchange for being more expensive.

Instead, the iPhone XS models came out first and became the baseline, making everyone suspicious about what had been cut from this iPhone, rather than celebrating what it is.

As you can probably tell from this review, that’s doing it a disservice, because this doesn’t feel like the poor relation of the iPhone family. It does’t have the air of being cut back at all – it feels easily good enough to be a part of the 2018 line-up, just with a feature set that matches its lower price compared to the other models.

The performance is best-in-class, the feel and build quality is impeccable, and it even has an advantage over its high-class siblings from its superior battery life.

Ultimately, the iPhone XS models are the better phones in our eyes, because we prefer the more flexible dual camera systems and incredible OLED displays.

But that doesn’t take anything away from the iPhone XR’s success at being what it was meant to be – a truly modern iPhone at a competitive price.

You can get Android phones that match it for quality for cheaper, and that’s definitely something to consider – the Huawei P20 Pro is a particularly juicy option. But if it’s a no-compromise iPhone experience you want, the iPhone XR offers it.

Apple iPhone XR review: News & updates

June 5, 2019 – Apple has unveiled its next big update for the iPhone XR, and while there’s nothing that will fundamentally change how good the phone is, there are lots of welcome new features.

As we said above, the XR is already hugely fast, but Apple’s changes to how apps work technically will make them open twice as fast, and makes them take up less space to download, which all sounds great. There’s also a new Dark Mode, where apps have darker backgrounds, so you you browse Twitter in the dark without waking your partner.

New designs for some of the built in apps will make them more useful, and the Photos app is getting a great new look that does a better job of highlighting photos you’ve taken before. The Memoji animated faces will also get way more options, including make up and accessories, and the ability to create stickers you can use in apps from them.

There’s loads more too – you can read everything you need to know about iOS 13 here. It will be out in autumn, likely in the second half of September.

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