When it comes to the "latest" iPhones, what a difference a year almost makes.
A year ago, in September, Apple unveiled three new iPhones, but only the 8 and 8 Plus were made available soon after. Would-be buyers had to wait several more weeks if they wanted the iPhone X that wouldn’t arrive until November.
Fast forward to 2018: Apple, in September again, introduced three new iPhones, and again only two of them – the XS and XS Max – went on sale pronto. Consumers wanting that other “next” model, the iPhone XR, were forced to wait (again), until this coming Friday when it finally reaches stores.
Of course, there’s at least one major difference between last years’ experience and this one: While waiting for the iPhone X meant waiting for what was then the priciest of all Phones and the first to crack $1,000, those of you holding out for the XR are likely doing so because it is the cheapest of the fresh models.
I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call any handset that starts at $749 (with 64GB of storage) budget-friendly. Still, the price, which undercuts the XS by at least $250 and the XS Max by $350, unquestionably hits a sweet spot, of sorts, in range of two worthy rivals on the Android side, Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and Google’s Pixel 3. (I won’t get into the religious war of Android versus iOS here.)
Having used an XR now for several days, I can report that the iPhone you’re getting for that sum is, indeed, a powerful device that exacts relatively few trade-offs compared to its high-on-the-hog siblings.
The bottom line: For an iPhone buyer in the market for a replacement phone, the XR represents not only a smart option, but arguably, the smartest option, for at least many of you.
Here are the answers to some of the questions you may have:
What am I giving up at the lower price?
Less than you think. The iPhone XR has the same zippy Apple Bionic A12 chip processor in the XS phones, same Face ID facial recognition and TrueDepth front camera system, and, as with other iPhones, the same iOS 12 software. It's by no means a slouch.
The notch that covers up the front camera is still here, too. Even though it bothered me at first, I’ve gotten used to it.
While the XR body is crafted out of anodized aluminum in lieu of the stainless steel on the XS phones, you do get something in return, notably a wider choice of color. You can purchase an iPhone XR in attractive white, black, blue, yellow, coral, and red versions. The screen background on the phone is color coordinated with the finish of the phone, notwithstanding the fact that many of us choose our own photos for wallpaper anyway and/or cover up the phone with a case.
The new phone is dust- and water-resistant, too. And while not to the same degree as the XS devices – the XR is rated to survive at a depth of 1 meter for 30 minutes, compared to 2 meters – the fact is you’re not supposed to swim with any of these devices.
As you know by now, there’s one other thing you’re giving up, and this goes for the XS and XS Max, too, the Home button that is clearly on borrowed time. Your options are dwindling if you still prefer the Home button; the iPhone 7 and 8 remain in Apple’s lineup.
But I’m giving up a second rear camera. Isn’t that a big deal?
For some of you, no doubt.
On iPhones with the dual rear cameras like the XS and XS Max, you can shoot with a 2X optical zoom that complements the other wide-angle lens. And shooting on the XR, I missed that second camera from time to time.
The second rear camera on the XS devices serve another purpose: They let you capture more detailed Portrait Mode shots, with focus sharp on your main subject while the background is intentionally blurred. Camera people call this the bokeh effect.
The XR has a version of Portrait Mode, too, but Apple accomplishes the bokeh effect not with a separate camera, but through software and machine learning. The result isn’t quite as precise. On iPhones with dual rear cameras, you get a closer image with a more accurate sense of depth.
What’s more, the Portrait Mode on the XR works only when you’re shooting people. And while, granted, this is typically how you take advantage of the feature, I sometimes also use Portrait mode on other phones to shoot flowers or other close-up objects.
One other thing to keep in mind: On the XS and X phones, you can take advantage of five Portrait lighting effects – natural light, studio light, contour light, stage light and stage light mono. The latter two effects don’t work, however, when you shoot an image with the rear camera on the XR. You do get them on the front, though, because the TrueDepth system on the XS and XR are identical. On both the XR and XS devices, you can also adjust the depth of field inside an image shot in Portrait Mode after the fact.
Does it matter that the iPhone XR has an LCD screen compared to OLED on the XS models?
Only for a video purist who can detect the blackest of blacks, the richest, most true-to-life colors, not to mention a contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1, compared to 1400:1
Don’t get me wrong. The XS screens are better, and the fact that the XR display is of a lower resolution is enough of a deal-breaker for some techies.
But this trade-off is a major reason the XR costs a lot less. And many of you would only notice the display discrepancies if you laid an XS or XS Max next to an XR, side by side, if even at that. I'm sure most of you will be perfectly satisfied with the display on the XR, which Apple dubs "Liquid Retina."
Keep in mind that the XR also has a display size of 6.1 inches, putting it in between the XS screen (5.8 inches) and the XS Max (6.5 inches). Accordingly, the phone is slightly larger than the XS and slightly smaller than the XS Max. In case you were wondering, thanks to the narrower bezels bordering the screen, the XR has an overall footprint that is smaller than the 8 Plus, though that phone has a 5.5-inch display.
3D Touch is missing. Does that matter?
Honestly, the answer is simple: Ask yourself how often you’ve been taking advantage of 3D Touch on your current iPhone, and then get back to me.
The technology, which has been around for three years, senses how hard you press down against the display, letting you, for example, summon various shortcuts or what Apple calls Quick Actions. On an iPhone with 3D Touch, you might press down on the Camera icon, for shortcuts to take a selfie or record a video. Or press down on an email in your inbox to “peek” at the content of that message before popping into that message, should you choose to do so.
None of these things happens on the XR, which has technology known as Haptic Touch instead. The phone does vibrate to give you feedback when you press icons to launch the flashlight or camera from the lock screen, and Apple says more improvements to Haptic Touch might come later. But my sense is this a trade-off most of you can live with.
One nice feature does remain: If you press down against the space bar on an iPhone keyboard, you can turn that keyboard into a trackpad for navigating text.
How's the battery life?
I did not conduct any formal tests, but, in mixed use, I got well past the full workday with juice to spare. I charge my phones every night anyway, and the XR would be no exception. As with other recent models, the phone supports wireless charging (through an optional charger). Apple claims marginally better for the XR compared to the XS and XS Max.
Did anything go wrong?
The XR froze on me twice during my test period, once in Control Center and once in the TV app. I had to restart the device each time to restore order. Since I’ve been experiencing crashes on an iPhone XS Max as well – and both phones were upgraded from my own iPhone X – this is something that bears watching.
Meanwhile, I feel obliged to ding Apple on the iPhone XR just as I did on the XS. Apple no longer includes the $9 adapter in the box that lets you use your wired headphones now that standard-sized headphone jack on iPhones is a thing of the past. Apple is clearly pushing you toward its own AirPods or other Bluetooth options. But for a trillion-dollar company, the move comes off as small.
Baig is co-author of "iPhone For Dummies," an independent work published by Wiley.