iPhone XR review

Like me, the vast majority of people coming to the iPhone XR will be leaving the home button behind. This time last year I didn’t feel ready to go full-screen at the expense of trusty Touch ID, despite the promise of Animoji, face recognition and selfie portraits. It seemed like giving up the home button would be too big a change, requiring me to learn new gestures and place my trust in a new security system.

So what has changed this time round? Well, for one, Apple has taken the choice away. If you want a new iPhone then you have to accept Face ID. With only the XS, XS Max and iPhone XR to choose from, it's RIP Home Button.

For those who were hoping that Apple might decide to revive it by placing Touch ID under the glass, as Huawei has with the Mate 20 Pro, and as an Apple patent suggested the company had been investigating, we think that Apple’s firmly behind Face ID and it won’t be pursuing touch ID technologies, which is a shame. But all good things come to an end.

iPhone XR No Home Button

The price is right!

The great news in 2018 is that you no longer have to pay £1,000/$1,000 to get your hands on an all-screen iPhone. In 2017 when Apple decided to set the entry price for the iPhone X at £999/$999 people were surprised as it was considerably higher than the previous year’s models (in 2016 the iPhone 7 started at £599/$649 and the 7 Plus started at £719/$569).

However, for all the concerns and complaints about the price, the iPhone X was still popular, and it seemed that Apple set a precedent as many other phone manufacturers started to sell their own flagship handsets at a similar price. Despite this, Apple still made the decision to launch three new handsets in 2018, with the iPhone XR coming at a lower price than the XS models.

The surprise is that despite its entry price of £749/$749 iPhone XR is just as powerful as the other handsets, and, as we will explain below, no real sacrifices have to be made. You can choose an iPhone XR without any fear of missing out. In fact, the XR has a few bonus features that you don’t get on the other handsets.

Thanks to its more reasonable price, top-notch specs, and it’s great feature set, we think that the iPhone XR is the best new iPhone you can buy right now, and if you read on we will tell you why.

If you are already convinced that the iPhone XR is the one you want to buy then here’s a link to our Best iPhone XR deals page, and here’s the pricing break down if you buy direct from Apple:

  • 64GB - £749
  • 128GB - £799
  • 256GB - £899

We think that the 128GB iPhone XR, at £799 is the optimum model, especially when you consider that £799 is £200 less than you will pay for an iPhone XS with half the storage. Note that there is no 128GB version of the XS or XS Max - the first big benefit of the iPhone XR that we’ll be emphasising here.

Colour Scheme: Design & Build

Here’s the second big benefit: the iPhone XR gives you more choice than the XS models in terms of colour. You can choose from red, yellow, white, coral, black and blue.

If you love the metallic look of the iPhone XS (available in gold, silver or space grey) then maybe you will feel that the bold colours of the iPhone XR look less professional and a little cheaper. But you might equally feel that they let you express yourself.

Yellow iPhone XR

Apple loaned us a yellow version (above). We probably like the PRODUCT(Red) iPhone XR the best. It’s great that this time Apple is offering that finish from the start, rather than adding it later in the cycle. Of course the benefit of that colour choice is that you’ll be helping a charity that’s raising money to fight HIV and AIDS in Africa. This colour isn’t available for the XS models at the time of writing.

Like the iPhone XS models, the iPhone XR has a screen that covers the front of the device, with a notch at the top that reveals the Face ID camera and its associated tech. When the iPhone X launched in 2017 the initial reaction was a disappointment at the presence of the notch, but as other phone manufacturers followed suit, the notch has become a common occurrence, with the alternative being a bigger screen-less area at the top of the phone.

If you are really anti-notch then perhaps in a year or so the Face ID tech will take up less space and the notch will get smaller, but for now it’s a price you have to pay to get a bigger screen in your hand. As for how the iPhone XR feels in your hand, it’s smaller and lighter than an iPhone 8 Plus, despite having a larger screen. The iPhone XS is smaller and lighter, but of course the screen is smaller too.

Some people used to using an iPhone 6, 7 or 8 are going to be concerned about whether they can use the phone one-handed. When Apple introduced the Plus version it also introduced Reachability, which allowed you to double tap on the home button to bring the top of the screen half-way down the device. There is no Home button but Reachability is still available although not by default. It's in Settings > General > Accessibility, and once turned on a swipe down from the bottom edge of the screen will instigate the mode.

Having used Plus size iPhones for a while without really using Reachability we don’t think the size of the phone is a big disadvantage.

  • iPhone XR: 150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3mm, 194g
  • iPhone XS: 143.6 x 70.9 x 7.7mm, 177g
  • iPhone XS Max: 157.5 x 77.4 x 7.7mm, 208g
  • iPhone 8 Plus: 158.4 x 78.1 x 7.5mm, 202g
  • iPhone 8: 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3, 148g

You might wonder if the iPhone XR looks cheap next to the iPhone XS. Colour options aside, there are differences in the materials used. The XR uses aluminium where the XS uses stainless steel at the side of the device. We don’t think that there is a discernible difference and we like the way that the aluminium sides of the iPhone XR blend with the colour of the handset, typical of Apple’s attention to detail.

There is a difference to the glass on the back of the XR. The glass on the back isn’t as tough as that on the back of the XS. Given that we smashed the glass on the back of our iPhone 8 Plus we’d defiantly recommend keeping the iPhone XR in a case.

On Screen: LCD vs OLED

Moving to the front and you are confronted by the 6.1in display and little else. It’s bigger than the display on the iPhone XS, and smaller than the display on the iPhone XS Max. Compared to the iPhone Plus models the screen is longer.

There's a significant difference, but chances are you’d only notice it if you had the XS and XR side-by-side.

The XS has an OLED screen, like the iPhone X, while the iPhone XR has an LCD screen. OLED offers deeper blacks, more accurate colours, and better contrast ratio, which means that you’ll be able to see more details in the black areas (say when you are watching a particularly dark movie). This all sounds very impressive, but Apple has done such a good job with the LCD on the iPhone XR that it really isn’t such a big sacrifice.

iPhone 8 Plus, XS and XR

Picture shows: iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone XR and iPhone XS

In some ways, the XR’s LCD is more innovative than the OLED on the iPhone XS. An LCD requires a backlight, which is why the bezels are bigger on the iPhone XR, but normally accommodating a backlight requires a chin, so this is a huge achievement. There’s also the fact that this LCD can be tapped to wake. Tap to Wake was an innovation introduced with the iPhone X in 2017 and is missing from the iPhone 8 and below (although those devices can be woken via the Home button).

While the display on the iPhone XR isn’t as pixel-dense as the displays on the XS and XS Max (326 pixels per inch [ppi] compared to 458ppi) there is an advantage here because, although OLEDs can be more power efficient than LCDs, in this case, there are fewer pixels to light up, so the iPhone XR should prove less power hungry (we’ll talk more about battery life below).

As for whether it really makes a big difference in terms of all those extra pixels, given that when Apple introduced the concept of a Retina display with the iPhone 4 back 2011 it named it ‘Retina’ because 326ppi was how many pixels were discernible by the human eye. So, on that basis, you shouldn’t be able to see more pixels anyway.

Another way that the iPhone XR is different to the XS is that it lacks 3D Touch. Not a big deal, we think, because we hardly ever use the feature anyway. If you do and don't want to lose it then you'll have to go with an XS.

3D Touch is the extra hard press that opens a menu when you press an icon on your home screen. On the XR this will just trigger the dancing icons (for deleting and moving). Apple might not be giving us 3D Touch on the iPhone XR but it is trying to give us some of those features though. It’s using Haptic Touch to give you software feedback for a pressing gesture and it says it will bring more of these Haptic gestures to the phone in a software update.

In terms of waterproofing, this is a little worse than that on the other new iPhones - IP67 instead of IP68. This means the XR is water resistant up to one meter for up to 30 minutes, while the XS can do the same in two meters of water. Not that we recommend taking either iPhone swimming, because even though they would survive a drop in the water (or the toilet) it may still void your warranty if later on you have a problem and Apple is able to identify that it’s had a bath.

Fun Features: Face ID and the Camera

Returning to the notch and what lies beneath, Apple’s made a few improvements to Face ID on the new crop of iPhones. As a result Face ID authentication works faster (you might notice if you were using it previously). The TrueDepth camera isn’t just for Face ID though. It is your route to the Animoji and Memoji that were previously exclusive to the iPhone X. We quickly bored of these novelty features, but they demonstrate the impressive AI capabilities of the device.

The TrueDepth camera can be used to take portrait mode selfies, which might appeal. This mode means that you can take a picture of yourself with the background blurred, for a more professional looking shot that makes you stand out. A new feature in the XR and XS models is the ability to adjust the amount of background blur. You don’t have to be an obsessive Instagrammer to benefit from an improved selfie camera. Although if you take a selfie to say ‘I was here’ blurring the background does make the where you were a bit of a mystery.

Edit background portrait mode iPhone XR

Switching to the camera on the back of the iPhone, this is probably one of the biggest differentiators with the iPhone XS, but there is less of a difference than you might expect. The iPhone XR has just the one 12MP camera while the XS has two 12MP cameras (wide-angle and telephoto).

The second camera on the XS is used to create Portrait mode photos like the ones we just mentioned, except that rather than using information gathered by the TrueDepth camera to create a portrait, it merges together photos taken by the two lenses. This creates an attractive effect that mimics what you get with a professional camera. 

Portrait mode first arrived on the iPhone 7 Plus back in 2016 and until now only iPhones with two cameras on the back have had this mode, but the iPhone XR doesn’t miss out. Apple is harnessing the power of the processor and other tech to create a Portrait mode style photo without relying on two cameras.

Apple’s done a good job here, although it only works on human faces (so if you want to take a portrait mode photo of your cat you are out of luck). It also lacks the stage lighting or stage lighting mono effects found in the other iPhones, but to be honest we have never taken a photo that we think was improved by these modes (that create a sort of spotlight effect and a black background). In fact we always thought that these options only served to show what a bad job Portrait mode does at cutting out curly hair. There’s a reason why Apple’s marketing shots are always of people with their hair scraped back.

Despite our criticisms of the stage lighting modes, we do actually like the results of the rest of the Portrait mode options so we are glad that Apple has bought them to the XR. One of the benefits of using Portrait mode on the iPhone XR is that it actually works a bit better in low light than it does on the other iPhones. This is because it’s using a wide angle lens to take the shot, and therefore can let in more light (and works better with toddlers that won’t stay still). The flip side of this is that Portrait mode shots taken with the XR are wide angle, so your subject won’t fill the frame as much, unless you zoom in.

iPhone XR v 8 Plus Portrait Mode

Speaking of zoom, that’s the other big issue: the iPhone XR lacks the optical zoom of the X and other iPhones, so if you try and get a close up you could lose some quality because zooming is done digitally.

On Specs

The last time Apple launched a ‘cheaper’ iPhone was the iPhone SE and prior to that the iPhone 5C. In both cases, the components were from the previous generation. But the iPhone XR has the same A12 Bionic processor and Neural Engine as the XS, and as a result there is very little difference in the three iPhones’ performance, as you can see from the charts below.

What’s really interesting is the fact that the iPhone XR actually outperforms the iPhone XS and Max in some areas, largely because it is powering fewer pixels.

As we touched on earlier, only the iPhone XR has the 128GB option, which we feel is the sweet spot. In fact it’s only £50/$50 more than the 64GB iPhone XR, so we’d urge anyone to go for that model.

As for the 512GB option, that is reserved for the iPhone XS and XS Max, but we’d suggest that these days, with iCloud providing up to 2TB of storage, allowing you to offload data that would be taking up space on your device to the cloud, we don’t really think that there is a big need for that much storage on the device itself.

As a typical parent, I have 33,903 photos currently stored in iCloud, and yet Photos only takes up 6.44GB of space on the iPhone thanks to iCloud Photo Library. If you think you need 512GB you probably don’t.

Another difference is the RAM, with the iPhone XR having 3GB to the XS models’ 4GB. To be honest it’s unlikely to make any real difference to you in real life usage and helps achieve the lower price point. Because Apple makes the software and the hardware, memory management is less of a problem compared to some of the competition who max out on RAM. We don’t think that the extra memory is a reason to choose the XS over the XR.

iPhone XS v XR

Battery life & Connectivity

The battery is where it gets really interesting though. We ran the Geekbench 4 battery test to see how quickly the battery drained. The Geekbench test (for which we set screen brightness to 120 cd/m) is really a worst case scenario, so in normal use your battery would last a lot longer - unless normal use for you is particularly extreme. We weren’t surprised to find that the battery in the iPhone XR lasted longer than the battery in the XS and even the XS Max.

The XS battery is 2,658mAh battery while the XS Max has a 3174mAh battery. The XR has a 2,942 mAh battery, but It also has fewer pixels to power on its LCD screen (326 PPI versus 458 PPI on the Max), and hence when it comes to battery life it can beat the iPhone XS Max. Apple even specifies that the XR can get 16 hours of video playback to the XS Max’s 15 hours, that should be plenty for a transatlantic flight.

In our real-world use we found battery life to be a lot better than on our iPhone 8 Plus. We regularly used to charge the phone a bit while we were in the office to ensure that we didn’t run out of battery on the way home, but with the XR we had more than enough battery to last until the end of the day and beyond. According to Apple, the XR should last 1.5 hours longer than the iPhone 8 Plus.

It’s interesting that Apple gave this phone the better battery, it’s not even trying to handicap it. This is the best battery life we've ever seen on an iPhone. Even on days of heavy use we were ending the day on around 30% and that's having used maps, streamed music and video online, social media, messaging, calls and emails.

There are a few other specs to take note of. The iPhone XR only supports LTE Advance while the other new iPhones offer Gigabit LTE. This only matters if your carrier supports Gigabit LTE. If it does, then you could take advantage of a faster connection and your phone should be better able to find and maintain the connection when the signal is weak, but only with an XS model. EE has begun rolling this out in certain areas of the UK.

Software

Finally a few words on the software which is of course iOS 12. If you want to know more about iOS 12, perhaps because the phone you are using currently wasn’t able to run it, then read our iOS 12 review.

If you are using Android or something else, then Apple provides software that will help you move to iOS. We have all the information about moving from Android to iPhone here, and some more details about setting up a new iPhone here

OUR VERDICT

The iPhone XR brings Face ID to the masses. We’re sure people will continue to rebel against the lack of Home button, but eventually we expect them to come round and embrace the larger screen, Portrait mode (front and back), animoji and memoji. We have no doubt that this will be a popular iPhone and it deserves to be. The only question is why would anyone buy an iPhone XS when the iPhone XR is just as powerful and has a bigger screen.

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