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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

iPhone XR review: Bright colors, best value

In the past, choosing which iPhone to buy has been pretty simple. You could buy this year’s model in large or small sizes, or you could buy an older model. (Back in the old days, it was even simpler: there was one iPhone and you could buy it or not.)

Things are more complicated now. At the top of the line, Apple’s got small and large phones packed with the latest technologies, starting at $999 and increasing rapidly in price from there. There are still some appealing older models at relatively good prices. And then there’s the iPhone XR, which at $749 isn’t quite a bargain, but is by far the best value you’ll find in an iPhone today.

Though it lacks a few features found on the higher-end iPhone XS models, the iPhone XR is so good that the choice of which 2018 model of iPhone to buy might be a lot simpler than we all expected. Unless you have some very specific needs that the iPhone XR can’t fulfill, it’s an incredibly appealing combination of features and value.

Case for, case against

Let’s start with the industrial design of the iPhone XR: It’s bold and striking and I pretty much love it. The front is straight out of the iPhone X playbook, an expanse of screen with curved edges and a notch containing the TrueDepth camera and sensors. The sides are ringed with Apple’s go-to material for many years, anodized aluminum. And there’s a glass back with a multi-layer color process that’s similar to the attractive effects found on the iPhone X and XS.

But the iPhone XR embraces color in a way that’s more reminiscent of the iPod. Apple of late has felt stuck in a metallic coloring rut, and adding some gold and pink-tinted gold to a collection of light silver and dark silver products didn’t really make it feel much less monochromatic. All of a sudden, here’s the iPhone XR, with four bright color options—Red, Coral, Blue, and Yellow. (There are also black and white models, if bright color isn’t your thing. Choice is always a good thing.)

All the back colors are pretty great. The iPhone XR Apple provided to me for review was Coral, and it’s beautiful—a bright orange skewed a bit toward pink. Apple has tried to apply complimentary colors to the anodized aluminum bands around these phones, and you’ll need to judge how your like that two-tone approach for yourself. The colors aren’t quite the same (and the pebbly finish of the aluminum is itself a contrast to the ultra-smooth glass back), but in most cases I think the combo works.

So once again, Apple has created a beautiful design, a phone that’s crying out to be carried without a case. (And, funny thing, Apple’s not making any cases for the iPhone XR, at least not yet.) The problem is, like its other iPhone models, the iPhone XR is an ice-cream sandwich made of glass. I didn’t find the XR particularly slippery to hold, but the fact is, if you drop it and the glass on either side shatters, it will be a costly mistake.

I’ve been carrying my iPhone in a case since the iPhone 6 arrived on the scene, with its curved edges that made it feel like a very expensive bar of soap, and I’ve gotten used to it. But the more beautiful the hardware inside the case, the more frustrating it is to use one. It would break my heart a little bit to tuck the Coral iPhone XR in a case, even though it would probably be the right thing to do.

Spared (almost) no expense

It’s funny—the iPhone XR reminds me a bit of the iPhone SE. Not in terms of size, of course. This is a large phone, almost as large as the old iPhone Plus models, and if you think the iPhone 6/7/8 size is already a bit too big for your hands, you’re not going to like the size of this one, either.

No, the iPhone XR reminds me of the SE because it’s a device that costs a lot less than other devices in its model year, yet it’s equipped—as the SE was when it was launched—with the latest and greatest Apple tech. The XR has the same A12 processor as the iPhone XS phones, the same primary rear camera, and the same TrueDepth camera and sensors. These are all areas where you might expect Apple to hold back a bit of tech for its $1000-and-up class of phones, but instead the XR is nicely appointed.

(It does make me wonder if Apple intends the iPhone XR to be updated infrequently if at all, as was the case with the iPhone SE. I suppose we’ll find out next fall.)

The areas where the iPhone XR lacks features offered by the iPhone XS are:

Screen tech. This is an LED-backlit LCD screen, like every previous iPhone before the iPhone X, which introduced OLED to the iPhone line. Apple calls it the best LED screen it’s ever put in an iPhone and they’re not kidding. The company has done a bunch of engineering to re-create the curved edges of the much more malleable OLED screen with an LCD. The screen looks great; the average user is not going to look at the backlit blacks on this display and weep that they aren’t OLED deep. (If you prefer those beautiful OLED blacks, Apple has a phone to sell you that costs you several hundred dollars more.)

Screen resolution. The iPhone XR has a Retina screen, but it’s lower resolution than the iPhone XS models and, in fact, the iPhone Plus models of old. It looks great, but yes, if you watch a movie on it, it’ll be scaled down from full 1080p resolution. Depending on your eyes, you might notice this resolution change, but I didn’t find it noticeable unless I was directly comparing it to a higher-resolution screen, and even then only when I looked very carefully. And once again, if you can tell the difference, the iPhone XS will take care of you and lighten your wallet, too.

Bezels. The iPhone X was Apple’s first phone without bezels around its display, notch excepted. This isn’t entirely true—there’s still a border around the OLED screen on the front, as the front glass curves away—but it’s very subtle and easily forgotten. The iPhone XR’s bezel is slightly larger. It’s nothing like the bezels on previous iPhone models, but you can see more of a black frame around the screen than you can on the iPhone XS. I got used to it quickly and it didn’t bother me. Getting rid of the huge “chin” bezel where the home button used to live is, to me, the big victory in these designs, much more than the elimination of every fraction of a millimeter of blank space right at the edge of the device.

2x camera. The iPhone XR lacks the 2x telephoto camera that’s on the back of the iPhone XS (and several previous models). If you’ve never owned an iPhone with that 2x camera, you won’t be able to miss it. As for me, ever since I got the iPhone X I have reveled in the ability to use it to take better pictures, whether close-ups or distant shots. I took the iPhone XR to a college football game and took a few shots before realizing that some of the photos I’ve been snapping over the last year relied on a second zoom level that was no longer available to me. It’s honestly the single feature I missed the most on the iPhone XR.

Portrait mode (sort of). The iPhone XR has a portrait mode, which is interesting since Apple originally sold portrait mode to us as a feature that was enabled by having two back cameras—the parallax effect between the two cameras allowed the phone to build a depth map it could use to artificially blur the background, emulating a shot taken by a traditional camera with a long lens. With the iPhone XR, what Apple has done is build a depth map using data from focus pixels on the one rear camera, combined with machine-learning algorithms that analyze the image and make guesses about what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background.

This sounds kind of weird, but it’s the technique Google is using for its portrait mode in the Pixel 3, and by all accounts it works quite well. Apple’s version works a bit less well, and is limited to human faces—the Camera app won’t let you take portraits unless it detects a face. Even with the two cameras, Apple’s portrait mode is far from flawless, and the XR portraits I took were similarly okay. Despite its flaws, it’s a fun effect and I’m glad Apple has managed to bring it to the iPhone XR.

(Because the iPhone XR has the TrueDepth camera in the front, you can take portrait selfies, just as you can on the iPhone X and XS. In that direction, the depth map is being built via the infrared dot projector and flood illuminator that’s also used for Face ID.)

Some lesser materials. The back glass on the iPhone XR, while stronger than on the iPhone X, is not as strong as that on the iPhone XS. The metal ring is anodized aluminum, not stainless steel as on the XS. But let me be clear: Nothing about the iPhone XR feels cheap. This is a $749 phone and it feels like it, even if it’s not in the $1000-plus club.

Everything else the iPhone XS has, the iPhone XR has. Smart HDR photos that take your breath away, with their capture of bright and dark elements in the same scene? Yes. Extended dynamic range 4K video shooting at 30 frames per second? Yes. Fast Face ID? Yes. All of that stuff is there.

Moving the goalposts

I’m of two minds about the iPhone XR’s place in Apple’s overall price list. On the one hand, it’s much cheaper than the iPhone XS and as a result, it’s a great value. If you don’t care about some very specific features that the iPhone XS offers, it’s a much better buy. Even the most expensive iPhone XR configuration is $100 cheaper than the base-model iPhone XS.

On the other hand, at $749 this is the most expensive iPhone ever to reside at the bottom of the price list of brand-new phones. Yes, Apple makes an array of older models available at big discounts—the iPhone 8 was a great phone last year and it’s cheaper this year—but I don’t love the company’s abandonment of the $650 price point for a new iPhone.

Yes, it makes sense. Smartphone buying cycles are lengthening, and all of these new iPhones are high-quality products that should be usable for many years to come. In an era where smartphone sales figures are now relatively flat, increasing the average sale price of an iPhone is a way for Apple to grow its revenue. I get it. I just don’t love it when someone calls the iPhone XR a “cheap” iPhone. It does the product a disservice—it’s anything but cheap—but it also leaps over the fact that just two years ago, this is what Apple charged for the more expensive of its two iPhone models. And if you want a 2018 model that’s not the size of a Plus phone, you’ll need to spend even more—namely, $999 for an iPhone XS.

Something for everyone

When Apple announced the iPhone 5C, with its lower price tag and bright colors, I really thought it would sell well. It didn’t, probably because everyone realized that it was just last year’s model with a colorful plastic back.

At the risk of repeating a failed prediction, I think that the iPhone XR will be a big seller. It’s definitely not last year’s model—it’s got the Face ID and A12 processor to prove it. It’s got those bright, fun color options. It’s got a big screen, which by all accounts is a crowd-pleasing feature these days. And, most importantly, it costs $250 less than the iPhone XS and $350 less than the iPhone XS Max.

This isn’t a phone for everyone. Many, if not most, of the tech fans I know will prefer the iPhone XS models because they do care about those deep OLED blacks, the size of that bezel, and the 2X camera. The iPhone XS models are better phones than the iPhone XR in pretty much every way (except color). But are they better enough to matter for most people? I doubt it. They are the luxury model, and the iPhone XR is a step down—a premium-quality, mass-appeal device.

Which is why when someone asks me what iPhone they should buy, I will encourage them to go to the Apple Store and hold an iPhone XR in their hands. For most people, this is clearly the best value in modern iPhones. I’m glad that Apple threw out its old iPhone playbook to create it.

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