iPhone XR review: The ‘cheapest’ iPhone is nearly as special as the Xs
What does the ‘R’ in iPhone XR stand for? I have no idea. It may not stand for anything, given the ‘X’ – as Apple reminded us as its keynote in September’ is actually a Roman numeral, so it’s pronounced “Ten-R”.
Its curious name is only the start of its fame though. Following Google‘s recent reveal of 2018 in search, the tech giant announced that the iPhone XR was one of the most searched news stories of the year. The new iPhone was among the Royal Wedding, GDPR and the Spice Girls’ reunion as top searches.
Making it sound a bit like the British slang for a £10 note is a bit of a cruel joke, given you’d need 75 of them in your hand for the staff of the Apple Store to let you have its latest handset. Despite this, though, it’s still the cheapest way to get a 2018 iPhone, given the Xs starts at £999.The good news for the iOS crowd is that the XR is almost as good and, for a saving of £250, it’s certainly not worth losing sleep over the differences. It goes without saying that you can get a lot more for your money on Android, but for those who can’t stomach the switch, the iPhone XR is a great phone.
iPhone XR review: Design
If you want to pretend you spent £999 on the iPhone Xs, Apple has made it very easy to do so. The black model we reviewed looks virtually indistinguishable from its more expensive sibling, right down to the slightly unsightly notch that houses the front-facing “True Depth” camera. Although for the first time since the iPhone 5C, you can get it in a range of bright and breezy colours if you want to wear the differences on your sleeve.
Whichever colour you opt for though, the layout and overall look is the same. At 6.1in across the diagonal, it’s slightly larger than the Xs, and the border is a little thicker too. The frame has matte-finish aluminium instead of the stainless steel used on the Xs and, of course, if you flip it over it only has a single circular camera lens staring back at you.
If you’re eagle-eyed, you may also spot that it has two fewer antenna bands on the edges of the handset. That’s an early indicator of a cost saving right there, as it means that it can’t reach the gigabit download speeds offered by the iPhone Xs and Xs Max.
Most of the cost savings are hidden, of course. From a design point of view, that means the iPhone XR is only IP67 rated while the iPhone Xs is IP68 rated. That should be fine for most people: it’s still tough enough to survive a dunking in fresh water up to one metre deep for up to 30 minutes (the Xs will go to two metres) or a close encounter with a cup of hot tea. Like its more expensive siblings, the iPhone XR gains dual-SIM support, though outside of China, Hong Kong and Macau, this via a virtual eSIM rather than a physical tray.
Overall, it should go without saying that it’s a classy look for a smartphone. I personally like the bright alternative colours it comes in too – blue, red, yellow, orange or white – but I appreciate they’re not for everyone.
iPhone XR review: Screen
The most obvious cost saving is the screen technology used. The iPhone XR uses an IPS panel rather than the fancy OLED tech on the Xs and Xs Max. Don’t pout: it’s what Apple has always used until last year’s iPhone X, and it’s still in place on every single iPad.
What I’m trying to say is that while the “Liquid Retina” display here misses out on the perfect contrast and inky black offered by the iPhone Xs, it’s a very good panel in its own right. It has a lower pixel density than the Xs – 326ppi to 458ppi – but it doesn’t suffer from fuzziness or pixelation. Screen brightness reaches 684cd/m2, which is more than enough to be readable on a sunny day and contrast is 1,736:1. Yes, that’s not the perfect score OLED delivers, but it’s pretty close, and most eyes won’t see the difference.
Indeed, when we tested it in a browser window against an sRGB target with a colorimeter, we found it covered 93% of the sRGB gamut with superb accuracy. It also supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision for video playback, meaning Netflix Originals look about as spectacular as they can on a 6.1in screen. If you have both this and an iPhone Xs running the same show side by side – as I did briefly in the office – you’ll spot slightly richer colours on the iPhone Xs but there’s really not much in it. Certainly not £250, at any rate.
iPhone XR review: Performance
So minor differences in real-world screen performance, but what about raw power? Nope. Nothing.
Internally, the specifications of the iPhone XR and Xs are almost identical: both run Apple’s new 7nm A12 Bionic chip and there’s a mere 1GB of difference in the RAM allocation, along with different storage configurations (64GB, 128GB and 256GB for the XR). Does the difference in RAM make a difference?
It does not.
As you can see, all of the 2018 iPhones make mincemeat of the Android opposition in both Geekbench 4 and GFXBench although it’s worth noting that in terms of real-world gaming performance you won’t notice any difference: the screen is capped at 60Hz, so no games will break the 60fps barrier. Good for bragging rights and future proofing, mind.
In terms of battery life, the iPhone XR is pretty middling, lasting 13hrs 29mins in our 170cd/m2 looped video rundown test before shutting down. That puts it slap, bang in the middle between the iPhone Xs and Xs Max, but some way behind the big Android pace-setters.
As a brand new iPhone, it comes with iOS 12, too. You can read all about the extras that brings to the party here.
iPhone XR review: Camera
On a familiar theme, the camera is another area where you’re missing out on a little but not much. You’re getting one camera rather than two, so there’s no optical zoom or fancy depth mapping for portrait shots, but the one camera you do get is the same as the iPhone Xs and Xs Max’s primary snapper. It’s a 12-megapixel camera with an aperture of f/1.8, optical image stabilisation and 1.4um pixels.
That isn’t too big a deal. Despite the lack of depth mapping, you still get Apple’s portrait mode, with adjustable bokeh. And while portrait images are taken at a wider and less flattering angle with fewer studio lighting effects, the results are still very good.
Beyond this (minor) omission, the camera is simply outstanding, capturing detailed, wonderful photographs whether the lighting is poor or good, thanks to Apple’s new Smart HDR algorithm which captures eight frames in a split second, and then merges them seamlessly together. The pictures aren’t quite as good as with Huawei’s P20 Pro or brand new Mate 20 Pro, but as with most things flagship these days, you have to look pretty hard to spot the difference.
Finally, a word about the video-recording capabilities, which remain the best in the industry. Not only is the iPhone XR capable of recording 4K video at 60fps with stabilisation simultaneously (most other manufacturers still make you pick between which features to use) and the results are super smooth, with even sharp changes in lighting failing to trip it up. If video recording is important to you, Apple remains the gold standard.
iPhone XR review: Verdict
You’ll notice there’s nothing bad to say about the iPhone XR in any of the paragraphs above, so I’ll say it here: £750 is a lot for a smartphone. And if you want more than 64GB storage, you’ll be paying anything up to £899. Remember that Apple refuses to adopt expandable storage.
Objectively, for your money you can get more for less if you’re willing to give Google’s Android OS a try. The Samsung Galaxy S9 has an RRP of £739, but has dropped to around the £500 mark now. The LG G7 has dropped even further and even the brand new OnePlus 6T retails at £250 less than Apple’s ‘cheap’ phone.
Still, for some people a new phone and a new iPhone are one and the same thing. For those Android refuseniks, the iPhone XR is an easy recommendation: you don’t lose much by saving £250 and passing on the Xs. And viewed exclusively through that peculiar, Apple-centric lens, the iPhone XR is – in its own strange way – something of a bargain.