Pros: The less expensive iPhone XR delivers most iPhone X and XS features, including an excellent big screen in a comfortable body, fast performance, Face ID and wireless charging, and a camera that’s mostly as good as the iPhone XS.
Cons: The iPhone XR’s single rear camera lacks optical zoom and has a limited portrait mode. Its LCD screen, while large, bright and vivid, is still a step below the iPhone XS’ OLED in contrast. The aluminum XR is slightly less durable than the steel XS.
In General: The iPhone XR is the best iPhone for the price, delivering most of the advantages of the iPhone XS for hundreds less.
Does the iPhone shopping landscape seem daunting? There’s an easy solution. If you’re looking for a great iPhone that costs well under a grand, dive right in to the iPhone XR. This is the iPhone. This is the one you’re looking for.
With the iPhone XR, Apple has created an iPhone that delivers 95 percent of the high-end iPhone XS experience at 75 percent of the cost. Yes, there are compromises: The screen and the camera take small steps back from the XS models, along with a few other feature nips and tucks.
But the iPhone XR actually makes a few improvements on its more expensive siblings. Its screen is bigger than the XS’ (6.1 versus 5.8 inches), it comes in a wider array of fun colors and — significantly — it has the best battery life of any current iPhone you can buy.
At $749 to start, no one would call this phone cheap — that’s how much the top-end iPhone 6 Plus cost back in 2014 — but the XR still costs considerably less than the $999-and-up iPhone XS.
That said, go for the $799 128GB version. Apple finally included a middle storage tier, instead of jumping straight from the $749 64GB (fine, but not quite enough) to the $899 256GB (more than most people need, unless they shoot a ton of video). You won’t be able to upgrade your storage later, so the extra $50 will pay off.
iPhone XR prices
|iPhone XR (64GB)||iPhone XR (128GB)||iPhone XR (256GB)|
Apple put the same camera sensor and almost all the same lenses on the iPhone XR as it did on the XS and XS Max ($1,100 at Amazon. The front-facing TrueDepth camera is the same: You can take great-looking portrait photos, do weird Memoji head things using Apple’s emoji tools, and it’s all better than what the iPhone 8 ($599 at Amazon) can do. The rear single camera is wide-angle, the same as the XS’ wide-angle lens. Smart HDR shots and everyday photos look the same. Our recent iPhone XS camera comparison to the Pixel 3 shows where Smart HDR succeeds, and where it still isn’t as good in low light as what the Pixel 3 can do.
The real difference is that this phone doesn’t have the rear telephoto lens. That impacts photos two ways: no 2x optical zoom or extra levels of digital zoom; and no telephoto-enhanced Portrait-mode photos. The XR can take Portrait photos, too, but the results are different.
That’s not to say that Portrait mode is missing from the XR altogether. Apple has taken a page from Google’s book and delivered portrait mode effects with a single lens via software. The effects really do work, but they’re different than how the XS takes its portraits.
The wide-angle portrait mode’s simulated bokeh blur is more subtle than with the iPhone X and XS. The photos also look farther away from the subject, requiring you to get closer, as there’s no digital zoom in Portrait mode.
Faces end up looking a little more distorted than the better composed, more flattering telephoto Portrait mode on the X and XS, although faces on XR shots can sometimes look more detailed in low light than the telephoto versions.
While the effects can be a little more subtle than on the iPhone XS, they have never had them fail when taking a photo of a person. And, once you get the hang of its limitations, it ended up producing some really nice results. Portrait Mode, when it first debuted in beta on the iPhone 7 Plus, seemed a bit artificial at times. A year later, it’s producing much better results with just a single lens
The iPhone XR lets you adjust the bokeh effect and a few other portrait-lighting effects afterward, just like on the iPhone X and XS. The image above shows before and after the bokeh effect is added. A future software update will allow previews of the depth effect before shooting. There’s no Stage Light or Stage Light Mono modes on this camera, however.
And… the iPhone XR’s portrait mode effects only work on people.
Apple’s AI demands the presence of a person. If it doesn’t “see” a person, it won’t engage portrait mode at all. Occasionally, the camera’s portrait mode was tricked by a wig-wearing mannequin head or a sculpture of a face, or a wall poster that featured actors’ faces, adding a bokeh blur effect.
The Google Pixel 3 has a single rear camera lens, too, but Google performs more computational photography tricks with that phone, enabling crisper digital zoom and a portrait mode that works on anything, including pets.
Pets! That’s the missing part of the iPhone XR’s portrait mode. Sure, the XR takes great shots otherwise, but pet portraits? Not this year.
Additional deep dives on the iPhone XR camera:
- iPhone XR vs. XS: Is the XS camera worth the extra money?
- iPhone XR vs. Pixel 3: Which phone has the best camera?
Note that the Pixel 3 camera is better for still photos — even before the impressive Night sight feature was activated — but the XR is better for video.
Size: The right fit
They’re not one-hand-friendly. That’s what made the iPhone X great: It shrunk that big screen down into a smaller case.
The XR isn’t iPhone XS size, or XS Max size. It’s right in the middle, and that middle size feels much more comfortable to hold than the wider XS Max. It feels more one-hand-able than the Plus and Max phones, just by shrinking a tiny bit. If you’re a fan of smaller phones, it’ll be too big for you, but the XR is smaller than most large-screen premium phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S Plus and Google Pixel 3 XL ($698 at Amazon).
Display: LCD is fine
At first glance, the 6.1-inch screen on the iPhone XR looks all but identical to that of the iPhone XS, except for its slightly smaller 5.8-inch size. It has a notch at the top, curved corners and a tall 19.5:9 aspect ratio. But put the phones side by side, and you’ll see differences. The bezels around the display are a little bigger, lending to a slightly less “to the edge” feel. Swiping and interacting with the XR, however, feels just as responsive as on the OLED screen of the iPhone X, XS and Max.
Technically the display is lower resolution than the XS’ “Super Retina” display. (The XS has a 2,436×1,125‑pixel resolution at 458 ppi, while the XR has a 1,792×828-pixel resolution at 326 ppi, the same pixel density as the iPhone 8.)
Other notes on the display:
iPhone Plus and XS Max “split view” app support is here. Turn the XR on its side, and you’ll get the iPad-style split-pane mode that’s available on some larger iPhones, but not the higher-end iPhone XS. The catch is that there aren’t many apps that use extra panes for multitasking — Mail, Notes and a few others use it. But it’s welcome when it’s there.
The speakers sound great, too. The dual front-facing speakers are louder than pre-2018 iPhones, and they deliver clean sound without distorting.