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iPhone XR flaunts a big screen and a cheaper price tag

As the most affordable iPhone this year, the XR features a single rear camera, a 6.1-inch LCD display and it comes in a bunch of fun colors.

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Scott Stein, Sarah Tew
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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. Plus, its camera is mostly as good as the iPhone XS.  

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With the iPhone XR -- available for preorder now, in stores on Oct. 26 -- Apple has created an iPhone that delivers 95 percent of the high-end iPhone XS experience at 75 percent of the cost.   

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There are compromises with the XR, however. The screen and the camera take small steps back from the XS models. But the phone makes a few improvements on its more expensive siblings: Its screen is bigger than the XS' (6.1 vs. 5.8 inches), it comes a wider array of fun colors, and so far the promised extra battery life is coming through in everyday use.   

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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 is still considerably less than the $999-and-up iPhone XS.  

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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 and a tall 19.5:9 aspect ratio.   

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Put the 2018 iPhones side by side, and you'll see differences. The bezels around the display are a little bigger on the XR, 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.  

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The actual screen technology is different, too: On paper, the LCD on the iPhone XR is just as bright as OLED screen on the XS (625 nits, according to Apple). But it doesn't always seem as vibrant to the eye.   

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The XR looks a bit dimmer, whites not quite as white, and black levels obviously not the super black of OLED.   

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If you're directly comparing, you'll see the OLED's superiority, but in everyday use, it's barely noticeable. Colors still look excellent on the iPhone XR, and the display seems better than the iPhone 8, and as good as recent iPads.  

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Apple put the same camera sensor and almost all the same lenses on the iPhone XR as on the XS and XS Max.  

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The real difference is that this phone doesn't have the rear telephoto lens.

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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. 

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The Google Pixel 3 has a single rear camera lens, too, but Google pushes more computational photography tricks with that phone, however, enabling crisper digital zoom and a portrait mode that works on anything, including pets. But we'll dive deeper into the camera later on in the gallery... 

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The XR isn't iPhone XS size, or XS Max size. It's right in the middle, and that feels much more comfortable to hold than the wider XS Max.   

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It feels more one-hand-able than the Plus and Max phones, just by reducing the size a bit.  

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A few more shots of the iPhone XR from different angles. (Notice the camera bump on the back.)

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Just like the other iPhones, the XR does not have a headphone jack.

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A side comparison with the iPhone XR (top) and XS (bottom).

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Technically, the iPhone XR's display is lower resolution than the XS' "Super Retina" display (the XS has a 2,436x1x125‑pixel resolution at 458 ppi, while the XR has a 1,792x828-pixel resolution at 326 ppi, the same pixel density as the iPhone 8). But with the naked eye, you can't really tell the difference.

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The rear single camera is wide-angle, the same as the XS' wide-angle lens. Smart HDR shots and everyday photos look the same.  

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To quickly access the camera, press and hold the camera icon on the lockscreen.

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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 can do.  

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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.  

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The wide-angle portrait mode's simulated bokeh blur is more subtle than what the iPhone X and XS do. 

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The photos also look farther away from the subject, requiring you to get closer (there's no digital zoom in Portrait Mode).   

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Another look at how the two phones approach portrait shots differently.

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Apple's AI demands the presence of a person. If it doesn't "see" a person, it won't engage portrait mode at all. I tried with people, mannequins, photos, people-like sculptures, animals and things like fruit and flowers.   

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Pets! That's the missing part of the XR's portrait mode. Sure, the XR takes great shots otherwise, but pet portraits? Not this year.  

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You can take selfie portrait shots as well.

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XR lets you adjust the bokeh effect and a few other portrait-lighting effects afterward, just like on the iPhone X and XS, and a future software update will allow previews of the depth effect before shooting.   

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Here's another portrait lighting option.

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And don't forget you can still send animated emojis using the front-facing camera.

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Not having 2x optical zoom bothered me more than I thought it would. I rely on that 2x a lot for framing close-up shots.   

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It also makes a difference for zooming in on far-off objects. My 5x zoom on random buildings and monuments looked far crisper with the XS than it did with the XR's purely digital zoom.  

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One odd camera note: Occasionally, I saw bits of blue lens flare when shooting at night near bright lights, something that also happened occasionally on the iPhone XS. It's something we're still looking at, and seeing if it continues.  

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Moving on to other features, the iPhone XR also supports wireless charging.

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It also doesn't have the pressure-sensitive 3D Touch feature that lets you do things like preview links, messages and files before opening them, as the iPhones 6S78, X and XS series do.  

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Check out a few other shots of the iPhone XR in day-to-day use.

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The current gen of iPhones (XS, XS Max and XR) are all dual-SIM ready, but not until a software update arrives, possibly iOS 12.1. A physical SIM card plus an eSIM (set up in phone settings) will enable you to have two phone numbers on a single phone.

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In addition to wireless charging, the XR has fast-charge via a USB-C-to-Lightning adapter, but Apple still only includes a 5-watt adapter and Lightning cable, which charge the phone pretty slowly.  

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The iPhone XS has gigabit LTE and 4x4 MIMO Wi-Fi, while the XR "only" has LTE Advanced and 2x2 MIMO. That means the XS is technically a bit better for wireless than the XR.  

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Per Apple's claims, the front display glass is as strong as the XS, while the rear glass is "better than the iPhone X," but not as strong as what the XS has. As an aside, the iPhone XS did superbly on CNET's drop tests.   

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Much like the iPhone 7 and onwards, the XR can last up to 30 minutes in up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) of water, according to Apple.   

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The iPhone XR is built to be the best everyday phone engine in Apple's iPhone lineup, based on things most people value: price, battery, speed and key features like the camera.   

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What about those XS models? Technically, they're top-notch. They've got fantastic OLED screens, slightly more sleek steel bodies, and those dual rear cameras, which add that nice telephoto to photos. But they're luxury picks.   

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Of course, if you have an iPhone XS or XS Max, you're fine and don't need to switch phones. Technically, you have the better phone (except for battery life).  

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Another look at all three 2018 iPhones compared.

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The Google Pixel 3 XL seems like a nearly direct comparison, since both phones have a clean-design feel, similar price and both have single rear cameras. The Pixel 3 XL's rear camera is more optimized for better low-light and digital zoom, and has an extra wide-angle front-facing camera for selfies.  

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If you're OK with switching to Android, the Pixel 3 XL (right) is your best bet until 2019, even when comparing the iPhone XR (middle) to the Galaxy S9 Plus (left).

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The Galaxy S9 Plus, Pixel 3 XL, iPhone XR and iPhone XS all together.

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All in all, the iPhone XR is the sensible car with the good gas mileage, but with a supercharged engine under the hood and an understated spoiler on the trunk -- and I love that. It's what more Apple products should shoot for. It's a good size and, very nearly, a perfect phone for its price.

For more, read CNET's iPhone XR review.

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