Editors' note, April 22: Read our iPhone SE 2020 review. Original story follows.
Editors' note, Nov. 8: We've updated this review, originally published Oct. 23, with final battery benchmarks, camera testing, drop test results and additional impressions. The overall rating has moved from 8.8 to 8.9 and the phone has been awarded a CNET Editors' Choice.
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. (Whenin September, I said you should wait before buying. I'm glad I did.)
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. : The screen and the take small steps back from the XS models, along with a few other feature nips and tucks. Using the XR after living with the XS, the only feature I truly missed was the rear camera's telephoto lens.
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.
I still wish Apple had introduced an even less expensive phone. At $749 (£749, AU$1,229) to start, no one would call this phone cheap -- that's how much the top-endcost 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
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Camera: Almost the same as XS
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 Boost Mobile). The front-facing TrueDepth camera is the same: I took great-looking portrait photos, did weird Memoji head things using Apple's emoji tools, and it's all better than what the iPhone 8 ($234 at Back Market) 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 shows where Smart HDR succeeds, and where it still isn't as good in low light as what the 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.
Not having 2x optical zoom bothered me more than I thought it would. I rely on that 2x for framing close-up shots, I found. It also makes a difference for zooming in on far-off objects. My 5x zoom on the Flatiron building looked far crisper with the XS than it did with the XR's purely digital zoom.
That's not to say that Portrait mode is missing from the XR altogether. Apple has taken a page fromand 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. For example, in the shots above, I photographed my colleague Marrian Zhou from the same distance, but she appears "farther" away in the XR shot. Below, I got closer with the XR to compensate for the focal length difference.
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, I've never had them fail when taking a photo of a person. And, once I got the hang of its limitations, it ended up producing some really nice results. Portrait Mode, when it first debuted in beta on the, 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. (You can see where the strands of flyaway hair get blurred into the background.) 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. I tried with people, mannequins, photos, people-like sculptures, animals and things like fruit and flowers. 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. I couldn't get it to recognize adorable dogs at a dog park, though, while the Pixel 3 did just fine.
Thehas 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.
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.
Additional deep dives on the iPhone XR camera:
Note that the Pixel 3 camera is better for still photos -- even before the impressivewas activated -- but the XR is better for video.
Size: The right fit
I admire Apple's plus-size iPhones, but I've never enjoyed holding them. The width hurts my hand. 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 and Google Pixel 3 XL ($303 at Walmart).
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.
Yes, the actual screen technology is different, too. On paper, the LCD on the iPhone XR is just as bright as the OLED screen on the XS -- 625, according to Apple. But it doesn't always seem as vibrant to the eye. Side by side, the XR looks a little dimmer, whites not quite as white, and black levels obviously not the super black of OLED. If you're directly comparing, you'll see the OLED's superiority, but in everyday use, I barely noticed. Colors look excellent, and the display seems better than the iPhone 8, and as good as recent iPads.
Technically the display is lower resolution than the XS' "Super Retina" display. (The XS has a 2,436x1,125‑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.) My eye can't perceive the missing pixels. All the apps I downloaded, from games to news apps to video and camera apps, looked superb in the new display size.
Other notes on the display:
No HDR means some missing detail. I watchedon the iPhone XS and XR, and the difference stood out -- darker areas of rooms, or the folds of Harrison Ford's jacket didn't have the same detail on the cheaper phone. High-contrast videos won't look quite as good on the XR.
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.