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Apple iPhone XR review: The best iPhone value in years

Goodbye, 3D Touch

The iPhone XR 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 6S ($249 at Walmart), 7, 8, X and XS series do.

In its place, the iPhone XR gives little pulses of vibration feedback -- called "haptics" -- for the lock screen camera and flashlight icons. Instead of pressing down, holding a finger on them will open them. Same for the Control Center's deeper controls. It kinda feels the same as 3D Touch. Apple's iPhone haptics are fantastic and add that physical-feedback "tap" satisfaction.

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Camera and flashlight shortcuts on the lock screen work by holding, not pressing, but you might press in on instinct.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In the end, I still miss having those 3D Touch press-to-peek preview options, just a little. But since 3D Touch always felt somewhat underutilized on the iPhone, its absence here isn't a huge loss -- and if it's a must-have, that's a signal you should move up to the iPhone XS or XS Max.

There is a good 3D Touch holdover, too: iOS 12 lets you depress the spacebar to turn the keyboard into a de facto touchpad. It makes text editing a thousand times easier.

Also, by the way: The onscreen keyboard's size and feel on this tweener 6.1-inch display is terrific. For my hands, at least, I like it better than on other-sized iPhones.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance and battery life: Fantastic

The iPhone XR uses the same A12 Bionic processor as the iPhone XS, which adds up to modest speed gains in everyday use over last year's phones, and more impressive graphics boosts -- early benchmarks show the 50 percent gain Apple promised. This year's iPhones have processors promising much bigger boosts for AI-driven functions, including the bulk of those camera effects listed above, but perceiving that in most everyday app and game performance is next to impossible. 

If you do want to see side-by-side improvements, boot up an augmented reality app such as Ikea Place -- it'll look much smoother than with last year's iPhones.

Battery life (offline video playback)

Apple iPhone XR
1193
Samsung Note 9
1160
Apple iPhone XS Max
1043
Google Pixel 3 XL
1008
Google Pixel 3
901
Apple iPhone X
816
Apple iPhone XS
810

Note:

Measured in minutes

Battery is where the iPhone XR really shines. Apple promises an hour more video playback battery life on the XR over the iPhone XS Max, and 2 hours more internet use. (Compared to the XS, it's 2 hours more video, 3 hours more internet.) But the news is better than that. On CNET's video playback battery test, the XR got a fantastic 19 hours, 53 minutes. The iPhone XS, in comparison, lasted just 13 hours, 30 minutes on the same test. 

Everyday use doesn't always reflect what benchmarks show, but the XR also does great in the wild. I charged the XR fully each day and used it for lots of photos, videos, games, video streaming, music, reading and everything else, and didn't find the need to charge back up midway through the day that I usually do on other iPhones. It's a smart choice for anyone who's been waiting for some extra battery kick without needing to bring a battery pack, and the best iPhone battery life we've ever seen.

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James Martin/CNET

Other iPhone XR features of note

Colors are nice. My review unit was white, but the colorful iPhones -- lighter blue, coral, red and bright yellow -- look cheerful and well done. It's a return to the candy-color days of the iPhone 5C ($196 at Amazon) and the iPod Mini, and a refreshing break from silver, black and gold.

Yes, it's water resistant. Much like the iPhone 7 ($190 at Walmart) and onward, the XR can last up to 30 minutes in up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) of water, according to Apple. Full immersion testing is coming soon. The iPhone XS has a slightly better water resistance rating, up to 2 meters. Either way, know that the phone should survive a dunk, but don't go swimming with it, and Apple says dry the phone for 5 hours before using Lightning charging. 

Durable glass, but not quite as hardy as the iPhone XS. Again, 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. The iPhone XS did superbly on CNET's drop tests. The XR did well -- it survived the first three drops, but cracked on the fourth. Moreover, the its aluminum is more prone to get dinged up than the stainless steel body of the XS (as you'd expect). Bottom line, as always: buy a case. And note you can get decent clear ones (so your fancy colors shine through) for less than $20.

Cellular data should be the same as the iPhone 8. 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 XR. In everyday use around New Jersey and New York, however, the XR didn't feel appreciably "slower" or otherwise compromised from a wireless perspective. At home, Verizon wireless on a test SIM ran at 230 megabits per second -- significantly faster than my home broadband. (Looking for 5G ? You're a bit too early.)

Dual-SIM support. As of iOS 12.1, the current gen of iPhones (XS, XS Max and XR) are dual-SIM capable. A physical SIM card plus an eSIM (set up in phone settings) will enable you to have two phone numbers on a single handset -- work and home, international and domestic, superhero and secret identity -- but your phone needs to be unlocked to take advantage of cross-carrier setup, and the three biggest US carriers aren't quite ready for compatibility.

Wireless charging. The XR works with Qi-supported contactless charge accessories. Apple says the redesigned coils on the new iPhones in 2018 should charge more reliably and slightly faster, but they're not fast-charging: They're still only enabled up to 7.5 watts, whereas many Android phones can charge faster.

Speaking of which, the XR is fast-charge enabled 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. Spring $19 for a 12-watt iPad charge adapter for a significant boost.

No headphone jack. If you're coming from a pre-iPhone 7 model, just remember that the 3.5mm headphone jack is long gone -- and Apple annoyingly no longer includes a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in the box (it'll set you back $9). Thankfully, Lightning-tipped EarPod headphones are still on board.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The go-to iPhone

I haven't been this excited about an iPhone model in years. The iPhone XR is built to be the best everyday phone engine in Apple's iPhone lineup, based on things I value: price, battery, speed and key features like the camera. 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.

What about those XS models? Technically, they're top-notch. They've got fantastic OLED screens, slightly more sleek (and durable) steel bodies, and those dual rear cameras, which add that nice telephoto to photos. But they're luxury picks. Cars with all the trimmings. If money were no object, sure, I'd pick the iPhone XS. But for most of us, the XR is the way to go. It's not an ultrabudget iPhone some have been fantasizing about -- that's what the price-reduced iPhone 7 and 8 are for. But the iPhone XR is the iPhone I'd recommend to most people.

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So many iPhones (8, 8 Plus, XR, XS, XS Max).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Quick upgrade guide

If you have an iPhone XS or XS Max: You're fine, obviously, and technically you have the better phone (except for battery life).

If you have an iPhone X: Stick with the X. The performance gains aren't always great, and you'll lose the telephoto camera in exchange for some photo quality improvements, which will feel like a wash. And the X's OLED display is better. (But the XR's battery life is nicer.)

If you have an iPhone 8: There are enough changes to merit an upgrade, and the display size and battery gains are welcome. But I'd still wait and use the phone you have.

If you have an iPhone 8 Plus: Stick with the Plus. Size, screen and battery are similar, even if the XR is better... but the 8 Plus' dual cameras are still great. 

If you have anything before the iPhone 8: The XR is your starting point for an upgrade. Speed, photo quality and screen size will feel like a quantum leap forward. Look to the XS if you want the best possible iPhone camera (with optical zoom and no-compromise Portrait photos), and consider the iPhone XS Max if you want the biggest and best screen, too. But know that you'll pay a huge premium in both cases.

If you're looking for an affordable iPhone SE-type phone: Get an SE on sale, or get the iPhone 7, or hang in there for a possible SE sequel next year (always a crap shoot). I really like the size, price and performance proposition of the XR, but it might not be a good fit for everyone.

If you're comparing to Android phones: 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 camera on the Pixel 3 XL is better overall for still photos -- it's more optimized for better low-light and digital zoom, and has an extra wide-angle front-facing camera for selfies. (The iPhone XR/XS still has the leg up on video performance.) If you're OK with switching to Android, the Pixel 3 XL is your best bet until 2019. (Price-sensitive Android-friendly shoppers should consider the OnePlus 6T, too.)

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Apple iPhone XS
11,585
Apple iPhone XS Max
11,451
Apple iPhone XR
11,392
Apple iPhone X
10,610
Samsung Note 9
8,827
Google Pixel 3 XL
8,388
Google Pixel 3
7,907

Note:

Longer bars equal better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Apple iPhone XR
77,814
Apple iPhone XS Max
77,605
Apple iPhone XS
76,823
Apple iPhone X
64,993
Google Pixel 3 XL
62,199
Google Pixel 3
61,673
Samsung Note 9
59,718

Note:

Longer bars equal better performance

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