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. (When I reviewed the iPhone XS in 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. 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. 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-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 (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. 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 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.
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 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. 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 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. (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.
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.
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 impressive Night Sight feature was activated -- but the XR is better for video.
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 Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and Google Pixel 3 XL.
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 nits, 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 watched Blade Runner 2049 on 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 and the iPod Mini, and a refreshing break from silver, black and gold.
Yes, it's water resistant. Much like the iPhone 7 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.
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.
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.)