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iPhone XR: Why you should probably wait one more week for this iPhone

Apple's most colorful iPhone X is also its most affordable 2018 model.

apple-event-091218-iphone-xr-0819

The iPhone XR also comes in coral, red, white and black.

James Martin/CNET

The iPhone XR's release date is October 26 and you can't preorder the phone until this Friday, October 19. But it's still the 2018 iPhone that I think most of you should pay the closest attention to before buying a new smartphone this year.

I've already reviewed the iPhone XS and XS Max, the other two new iPhones this year. In fact, here are my early reviews of each of them:

iPhone XS review

iPhone XS Max review

Both of my reviews say pretty much the same thing, because they're both basically the same phone: the iPhone XS is the 5.8-inch version of the high-end iPhone for 2018, and the Max boasts the first-ever 6.5-inch screen size. The bigger model has a bit more battery life, it's a bit heavier and -- of course -- it costs more. But their other specs are effectively identical: Same dual cameras, same speedy A12 Bionic chip, same camera sensor and ISP, and so on.

Essentially, they're both the same excellent, polished upgrades of the 2017 iPhone X. If these were the only new iPhones this year, and you were overdue to upgrade, I'd say to consider one of them, if you were coming from anything but any iPhone X. (Owners of that model from last year won't find the XS models a giant leap forward.)

But they're not the only new iPhones this year. And the upcoming Phone XR's better price-for-performance promise could be the best option of all.

Is this confusing? Heck yeah, it's confusing. This year's iPhone decision process isn't easy.

And to be clear, most of what we know here is "on paper," based on Apple's own spec charts. We'll need to test all of this when the phone is released on October 26. But here's why the XR is so compelling.

Read nowiPhone XS vs. iPhone XS Max vs. iPhone XR: What's the difference?

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Where the XR and XS look evenly matched

The iPhone XR isn't a handset using "last year's technology" -- the bulk of the key chip and camera specs appear to be identical to the step-up iPhone XS models.

A12 Bionic processor: Maybe they'll benchmark differently, but right now it seems like the XR, XS and XS Max will all have the same processor inside, much as the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X did last year. Read iPhone XS' industry-first A12 chip gives Apple big advantage over rivals for more info.

Wide angle camera/sensor: The best improvements on the XS cameras had to do with a camera sensor that allows more light, an ISP that's faster, and smart HDR that handles extreme contrasts a lot better and reduces blur. We'll see, but it sounds good.

Face ID: The same Face ID front-facing TrueDepth camera looks like it's on the XR, and should be similarly fast.

iOS 12, wireless charging, dual-SIM capable and more: Most of the other "standard" features of the iPhone XS line are present on the XR -- except for the caveats listed below.

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Left to right: the iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR and iPhone XS, as seen from the rear.

James Martin/CNET

Early iPhone XR advantages over the XS

The iPhone XR is effectively the "entry-level" new iPhone, but it actually surpasses its step-up model in some key ways.

Bigger screen: The LCD display will be around 6.1 inches, which is bigger than the 5.8-inch XS (but smaller than the 6.5-inch XS Max).

Battery life: Look at Apple's estimated battery life charts, and the XR promises the best battery of the bunch. The XR, according to Apple, will have 15 hours of internet use (vs. 12 for XS, 13 for XS Max), or 16 hours of video playback (vs. 14 hours for XS, 15 for Max). It could be the best new iPhone for battery performance, period.

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The bezel around the iPhone XR is a bit more pronounced than that of the XS phones.

James Martin/CNET

More colors: Finally, there are multicolored iPhones. The iPhone 5C was popular for its colors alone. The yellow iPhone XR looked fantastic when I saw it.

The price: $749 to start isn't cheap, but the price range, maxing at $899 for 256GB, is far more reasonable and matches where the iPhone 8 used to be.

The biggest compromises on the XR

If any of these are deal-breakers, you'll want the XS or Max.

Lower-res screen: The XR's LCD screen vs. the OLED display of the XS models isn't that big of a deal, in our opinion -- in terms of quality between those two display technologies, last year's LCD iPhone 8 Plus compared really well to the OLED iPhone X. But this is a sub-1080p screen. The 6.1-inch display has a 1,792x828 resolution at 326 ppi (pixels per inch). For comparison, the iPhone 8's resolution is 1,334-by-750 at the same 326 ppi, and the 8 Plus is 1,920x1,080 at 401 ppi. That said, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro has a pixel density of just 264 ppi, so the screen should qualifies as "retina." (In a brief look during the Apple event, it still looked pretty good to me.)

No telephoto camera: There's only a single 12MP camera on the back of the phone, much like the iPhone 8. That means no 2x optical zoom, and less digital zoom.

Software portrait mode: The dual rear cameras are what allow Apple to enable Portrait Mode, those great-looking shots that focus the foreground and blur the background, DSLR-style. But now Apple says the XR will enable a software-based Portrait Mode with one camera, thanks to the advancements of the A12 Bionic chip. But it's got caveats: According to Apple, it may only be suited for portrait shots of people. That could limit its appeal. And it also might not be as good as the dual-lens portrait mode. The XR also lacks a few Portrait Mode effects: namely, Stage Light and Stage Light Mono (which I've never been a huge fan of). Suffice it to say, this will be a major focus of head-to-head testing.

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The iPhone XR has only a single rear camera, while the XS phones have two.

James Martin/CNET

No gigabit LTE: The XR has "Advanced LTE," similar to last year's iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X. That's still fine, but you're missing the speed gains that I've seen on the XS (not 5G, but still fast).

An aluminum body instead of steel: Still, you'll gain more colors, so it actually seems like a win.

1 meter of water resistance vs. 2 meters on the XS: Honestly, unless you're falling into a deep lake, this won't matter. The XR has the same water resistance as the iPhone 7, 8 and X.

No 3D Touch: Most people never use 3D Touch on the iPhone in the first place. Still, the XR will be the first iPhone since the budget SE to ditch it since it was introduced on the 6S. There is a haptic touch that allows some basic force-press actions on-screen, a bit like the Apple Watch or MacBook trackpads. Maybe that's more than enough, but some might miss the push-in functions on apps and notifications. Still, the iPhone SE felt just fine without it.

iPhone XR, XS, XS Max specs


iPhone XS iPhone XS Max iPhone XR
Display size, resolution 5.8-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,436x1,125 pixels 6.5-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,688x1,242 pixels 6.1-inch LCD Retina Display; 1,792x828 pixels
Pixel density 458 ppi 458 ppi 326 ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.7x2.8x0.3 in. 6.2x3.0x.3 in. 5.9x3.0x0.33 in.
Dimensions (millimeters) 143.6x70.9x7.7mm 157.5x77.4x7.7mm 150.9x75.7x8.3mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 6.24 oz.; 177g 7.3 oz.; 208g 6.8 oz.; 194g
Mobile software iOS 12 iOS 12 iOS 12
Camera Dual 12-megapixel Dual 12-megapixel Single 12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 7-megapixel with Face ID 7-megapixel with Face ID 7-megapixel with Face ID
Video capture 4K 4K 4K
Processor Apple A12 Bionic Apple A12 Bionic Apple A12 Bionic
Storage 64GB, 256GB, 512GB 64GB, 256GB, 512GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM N/A N/A N/A
Expandable storage None None None
Battery N/A, but Apple claims it will last 30 min. longer than iPhone X N/A, but Apple claims it will last 90 min. longer than iPhone X N/A, but Apple claims it will last 90 min. longer than iPhone 8 Plus
Fingerprint sensor None (Face ID) None (Face ID) None (Face ID)
Connector Lightning Lightning Lightning
Headphone jack No No No
Special features Water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and eSIM); wireless charging; Face ID, Animoji Water-resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and eSIM); wireless charging; Face ID, Animoji Water-resistant: IP67, dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and eSIM); wireless charging; Face ID, Animoji
Price off-contract (USD) $999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB), $1,349 (512GB) $1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB) $749 (64GB), $799 (128GB), $899 (256GB)
Price (GBP) £999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB), £1,349 (512GB) $1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB) £749 (64GB), £799 (128GB), £899 (256GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,629 (64GB), AU$1,879 (256GB), AU$2,199 (512GB) AU$1,799 (64GB), AU$2,049 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB) AU$1,229 (64GB), AU$1,299 (128GB), AU$1,479 (256GB)

iPhone XR: Wait for it

I only tried the XR for a few minutes in a crowded demo room, but I kept thinking about it, even with the XS and XS Max in-hand. iPhones are laptop-priced now. You need to choose carefully -- for most consumers, this is a minimum 2- to 3-year commitment. To that end, the XR is well worth waiting for. I wish I could review one now, but in a few weeks we'll know how good it is -- or, perhaps, where it really does fall behind the iPhone XS. 

My guess is, much like how it seemed to steal the show at Apple's Sept. 12 event, the XR will end up being the hit of the iPhone bunch, as well. Unless you're totally sold on the mega-size screen of the XS Max, or you can't live without 2X optical zoom in the XS cameras, you should hold off on any decisions until then.

Read: iPhone XS vs. XR vs. XS Max: iPhone buying guide for 2018

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