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iPhone XS vs. XS Max vs. XR: Buy your best iPhone for 2018

Your iPhone buying guide for Apple's three new phones.

James Martin/CNET

Our full review of the iPhone XR is here. How does it compare to the iPhone XS and Pixel 3? We answer that and much more in our exhaustive review. 

You want the best new iPhone for your lifestyle, but which one should you buy? Great question. The iPhone XS, XS Max or iPhone XR lineup is a tight race, mostly because the three new models are so closely matched, with the price, screen size and a few odd specs to tell one from the other. 

We've reviewed the 5.8-inch iPhone XS and 6.5-inch XS Max. While both are excellent, with almost identical hardware, the 6.1-inch iPhone XR is different enough to throw a monkey wrench into your buying plans. If you can afford to wait for it.

Here's why. The iPhone XR has a single rear camera instead of two (no 2x optical zoom here) and a lower resolution LCD screen compared to the XS' OLED display. The iPhone XR also lacks the 512GB storage option of the XS models. But before you cross it off the list, note its many comparative advantages: A 6.1-inch screen that's bigger than the standard iPhone XS (and last year's iPhone X), and a battery life that Apple says will outlive the XS and XS Max.

You'll get the same speedy processor in the XR as the other two iPhones, and although there's only one rear camera, you won't sacrifice portrait mode. That's because the XR's single rear camera has new software to make your shots artful (yes, this is the fancy SLR-style "bokeh" camera effect that blurs the backgrounds of headshots). Fun, exclusive color choices like coral and blue cap off the iPhone XR's unique iPhone personality.

Best of all, the iPhone XR starts $250 less than the iPhone XS, making it the most affordable new iPhone of 2018. But here's the rub: While the XS models are available now, the iPhone XR won't arrive until Oct. 26. That's why we strongly advise iPhone shoppers wait until we've reviewed that model before making a final decision-- we want to make sure it's as great a value in real world tests as it sounds like it is on paper.

Read: iPhone XS review
Read: iPhone XS Max review
Read: Why you should wait for the iPhone XR

That said, we know many of you JUST CAN'T WAIT, so we've answered some of the "which should I buy" questions below.

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone XS: Why it's harder than ever to pick the best...

If you want...

  • The absolute biggest screen: iPhone XS Max
  • 2x optical zoom and no-compromise camera: iPhone XS or XS Max
  • Most affordable new iPhone: iPhone XR
  • iPhone with home button and Touch ID : iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 phones are still around, with price cuts

If you feel tempted to save money on the now-discounted iPhone 8 Plus...

...and having a home button on your iPhone isn't important to you, resist! Spend $50 more for iPhone XR, at the very least. You'll get a much faster processor, better photography, longer battery life and fast Face ID.

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone XS Max: Should you go bigger?

If you have a really old iPhone and want the best budget iPhone option

A factory refurbished iPhone 7 will save you hundreds. Its software is just as secure and up-to-date as the iPhone XS, and this 2016 flagship is still an above-average phone. (Pro tip: Spend up for the 128GB version. You'll thank us later.)

You could also get an iPhone SE, which is downright dainty compared to the iPhone XS and XS Max. Keep in mind that you'll have to buy it through carriers and other retailers. Apple has pulled it -- and the iPhone X -- from the Apple store. It's also got a comparatively restrained price, selling for $350, £249 and AU$699.


The iPhone XR brings a welcome splash of color to iPhone's lineup.

James Martin/CNET

If you're not sold on the iPhone and want alternatives

The best Android phones right now include the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and Galaxy Note 9. There's also the terrifically-priced OnePlus 6. If you live outside the US, Huawei's P20 and P20 Pro are excellent phones on par with Samsung's finest.

For the budget-minded, the Motorola G6 and Moto E5 families deliver outstanding value for price. And if you want a small phone, the Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact is really the only diminutive way you can go.

Read also: How to buy a new phone in 2018

Still Android-curious? You're in luck

We have no fewer than four major global phone launches in October alone. These are all premium handsets with the latest and greatest specs, likely in the camera department. The Pixel 3 especially has the opportunity to make some striking gains over last year's impressive Pixel 2. It's worth waiting to see if Google's able to repeat its photo magic, especially compared to Apple's iPhone XS camera gains.

iPhone XR, XS, XS Max specs

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

Article originally posted on Sept. 18, 2018 and updated most recently on Sept. 30 at 4am PT.