While Apple perhaps wants people to focus on the more expensive iPhone XS and XS Max, the staggered launch of the iPhone XR – billed as the 'budget' option by many – suggests that this third model could offer something special. Just like the iPhone 5C all those years ago, this cut-price offering sits alongside 2018's flagship iPhones as a more accessible alternative, despite the fact that it uses the exact same A12 Bionic processor and comes with Face ID as standard.
There are some other things to consider, however; the XR lacks the OLED screen seen on the XS and XS Max, there's no 3D Touch and the resolution is lower, too. You also lose the second telephoto camera on the back of the phone, so optical zoom isn't an option. Are these concessions really worth the saving of around £250, or should you opt for the full-fat XS version? Read on to find out.
iPhone XR Review: Design
Available in a range of nice, eye-catching colours, the iPhone XR is designed to look a little more vibrant and appealing than the stately XS. It has the same basic design – a metal frame with rounded edges, backed by easily-breakable glass – but there are some subtle differences to note. Perhaps the most obvious is the lack of a dual camera array on the back; instead, there's a single lens which protrudes rather alarmingly, which means it's impossible to lay the phone down on a flat surface without it wobbling. This is, perhaps, the only genuine grumble you can have about the XR from a pure design perspective.
The bottom of the phone is home to the Lightning port (making perhaps its final appearance – Apple has shifted to USB Type-C on its new iPad models), one of the speakers (the other is at the top, in the earpiece) and the in-call mic. On the right-hand side there's the Nano SIM tray (the XR, unlike its Android rivals, doesn't allow for two SIMs to be inserted at once) and power button; the left-hand side features the two volume keys and the traditional 'mute' switch. It's an incredibly clean phone overall, something which is of course helped by the fact that Apple has once again decided that a fingerprint scanner isn't required when you have Face ID. We're not entirely sure that's the case, but more on that later.
It's worth noting that the XR is slightly larger than the standard XS, and slightly smaller than the XS Max – it's a neat middle ground between the two. Apple's phones have traditionally been a little daintier than their Android rivals, and the wisdom of making the XR larger than the standard model seems off; however, in reality, the XR is on par with pretty much any typical Android device these days. It has the same footprint as the BlackBerry Key2 LE that we reviewed recently - which we felt that was quite a compact device – and is much smaller than the Honor 8X. Even though the XR might sound bigger than you'd like on paper, it's actually perfectly pocket-sized if you're used to Android phones. The problem is when you're upgrading from the iPhone SE or iPhone 7 – it might take some getting used to.
The XR is water and dust proof, with a rating of IP67 – that's lower than the XS and XS, which have a rating of IP68. The difference? Well, the XR can withstand half an hour of immersion in depths of up to a metre, while the XS and XS Max can handle half an hour in depths greater than a metre.
iPhone XR Review: Display
Outside of the camera, the single biggest difference between the XR and its stablemates is the screen. It uses a 6.1-inch Liquid Retina LCD display which Apple is calling the most advanced of its type – and we're inclined to believe them. While it can't quite match an OLED panel for colour vibrancy and deep, dark blacks, it's easily the best LCD screen we've ever laid eyes on. It's bright, colourful and has great contrast; the only fly in the ointment is that there seems to be some slight 'ghosting' when scrolling through certain apps (white backgrounds with black text are when this is most noticeable).
With a resolution of just 1792×828 pixels, the screen offers a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch. Compare that to any modern flagship phone and it sounds awful, but we've long argued that cramming all of those pixels into a mobile display is ultimately pointless; after a while, it becomes impossible to see the benefit and all it does is add more pressure on the phone's processor. While it's possible to pick out individual pixels on the XR's screen if you really squint, it's still perfectly serviceable. We'd even argue that the average person wouldn't be able to tell that this display is pushing less pixels than the one on the XS – our anecdotal tests seem to back up this viewpoint.
The notch is still there, of course; it has become a fashion statement rather than a functional feature now, and we'd imagine that will prolong its lifespan for many years to come yet. It's a shame that Apple couldn't reduce the size of the notch in some way, like OnePlus has done on the 6T, but it houses some pretty complex tech, so we can't complain too much.
The only other thing to note is that the bezel around the screen is slightly bigger than the one seen on the XS and XS Max, presumably because LCD tech has been used. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's worth noting. There's also no 3D Touch, but even the most hardcore Apple fan will admit that the omission of this feature isn't worth crying over.
iPhone XR Review: Software & Performance
Because it's launching a few weeks after the arrival of the XS and XS Max, the XR benefits from the first bug-fixing update to iOS 12, 12.1. After the mess that was iOS 11 last year, iOS 12 feels totally different; it's smoother, faster and more intuitive. Features like Screen Time offer tangible advantages, in this case helping you to take control of how many hours you spend staring at your handset's display. It might sound like an odd feature to include – something that makes you use your phone less – but it's refreshing to see hardware makers recognise that sometimes, we take things a little too far when it comes to smartphones.
As previously noted, there's no fingerprint scanner on the iPhone XR, so you're totally reliant on Face ID – again. While this system is massively improved over the one that launched with the iPhone X, it's still far from perfect. There were multiple times during our review period when it failed to work properly, and even more times when it did work, eventually, but nowhere near as rapidly as a finger on a scanner.
FaceID is an amazing piece of tech – there's no doubt about that – but it should never, ever have been positioned as a replacement for the fingerprint scanner, and we're not sure it will ever rival that option when it comes to speed and accuracy. We remain eternally hopeful that next year, Apple will adopt an in-screen fingerprint scanner and give us both options, but it feels like the company is throwing its weight behind Face ID in the hope that we'll all eventually forget that it's not as elegant and precise as Touch ID was (even the 2018 iPad Pro uses it).
Because it's rocking the same A12 Bionic chipset that's seen in the XS and XS Max, the iPhone XR is one of the most powerful phones on the planet right now. Apple's tech is way ahead of what Qualcomm comes up with traditionally, because Apple knows its chips will only go into a handful of devices – devices which it designs from the ground up. Therefore, it can extract every bit of power from the chip in a reliable manner, whereas Qualcomm's Snapdragon range has to cope with the Android sector's dizzying number of different hardware variants.
Because the XR is pushing less pixels than the XS and XS Max, this power is even more obvious; less pixels to push means the processor can go that extra yard, and performance is never anything less than exceptional. Every single activity or function on the XR feels buttery-smooth and moving between apps is instantaneous. Apple fans often boast that in terms of the UI experience, the iPhone is king – and it's hard to argue after spending a few days with the XR; it's an absolute pleasure to use. While it has 3GB of memory compared to the 4GB found in the XS and XS Max, we can't say we noticed any dips in performance.
In terms of benchmark scores, the XR scored 362243 in Antutu's test. In Geekbench 4, it clocked up a single-core score of 4792 and a multi-core score of 11156.
iPhone XR Review: Battery & Memory
While it lacks an OLED screen so all of those black pixels are lit rather than turned off, the iPhone XR comprehensively beats the XS and XS Max when it comes to stamina – and we think that lower-resolution display is the reason.
In normal day-to-day use – where we used the phone as our main handset and browsed the web, replied to emails, listened to music, took photos and video and played some 3D games – the XR was still full of juice by the time the sun went down. In fact, we were able to forgo charging the phone in the evening and still had some power left the next day – something that rarely happens with modern smartphones, and certainly hasn't happened before with any iPhone we've owned.
Of course, the caveat here is that your personal usage will impact the XR's battery life. If you decide to set the screen to maximum brightness and watch two or three films in a single day, then the battery is obviously going to take a battering. Recording 4K video also sucks power at an alarming rate, but this is the same across all phones.
The phone supports both fast charging and wireless charging – we tested the latter on our Samsung Galaxy charging dock – but sadly the bundled wall charger doesn't quick-charge the phone. You'll need to buy another (expensive) charger from Apple to do this, which is quite a cheek when you consider that pretty much every other smartphone maker on the planet includes a fast charger in the box.
In terms of storage, the XR is available in three flavours: 64GB, 128GB and 256GB. 64GB is pretty much the entry level for a 2018 smartphone these days, and will be enough for a typical user, but the fact that you can't add in more memory means you need to pick the right capacity on day one.
iPhone XR Review: Camera
The headline news here is that the XR drops the secondary telephoto camera and opts for a single 12-megapixel wide angle snapper. This means the fancy 'Portrait' shots are done entirely with software, and you can't zoom in quickly on objects, either.
Outside of that, it's hard to be disappointed with the quality of the photos and video produced by the XR. The camera is basically the same as the main sensor on the XS and XS Max, so you can expect the same kind of quality – in short, photos look sharp, colourful and showcase good levels of contrast and dynamic range. Apple's new HDR system works brilliantly too, taking multiple shots to really bring out the detail in each scene. Portrait shots are also great, despite the lack of a second sensor to judge depth.
It's worth noting also how quick the XR's camera is to focus and shoot; this has been a hallmark of Apple's hardware for years, and it's pleasing to see this maintained even on 'cheaper' hardware. While Android phones like the Galaxy S9 and Pixel 3 are catching up – and even surpassing – Apple in this regard, the vast majority of Android handsets come a poor second to Apple's devices when it comes to focus-and-shoot speed.
The lack of a proper optical zoom is a shame, and we did miss it when we were messing about the XR's camera. Digital zoom isn't as bad as you might assume on this model, but it's not as easy to use. Meanwhile, the selfie cam is fine, and video recording is very good indeed.
iPhone XR Review: Conclusion
Listing the things that the iPhone XR lacks when compared to the XS and XS Max makes it seem like you're losing a lot just to shave £250 off the asking price: no OLED screen, no telephoto camera, weaker water and dust protection, no 3D Touch, 1GB less of RAM.
However, these things mean little when it comes to the day-to-day performance of the phone, which is utterly superb. By selecting a lower-resolution display Apple has given the XR a real boost in terms of performance, and the great thing is, most people won't even notice that there are less pixels moving around. An OLED panel would have been nice, but Apple's fancy new Liquid Retina technology is seriously striking, so it's not a massive loss.
There are annoyances here and there – no fast charger in the box, Face ID isn't as good as Touch ID, and then there's the yearly merry-go-round of finding which dongle you need for simple things like plugging in a pair of wired headphones – a standard situation for Apple fans these days. Ultimately, though, this is perhaps the best iPhone option of 2018. While it's not cheap when compared to what the Android market has to offer, if you're a diehard Apple fan then the notion of switching sides means this will seem reasonably-priced when compared to the company's other iPhones this year – yet it never feels like you're missing out by choosing the XR.
If you absolutely have to own the very best iPhone then the XS remains the better choice, but for everyone else, this is the one to go for.
Thanks to Mobile Fun for supplying the iPhone XR used in this review.