We may never know what the R in the iPhone XR actually means—Apple VP Phil Schiller himself said that the R doesn’t really mean much to Apple. But I have my own guess: reboot.
Before the release of the iPhone X last year, the iPhone 8 was in need of a redesign. It had been some three years since Apple first unveiled its large-screen iPhones, but nothing about them changed much since the iPhone 6 . The iPhone 8 brought wireless charging and a better camera, but it didn’t look or feel like a 2017 phone, let alone a 2018 one.
But rather than scrap the idea of the iPhone 8 and go all in on the higher-priced and margined X, Apple went back to the drawing board to create a seemingly impossible iPhone that had the specs of a proverbial iPhone 9, the look of an iPhone X, and the price of an iPhone 8. The iPhone XR’s glass back is smooth to the touch but not overly slippery. Like any reboot of a classic, the iPhone XR could have gone spectacularly wrong. But with the iPhone XR, Apple nailed it. The chip, battery, and storage are all best in class. The price slides nicely in between the iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone XS. And the design is close enough to the iPhone X and XS that from a reasonable distance the phones look identical—maybe you even expected some serious compromises that push people to the upper models in a bait-and-switch move. That’s not the case.
When you take everything into consideration—price, design, storage, camera, battery life, and performance—the iPhone XR might be the best iPhone Apple has ever made, even if it’s not technically the most advanced. In fact, I’d venture to guess that more people are going to buy an iPhone XR over an iPhone XS. It’s just that good. A premium design for less
The iPhone XR is basically the iPhone XS’s fraternal twin. It has the same shape, same glass back, same contoured band, same rounded corners. And it’s got just as big of a notch at the top of the screen. Pick it up and it feels just like a slightly thicker XS. The 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max (left) is quite a bit bigger than the 6.1-inch iPhone XR. Beyond their superficial similarities, there are distinct differences between the two phones. Most notably, the XR’s glass back comes in a variety of colors that give it a playful personality. The sides are made of aluminum, a material downgrade from the stainless steel on the XS, but they’re anodized to perfectly match whichever color you choose. It’s a subtle change that comes down to a matter of preference, but I actually preferred the XR’s matte finish to the XS’s shiny chrome.
The XR is easily the most unique iPhone since the iPhone 5c, and I suspect most people are going to opt to use it without a case. Apparently Apple does too, so much so that it’s not selling a first-party case for the XR. To that end, Apple claims that the glass covering the display is stronger than any iPhone that came before, and the rear glass, while not as shatter-resistant as the iPhone XS, is at least as good as the iPhone 8. It also has a tackier feel than the XS, at least to my fingers. The Lightning port on the iPhone XR (bottom) is slightly off-center as compared to the iPhone XS Max. If you’re a stickler for symmetry, you’ll notice that the Lightning port on the bottom edge is ever-so-slightly off-center, likely due to the whatever engineering tricks Apple is performing under the screen to get the bezels uniform. And bezels there are. If there’s a knock against the iPhone XR’s design it’s that the bezels are distractingly thick, to the point where it almost feels like a cheap iPhone XS knockoff.
It’ll surely be a deal-breaker for some, but there’s a perfectly valid reason for such thick bezels: the iPhone XR uses an LCD screen so it needs to be constantly backlit. As such, the extra millimeter ensures there won’t be any light leakage or bright spots. It’s a fine trade-off when you consider the alternative would have been a deeper chin and forehead. Besides, bezels are a superficial issue anyway, and they’ll quickly melt away as you use it. The next best thing to OLED
While the iPhone XR’s display might look like the one on the XS, make no mistake: it’s basically a larger iPhone 8 Plus with rounded corners. That means its 720p HD LCD display is a step below the Full HD screen on the iPhone 8 and a far cry from the near-2K OLED on the XS. The screen on the iPhone XS Max (right) is noticeable crisper and clearer than the iPhone XR, but you’ll only notice it if you hold them side by side. But the iPhone XR is still in the Retina zone, which is all that really matters. When Apple coined the term Retina back in 2010 with the 3.5-inch iPhone 4, its 326 ppi measurement was exactly the same as it is the iPhone XR. That was then, and display tech has improved tremendously over the past eight years, and even giant phones have insanely high pixel densities, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (516) and Google Pixel 3 XL (523). Even if you compare apples to apples with another 6.1-inch LCD phone such as the LG G7, the XR gets trounced (563 ppi to 326 ppi).
That’s a bigger dealon paper than in practice. Anything over 300 ppi is basically indistinguishable to the human eye, so based solely on resolution, the iPhone XR will look just as good as the iPhone XS or Galaxy Note 9. Even when playing scaled-down HD content on Netflix or YouTube, it’s very hard to discern much of a difference in picture quality between it and a screen with a higher resolution.
However, displays are more than the sum of their pixels, and the color accuracy and saturation on the iPhone XR’s LCD is nowhere near as good as a high-quality HDR-certified OLED. It’s not nearly as noticeable in everyday use as it is when comparing it side by side with the XS or the Pixel 3, but the LCD on the iPhone is definitely a downgrade from premium OLED phones. The bezels on the iPhone XR are noticeablt thicker than on the iPhone XS Max. But within its own context, the XR’s LCD is pretty remarkable, with excellent white balance and stunning brightness. It might not have the deep blacks of OLED, but like the iPad Pro, the XR still feels like a modern smartphone display, especially with True Tone turned on.
Apple’s 120Hz sampling makes elements appear quicker when tapped and touched, and while animations aren’t quite as speedy as they are on the iPad Pro’s ProMotion screen, it goes a long way toward making the XR feel faster than it should. And the rounded corners and balanced full-screen design truly belie its price tag. You lose 3D Touch, but something like icon shortcuts can be added later using haptics.
While using the iPhone XR, I didn’t really miss my OLED phones much at all, and the only criticism I can level is the viewing angle, which is significantly narrower than older LCD iPhones. What I did miss from those Android OLEDs was an ambient display. Despite the introduction of OLED screens, Apple has stubbornly refused to implement an always-on display on any of its phones. As such, the screen lights up every time a notification comes in, and the lock screen needs to be fully illuminated just to check the time. I’d love to see an ambient display added to the iPhone XR in iOS 12.3 as part of Apple’s customary mid-cycle feature supplement. Incredible speed, amazing battery life
With fewer pixels to push, the iPhone XR is actually able to beat the iPhone XS and XS Max in one key category: battery life. Even with a sub-3,000 mAh battery capacity, the iPhone XR is one of the longest-lasting phones at this or any price range, and it ran circles around the Pixel 3 XL and Galaxy S9.
It even gave the Galaxy Note 9 and its 4,000 mAh battery a run for its money. I consistently got 7 to 8 hours of hard-pushing screen-on time (games, movies, streaming, etc), and close to 10 on less strenuous days. I never had to charge the iPhone XR before my day was over, including one particularly lengthy stint while streaming Apple Music and using turn-by-turn navigation. Despite a smaller battery, the iPhone XR (right) actually lasts longer than the iPhone XS Max. Apple hasn’t cut back on performance to boost the iPhone XR’s battery life either. The XR has the same A12 Bionic chip as the XS, and it’s a straight-up screamer. Apps and animations fly across the screen due to a combination of the processor’s speed and usual iOS […]
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