The iPhone XR, Apple’s “low-cost” phone, gets you a great-looking, modern iPhone with a super-fast processor for $749. But there’s a big catch: It just doesn’t connect to wireless networks like an iPhone XS or XS Max, or even Android competitors like the Google Pixel 3. Connection quality is absolutely key to our view of the mobile phone experience, so while the XR brings many current-gen features to an iPhone that costs $250 to $350 less than the leaders, we think the XS Max is the iPhone you should get if you intend to hang onto your phone for three or more years.
The iPhone XR is the most beautiful iPhone ever. I’m willing to make that bold claim because the shimmery colors are just so nice, and the rounded corners really give it the “river stone” feel that manufacturers have been trying to achieve with mobile phones for years now. The color is anodized aluminum under glass, but it looks sort of like automotive paint on ceramic.
Don’t get a black XR. As you can see here, it’s a little boring. Get blue, coral, red, white, or yellow, and then put a clear case on the back to flatten out the camera bump (it’s pretty noticeable) but still show off the color. This is a phone you want everyone to see.
Size-wise, the XR is just a touch smaller than the XS Max, which is in turn the same size as the iPhone 6/7/8 Plus. In other words, it’s a little bit smaller than the old Plus-sized phones. At 2.98 inches wide, it’s going to be too wide for a lot of users of smaller, older iPhones; it’s frustrating that Apple doesn’t have a smaller phone with the newest technology, and you’ll have to fall back to an iPhone 8 or jump over to a Google Pixel 3 if you want something truly one-handed.
The 6.1-inch screen is in the newer, super-tall 19.5:9 aspect ratio, giving you 14.16 square inches of screen as compared with the 12.92 square inches on the old Plus models and 16.08 on the XS Max. The XR’s “liquid retina” LCD is really, really good. Hold it next to an iPhone XS Max, as I’m doing right now, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between the XR’s LCD and the XS’s OLED based on the colors and blacks. At 326 pixels per inch, it’s the same pixel density as the iPhone 4 through 8; it’s less dense than the iPhone XS, but it’s really hard to notice unless you’re really picky and have very sharp eyes. There is slightly more bezel around the edges than on the XS and XS Max (because the LCD needs a backlight), but once again, not so much that it’s bothersome.
Like all recent iPhones, the XR is IP67 water-resistant and supports wireless charging. It has a single Lightning port, and no traditional headphone jack, but comes with Lightning earbuds and works just fine with Bluetooth headphones.
Left to right: iPhone XR, iPhone XS Max
The XR lacks 3D Touch, Apple’s screen pressure sensor, which lets you pop up shortcut actions from apps on your home screen. I’m fine with that, and Apple is sending through software updates to allow some 3D Touch features, like expanding notifications using long presses on the XR’s screen. I loved the idea of 3D Touch when it was first announced, but it’s become an orphaned and little-used feature and I think few people will notice the loss. The XR does have haptic feedback, of course. When you press down on icons, you feel a little vibration, and that’s good enough.
The iPhone XR, like the XS and XS Max, has Apple’s innovative dual-SIM system that uses one physical SIM and one virtual SIM. The phone supports all possible US carriers on the main SIM slot, including T-Mobile’s new Band 71. The secondary slot, right now, is mostly for roaming: Companies like Truphone and GigSky offer bite-sized, global data plans that are often more affordable than roaming with your primary carrier.
In terms of call quality, the last big leap forward was between the iPhone 7 and 8 generations. The 8, X, XR, XS, and XS Max all support EVS, a new voice-quality codec that Verizon and T-Mobile have implemented, for sharper HD Voice than previous generations. That means calls within those carriers sound better and clearer than calls on an iPhone 6 or 7. But the XR’s voice quality isn’t any better than the 8 or the X (check out our feature on voice calling for more about EVS).
Alas, that’s where the good news on RF ends. Because the XR lacks the XS’s 4×4 MIMO antenna capability, its LTE speeds and reception quality track significantly behind the XS at pretty much all levels. We have a detailed lab report with some interesting charts about this. It’s really inexcusable for Apple not to put 4×4 MIMO into a $750 phone in 2018, but it’s all about differentiation and upselling. The XR also lacks LAA, a system that carriers are using to speed up networks in crowded downtown areas (and which the XS has).
The iPhone XR is on top, the XS on bottom. Those two missing holes at the right side of the XS are the extra antenna that the XR needs.
Wi-Fi performance is also noticeably weaker than either the XS or a Google Pixel 3. Tested against a Netgear R7000 router at 5GHz, the XR got 3-11Mbps in weak-signal conditions, where the other phones were getting 40-70Mbps. Farther from the router, we got 12Mbps on the XS, 31Mbps on the Pixel 3, and nothing on the XR, which reported that it had signal but simply couldn’t connect. That’s pretty disappointing.
Now, I want to put this in context, because when our LTE tests came out, one commenter said, “Well then, I’ll stick with my iPhone 6, because this is awful!” Don’t do that. The XR tests like an iPhone 8, and the iPhone 8 connects a lot better than an iPhone 6. It includes entire frequency bands that older phones don’t have any access to; you’ll find huge amounts of T-Mobile coverage open up and AT&T congestion lift with any phone of this generation. The XR isn’t great compared with other $750+ phones released in 2018, but it’s a heck of a lot better than a 2016 phone.
Performance, Storage, and Battery Life
Apple’s A12 processor is the most powerful mobile chip available today, and one of the XR’s big benefits is that it gives you access to all of that A12 juice. On Geekbench, it benchmarks at 10 to 15 percent higher than the iPhone 8 and iPhone X in terms of pure CPU performance, and 40 percent higher in terms of GPU computing performance. On GFXBench, a graphics benchmark, it’s similarly 40 to 45 percent better than the iPhone 8 on offscreen tests, which don’t take screen resolution into account.
The XR uses some of that additional horsepower to drive a bigger screen than the iPhone 8, of course. Since it’s pushing 1,792 by 828 pixels as opposed to 1,334 by 750, actual onscreen frame rates are really more like 12 percent better than the iPhone 8. But since the XR has a lower-resolution screen than the XS and XS Max, onscreen frame rates on the XR are also better than its more expensive cousins—so you can argue that for gaming, this is actually the very best iPhone possible.
With the A12 and Apple’s Face ID camera, the XR runs everything iOS 12 has to offer, and iOS 12 has a lot to offer in terms of a smartphone OS. It gets better if you have a Mac, and even better if you have an Apple Watch. But even without those synergies, iOS is still the most secure and privacy-focused mobile OS, with the most elegant design, and it runs the best games.
Apple typically fully supports iPhone processors in new versions of iOS for about four years after they’re released, so your XR should be good to go until at least 2022. That said, if you plan to switch to an iPhone for the new 5G networks in 2021, the year-old iPhone 8 and X will also be fully supported until then.
The phone comes in 64GB ($749), 128GB ($799), and 256GB ($899) models. If you like to keep a lot of photos and videos on your phone, go for the 128GB model. It’s important to note here that Apple only offers the smaller iPhone 8 in 64GB and 256GB. If you want a 128GB iPhone, you can’t get anything smaller or cheaper than an iPhone XR.
We’re still in the process of running battery tests, but we have no reason to disbelieve Apple’s claim that this will be the longest-lasting iPhone of the current three models. Apple claims 15 hours of internet usage, which in our experience is about halved when the screen’s brightness is turned up to max, as compared with 12 hours (read 6) on the XS and 13 hours (read 6.5) on the XS Max. That extra hour of usage could make a difference for you, but I’d like to note that they still come nowhere near the 12 hours-plus of actual use on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
The iPhone XR has a single, f/1.8 12-megapixel main camera that records 4K video at 60 frames per second. It’s the same main camera as on the iPhone XS and XS Max, and took identical pictures in testing, even in poor light. It’s very good—good enough that any debate between it and other top-notch mobile cameras is really just at the bragging rights level.
Having a single camera means that portrait mode isn’t as well-developed as on the XS. Taking portraits with both cameras (alas, of people too shy to have their photos in a review), I found a big difference and a small one. The big difference is that the XS uses the 2x camera to take those portraits, resulting in a more tightly framed, headshot-like image at arm’s length that is far more flattering. The smaller difference is that the XR’s software has some problems with blurring out bits of hair that are behind other bits of hair, so when you zoom in, the silhouetting just isn’t perfect.
Also, on the XR, portrait really means portrait: It will only kick in if it detects a human face, because it’s using machine learning to figure out that silhouette. With the XS, you can use it on anything: a flower, a tree, your cat.
Left to right: iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR, iPhone XS
The secondary camera on the XS and XS Max gives those phones a 2x zoom option, as well, which the XR lacks. I’m not going to dock the XR too badly for that: At $749, whether phones have second cameras or not is all over the map. The Google Pixel 3 and Samsung Galaxy S9 don’t, while the LG G7 ThinQ does.
That’s all with the main camera. Since the XS and XR have the same front camera, with its 3D infrared sensor, front-facing photos (and front-facing bokeh) are the same on the two platforms. Face ID is quick and accurate, and you can do silly things like use 3D Snapchat masks and Apple’s Animoji and Memoji, which require the face-tracking camera and thus aren’t available on the iPhone 8. With the A12 processor, they’re just as fast and fluid on the XR as on the XS.
Comparisons and Conclusions
The best argument for the iPhone XR is its looks. From the front, it’s nearly indistinguishable from iPhones that cost $250 to $350 more. From the back, the colored models are simply gorgeous. The XR simply makes you look fashionable, and I don’t think we should discount the power of fashion. It also doesn’t perform poorly, so the fashion and price arguments will win over a lot of people. It’s worth noting that it’s also the only new iPhone model available under $1,000.
The XR has a fast processor. It can do portrait mode, if a little hackily. More importantly for the fashion crowd, it can do portrait mode selfies and things like weird 3D Snapchat masks that only work with the Face ID camera. It runs on T-Mobile in parts of Kansas where non-Band 71 phones can’t reach, and you can load a roaming virtual SIM for overseas use in seconds. And of course, unlike all Android phones, it runs iMessage, so you’ll never have to worry about your messages appearing in a green box.
But I can’t ignore the fact that it has significantly worse wireless performance than either of this year’s other iPhones, or competing Android phones at the same price. It’s also on the large size, and if you’re going to get a big iPhone, you should get the iPhone XS Max, with its better Wi-Fi, cellular, LAA, dual cameras, and higher-resolution screen in basically the same body. And get it on a three-year contract so you don’t feel brutalized by the price.
Or, here’s a swerve: Get an iPhone 8. Hear me out. You’re considering getting an iPhone with a single camera anyway, and the performance delta between the 8 and the XR isn’t actually so huge. Apple is going to release a 5G iPhone in 2020, or 2021 at the latest. If you pick up a $599 iPhone 8 on a two-year payment plan rather than a $749 iPhone XR, you’ll be in prime position to snap up that 5G iPhone when it hits shelves. Plus the iPhone 8 is a better size for one-handed use.
If you decide to get the iPhone XR because it’s beautiful and you do it with your eyes open, that’s absolutely fine. But I think the iPhone 8 and the XS Max are the ones to buy this year.