Apple iPhone XR review: Not quite cheap, not quite great

Alex Kidman 6 November 2018 NEWS

Apple's iPhone XR is probably the iPhone you should buy this year, but it's a phone full of unusual design decisions, not all of which have a positive overall impact.

Quick Verdict The iPhone XR impresses with solid CPU performance and the best battery life of any iPhone we've tested so far. It's Apple's "lower cost" iPhone this year, but it's pretty far from being "affordable", with some notable limitations that you don't hit with the iPhone XS to take into consideration.

The good

  • Good battery life.
  • A12 Bionic processor is still great.
  • Wide choice of colours.

The bad

  • Still premium priced.
  • Single lens camera limits camera functions.
  • Slower onboard modem.
  • No 3D Touch capability.


Apple has toyed with the concept of the "affordable" iPhone for some years in various guises, from the colourful iPhone 5c to the long-running iPhone SE.

It might be tempting to throw the iPhone XR into the same category, because it's colourful, somewhat cheaper than the iPhone XS and a lot less expensive than the iPhone XS Max.

Still, it's priced at what you can't – and shouldn't – think of as anything but premium grade anyway. Against the hefty price hikes on the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max it's probably the iPhone that you should buy, but it's also Apple's way of not-so-subtly reframing the conversation around what "affordable" might actually mean.


iPhone XR Review

Apple iPhone XR: Design

  • Wide and pleasing range of colours.
  • Aluminium frame.
  • LCD display, but larger than the iPhone XS.
  • No headphone jack.
  • No offical Apple cases for protection.

The lowest cost iPhones in previous generations have all opted for smaller screens than their pricier counterparts, but Apple's gone a different way for the iPhone XR. With a 6.1 inch display with no front buttons, it's actually larger than the iPhone XS which features a 5.8 inch display.

However, there are some key technical differences. The iPhone XS (and XS Max) use much more vibrant OLED displays, where the iPhone XS instead has an LCD type. It's also markedly lower resolution, at just 1792 x 828 pixels, giving it an effective resolution of 326 ppi. By comparison, the smaller iPhone XS has a resolution of 2436 x 1125, giving it a resolution of 458 ppi.

Side by side with the same content it's a noticeable difference, but at a standalone level the iPhone XR is perfectly acceptable as far as LCD displays go, with Apple's usual careful attention to colour balancing very much in play. The front display features a prominent notch to incorporate Apple's FaceID feature, first seen in 2017's iPhone X.

That also means that there's no TouchID sensor, and if you're coming from a much older iPhone, you'll also miss the presence of a headphone jack. Apple used to provide a Lightning to 3.5mm adaptor in the box, but if you want that, you'll now have to pay Apple $15 for the privilege.

As a larger phone, the iPhone XR also sits big in the hand at 150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3mm with a carrying weight of 194 grams.

I've tested with the Black model and, to be entirely frank, I hate it.

The standout feature of the iPhone XR is the wide range of colours Apple's supplying it in, ranging from the very out there Coral, Yellow or PRODUCT(RED) hues to the more subdued Blue, White or Black. I've tested with the Black model and, to be entirely frank... I hate it.

Tastes can vary of course, but it's just so dull compared to the rest of the iPhone XR range.

Apple can do tasteful and appealing black phones, but the iPhone XR isn't one of them. It does little in my view to show off Apple's design skills, looking more like those generic "smartphone" bodies used when someone doesn't want to show off a specific brand. If you're going to go for the iPhone XR, my advice is to enjoy the wide range of colours on offer, rather than going for something that looks so particularly generic. That's not what you pay Apple-level money for, is it?

The PRODUCT(RED) version is a real standout, and it's also notable for being available from the get-go with the iPhone XR, where typically Apple has waited for a couple of months before releasing that shade.

The Black model is also a fingerprint magnet, something that's made worse by the fact that Apple explicitly isn't making any official cases for the iPhone XR.

Like the other iPhones this year the Apple iPhone XR is wireless charging capable, which means it has a slippery glass back that's going to be pricey to repair when you drop it, so a third party case is a must.

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iPhone XR Review

Apple iPhone XR: Camera

  • Single, not dual lens.
  • Portrait mode, but limited effects.
  • Post shot focus adjustment works well.

It's in the camera where Apple makes the largest concessions to the more expensive iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. That's because while the iPhone XR has the same front-facing camera as its more expensive siblings – no doubt because it would struggle to handle FaceID without it – around the back it's a simpler story, with a single 12MP f/1.8 lens for photographic capture. It's essentially half the camera that the iPhone XS is because the secondary 12MP f/2.4 has been stripped out.

Rather obviously that means that you can't as easily or smoothly zoom into subjects as you can with the iPhone XS. Apple's compromise here is to provide a number of the features that the iPhone XS has via software, rather than using that secondary lens. You can take "portrait" mode photos with the iPhone XR's rear camera, but only with natural, studio or contour lighting.

Flip to the front facing dual camera set-up and you suddenly gain the stage and stage mono lighting effects for selfies, because it can manage that with two lenses.

As an example, I got Finder's editor-in-chief Angus Kidman to take a selfie with the iPhone XR's front-facing cameras:

iPhone XR review

One of the neat new functions available across all of Apple's 2018 iPhones is post-shooting focus change, with an aperture slider available if you edit on the phone itself. So I can adjust the aperture of the shot for a sharper background easily:

iPhone XR review

And I can engage other lighting set-ups along with focus adjustment, like in the following shot using contour lighting and less background focus:

iPhone XR review

You can even go the whole hog with features like the mono stage lighting setting and lower focus:

iPhone XR review

I could do exactly the same tweaks with an iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max, because it's the same camera module at the front. However, at the back, the iPhone XR's single lens can only handle two additional lighting set-ups because it's not processing the depth information in the same way. So a shot taken by me in the same situation:

iPhone XR review

Can be adjusted for aperture in the same way – but with software, rather than proper depth sensing, and with an effect that feels just a little bit more artificial:

iPhone XR review

And I can engage the other lighting modes – but that's about it. Here's that same shot with the Studio Light effect applied:

iPhone XR Review

Yes, there's a clear price difference between the iPhone XR and iPhone XS. If you're after more photographic flexibility, the iPhone XS definitely has it in a way that the iPhone XR doesn't.

You're also limited in portrait mode to only subjects that the iPhone XR recognises as human faces. This means you can't apply bokeh effects to your pets, landscapes or objects.

iPhone XR review

I'd like to get some nice bokeh around this shot of my cat – but I can't, because bokeh is only for humans, or something like that. Even human statues are often rejected with the message "no person detected". Given that plenty of the Android competition in the same price space as the iPhone XR can manage that kind of detection, it's a disappointing limitation.

That being said, for most users, the iPhone XR's camera will be fine for everyday shot taking, with pleasing overall tones on most photos. As with the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max (and indeed, pretty much every iPhone ever), the focus is on guided photography, rather than tweaking settings in a pro sense with the default iOS 12 camera app.

If you are keen on more pro-level tweaking, there are plenty of more flexible iOS camera apps available, although again you're more likely to hit hard against the iPhone XS's camera limitations sooner rather than later.

iPhone XR Sample Photos

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iPhone XR review

iPhone XR review

iPhone XR review

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iPhone XR review

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Apple iPhone XR: Performance

  • A12 Bionic still impresses, even with less RAM.
  • Lower water resistance than other 2018 iPhones.
  • Slower category speeds than premium iPhones.
  • 3D Touch is missing.
  • eSIM for dual SIM support – sort of.

The iPhone XR shares the brand new Apple A12 Bionic processor with the costlier Apple iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, but it makes do with just 2GB of RAM compared to the 3GB on the higher priced models.

Apple is generally quite good at optimising for memory usage – which is rather obvious when you consider Android flagships in 2018 often run with 8GB of memory and the biggest iPhone has only 3GB. That smaller memory footprint doesn't make a huge difference to day to day performance, or indeed benchmark performance.

Here's how the iPhone XR compares against a range of premium phones using Geekbench 4's CPU test:

The A12 Bionic is pretty easily the best mobile CPU performer we've seen this year, and even last year's A11 Bionic is still besting Android counterparts in this fashion. However, it's a little more mixed for 3D performance. Here's how the iPhone XR compares using 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test:

Apple can justifiably point to the iPhone XR's performance using its own Metal API there to provide justification for its 3D prowess. In more anecdotal testing, you're not likely to have too many issues with the iPhone XR, which is slick and responsive for most iOS apps.

It's still worth comparing what Apple cuts down for the iPhone XR, both to meet a price point and undeniably to leave the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max in the prime position.

It's still worth comparing what Apple cuts down for the iPhone XR, both to meet a price point and undeniably to leave the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max in the prime position.

The iPhone XR is IP67 rated where the iPhone XS/Max have IP68 ratings. That indicates a little more faith by Apple in its more expensive smartphones to survive a dunking. Although as I've noted before, Apple's faith in its water resistance is negated by its Australian warranty, which doesn't cover you for water damage anyway.

Likewise, while the iPhone XS/Max are Apple's first CAT16 gigabit-capable handsets, the iPhone XR is only a CAT12 handset. You never really hit peak network speeds in real world usage anyway, but a lower speed handset may struggle further in poor or congested network environments, which is a potential concern.

The iPhone XR also lacks access to Apple's 3D Touch capability, because... well, because it does, seemingly. It can't be the LCD display because Apple introduced 3D Touch with iPhone models that used LCD screens. It can't be because of the water resistance because Apple had that in LCD models before too. It's just not present... because.

Some Apple users love 3D Touch, while others rarely use it. I'm in the latter camp to be frank, but if it's important to you, the iPhone XR will disappoint you.

Like the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, the iPhone XR is technically a dual SIM handset. I've got to add that qualifier, because while it supports a single nano SIM alongside Apple's own inbuilt eSIM solution, to date absolutely no regular Australian network carrier supports eSIM for smartphones. You can get an eSIM plan for selected smart watches, including the Apple Watch Series 4, but not for handsets.

You can bodge it in with some travel SIM providers, and may be able to access it while travelling overseas, but for practical purposes, the iPhone XR may as well be a single SIM phone down under.

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iPhone XR review

Apple iPhone XR: Battery life

  • Impressive battery life compared to other iPhones.
  • Apple still has to catch up to competitors for battery endurance.
  • Wireless charging.

The Apple iPhone XR doesn't have the largest battery in the 2018 iPhone world. That accolade belongs to the much more expensive Apple iPhone XS Max with its 3,179mAh battery. Comparatively, the iPhone XR is quite close, with a 2,942mAh onboard battery. That, plus the general power consumption advantages typically attributed to OLEDs should give the iPhone XS Max an edge in battery consumption, right?

Well, it turns out it ain't necessarily so, as they say. Here's how Apple's recent flagships compare using Geekbench 4's battery test:

As a standalone, iPhone-only proposition, the iPhone XR is pretty clearly the phone to buy if you're only looking at iOS smartphones.

The iPhone doesn't exist in a vacuum (and almost certainly isn't covered by warranty if you dropped one into a vacuum anyway), and when you compare it against competing Android flagships running the same test, it's a far less flattering scenario:

Apple is generally excellent at optimisations, given it only produces a few new handsets per year and limits iOS backwards compatibility by culling old models regularly. The one feature it has yet to really crack is market leading battery life. Geekbench 4's test provides a linear load on a battery and the reality is that the iPhone XR is generally capable of all-day performance for most users, but it can't keep up with its Android competition.

Apple could have shaved a little more build cost off the iPhone XR by skipping out on wireless charging, but thankfully it didn't, with full support for the Qi standard, even though its own AirPower charger is still very much missing in action. Wireless charging is slower than through a direct Lightning cable and the supplied power adaptor, but it's also very handy.

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Apple iPhone XR: Should you buy it?

  • An obvious choice for the Apple faithful.
  • But Apple's redefining where it sees "entry level" pricing.
  • Compromises may make the iPhone XS your better match.

Whether the iPhone XR is the phone you should buy depends on what you're looking for. If you're an iOS die-hard who would never consider looking towards Android, it scores highly for its battery life, the power of the A12 Bionic processor and range of colours, from fun to serious.

However, it's still quite a grasp to call it an "affordable" iPhone because the baseline pricing for the iPhone XR is still comparatively quite high. It's the kind of pricing that Apple used to apply to its iPhones just a generation ago, and that means you're paying a premium price.

If all you want is the lowest cost iPhone from 2018, this is the model to buy, but if you're after actual premium performance across the board, and especially in camera terms, you might ultimately be more satisfied with the iPhone XS. Yes, you'll pay more, but you get more.

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Apple iPhone XR: Pricing and availability

Apple iPhone XR

Colourful and powerful

The iPhone XR gives you the power of Apple's most powerful processor at a lower price point than the iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max

Promoted

The iPhone XR sells in white, black, blue, yellow, coral and PRODUCT(RED) finishes in Australia at the following price points:

  • 64GB: $1,229
  • 128GB: $1,299
  • 256GB: $1,479

It's also available on contract through Telstra, Vodafone or Optus, with pricing listed below:

Apple iPhone XR: Alternatives

If you're keen to stay within the iOS space, and you want the power of the A12 Bionic at your command, the next logical choice is the slightly more expensive Apple iPhone XS.

Apple iPhone XS

Apple's most advanced smartphone

The iPhone XS is Apple's vision of what the future of smartphones looks like. Get yours today.

Promoted

If you need the A12 Bionic and a similar sized display, then you'll have to spend even more on the Apple iPhone XS Max:

Apple iPhone XS Max

The cream of the crop

If you want the very best in Apple's 2018 iPhones, Apple's iPhone XS Max won't leave you wanting.

Promoted

You could save some cash instead and opt for one of the remaining 2017 model iPhones. If you want a larger display, that's the Apple iPhone 8 Plus

Apple iPhone 8 Plus

Premium and polished

While it's not a revolution in iPhone design, the iPhone 8 Plus makes key improvements in battery life and performance.

Promoted

Or if you want a smaller handset than the iPhone XR, consider the Apple iPhone 8:

Apple iPhone 8

Familiar yet impressive

The iPhone 8 doesn't stray far from the traditional iPhone formula, but it still delivers the premium experience expected of an Apple device.

Promoted

If you're not only looking in the iOS space, and you want the current best in camera technology, you can't look past the Huawei Mate 20 Pro:

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Huawei's flagship camera phone

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro combines the power of Huawei's own Kirin 980 chip, an exceptional battery and a class-leading triple camera array.

Promoted

In a similar space but at a lower price point, consider the Huawei Mate 20 or Huawei P20 Pro instead.

Huawei P20 Pro

A premium phone for camera lovers

The Huawei P20 Pro features three stunning rear cameras, helping you take your mobile photography to the next level.

Promoted

In the Android space at this kind of price point, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ is definitely worth considering.

Buy Samsung Galaxy S9 S9+

Buy Samsung Galaxy S9 S9+ from Samsung

Discover Samsung's Galaxy S9 and S9+ and the revolutionary camera that adapts like the human eye.

View details


iPhone XR review

Specifications

Apple iPhone XR Specifications

OS iOS 12
Display size (inches) 6.1
Display resolution (pixels) 1792 x 828
Pixels per inch (PPI) 326
Processor Apple A12
Height (mm) 150.9
Width (mm) 75.7
Depth (mm) 8.3
Weight (g) 194
Battery size (mAh)
Wireless charging Qi
Internal storage 64GB
128GB
256GB
MicroSD expansion N/A
Fingerprint scanner No
RAM 3GB
Water resistance IP67
Rear camera (1) resolution 12
Rear camera (1) aperture 1.8
Rear camera (2) resolution
Rear camera (2) aperture
Rear camera (3) resolution
Rear camera (3) aperture
Front camera (1) resolution 7
Front camera (1) aperture 2.2
Front camera (2) resolution
Front camera (2) aperture
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Network category speed Category 12
NFC support Yes
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