Apple gave everyone a glimpse at the future of the iPhone with last year’s iPhone X, positioning it at the top of its lineup. With a “notch” and Face ID, the iPhone X was the iPhone of the future, and it came with a price tag that required you to pay EMIs well into the future.
The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus were meant to be the more accessible offerings, continuing Apple’s “business as usual” model of delivering solid, incremental updates at prices that were only marginally higher than their predecessors.
With 2018, however, it seems the future is here, as Apple has gone all-in with the iPhone X (Review) design language across the entire lineup. For the second year in a row, we get not two but three new iPhone models, but this time, they all look pretty much the same — like the iPhone X, but at different sizes.
Physically, the iPhone XR sits between the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. It’s priced in iPhone 8 Plus territory, which means Apple has eliminated the iPhone 8 (Review) price band altogether. This makes this year’s most affordable new iPhone nearly Rs. 13,000 more expensive than last year’s point of entry, which seems to be in line with Apple’s push to increase prices across all its product categories.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the iPhone XR is available in a variety of colours, to make you forget the hole that buying one is likely to leave in your pocket. While the “most affordable” new iPhone of the year offers more colour options than its more expensive brethren, Apple has removed certain features from the iPhone XR in a bid to keep its cost low.
Does this make the iPhone XR a compromised device? That’s what we aim to find out in our review.
iPhone XR design and display
The last time Apple brought colours to the iPhone lineup in any sort of meaningful way was with the poorly received iPhone 5c. Launched alongside the iPhone 5s, the iPhone 5c (Review) — just like the iPhone XR — was the most affordable new iPhone on offer. However, its price tag wasn’t as low as everyone
expected hoped it would be), and the fact that it shipped with older technology obviously didn’t help.
Apple has managed to avoid the same trap with the iPhone XR by making sure it ticks the same boxes as its two more expensive siblings, at least as far as the most important specifications are concerned. All three phones are powered by the same SoC, have the same primary rear camera, and come with other modern technologies including Face ID (the iPhone 5c famously missed out on Touch ID, introduced with the iPhone 5s).
That’s not to say the iPhone XR is just like the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max in every respect. Its frame is made out of “aerospace-grade aluminium” compared to steel on the more expensive iPhone models, though it feels nearly as premium.
Both the front and the back of the iPhone XR are all glass, though Apple notes that only the front packs “the most durable glass ever in a smartphone”, so the back has to make do with something less expensive, like the second-most durable glass ever in a smartphone, perhaps. Both the fronts and the backs of the iPhone XS are iPhone XS Max have the aforementioned “most durable glass ever”. The iPhone XR is IP67 rated, just like the iPhone X, while the other two 2018 iPhone models are IP68 rated.
Physically, the iPhone XR sits between the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, and while we believe the iPhone XS form factor is ideal for most people, the iPhone XR represents a possible middle ground for those looking to experiment with a bigger iPhone without stepping up all the way to the iPhone XS Max, which can be rather too much to handle.
The iPhone XR is wider than some of today’s other popular large-screen Android smartphones and at 194g, it’s certainly one of the heavier ones as well. It is also noticeably thicker than the two more premium iPhone models of 2018, and the bezels around its display are a little more pronounced than those of the iPhone XS, though most users won’t be be bothered by the latter.
Where you will have to settle for last year’s technology is the display itself — and it’s not even display technology from last year’s most expensive iPhone, as the iPhone XR uses the same LCD tech as the iPhone 8.
This means you miss out on the richer blacks that the OLED displays on the iPhone X, iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max deliver. The LCD panel offers a lower contrast ratio and lacks HDR as well as Dolby Vision. That in itself isn’t a huge deal, but the relatively low resolution (828×1792 pixels at 326ppi) also means that text doesn’t look as sharp as it does on some other iPhone models — and, indeed, other smartphones out there. Unless you are making the move from an iPhone 8 or a really inexpensive smartphone, you will almost certainly notice that the quality is, at best, just about good enough.
“Just about good enough” is, of course, not what you expect when you pay north of Rs. 75,000 for a smartphone, especially when some phones that cost 10 percent of that amount sport higher-resolution displays. Granted, the panel on the iPhone XR is up there with the best LCD panels in other respects, including viewing angles and colour accuracy, but that doesn’t take away from its relatively low resolution.
The other way in which Apple has cut costs is by eliminating 3D Touch. Some people probably won’t even notice it’s missing given that it wasn’t always easy to discover its presence in older iPhone models to begin with. Some popular 3D Touch features such as the keyboard’s trackpad mode and the ability to preview notifications have been implemented without 3D Touch, for those who did come to love those little touches.
The iPhone XR is available in yellow, white, coral, black, blue, and (Product) Red, which is a welcome change compared to the usual options available from Apple and other manufacturers. While we really appreciated the understated finish of our black review unit, we also quite liked the yellow and blue options in the brief time we spent with them at the global launch event.
iPhone XR performance, software, and battery life
The iPhone XR is powered by the same Apple A12 Bionic chip inside the iPhone XS duo, so it’s no surprise that its performance is pretty similar. It handled everything that we threw at it with aplomb, something we’ve come to expect from a new iPhone, and indeed other smartphones in this price bracket.
PUBG Mobile defaults to the ‘High’ frame rate and ‘HD’ graphics settings, but we bumped them to ‘Ultra’ and ‘HDR’ respectively, and playing the game was still a pretty smooth experience. Extended sessions of games such as Asphalt 9: Legends were not a problem either, and we didn’t run into any heating issues.
Benchmarks show that the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max both have 4GB of RAM, while the iPhone XR has to make do with 3GB of RAM, the same as the iPhone X. While this didn’t really prove to be a problem in our experience, it’s something to bear in mind if you like your devices to be “future proof”, as would be the case with the more expensive iPhone XS duo.
For the first time, iPhones now feature dual-SIM support, but instead of adding a second physical SIM slot, Apple has taken the eSIM route. This means that unless you purchased your iPhone in China, Hong Kong, or Macau — where Apple sells “true” dual-SIM iPhone models — your iPhone XR, iPhone XS, or iPhone XS Max includes an embedded SIM that can be activated as and when desired, in addition to a regular physical SIM slot.
In theory, this is meant to make things more convenient by letting you switch from one provider to another without having to swap physical SIMs. In practice, however, it adds an unnecessary level of complication, at least in its current form.
For one, only select operators — Jio and Airtel, at the moment — support eSIMs in India. This means that if your second SIM is from Vodafone, Idea, or any other operator, you have no option but to port your number to one of the aforementioned duo, which might not be be possible (or desirable) for everyone. Second, even the operators that do support it, don’t make it easy for you to get an eSIM activated.
You can’t get a new number activated on an eSIM — with both Jio and Airtel, you need to go to a retail store, do the necessary paperwork, get a physical SIM, and then convert it to eSIM so its number can be used with your iPhone. That’s like going to your neighbourhood store and mailing yourself what you just purchased to get the “e-commerce” experience.
At least some of that is down to India’s KYC norms, more than any technological limitations, but from the end user’s perspective, the experience is far from ideal.
Even if you already have a physical SIM with all KYC procedures completed, Reliance Jio requires (at least at the time of filing this review) you to go to one of its retail units to get your SIM converted to eSIM, which is the next level of bonkers.
Thankfully, if you are on Airtel, the experience is a little better. You can initiate the “conversion” of your physical SIM via a text message and then just follow instructions that you will receive via email. We found this part to be relatively hassle-free.
As for actually using the iPhone with two SIMs on a daily basis, the experience is pretty much in line with what you get with Android phones. By default, your physical SIM is labelled “Primary” and the eSIM “Secondary”, but you can change these to whatever you like.
You can have multiple “Data Plans” — as Apple calls them — attached to your eSIM, but only one of them can be active can any given time. The term Data Plan, of course, is a little bit misleading, as you can have a voice-only plan as well.
You need to designate one of these to be the “Default voice line”, and the same (or the other) needs to be the default line for mobile data. Both lines support 4G at the same time, and the iPhone will let you use mobile data from one line while you are on call using the other.
Call history in the Phone app will show a label indicating the line that was used for each call, and tapping the entry will dial that number or contact using the same line. When initiating a new call, you can choose which line to use via a dropdown at the top, with your default line already selected.
However, there seems to be no way to choose which line is used when composing a new SMS message, which seems to be a big oversight. Existing conversations in the Messages app will default to using whatever number was used last in that thread.
iOS of course also doesn’t have the “dual apps” capability that some Android OEMs have added, which means you can run only one instance of apps like WhatsApp, further limiting your dual-SIM experience. You can use either of the numbers with WhatsApp and other services.
The iPhone XR offers the same “wider stereo playback” as the more expensive iPhone XS duo, and the resulting sound is pretty impressive. However, the iPhone XR lacks the “Gigabit-class LTE” found in the other two new iPhone models. This might be a problem some day, but that day isn’t coming anytime soon given the pitiful state of networks in our country.
Though iOS 12 brings a host of new features, the experience using of using an iPhone in countries like India is less than ideal due to the features that apps like Apple Maps lack in these regions, something we’ve noted time and again. We encourage you to read our iOS 12 review to read our thoughts about new features including Screen Time, Shortcuts, and more that will greatly enhance how you use your iPhone.
In terms of battery life, our real-world experience was pretty similar to what we got with iPhone XS Max, in that the iPhone XR easily lasted us a full day, even when our workload was heavier than usual. In our HD video loop test, the iPhone XR lasted an impressive 13 hours and 19 minutes.
Though the iPhone XR is “fast-charge capable”, according to Apple, the company provides no fast charger in the box, which is a big disappointment. Wireless charging is supported.
iPhone XR cameras
The iPhone used to be the best camera phone in business, but that probably hasn’t been the case since the days of the iPhone 6 Plus. It started with companies like Samsung taking a lead in low-light camera performance, and since then we’ve seen the likes of Huawei and Google surpass Apple when it comes to building a phone that’s a solid overall performer when it comes to still photography.
Google has been somewhat of a flag bearer in this department with its Pixel range of flagships. While all three generations of Pixel phones might have been plagued by a host of reliability issues, there’s been no denying their photography chops.
Even as other manufactures have relied on two, three, and even four sensors in a bid to deliver better image quality — often with mixed results — Google has stuck to a single sensor, while doubling down on machine learning algorithms to enhance the resulting images.
Given Google’s success with this approach, it’s no surprise to see Apple and others go down the same path, even if it seems that Cupertino is merely dipping its toes instead of going all-in. While the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max continue to feature dual rear cameras, the iPhone XR packs only one sensor at the back.
This, pardon the pun, serves dual purposes. First, it obviously reduces the cost of the more “affordable” iPhone XR, but more importantly, it gives Apple a device with which it can experiment a bit with its machine learning approach to photography.
As we noted in our iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max review, the more expensive duo also rely on machine learning in the form of Smart HDR to deliver great images, but the iPhone XR takes this a step further. Similar to the Google Pixel 3 and a bunch of other phones, the iPhone XR uses machine learning to offer Portrait Mode with the rear camera, which was earlier limited to iPhone models with dual rear cameras.
Even with a single rear camera, the iPhone XR does a good job when it comes to edge detection and the Bokeh effect in portrait mode, but it’s not as good as the results we saw with the iPhone XS. We also noticed that some portraits taken with the iPhone XR had less detail compared to similar shots taken by the iPhone XS.
In the absence of a telephoto lens with 2X zoom, we noticed that we needed to be physically closer (than with the iPhone X/ XS/ XS Max) to the subjects of our shots to activate portrait mode. The resulting shots are actually wider, since the standard lens is being used rather than a narrow telephoto lens.
You do get Portrait Lighting modes as well, though you are limited to three modes — Natural, Studio, and Contour — with Stage and Stage Mono still exclusive to iPhone models with dual rear cameras. Also note that portrait mode on the iPhone XR will work best with humans and not animals or objects, since the machine learning algorithms have been optimised for the former.
In all respects aside from the obviously missing 2x telephoto lens, the performance of the iPhone XR’s camera is identical to that of the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, which is to say it’s now up there with the best in the business. Read our reviews of the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, as well as our comparison of the iPhone XS with some of today’s best Android smartphone cameras, for more details.
Let’s go back to the question that we started with: is the iPhone XR a compromised device? It isn’t; not in ways that would matter to most users. While we are not fans of its display, it does its job without being particularly great. In other areas such as performance and camera quality, the iPhone XR more than holds its own, and is a match for the more expensive iPhone models as well as other flagship phones.
That brings us to its price. We’ve made it abundantly clear that we are not fans of the upward trend that we’ve seen across the entire range of Apple products. As we noted in our iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max review, even with the promise of regular software updates and better resale value, it’s getting increasingly difficult to justify the price tags that Apple’s phones command.
With a starting price of Rs. 76,900, the iPhone XR isn’t exactly a bargain, but it’s better value for money than the iPhone XS, and certainly the iPhone XS Max. Heck, even the speaker grille at the bottom is symmetrical, so it shows no one was napping at the wheels while designing this one.
Though Apple has discontinued the iPhone X in some markets, it’s still very much around in India and available at pretty much the same starting price as the iPhone XR. As much as love the display on the iPhone X, the camera improvements that Smart HDR brings tilt the balance in favour of the newer iPhone, which also brings other niceties like dual-SIM support and a faster processor. The iPhone X is only for those who truly value the deeper blacks on the AMOLED display or are put off by the size of the iPhone XR, and cannot afford the iPhone XS.
If you don’t mind looking beyond the iPhone, recent months have seen the launch of plenty of great Android flagships including the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (Review) and Huawei Mate 20 Pro (Review), as well as a host of other phones earlier in the year. Or you could go pick up a “value flagship” like the OnePlus 6T (Review) and save a bunch of money in the process.
With that said, a new round of Android flagships is just around the corner as well, so you won’t have to wait too long if nothing catches your fancy right now.