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iPhone XR Review: I Didn’t Want to Put It Down

by Brandon Russell | November 13, 2018November 13, 2018 11:03 am PST

The iPhone XR is every bit as good as the iPhone XS. It’s just as fast, the camera is just as good, and the software is just as sleek. In fact, there are a few areas where Apple’s newest iPhone is actually better: its battery lasts longer and it comes in an array of stylish colors. Most importantly, it’s a couple hundred dollars cheaper, $750, making it the best iPhone for most people.

When Apple introduced the iPhone XR in September, we were excited. The device represents a new normal for Apple, a future in which every iPhone comes with an edge-to-edge display, Face ID, and advanced camera features. Perhaps most surprising: the device is no less powerful than Apple’s more expensive alternatives. With an A12 Bionic chip, the iPhone XR is among the most capable phones on the market.

What it really comes down to is how much you care about the iPhone XR’s display, the portal in which you read articles, send messages, browse Instagram, watch YouTube, etc. If your answer is, “Not so much,” then the iPhone XR should be taken seriously. Because the iPhone XR isn’t bad. I’d go so far as to say, “The iPhone XR display is good. Great even.”

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We see the numbers and we start to think about what they mean. Then we hastily form an opinion. We hear Apple tell us that the iPhone XR’s LCD display—called Liquid Retina—is 6.1 inches with a resolution of 1792×828, which amounts to 326 pixels per inch. We say, “Huh, that sucks,” without having seen it.

I stared at the iPhone XR’s display for ten consecutive days, and I can tell you that the screen doesn’t suck. The majority of complaints are—surprise—overblown. Text is sharp, lines are crisp, and icons are vibrant. Apple says the iPhone XR’s display features the industry’s best color accuracy, and I believe it.

Thanks to a new backlight design, Apple was able to stretch the iPhone XR’s screen from edge-to-edge—à la the iPhone XS. It’s not quite as edge-to-edge, but it’s close. If you’re coming from an older iPhone, then the display will feel like a major upgrade, magical even. It’s big and bright and far from disappointing.

For a more technical breakdown, here’s what Apple said during the iPhone XR’s announcement:

The beautiful 6.1-inch all-screen Liquid Retina display is the most color accurate in the industry, with wide color support and True Tone for a more natural viewing experience. Precision-milled glass, advanced pixel masking and sub-pixel antialiasing allows the display to follow the curves of the device, while a new backlight design enables the display to stretch into the corners.

It’s an impressive achievement from a technical standpoint—something that’s proudly carried over to the new iPad Pro. Before considering the iPhone XR, all a person needs to know is that the display is big and it looks good. It’s not nearly as pleasing as the OLED display found in the iPhone XS, but it gets the job done.

Put it this way: Most people wouldn’t notice a difference between the iPhone XR and iPhone XS screens, even if they were staring at both side-by-side. But there is something to be said about OLED’s deeper blacks and the fact that the iPhone XS supports HDR and Dolby Vision playback.

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If I did have one criticism, I’d say the iPhone XR’s bezels are thick. Thicker than what you’d find in the iPhone XS. It’s almost to the point where the device looks like it’s in a case. To be fair, it’s something that becomes less and less noticeable over time, like the iPhone XR’s notch, so it’s not something I’d dwell on.

Something I did dwell on, and something I did not expect, is the fact that the iPhone XR doesn’t have 3D Touch. The technology has essentially floundered since its introduction a few years back. Although it serves a purpose and functions well, I often forget it’s there. But I missed it.

The iPhone XR features long press support with haptic feedback through Apple’s Taptic Engine. It works as expected and provides plenty of feedback, but I never found it quite as satisfying as the iPhone XS’s 3D Touch. When pressing the camera shortcut on the lock screen, for example, I found myself more connected when having to apply pressure, rather than holding down on a static icon.

It doesn’t help that Apple’s implementation feels a little haphazard and limited. You can no longer peek and pop, and many convenient quick actions are gone. I was sure I wouldn’t miss 3D touch on the iPhone XR, but I’m surprised to report I was wrong. I use 3D Touch a lot more than I thought.

Another thing that surprised me about the iPhone XR is its size, which falls between the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, like a middle sibling. While I found it to be comfortable and easy to manage, it’s not exactly a one-size-fits-all. Someone coming from an iPhone with a 4.7-inch display might find the iPhone XR’s 6.1-inch screen downright massive. Making that transition can be jarring.

It means someone who wants a smaller iPhone will either have to go with the iPhone XS, which costs $999, or opt for last year’s iPhone 8. The industry as a whole is trending toward big phones, so Apple’s options aren’t out of the norm. But making its most affordable new smartphone so large seems like an odd decision when its premium devices are already big.

Putting size aside, Apple tries to attract customers to the iPhone XR with a wide array of bright colors, from yellow to blue to coral. I used the blue version and absolutely loved it; it reminded me of my time with Apple’s much-maligned iPhone 5C line—the device that Apple said was “unapologetically plastic.”

Some of the other features include an IP67 rating for dust and water resistance, more durable glass, and a wide stereo speaker system, which sounds good even at max volume. The device also features Apple’s A12 Bionic chip, which is the very same included in the iPhone XS.

That new chip basically means the iPhone XR is as fast as phones that are hundreds of dollars more. And this isn’t true just for Apple’s devices—tests have shown that the iPhone XR trounces some of Apple’s biggest competitors. It also means the device will get fantastic battery life. It doesn’t quite match the battery life of the iPhone XS Max, but it was close.

Along with the A12 Bionic chip, the iPhone XR features Apple’s upgraded Neural Engine, which works in conjunction with the company’s improved algorithms and image signal processor. The new technology supports Apple’s Smart HDR, a feature designed to provide users with images that are more evenly exposed across the board.

The iPhone XR features the same 12-megapixel sensor found in the iPhone XS but lacks a second telephoto lens. If you want a thorough breakdown of the camera’s quality, you can read our iPhone XS review. This review will focus on the pros and cons of the iPhone XR’s single lens.

With no telephoto lens, the iPhone XR’s portrait mode utilizes the device’s wide-angle lens, which I actually prefer. A device like the iPhone XS uses the telephoto lens when using portrait mode, which makes sense for portrait shots. But such zoomed in photos are often limiting.

Taking portrait shots using the iPhone XR’s lens produces images that feel more alive, because you can see the scene around the subject. I know that can be counter to the purpose of a portrait shot, but using a wider lens can also provide more flexibility, because it allows users to crop in after the fact.

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That being said, I use my iPhone X’s telephoto lens a lot, so it was sorely missed on the iPhone XR. I’ve heard from people on both sides of the coin regarding Apple’s telephoto lens, so it’s really a matter of preference.

Even without a second lens, portrait shots taken by the iPhone XR look great. The only problem is the system is very sensitive. Your subject has to be just the right distance from the camera and it has to detect eyeballs in order for it to work.

Unfortunately, the iPhone XR’s portrait mode won’t work on animals or inanimate objects, unlike the iPhone XS. That one for me is a pretty big deal. While I can live without using the iPhone XR’s portrait abilities on inanimate objects, I can’t when it comes to taking pictures of my dog.

The iPhone XR gets many of the best features from its more expensive brothers, including the A12 Bionic chip, excellent camera, and edge-to-edge display. It’s fast, the battery lasts forever, and its array of colors make it a fun alternative to the more luxurious iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max.

Apple is clearly making the iPhone XR the device of the future—at least among mainstream audiences. It’s also priced aggressively at $750 with 64GB of storage. That’s a few hundred dollars cheaper than devices like the LG V40 and Galaxy Note 9.

I own an iPhone X, so the iPhone XR isn’t really for me (neither is the iPhone XS, as I said in my review). But anyone looking to upgrade their iPhone 7 or earlier should seriously consider the iPhone XR, because it offers few comprises compared to Apple’s more expensive options, and is in some instances better.

Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo purchased the iPhone XR with company funds. This review was written after using the iPhone XR for seven days.

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Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell likes to rollerblade while listening to ACDC.

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