Apple’s flagship smartphones tend to get all the attention, but if you look past the glossy OLED displays of the current XS and XS Max, you’ll find that there's another phone that delivers a huge serving of the flagship Apple smartphone experience in a more colourful and, importantly, more affordable package. We’re talking about the Apple iPhone XR.
Some might dismiss the iPhone XR as the poor man’s iPhone XS, but that would be doing the handset a huge disservice.
Yes it’s a cheaper handset, but we’re talking cheap by Apple’s standards. They’ve never really been a company to scrimp on build quality and there’s no doubt the XR still feels like a premium product.
It’s not as svelte as the iPhone XS, with thicker bezels around the screen, and the 'old' glass black and aluminium design rather than the new stainless steel. But in isolation it still looks the part. The option to add a splash of colour (you can choose from black, blue, white, coral, yellow and red) doesn’t cheapen the look of the handset - the aerospace-grade aluminium band running around the edge of the handset is finished in the same colour and really looks and feels the part.
You get a bigger screen than the iPhone XS (6.1in vs 5.8in) – in fact it’s the biggest LCD display ever fitted to an iPhone. But, compared to its OLED sibling, both resolution (1972 x 828 vs 2436 x 1125) and pixel density (326ppi vs 458ppi) are lower. Does that impact picture quality? We’ll come to that shortly.
Screen size 6.1in
Resolution 1792 x 828
Operating system iOS 12
Dimensions (hwd) 15.1 x 7.6 x 0.8cm
The Liquid Retina HD Display features Apple’s True Tone tech, which means it uses a light sensor to adjust the white balance to match the colour temperature around you. In reality it makes the picture slightly easier on your eyes by giving it a slightly warmer hue, especially in darker environments.
Under the hood, you’ll find the same A12 Bionic chip used by the XR’s pricier siblings. Its CPU and GPU (both Apple-designed) are both faster and more efficient than the previous-generation A11 chip found in the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.
The XR certainly makes short work of skipping through iOS 12. Scrolling and navigating between menus is seamless with apps speedy to both open and respond to your swipes.
One area where the iPhone XR does lose out to its pricier siblings is the camera. There's only a single 12MP wide-angle lens on the XR, compared to the dual arrangement (wide-angle and telephoto) on the XS and XS Max.
But you still get up to 5x digital zoom, Portrait mode, a six-element TrueTone flash and it can still use Apple’s Smart HDR feature.
In practice, the XR’s camera works perfectly well by modern smarpthone standards. Pictures look clear and sharp with balanced colours and good levels of detail. They’re not quite up to the standard of pictures offered by the Google Pixel 3 or the Huawei P30 Pro, but for those of you just looking for a capable point-and-shoot snapper, the XR will do the job well and with minimal fuss.
You might expect the cheaper price to mean compromised battery life too, but the iPhone XR actually trumps both the XS and bigger XS Max, with up to 25 hours of talk time and up to 16 hours of wireless video playback.
Yes, the iPhone XR does have a notch across the top of the screen, but in our experience you soon get used to it, and the only time it does impact the picture is when you tap to expand it full-screen. We wouldn’t recommend doing this, though. By expanding it, you actually end up cropping what you’re watching top and bottom.
Overall, the iPhone XR delivers a nicely rounded image that’s easy on the eye. Colours are reproduced in an even, balanced manner. There’s no sense of them being overbaked, which is something you can get with some rivals. Skin tones look natural, rather than flushed, and there’s a good level of black detail in the opening scenes of The Umbrella Academy on Netflix.
It’s only really when you place the XR up against its OLED siblings directly that you start to see a difference or two. And, they’re really only down to the two types of display technology being used.
In testing we found blacks to be that little bit deeper when viewed on the iPhone XS. Whites are also slightly punchier and more pronounced as Luther emerges from Moon Station 01. There’s much more of an obvious contrast between the blackness of space and the lights emitting from each window of his space home.
The smaller screen size and higher pixel density of the XS also make for slightly sharper and crisper outlines of objects, but the XR still holds its own and it’s worth remembering you are getting a larger image for your money too.
Included in the XR specs is support for HDR10 video and Dolby Vision HDR, but you should note the phone’s display doesn’t actually meet HDR for mobile standards, unlike the OLED screens fitted to the XS and XS Max. You might see a slight improvement with HDR content, but you’re not getting the same benefits.
There's no headphone jack on the iPhone XR, and no bundled dongle, so your options are to use the supplied Lightning Earpods (which sound distinctly average), use the dongle from your old iPhone, or partner the XR with a pair of suitable wireless headphones (the iPhone supports the Bluetooth 5.0 standard).
To their credit, the built-in speakers produce Apple’s ‘wider stereo sound’ with a fine sense of conviction. They sound more capable and controlled than a number of rivals. Of course you’re more likely to get funny looks than earth-shattering bass, listening to music through a smartphone enclosure, but for the odd blast in the comfort of your own home, the XR is perfectly palatable.
But, like most iPhones we’ve tested, the phone really comes into its own when listening with a decent pair of headphones. These could be a budget pair of Beyerdynamic Soul Byrds or a premium pair of Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless over-ears and the iPhones XR’s entertaining character still shines through.
A great sense of rhythm and musicality is something we’ve come to expect from Apple’s smartphones, and the XR gets your toes tapping in no time.
Play Royal Blood’s Figure It Out and the XR starts its assault on your senses with a simple, yet purposeful guitar riff. Once the drum kit arrives on the scene you get a proper feel for the iPhone XR’s impeccable sense of timing, which starts to drive the song home. There’s detail in abundance with the crisp drum thwacks clearly and concisely communicated, as are the subtle differences in dynamics.
There’s a great sense of openness and clarity to the soundstage, as a quick blast of Umi Copper’s All will testify. You’ve got percussion, strings, piano, bassline and vocal all vying for your attention at various points in the track, and the iPhone gives each one room to breathe without sacrificing their impact. The vocal still steals the show, acting as the glue for all the other elements, and the XR organises and arranges everything in a regimented, yet wholly fluid soundscape.
So where does this leave the iPhone XR? Well, we think it sits right in the sweet spot of Apple’s current smartphone line-up.
It’s significantly cheaper than both the XS and XS Max and the reality is that the XR delivers a huge chunk of what the pricier models offer. The user experience is virtually identical, as is the processing power on offer. No, the camera isn’t quite as good as its siblings and picture quality can be bettered, but you’ll need to pay more upfront.
Not only does the XR boast better battery life, you also have the option of a 128GB version, which should cater for most people, and it’s a size that isn’t available for the XS or XS Max. It not only stacks up well against its family members, it displays a level of musicality that rivals brands can only dream of. A smart choice for those who want a bite of the Apple for a relatively affordable price.
- Screen 5
- Sound 5
- Features 5
Read our Apple iPhone XS review
Read our Google Pixel 3a review
Many thanks to 3 for supplying the handset for this review