Apple iPhone XR full review
Like me, the vast majority of people coming to the iPhone XR will be leaving the Home button behind. Not so long ago I didn’t feel ready to go full-screen at the expense of trusty Touch ID, despite the promise of Animoji, face recognition and selfie portraits. It seemed like giving up the Home button would be too big a change, requiring me to learn new gestures and place my trust in a new security system.
So what has changed this time round? Well, for one, Apple has all-but taken the choice away. If you want a new iPhone then you have to accept either Face ID or much lower specs on the 2020 iPhone SE.
Design & build
Like the more recent iPhone 11, the XR gives you a huge choice in terms of colour. You can choose from red, yellow, white, coral, black and blue.
If you love the metallic look of the older iPhones then maybe you will feel that the bold colours of the iPhone XR look less professional and a little cheaper. But you might equally feel that they let you express yourself.
Like most modern iPhone models, the iPhone XR has a screen that covers the front of the device, with a notch at the top that reveals the Face ID camera and its associated tech. When the iPhone X launched in 2017 the initial reaction was disappointment at the presence of the notch, but as other phone manufactures followed suit, the notch has become a common occurrence, with the alternative being a bigger screen-less area at the top of the phone.
If you are really anti-notch then perhaps eventually the Face ID tech will take up less space and the notch will get smaller, but for now it’s a price you have to pay to get a bigger screen in your hand. As for how the iPhone XR feels in your hand, it’s smaller and lighter than an iPhone 8 Plus, despite having a larger screen, and is the exact same size and weight as the iPhone 11.
Move to the front and you're confronted by the 6.1in display and little else. It’s the same size as the display on the iPhone 11, and larger than that on the 11 Pro (though not the 11 Pro Max of course). If you're more used to the older Plus models, it's a similar size overall, but is longer and thinner.
The XR has an LCD screen, much like the 11, but unlike the OLED panels found in the 11 Pro and XS phones. OLED offers deeper blacks, more accurate colours, and better contrast ratio. This all sounds very impressive, but Apple has done such a good job with the LCD on the iPhone XR that it really isn’t such a big sacrifice.
In some ways, the XR’s LCD is more innovative than the OLED on the iPhone XS. An LCD requires a back light, which is why the bezels are bigger on the iPhone XR, but accommodating a backlight normally requires a chin, so this is a huge achievement. There’s also the fact that this LCD can be tapped to wake. Tap to Wake was an innovation introduced with the iPhone X in 2017 and is missing from the iPhone 8 and below (although those devices can be woken via the Home button).
While the display on the iPhone XR isn’t as pixel-dense as the displays on the XS and XS Max (326 pixels per inch [ppi] compared to 458ppi) there is an advantage here because, although OLEDs can be more power efficient than LCDs, in this case there are fewer pixels to light up, so the iPhone XR should prove less power hungry (we’ll talk more about battery life below).
As for whether it really makes a big difference in terms of all those extra pixels, remember that when Apple introduced the concept of a Retina display with the iPhone 4 back in 2011 it named it ‘Retina’ because 326ppi was how many pixels were discernible by the human eye. So, on that basis, your shouldn’t be able to see more pixels than this anyway.
In terms of waterproofing, this is a little worse than that on the other new iPhones - IP67 instead of IP68. This means the XR is water-resistant up to one metre for up to 30 minutes, while the XS can do the same in two metres of water. Not that I recommend taking either iPhone swimming, because even though they would survive a drop in the water (or the toilet) it may still void your warranty if later on you have a problem and Apple is able to identify that it’s had a bath.
Cameras & Face ID
Returning to the notch and what lies beneath, Apple’s made a few improvements to Face ID. As a result Face ID authentication works faster (you might notice if you were using it previously). The TrueDepth camera isn’t just for Face ID though. It's also your route to the Animoji and Memoji that were previously exclusive to the iPhone X. I quickly bored of these novelty features, but they demonstrate the impressive AI capabilities of the device.
The 7Mp TrueDepth camera can be used to take portrait mode selfies, which might appeal. This mode means that you can take a picture of yourself with the background blurred, for a more natural looking shot that makes you stand out. A new feature in the XR and later models is the ability to adjust the amount of background blur. You don’t have to be an obsessive Instagrammer to benefit from an improved selfie camera.
Switching to the camera on the back of the iPhone, this is probably one of the biggest differentiators from other iPhones. The iPhone XR has just the one 12Mp camera, while the 11 has two 12Mp cameras (a regular and an ultra-wide) and the 11 Pro models throw in a third (telephoto).
While you're getting a very capable main camera, as you'd expect from an iPhone, you're missing out on the option to pull out to a wide-angle or punch in with a zoomed shot.
One of the key benefits of the extra lenses is the ability to take Portrait photos, but the XR doesn't miss out here. Instead of using two lenses, Apple harnesses the power of the processor and other tech to create a Portrait photo without relying on two cameras.
Apple’s done a good job here, although it only works on human faces (so if you want to take a portrait of your cat you are out of luck). It also lacks the stage lighting effects found in the other iPhones, but to be honest I've never taken a photo that was improved by them anyway. In fact I always thought that these options only served to show what a bad job Portrait mode does at cutting out curly hair. There’s a reason why Apple’s marketing shots are always of people with their hair scraped back.
Specs & performance
Before the XR, the last time Apple launched a ‘cheaper’ iPhone was the iPhone SE and prior to that the iPhone 5C. In both cases the components were from the previous generation. But the iPhone XR has the same A12 Bionic processor and Neural Engine as the XS, and as a result there is very little difference in the three iPhones’ performance, as you can see from the charts below.
What’s really interesting is the fact that the iPhone XR actually outperforms the iPhone XS and Max in some areas, largely because it is powering fewer pixels. Note that this is now an older chip however, and even the £419/$399 iPhone SE is powered by the more powerful A13 Bionic.
As for storage, you have the choice between 64GB or 128GB, which we feel is the sweet spot. In fact it’s only £50/$50 more than the 64GB version, so I’d urge anyone to go for the 128GB model.
One difference is RAM, with the iPhone XR having 3GB to the 4GB found in the other full-screen iPhones. To be honest it’s unlikely to make any real difference to you in real life usage and helps achieve the lower price point. Because Apple makes the software and the hardware, memory management is less of a problem compared to some of the competition who max out on RAM. I don’t think that the extra memory is a reason to choose the XS over the XR.
The battery is where things get really interesting. According to iFixit the iPhone XR has a larger battery than the other new iPhones. That goes someway to help the iPhone XR beat the iPhone XS and XS Max in terms of battery life (the fewer pixels on the LCD screen also helps here). It’s interesting that Apple gave this phone the better battery, it’s not even trying to handicap it.
According to Apple the XR should last 1.5 hours longer than the iPhone 8 Plus and I found this to be accurate. This is the best battery life I'd ever seen on an iPhone before the launch of the 11. Even on days of heavy use I was ending the day on around 30% and that's having used maps, streamed music and video online, social media, messaging, calls and emails.
Finally a few words on the software. The XR launched with iOS 12, but can now be updated to iOS 13.
If you are using Android or something else, then Apple provides software that will help you move to iOS. We have all the information about moving from Android to iPhone here, and some more details about setting up a new iPhone here.
Price and availability
The good news is that you no longer have to pay £1,000/$1,000 to get your hands on an all-screen iPhone, as the iPhone XR starts from £629/$599.
That will get you the 64GB model of course, with the extra storage in the 128GB version bumping the price up to £679/$649 - though I think it's worth the upgrade for most.
The challenge for the XR is that while it was great value when it first launched, the newer iPhone 11 challenges that somewhat. £729/$699 gets you a second rear camera lens, a faster processor, better water-resistance, a higher resolution selfie camera, better battery, and an extra year of software updates. Unless you really can't afford the extra £100/$100, the iPhone 11 will be a much better buy for most people.
For more on the rest of the range, take a look at our best iPhone chart.
Should you still buy an iPhone XR in 2020 or beyond?
The XR is remarkably similar to the later iPhone 11, with the same size, screen quality, and build. At £100/$100 cheaper it might thus seem like a no-brainer.
However, software support, battery life, and the second camera lens give the 11 an edge that will make it worth the extra money for most. That means the XR, while still a fantastic phone, is only the best choice if you can find it below the £629/$599 recommended price or on a competitive contract.
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Apple iPhone XR: Specs
- iOS 12
- 6.1in LCD, 1792x828, 326ppi
- A12 Bionic processor
- 64/256/256GB storage
- 12MP camera, f/1.8, OIS
- 7MP front-facing camera, f/2.2
- 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi
- Nano SIM with dual eSIM compatibility
- Haptic Touch
- 150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3 mm