iPhone XR hands-on review

Classy and colorful, the iPhone XR is all the phone most people need

The iPhone XR is a solid choice if you want what flagship iPhones offer, without the flagship price.
The iPhone XR is a solid choice if you want what flagship iPhones offer, without the flagship price.
The iPhone XR is a solid choice if you want what flagship iPhones offer, without the flagship price.

Highs

  • Fantastic performance
  • Great screen
  • Strong camera features
  • Gorgeous color options
  • IP67 water resistance

Lows

  • Still expensive
  • Thick bezels give a cheap-looking vibe
  • No fast charging

Apple unveiled three iPhones last year, and it looks like we can continue to expect a set of three for the foreseeable future. In 2017, the most expensive iPhone was the odd one out. This year, it’s the cheapest — the iPhone XR (that’s pronounced ten-R). It shares similar qualities as the new iPhone Xs and Xs Max, but there’s a reason why it’s $250 less expensive than the entry-level Xs.

Design: An iPhone 8 merged with an iPhone X

Apple tends to offer more color options for its cheaper devices, and that hasn’t changed with the iPhone XR. It’s one of the most noticeable traits of the phone, as it comes in Product (Red), white, coral, black, blue, and a mesmerizing yellow (our favorite of the lot). In comparison, the Xs and Xs Max only come in three colors that are more elegant than flashy.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

From the back, the iPhone XR looks like an iPhone 8. That’s because of its next distinguishing characteristic, a single-lens camera that’s slightly raised. We’ll get to the camera later, but don’t underestimate it just because it has one lens. It shares many of the same features as the Xs and Xs Max. The aluminum frame around the edges feels high-end, and the glass — which is Apple’s “most durable” — is capable of wireless charging.

From the back, the iPhone XR looks like an iPhone 8.

You can say goodbye to Touch ID. Gone are the chunky bezels that surround the screen, as well as the home button. The iPhone XR’s design is a lot like the iPhone X, but a few differences are noticeable. The edges around the screen — the bezels — are thicker, which gives the iPhone XR a cheaper vibe. Still, the bezels are much thinner than the iPhone 8. The 6.1-inch screen puts the XR squarely between the 5.8-inch iPhone Xs and the 6.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus. It’s comfortable to hold, and not cumbersome at all.

The screen technology quite impressive, and perhaps the biggest internal difference between the XR and other iPhones. This is an LCD screen, which Apple has named Liquid Retina HD display. That’s a 1,792 x 828 resolution (326 pixels per inch), which doesn’t sound high, but content on the screen managed to look quite sharp. It’s a wide color display with support for True Tone, which means the screen’s color will adapt to the ambient lighting surrounding you. We watched a few scenes from Ready Player One, and colors in the film were well saturated with surprisingly deep black levels. It’s excellent.

The iPhone XR isn’t the flagship, but we think most people will be satisfied with it. The phone is even rated for IP67 water resistance, so it can stay submerged up to 1 meter for 30 minutes. That’s as good as the iPhone Xs or Xs Max, but most people just need water resistance to hold up in rain or survive an accidental drop in a puddle.

Stunning performance, iOS 12, and battery life

Apple’s new A12 Bionic processor powers all the new iPhones, including the iPhone XR. It boasts a “next-generation Neural Engine,” which now has 8 cores, and overall the chip can process 5 trillion operations per second. It’s impressive, and it means the iPhone XR can handle anything you’d throw at it.

iPhone XR
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

We played Elder Scrolls: Blades, a new game from Bethesda due to release later this year, and were blown away by the detailed graphics. It’s among the most attractive mobile games we’ve ever seen, and it looked incredibly smooth in motion. Walking around and moving the camera was fluid, with zero stutter or lag. We also tried an ARKit 2.0 game, and it managed to seamlessly layer detailed graphics over the real world. Granted, all of this was done in a controlled demo, so we’ll need to do further testing to see just how far the A12 Bionic processor can take us.

We played Elder Scrolls: Blades […] and were blown away by the detailed graphics.

With the removal of the home button, you now need to use gestures first introduced with the iPhone X to navigate the operating system. It’s one of the best gesture systems we’ve used on a smartphone, and we didn’t run into any performance problems moving around the OS, or with opening and switching between apps. The iPhone XR runs iOS 12, which drops September 17, and you can read our guide on everything that’s new with the latest version.

Battery-wise, Apple claims the iPhone XR can last up to 1.5 hours longer than the iPhone 8 Plus, which means you can expect about a full day of use. We’ll need to use the phone for a few days to see more precise measurements, and to see if Apple’s claims ring true.

A strong camera

The iPhone XR has the same 12-megapixel camera as the Xs, with a f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization. The camera includes an all new sensor over last year’s models, which should deliver stronger photos. But there are two features we’re particularly excited about: Portrait Mode and Smart HDR.

That’s right — despite only having one lens, Apple has introduced Portrait Mode into the iPhone XR, just like Google managed with the Pixel 2. The results probably won’t live up to the dual-camera system on the Xs and Xs Max, but the brief shots we snapped looked great. It managed to accurately identify the edges around a person’s face and the blur effect was strong. You can also access the Portrait Lighting features Apple introduced with the iPhone X last year.

iPhone XR
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Portrait Mode also has a new feature: You can now change the depth of field after you snap a photo. It’s a feature we’ve seen on some Android phones for quite some time, but it’s good to see it included even on Apple’s more reasonably priced phone.

The camera didn’t have any shutter lag, and the photos we took in the event space looked great.

Smart HDR is a completely new feature that captures a lot of photos at the same time. With the help of the A12 Bionic processor, the camera chooses the best of each to create one photo with excellent dynamic range. That means you won’t need to worry about photos being too overexposed or underexposed in dynamic lighting conditions. However, we haven’t been able to test this yet. Apple also said you can record stereo sound with the camera, and there’s extended dynamic range, but these were also outside what we could test during our hands-on.

The front-facing, 7-megapixel camera (with f/2.2 aperture) snapped a few nice selfies in our testing — including Portrait Mode selfies, thanks to the TrueDepth camera on the front. Expect to be able to create Animojis and Memojis with iOS 12 on this device, as well

The camera didn’t have any shutter lag, and the photos we took in the event space looked great. This is an area we’ll be testing much more rigorously when we get our hands on the iPhone XR. As with its design and performance, the camera is likely more than adequate for most people.

Price and availability

The iPhone XR starts at $750 and comes with either 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB storage options. It will be available for pre-order starting October 19 and arrives on October 26.

Though more affordable than its peers, the iPhone XR is still an expensive phone. We’d like to see Apple offer an even more affordable entry. Still, the iPhone XR looks like a great option for people who want most of what flagship iPhones offer, without paying $1,000 (or more).

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