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Apple may have killed off the iPhone XR, but it still stands the test of time

As the iPhone 13 takes its place as the iPhone literally everyone should buy, the question still exists: Should I upgrade to the new iPhone, or should I keep my old one? To find out, I went back to a much older iPhone — the 2018 iPhone XR — for just over a week to see how well it would fare in 2021. Back when we reviewed it, we praised it as the “budget” iPhone to buy. This device was loaned to me by the folks at Back Market, so it’s a refurb without all the dings and nicks that you’d have on an actively used phone.

A game changer with a legacy

The iPhone XR may be old now, but it’s an important iPhone that preceded the current iPhones like the iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and the most recent iPhone 13. It’s a phone that would be considered less than the “real” iPhone, but an iPhone nonetheless. Apple tried this sort of non-standard iPhone model with the SE and the iPhone 5C before. In many ways, the iPhone XR kicked off the standardization of Apple’s lineup, and it also became one of the bestselling iPhones in its day. After using it, it’s not a surprise.

Apple chief design officer Jony Ive (L) and Apple CEO Tim Cook inspect the new iPhone XR
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hardware that lasts and software that works

The iPhone XR’s rounded corners, wide notch, and single camera combine late 2010s iPhone aesthetics with some of the older iPhone 6-style designs. It’s a bit weightier than it should be, but the rounded corners mean that it doesn’t dig into your fingers.

Inside, there’s an A12 chip, the same 3GB of RAM as in the iPhone X, and a battery that lasts all day. It has a 2,942mAh at 100% capacity, though with a used model, you’re likely going to see some battery degradation. There’s a single 12-megapixel camera, so I had to stick with software for portrait mode, and don’t even think of trippy wide-angle shots. The front-facing camera is 7 megapixels, so it’s not the best either.

When it came to what’s most important, the iPhone XR performed. It was fast enough to complete all tasks without me thinking “this is a 2018 phone.” The display, though poor on paper, was perfectly adequate and not offensive at all. I use a QHD display on my laptop, and my cheapest Pixel has a Full HD OLED display, but I can understand why I still see so many XRs around London.

iPhone XR
iPhone XR Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends / Digital Trends

What really stood out to me was the battery life. iPhones were dinged for having poor battery life in the past, but the XR has genuinely good battery life, even at 90% battery capacity. I thought this would be one of those things where a phone praised for having good battery life would struggle outside the context of the competition of the time, but even now, it holds up. A look at one of AnandTech’s intensive battery tests tells me the iPhone XR can be expected to perform better than the Galaxy S21 and S20+ in terms of runtime. Apple clearly put some serious work into nailing optimization.

As far as Phones being slowed down by updates, the iOS 15 update seems to have skipped that particular issue for the iPhone XR. It’s a small update and is completely unremarkable other than a) it works, and b) focus modes require their own college degree to set up.

I’m not going to say it’s perfect because there are things about the XR that still bug me. The front camera is a bit meh for Facetime or Duo, the low-resolution display holds it back, and the rear cameras could be better. That these quibbles are the only things that stood out to me after using a phone that’s over three years old is a testament to how thoughtfully the iPhone XR was conceived.

Is the iPhone XR still worth it in 2021?

I’m not sure what I was expecting with my weeklong experiment. I’ve been using much newer phones like the Pixel 5 that come with 5G support, Full HD OLED screens, multiple cameras, and speedy refresh rates, and the XR has none of that. Yet, I wasn’t overly bothered. The iPhone XR was a perfectly competent phone that still competes favorably with midrange smartphones in the $400 market, especially when it comes to performance and camera capabilities.

If you want to decide between the iPhone XR and a cheap Android phone, there are a few things that you can consider. If you want recent updates, the XR wins out. Performance? The XR will likely win there, too. On the other hand, hardware niceties like multicamera systems on phones like the OnePlus Nord 2 add genuine flexibility that you can’t replicate on this phone, nor can you get the 5G connectivity found on many more modern affordable phones.

And there’s a lot to be gained from adopting the newer iPhones. Not just in complicated features like deep fusion, but boring and understated features that make new phones good for day-to-day use. The iPhone XR has good battery life, while the iPhone 13 has amazing battery life. The iPhone XR has a decent single camera, while all the currently available iPhone models have at least a dual camera setup (the iPhone SE excepted). And once again, all the screens are now OLED, and there’s 5G support.

iPhone XR wallet case feat image.
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I’m not going to go out and say you should buy an iPhone XR right now. If you already have an iPhone XR, XS, XS Max, or slightly newer model and you’re wondering if you should upgrade, you’ll carefully peruse our reviews to see what parts of your experience you’d like updated and decide whether you can stick with it for longer. Remember, next year’s iPhone will always be better, and the longer the wait, the bigger the jump. 

But if you’re budget-strapped and you can find the iPhone XR in stock somewhere (likely refurbished), you’ll be served with a phone that can still easily last for the next two to three years with minimal hitches. There aren’t many phones that can say that these days, which is what makes the iPhone XR such an impressive device. 

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