First impressions and design
- Big screen in a compact phone
- Striking colour options means it stands out in a crowd
- Heavier than the XS, but still a light handset
When Apple unveiled its 2018 iPhone range back in September, it was the top-of-the-range iPhone XS and super-sized iPhone XS Max that hoovered-up all the headlines.
The iPhone XR is the less costly option. With prices starting at £749 or not far shy of £50 per month on a monthly contract, though, that’s not to say it’s cheap. Merely that it’s more affordable by Apple’s standards.
It perhaps goes without saying then that it doesn’t certainly doesn’t feel cheap in the hand either.
Granted, when held next to the iPhone XS, it’s easy to tell the XR is the lower-priced model.
For one thing, the XR is thicker than the XS and, weighing in at 194g to the XS’ 177g, is noticeably heftier.
The ‘bezels’ (otherwise known as the edges that surround the screen) are a few millimetres larger too. And while the sides of the XS are fashioned from gleaming steel, the XR’s are matte aluminium, which is a bit of a step down.
All that means is that overall the XR feels ever so slightly less ‘polished’ and less ‘premium’ than its costlier cousin.
However, that’s not to say it’s not a well built and very striking smartphone.
Our review unit came in coral, which adds a welcome splash of colour to the smartphone world. The upshot is that it stands out a mile next to the sea of generic handsets on the market. And the blue, yellow and red editions of the XR look even better.
From the front, the XR looks very similar to the XS. There’s no home button on either handset. And the XR’s got the same all-screen front that takes up almost the entire surface of the handset, except for the notch cut-out at the top.
What’s more, belying the received wisdom that bigger phones pretty much always come with bigger price tags, at 6.1-inches the XR’s screen is actually larger than the 5.8-inch display on the XS.
It’s pretty sharp too, as we’ll see when we take a closer look at the display later on.
The all-screen design also means that although the XR houses a pretty big screen, the device itself is still pretty compact.
That’s good news for those of you with smaller hands, who’ll find it easier to reach the corners of the screen. And makes it much more practical to use one-handed than the 6.5-inch XS Max.
Around the back, you’ll notice there’s a single-lens camera instead of the double-lens pairings that star on the XS and XS Max. We’ll get to how much that impacts on performance and the quality of snaps you can get in a bit.
||Glass body with metal frame
||150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3mm
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Screen and sound
- Crisp, bright screen, if not quite up there with iPhone XS
- No headphone jack. And no adaptor in the box, either
- Notch at the top eats into display
The iPhone XR’s screen is technically lower-resolution than the XS and uses lower-grade LCD rather than OLED tech. What that means is that it’s a bit less bright. Blacks don’t look quite so black and colours ‘pop’ a bit less.
Although, to be perfectly honest, you need a highly trained eye to notice the difference. And for us, the XR definitely seems better and brighter than the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, which the XR is effectively replacing in Apple’s smartphone hierarchy.
At 6.1 inches, the XR’s screen is a great size for watching media on the go and feels genuinely immersive. In fact, everything – whether it was apps, movies or photos – looked pretty fantastic.
So much so that we found ourselves admiring our own photographic efforts on Instagram much longer than we would do normally.
In what may be a pain point for some, though, the notch at the top of the display (which houses the front-facing camera) eats into the available screen space. We don’t find it obtrusive, however, and after a while, even forgot it was there at all.
But if you are among the naysayers who’d prefer a notch-free display, it’ll come as a disappointment that the notch is just as big as last year’s iPhone X.
Given that the likes of OnePlus and Huawei have recently released phones with much smaller notches, it’s surprising that Apple hasn’t also found a way to shrink the cut-outs on its displays, too.
As you’ll expect if you’ve been keeping up with the evolution of iPhones over the last few years, there’s no 3.5mm headphone slot. So if you want to use your own wired headphones, you’ll need to shell out for an adaptor.
No longer supplied in the XR box, it'll set you back a pretty cheeky £9 from the Apple Store.
The stereo speakers are crisp and loud by smartphone standards. Although they’re definitely not as loud or as clear as speakers on the iPhone XS, they’re certainly in line with the iPhone X.
If there’s a lot ambient noise around or you’re outdoors or on the Tube, you might struggle to hear. But they’re just fine for quieter environments.
||1125 x 2436 pixels (XS), 1242 x 2688 pixels (XS Max)
- Single lens camera, but you can still take bokeh shots
- Selfies and low-light performance is good
- Colours don’t ‘pop’ as much as iPhone XS
Dual lens cameras that allow you to take depth-of-field shots, by blurring out the background and bring your subject into super-sharp focus, have been a feature of the iPhone range since 2016’s iPhone 7 Plus.
The iPhone XR eschews a double-lens pairing in favour of a single 12-megapixel wide-angle lens. It’s also got a f1/8 aperture to let in light, as well as optical image stabilisation to minimise blurrycam.
So what difference does it make having just a single lens? Does it mean you can’t take depth-of-field/bokeh shots? Actually, it doesn’t.
But instead of using hardware to do the job, it’s software that handles the heavy lifting in Portrait Mode.
Compared to the XS, the bokeh effect on the XR is slightly less pronounced. And as a result the effect can be a bit less dramatic.
We also noticed that occasionally the blur effect creeps onto the edges of the subject, which isn’t ideal.
In isolation, though, XR portrait shots look really good. And if you’re not happy you can adjust the level the level of bokeh after you’ve taken the shot with a slider. Which may yield better results.
It’s also worth noting that while the XS can apply depth-of-field to any subject (animals, plants, designer toys and anything else you’d care to shoot), with the XR the bokeh effect only works on people. So if portrait shots are your thing, you may want to plump for the XS or XS Max instead.
For general snapping, we noticed that while the XR’s colour reproduction is very good, compared with the iPhone XS they appear less saturated and not quite as vibrant. That may suit you, if you favour more natural-looking colours. But we much prefer the more ‘popping’ hues of the XS.
That said, we managed to get some very, very good snaps with the XR, with plenty of detail.
That’s thanks to the Smart HDR technology, which comes to the rescue in situations where there’s high-contrast dark and light areas. Low-light performance is terrific and the camera’s quick to start up and focuses fast too.
One thing we did miss from the XS is the secondary telephoto lens for snaps taken from long range.
The result is that there’s a tangible loss of detail in the zoomed-in XR shots compared with XS photos. So you’re going to have to get closer or change your vantage point to get comparable results.
Around the front of the handset, there's seven-megapixel camera that serves up some pleasing selfies, helped in no small measure by the fact that it’s got the same TrueDepth bokeh camera system as the iPhone XS.
So you can take selfies with the same depth-of-field effect.
||Single-lens 12MP main camera and 7MP front camera
|Optical image stabilisation
||4K recording and time-lapse
The same, brand-new iOS 12 software that powers the XS and XS Max is at the heart of the iPhone XR, too. That means, from ScreenTime to Memoji, if it’s on the latter, it’s on the former too.
The only exception is 3DTouch. That’s the pressure-sensitive system that allows you to press harder on apps for shortcuts to key features and to get previews. But given that 3D Touch isn’t as widely used as Apple hoped, we don’t suppose too many of will miss it.
By some distance the feature that’s generated the most headlines, ScreenTime is intended to make you more ‘mindful’ of how use your phone. And if you’re spending too much time with it, help you to nip your addictive habit in the bud.
Located in Settings, it allows you see how much time you’re spending on your handset, as well as how many times per day you pick it up. And even which apps (CF: Netflix, YouTube, Instagram) are soaking up your time.
Assuming you’re minded to reduce your usage, you can then schedule downtime from the phone and apply parental controls, so your kids can’t while away hours on games when they should be hitting the books.
It’s a handy app, if you’re worried about phone usage. The layout’s appealing and clean. And the information is useful and germane. But whether it’ll make you change your ways is a moot point.
As an iPhone XS Max owner since day one, I’ve had the option to use ScreenTime for several weeks now. And I’ll admit that initially I was a bit shocked by how readily I’d reach for phone during the day.
But after a while I’d normalised my phone habits and didn’t think twice about them. This far down the track with my iPhone XS Max and I’m certainly no less inclined to pick up my phone during idle moments than I was before.
Improved facial scanning security
As with the iPhone XS that we tested last month, the XR is equipped with an improved version of Apple’s Face ID facial scanning security system.
In the week we spent with the XR we found it performed just as well, unlocking the phone in milliseconds in good lighting conditions. Despite Apple’s proclamations that Face ID 2.0 is faster than its first incarnation, though, it didn’t feel any quicker to us.
On the few occasions that it struggled to register my face, I was hunkered down in a dark room, when it’d typically take a few seconds longer than normal to recognise me.
Once or twice it failed completely and I’d be prompted to unlock the phone using my passcode. But in light of the fact that that I unlock my phone 30-40 times per day (I’ve got ScreenTime to thank for that information, natch), that’s a failure rate I can live with.
Memoji and new Animoji
Animoji iPhone XR
iPhone XR animoji
If you liked the Animoji animated avatars that Apple introduced last year, you’re in luck. iOS 12 introduces a host of new ones, including a bagel, cupcake and mango, as well as a llama, mosquito and kangaroo.
But it’s Memoji that’s what’s really new here. These are cartoony likenesses of yourself, which you cobble together from a selection of pre-fab facial features. And then use the front-facing camera to capture your tics and movements.
Creating Animoji and Memoji is fun and it’s a neat and well executed feature. They’re perhaps bit on the silly side if you’re as old as me. But the quality and accuracy of the motion-capture is very impressive. And kids, teens and the young-at-heart seem very taken with them, indeed.
Instead of larding your phone with lots of separate individual notifications, iOS 12 groups them by apps and by thread.
They then appear on your screen much like a deck of cards, with all related notifications laid on top of each other.
Naturally, it looks much tidier. And is worth its weight in gold for instances when you’ve been mistakenly CC’d into a group chat that doesn’t concern you.
Or when a flurry of messages is sent to your phone and you’re not in a position to reply instantly.
Performance and battery life
- Brilliant battery life. The best of any iPhone
- Fast and smooth to use
- Fast charge-capable. But no cable in the box
At the heart of the iPhone XR is the same powerful A12 Bionic processor as the XS range, although the former has 3GB of RAM compared to the latter’s 4GB.
As you’d expect for a brand new phone with high-end specs, the XR is zippy to use. And despite the relative reduction in RAM compared to the XS, seems just as adept at multi-tasking.
We certainly didn’t encounter any problems or slowdown while running multiple apps simultaneously, with lots of background activity. Or when playing resource-heavy 3D racing games (think: Real Racing 3) and AR diversions, such as AR Dragon.
Even more impressive is the XR’s battery life. According to Apple, a series of optimisations and clever battery management means you can expect an hour longer usage than the iPhone X and one and a half hour longer than the iPhone 8 Plus.
We actually found we got a bit more than that. On days we used the phone heavily, we easily got through the whole day without having to recharge the XR’s 2,942mAh battery. And with screen brightness turned down to 60%, we got as much as two hours more than the XS.
On days when we made lighter use of the XR, we got away without charging it overnight and only had to plug in at mid-morning while at work.
That adds up to what may be the best battery on any iPhone. We’re not sure why that’s the case. After all the higher-end XS and XS Max have the same battery optimisations. But as surprises go, it’s a very welcome one.
Our only bugbear with the XR when it comes to the battery is that although there’s a fast-charge option there’s no USB-C to Lightning cable in the box. If you want an Apple official one, that’ll cost you £20.
Oh and you’ll need to invest in a USB-C Power Adaptor too, for an additional £70.
|OS and version
- Water-resistant up to 1 metre
- Robust and scratch-resistant
Before all-screen phones hit the market, scare stories in the tech press posited they’d be much more vulnerable to breakages than devices with displays that were buttressed with heftier bezels.
That doesn’t seem to be the case so far. Certainly, the XR’s blend of aluminium and tough, scratch-resistant glass feels very solid and robust indeed.
We accidentally dropped it from height a few times on to hard surfaces and it came through right as rain.
In our time with it, the handset didn’t pick up any nicks or scratches either, despite hanging out in our pocket with keys and coins.
The XR isn’t quite as water-resistant as the XS models, though. They’re rated IP88, which means they’ll survive in water up to 1.5 metres deep for up to half an hour.
The XR is only IP67-rated, but will still withstand submersion in 1 metre of water for the same time.
Of course, in practice if you drop your phone in the bath or shower you’re going to fish it out instantly.
So IP67 should be plenty enough protection for anyone. And it’s more than capable of surviving a spillage of other liquids and exposure to rainwater too.
Value and verdict
- Single lens camera, but it’s still a very good performer
- Absolutely fantastic battery life
- Most of the XS range’s best features for much less outlay
- No 3D Touch, but you probably won’t miss it
- Water-resistant, robust construction
- Notch is large by standards of some rival phones
- It’s a shame fast-charging accessories cost extra
- Screen isn’t as bright as XS. Still pretty vibrant, though
The XS and XS Max are undeniably superb phones. And if you absolutely, positively have to have a top-of-the-range iPhone, then you’ll probably he happy to bite the bullet and pay their steep asking prices.
But the XR is proof that you don’t have to spend anything like that much to bag yourself a state-of-the-art smartphone.
Sure, you’re getting a slightly less great camera, a slightly less popping screen and it’s bit less sleek.
But for £250 less than the XS and XS Max, you get the same eye-catching all-screen design, incredible battery life and all that iOS 12 has got to offer.
With a selection of cute colours and a well chosen suite of features, it’s an excellent smartphone at a very fair price.
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