You do not buy an iPhone because of its specifications. If specifications are what you crave, then you should be happy with a OnePlus 6 (or a 6T) or the “new king of excess” the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. If you are one of those types, I would suggest you stop reading right here, because this review of the iPhone XR is not for everyone. It’s basically to let existing iPhone users know that there is finally a better, sensible iPhone out there that is now priced at Rs 76,900 for the 64 GB model, which indeed is not too far away from the spec-heavy Galaxy Note 9 that retails at Rs 67,900 for the 128 GB variant.
For the average iPhone user who wants to upgrade from an iPhone 8, both the XS and XS Max won't make much sense keeping in mind their sky-high price tags. And this is where I would recommend having a long hard look at the iPhone XR instead.
If you are looking at upgrading from an iPhone 6S or an iPhone 7, the iPhone XR, again, is the sensible option to upgrade to from a bezel-heavy iPhone 8, and here’s why!
Design and build: 8/10
The iPhone XR looks like an iPhone X and an iPhone 8 had a baby. It’s got the eyes of the iPhone 8 and the looks of an iPhone X (with the notch) but uses 7000 series aluminium body instead of the stainless steel seen on the iPhone X and XS. With the notch at the front that reveals its family roots, the back almost looks like an iPhone 8, especially when you look at that single camera setup.
I received the Black version of XR and to be honest, I was a little disappointed that it did not look as elegant as the iPhone XS. It does feel like solid and expensive though. The phone is IP 67 rated for water and dust resistance, which means you can take the XR underwater (up to a meter) for 30 minutes. It also has some heft to it (195 grams), which feels abnormally heavy for a smartphone this small. I say small because my primary device for the past year had been the gigantic iPhone 8 Plus.
Those with small hands who are comfortable with the iPhone 6s, the 7 or the 8, will not find it overwhelming or massive. There’s the iPhone XS Max to give you that feeling. And this is why I believe that the iPhone XR hits the sweet spot.
You get a large 6.1-inch display in the body of a device that is slightly larger than the iPhone 8 (and iPhone X, XS) but not as massive as the iPhone 8 Plus or the iPhone XS Max.
In short, it’s a brilliant solution, allowing iPhone users who are used to a smaller device to upgrade to a device with a bigger display than an iPhone 8 Plus, but with a form factor that’s a lot smaller than it. You get a bigger display, at the price tag that’s lower than the iPhone XS, and it will add value for an iPhone 6s, 7 or 8 user as well. The size gives them a lot more display estate, allowing them to do a lot more with their iPhone, like watching movies and photos at ease, or playing games on a bigger display and so on. But the benefits do not stop here.
It may not be an OLED display, the likes of which grace the X, XS and XS Max, but it is a pretty good one, considering how much it gets done.
Firstly, you can barely tell that there is a notch if you have a black wallpaper set like in the image shown below. This is impressive, considering it is an IPS LCD.
The colours on this wide colour display (P3) are pretty accurate on what Apple has branded as a ‘Liquid Retina HD display’. Coming from iPhones with LCD displays, I was more than happy that Apple did not settle for a cheaper OLED unit, but went with a quality IPS LCD instead.
There no pink shimmer or a red tinge when you view the display off-center, as you would see on the OLED panels of the XS and XS Max. It’s a simple LCD with a backlight and it has some interesting tech around the edges that make it look really polished and premium even with those thick bezels.
There’s almost zero colour shifting when viewed off-centre, with the only problem being the slightly lowered brightness when viewed from an angle. Again, comparing the LCD panel to the OLED one on the XS Max, there’s really no difference apart from the deep OLED blacks even though the Max’s display showcased sharper text and icons. In fact, the LCD panel appeared a tab bit brighter in direct sunlight. The point is just this, as far as the display is concerned, the iPhone XS does little to justify the Rs 23,000 premium that Apple is charging.
Heck, the XR even supports Dolby Vision (HDR) playback on Netflix. The XS also supports the HDR-10 standard, which means that you can view HDR content on YouTube, but is that really such a big deal?
3D Touch is not available and Apple has kind of replaced those gestures with a long press that now generates haptic feedback (more in the Software section). But how much do you use 3D Touch? More importantly, do you even know what 3D Touch is?
Yes, most of us will laugh when Apple sells us an HD display in 2018 with a Rs 76,900 sticker price, but if you didn't know it, you wouldn't care. The display is stunning and impressively sharp. And this is coming from a reviewer who finds flaws in QHD+ displays.
Apple has been one of the last manufacturers to leave LCD displays and join the OLED race, and this colour-accurate, Liquid Retina HD display certainly deserves a standing ovation.
Honestly, the only details you will miss even if you happen to be upgrading from an iPhone 6S is 3D Touch. But even that is only a minor inconvenience for the few of us who use and like the feature. Long-press replaces most of the 3D Touch gestures anyway.
As for everything else, it hits the sweet spot. You get a 6.1-inch HD LCD IPS display, a brand-new A12 Bionic SoC (with the next-generation Neural Engine), 3 GB RAM that won’t annoy you as much as the Pixel 3 XL does with 4 GB, and up to 256 GB of internal storage, which should be plenty.
As with the Google Pixels, Apple too took the "courageous" step of opting to go with a single camera setup on the rear. The only camera you get on the back is a 12 MP wide-angle camera with an f/1.8 aperture, OIS and PDAF at the back and a TrueDepth Camera with a 7 MP sensor with an f/2.2 aperture sitting inside that notch on the front.
As for the software, the phone runs iOS 12.0.1 out of the box. Connectivity options include Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ac Wi‑Fi, NFC, GPS and support for 4G LTE bands that can be run in dual SIM mode (nano + electronic).
In comparison to the iPhone XS or the XS Max, the XR does skip on Gigabit LTE, which will possibly result in slower data speeds, but even that, again, is not particularly relevant when the maximum speed we can usually expect here is around 10 Mbps, on a good day.
Powering the XR is a 2,942 mAh battery, which is a wee bit smaller than the unit on the iPhone XS Max (3,174 mAh) but bigger than the unit in the XS (2,658 mAh). And the battery does make a big difference, as I will explain in the Battery Life section.
Running iOS 12.0.1, the iPhone XR, with all of its hardware horsepower, is capable of opening, running and multi-tasking like a champ. Even if the display is not a massive leap in size from the now standard XS, you do get the landscape layout for apps that currently support the feature. This is because the XR, despite offering the same resolution as the iPhone 8, supports the UI dimensions of the iPhone 8 Plus. Still, the XR, and even the XS Max don't support more powerful features like split-screen multitasking, where two apps can run simultaneously. In this regard, iOS does feel a step behind Android.
After more than a week’s usage, I can conclude that I barely came across any software bugs in iOS 12. This is a pleasant change from the bug-ridden iOS 11 that came before it. One major bug that most will come across, though, is the dual speaker bug, where the top speaker gets switched off, leaving the bigger bottom firing speaker to do all the heavy work. My solution was a simple restart after which both speakers worked perfectly and delivered fantastic and immersive stereo sound. This is a software bug that many believe will be fixed in an upcoming software update. In my one week of usage, I came across this only once.
The other most popular issue surrounds the over-processing that happens when clicking selfies using the front-facing camera. The problem, according to Apple, is to do with the camera choosing the wrong HDR layer while running its Smart HDR processing algorithms, and Apple has confirmed that it will be fixed in iOS 12.1, which, at the time of writing, is yet to arrive.
There are the new additions that everyone else on iOS 12 would also be getting, like the AR-enabled Measure app, a QR code scanner, Animoji and more.
Haptic Touch kind of replaces 3D Touch
As for the UX, I really did not miss 3D Touch, a feature that I barely used on the iPhone 8 Plus to begin with. Since Apple could not include 3D Touch on the XR because of the display’s limitations and design, they delivered a rebranded ‘Haptic Touch’ system, which is basically a long-press followed by a vibration from the Taptic Engine.
To be honest, it is not a replacement for 3D Touch as the point of 3D Touch was to allow for more options instantly when a user interacted with a software element on the display. Haptic Touch is a lot slower because it’s similar to a long-press, which, by definition, takes time. However, I must comment that Haptic Touch on iOS does activate a bit faster than Android’s long-press.
As for where Haptic Touch can be used, it is used is places where 3D Touch was kind of a mandate. To animate Live Photos, to move your phone’s cursor in a text field, to activate the camera and torch on the lockscreen and extensively in the Control Center where you press for a few milliseconds longer to get access to a more toggle options (pressing down on the brightness slider to get quick access to Night Shift and True Tone toggles).
The powerful A12 Bionic SoC inside means that the iPhone XR had a blast crushing every Android smartphone in Geekbench’s single-core and multi-core tests. As expected, the benchmarks showed slightly (almost within margin of error) slower performance than the mighty XS Mas. This was expected because the XS Max is a larger device, which effectively offers more breathing room for the chip. I’m mentioning these just to let you know that the difference in performance between the Rs 76,000 iPhone XR and the Rs 1,50,000 iPhone XS Max is negligible.
Moving on to gaming, the iPhone XR ran every single graphic intensive game without any issues whatsoever. The phone did warm up a bit while playing PUBG Mobile, but got noticeably warmer when playing Shadowgun Legends with settings maxed out at Ultra and 60 fps (this is a graphically demanding game). Indeed, it could run all of these games at ease. Because of its lowered display resolution and scaling, the iPhone XR could not run Asphalt 9: Legends at the best quality settings (you cannot choose the graphics settings). The game ran buttery smooth with no hint of lag or stuttering, but it ran on texture settings that you would normally see on the iPhone SE. Hopefully, Gameloft optimises the game in upcoming updates to suit the XR’s capabilities as it can easily pull off better graphics.
The audio quality on the iPhone XR is pretty darn good and right about the same as one would expect from an iPhone XS or a XS Max this year. The same can be said of the dual speaker setup that sounds loud and clear even when maxed out. It’s just that the XS Max sounds a bit louder, but the difference between the two is very minor. If you are coming from an iPhone 6S, 7 or an 8, prepare to be blown away!
Call quality was on par with expectations and I faced no trouble while placing calls on 4G LTE networks using a physical SIM in Mumbai.
There is that speaker problem that I mentioned in the software section (mostly because this is a software bug). A simple restart will activate both speakers in case you manage to trigger the bug and turn the top speaker off.
All by itself, the single camera of the XR does a fine job of shooting really great photos that showcase accurate (and natural-looking) colour tones and excellent dynamic range. Smart HDR does not go all out and aggressive (except when shooting selfies) as they do on the Pixel 3 XL, so it delivers well-exposed images in daylight that look just the way you would expect them to look, i.e., the scene looks natural.
And the same can be said about low-light photographs as well, which have traditionally never been Apple’s strong point.
Low light photos look quite clean and are well exposed thanks to Smart HDR, delivering great dynamic range. This, in my opinion, is the most drastic improvement on the new phones.
While street-lit scenarios saw decent results from the iPhone XR, scenes with dim or extremely low light did not turn out too great, with most photographs looking like paintings and low on details. Indeed it is here that Huawei P20 Pro and the Google Pixel 3 XL are able to deliver far better results relying both on better software and computational photography.
A smarter camera
What I love about the rear, software-driven Portrait mode on the XR is that it picks the entire subject and not just the face when applying the bokeh effect. The XS and XS Max usually focuses on the face and will often blur everything from the neck down and then blur the background even further. The XR finally gets this right and will get the whole subject in focus, as you can see from the comparison samples below. However, the front-facing TrueDepth camera sticks to its roots and considers just the face to be important.
Yes, the iPhone XR not only shoots photos similar to its pricier siblings, but also does a better job at edge detection, whether its selfies or shots from the rear camera. Smart HDR being a standard across all three smartphones, the XR’s camera relies on some machine learning tricks to pull off Bokeh images using a single camera, instead of a dual camera setup on the XS and XS Max. I'm quite surprised that Apple doesn't support these features on the XS and XS Max cameras. It's a software trick, after all.
A Portrait mode with shortcomings
It does a fantastic job at edge detection (far better than the XS and XS Max) but still falls short of the Portrait mode king, the Google Pixel 3 XL. But there’s a tiny problem. Apple uses machine learning via its Neural Engine to detect and map humans in Portrait mode. Unfortunately for XR users, those skills are only limited to human beings for now. So the system only works on “persons” at the moment. So no, you cannot use the Portrait mode for shooting anything else apart from human beings, not even your pets.
The front camera is identical to the one on the XS and XS Max, so it can click anything in Portrait mode and even comes with the regular set of Portrait Lighting effects (the rear camera only manages Natural Light, Studio Light and Contour Light).
At the moment it is unclear whether Apple will be able to deliver a smarter rear-facing camera (via a future software update) that will let you click more than just human beings. But it’s just downright annoying that it’s incapable of pulling this off right out of the box. Also, the XR, just like the XS and XS Max, is not exactly impressive when it comes to low light or dim light portrait photos, which the Pixel 3 XL can easily manage.
However, even with the new Smart HDR in place, the XR’s camera still feels years behind the Google Pixel 3 XL’s computational photography smarts. In short, it still cannot deliver masterpiece after masterpiece like the Pixel 3 XL does.
As for video, the iPhone XR, just like the iPhone XS and XS Max, does a fine job of shooting buttery smooth cinematic video footage whether you are shooting at FHD or 4K and at 30 fps or 60 fps. This works well not just in daylight, but in low light shooting as well, something that the Pixel is just incapable of at the moment. Another detail that Pixel just cannot pull off is great audio quality. The new iPhones can record stereo audio with wider sound separation, making you feel like you are a part of the scene rather than a spectator.
Battery Life: 9/10
Battery life on the iPhone XR is a lot better than what you get on an iPhone XS, but also better than the XS Max. While the iPhone XR packs in a smaller 2,943 mAh battery against the XR’s bigger 3,174 mAh unit. It also features a smaller display, and a lower resolution one, which makes powering the XR a less of a burden than the XS Max’s massive, high-resolution 6.4-inch display.
With that said, the XR easily delivers the best battery life you can get from any iPhone yet.
I managed to get a Screen on Time of about 8-9 hours, which is the best I have seen on an iPhone so far. After unplugging the device on a working day at 8.00 am, I did not feel the need to plug it back in overnight because there would often be enough juice left to power the phone until 11.00 am the next day. On a weekend, it was only after binge-watching Netflix shows and more than an hour of Asphalt did I manage to wear this road warrior down to 10 percent, meaning I needed to finally plug it in.
While the battery life is shockingly impressive for an iPhone, the charging speeds using the bundled 5 W charger was equally depressing. The bundled charger took a total of 3 hours and 25 minutes to charge the device from 0 to 100 percent, which is a shame when smartphones like the OnePlus 6 can charge a bigger battery in a little over an hour!
Thankfully I did have a 12 W charger lying around, so this sped up the charging process to about 2 hours.
Verdict and price in India:
For those of you who have also read through our XS Max review, you may have noted that scores aren’t too different from those of the XS. And that’s where the beauty of the iPhone XR lies!
It manages to do more with less, it manages to click more consistent Portrait shots than the XS and the XS Max with better edge detection. It’s even kind of mastered low light, although it’s nowhere close to the Pixel 3 XL’s machine learning smarts. The XR also delivers way better video quality than the Pixel 3 XL and stuff that is similar to the XS and XS Max.
If you are looking to upgrade from an older iPhone 6S, 7 or an 8, or even an 8 Plus, the XR at a starting price of Rs 76,900 is damn good deal in the world of iPhones and all things Apple. In the world of Android, there are options like the Pixel 3 or 3 XL, which are not exactly the best at everything, but click fantastic photos that are way better than what the iPhone is capable of (not the same case for videos).
The iPhone XR makes even more sense as an “affordable” new option for those iPhone owners who probably skipped the idea of upgrading to the XS this year simply because of its skyrocketing price tag (Rs 91,900) in India.
In short, it is the most sensible new iPhone to purchase this year because it manages to pull off so much with so little, and that in itself makes the XR a very special iPhone.