iPhone XR vs. XS: Which Apple Do You Pick?
I’m not going to say I told you so but…I told you so.
If you missed my letter dated Sept. 18—aka my iPhone XS and XS Max review—I instructed iPhone buyers to wait until the October release of the more affordable iPhone XR.
Now, after nearly a week of testing the XR, I can confirm that it’s the “just right” iPhone for most people. In fact, it has the best feature-to-price ratio of any iPhone possibly ever, and given that Apple ’s AAPL -3.43% lineup now has as many choices as the cereal aisle, that has never been more important. Allow me to recap:
- iPhone XS Max (Starts at $1,100): The giant version of the XS with a 6.5-inch screen, the biggest yet on an iPhone.
- iPhone XS (Starts at $1,000): The upgrade to the 5.8-inch iPhone X from last year. (RIP, original iPhone X.)
- iPhone XR (Starts at $750): The new model with a 6.1-inch screen. It looks like the XS models but has a lower-quality screen and fewer camera features.
- iPhone 7 (Starts at $450) and iPhone 8 (Starts at $550): The older iPhone models with fingerprint sensors and fatter bezels.
Scan that list and you can’t help but notice the $250 gap between XS and XR. The long-held iPhone-nomics theory is that when you spend more, you get proportionately more, but the XR defies that.
Sure, there are some XR trade-offs, including a lower-contrast, lower-resolution LCD screen and a single camera on the back. But I barely noticed the differences in everyday use. Actually, after using the XR, I believe the XS has a bigger trade-off—namely, shorter battery life. When weighing the two options, decide what features you care about most. And keep in mind that, for most people, the “XS” stands for X…S…ive. Don’t spend more for a psychological trick.
What’s the Same
The XR, XS and XS Max are the tech equivalent of fraternal triplets. They share the same all-screen designs, new A12 Bionic processors and front-facing camera systems to enable unlocking of the phone with Face ID.
Face ID is faster and more reliable than the fingerprint scanner. If you’re upgrading from an older model, you’ll get used to the lack of a home button in no time—though it may take longer to get used to the notch at the top of the phone.
What’s Worse: Screen
You really have to be looking at the XS or XS Max’s OLED screen and the XR’s LCD screens side by side to notice that the XS screens are sharper, have better contrast, deeper blacks and richer colors—even when you hold them off axis. In everyday use, I rarely noticed the difference nor did I spend time thinking “Gosh, I wish the text of this email were crisper,” or “I wish the purple in this Lyft logo were slightly brighter.”
Two screen things that were harder to get used to: the slightly bigger bezel around the screen and the lack of 3D Touch. It’s true, I thought 3D Touch was as useful as a pet rock when it was first introduced, but now it’s muscle memory to hold down on a button in Control Center to get to deeper settings. Apple’s 3D Touch replacement—called Haptic Touch—is more limited, and was slow to respond to my presses.
The main reason many will prefer the XS’s 5.8-inch screen? The manageable size. I prefer the XR’s screen to the ginormous XS Max screen, but I’m still frustrated Apple doesn’t have more software features to take advantage of the extra room.
What’s Worse: Camera
The XR has the same great wide-angle camera as the XS phones, but lacks the second telephoto lens for true optical zoom. Only once this week was I bothered by that: when I spotted the evil squirrel who has been eating through the pumpkins on my front stoop. I caught it orange-handed, but when I moved in to snap a picture, it scurried away.
With just one camera, Apple still enables Portrait Mode—the setting that tries to mimic SLR cameras by applying artificial blur around a subject. Instead of using the two cameras, Apple uses software tricks to try to distinguish the main subject from the background. It worked OK, but in some cases it looked fake and blurred the wrong thing. And it doesn’t work on animals.
Nope, no professional-looking shots of dogs, cats or—as I tested in the video above—farm animals. As crazy as it seems, this is actually a deal breaker for me, as I snap tons of photos of my son and dog together. (I did confirm, however, that the front-facing selfie camera will work for those animal portrait shots.) On the plus side, portrait shots in low light on the XR were better than on the XS since the wide-angle camera lets in more light.
What’s Better: Battery and Design
I’ve long knocked Apple for sacrificing battery life in the name of phones that can double as razorblades. As a heavy smartphone user—yes, I’m working on it—I recommend keeping this $35 Samsung wireless charger at your desk, and leaving your recent-model iPhone in it while you work.
That’s why I was surprised to find that, thanks to its lower-resolution screen and big battery, the XR has the longest battery life of any iPhone I’ve tested in recent memory.
I was constantly surprised at how much juice I had left when I’d look at the battery meter. In general it lasted one to two hours longer than the XS and XS Max. In my video-streaming tests, the XR played Netflix for nearly 13 hours, along with the XS Max. Meanwhile, the XS lasted just 10.5 hours. An Apple spokesperson said the phones are optimized for everyday use.
I am, however, still angry that Apple included the same stupid five-watt charger it has always included. Because of it, the XR charges slower than most Android phones.
The XR’s bright color options (it comes in six different hues) make it seem like it belongs in a candy store, but the red version I’ve been testing is one of the coolest-looking Apple products I’ve used in years. Given that it’s glass, I’d still stick a case on it.
On paper, the XS is a more premium product than the XR, but I don’t know who I would recommend the XS to. OK, maybe animal portraiture artists and screen obsessives. Anyone else willing to spend up to $1,450 for the top-spec iPhone XS Max is putting status over substance.