It is not easy being the iPhone XR. Imagine starting out as the (relatively) poor cousin of two premier devices…and STILL being called overpriced. Then being ridiculed for your hardware – “single camera,” “not even a full HD display.” Getting to the market later than THOSE two expensive iPhones. And then in spite of getting a generally positive response from early reviewers, still being rumored to be doing badly in the market (a standard iPhone rumor tradition these days), and in line for a price cut.
All this when it, in fact, is a damn good phone.
There, we said it. And at the very beginning of the review as well.
For, let us face it, for all the relative spec modesty – the 6.19-inch display is not an AMOLED one, does not even have a full HD resolution (1792 x 828), there are no dual cameras at the back, there is no 3D Touch, the frame is aluminum rather steel and even the water and dust resistance is a notch lower (IP67 to IP68) – the iPhone XR is a staggeringly good performer. So much so that we think it worthy of ranking alongside the more premium iPhone XS (review) and XS Max (review). And definitely a step ahead of not just the iPhone 8 Plus (review) (which it is perceived to have replaced as per many pundits) but also the iPhone X (review), which some consider being its superior in some departments. In fact, in some ways, it harks back to the original iPhone ethos of a device that totally outperforms its own spec sheet.
Because that is exactly what the iPhone XR does. Notwithstanding the aluminum frame, the XR looks very premium and thanks to its multiple color options, very funky too, in a manner that the XS and XS Max do not. Yes, we got the relatively plain black edition, but we have seen the others and they stand out from the crowd like few other devices do, and that too without having to resort to any special design gimmickry – these are simple colours on glass panels (which incidentally are tougher than those found on the iPhone X, but not as tough as the ones on the XS and XS Max) and well, in a world that is obsessed with gradient colours and mirror finishes and exotic shades of gold, they work.
As does the phone itself. Our brightest concern had been about the (much) lower resolution display, but the ‘Liquid Retina” display does a sterling job. It offers a viewing experience comparable to the AMOLED ones on the XS and XS Max – in fact, some of our friends found its ‘whiter’ look better than the slightly yellow tint that is seen on most AMOLED displays. And videos and games look just fine on it, although eagle-eyed readers might find fonts to be just a little less sharp while reading text.
Which of course brings us to the performance of the phone in matters of gaming and high-end functions. Well, thanks (we suspect) to the A12 Bionic chip, it pretty much rocks them. We could spot no major difference in our gaming and multitasking experiences on the iPhone XR and the XS and XS Max – high-end games like the Infinity Blade series and PUBG ran smoothly without any stutters, and we did some heavy duty editing on iMovies without any problems either. Sound quality is excellent both on call and through the stereo speakers. At 150.9 mm, the XR is significantly smaller in length than the XS Max (157.5 mm), which makes it a whole lot easier to handle, even while giving one a slightly larger (albeit lower resolution) display than the XS, which remains the favorite for anyone looking for a compact device. Oh, and speaking of 3D Touch, we did not miss it much – the haptic feedback provided by supported apps worked well enough for us. Well enough for us to wonder if 3D Touch was indeed necessary in the first place.
Just as the single 12.0-megapixel rear camera on the XR makes us wonder if dual cameras are actually as important as they are made out to be. Yes, the XR misses out on the 2X telephoto zoom and two Portrait Lighting options (Stage Light and Stage Light Mono), but as we explained in our review of the XR’s camera, these are definitely not the deal breakers they initially appeared to be. Indeed, the iPhone XR’s photography in most cases is almost as good as that one the XS and XS Max, and can easily match any high-end device out there. In normal light conditions, it can comfortably go toe to toe with any phone out there, from the Pixel 3 to the Note 9 to the Huawei Mate 20 Pro.
But while the smooth performance and superb cameras of the iPhone XR are great assets, what really makes the XR special in our book is its battery life. Whether it is because of the smaller, lower resolution display or the (supposedly) larger battery, we cannot say for sure, but what we CAN say for sure is that it comes with easily the best battery life we have seen on any iPhone. If the XS Max impressed us with its ability to last through a day of normal use, the XR stunned us by being the first iPhone that actually went past a day of normal usage (a few dozen photographs, an hour of calls, a couple of hours of videos and/or games, and constantly on messaging and mail apps). Face unlock works brilliantly (it does have the same selfie camera and sensor arrangement as the X, XS and XS Max) and iOS 12 runs without any hitches.
Yep, the iPhone XR might not have the specs of its more expensive cousins, but it easily matches most of their performance levels.
And unfortunately, a fair bit of their premium pricing too! For, while the iPhone XR is indeed the least priced of the new iPhones, its starting price of Rs 76,900 puts it well ahead of the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, in the proximity of the Pixel 3 devices, and even the iPhone X from some retailers. Why then would anyone be tempted by it, one might ask? The answer is incredibly simple: because it actually IS the most affordable new iPhone out there. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the iPhone SE which did not cut corners in general performance terms even though its own spec sheet was inferior to that of the iPhone 6S (review) and 6S Plus, which were the high-end devices of that generation. And yes, there had been complaints about its pricing being too high and yet, in the long run, the SE turned out to be a big success simply because it delivered a very good performance at a price that was much lower than its more expensive cousins, even while remaining an iPhone. And we guess that is going to be the biggest appeal of the iPhone XR – the fact that even though it is expensive, it is still less so than the XS and XS Max and delivers most of what those two can do, and add a dash of color to design besides. We do not see it converting any Android users to its cause, but it definitely fulfills its destiny of being the (slightly more) affordable new iPhone. It is in some ways, the Joker in the iPhone card deck. The cowboy among the gentry. The denim jacket in a wardrobe of tuxedos.
Most people might covet the tuxedo but would end up wearing the denim jacket day in day out. That’s the difference between the iPhone XS/XS Max and the iPhone XR. The difference between extravagant aspiration and affordable perspiration.