Most people know of me as an “Android guy,” which is something I’ve always worn as a badge of honor. And while I wrote about my time with the iPhone 8 earlier this year, I decided to try something new with the release of the XR: I used it as my main phone.
If you read my aforementioned “take on the iPhone,” then you know I’ve recently gotten cozy with Apple’s ecosystem. But even then, it was still more of a secondary experience for me—I carried either a Pixel or Galaxy S9 as my main phone.
When I pre-ordered the XR, however, I knew it was time to give Apple a real chance. I told my Pixel 2 XL that I loved it, and I would see it again soon, pulled the SIM card, and switched to the iPhone full time. For the first couple of weeks, I didn’t even carry an Android phone as my secondary line—I wanted to make sure I had no choice but to use the iPhone.
So while my first take on the iPhone was more of a look at iOS from an Android user’s perspective, this is specifically about the XR. This is my review of the iPhone XR after having spent a month using it every day.
Build: Attention to Detail at Every Turn
The Pixel line of phones is the “iPhone of Android,” as it’s Google’s vision of what an Android phone should be. It’s the quintessential, premium Android experience. That’s my baseline for how a premium handset should feel.
When I first took the XR out of the box, one thing was immediately apparent: this thing is heavy in the best possible way. It’s sleek and weighty in a way that most other phones are not—it feels premium. Despite being Apple’s “budget” handset, it’s a hot little piece of kit.
The overall build quality is impeccable, again in a way that I didn’t expect. I’ve reviewed many, many phones over the years (mostly Android, of course), but I was taken aback with the iPhone XR. Even compared to iPhone 8, this is a tangible, noticeable, and significant upgrade. The build of this phone is defined by clean lines, smooth curves, and seamless transitions. The glass back flows beautifully into the aluminum frame.
I generally have one rule when it comes to most phones: if it comes in black, buy it in black. That said, I have a soft spot for red—especially deeper shades of red—so I decided to drift away from my normal “all black all the time” mentality and go for the Project Red XR.
Despite the back and sides being two different materials and slightly different in color, the materials and aesthetic between the glass and aluminum looks (and feels) so good. There’s a level of detail here that’s hard to express in text—it’s something you have to see to really understand. Without getting too far ahead of myself, I’ve found that very statement to sort of encompass the iPhone X experience as a whole: you have to feel it.
Around the front of the device is the “Liquid Retina” display, which initially raised concerns because of the “720p” resolution (in reality, it’s 1792×828). But the pixel density comes in at 326 ppi—the same as the iPhone 8 and by no means anything discernable by the human eye. It’s plenty dense.
This display is also different from the X/XS/Max because it isn’t an OLED panel, but rather LCD—exactly what Apple used in its phones for years preceding the iPhone X. The biggest difference between LCD and OLED is the way each displays’ lighting works; the OLED panel allows each pixel to be lit individually, while the LED panel uses a backlight on the entire display.
In practical use, this means two things: OLED is more power efficient and also has deeper blacks since those pixels can be completely turned off when showing black. Those are the main reasons people prefer OLED panels.
The good news is that if you’re coming from a previous iPhone (like the 6, 7, or 8), then you won’t notice a single difference regarding display quality. If you’re coming from an iPhone X (which is an unnecessary move in my opinion) or something else with an OLED display, then the color of the XR’s panel may look a bit different—not as saturated.
Regardless, it’s a fine looking display. Apple does a great job of calibrating its displays in a way that make them look very good (and very similar) across the board, and the XR’s Liquid Retina panel is no different. It’s a good-looking display, resolution and type be damned.
Performance: Desktop Power in a Smartphone
It’s no secret that mobile chips are becoming so powerful that they’re starting to overtake desktop processors in raw benchmark tests, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the XR is a speed demon. Apple’s A12 chip in the XR (and XS, XS Max) is a beast of a chip, and the XR flies at every task.
Flipping through recently-used apps is a breeze (especially with new recent app navigation on the gesture-based input, which is incredible) and closing/opening apps is lightning fast. This phone (and by extension, the XS) should never leave you wanting anything. It’s fast and consistent. What more could you possibly want?
Speaking of performance, I want to talk about FaceID for a minute. Like many users coming from an iPhone with a home button, I was skeptical of (read: completely opposed to) FaceID. This is where being an Android user preceded my judgment on what unlocking a device with my face because Android’s implementation of this feature a few years ago was awful.
Since that was my baseline for any sort of face unlock, I didn’t have high hopes for FaceID. Honestly, I should’ve known better—Apple isn’t a company that just releases something without first perfecting it, and FaceID is no exception.
First of all, it’s crazy fast and accurate. But here’s what shocked me the most: it works from a huge range of angles. You don’t have to hold the phone up and look directly at it or any sort of awkward crap like that—just use it naturally and let the hardware handle the rest. You have to be a pretty extreme angle for it not to work, so the transition has been pretty seamless for me. I now prefer it to the home button… by a pretty large margin.
My favorite forms of biometric is still a rear-placed fingerprint sensor (a la the Google Pixel phones), but FaceID is an easy second in that race. It’s great—if you’ve been reluctant to move to an X-series iPhone because of the commitment to TouchID or the home button, don’t worry about it. Seriously, both the gesture interface and FaceID are incredible. And the adjustment period is so small; the learning curve is almost zero.
Software: iOS, Gesturized
While X series iPhones are decidedly different in form, they’re still very similar in function. The biggest difference is how the interface is navigated: with gestures.
As I briefly touched on earlier, a lot of people are skeptical of moving away from the home button, which is understandable—change can be hard. This is especially true when you’ve been using the same system for many years (like the home button).
I’ve been using Andriod’s back-home-recent apps configuration as long as I can remember (and before that, the physical buttons), but when Google introduced gesture-based navigation for Pixel phones earlier this year, I gave it a shot. And it’s awful.
So similarly to FaceID and Android’s (awful) Face Unlock feature, that was my baseline for gesture-based navigation. Still, Lowell (HTG and RG’s Editor in Chief) talked up Apple’s take on gestures, so I was a little less skeptical of it than FaceID.
It turns out he was right. Gesture navigation on the iPhone XR (and other X phones) isn’t just a great way to navigate the OS, it’s the best navigation system I’ve ever used, hands down. Google could take a few notes from Apple on this (read: they should just steal it swipe-for-swipe).
All the gestures are quick and intuitive, but the swipe-between-running-apps move is by far my favorite. Android’s double-tap-on-the-recents-button to switch between two apps is fast and I use it often, but swiping the bottom of the screen to move between multiple apps is better and faster. It’s killer. The only thing I’ve used that comes remotely close is the gesture option on OnePlus phones, and while it’s far better than Google’s system, it’s still not quite as good as Apple’s. This gesture system is basically perfect.
Otherwise, it’s still iOS as you’re used to it. It’s good, snappy, and familiar. If you’re already an iOS user, you’ll feel right at home in the rest of the OS.
Camera: Not the Best, but Good Enough
At this point, the “smartphone wars” can be defined by one feature: cameras. Performance, build quality, and the like are almost at parity across all flagship phones now—small differences are the only comparisons to make. Phones are just so powerful it’s hard to bring them down.
But the camera? That’s a different story altogether. For the longest time, Apple held the title of “best smartphone camera”—year after year, it was almost impossible to outdo Apple’s cameras. But then Samsung did it. And then Google outdid Samsung. Since then, Google has been the smartphone camera champion with its Pixel phones.
While the XR’s camera simply can’t beat what the Pixel is capable of, it still has a great camera. Unlike the XS, the XR only has one camera on the front and one on the rear, but Apple still incorporated most of the benefits of a dual-camera system, like Portrait Mode. It does this in the same way that Google does with the Pixel cameras: with machine learning. And it’s damn good at it.
With and without Portrait Mode on the front-facing camera.
For most of your photography needs, the XR’s camera is more than good enough—especially in good lighting. The weakest link for the XR is low light environments (which can be said for nearly any other smartphone camera outside of the Pixels with Night Sight).
Battery Life: Damn, Dude
M’tell you guys something: as an Android user, I’ve gotten used to terrible battery life being part of life at one point or another. While the Pixel 2 XL has the best battery life I’ve ever had from an Android phone, it doesn’t hold a candle to the XR battery. It’s insane.
Over the past month of using the phone as my daily driver, I’ve only had to charge it every other day on average. That’s a few hours of use each day, with intermittent charging in the car (via CarPlay) on most days. But otherwise, charging simply isn’t something I’ve had to think about with the iPhone XR, which is something I’ve never been able to say about any Android phone. Not even the Pixel 2.
I can’t stress that enough: I never had to think about charging. I didn’t stare at the battery or constantly tug the Control Center to check the battery. It just wasn’t a concern at any point, which is an unprecedented feeling for me. There has never been a time in my life as a mobile user that battery life wasn’t a concern.
Until the iPhone XR. It’s cool.
Conclusion: 98% of the Experience, 75% of the Price
Here’s the deal: the iPhone XR is the “cheapest” of the current generation of iPhones, but that still doesn’t make it a “cheap” phone. And if you’re looking to get the iPhone X experience without an iPhone X budget, this is the way to do it.
At an entry price of $750, it’s 25% cheaper than entry-level iPhone XS and nearly 35% cheaper than the entry iPhone XS Max with a similarly-sized display. Despite some of the cost-cutting methods used in the XR (single camera, LCD panel), however, it’s still able to offer 98% of the premium XS experience.
And that’s about as good of a deal as you can ask for from a brand new, current-generation iPhone.
Here’s What We Like
- Excellent build quality
- The gesture navigation is fantastic
- Incredible battery life
- Premium experience at a fraction of the cost
And What We Don't
- The camera is only "good enough"
- The LCD display isn't as rich as OLED
- Siri is still Siri
- Seriously though I'm struggling to think of other cons, this is a really good phone