Sure, everyone baulked at the hefty price tag of the iPhone Xs and Xs Max when it launched a month ago. With prices starting from $1,649 (iPhone Xs, 64GB) and going as high as S$2,349 (iPhone Xs Max, 512GB), apprehension can well be understood, especially when the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (128GB) starts at S$1,398.
Enter the iPhone XR. Starting at S$1,229 and launching on the 26th of October in most countries worldwide, the XR is expected to assume its place as the mass-market device, much like the iPhone 8 of yore. There are many similarities, but a few prominent departures from the more expensive iPhone Xs and Xs Max, but can we still expect Apple’s usual high standards of user experience?
Everyone’s talking about the colours. Yes, they’re beautiful, especially when viewed in person. Be it White or Black, or a more unique Blue, Yellow and Coral, or even the lush, rich (Product)RED variant – they’re all vivid, tasteful, and very Apple-like. These are reminiscent of the myriad of colours the iPhone 5C of yesteryear was available in, with the omission of a pastel green and the addition of a black finish.
However, unlike the plastic fantastic builds of the 5C, the glass backs of the XR give a more refined and possibly longer-lasting gloss.
Where it departs from the form of the iPhone X, Xs and Xs Max tier of iPhones is in the chassis. With a similar glass panel design, the iPhone XR instead sports an aluminium frame instead of the robust, hefty and durable stainless steel found on the X variants. The aluminium does offer rigidity with weight savings, but it sacrifices the raw strength and the robustness of the steel. The metal is anodised with a silky, metallic finish that matches the colour scheme of each iPhone XR variant, which is very pleasing to behold, especially in person.
Otherwise, button placement and size, the lack of a 3.5mm port, stereo speakers, even the display notch is largely the same on the XR as on the Xs devices. There’s a tiny difference in the antenna band configuration on the XR, which means we get back our symmetrical bottom-firing speaker grille array (not that anyone cared).
The Single Rear Camera
Of course, if you’re using the more colourful versions of the XR, it will be a dead giveaway, but the single camera setup on the rear of the phone stands out like Cyclops in Manhattan especially on the black and white variants. What’s more, given the sheer ubiquity of dual-camera arrays on most modern mobile devices, the XR seems to draw the closest analogue with the Google Pixel phones.
The 12-megapixel wide-angle lens, which is the same as the one found on the Xs phones, offers most modern comforts and features you’d expect on a dual-camera smartphone. Portrait mode, portrait lighting … but not optical zoom. If a paltry 2x zoom is a feature you feel you can’t live without, then the XR just can’t offer it. But then again, wide-angle cameras really do have more utility in creating beautiful images than a telephoto would.
Instead of using depth information offered by computational wizardry using data from two adjacent cameras, Apple has employed other digital smarts to help deliver a similar portrait mode experience.
The front-facing cameras, however, benefit from the flood illuminator and TrueDepth camera to deliver the full suite of functionality we’re all enjoying form the iPhone Xs and Xs Max phones. That means, if you’re decidedly a more “selfie” kind of person, the XR is the perfect fit. Otherwise, it will function pretty well, just with a few tiny setbacks from not having a dual camera array.
720p Display? It’s 2018!
The greatest controversy surrounding the iPhone XR? The Liquid Retina display. It might seem like another fancy-pants Appleism to market something frankly substandard to unwitting customers. And I can see why. The bare specs don’t bode well for the XR. With a 6.1-inch IPS LCD display at 828 x 1792p resolution, it seems a stretch to demand us loyal customers (much less new Apple adopters) fork out S$1,229 of our hard-earned dough.
What’s more, with at a total pixel count of 828 x 1792 p, the XR is only capable of 720p video playback on streaming sites, and even on downloadable content! How’s that to compare with the 1080- or even 1440-capable devices on the market?
There’s even the deluge of budget phones with flagship features – the Pocophone F1 its poster child. With a 1080 x 2246 p display, its pixel density at 403ppi far surpasses the XR’s 326ppi.
But most people miss out the most important bit of information. The displays on iPhones have always been LCD, despite fancy Retina branding. It is only with the 2017 iPhone X that the manufacturer shifted to OLED, and likely only because of its proprietary display-folding technology that allowed them to bend the screen around at the base to give an even bezel on all edges (unlike all Android phones to date).
The iPhone 8 of 2017 had an LCD display with 326ppi, just like the present XR. It is only when comparing it to the more expensive, more premium X and Xs devices that we instinctively baulk at the pixel density. And here’s where it gets interesting. Apple claims that despite having the same LCD technology as previous LCD iPhones with Retina technology, it had improved the display so much that they’ve rebranded it as Liquid Retina – a far cry from the displays of yesteryear.
How are they to deliver better display performance despite using the same baseline IPS LCD technology and the same pixel density? They’ve not gone into detail, but it involves a great deal of pixel masking and anti-aliasing to ensure details in the images and videos look true-to-life without any pixelation or artefacting. Again – you’ve got to see it in person.
Side-by-side with the newest Xs and Xs Max phones, there’s little distinction between their displays. Same notch, same edge-to-edge large screen that maximises screen real estate. Resolution-wise, the XR looked as vivid and detailed. Of course, there are differences, but they’re only noticeable upon really close inspection.
Here’s the biggest reason why the iPhone XR is the phone everyone’s going to get. For quite a bit of savings, you’ll get the same processor as the iPhone Xs and Xs Max.
The A12 Bionic, Apple’s latest and greatest, has been topping benchmarks everywhere, despite more modest RAM capacity. Boot up a graphics-intensive game with plenty of 3D rendering like PUBG and you’ll see the difference. Where phones like the Note 9 (8GB RAM) and Pixel 3 (4GB RAM) stutter and miss frames, the iPhone Xs Max (4GB RAM), which has the same processor as the XR, glides along.
There’s a bit of a caveat, though. The iPhone XR comes with 1GB of RAM less than the Xs and Xs Max. 3GB is quite a bit lower than what most would expect from smartphones these days. I doubt there is a 25% tradeoff in processing speed, but Apple has already more than proven the efficacy of its choice of components.
For its price, the iPhone XR delivers a mix of function and features found on the top-tier Xs devices and the iPhone 8. Users get edge-to-edge content, Face ID, unparalleled performance from the A12 chip, while making up for the reduced cost with an improved LCD “Liquid Retina” screen, single camera, and aluminium chassis.
At S$1,229 for the baseline 64GB model, the XR pits itself against the Pixel 3 XL (S$1,399, 64GB).
The iPhone XR will be available from Apple Stores, online and authorised retailers from 26th October. It will also be available in 128GB (SGD 1,299) and 256GB (SGD 1,469) variants.