‘Cheaper’ iPhone XR a smart op­tion over pricier XS

Trade-offs such as loss of 2nd cam­era are mi­nor

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TECH - Per­sonal Tech

When it comes to the “lat­est” iPhones, what a dif­fer­ence a year al­most makes.

A year ago, in Septem­ber, Ap­ple un­veiled three new iPhones, but only the 8 and 8 Plus were made avail­able soon af­ter. Would-be buy­ers had to wait sev­eral more weeks if they wanted the iPhone X that wouldn’t ar­rive un­til Novem­ber.

Fast for­ward to 2018: Ap­ple, in Septem­ber again, in­tro­duced three new iPhones, and again only two of them – the XS and XS Max – went on sale pronto. Con­sumers want­ing that other “next” model, the iPhone XR, were forced to wait (again), un­til this Fri­day when it fi­nally reaches stores.

Of course, there’s at least one dif­fer­ence be­tween last years’ ex­pe­ri­ence and this one: While wait­ing for the iPhone X meant wait­ing for what was then the prici­est of all Phones and the first to crack $1,000, those of you hold­ing out for the XR are likely do­ing so be­cause it is the cheap­est of the fresh mod­els.

I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily go so far as to call any hand­set that starts at $749 (with 64GB of stor­age) bud­get-friendly. Still, the price, which un­der­cuts the XS by at least $250 and the XS Max by $350, un­ques­tion­ably hits a sweet spot, of sorts, in range of two wor­thy ri­vals on the An­droid side, Sam­sung’s Galaxy S9 and Google’s Pixel 3.

Hav­ing used an XR now for sev­eral days, I can re­port that the iPhone you’re get­ting for that sum is, in­deed, a pow­er­ful de­vice that ex­acts rel­a­tively few trade-offs com­pared to its high-on-the­hog sib­lings. Bot­tom line: For an iPhone buyer in the mar­ket for a re­place­ment phone, the XR rep­re­sents not only a smart op­tion, but ar­guably, the smartest op­tion, for at least many of you.

❚ What am I giv­ing up at the lower price? Less than you think. The iPhone XR has the same zippy Ap­ple Bionic A12 chip pro­ces­sor in the XS phones, same Face ID fa­cial recog­ni­tion and TrueDepth front cam­era sys­tem, and, as with other iPhones, the same iOS 12 soft­ware. It’s by no means a slouch.

The notch that cov­ers up the front cam­era is still here, too. Though it both­ered me at first, I’ve got­ten used to it.

While the XR body is crafted out of an­odized alu­minum in lieu of the stain­less steel on the XS phones, you do get some­thing in re­turn, no­tably a wider choice of color. You can pur­chase an iPhone XR in at­trac­tive white, black, blue, yel­low, coral and red ver­sions.

The new phone is dust- and wa­ter­re­sis­tant, too. And while not to the same de­gree as the XS de­vices – the XR is rated to sur­vive at a depth of 1 me­ter for 30 min­utes, com­pared to 2 me­ters – the fact is you’re not sup­posed to swim with any of th­ese de­vices.

As you know by now, there’s one other thing you’re giv­ing up, and this goes for the XS and XS Max, too: the Home but­ton that is clearly on bor­rowed time.

❚ But I’m giv­ing up a sec­ond rear cam­era. Isn’t that a big deal? For some of you, no doubt.

On iPhones with the dual rear cam­eras such as the XS and XS Max, you can shoot with a 2X op­ti­cal zoom that com­ple­ments the other wide-an­gle lens. And shoot­ing on the XR, I missed that sec­ond cam­era from time to time.

The sec­ond rear cam­era on the XS de­vices serve an­other pur­pose: They let you cap­ture more de­tailed Por­trait Mode shots, with fo­cus sharp on your main sub­ject while the back­ground is in­ten­tion­ally blurred. Cam­era peo­ple call this the bokeh ef­fect.

The XR has a ver­sion of Por­trait Mode, too, but Ap­ple ac­com­plishes the bokeh ef­fect not with a sep­a­rate cam­era, but through soft­ware and ma­chine learn­ing. The re­sult isn’t quite as pre­cise. On iPhones with dual rear cam­eras, you get a closer im­age with a more ac­cu­rate sense of depth.

What’s more, the Por­trait Mode on the XR works only when you’re shoot­ing peo­ple. And while, granted, this is typ­i­cally how you take ad­van­tage of the fea­ture, I some­times also use Por­trait mode on other phones to shoot flow­ers or other close-up ob­jects.

One other thing: On the XS and X phones, you can take ad­van­tage of five Por­trait light­ing ef­fects – nat­u­ral light, stu­dio light, con­tour light, stage light and stage light mono. The lat­ter two ef­fects don’t work, how­ever, when you shoot an im­age with the rear cam­era on the XR. You do get them on the front, though, be­cause the TrueDepth sys­tem on the XS and XR are iden­ti­cal. On both the XR and XS de­vices, you can also ad­just the depth of field in­side an im­age shot in Por­trait Mode af­ter the fact.

❚ Does it mat­ter that the iPhone XR has an LCD screen com­pared to OLED on the XS mod­els? Only for a video purist who can de­tect the black­est of blacks, the rich­est, most true-to-life col­ors, not to men­tion a con­trast ra­tio of 1,000,000:1, com­pared to 1,400:1

Don’t get me wrong. The XS screens are bet­ter, and the fact that the XR dis­play is of a lower res­o­lu­tion is enough of a deal-breaker for some techies.

But this trade-off is a ma­jor rea­son the XR costs a lot less. And many of you would only no­tice the dis­play dis­crep­an­cies if you laid an XS or XS Max next to an XR, side by side, if even at that. I’m sure most of you will be per­fectly sat­is­fied with the dis­play on the XR, which Ap­ple dubs “Liq­uid Retina.”

Keep in mind that the XR also has a dis­play size of 6.1 inches, putting it in be­tween the XS screen (5.8 inches) and the XS Max (6.5 inches). Ac­cord­ingly, the phone is slightly larger than the XS and slightly smaller than the XS Max. In case you were won­der­ing, thanks to the nar­rower bezels bor­der­ing the screen, the XR has an over­all foot­print that is smaller than the 8 Plus, though that phone has a 5.5-inch dis­play.

❚ 3D Touch is miss­ing. Does that mat­ter? Ask your­self how of­ten you’ve been tak­ing ad­van­tage of 3D Touch on your cur­rent iPhone and get back to me.

The tech­nol­ogy, which has been around for three years, senses how hard you press down against the dis­play, let­ting you, for ex­am­ple, sum­mon var­i­ous short­cuts or what Ap­ple calls Quick Ac­tions. On an iPhone with 3D Touch, you might press down on the Cam­era icon, for short­cuts to take a selfie or record a video. Or press down on an email in your in­box to “peek” at the con­tent of that mes­sage be­fore pop­ping into that mes­sage, should you choose to do so.

None of th­ese things hap­pens on the XR, which has tech­nol­ogy known as Hap­tic Touch in­stead. The phone does vi­brate to give you feed­back when you press icons to launch the flash­light or cam­era from the lock screen, and Ap­ple says more im­prove­ments to Hap­tic Touch might come later. But my sense is this a trade-off most can live with.

One nice fea­ture re­mains: If you press down against the space bar on an iPhone key­board, you can turn it into a track­pad for nav­i­gat­ing text.

❚ How’s the bat­tery life? I did not con­duct any for­mal tests, but, in mixed use, I got well past the full work­day with juice to spare. As with other re­cent mod­els, the phone sup­ports wire­less charg­ing (through an op­tional charger).

❚ Did any­thing go wrong? The XR froze on me twice dur­ing my test pe­riod, once in Con­trol Cen­ter and once in the TV app. I had to restart the de­vice each time to re­store or­der. Since I’ve been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing crashes on an iPhone XS Max as well – and both phones were up­graded from my own iPhone X – this is some­thing that bears watch­ing.

Mean­while, I feel obliged to ding Ap­ple on the iPhone XR just as I did on the XS. Ap­ple no longer in­cludes the $9 adapter in the box that lets you use your wired head­phones now that a stan­dard­sized head­phone jack is a thing of the past. Ap­ple is clearly push­ing you to­ward its own AirPods or other Blue­tooth op­tions. But for a tril­lion-dol­lar com­pany, the move comes off as small.


The XR has a notch that cov­ers the front cam­era.


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