scorecardI upgraded from an iPhone SE to an iPhone XR, and months later I'm happy I didn't go with the pricier XS
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I upgraded from an iPhone SE to an iPhone XR, and months later I'm happy I didn't go with the pricier XS

I upgraded from an iPhone SE to an iPhone XR, and months later I'm happy I didn't go with the pricier XS
Retail8 min read

iPhone XR

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iPhone XR.

  • Tech blogger Michael Tsai upgraded to an iPhone XR several months ago.
  • He's happy with his choice, and says he'd choose this model again over the iPhone XS or XS Max, even without price being a factor.
  • The display is great, and not having a physical home button was a non-issue.
  • Battery life is better than expected - anywhere, even when outside, in the cold, in an area with bad reception.

I've been using an iPhone XR for several months now. I really wasn't sure I wanted to give up my iPhone SE, which is so easy to hold and comfortable to use, but I wanted a faster phone with a better camera and more battery life. I ended up liking the iPhone XR much more than I expected to, and I would choose this model again over the iPhone XS or XS Max, even without price being a factor.

Overall, I like Face ID a little better than Touch ID. Face ID works on the first try most of the time, but even without Require Attention it fails to recognize me more often than Touch ID does. And, perhaps due to an iOS change, even when it seems like it did recognize me, I need to type my passcode multiple times per day. When the phone is in my pocket, Face ID feels slower than even the iPhone SE's Touch ID. Even with first-generation Touch ID, I could put my finger on the sensor and have the phone unlock while I was raising it to my face. With Face ID, even with Raise to Wake, I still have to wait until the phone is in front of me and then swipe up. Face ID also fails in some circumstances where Touch ID worked, such as lying sideways on a pillow in bed or wearing ski goggles. However, Face ID also has advantages. It works with gloves on, with wet fingers, and with dry/cracked skin. It's more convenient when the phone is in a dock or car mount where it would be hard to get my hand under it to put my thumb on the sensor.

Adjusting to not having a physical home button was easy. I can't believe how much of a non-issue it was. The multi-tasking gestures are great. The notch itself doesn't bother me as much as I expected, but I miss being able to see at a glance whether an alarm is set.

The display is amazing. I actually think it looks better than the OLED screen on the iPhone XS. Text on OLED screens looks a bit funny to me, especially when scrolling. There's a weird color effect that kind of reminds me of Microsoft's ClearType.

I wasn't sure whether I would like the size of the screen. With the iPhone SE, I could easily reach everything with one hand, and this wasn't the case even with an iPhone 6s. The iPhone XR is quite a bit larger. In fact, I found that it's so large that I hold and use it in a different - unapologetically two-handed - way, and the adjustment has been easy. Being able to see so much at once is an incredible advantage. I've long known this on the Mac, where I've always tried to get as much screen space as possible. But, in a way, it's more true on the phone because it's so cramped to begin with. Modern iOS and apps are less information dense than before, and they no longer seem to be optimized for 4-inch displays like when that was the flagship size. I miss those days, but at this point I don't think even a new small phone would bring them back.

With the iPhone 6-8, I felt like the additional screen real estate was questionably worth the increase in physical size and reduced one-handed use. But with the XR, with its higher DPI that shows the same number of points as the iPhone XS Max while only being slightly larger than the iPhone XS, it's clearly worth it to me. And despite the high resolution, I didn't find any text to be too small, even with the lowest Dynamic Type setting.

The display shows enough text to read books comfortably, so that I no longer bother carrying my Kindle to waiting rooms, etc. Besides showing more, the large display also requires less scrolling. It feels like I'm being interrupted less when reading a long document or book, and that I can scan through a list of tweets more quickly. And it allows for a larger keyboard, which I think has improved the speed and accuracy of my typing.

A downside to the large display is that, because it goes right up to the edge, I got a lot of accidental input. I would touch a control (often in Camera) that I didn't mean to. And I would find that tapping a button I did want to touch wouldn't work because I was also accidentally touching the edge of the display somewhere. Using a case mostly eliminated these problems, although it also makes intentional edge gestures slightly more difficult.

The other downside to the large display is the greatly increased physical size. This bothers me much less than I expected in hand, but it's unpleasant in my front pants pocket. It's less comfortable to walk around with the phone in pocket, and I find myself removing it if I'm going to be sitting for an extended time. Overall, I don't think I'd want to go back to a smaller display, but I kind of miss the innocent days when we could pretend there wasn't a trade-off here. Perhaps when Apple makes a foldable phone.

The size in the pocket wouldn't be so bad with the phone by itself, but it's especially pronounced with a case. And, unfortunately, I've found a case to be necessary for the iPhone XR. The phone is just too slippery without one. The aluminum sides are much less grippy than the iPhone XS's stainless steel, and it lacks the square edges that make the iPhone SE so easy to hold. It seems like combining these attributes with the iPhone XR's display would make an ideal phone, but that's not a configuration that Apple offers.

The case I'm using is the $10 Spigen Liquid Crystal. I don't love the way it looks, with its text printed on three different surfaces, and the dot grid on the back, but it's very grippy (without being too sticky in my pocket) and comfortable to hold.

I expected to like Apple's $39 clear case but ended up strongly disliking it. It looks better out of the box, but it accumulates more fingerprints on the surface and pocket lint and gunk under the edges. The plastic has a hard feel - somehow it feels less forgiving than the metal of the phone itself - so that I find it almost painful to hold. It's also a bit too slippery, and the buttons are way too tight. The Apple case is a bit less bulky, though, and there's a little cutout at the bottom so that your finger doesn't bump into the edge of the case when swiping up to go home.

The other reason I consider a case necessary is that it evens out the camera bump so that the phone can sit flat. I hate the bump, but the camera is great. In ideal conditions, it's not so different from the iPhone SE's. But it's far superior in low light or when the subject is moving. Getting ready to take a photo is faster, both because the camera app opens more quickly and because with Smart HDR I no longer have to manually turn on HDRevery time.

Unfortunately, Smart HDR seems like a work in progress. The first problem is that it can introduce artifacts. I've seen unnatural skin, a solid red rectangle over part of the image, and unnatural reflections on metal surfaces that I don't see in person. The second problem, compounding the first, is that if the phone thinks only a little HDR is required it will apply the processing (and possibly introduce the artifacts) without saving a separate non-HDR version of the photo (even with Keep Normal Photo enabled). Perhaps this is because Apple doesn't consider this processing to be HDR. Yet neither problem seems to occur when Smart HDR is disabled. In that case, you get a manual HDR toggle in the Camera app, but it's easier to use than on the iPhone SE because you can just tap it on or off without having to first tap to open the HDR "menu."

The iPhone XR doesn't just take photos with better lighting and sharpness; they also look different. I think this is due to the larger aperture causing a shallower depth of field. Roughly speaking, less of the area around the subject will be in focus. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Sometimes having a slightly blurry background - it's nothing like Portrait Mode - emphasizes the important part of the photo and makes it look more professional. Other times, if I'm taking a photo to "document" something (the writing on an object, or how a piece of equipment looked before I took it apart), I would prefer to have more of it look sharp.

Portrait Mode has occasionally produced great results, but usually they look sort of weird. I wish it worked more like HDR, saving two versions, so that I could revert to the normal one if it didn't work out. Absent that, I rarely use Portrait Mode because I don't want to risk not ending up with a good shot.

Miscellaneous things that I didn't expect:

  • This is my first iPhone with haptics, and I really love feeling it when I tap a button or take a photo.

  • However, the vibration (e.g. when receiving a call) is too subtle. Especially with a case, I can't always hear or even feel it.

  • Qi charging has really improved the experience of using the phone at my desk. It's so quick to just set it down or pick it up. I'm using the dock-like charging stand from Anker (with quick charge power adapter).

  • I don't know whether the Bluetooth is stronger somehow, but Universal Clipboard works much better than with any of my previous iPhones. AirDrop is also faster.

  • The display has not scratched at all.

  • I expected to really like True Tone. Turns out it's fine, but I don't think I would miss it.

  • The speed is noticeably better, even in unexpected places like deleting episodes in Overcast, but it didn't blow me away. Frankly, I expected more of an improvement in three years, especially given the amazing graphs Apple keeps showing. Perhaps much of the slowness that I still perceive is due to fixed animation speeds or the network.

  • The battery life is even better than I'd hoped. I basically never have to think about it anymore, even when outside, in the cold, in an area with bad reception.

Michael Tsai is the developer of Mac apps such as SpamSieve, EagleFiler, and ToothFairy.

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