Tech Guide

The bargain iPhone is almost as good as the high-end model, and Apple's going to sell tons of them

Why Apple's iPhone XR is the iPhone most people should buy
Why Apple's iPhone XR is the iPhone most people should buy
Key Points
  • The iPhone XR is a great bang-for-your-buck iPhone.
  • It offers many of the same features of the iPhone XS, but it costs a lot less.
  • Most people probably won't notice where Apple saved money, which is a good thing.

The iPhone XR is the iPhone most people should buy.

Apple announced three new iPhones in September, including the more expensive iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, which cost at least $999. I reviewed those phones in September, and they're the best Apple has ever made.

The iPhone XR starts at a much more affordable $750 and here's a secret: I don't think most people will notice where Apple cut down the cost.

I've been testing the iPhone XR for the past few days, and here's everything you need to know about it.

A bit of history

The iPhone XR is available in six colors (black, white, blue, yellow, red and coral.) This isn't the first time Apple has added a splash of color to its products. Apple once made a name for itself selling colorful iMacs and Macs. It later introduced the iPod touch in a variety of hues. Then, it sold the iPhone 5c (pictured below) with colored plastic bodies.

The new iPhone 5C is displayed during an Apple product announcement at the Apple campus on September 10, 2013 in Cupertino, California.
Getty Images

Make no mistake: The iPhone XR is not the second coming of the iPhone 5c. The iPhone 5c was introduced as a more affordable iPhone, but it included year-old technology to keep the costs down.

The iPhone XR doesn't do that. Instead, it has the same A12 Bionic processor included in the new iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. Here's what else is different.

The differences between the iPhone XR and the iPhone XS

The iPhone XR has a 6.1-inch screen, which means it fits right in between the sizes of the 5.8-inch iPhone XS and the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max.

It's not too big for folks with small hands, but you still get a nice, large screen. It uses an LCD panel, the same kind found in Apple's iPhone 8 and earlier models. It's not supposed to be as colorful or bright as the fancy OLED in the iPhone XS, but it's tuned so well that I sometimes couldn't tell the difference.

I like that the screen takes up the entire front of the phone and that there's no longer a home button, just like the iPhone XS (and last year's iPhone X). The black borders around the screen are a little thicker than they are on the more expensive XS phones, but I don't think most folks will notice that.

The iPhone XR has the same 12-megapixel camera as the iPhone XS, but it doesn't have the secondary telephoto lens for clearer zoom-pictures. I was still able to take portrait mode pictures that looked really good, but only of people. The portrait mode on the iPhone XR doesn't work with animals or still life objects, and it wasn't able to recognize my dog when I tried. Otherwise, the pictures are still top-notch. You're not getting some sort of watered-down camera experience.

There are a few other tweaks, too. The iPhone XR has aluminum sides, instead of the more expensive polished steel on the iPhone XS. It's still water-resistant, but not as water resistant. You can't leave it at the bottom of the pool for a half hour, for example, but I soaked it with a hose a few times and it's totally fine. It'll survive a drop in the toilet without issue, and if you spill beer on it you can just rinse it under the sink.

What's good

The iPhone XR looks and feels like a phone that costs more than $750. It has a premium glass and aluminum design, and I love how rich the colors look. My personal favorite is yellow, but the blue test unit I had was pretty cool, too. It felt just as fast and quick as my iPhone XS Max, which costs $1,249. Again, that's because everything inside is the exact same.

Face ID, which unlocks the phone when you look at it, is just as good as the more expensive phones, too. It unlocked almost instantly whenever I looked at the iPhone XR. And I prefer this to the old fingerprint reader hidden in the home button, which started to feel clunky by comparison.

A sample portrait with the front camera

The front-facing and rear-facing cameras are great. As I mentioned above, the rear-camera is basically just as good as the iPhone XS, but portrait mode is limited to pictures of people. The front-facing camera can take portrait selfies too, though, and that worked really well.

The rear camera can't do portrait of dogs, but a photo of my pup Mabel came out great.

Finally, I like that it includes wireless charging, so I was able to just drop it on a charger near my bed or on my desk to top it off throughout the day. The battery life was otherwise really good, and I didn't drain it during a regular work day once. Apple says it should offer about 1.5 hours more than last year's iPhone 8 Plus. Just know that you won't have to go chasing after outlets often.

The front-facing speakers are still great. I love that they're balanced when watching movies or listening to music, so sound might move from one side to the other. This could have been an easy area for Apple to cut back on features, too, but it didn't.

What's bad

I don't have any major complaints with the iPhone XS. In fact, part of me almost slightly regrets spending $1,249 on the iPhone XS Max when the iPhone XR does almost everything my phone can, but starts at just $749.

I do get a little future-proofing on my iPhone XS, however, since it's built to support some of the faster networks that carriers will start to roll out in the U.S. over the next year. The iPhone XR doesn't offer that kind of support. Also, I wish the iPhone XR charged faster with the included cable. It's a complaint I have with all iPhones, however, and a problem that can be solved by switching to an iPad charger.

And the last minor issue with the iPhone XR is that the border that runs around the screen is just a little thicker than on my iPhone XS. It's not as clean looking, but it's something most people won't even see or probably care about. I just notice it because I've been using the iPhone X for the last year.

Should you buy it?

Yes. I think the iPhone XR is the iPhone that most people should buy. It gives you the best bang for your buck.

I expect this to be a really big-seller for Apple, since it's more affordable than the iPhone XS but with a lot of the same features. You don't get the top-of-the-line colorful OLED display, the sides are aluminum instead of steel, it's not as water-resistant (but can still handle most dunks and spills just fine!), and doesn't support next-generation wireless networks.

Most people don't need or care about these things. If you don't need every bell and whistle, this is the iPhone for you.

Watch CNBC's Todd Haselton's iPhone XR review
Watch CNBC's Todd Haselton's iPhone XR review