How to tell which new iPhone you should buy

  • Apple now sells three new iPhones including the iPhone XR, the iPhone XS and the iPhone XS Max.
  • The iPhone XR starts at $749 and is the best buy for most people.
  • CNBC breaks down the differences between the iPhone XR, the iPhone XS and the iPhone XS Max.

Apple has three new iPhones this year. We just published CNBC's review of the iPhone XR. But Apple also sells the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max.

The iPhone XR, iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max
Apple
The iPhone XR, iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max

As if the names weren't enough of a mouthful, I noticed among friends that there's still some confusion about what the differences between the new iPhones. Let me help break that down, starting with the most affordable iPhone XR and building up to the most expensive iPhone XS Max.

iPhone XR

Price: $749 for 64GB of storage. It can also be configured with 128GB of storage ($799) or 256GB of storage ($899.) The fully loaded iPhone XR is still $100 cheaper than the 64GB iPhone XS.

Display: The iPhone XR has a 6.1-inch LCD display. It's not as sharp or colorful as the screens on the iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max, but I don't think most people will notice the difference. If you've been using an iPhone 6, 7 or 8, then the iPhone XR's screen will look great to you.

Camera: The iPhone XR has a 12-megapixel camera, the same wide-angle lens used in the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. It's really good, but can only take portrait photos of people, instead of objects and animals as the more expensive iPhones can. This is because those phones have a secondary telephoto lens, which creates depth and adds 2x optical zoom. There's also a front-facing camera for Face ID and selfie portraits. It's the same front-facing camera on the XS and XS Max.

Design: The iPhone XR has a glass and aluminum design and is available in six colors: blue, coral, yellow, red, white and black. It's similar in size to the iPhone 8 Plus but with an even larger display and better battery life.

Chips: It has the same A12 Bionic processor as the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. This means Apple didn't include older components to keep the cost down. Expect it to feel just as fast as Apple's more expensive iPhones. It supports LTE-Advanced wireless data networks, which are used by carriers now, but not the faster Gigabit LTE networks, which will roll out next year. Only the XS and XS Max will work with Gigabit LTE.

Other features: The iPhone XR is water-resistant and can be submerged in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. The iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are even more water-resistant and can last longer underwater. The XR also has wireless charging.

iPhone XS

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Price: $999 for 64GB of storage, $1,149 for 256GB of storage or $1,349 for 512GB of storage.

Display: The iPhone XS has one of the best displays found on any phone on the market. It's smaller than the iPhone XR at 5.8 inches but uses a colorful OLED panel with a wide contrast ratio and support for HDR, which means blacks are darker and whites are whiter. This is particularly useful for viewing photos where you'll still see detail in very dark or very bright areas of a picture. It also supports 3D Touch, which lets you tap harder into an icon to access a new menu of options. The XR does not have 3D Touch. The screen is also sharper than the iPhone XR.

Camera: The iPhone XS has the same front-facing camera as the iPhone XR. It also has the same 12-megapixel wide-angle camera on the back but adds a telephoto lens for 2x optical zoom, which means zooming into pictures will be clearer on the iPhone XS. Also, that secondary lens lets you take portrait pictures of anything, as opposed to just portraits of people on the iPhone XR.

Design: The iPhone XS has a more premium design than the iPhone XR. Apple uses polished steel along the borders of the phone instead of brushed aluminum, which gives it a first-class look. Also, it's available in gold, white or space gray, instead of the six colors the iPhone XR offers.

Chip: The iPhone XS has the same A12 Bionic chip as the iPhone XR and iPhone XS Max. It also supports Gigabit-class LTE networks, which will start to matter more next year as U.S. carriers upgrade their cell towers.

Other features: The iPhone XS is water-resistant and can be submerged in up to 2 meters of water for up to 30 minutes, while the iPhone XR can be submerged in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. It also has wireless charging.

iPhone XS Max

Apple iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max
CNBC | Magdalena Petrova
Apple iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max

Price: 64GB for $1099, 256GB for $1,249 and 512GB for $1,449.

Display: The iPhone XS Max has the same top-end OLED display as the iPhone XS, but it's larger than the XS and the iPhone XR. Its screen measures 6.5-inches diagonally, while the iPhone XS has a 5.8-inch screen and the iPhone XR has a 6.1-inch display.

Camera: The iPhone XS Max has the same front-facing camera as the iPhone XR and iPhone XS. It also has the same 12-megapixel wide-angle camera on the back, but adds a telephoto lens for 2x optical zoom, which means zooming into pictures will be clearer on the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. Also, that secondary lens lets you take portrait pictures of anything, as opposed to just portraits of people on the iPhone XR.

iPhone Xs
Todd Haselton | CNBC
iPhone Xs

Design: Just like the iPhone XS, you're getting a premium design with polished steel edges along the sides, instead of brushed aluminum like on the iPhone XR. It's better looking, in my opinion, but you miss out on the fun colors of the iPhone XR, so it's really a matter of personal preference.

Chip: Again, all three phones have the same A12 Bionic chip, so expect really similar performance across all three. Like the iPhone XS, the iPhone XS Max supported Gigabit-class LTE networks that will begin rolling out next year, so you get some future-proofing. The iPhone XR supports modern LTE-Advanced networks.

Other features: Like the iPhone XS, the iPhone XS Max can be submerged in up to 2 meters of water for 30 minutes. That's more than the iPhone XR, which can be submerged in up to 1 meter of water for the same amount of time. It also has wireless charging.