At last year’s fall announcement, Apple showed the world what it considered a model for the future of smartphones with the iPhone X. It was “one more thing” that represented a step up from the iPhone 8 Plus despite that device’s larger screen. But at this year’s fall event, Applet used its famous finale slot to talk about the iPhone XR, and with good reason.
According to the naming convention, the iPhone XS would represent the true sequel to the iPhone X. The XS brings a new “Bionic” processor yielding dramatic improvements in machine learning tasks and, more tangibly for consumers, taking iPhone image capture to new heights. Its 5.8-inch display and $1,000 price tag matches those of its predecessor, which well weathered a storm of doubt as to whether it would find a market. Given that it did, Apple has pushed the boundaries further with the tantalizing iPhone XS Max, the company’s largest and most expensive phone ever with a maxed-out Max selling for $1,500.
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The XR, on the other hand, returns iPhone pricing a bit closer to Earth (at least as low as Apple’s orbit goes) and comes in a range of bright colors. This combination brings to mind Apple’s value-drive-but-not-cheap iPhone 5C. The iPhone XR, though, is a far cry from the 5C. It uses premium (albeit less expensive) materials, the same processor, and the same improved camera sensor as the XS. These capabilities weigh heavily for Apple and its developers, who are keen to highlight the fast migrations to the latest versions of Apple’s operating system software and the features it provides.
While it offers only one rear camera, Apple has followed the lead of last year’s Pixel 2 to achieve many of its stylish portrait effects without the need or a second lens. Furthermore, its screen size, at 6.1-inch, exceeds that of the iPhone XS. In other words, the XR addresses two of the greatest weaknesses of the original X: Its relatively high price and small screen. It even exceeds the XS in a few respects, including screen size and rated battery life. The latter is a bit of a surprise given the battery life advantage generally attributed to OLED.
In addition to the second camera, there are, of course, still a number of advantages that the XS holds over the XR, including an OLED display and a steel versus aluminum frame. But the main differentiator is the lack of a second camera. Not only does that provide the iPhone’s handy telephoto capability, but it probably does a better job of producing those dreamy bokeh effects. Is this most substantive difference worth $200 to most buyers, particularly as it comes with a reduction in screen size and battery life? That seems like a tough sell.
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Apple could likely have achieved many of the goals for the iPhone XR by keeping the original iPhone X in the market. That would have more neatly tied up the good-better-best pecking order of what is now Apple’s lineup of phones that have left behind Touch ID. Perhaps the company could not get to the level of cost-reduction it sought with the older model. But Apple — and, of course, customers — are better served by having access to what’s shaping up to be a compelling choice for iPhone users who would are willing to sacrifice an even larger screen size to avoid the “max tax.”