What’s The Deal With The iPhone XR?

Augmented reality is great, until you trip over a bike that isn't there.

The new iPhone XR

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The new iPhone XR is capable of some pretty impressive things. For one, it enables you to trip over bicycles which are not actually there, which is exactly what I did after using the phone for less than five minutes.

To be fair to the phone, I probably shouldn’t have raced into augmented reality so quickly. I could have started by exploring one of the simpler new features, like Screen Time, or the camera. But I opted for augmented reality, and I can report first hand that it’s stunningly realistic: so realistic, in fact, that upon seeing your (real, tangible) foot approach the (not real, definitely not tangible) bike you’ve just drag-and-dropped into your kitchen, you may just lose your footing in an attempt to avoid running into said bike, and instead end up flat on your face on the floor.

It’s a testament to the iPhone XR’s strength that it survived this entire ordeal unscathed.

Hold Up, Which One Is The iPhone XR Again?

We’ll return to augmented reality in a sec, but first, let’s start with some basics. The iPhone XR is one of the new iPhone models released by Apple this year, alongside the iPhone XS and XS Max. The “X” part of the name is the Roman numeral for ten, while the “R” and “S” don’t really have an agreed-upon meaning. For the purposes of remembering which phone is which, I’m going to suggest you think of the phones as the iPhone XR(eally good), and the iPhone XS(upremely good).

In short, the iPhone XR is the budget version of the iPhone XS: while both phones are a massive improvement on their predecessors, relative to the XS the iPhone XR is slightly lesser. Its screen is slightly less good (LCD instead of OLED), its camera is slightly less good (one rear camera instead of two), the (tiny) part of the phone that isn’t made of glass is slightly less good (aluminium instead of stainless steel), and it’s slightly less water resistant (it’ll survive up to one metre of water for up to 30 minutes — the XS can do two metres).

There are other minute differences too, but the short version is that the iPhone XR delivers slightly less than the XS, albeit in ways the average punter is very unlikely to notice. More importantly, it’s also lesser in price: the XS starts at $1,629, while the XR starts at $1,229. The iPhone 8, which is the phone I had before the XR, currently costs $979.

What’s It Like To Upgrade From The iPhone 8 To The XR?

Unless you’re Extremely Wealthy, you’re likely to be coming to the XR from an older iPhone model. Until last week, I was using a well-loved iPhone 8 that still felt pretty new to me (some frugal impulse in me prevents me from upgrading my phone until it’s either absolutely necessary or I’ve found a great deal — until very recently I was using a taped-together iPhone 5 I bought secondhand).

Switching from an iPhone 8 or earlier model to the XR presents a few learning curves. For one, the new phone has no home button, and is designed to be unlocked with Face ID. This has not been nearly as much of a pain in the arse as I thought it would be — it turns out this phone has no trouble recognising me very quickly from all kinds of weird angles, and I haven’t actually had to awkwardly shake it around to get it to unlock. For the paranoid and privacy-conscious, it’s worth noting that the Face ID processing is all done on-device, i.e. your face is not sent to Apple, don’t worry. If you’re interested in the nitty gritty, you can read all about Face ID and privacy here.

As for using apps without the home button, it’s likewise surprisingly fine. You just swipe up from the base of the phone to exit apps, or swipe up and hold to switch between apps. It takes maybe half an hour to adjust, and then the motions are surprisingly natural.

The iPhone XR doesn't allow you to show the battery percentage in the status bar.

RIP, battery percentage. You will be missed.

Where the loss of the home button is a massive pain in the arse, though, is when you want to put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode, or use your flashlight, or turn on AirDrop, or see what song is playing, or fiddle with screen brightness. Previously, all of these functions lived in the Control Centre, which was summoned by swiping up. Now that swiping up does something totally different, the Control Centre is accessed by swiping down from the top right corner of the screen.

This shits me immensely, because Apple’s attempts to cover every inch of this phone in screen means the top right corner is actually much further away than it used to be. Compared to my iPhone 8’s 4.7-inch display, the iPhone XR’s 6.1-inch display is an immense and lonely expanse that must be traversed with great difficulty, much like climbing a mountain. Which is to say this: my thumbs are way too short for this phone, and yours may be too.

I’ve always considered myself to have pretty regular-sized thumbs, but I cannot simultaneously reach the bottom of the screen and the top right corner without repositioning my hand, which feels incredibly risky when the phone I’m holding is made almost entirely of glass (“tough” glass, Apple assures me, but I am still terrified of dropping it). The iPhone XR has made me, for the first time in my life, a two-handed phone user, and I hate it. 

The other downside of Apple’s obsession with turning its iPhones into one giant sheet of glass is the destruction of the status bar at the top of the phone. Given that the status bar now appears either side of the camera instead of underneath it, there’s a lot less room to display the statuses we knew and loved. There is now no way to view battery percentage in the status bar, for instance — you’ll need to swipe down into the Control Centre to see it. The crescent moon of “Do Not Disturb” also no longer appears in the status bar, just on the lock screen, which means that it’s extremely easy to forget that you’re even in Do Not Disturb mode and subsequently miss a series of important notifications.

Okay, But What About The Fun Stuff Like Augmented Reality?

While the iPhone XR taketh away, it also giveth. Specifically, it giveth things like Animoji, Memoji and augmented reality, which are extremely fun to muck around with. Animoji uses the phone’s facial sensors to let you animate different emoji with your own facial expressions, while Memoji lets you build a little custom animated emoji picture of yourself.

You can even use said animated version of yourself as a stand-in for yourself in FaceTime videos and selfies, which is where the real magic happens. If you have a face like mine, which could be described as “photogenically challenged”, you can now take good selfies for the first time. Sure, the selfie is a cartoon version of yourself and not your actual face, but it’s still great.

Memoji of some Junkee staff members

Myself and an angry colleague in our Memoji forms

And if you’re already blessed with photogenic features, you’re going to love taking selfies on this phone. Both the front and back cameras support Portrait Mode, and allow you to adjust background blur and lighting to get a really good shot. In general, the cameras on this phone are very, very good.

Those cameras also make the phone’s augmented reality features possible, which is how I got into the entanglement with the bicycle I mentioned earlier. I was browsing a bike store website with support for augmented reality, which allowed me to drag and drop a 3D model of the bike I was perusing into the room I was standing in. Viewing the bike through my phone’s camera, it looked stunningly realistic — here’s a picture of it sitting in the Junkee offices.

An augmented reality bike sitting in the Junkee offices.

An augmented reality bike sitting in the Junkee offices. This particular bike is from the Pure Cycles store — if you’ve got a phone that supports AR, head to their site and try it out.

Once you’ve placed an augmented reality object in the room you’re in, it’s as though it really is there. Moving closer lets you get a better look at the object — if you want to look like an idiot, you can lie down and angle the phone upwards to get a better look at your bike from below while your coworkers wonder what you’re doing on the floor. At its best, the experience is so convincing that yes, you may find yourself stumbling in an attempt to not kick over the bike you’ve forgotten is not actually there. At least I didn’t try to ride away on it.

Of all the things the iPhone XR can do, its augmented reality features are the most exciting. It’s easy to start imagining the ways this technology is going to become commonplace pretty soon — shopping for furniture, for instance, is going to be made so much easier when you can just drag and drop stuff into your space to see what fits, what looks good.

Unfortunately, though, lots of these applications of augmented reality aren’t quite ready yet. Most online stores don’t come equipped with AR models, and while there are already some apps and games that make use of the new tech, it’s not all that widespread. That makes the AR features on the iPhone XR more of a novelty than an asset — when I first got the phone, I spent hours customising emoji and playing with augmented reality, only to never touch these features again.

When the novelty wears off, then, what are you left with? The iPhone XR is a very good phone, but mostly in fairly invisible ways — the battery life is longer, the glass is tougher, if you chuck it under a tap water just rolls off. The camera and screen improve on previous iPhones in that subtle way you don’t really notice until you try to return to your previous phone and find it feeling old, and dull, and a bit wanting.

I mourn my ability to use my phone one-handed and check my battery level with a glance, but I’ve already adapted to the convenience of Face ID and a camera that lets me adjust background blur even after I’ve taken the photo. I don’t know that any of these improvements would have been enough to convince me to ditch my iPhone 8 and buy this phone, but now that I’ve tried it I’m not sure that I want to go back.

You can find out more about the iPhone XR here