We don’t have just one, but three different iPhone models: the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR. While the pattern of three choices mirrors what Apple did last year, this year’s event confirmed it wasn’t just a one-off. We should expect releases in triplicate for the foreseeable future.
It’s getting increasingly hard to remember, but there used to be a time when Apple treated the iPhone as a one-size-fits-all product. That hasn’t been the case since 2014, the first year Apple released the iPhone 6 Plus alongside the iPhone 6. Here were two phones, both with state-of-the-art internals, with different form factors. Which was “the iPhone” proper? That was up to personal preference.
Since then we’ve had several iterations of the two-phone lineup and even a come back for the older 4-inch size in the iPhone SE. No model was definitively the iPhone, though — not even last year’s iPhone X. Even though it was demonstrably superior to its peers in the lineup, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, it was too expensive and experimental to be an iPhone for the masses. Even those who evangelize it would probably have a hard time recommending it to someone who just wants “an iPhone.”
So when Apple unveiled three new phones at its event on Wednesday, it appeared the act of buying an iPhone became more confusing than ever. But for a big chunk of Apple’s customer base, things just got dramatically clearer, thanks to the iPhone XR.
Once the XR arrives in Apple’s lineup in October, no model will be more definitively “the iPhone.” It takes much of the hardware and features of the more premium iPhone XS models and puts them in a $749 package — still not cheap, but much more in the ballpark of what most Apple customers can afford. In that way, the iPhone XR is conceptually similar to the iPhone 5C, Apple’s last attempt at an iPhone for the rest of us.
The 5C wasn’t an outright failure, but most buyers weren’t fooled: The tech inside its “unapologetically plastic” exterior was a year old. The iPhone XR, however, has the same chip and overall design as the iPhone XS and XS Max: it’s state-of-the-art. It’s missing some premium features, though: it has a lower-resolution LCD screen instead of an OLED, there’s no 3D Touch, and the trim is aluminum instead of steel. But those upgrades aren’t important to many buyers. They just want to know they’re getting an iPhone, and that it’s one of the new ones.
The one exception is probably the camera, but even here, Apple has done some impressive work to ensure the iPhone XR doesn’t feel like a downgrade. When I tried out the iPhone XR’s camera at the launch event, I was impressed with the quality of the phone’s Portrait Mode — a popular feature of Apple’s dual-camera phones — even with the new depth-of-field adjustment feature.
Add to that the edge-to-edge design (its bezels are larger than the iPhone X’s, but few will care) and the TrueDepth camera system that enables Face ID and things like Memojis, and it suddenly gets harder to see the lines between the iPhone XR and the premium XS and XS Plus. The multiple color finishes might strike some as a indicator of cheapness (Apple brought that on itself), but since most phones spend their lives wrapped in a case, the question is mostly moot.
Some customers will balk at the 6.1-inch screen size. That’s fair, though, for many, the aversion to larger screens is really an aversion to a larger form factor. While the iPhone XR is larger than the iPhone X, it’s not enormously so. We’ve been cooking in larger smartphone screens for years, and if you’ve already gone big, the XR isn’t a leap.
The size, the chip, and the features also bestow a confidence that the iPhone XR won’t feel obsolete that quickly. The mobile world moves so quickly that nothing’s future-proof, but this phone is definitely future-resistant. As analyst Ben Thompson observes, this is still going to be a great phone two years from now.
The iPhone XR isn’t last year’s device, like the iPhone 5C was, and it’s not an expensive, almost-experimental design that’s more future than present, as last year’s iPhone X was billed. It’s also not so expensive that you start to wonder why you paid more for your phone than your laptop, a feeling the iPhone XS models are sure to inspire. This is simply the iPhone — the one you should buy if owning a smartphone with that name is the thing that matters to you the most.