The iPhone XR might be the most interesting phone Apple has made in years.
Think about it: Apple just released its flagship XS and XS Max to a chorus of positive reviews, and now here it is, a month later, preparing to launch another smartphone that packs many of the same features found in those really expensive ones. For Apple, this is all a little unheard of.
To add to the curiosity of it all, the R doesn't mean much either. Phil Schiller, gingerly gripping a cup of coffee across from me, said the letters Apple uses never stand for something specific. But then his voice softened a little as he started to tell me about what the letters mean to him.
"I love cars and things that go fast, and R and S are both letters used to denote sport cars that are really extra special," he said with a smile. That's not exactly the answer I was hoping for, but I'm not sure what I should've expected from a) Apple's SVP of global marketing and b) a longtime fan of Porsches and Audis.
Of course, Schiller's is just one interpretation, and the iPhone XR lends itself to many. It's the cheap iPhone. It's the depressing iPhone. It's, in my case, the fascinating iPhone. That's all right though: Apple was intent on building the right iPhone for as many people as possible, no matter their outlook. These years of work have led Apple to build one of its best smartphones ever, even if it's a little misunderstood.
To understand just why the XR seems like such a curious change of pace, we need to look at Apple's track record. Since 2014, Apple has generally focused on the clockwork cadence of two phones per year. When the company deviated from that pattern, it was for a device like the iPhone SE in 2016, a cutesy phone that packed the guts of an iPhone 6S into the body of a 5S. It was a shift from the norm, sure, but it was built on top of plenty of familiar technology. Last year, Apple shook things up by releasing three iPhones: The 8 and 8 Plus were the natural sequels to the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. A few months later, the iPhone X was released, and it changed what it meant for an iPhone to be an iPhone.
Apple knew well before then that it needed to bring the X's advances in software and performance to people who didn't want to shell out $1,000 on a smartphone. That's an especially tall order when you consider the amount of work it took to complete the iPhone X on schedule in the first place.
"We had this technology we were working on for many years to be the future of the iPhone," Schiller said of the X. "It was a huge ask of the engineering team to get it to market last year, and they did. ... We knew that if we could bring that to market and it was successful very quickly after that, we needed to grow the line and make it available to more people."
You can probably imagine, then, how big an ask it was of Apple's engineering team to release the iPhone XS Max and XR -- two completely new smartphones -- just one year after redefining the iPhone's future. The thing is, building the best smartphone you can when you know it's going to be an unabashedly high-end product is one thing; trying to do the same with the iPhone XR, a device meant to blend some of Apple's most sophisticated technology with a certain level of fiscal accessibility, seems even trickier by comparison.
"If we're going to push the upper boundaries with XS and XS Max to make something the best, how do we make something that's more affordable for a larger audience? To make the overall iPhone audience even larger? What choices can we make and still make it a phone that people can hold and say, 'I have the best too'?"
Those were the questions Apple grappled with while developing the XR, according to Schiller. The company's answers came in many parts, some more straightforward than others.
The XR was meant to provide the best performance possible, so the company packed one of its new A12 Bionic chipsets inside. This is the same sliver of silicon that powers the iPhone XS and XS Max, and when I reviewed those earlier this year, I said the level of power the chipset provided made those phones all but future proof. To offer the same kind of performance for significantly less money than its flagship phones is a new -- and surprising -- move for Apple, but one that makes the XR a tantalizing option for upgraders and newcomers alike.
iPhones are among the most widely used cameras in the world, so Apple transplanted the iPhone XS' excellent 12-megapixel wide-angle camera into the XR's body and augmented it with a dose of machine learning for better dynamic range and portrait shots. Since there's no room for a fingerprint sensor up front anymore, there's a Face ID sensor array at the top of the device. And you guessed it: That's the same Face ID setup as on the XS and XS Max, another way the lines among all of these phones gets a bit fuzzy. In fact, it might be easier to run through some of the notable features the XR doesn't share with its siblings: There's no second telephoto camera and no pressure-sensitive 3D Touch technology in the screen.
Before any of that, though, you'll notice the iPhone XR's new body. It's a little bigger in dimension than the iPhone XS, and you won't find any stainless steel here -- just glass, aerospace-grade aluminum and a lot of color. The colors on offer -- black, white, blue, yellow, coral and red -- are beautiful, but the XR's physical dimensions themselves are a little unusual. Plenty of people have told me the 5.8-inch screen on the XS can feel a little small, and the XS Max's 6.5-inch whopper of a display is overkill for people with smaller hands. With the XR, though, Schiller said the team hit the sweet spot and made "the one size of iPhone XR that can appeal to the widest number of people." It seems a little odd, then, that Apple wouldn't try to produce a premium smartphone this size; alas, maybe next year.