Should You Upgrade To Apple's iPhone XS Or iPhone XR?

Photo: Apple

A large chunk of Apple’s audience is already lighting their bank accounts on fire in anticipation of all the neat new gear they can start preordering this week. That’s just the way it is, and partly why Apple can afford to do things such as build sprawling buildings in the heart of Silicon Valley.

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No matter the price, or specifications, a lot of people are going to order one of the new iPhones: The iPhone XR, iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max — a naming convention Apple totally didn’t borrow from that other company.

You, however, are a reasonable Lifehacker reader who isn’t afraid to pay big bucks for sweet, geeky gear, but only if it provides a value and experience that’s greater than that which you already have. In other words, you don’t buy based on hype, and you don’t need an upgrade just because it’s new; you need an upgrade if it’s actually worth buying.

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Should you buy a new iPhone? Let’s explore:

iPhones: The XR, XS and XS Max

iPhone XS (Screenshot: David Murphy)

Key specs

  • iPhone XR: 6.1-inch “Liquid Retina” LCD display; 64GB, 128GB or 256GB storage; red, yellow, white, coral, black and blue finishes; A12 Bionic chip; 12MP wide-angle camera; 7MP front-facing “TrueDepth” camera. Ranging from $1229 to $1479.
  • iPhone XS: 5.8-inch OLED display; 64GB, 256GB or 512GB storage; gold, space grey and silver finishes; A12 Bionic chip; 12MP wide-angle and telephoto cameras; 7MP front-facing “TrueDepth” camera. Ranging from $1629 to $2199.
  • iPhone XS Max: 6.5-inch OLED display. Everything else the iPhone XS has. Ranging from $1799 to $2369.

If you own an iPhone X...

Congratulations: Your expensive smartphone lasted less time than the iPhone 8, as your relic is no longer purchasable from Apple... but the iPhone 8 (and even the iPhone 7) are still there.

This makes sense, of course, since there’s absolutely no reason to buy an iPhone X with Apple dropping three new iPhones (two XSs and an XR) that basically take all the good things about the iPhone X and reconfigure them in different ways.

If you upgrade — and I don’t think it makes sense to upgrade — you aren’t getting all that much, hardware-wise.

That isn’t to say the A12 Bionic chip in the iPhone XS isn’t faster: Apple claims performance boosts of 15 per cent for its two “performance” cores; a speed boost of 50 per cent from its Apple-designed GPU; and a big, juicy brain an eight-core neural engine that can reach five trillion operations per second (more than eight times your device’s “meagre” 600 billion operations per second).

Let’s go beyond the specs sheet for a second. In everyday use, your iPhone X is probably fast enough for everything you need it to do. You probably aren’t using augmented reality very much. I’m sure your smartphone’s camera and photo processing feels pretty responsive.

You might be a gamer, but even an iPhone at its best isn’t going to look as good as one of the many (cheaper) gaming devices out there, such as a Nintendo Switch, a PlayStation Vita, a Nintendo 2DS or 3DS, et cetera.

No matter how much Apple wants you to sweat with Kayla or fire up Pokemon GO (or any of its many clones), a device with more processing firepower than your current iPhone X won’t give you a better app experience save for the most extreme cases.

Or, to put it another way, I’m still on an iPhone 8 Plus (I know, I know), and I have yet to use an app that makes me think, “Gosh, I probably need a faster iPhone. This is terrible.”

Hey it’s that slide that leaked weeks ago (Screenshot: David Murphy)

If you’re a big photography nut — and Apple loves you, if so — the iPhone XS and XS Max aren’t coming out of the gate with a crazy-higher megapixel count for the wide-angle camera or telephoto cameras. There’s a new, larger sensor and improved TrueTone flash, but that probably isn’t as monumental as the devices’ “Smart HDR” mode and, the big improvement, the ability to edit a photo’s depth of field after you’ve taken it.

Would I drop over $1000 on that after already paying over $1000 for an iPhone X last year? No. Are the iPhone XS’ other improvements worth an expensive $1000+ upgrade? No. But you can probably sell your iPhone X for a few hundred bucks or so right now from one of the many trade-in places (or eBay), so that helps soften the blow a bit.

Generally speaking, though, I’d wait for next year’s iPhone upgrade — the non-”s” cycle — to really get your money’s worth.

If you own an iPhone 8/8 Plus...

This one gets a little trickier. I do love my Home button, I do, and I wish I could take Portrait Mode selfies. And while Apple has let other devices (cough the “budget” iPhone XR cough) have a software solution for Portrait Mode using a single camera, the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus is apparently too stupid to make it work.

That, or Apple wants to give users every reason possible to upgrade. I suspect the latter.

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As before, my performance argument still stands — I have yet to have a poor enough of an app experience to make me yearn for a new iPhone.

However, my iPhone 8 Plus is now a full year old. The battery is reasonably fine, but the value of my iPhone will soon reach a point when I’ll get next to nothing for a trade in. I’d prefer to strike while the iron is lukewarm and at least get something reasonable for my device while I still can.

I love the iPhone XS’ dimensions: The regular iPhone XS gives you more screen space than the iPhone 8 Plus (5.8 inches to 5.5 inches) in a smaller form factor. That’s appealing. And if you want to stick with iPhone 8 Plus’ gargantuan size, you get 6.5 inches of screen on the iPhone XS Max. That’s great, and it definitely has me eager to upgrade.

Also, you get a much better-looking OLED screen, a higher pixel density, and all the photographic improvements previously mentioned — as well as optical image stabilisation for your telephoto lens and a slightly faster lens (ƒ/2.4 versus ƒ/2.8). And don’t forget about animoji. Gotta have that talking poop.

I will probably upgrade to a newer iPhone, because it seems like a reasonable upgrade, but I could make just as compelling an argument for keeping my device.

If you’re on an iPhone 8, I’d recommend going for at least an iPhone XR — the camera features are interesting enough to warrant giving it a go, even though the iPhone itself is going to be larger than what you’re used to using (and you might not like that). It gives you reasonable access to performance, security and speed improvements and is at the lowest end of the price spectrum for these new phones.

The iPhone XR—the “r” stands for “really colourful” (Screenshot: David Murphy)

The iPhone XS is an even better step up (obviously), but if you weren’t swayed by last year’s iPhone X, you probably aren’t going to be as convinced to pay that much for its improvements over the iPhone XR: An OLED “True Tone” display; a second, telephoto lens; a slightly smaller form factor; 3D Touch (get it while you can!); and more portrait lighting effects, to name a few.

If you’re on an iPhone 8 Plus, like me, you’ll probably want to go iPhone XS at minimum. The iPhone XR feels like a slight step back from the iPhone 8 Plus, given the loss of the telephoto lens and a few Portrait Mode effects. The iPhone XS, in contrast, gives you a slightly larger (OLED) screen in a much smaller form factor, which feels like more of a noteworthy upgrade for its (admittedly higher) price.

That’s in addition to all the other improvements all three iPhones share: The speedier A12 chip, dual-SIM capabilities (if your carriers support it - there currently aren't an Australian ones listed), animoji, Depth Control (changing a photo’s depth of field after the fact), a bit more battery for your device (+1.5 hours for the iPhone XR versus the iPhone 8 Plus, and anywhere from an extra half an hour to an extra hour and a half for the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max versus the iPhone X).

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If you own an older iPhone...

For whatever reason, you haven’t upgraded your iPhone in a while. And that’s OK! You don’t have to buy a new iPhone every year. You don’t even have to buy a new iPhone every other year.

I’m going to assume that there’s some particular reason why you don’t upgrade, though — perhaps it’s too expensive. While I’d normally suggest to buy the best-possible device you can get (the iPhone XS or XS Max) so you’re covered for a few years, that $1629 starting price is tough to look at.

The iPhone XR is a great alternative for all the reasons I’ve previously mentioned — it feels like the best of the “budget” devices Apple now carries.

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That said, Apple is still offering both the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7 (in regular and Plus versions). I wouldn’t go iPhone 7 or 7 Plus, because those feel incredibly ancient (even if they’re cheap, now starting at a mere $749 for the iPhone 7 or $929 for the iPhone 7 Plus).

The iPhone 8 feels like the sweet spot for me: $979 for the iPhone 8 or $1149 for the iPhone 8 Plus. You’ll get wireless charging, a more durable glass back, 64GB of storage for the cheapest version of the iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus, a prettier “True Tone” display, 3D Touch (for as long as that lasts), Portrait Lighting effects (on the iPhone 8 Plus), support for 4K video at 30 and 60 fps, and higher-resolution slo-mo video.

Some of these features are not the biggest deal, I realise, but I think the wireless charging and extra storage by themselves are worth the slight boost in price. At least, I’d rather have a 64GB iPhone 8 than a 128GB iPhone 7 — especially with only a $60 gap between them. A 32GB iPhone 7 feels like it wouldn’t be enough for your apps, photos and movies, whereas a 64GB iPhone 8 feels like the sweet spot, in my experience.

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If you don’t own an iPhone at all...

The cheapest iPhone XS (64GB) costs $130 more than a 256GB Samsung Galaxy S9+, $550 more than the Google Pixel 2 (64GB), and $530 more than the gaming-themed Razer Phone (64GB). Welcome to the Apple ecosystem, Android fans.

I can’t compare every device out there to Apple’s latest offerings, but know that you’ll probably be paying quite a few more cents if you want the very best (or medium-best) Apple has to offer.

If you’re used to the top-of-the-line smartphones from the big Android manufacturers, my guess is you’ll want to at least go for the iPhone XS — for its screen size, OLED display, camera, general performance, et cetera. The iPhone XR feels more like the “budget” version of Apple’s latest offerings, but I doubt you’ll want to try that, or the iPhone 8 or iPhone 7, if you’re used to having the latest and greatest.

The iPhone XR is a good stopgap phone if you need to upgrade to something that’s decently better than your older device, and you don’t want to blow your budget to do it. Otherwise, if you’re coming from something like the Samsung Galaxy S9 — you spender you — it’s iPhone XS all the way (or iPhone XS Max).


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