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How to pick between the new iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR

For the second year in a row, Apple has announced three new iPhones at once. And with confusing names like iPhone XR, it’s only getting more difficult to figure out which one might be the best device for you. And the jargon doesn’t end there. A12 Bionic? Liquid Retina Display? Neural Engine? How is anyone supposed to make sense of it all?

Settling on the right iPhone isn’t as daunting as you might think. Ignore the confusing names and just focus on the one or two things that are most important to you, whether that’s a giant screen, a dependable camera, or colors that match your own style.

I’m not going to weigh in on whether you should or shouldn’t upgrade from whatever phone you own now, and it’s up to you to decide how much money is sensible to spend on a phone. You can spend half the cash and still get a decent product. But between these three, I’ll help you land on the right choice. First, let’s examine the (many) things that the three new iPhones have in common.

The iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR share a lot of the same features

Remember the iPhone 5C? It was a cheaper iPhone that had very colorful designs, so it makes for an easy comparison to the XR. But it also had year-old specs compared to the 5S that was introduced alongside it. This time around, Apple is putting the same core hardware into every one of its 2018 iPhones. There are differences when it comes to screen size, battery capacity, and camera, but the similarities cover a lot:

  • The processor: all three new iPhones share Apple’s latest A12 Bionic processor, a 7nm chip that, according to the company, represents a breakthrough in mobile computational power. Its two performance cores (which handle intensive tasks) are “up to 15 percent faster” than the iPhone X, while the four efficiency cores (responsible for powering your everyday app usage) are “up to 50 percent more efficient.” The GPU is up to 50 percent faster. It’s not like modern iPhones struggle with running iOS games, but this silicon opens new possibilities for software to come.

Each new iPhone also contains Apple’s updated, eight-core Neural Engine for handling AI tasks, which can handle 5 trillion operations per second.

  • The main camera: the XR might lack a telephoto / zoom lens, but it has the exact same 12-megapixel f/1.8 primary camera as the XS and XS Max. Apple says that on each of the three models, the camera uses an all-new sensor (with larger pixels) and it’s capable of Smart HDR, which produces photos with “far greater dynamic range” and less noise in low light. The new camera is also better at freezing motion shots, according to Apple. Like last year, all of the new iPhones can shoot 4K video at 60 fps and 1080p slo-mo at 240 fps.
  • Front-facing TrueDepth camera: the camera system used for selfies, Face ID, Animoji, and Memoji is the same across all three new iPhones. It’s a 7-megapixel f/2.2 sensor
  • True Tone, wide-color displays: Though they use different display technology, the iPhone XS and XR each include Apple’s True Tone tech, which adjusts the display’s temperature to match the ambient lighting around you. They’re also capable of showing a wide P3 color gamut.
  • A quicker Face ID system: yes, the home button is gone for good from Apple’s 2018 iPhones, but the company has sped up Face ID this year by adding a faster secure enclave and smarter face-scanning algorithms.
  • Faster wireless charging: Apple says all of its 2018 models support faster Qi charging than the iPhone X was capable of, but it’s not providing any clear numbers on what the difference is.
  • Dual-SIM support: the new iPhones are all capable of supporting two phone lines by including both eSIM and one physical nanoSIM card in the phone. This will make international travel or juggling work / personal lines a lot easier.
  • Stereo audio recording: it somehow took Apple until the year 2018 to give iPhones the ability to record stereo audio But hey, at least it finally happened. The iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR each have four microphones built in to capture stereo sound when you’re shooting video.
  • Better stereo speakers: while we’re on the subject, Apple claims that the new iPhones all have improved stereo speakers with a wider audio presentation.

Buy the iPhone XS Max if you want the biggest screen of any iPhone ever
$1,099 (64GB) | $1,249 (256GB) | $1,449 (512GB)

The iPhone XS Max is designed for people who love their Plus-sized smartphones. You get more screen — a 6.5-inch display — in a form factor that’s just barely (and I mean barely) smaller than the 8 Plus.

From left to right: iPhone X, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone 8 Plus.
Image: Apple

Apple has often bandied about the idea that the iPhone X had a “bigger” display than the iPhone 8 Plus. Diagonally, that was technically true. But it was never as wide, which makes a difference when you’re scrolling Instagram, watching videos, or browsing the web.

First and foremost, the XS Max is a return to that big, hulking screen — now with a notch and sans home button. The other benefit of going bigger is battery life. Apple says the iPhone XS Max bests the endurance of last year’s iPhone X by 90 minutes. But if you found past Plus phones to be unwieldy, the XS Max won’t be any different.

Image: Apple

Get the iPhone XS if you want a super-powerful phone that’s manageable in one hand and if you need its dual-camera
$999 (64GB) | $1,149 (256GB) | $1,349 (512GB)

If you didn’t upgrade last year, the iPhone XS offers a modest refinement of the slick design that Apple introduced with the iPhone X. It’s more powerful, and it’s faster, thanks to gigabit LTE. The camera’s better, and there are other improvements like better water resistance (now IP68). Oh, and this one comes in gold. Yep, it sure sounds like an S year to me.

If the iPhone XS Max is just too much phone for you, the XS comes in a more hand-friendly size with all of the same features. At the top of that list is its dual-lens camera for portrait shots. I don’t use this very often, but I have friends who shoot with it constantly. So for those who want the very best iPhone (with up to 512GB of storage) but care about one-handed usability, this is your choice. It’s still not as compact as the iPhone SE, though. RIP.

Pick the iPhone XR if you want color, the best battery life, and a good balance of everything else
$749 (64GB) | $799 (128GB) | $899 (256GB)

Starting at $749, the iPhone XR manages to avoid the harsh $1,000 entry price of the iPhone XS. But it shares many of the same features and Apple’s latest technology advances. There are two main differences to keep in mind. One is the screen: with the XR, you get a 6.1-inch LCD instead of the 5.8-inch or 6.5-inch OLED panels on the XS. It’s not as sharp as the iPhone XS (326 ppi versus 458), but Apple’s LCDs are vibrant and bright. It’s different, but a downgrade? I doubt many will see it that way. The phone is a bit wider (2.98 inches) than the XS (2.79 inches), so that’s something to consider if you’re not fond of big devices.

The other difference is the camera, as the XR has just a single, optically stabilized 12-megapixel sensor. But thanks to software, it offers the same portrait shots and adjustable bokeh as the XS and the same Smart HDR capabilities. Performance between the two main cameras on both phones should be identical. But if you’ve frequently relied or enjoyed using the zoom lens on an iPhone Plus, you might miss it.

Image: Apple

The IP67 water resistance is a step down from the new IP68 rating of the XS and XS Max, but it’s still good enough to provide peace of mind in a sudden rainstorm or if someone douses your phone in their beverage of choice. The aluminum band isn’t quite as substantial as stainless steel, but the phone is more lightweight in exchange.

The real seller of the iPhone XR is color. With options like coral, blue, yellow, and red, it’s a far more striking and eye-catching device than the play-it-safe iPhone XS. (And to those who keep saying its color will be hidden by a case, let me remind you that clear cases exist. There are many.) Not since the iPhone 5C has Apple offered such a wide mix of finishes.

If you pick the XR, you’re getting a lot of what’s best about the iPhone XS in a cheaper package. And it has the best battery life of any of this year’s iPhones as the final kicker. Apple claims that the XR can outlast the iPhone 8 Plus in most cases by 90 minutes. The Plus phones have always had impressive endurance, and this sounds substantially better. That’s promising.

Keep in mind that the iPhone XR is a fair bit larger than the XS.
Image: Apple

You lose out on 3D Touch, but how much of a loss is that? No, you won’t be able to move the cursor by pressing down on the virtual keyboard or go to a specific section of an app by hard pressing on its home screen icon. And you can’t preview (or “peek” in Apple terminology) URL links or media.

But look: it’s been three years since 3D Touch debuted on the iPhone 6S, and the best advice for discovering useful things it can do is still “just try it, and see if something happens.” The technology never even made it to a single iPad. 3D Touch had enormous potential, but it’s certainly gone off the rails a bit. And Apple only has itself to blame.

There’s not a bad option among these phones, and while it’s unfortunate that the new iPhone fleet has a $750 cost of entry, the iPhone 8 remains a decent choice for those looking to spend less. To me, the 128GB iPhone XR seems like the sweet spot and a great choice for a wide range of folks, but who am I to judge if a maxed-out (forgive me) 512GB iPhone XS Max is more your thing.

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