Friday, March 1, 2019

Upgrading From an iPhone SE to an XR

I’ve been using an iPhone XR for several months now. I really wasn’t sure I wanted to give up my iPhone SE, which is so easy to hold and comfortable to use, but I wanted a faster phone with a better camera and more battery life. I ended up liking the iPhone XR much more than I expected to, and I would choose this model again over the iPhone XS or XS Max, even without price being a factor.

Overall, I like Face ID a little better than Touch ID. Face ID works on the first try most of the time, but even without Require Attention it fails to recognize me more often than Touch ID does. And, perhaps due to an iOS change, even when it seems like it did recognize me, I need to type my passcode multiple times per day. When the phone is in my pocket, Face ID feels slower than even the iPhone SE’s Touch ID. Even with first-generation Touch ID, I could put my finger on the sensor and have the phone unlock while I was raising it to my face. With Face ID, even with Raise to Wake, I still have to wait until the phone is in front of me and then swipe up. Face ID also fails in some circumstances where Touch ID worked, such as lying sideways on a pillow in bed or wearing ski googles. However, Face ID also has advantages. It works with gloves on, with wet fingers, and with dry/cracked skin. It’s more convenient when the phone is in a dock or car mount where it would be hard to get my hand under it to put my thumb on the sensor.

Adjusting to not having a physical home button was easy. I can’t believe how much of a non-issue it was. The multi-tasking gestures are great. The notch itself doesn’t bother me as much as I expected, but I miss being able to see at a glance whether an alarm is set.

The display is amazing. I actually think it looks better than the OLED screen on the iPhone XS. Text on OLED screens looks a bit funny to me, especially when scrolling. There’s a weird color effect that kind of reminds me of Microsoft’s ClearType.

I wasn’t sure whether I would like the size of the screen. With the iPhone SE, I could easily reach everything with one hand, and this wasn’t the case even with an iPhone 6s. The iPhone XR is quite a bit larger. In fact, I found that it’s so large that I hold and use it in a different—unapologetically two-handed—way, and the adjustment has been easy. Being able to see so much at once is an incredible advantage. I’ve long known this on the Mac, where I’ve always tried to get as much screen space as possible. But, in a way, it’s more true on the phone because it’s so cramped to begin with. Modern iOS and apps are less information dense than before, and they no longer seem to be optimized for 4-inch displays like when that was the flagship size. I miss those days, but at this point I don’t think even a new small phone would bring them back.

With the iPhone 6–8, I felt like the additional screen real estate was questionably worth the increase in physical size and reduced one-handed use. But with the XR, with its higher DPI that shows the same number of points as the iPhone XS Max while only being slightly larger than the iPhone XS, it’s clearly worth it to me. And despite the high resolution, I didn’t find any text to be too small, even with the lowest Dynamic Type setting.

The display shows enough text to read books comfortably, so that I no longer bother carrying my Kindle to waiting rooms, etc. Besides showing more, the large display also requires less scrolling. It feels like I’m being interrupted less when reading a long document or book, and that I can scan through a list of tweets more quickly. And it allows for a larger keyboard, which I think has improved the speed and accuracy of my typing.

A downside to the large display is that, because it goes right up to the edge, I got a lot of accidental input. I would touch a control (often in Camera) that I didn’t mean to. And I would find that tapping a button I did want to touch wouldn’t work because I was also accidentally touching the edge of the display somewhere. Using a case mostly eliminated these problems, although it also makes intentional edge gestures slightly more difficult.

The other downside to the large display is the greatly increased physical size. This bothers me much less than I expected in hand, but it’s unpleasant in my front pants pocket. It’s less comfortable to walk around with the phone in pocket, and I find myself removing it if I’m going to be sitting for an extended time. Overall, I don’t think I’d want to go back to a smaller display, but I kind of miss the innocent days when we could pretend there wasn’t a trade-off here. Perhaps when Apple makes a foldable phone.

The size in the pocket wouldn’t be so bad with the phone by itself, but it’s especially pronounced with a case. And, unfortunately, I’ve found a case to be necessary for the iPhone XR. The phone is just too slippery without one. The aluminum sides are much less grippy than the iPhone XS’s stainless steel, and it lacks the square edges that make the iPhone SE so easy to hold. It seems like combining these attributes with the iPhone XR’s display would make an ideal phone, but that’s not a configuration that Apple offers.

The case I’m using is the $10 Spigen Liquid Crystal. I don’t love the way it looks, with its text printed on three different surfaces, and the dot grid on the back, but it’s very grippy (without being too sticky in my pocket) and comfortable to hold.

I expected to like Apple’s $39 clear case but ended up strongly disliking it. It looks better out of the box, but it accumulates more fingerprints on the surface and pocket lint and gunk under the edges. The plastic has a hard feel—somehow it feels less forgiving than the metal of the phone itself—so that I find it almost painful to hold. It’s also a bit too slippery, and the buttons are way too tight. The Apple case is a bit less bulky, though, and there’s a little cutout at the bottom so that your finger doesn’t bump into the edge of the case when swiping up to go home.

The other reason I consider a case necessary is that it evens out the camera bump so that the phone can sit flat. I hate the bump, but the camera is great. In ideal conditions, it’s not so different from the iPhone SE’s. But it’s far superior in low light or when the subject is moving. Getting ready to take a photo is faster, both because the camera app opens more quickly and because with Smart HDR I no longer have to manually turn on HDR every time.

Unfortunately, Smart HDR seems like a work in progress. The first problem is that it can introduce artifacts. I’ve seen unnatural skin, a solid red rectangle over part of the image, and unnatural reflections on metal surfaces that I don’t see in person. The second problem, compounding the first, is that if the phone thinks only a little HDR is required it will apply the processing (and possibly introduce the artifacts) without saving a separate non-HDR version of the photo (even with Keep Normal Photo enabled). Perhaps this is because Apple doesn’t consider this processing to be HDR. Yet neither problem seems to occur when Smart HDR is disabled. In that case, you get a manual HDR toggle in the Camera app, but it’s easier to use than on the iPhone SE because you can just tap it on or off without having to first tap to open the HDR “menu.”

The iPhone XR doesn’t just take photos with better lighting and sharpness; they also look different. I think this is due to the larger aperture causing a shallower depth of field. Roughly speaking, less of the area around the subject will be in focus. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Sometimes having a slightly blurry background—it’s nothing like Portrait Mode—emphasizes the important part of the photo and makes it look more professional. Other times, if I’m taking a photo to “document” something (the writing on an object, or how a piece of equipment looked before I took it apart), I would prefer to have more of it look sharp.

Portrait Mode has occasionally produced great results, but usually they look sort of weird. I wish it worked more like HDR, saving two versions, so that I could revert to the normal one if it didn’t work out. Absent that, I rarely use Portrait Mode because I don’t want to risk not ending up with a good shot.

Miscellaneous things that I didn’t expect:


Update (2019-03-04): John Gruber:

I’ve been saying the same thing, including on a recent episode of my podcast talking to Joanna Stern, who just bought herself a XR for her own use. For using the iOS interface — Safari, Twitter, Mail, Messages — I really do think I prefer a great LCD to an OLED display. Where OLED’s advantages show most are when watching video — that’s when the deep blacks matter.

You can retroactively turn off the Portrait Mode blur in the Photos app, but this feature is not available to me since my workflow is to use Image Capture to import the photos to Lightroom and delete them from the phone.

Carlos Moffat suggested that the Face ID problems I’ve been having lying sideways in bed might not be due to the pillow, but rather to holding the sensor too close to my face. Holding it farther away when unlocking does seem to help.

I have not missed 3D Touch or the headphone jack.

Matt Del Vecchio notes that you can swipe up while raising the phone, rather than waiting until Face ID can see you. I have not been able to physically do this one-handed, whereas it’s easy to one-hand unlock with Touch ID when taking the phone out of my pocket. Even with two hands, the phone won’t recognize the swipe unless you have also pressed the power button or have already moved the phone up enough that Raise to Wake has been triggered.

Juli Clover (via Meek Geek):

You might think [the iPhone SE would] be noticeably slower than newer iPhones, but, surprisingly, for built-in apps it’s speedy. When using Mail, Messages, Calendar, FaceTime, and other similar built-in apps, the iPhone SE is as speedy as 2018 iPhones.

36 Comments RSS · Twitter

You can modify the vibration of the ringtone in the sound settings. There is even a custom vibration editor, where you can create custom stronger vibrations.

Thomas Insam

You can use Edit to turn off the portrait blur (or weaken/strengthen it) but you’re still paying a price - no Live Photo and at least on the xs I have it’s not as good in low light

Thanks a bunch for this writeup, I’ve been having very similar concerns, and my situation was the same, modulo the fact it is an iPhone 5S I’ve been holding on to for now five years and change. Great news about the battery, in particular: recently I went biking with temperatures a bit above 0 °C, and the 5S’ old, worn battery meant it was just shutting down after a short time when I attempted to use it as GPS (I have an attachment for that on my bike handlebars). I had to warm it up and then keep it close to my body for the remainder of the trip, only occasionally pulling it out to get the directions.

One difference that will make my transition easier: even with the 5S I’ve taken the habit of taking it out of my pocket when sitting down, e.g. at my desk. On the other hand, I do occasionally listen to audio while charging (e.g. when doing the dishes and it turns out I forgot to charge it earlier), so I will need to get the necessary adapter.

Best and most interesting iPhone XR review yet, very interesting tidbits and considerations, thank you! I'm still using an iPhone 6 and been thinking a lot about the size of the XR.

Good points. I'm not sure how long you've had the XR, but I had similar issues with Face ID on my XS, such as failing to recognize me in low light or lying sideways on a pillow. Over a 2-3 months they've completely vanished, leading me to believe the continuous retraining picked up the slack. It's now mostly flawless.

@Thomas Good point. I keep forgetting about that because it doesn’t fit with my workflow. I use Image Capture to import the photos to my Mac (Lightroom) and delete them from my phone, and at that point the blur is already baked in.

@Bradley I’ve had it 3.5 months. I saw a lot of improvement over the first week or so, but it’s been pretty stable since then.

"...And I would find that tapping a button I did want to touch wouldn’t work because I was also accidentally touching the edge of the display somewhere."

As a loyal iPhone SE owner I'm curious about your experience with using Messages on it. I'm left-handed, and I'm constantly - like about 75% of the time - needing to tap the back navigation button a few times (sometimes so many I almost want to force-quit it) to get out of a single conversation. Am I the only one? This was never the case before they "flattened" things in iOS 7.

@Dave Yes, I have had problems with back navigation buttons because reaching like that with my right thumb (I’m right-handed) makes it more likely that my palm will be touching the opposite edge. What I now do is hold the phone with two hands and use my left thumb to swipe from the left edge to go back.

Dave 2 (different Dave)

Michael, any RSI issues going from the small screen to the big screen?

@Dave 2 Without a case, I had to grip the XR more tightly because it’s so slippery, and that caused some hand pain. With a case, the XR is better RSI-wise because the larger screen reduces the number of scrolling flicks needed.

This accords almost precisely with my XR experience (from the 6s Plus). Weak vibrations haven't been an issue I've noticed (with the same case).

I've barely missed 3D Touch, even though I had been a pretty heavy user of it, because most of the most important use cases have been replaced by a long press. 3D Touch on an app icon for quick actions are the only times I miss it (especially for Drafts and OmniFocus).

For improving the vibration when the phone rings, go to Settings > Sounds & Haptics > Ringtone and choose another vibration or create your own. You can do the same in Settings > Sounds & Haptics > Text Tone if you need the vibration improved for messages, too. I have a really long one listed in the Custom category, called Fog Horn, though my memory is that I didn't create it, that maybe it used to be built in. Either way, it's long because otherwise I often don't hear or feel the phone in my pocket when at work.

"due to the smaller aperture causing a shallower depth of field." You probably meand _larger_ aperture (i.e. it lets in more light because the aperture is wider). Even if that means smaller f/... numbers :)

@Thomas Fixed; thanks.

I switched from the SE to a XS a month ago and you captured the problems with face ID. I am so annoyed by it's failings (and I don't ski, so I pretty much have 0 of those positives). I would also add:
- I am baffled that it does not seem to work sideways, like when propped in portrait to watch a video, or with a gimbal or tripod or stick, so you have to awkwardly turn it and/or strain your neck to meet it's gaze.
- It also obviously does not work when your phone is laying flat on your desk, say on a wireless charger for example, and you have to lift it up just to read a notification that just popped up (you can disable Messages texts being hidden until you look at it, but it also disables the phone not turning off when you are looking at it, I think ?)

On the question of the size, I have quite small hands and I'm using a case with a ring, and basically sticking stuff (popsocket) on the back so I can actually hold it without having to wrap my hand around, a position in which my thumb reaches like 30% of the screen. So that sure makes it look great and fit well in the front (any) pocket. I should add some 90's stickers. (And don't you complain about camera bumps to me).
I have no Idea if Qi charging still works with all that. (probably ?)
I also tried a "TFY security hand strap" but no.

Overall it's still not comfortable to reach some parts of the screen one handed, but fortunately I don't spend so much time on the phone that it causes pains. Yet. On the positive side it makes holding it in landscape like a camera to film or take pictures much more comfortable (and not slippery).

And Assistive Touch is my savior.

I chose the XS because according to the specs it's the smallest of the 3, but now I don't think it would actually make a difference with the XR. It's the lightest too, and I really feel the weight difference with the SE (even more with the added case and stuff).

Now this is almost turning into a review, so I might as well add that on the positive side I don't see it as a notch, but as two cute ears, and I find it adorable. I like 3D touch and the haptic feedback...

@Neradoc I think Face ID is actually worse than Touch ID for skiing because it doesn’t work with goggles or a face mask. It does work with liner gloves, whereas Touch ID doesn’t, but if it’s a cold enough day that I need liners, I’m probably not going to be taking off my outer gloves/mittens to use my phone. The two places gloves come in handy for me: thin gloves when driving or running errands and lotion gloves that I wear inside during the winter.

The lying flat issue is one reason I got the dock-style Qi charger. It also lets me monitor things on my phone while using my Mac.

I think the XS is, in practice, much smaller than the XR because it can be used without a case. But my thinking was that if I’m not going to be able to easily pocket and one-hand the phone anyway, I might as well go big and take full advantage of the extra screen space.

I don’t miss 3D touch at all, but I think that’s more because Apple never did much with it rather than because it isn’t a good idea.

Been using a XR (from a 6) for the last 3 months too.

Hardware: A+
Software: A
Casing Design: C-

- this phone is indeed completely slippery, Even worse than the 6. It's not possible to take a photo without fearing to lose the phone. If you put the phone on a surface with a mini slope, it will slide.
I've just ordered the case you use as I was looking for a good case but cheaper than Apple's outrageously pricey offers.

- I hate the disappearance of the home button when you need to take screenshots. 75% of the time, I end up closing the phone because some designer(s) decided to put the side button at the same level as the Volume up/down buttons.

- the bump is not a problem when using the phone but it's still a terrible look.

- battery life is really good for my usage. I only charge the phone every 4-5 days.

- there are no f*cking cases for the EarPods in the box.

A few notes -

>The display is amazing. I actually think it looks better than the OLED screen on the iPhone XS. Text on OLED screens looks a bit funny to me, especially when scrolling. There’s a weird color effect that kind of reminds me of Microsoft’s ClearType.

That is because in some way it is, the OLED, unless you count the Green dots ( If I remember correctly ), otherwise it has the same PPI as the LCD, and with a worst pattern overall. And it is one reason why OLED panel maker had to keep pushing up the PPI, not only because it is good for marketing, it is actually necessary to keep up with LCD display quality. I think Apple wasn't lying about the Liquid Retina improvement, unfortunately DisplayTech and others aren't doing any deep dive into it. Apple didn't want to oversell the Liquid Retina to distract its audience from OLED XS, and reviewers likely don't find get enough Interest in it.

>The speed is noticeably better, even in unexpected places like deleting episodes in Overcast, but it didn’t blow me away.

I think much like the PC and Mac, we have reached a plateau. We got 8 Core CPU and yet for everyday task they are pretty much the same. I think the next biggest improvement to general usability will be ProMotion as seen on iPad Pro. But I am not sure if it will ever come to iPhone, as it is much more energy intensive.

I don't see anything mention about Reception. Since you likely switched form an Qualcomm based iPhone SE to an Intel based XR. Data rate are expected to be better due to the fact Intel Modem were more advanced and support higher 3GPP Profile. But did you see worst reception, i.e in places where you used to get at least some coverage, now you don't get any.

If Apple had an iPhone SE sized Edge to Edge Face ID iPhone, which many people calling it as iPhone SE 2 ( Likely wont be named SE as it will be way more expensive ), would you consider switching back to a smaller size when price and money isn't an problem.

@Ed Yes, that matches what I’ve read about OLED vs. LCD.

Reception seemed much worse with the XR for the first week or so, to the point where I Googled to see whether this was a thing and thought about returning the phone. But since then it’s been fine. If anything, I would guess it’s a little better with the XR. Maybe a better antenna offsets the different modem?

If Apple had shipped an SE 2 I would have bought that instead, no question. Now that I’m used to the XR, I’m not sure whether I would switch. I would definitely want to try it, though.

I upgraded from a iPhone 6 to an XR when the XR was released.

FaceID is technically impressive, but I think that just accentuates its fundamental flaws. It seems pretty clear that the True Depth camera is only a piece of the FaceID system, and that it is used more extensively than just in the moments you are unlocking your phone. My sense is that FaceID uses multiple cues over time to maintain a context that it draws upon during authentication. Also, in my experience, it clearly continues learning one's face well after the initial training period.

And yet it is often slow to authenticate, it often fails to authenticate, it is often slow to recover after a failure, and, overall, falling back to a passcode after a FaceID failure imposes more cognitive load than with TouchID. I tried it just now and it choked because I was wearing a knit hat. It still has trouble authenticating me when I'm lying on my side.

FaceID makes it difficult to check something on my phone at a glance and it complicates quick actions on notifications -- if authentication fails the first time I often end up on the home screen rather than at the notification quick action (or whatever it is called).

In addition to my frustrations over the FaceID experience, the XR is huge.

The new phone is better in pretty much every other way (as it should be, given four generations of improvements) but for me the size and the FaceID problems overshadow the improvements. If the screen on my iPhone 6 hadn't been glitchy already before it ended up shattered I would have been happy using the 6 for at least another year. As it is, I'm not sure I made the right decision by upgrading vs having the 6's screen replaced, or getting a refurbished 6s or 7. For now, I'm going to make a more concerted effort to train myself to work around FaceIDs frustrations.

My experience heavily favours Face ID. It has performed flawlessly with the exception of very low light levels and when wearing a toque. On the other hand Touch ID has been a bust. It works for a short time after initializing new settings for a finger, then deteriorates to the point of 100% failure. The cold/dry climate that I live in does not help as it leads to dry/cracked fingers, but that is not an uncommon use case.

"where it would be hard to get my hand under it to put my thumb on the sensor."

Why aren't you adding other fingers to Touch ID? 😅

Face ID will work when lying on your side. You just need to unlock it a handful of times with the passcode, which triggers Face ID to read your face. It’ll learn and unlock. Mine works 90% of the time on my side.

When unlocking it in portrait mode (such as taking it out of your pocket), just swipe up before waiting for Face ID to unlock and it’ll do both in one action. Overall, I like it more than Touch ID.

Great review of the XR for SE owners. I'm going to stick with my SE for a while longer - I don't use my phone much and so the whole “fits in my pocket” is about the most important criteria as far as I am concerned. I'm glad the lack of home button didn't affect you much, but I'm pretty sure my wife is still trying to figure out what gestures do what on her XR - probably it requires some active learning to figure out the new gestures which not every iPhone user is going to do.

@Mark I do add other fingers to Touch ID, but there are still times where it’s hard to reach the sensor compared with using Face ID.

@Calvin The problem isn’t waiting for Face ID; it’s having to do a separate gesture. With Touch ID, I could easily put my finger on the sensor when taking it out of my pocket, so it wasn’t really an extra step. But it’s not physically possible for me to swipe up while pulling the phone out of my pocket.

@Michael Tsai

>Reception seemed much worse with the XR for the first week or so, to the point where I Googled to see whether this was a thing and thought about returning the phone.

Nearly all subsequent release of iOS has had a newer Modem Firmware. So my guess was that iOS fix ( some ) of the reception problem. The XR Antenna is literally the same as iPhone 8. I could only hope Apple do something about it in the 2019 iPhone. My iPhone 6s and 7 is still the best in terms of of reception. X and XS... is a bag of hurt.

Great write up. All your issues with FaceID is exactly why I do not want to upgrade my 8. TouchID seems the perfect solution to the problem, and FaceID seems like a solution in search of a problem.

I also love the home button, and can’t imagine doing swiping gestures, as the ones already there drive me crazy as is.

@Michael Tsai and @MattB, FaceID has been fantastic for me, whereas, touchID had about 50-60% success rate. The reality is, is that which biometric authentication works for which person, is different for everyone. The solution would be for Apple to include both options in the way of offering TouchID under the screen. However, that will never happen, as I don't believe that Apple would ever return to a technology that it was already phasing out... Until something better comes along, FaceID is here to stay.

I loved Touch-id!! Was instant & I could do it no matter how the phone was sitting! Face id is slower, I don’t care what anyone says its slower & less convenient. It is moderately better on the XS vs the X but still miles from being as good as touch id.
As far as the article goes the XS is hands down better than the thick XR. (I’ve owned both & there’s a big difference.)

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