Many terrific smartphones are available but Apple’s iPhones tend to stand out, and for good reasons.
Their designs are beautiful, their build quality tends to be top-notch, they’re backed up by fantastic customer service, and they fit within a tight-knit ecosystem that includes other high-quality devices such as the Mac, iPad and Apple Watch.
The iPhones are also pricey, and getting pricier.
Depending on which model you get, and what bells and whistles you add, you could pay nearly $1,500 for a gleaming glass slab. That, for many if not most consumers, is insane.
My advice: Don’t buy more phone than you need, however alluring Apple’s newest, fanciest models might be.
My wife, for instance, uses an iPhone 5s she recently found in lightly used condition. This is the model that Apple released in 2013.
That’s pretty ancient as iPhones go, but Apple’s extraordinary attention to hardware design means it is in great operating condition. And it’s just fine for my beloved because she doesn’t care what version of iOS is on it, does not obsess about the latest apps, is a modest data user, isn’t bothered by the smaller screen, and isn’t a heavy picture taker.
She’s happy so long as she has messaging apps — like WhatsApp, WeChat and Apple’s Messages — for keeping in touch with her family and friends. She keeps an eye on the hubbie’s whereabouts with Find My Friends, too.
I’m at the other end of the iPhone spectrum — lusting after the latest and greatest.
I’m heavily into photography with my iPhone as my only camera, so yearly improvements to the devices’ photo-related hardware and software mean a lot to me. And I crave a bigger screen because I am often getting serious work done on my handheld — sometimes with an external keyboard for a quasi-laptop setup.
So Apple’s newest iPhone versions, released last month, got my attention. These include the high-end iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, the successors to last year’s iPhone X.
Apple also is unveiling the iPhone XR, which has a fancy feel but cuts a few corners to get its cost down. In addition, Apple is keeping around the older iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus for those on tighter budgets.
What’s the perfect iPhone or you? With that question in mind, let’s take a tour of the various options, and who should consider them.
Last year’s 5.8-inch iPhone X had an all-new design that dispensed with the classic Home button, and provided an alluring edge-to-edge screen with cutting-edge OLED tech for superior display quality.
That phone is now off the market, replaced by this year’s iPhone XS, which is an incremental upgrade that look all but identical. The the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max, meanwhile, supersizes this now-familiar design.
The two new phones share a number of enticing attributes, including an extra-durable glass construction on the front and back, a stainless-steel edge, vastly improved dust and water resistance (meaning you can drop one of these phones in a swimming pool and it will survive), and zippier performance under the hood.
On the back of each handset is Apple’s now-familiar two-camera system with 2X optical zoom, and the phones have the usual set of photography improvements. Portrait Mode (portrait shots with blurred backgrounds) looks more sophisticated, and the amount of blur can now be adjusted. Low-light shooting is better, and the phones generally do a better job of capturing highlights and shadows.
None of this is a revolutionary leap forward compared to the preceding iPhone, but as a photography buff I’m eager to embrace even modest upgrades because I want my photos to keep getting better and better. That is one reason I always want the most advanced iPhone — and that, this year, is the XS line.
I’m also a fan of big phones, the bigger the better, so I particularly like the XS Max with the biggest display ever on an iPhone. This, as I’ve noted, does wonders for productivity. It’s also the best phone for editing photos and watching videos; I am now deep into “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” on Netflix, and I’ve watched it almost entirely on the XS Max.
You’d pay dearly for all of this. The iPhone XS starts at $999 and the XS Max starts at $1099, which many cannot afford. But if you can swing it, you will obtain what is arguably the finest smartphone on the market. It’s the only iPhone I want.
Apple did something unusual with the iPhone line this year. In addition to unveiling its usual high-end models, it also unveiled the mid-range lower-cost iPhone XR model with most, if not all, of the features found on its fancier siblings.
I was initially skeptical about this. Apple, after all, has unveiled lower-cost, good-enough phones like the notoriously plastic-y iPhone 5c — the budget counterpart to that year’s iPhone 5s — before, to less-than-rave reviews.
But one week spent with the iPhone XR has made me a believer. This is a gorgeous handset that comes in a range of bright colors, is just as fast as the XS and XS Max, and has the same scratch- and shatter-resistant front glass found on the XS and XS Max.
But there are a few compromises, including:
- A display with a lesser resolution and a slightly lesser-quality LCD technology instead of the fancier OLED
- A slightly larger bezel around the screen
- Glass on the back that is of slightly lesser quality than that on the front
- Aluminum instead of stainless steel along the edges
- A water-resistance rating that is slightly lower than that of the XS and XS Max, though still pretty good
Perhaps most notably, the XR has a single, camera lens on the back, not a dual-lens system. This makes the XR a bit less capable in the photography arena. For instance, Portrait Mode doesn’t look quite as sophisticated, and is limited to portraits of people — It won’t work with animals or inanimate objects.
Can you live with these limitations? I am betting most folks can, especially since the iPhone XR starts at $749. That’s $250 less than the starting price for an iPhone XS. The XR is still pretty expensive as smartphones go, but is a sweet spot in cost as well as capabilities.
After spending several weeks with an XR, I certainly wouldn’t want to talk someone out of purchasing one, if they want a great phone at a more-palatable price.
Apple would love for all of its customers to buy only the best, but it knows it can’t ask that of everyone. So it keeps around some of its older handsets for those with more-limited means, or who are just super frugal.
Currently, Apple provides the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus for $699, the 4-7-inch iPhone 8 for $599, the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus for $569 and the 4.7-inch iPhone 7 for $449.
Better yet, Apple is now selling refurbished iPhone 8 and 8 Plus models that start at $499. (“Refurbished” refers to phones in near-new condition, as in a handset that was returned shortly after purchase, and then inspected and repackaged for resale with a full warranty.)
These are all older-style handsets with home buttons beneath the screens — meaning they now look a bit dated.
But who cares? These are great phones that are plenty fast, run the latest iOS versions and have beautiful displays.
I can attest to this. I have and still often carry an iPhone 7 that I can’t bear to part with because I adore it so much. I use it with Apple’s Smart Battery Case for extended longevity and excellent drop protection, which come in handy when I’m on hours-long bike rides. It takes decent-enough photos, and it’s fast enough for most of what I need to do.
In other words, it’s an excellent option if you’re on a tight budget but want a great phone. And it’s newer iPhone 8 counterpart is even better. Do not let Apple hard-sell you into a high-end, high-cost iPhone if it is more than you need.
More and more people are resisting such pressure. A new study suggests that people are holding on to their older phones longer and longer, rather than succumbing to the allure of the latest, shiniest handsets. Smart.