Apple's new iPhone 8 successor keeps the notch and edge-to-edge screen of the XS models, but sheds a few features and drops a couple of specs in search of a more palatable price point. It also comes in an array of colours, which is a nice perk that XS buyers miss out on.
Of course, a cheaper iPhone might still seem wildly expensive compared to some of the competition – like the Huawei Mate 20 Lite. Like the XR, it's the lower-end take on a noted flagship, with the proper Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro set to be revealed in a couple of weeks. It packs plenty of gloss, but does so at about half the price of the iPhone XR.
Trying to decide between these as you next handset? Let's take an early glimpse at this matchup ahead of the iPhone XR's actual release.
Design: Notched beauties
The iPhone XR is mostly identical to the iPhone X design introduced last year. The bezels are a smidge thicker on this model and the phone is just a bit bulkier too; it also swaps in aluminium for the stainless steel and offers colour options like blue, coral, and (Product)RED.
But even amidst all of those tweaks, it's still the same kind of gorgeous, screen-driven silhouette that won us over last year, and maybe even better due to the punchy colour options.
And the Huawei Mate 20 Lite isn't far off, really. That's no surprise, since many Android phones have been copying the iPhone X aesthetic all year long. It has a notch at the top and a bit of a chin at the bottom, unlike the iPhone XR, and then on the back it's all glass.
Screen: Clear disparities
We haven't gotten hands-on with the iPhone XR just yet, but we're already disappointed with the details of its screen.
Apple says its 6.1in Liquid Retina display is the best LCD ever put on a smartphone, but the measly 1792x828 resolution keeps the same 326ppi pixel density that underwhelmed on the iPhone 8… and has been Apple's entry-level iPhone standard for several years now. An upgrade is long overdue.
Meanwhile, the Mate 20 Lite goes with a 6.3in LCD panel at 1080p resolution – what should be the bare minimum for all but the cheapest of budget phones in 2018. It's hardly a mind-blowing panel, but it's very good for the money and delivers solid colour, contrast, and clarity.
Apple always puts out great-looking panels, so we wouldn't be surprised if the iPhone XR screen has some advantages here – but that resolution disparity feels like a vast valley on paper. We'll have to see how they stack up with our own eyes.
Camera: Single or double?
Unlike the iPhone XS models, Apple has stuck with just one camera on the back of the iPhone XR. The good news is that it's the same main camera from the pricier models, and that 12-megapixel camera is a stunner.
The new Smart HDR functionality captures several snaps at once and merges them to bring out more detail and dynamic range from your shots, plus it handles nighttime shooting admirably. The XS has the benefit of a second camera for cool Portrait mode tweaks, but even the single XR camera should be one of the best around.
As for the Mate 20 Lite, you get two cameras on the back and they're capable but hardly mind-blowing. The 24MP main camera is backed up with a 2MP depth-sensing camera, and the resulting blurred-backdrop Portrait shots have some issues. Likewise, standard snaps can look overly processed with unnatural results, but the Mate 20 Lite does well enough for everyday shots.
Performance: An obvious winner
The iPhone XR packs in the same A12 Bionic chip as the XS and XS Max, and it's a powerhouse. Even more capable than last year's field-leading A11 Bionic, the A12 is the fastest phone chip on the market today.
It's a benchmark crusher, and certainly is remarkably speedy in the XS and XS Max. The XR is rumoured to drop down to 3GB RAM from 4GB in the XS models, but we don't anticipate any obvious difference in performance in most everyday usage scenarios.
On the other hand, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite opts for mid-range tech. Rather than use Huawei's soon-to-be-replaced top chip, the Kirin 970, it uses the weaker Kirin 910 chip. That said, with 4GB RAM inside, we found everyday usage to be just fine. It's plenty powerful for most everyday tasks, but we did find slow moments during testing that stuck out like a sore thumb.
Battery and perks: Battle of the batteries
Despite being the lowest-end model of the bunch, the iPhone XR actually boasts better battery life than either XS model – Apple suggests 15 hours of Internet browsing or 16 hours of video, and it's more than the iPhone 8 Plus before it. That said, we'd guess that the reportedly 2,942mAh battery pack is good for a strong day's usage, but probably not much more.
On the other hand, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite packs in a large 3,750mAh pack, which might be enough to see you into the following morning after a solid day of use. It's not the largest battery on the market right now, but you should definitely get hours more of uptime than the iPhone XR.
When it comes to storage, the base model is 64GB on both, with a 256GB version available for the iPhone XR for extra cash. Meanwhile, the Mate 20 Lite lets you pack in a cheap microSD memory card instead, which is definitely preferable.
Initial verdict: Too early to tell
Outside of the design, there are some key differences between these phones. The Mate 20 Lite has the higher-resolution screen and larger battery, while the iPhone XR packs in more power and likely has the better camera of the two.
And it's a mixed initial result, given all of that. These phones are worth comparing as the lesser siblings of full-bodied flagships, but in key ways, they're not directly comparable. The iPhone XR is still a flagship at heart, albeit one diminished by some trimmed features and specs. The Mate 20 Lite, on the other hand, is clearly an upper mid-range Android phone.
But at the end of the day, the Mate 20 Lite is about half the price at £379, while the iPhone XR will sell for £749+. Right now, we're not convinced that the iPhone XR will be considered a good value for what it offers. But if you want a high-quality, lower-cost handset, the OnePlus 6, Honor 9 Lite, and Moto G6 Plus land higher on our list of alternatives.
In any case, we can't make a definitive verdict here until we review the Apple iPhone XR later this month, so stay tuned.