How to decide: Picking the 2018 iPhone that's right for you
If you’re having trouble remembering the difference between the 2018 iPhone models, think of it this way. The iPhone XR is the reduced cost model. The iPhone XS is excessively expensive and the iPhone XS Max is excessively expensive, to the max.
2018 iPhone pricing, compared
|iPhone XS Max||$1,099||$1,249||$1,449|
|iPhone 8 Plus||$699||$849|
|iPhone 7 Plus||$569||$669|
This year, Apple discontinued its small iPhone SE model. Many folks, including my wife, prefer the smaller physical size of the SE over the larger phones, so its discontinuance is unfortunate. Also unfortunate is the loss of the $349 entry price for a new iPhone. Now, if you’re in the market for a “new” iPhone, a base level iPhone 7 (introduced two years ago) is $449.
Also: How easy is it to break the new Apple iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max?
At the top end of the market Apple has pushed the spend to a whopping $1,500, with a fully-equipped 512GB iPhone XS Max.
While Apple is still selling the Home button-based iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 series, Apple is now fully committed to Face ID and the Home buttonless X-style phones. No phones with Home buttons were introduced for 2018.
Here’s the short form of this article. If you want comparatively cheap but don’t mind earlier obsolescence, get an iPhone 7.
If you want Touch ID and a Home button, you’ll probably want an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus.
If you want all the new, slick camera features along with animoji and memoji, then you’ll want an X-series device. If you want the cheapest X-series device with most of the best features, get an iPhone XR.
If you want as big a display as possible, then you’ll want the iPhone XS Max.
And if you want all the new hotness, but have smaller hands, the “just right” (but pretty expensive) phone is the iPhone XS.
Got it? Good. Now let’s do our deep dive.
The dollar decision
As the chart above shows, there’s a wide range of devices and prices available. As has been its practice for many years now, previous years’ models are available for down-market consumers. The one interesting difference is that last year’s iPhone X has been discontinued, not price reduced. It’s gone from Apple’s sales page.
That said, Apple took a page from its iPhone 5c adventure and introduced a lower cost model with a wide range of colors, this time called the iPhone XR. The iPhone XR is priced at a full $250 less than its iPhone XS brother with the same RAM footprint.
Also: iPhone XS: A cheat sheet for professionals TechRepublic
In fact, the pricing math is relatively clear for the same RAM footprint. The iPhone 8 is $100 less than the iPhone 8 Plus. The iPhone 8 Plus is $50 less than the iPhone XR. The iPhone XR is $250 less than the iPhone XS. And the iPhone XS Max is $100 more than the iPhone XS.
One simple factor stands out. Given the same model, going from the smaller screen to the larger screen is a $100 jump. So if you want a bigger screen, your money decision is really about whether that bigger screen is worth the Benjamin.
Deciding on memory
Another relatively clear decision is memory. Regardless of model, the jump from 64GB to 256GB is $150.
There is a $50 jump on the iPhone XR from 64GB to 128GB and we’ll make that decision easy for you. If you’re getting the iPhone XR, start considering it at the $799 128GB price. Losing half the RAM for fifty bucks will haunt you in the end.
For the XS models, which can go up to 51GB, the jump from 256GB to 512GB is $200. Math also tells us that the jump all the way from 64GB to 512GB is $350.
You need to decide how much RAM you need. I’ll tell you this: I was planning to buy a smaller RAM footprint for my cherished iPhone 6s Plus, but my wife talked me into maxing it out. That extra RAM came in handy as I started doing 4K videos and the extra expense at that time probably bought me two years more use of the phone without needing an upgrade. The hundred bucks I spent going from 64GB to 128GB probably saved me at least two grand.
I’ll be honest. I have no idea what color my iPhone is. As soon as I opened my white iPhone box, I put the phone into a case. That’s pretty much the last time I looked at the color of my device.
2018 iPhone color choices
|7||7 Plus||8||8 Plus||XR||XS||XS Max|
But I know color is important to some of you. Apple has limited its more vivid colors. Silver, gold, and black (or space gray for the newer phones) are available for most models. Rose gold is now only available for the venerable iPhone 7.
But if you want standout colors like yellow, blue, coral (an orange-like color) or (PRODUCT)RED, then you’re going to have to buy the iPhone XR. On one hand, that’s not a bad thing, because you’re going to save big bucks on the XR. But as we’ll discuss in a moment, the XR is definitely down-equipped from the XS models, so you’ll undoubtedly be losing some functional value.
Fashion or function? The choice is yours.
Device and display size
I talked a lot about size last year when the iPhone X came out. The iPhone X provided a larger display in a smaller package, and the X-models continue that trend this year. This year, it’s a lot more complicated.
The following chart showcases this year’s models (as well as the SE and X). The phone with the smallest physical size (the iPhone SE) is on top, and the phone with the largest physical size (the iPhone 8 Plus) is on the bottom. By physical size, I mean what the phone feels like in your hand, not the size of the display. Note that all sizes are in inches, weights are in ounces, and display size is measured diagonally.
2018 iPhone display comparison
|iPhone SE*||2.31||4.87||0.30||4.0||4.0||1136 x 640||IPS LCD|
|iPhone 7||2.64||5.44||0.28||4.7||4.87||1334 x 750||IPS LCD|
|iPhone 8||2.65||5.45||0.29||4.7||5.22||1334 x 750||IPS LCD|
|iPhone X*||2.79||5.65||0.30||5.8||6.1||2436 x 1125||OLED|
|iPhone XS||2.79||5.65||0.30||5.8||6.24||2436 x 1125||OLED|
|iPhone XR||2.98||5.94||0.33||6.1||6.84||1792 x 828||IPS LCD|
|iPhone XS Max||3.05||6.20||0.30||6.5||7.34||2688 x 1242||OLED|
|iPhone 7 Plus||3.07||6.23||0.29||5.5||6.63||1920 x 1080||IPS LCD|
|iPhone 8 Plus||3.07||6.24||0.30||5.5||7.13||1920 x 1080||IPS LCD|
* iPhone SE and X included for comparison. They are no longer available.
Hands down, if you’re all in based on display size, the iPhone XS Max has the most screen real estate of any iPhone, ever. Interestingly, for that 6.5-inch display, the iPhone XS Max is actually a bit smaller than recent Plus models. That’s because the entire phone’s face (except for the notch, ‘natch) is used for display. Sorry, Home button.
Like the X before it, the XS provides more display than previous generations’ Plus sizes, in a package closer in size to the earlier generations’ non-Plus models. The XS Max just blows all that away, with a 6.5-inch display. To put that in perspective, the iPad mini has a 7.9-inch display. The XS Max is almost a tiny iPad.
One thing to note, though: the iPhone XS Max is heavier than than any of the other iPhones, by a few tenths of an ounce.
There’s a problem, though, when considering the less expensive iPhone XR. While the XR shares many of the features of the other X models, its display is decidedly less grand. It beats the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 displays, with higher resolution and display size. But even though it’s got about a quarter-inch larger display than the XS, the XR’s resolution is considerably lower. In comparison to the previous generations’ Plus displays, the XR has a display that’s a half inch larger, but at a lower resolution.
Also: iPhone X specs vs. iPhone XS, XS Max, XR: Everything new and better CNET
Apple’s marketing team must have been working overtime, because they gave this outlier display the name Liquid Retina HD. I’m hoping that’s not because the lower resolution on the larger display may wind up making your eyes water.
When you’re choosing your phone, you’ve got a few other size-related vectors to consider. For many, it’s simply about which phone best fits your hand. If you have smaller hands, you may want to stay away from the Plus and Max models.
Then, there’s display technology. Apple has historically used LCD technology, which requires a backlight. With the iPhone X, XS, and XS Max (but, notably, not the XR), Apple is using OLED technology, where each pixel is its own light source. OLED is, generally, a more attractive display and sometimes considered easier to read, but there have been some problems with burn-in on the iPhone X.
In my personal opinion, OLED is a nice-to-have, not a must-have. If the phone otherwise has the features and specs you want, then it’s a bonus to get an OLED display. But I wouldn’t recommend choosing an iPhone model just because its got OLED. iPhone LCD displays are also quite nice.
Next up is cameras, and in this case, we’re looking at rear photo cameras, rear video cameras, and front-facing selfie camera. As the chart below shows, the big factors are the number of cameras, whether or not portrait mode and portrait lighting are available, and the availability of an optical zoom.
2018 iPhone rear-facing camera comparison
|7||7 Plus||8||8 Plus||XR||XS||XS Max|
|Wide angle aperture||f1.8||f1.8||f1.8||f1.8||f1.8||f1.8||f1.8|
For fans of portrait mode, the big take-away is that, like last year’s iPhone X, the smaller iPhone XS comes with dual rear cameras and therefore provides all the features and benefits of a second, telephoto camera.
In terms of video recording, as the chart below shows, the big differences live in frames-per-second. Everything from the iPhone 8 on can record 4k video in 24 fps, which is a big deal for those making movies or who like that cinematic feel. The other big change is that all three X-series devices can record 1080p video slow motion in either 120 or 240 fps, which means you can have a higher quality, slower version of that kitten jumping over a puppy.
2018 iPhone video camera capability comparison
|7||7 Plus||8||8 Plus||XR||XS||XS Max|
|4K video fps||30||30||24, 30, or 60||24, 30, or 60||24, 30, or 60||24, 30, or 60||24, 30, or 60|
|1080p video fps||30 or 60||30 or 60||30 or 60||30 or 60||30 or 60||30 or 60||30 or 60|
|720p video fps||30||30||30||30||30||30||30|
|Slo-mo 1080p fps||120||120||120||120||120 or 240||120 or 240||120 or 240|
|Slo-mo 720p fps||240||240||240||240||–||–||–|
Those of you who are all about the selfie should be able to read the following chart with ease.
2018 iPhone selfie camera comparison
|7||7 Plus||8||8 Plus||XR||XS||XS Max|
The X-series devices provide a TrueDepth camera. This, of course, enables Face ID, which is how you’ll unlock your X-series phones. But given the added sensors, you can use the TrueDepth camera to provide portrait mode selfies and portrait lighting.
Beyond that, for those of you who prefer to face the world as a cartoon or a furry, you can create and use animojis and memojis in all your selfies and FaceTime discussions. That’s right. The ultimate culmination of millions of years of evolution and human innovation is a device where you can stick out your tongue and an animated avatar can emulate your rude expressions in all their glory. We’re goin’ to hell, Marge. We’re goin’ to hell.
The camera alone may be a big factor for many of you. If you’re interested in portrait mode, then you’re going to want to choose among the X-series devices. The big win this year is for those on a budget. You can get many of those more advanced features in the relatively lower-cost iPhone XR.
Other decision factors
Last year, I spent a lot of time on the decision between Face ID and Touch ID. I’m a big fan of Touch ID on the Home button and the X-series phones discard both. Given the lack of either feature on any of the new-model phones, it’s pretty probable that those features are gone forever, and we might as well get used to Face ID.
That said, if you hate Face ID, your choice is only the pre-X devices. One thing to note, though. Apple improves processor performance every year, and the new A12 Bionic chip includes a so-called next generation Neural Engine, which does improve Face ID performance compared to that of the iPhone X.
The new X-series phones (including the XR) are supposed to be more splash and water resistant than previous generation phones. That means if you drop yours in a toilet, you might be able to still use it after drying it off. But I wouldn’t count on this feature — just take better care of your phone.
And, of course, there’s the notch. While the X-series phones use a lot more of the front face of the phone than previous generations, they accomplish that by not only eliminating the home button, but by adding a set of cameras and sensors that take up screen real estate. This is the “notch,” a small cut-out chunk at the top of the screen. For most apps, it’s not too noticeable, but if you’re watching wide screen video in landscape mode, you might need to get used to the idea of a little chunk on the left being cut out for sensor space.
While I’ve used wireless charging ever since the iPhone 6s with an aftermarket charger, wireless charging has been available on iPhones since the iPhone 8. If you don’t want to plug in your phone to charge it, anything after the iPhone 7 will do you.
Special considerations for iPhone 7 and iPhone XR
If you’re a budget buyer, there are some important factors we advise you to consider before purchasing either the iPhone 7 (the cheapest of the Home button iPhones) and the iPhone XR (the new X-series budget model).
Look, if you want a new iPhone and you can’t afford a more expensive device, the iPhone 7 is a great phone at an almost affordable price. Our primary concern with the iPhone 7 is longevity. New iOS releases generally support phone platforms up to about five years old. That means, generally, you can get about five years worth of OS support when you buy a phone.
The problem is, the iPhone 7 is already two years old. So if you’re planning on buying an iPhone 7 now, you’re likely to get two less years’ usable life than you would if you bought one of the more expensive models. That said, since you can buy two iPhone 7’s for a hundred bucks less than the price of a single iPhone XS, you may just want to save the bucks and just trade up in a few years.
As for the iPhone XR, you do get many of the iPhone X-series features for $250 less. That’s a lot of money to save and is only $50 more than an equivalently-equipped iPhone 8 Plus. While you don’t get quite the same screen resolution or screen quality, and you only get one rear camera instead of two, it’s a compelling offering. If you want to future-proof your purchase, use the latest iOS gimmicks, and save money (not to mention the blue color is sweet), you may well want to go the XR route.
ZDNet’s world-famous iPhone decision tree
Here it is. It’s finally time for us to present you with this year’s big decision tree for purchasing a 2018 iPhone. Here are some of our recommendations.
If you want as much screen as possible and money is no object, go for the iPhone XS Max. It’s almost like getting an iPhone and an iPad mini in the same package.
If you want animoji, memoji, and portrait mode, you’ll want one of the X-series phones.
If you’re all about selfies, get an X-series phone.
If you want those features, don’t care about the slicker OLED display, and want to save a ton of cash, get the iPhone XR.
If you want a higher-quality, higher resolution OLED display and want a small phone, get the iPhone XS (but it will cost you).
If you need 512GB, then get either an iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max.
If you’re still committed to Touch ID and the Home button, get an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus.
If you want a blue, orange, yellow, or red phone, get an iPhone XR. Better yet, get a case.
If you want wireless charging, don’t get an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus.
If you want to save as much money as possible, get the iPhone 7, but be aware it will obsolete sooner.
One more thing
Those of you who bought an iPhone X last year may be considering upgrading to the iPhone XS. Honestly, unless you want the bigger screen size of the iPhone XS Max, there’s not really many compelling reasons to upgrade. The XS is just a slightly faster X.
So there you are. Are you one of those folks who’ll go the full monty and get an iPhone XS Max, maxed with 512GB? Let me know in the comments below.
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