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Choosing The Right iPhone

May 2019


The iPhone has become something of a known quantity: You might not get everything you want, but you can rest assured you’ll be getting something better than the previous generation’s already excellent iteration. The main question becomes whether or not to pay the increasingly high cost to upgrade, or to hold out for another year or two. Is moving to a different OS an option? Certainly; there are a great number of phone manufacturers and models available, particularly in the Android space. Switching away from iPhone is heresy for many folks, however, and so we arrive back at our question: Upgrade now, or later?


If you walk in to an Apple store today you’ll happily be offered a selection of four iPhone models to choose from: 7, 8, XR and XS. The 7, 8 and XS offer two size choices (7 Plus, 8 Plus and XS Max, respectively), giving you a total of seven options. Prices range from $449 for the iPhone 7 to a full grand more--$1,449--for a fully specced XS Max. Apple offers a handy comparison tool if you’re looking for a detailed breakdown, but for our purposes here we’ll focus on the major differences and what makes each phone appealing in and of itself. How do you choose? Read on for an overview of the four primary models and some buying tips and advice.


iPhone 7


At the $449 entry point sits the 7. $120 more will get you the larger 7 Plus, for a total of $569. How does Apple’s cheapest model compare to its siblings? First and foremost is design: The 7 (and 8 for that matter) have Apple’s ‘old’ design language with a front panel home button and notable bezels. Design is largely subjective, and if the older form factor doesn’t bother you then you’re good to move forward. Doing so brings on details of varying importance: Screen, camera, storage, processor, etc. Here’s the key thing to keep in mind: Unless you’re holding the 7 in one hand and a more expensive model in the other the differences in daily use are modest. Is the A12 Bionic in the XS leaps and bounds better than the A10 Fusion chip in the 7? Apple--and certain benchmarks--would tell you yes, but the truth is that most people won’t notice a dramatic difference.


Who should get the 7? A lot of folks, in fact. Despite being the veteran in the lineup the 7 remains an appealing option. Those who don’t need the latest and greatest should be pleased with the overall package, and the device will continue to receive software updates and remain viable for the near future. This model should be particularly appealing for children or others concerned about durability, as it’s the only option with a non-glass back. One downside worth noting is with regards to storage. At 32GB, shutterbugs and those who locally store large amounts of media--or have a large game collection--may run out of headroom. You can quadruple the storage for an extra $100, but at that point you should consider the next model up.


iPhone 8


With a starting price of $599 for the smaller phone and $699 for the plus-sized variant, the 8 sits in a somewhat uncomfortable spot between the 7 and the XR. (Which we’ll discuss shortly.) What does the $150 premium over the 7 get you? Across the board upgrades, but probably nothing which will make you feel as though you’re missing out. From a design perspective the 8 is almost indistinguishable from the 7, most notably adding a glass back which enables wireless charging. Software is largely identical to the 7, although it is good to keep in mind that the 8 will (presumably) see at least one extra year of iOS updates.


If one is considering upgrading the storage on the 7 series and doesn’t want to spend the extra money for the newer versions, the 8 is worth a look. Outside of niche cases such as this it’s difficult to recommend spending the extra money. You’ll be getting a very good phone, but it may be advisable to move your budget up or down.


iPhone XR


If you’re moving north on the price scale you’ll come across the XR, sitting at $749. This phone is more similar to the XS than the others we’ve discussed, and it’s the only model which doesn’t ask you to choose a size. (It comes with a not-petite 6.1” screen and overall dimensions similar to the Plus options.) Visually the XR adopts Apple’s newest design language, losing the button on the front--along with most of the bezels--and adopting a notch on the top. Face unlock replaces your fingerprint, a change which most will consider a novel upgrade. When it first went on sale in late 2018, most reviewers labeled the XR as ‘the phone to get’ primarily comparing it to the XS. Little has changed relative to these two models since that time: The XR gets you most of the XS for less of the price.


It’s important to look at the size of the XR when considering this model, as the only option is on the bigger side. For many folks this device is simply too large for their hands, pockets or general taste. If the dimensions don’t bother you--and again, you don’t need the absolute greatest--the XR is a strong contender. It’s a notable upgrade over the 7 and 8 unless you’re beholden to the fingerprint scanner, and it fares well versus Apple’s flagship model.


iPhone XS


Supplanting the one and done X, the XS is the best phone Apple can sell you. If you don’t agree with that statement, you can’t argue on price: At $999--and $1,099 for the larger XS Max--this is a premium phone for a commensurate cost. Why pay more for the XS over the XR, or any other iPhone? There are a smattering of reasons, but the display is perhaps the most significant. Sporting an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) panel over the liquid crystal display (LCD) found on the other iPhones, the XS is a visual treat. If the upgraded visuals aren’t important to you then the value proposition is harder to justify, but display connoisseurs will appreciate what Apple has done here. If you want the very best, look no further.


Relative to the XR, those who don’t care deeply about screens will be hard pressed to justify the price premium of the XS. You also get an extra camera on the back here, but in day to day use its benefit is limited. The XS Max is a large phone--taller and wider than even the XR--but the smaller XS offers a nice alternative for those who value ergonomics. It’s advisable to handle the XR and XS back to back if you’re deciding between them, as the size difference may tip the scales. Needless to say, physical dimensions are one aspect of your phone purchase you can’t change, and those will only increase if adding a case.


Notes & Closing


So, which phone is right for you? As always, the preferences of the buyer play a large factor in making a choice. What we can do is offer some general advice to help frame the buying process. For most folks, the decision isn’t between the four models. Rather, it’s a question of the older iPhone 7 and 8 versus the newer XR and XS. This is the place to start, and will make the rest of the process much simpler. There are no right or wrong answers--buyer preferences and all that--but purchasing the 8 over the 7 should only be done with a clear understanding of why the extra money is worth it. Many people will be happy with the 7 and the extra money in their pocket.


The question of XR versus XS is a bit more difficult if your budget allows consideration of the flagship. The $250 difference between these models is not insignificant, and while the XS is objectively the better device, the degree to which you’re willing to pay for that distinction will matter. Screen quality and overall device size are the important factors here. If your decision hinges on neither, then the XR is likely the smart purchase. If that phone is too big--or if the screen difference is worth the money--then the XS will serve you well.


A few items: Older iPhone models are available from many retailers, and the big four carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) offer a varying selection to choose from. We recommend buying unlocked and SIM-free, either directly from Apple or wherever the current best price is. There are exceptions, of course. Some carrier and Best Buy/Costco/etc. deals can be very appealing, particularly if you’re in the market for more than one device. At the end of the day, do your research and you’ll make the best decision possible. It’s difficult to ask for much more than that.

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