iPhone XR makes Apple’s coolest phone the cheapest

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iPhone XR portrait mode
For the first time in years, Apple's best iPhone is also its cheapest.
Photo: Apple

The iPhone XR is out and, for the first time in years, Apple’s most exciting device isn’t the one that commands the really big bucks. For all the talk of an “Apple tax,” 2018’s coolest iPhone starts at just $749. That’s half the price of a top-of-the-line iPhone XS Max.

And that’s seriously great news for fans.

iPhone XR: Not just a budget iPhone

What’s most exciting about the iPhone XR is precisely that it isn’t a budget iPhone.

The iPhone XR packs the same internals as its iPhone XS and XS Max siblings. It’s the most notable iPhone redesign of 2018. It comes in new colors not available in the XS models.

Heck, for all the talk of its more-basic camera, its photos arguably look better than ones taken with the pricier models.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been wowed by one of Apple’s lower-cost devices. I liked the iPhone 5c a great deal. And the iPhone SE is one of my favorite iPhones of all time.

But neither of those devices was the iPhone everyone was talking about at the time. They didn’t create as much buzz because they did not wow us with innovation. The iPhone 5c packed lesser hardware in a pretty plastic package, while the iPhone SE brought back a form factor that people loved (and tucked some new tech under the hood).

In contrast, the iPhone XR feels every inch the new phone.

With iPhone XR, for once, you'll be able to get Apple's most desirable device without breaking the bank.
For once, you’ll be able to get Apple’s most desirable device without breaking the bank.
Image: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

A phone for techno-peasants?

Apple has always had a complex relationship with cost. As far back as the early days of the Macintosh, Steve Jobs was arguing with project originator Jef Raskin over whether it was better to prioritize low prices or high-end specs. Raskin argued the former — and left the company before too long.

Things hit their apex after Jobs left Apple, when Macs led the way on both performance and cost. A fully kitted-out Macintosh II cost $7,145 retail in 1987 dollars, the equivalent of $15,275 today. Its successor was even pricier. Neither was out of the ordinary for Apple at the time. “We don’t make products for techno-peasants,” was reportedly uttered by a senior Apple executive.

As with a lot of people, my most exciting time as an Apple fan was seeing the string of hits unleashed by Jobs when he returned to the company. It would be untrue to claim this was a universal rule, but one thing that made Jobs’ hits so exciting was that suddenly the pendulum swung back to affordability. When he returned, Apple’s most desirable products got more colorful, cooler and cheaper.

The iMac G3 launched at $1,299 and then dropped even lower to $999 by the time the second-generation model came out. Its equally colorful laptop sibling, the iBook, cost $1,599.

Will the iMac design ever be this exciting again? The original iMac G3.
The iMac G3 was more affordable than its predecessors. More exciting, too!
Photo: Apple

iPhone XR: Colorful, cool, cheap

I get the same feeling from the iPhone XR, which also happens to be colorful, cool and cheap. What makes this all so bafflingly brilliantly is that Apple didn’t need to make this phone.

In 2017, every analyst and his or her cousin predicted doom for the pricey $1,000 iPhone X. Then it turned out that the device sold like gangbusters, boosting Apple’s revenues handily. This year, nobody made a peep when Apple raised the price of its top-end iPhone (a 512GB iPhone XS Max) to $1,449. Against that backdrop, nobody would have blamed Apple if it skipped a low-cost handset this year.

Fortunately for those of us on a budget, Cupertino made a more-affordable iPhone a priority. Apple gave the iPhone XR top billing at last month’s media event, and launched the phone after the iPhone XS and XS Max. This could have something to do with iPhone XR manufacturing problems, but it also made it feel like this was the handset you needed to wait for.

Why is Apple doing this?

Why is Apple lavishing this kind of attention on a cheaper iPhone when it seems that no upper limit has yet been reached on how much customers will pay? It could be an acknowledgment that the iPod touch is pretty much dead. Or that a cheaper, colorful iPhone will suck younger customers into the Apple ecosystem. It also could be an attempt to grow its market share in places like India, where ever-pricier iPhones are beyond the reach of many people.

Whatever the reason, for the first time since Tim Cook took over as Apple CEO, the most desirable product isn’t a super-pricey iMac Pro, a $10,000 Apple Watch Edition, or an iPhone that’s pushing the limits of how much regular people will pay for a phone.

It’s a funky $749 handset — and I couldn’t be happier about it.