When Apple announced the 2018 iPhone lineup, responses were underwhelming at the least.
In fairness to Apple, 2018 was an “S” year for the iPhone. In other words, nothing Apple had planned for the iPhone in 2018 was going to top the hype that had surrounded the iPhone X at the time of its release.
Months before the event, numerous leaks spoiled Apple’s new iPhone model, which was reported to be a more budget-friendly version of the iPhone X. In effect, this new iPhone would the 2018 version of the iPhone 8, Apple’s lowest-priced flagship model.
Then the launch event happened, all but killing any chance for the iPhone XR to be the smash success it arguably should’ve been.
So why did the iPhone XR fail?
There are two main reasons for disappointing iPhone XR sales: lackluster specs, particularly regarding the display, and relatively high cost.
There were some truly incredible Android phones released in 2018.
Samsung continued the design language introduced in 2017 with the Galaxy S8 with the Galaxy S9. Though it didn’t bring any groundbreaking new features, the S9 offered an impressive 83.6 percent screen-to-body ratio. Then the Galaxy Note 9 came later in the year and consistently tops best-of-2018 lists.
OnePlus released not one but two great phones in 2018: First, the OnePlus 6 debuted in June, refining and improving on nearly everything that had made the OnePlus 5T so acclaimed. Then the iterative OnePlus 6T dropped in the fall, bringing an in-display fingerprint sensor to mainstream consumers in the US for the first time.
Huawei made big moves in 2018 with the P20 Pro. With a DxOMark score of 109, the Huawei P20 Pro offers arguably the best smartphone on the market.
Though impressive specs don’t always equate to great performance, the reality is that emphasizing specs is simply a convenient way for companies to market their devices. Most buyers don’t give much thought to how specs relate to day-to-day usage, but when they’re looking at two devices with different specs, the better-specced device has an edge.
Because of the increasing use of specs in marketing, consumers have become more aware of their devices’ technical specifications. As a result, they can more easily discern devices with seemingly sub-par specs from the rest.
The unimpressive specs contributed to iPhone XR’s rather disappointing sales numbers.
At the launch event, Apple revealed the iPhone XR display to be a “Liquid Retina” LCD with a resolution of 828-by-1792. In other words, display resolution on the iPhone XR is barely better than 720p, at least on paper, with about 326 pixels per inch (PPI).
To put that into perspective, most Android flagships are shipping with 1440p, or 2K, displays, many of which are OLED like the displays on the more expensive iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. Yes, that’s twice the pixel density of the iPhone XR with PPIs that routinely kiss the upper-400s.
On launch, many tech journalists expressed concern over that low resolution and pixel density. With media consumption being a primary function of smartphones today, concern that the iPhone XR would offer a poor experience for video streaming was legitimate.
Tech YouTubers expressed concern bordering on outrage ad nauseam. For just one example, here’s Lew from Unbox Therapy:
Everyone was focused on the numbers, myself included. Being a “big phone” kind of guy, I set my sights on the iPhone XS Max while failing to realize that because of Apple’s display technology, the 828-by-1792 resolution doesn’t tell the whole story. (If you’re interested, I’ll link to Rene Ritchie’s enlightening article right here. The “Screens” section is a really great read.)
Then the iPhone XR hit stores in November, and everyone started to change their tunes. In what seemed like just a few days, critics were suddenly singing the iPhone XR’s praises and addressing the display concerns head-on.
One of the best pieces of content released in the wake of iPhone XR’s release was from tech YouTuber Jonathon Morrison. Jonathon conducted an experiment to show how display specifications that seem low on paper caused an unfair bias against iPhone XR. And as the experiment shows, iPhone XR’s display is actually quite strong.
In the video below, Jonathon had two different smartphones playing the same video footage and told participants to choose which of the two displays was best. Unable to see which smartphone model they were picking, every single participant chose the iPhone XR’s sub-1080p LCD over the 1080p display on the Pocophone F1.
It had the makings of a best-selling iPhone, but the initial wave of bad press surrounding the iPhone XR and, specifically, it’s display resolution ultimately discouraged would-be buyers from considering it. With the only other 2018 iPhones costing $999 or more, lots of people opted to wait and see what 2019 would bring.
If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, you don’t need to spend a lot to get top-notch performance… but you’ve got to be cool with an Android smartphone.
Over the past few years, the gap between mid-range and flagship Android smartphones has shrunk. Companies like OnePlus, OPPO, and Huawei—which, notably, are Asian manufacturers—have managed to offer largely flagship-level specs for as much as half the cost of the latest Samsung flagship.
In fact, Asian smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi stunned the tech community with the Pocophone F1, which offers arguably the best bang-for-buck of any 2018 smartphone.
Granted, Jonathon’s video shows users preferred the iPhone XR’s lower-resolution display to that of the Pocophone, but there’s no denying the Pocophone is still quite impressive with its Snapdragon 845 processor, up to 8 GB of RAM, up to 256 GB of expandable storage, 4000 mAH battery, 1080p display, and a design that can go toe-to-toe with high-end 2018 flagships.
But the iPhone market is decidedly slimmer than the Android market. Since Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, there’s not as much need to sell budget or mid-range iPhones. If you want an iPhone, Apple knows you’ll pay (almost) whatever it costs to get one.
Technically, there is a market for low- and mid-range Apple devices. It’s called the gray market, and it’s comprised of used, pre-owned, and refurbished Apple devices. In other words, Apple doesn’t need to produce affordable iPhones; with countless used iPhones for sale on the gray market, we’ve got access to all the “budget iPhones” we could ever want.
So with a little context, it’s not that surprising for this year’s “budget iPhone” to have a starting price of $749. The iPhone XR costs about $200 more than the OnePlus 6T, which was released at nearly the same time. The OnePlus 6T also happens to be one of the year’s most critically acclaimed smartphones.
Since the release of the original iPhone in 2007, Apple has only ever made one budget model: the iPhone SE. But as Tim Cook took the stage to unveil the 2018 iPhones, Apple was discontinuing iPhone SE, the cheapest model in Apple’s iPhone lineup since its debut in 2016.
Presumably, the purpose of the iPhone SE was to give iOS users a low-cost option since the Android market offered a plethora of low-cost Android phones. But even at its launch price of $399, iPhone SE never became a top-seller. It remained part of the iPhone lineup only because of the cult following it gained among the small pool of users who did actually buy it. After all, iPhone SE sales never accounted for more than 11 percent of total iPhone sales.
Though analysts have been predicting a follow-up to the iPhone SE, it ultimately didn’t come to pass, and with iPhone SE gone from the lineup, iPhone 7 has become Apple’s current entry-level iPhone. And just like most other Apple products introduced in 2018, you’ll now pay more for the entry-level iPhone at $449 versus $399 for the iPhone SE.
The iPhone XR is marketed as the “next-generation iPhone” that’s not too hard on your wallet, but $749 still isn’t cheap by most standards. Pair the price with specs that seem lackluster on paper and the perception becomes that iPhone XR doesn’t give you enough bang for your buck.
What’s Next for Apple?
With iPhone XR practically DOA, the question becomes what Apple will do next?
The first thing that needs to happen is to get those prices under control. For the past three years in a row, we’ve seen price increases that are substantial if not quite obscene. Then iPhone X came into the equation, pushing iPhone pricing consistently past the $1000 mark. And that’s just not going to fly for most people.
As I said, iPhone XR could’ve been Apple’s saving grace amidst cries of overcharging and planned obsolescence (re “batterygate“), but it seems the initial wave of bad publicity soured users’ opinions of iPhone XR. In particular, the comparatively low display resolution seemed too great an obstacle for those who are inclined to upgrade to new iPhones every year.
To be clear, my own opinion is that the iPhone XR display is fine, even above-average for a lower-resolution LCD. When you’ve got the phone in-hand, the display doesn’t seem overly pixelated or washed out; it’s only when there’s lots of text on the screen that you really notice the low resolution. Again, it’s not such a problem with media consumption or watching YouTube videos, but Apple could’ve easily put a higher-resolution display into iPhone XR without raising the MSRP much (if at all).
This might sound hypocritical from someone who quickly traded in his iPhone X, which was less than a year old, for the iPhone XS Max without hesitation, anxious to have an iPhone with a 6.5-inch display. As much as I use my smartphone—I’m the epitome of a power user—I felt the extra screen real estate combined with greater pixel density warranted the additional expense, but I don’t think that would be the case for the majority of people looking at the 2018 iPhones.
I think Apple needs to do some serious soul-searching throughout the next few years. As I said, I was willing—even eager—to commit to paying $1099 for an iPhone in monthly installments. If iPhone XR had a larger OLED display, I would’ve gone with an iPhone XR and been thrilled to save the cash. But most people are going to find these increasingly high prices offputting and could even drive them away from iOS.
iPhone XR is a device that should’ve been a smash success for Apple, but it wasn’t. And we can point to reasons why that was the case. Hopefully, Apple has a strategy to make the 2019 iPhones more compelling. Otherwise, it’ll be Apple’s supremacy in consumer tech markets on the line.
What do you think about iPhone XR? Do you agree that it was a missed opportunity? What factors do you think contributed to its poor sales?
Also published on Medium.