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iPhone XR Revisited: The Best iPhone Apple Can’t Sell – The Wall Street Journal

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C. Reliability. After three months of use, its superb battery life makes it the most reliable iPhone I’ve had in years.

The answer: All of the above.

Apple’s $749 iPhone XR, introduced in September as a cheaper alternative to the $999 XS and the $1,099 XS Max, isn’t selling as well as the company had hoped—especially among Chinese customers. Analysts may be hesitant to use the F word (flop, duh) but Apple has cut its production forecast and is offering steep trade-in discounts to sell more. But none of that is a knock on the quality of the phone itself.

The new $749 iPhone XR is so much like the $999 iPhone XS that it is hard to see why you’d pay more. WSJ’s Joanna Stern reviews the key differences.

The just-right Goldilocks phone is still the best iPhone for the majority of Apple customers. I should know. I set aside my pricier, technically better iPhone X when the XR was released in October and haven’t looked back. I don’t miss the brighter OLED display, I rarely think of the missing telephoto lens and don’t mind the slightly thicker, bigger build. And I love the colored glass back—I went with the red one.

I haven’t been this content with an iPhone in years for one reason: battery life. While I used to charge midday to make it to bedtime, I can now reach 10 p.m. without entering the red. A couple of Sundays ago, I went to bed without charging my phone. I didn’t realize until I was on the train to the office the next morning. My battery percentage was still around 15%.

So, if people like me love this phone so much and recommend it so emphatically, why isn’t it selling better?

Theory 1: People already have great phones.

Apple’s biggest competition isn’t other new iPhones—or even new Android phones—it is the iPhones people already have in their hands.

I’m an early adopter and tech critic. Even if my old phone gave great foot massages, I’d still ditch it for the latest and greatest. iPhone announcements are my Super Bowl. But more people are ignoring new-phone season and only look to upgrade when something is wrong. They’re content with their phones’ already-very-good camera, processor and screen.

The average American smartphone owner now holds on to phones for 32 months, up from 25 months a year before, according to consumer-tracking service NPD. Similar patterns have been reported among Chinese iPhone owners.

And in 2018, Apple made older iPhones better. First came Apple’s battery upgrade program, which allowed people whose older phone batteries were losing capacity to swap them out for just $29—down from $79. (This deep discount ended with the new year.) When Tim Cook mentioned this in a CNBC interview last week, his implication was that so many people took advantage of it, the company lost out on new-phone sales.

Then came iOS 12, which made older-model iPhones more nimble. People woke up to find their phone alert and responsive, like it had spent a week at a spa and was ready to get back to work.

Theory 2: People have great cheaper options.

My friend Dave decided it was time to upgrade from his ancient blue iPhone 5c, but wanted to avoid the X models because of their pricing—and the fact that they no longer have his beloved home button. He ended up buying a $599 iPhone 8.

Tepid iPhone sales aren’t all that ail Apple in China. Competition from local smartphone rivals, trade-dispute fallout and a court battle could make 2019 a tough year for the company in its most important market outside the U.S. Photo composite: Crystal Tai.

Apple is allowing older phones to remain on shelves longer than ever. Heck, my mother-in-law just bought a brand-new iPhone 6S. Hey, don’t be jealous of her headphone jack. (She bought it through Boost Mobile, but Apple only recently stopped selling it directly.) Upgrading from the smaller, much beloved but now discontinued iPhone SE, she made her decision on price.

Apple itself currently offers seven different iPhone models, not including storage variations. My mother-in-law told me all the options made her head hurt.

In China, consumers are choosing more affordable Android phones. Chinese brands such as Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo offer similar-looking all-screen phones for much less money. Plus, Chinese users largely stick to platform-agnostic messaging and payment services such as WeChat, as opposed to Apple’s proprietary iMessage. Jumping between an iPhone to an Android phone is no big thing.

Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, speaks about the new Apple iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XR during an event to announce new Apple products.

Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, speaks about the new Apple iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XR during an event to announce new Apple products.


Photo:

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Theory 3: The XR is a great, but overlooked, middle child.

It isn’t the cheapest, and it isn’t the one with the best specs—that would be the XS and the mega-size XS Max. The XR is turning off cost-cutters and status-seekers alike. So it makes sense that Apple is trying to entice buyers to the XR with a $449-with-trade-in deal. (Just be careful with the fine print in that one.)

My final thought: Apple’s no-good, very-bad quarter has been great for Apple customers. We’ve got good phones in our hands that are working for longer, we’ve got more—now discounted—options when it is time to upgrade, and the best iPhone starts at $250 less than Apple’s top-of-the-line model.

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Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com



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