Damien McFerran 13/09/2018 - 8:46am

Forget the iPhone XS; Apple's cheapest edge-to-edge iPhone is the one to watch.

Last night, Apple went through its yearly tradition of announcing its latest iPhone models, and the event was predictably watched by millions of fans all over the world, all ready to offer up their current device to the God of Cupertino in exchange for a new and shiny fondleslab.

Apple didn't really have all that many surprises in store – mainly because the content of the keynote was leaked prior to the event, along with the prices of each new phone – but it was nevertheless interesting to see Apple's vision for our mobile future in 2018 and beyond; it's a future which should leave Google very worried indeed.

Three new handsets are due for release this year; the iPhone XS is a spec-boosted update of last year's innovative iPhone X and offers power improvements across the board.

It will be joined by the iPhone XS Max, an even larger handset which shares the same basic technology.

These two devices fit neatly within Apple's usual yearly update cycle, with the standard XS being the 'normal' model while the Max will cater for those who crave a massive display.

However, while both of these phones look mightily impressive, it's the iPhone XR which is the real reason to get excited.

Rumoured to be a 'budget' iPhone in the same vein as 2013's iPhone 5C, at $749 the XR has actually turned out to be quite expensive, at least when compared to the Android-based competition.

However, Apple is making sure the public knows this is the cheapest "edge-to-edge" iPhone yet, making the message a clear one: if you want an iPhone X but can't afford the price, then you'll still get the big-screen experience with this cheaper model.

To keep costs down Apple has had to make certain sacrifices with the XR; the screen uses LCD tech instead of the OLED panel used on the XS and XS Max, which means it won't have quite the same visual impact – but given the high quality of Apple's previous LCD screens, we can't imagine many will complain.

The other big difference is that there's only a single rear camera, rather than the two on the iPhone XS and XS Max. This means you lose the telephoto lens for close-ups and zoomed shots, as well as the dual-lens trickery that enables convincing blurred-background Bokeh photography.

However, this isn't as big an issue as you might expect; during the keynote, Apple went to great lengths to point out that it has employed a clever software-based system to achieve gorgeous-looking Bokeh.

This isn't black magic, either; Google's Pixel line only has a single camera and is capable of shooting better Bokeh shots than many phones with two lenses. Suddenly, the differences between the XR and XS are less striking, making the cheaper variant even more interesting.

Then consider that Apple is using the exact same A12 Bionic chipset inside the XR as it is in the XS and XS Max, so you're not 'behind the curve' when it comes to power, either. It also ships with the same updated TrueDepth Face ID-enabled front camera, so you needn't feel like a second-class citizen if you decide to opt for the cheaper XR and save yourself a few pennies.

Another point – and one that is perhaps most crucial for fashion-conscious buyers – is the fact that the XR comes in a wide range of colour options, including yellow, white, coral, black, blue, and 'Product Red'. While the handset itself is made from brushed aluminium rather than plastic, this harks back to the days of the iPhone 5C, which also came in a dazzling array of shades.

And yes, it's still waterproof (IP67 rather than IP68 for the XS and XS Max, but that will be enough for most people) and it has wireless charging. And to cap it all off, it's also dual-SIM ready, which is another big selling point of these three new handsets.

Running through the spec sheet for the XR makes it abundantly clear that this isn't simply last year's phone in new clothing, which was the case with the iPhone 5C.

Instead, Apple is offering a lower-cost alternative to the flagship XS and XS Max which appears to be positioned to pull away customers from Google; at $749, this is hardly 'mid-range' but is likely to challenge the Pixel line of handsets which cost around the same price.

You could argue that the diehard Android lovers who buy a Pixel phone each year wouldn't dream of jumping ship, but the many fringe consumers who have been sold on the Pixel's pure OS and single-lens solution for portrait photography – both of which will now be offered by the XR, which also has Apple's considerable brand desirability behind it – may be swayed.

There are other considerations, too.

This year's Pixel phones will ship with the Snapdragon 845 chipset, which is already present in pretty much every other 2018 Android flagship. In other words, it's old news, despite being a very capable piece of tech.

The XR, as we've already established, comes with Apple's next-gen 7nm chipset, the A12 Bionic. This isn't existing silicon, but cutting-edge – and I'd imagine it will leave the 845 is its dust when it comes to pure performance.

Couple this with the fact that Apple's hardware and software ecosystem – while far from perfect – is generally a friendlier place to be than Google's, and suddenly all those people who were expecting to buy a Pixel 3 this year may have doubts. Apple has iPad and Apple Watch connectivity to fall back on, too.

People love having a 'family' of devices, and the best place to achieve that right now is within Apple's walled garden.

Given its high price, the XR might not seem like a shot across Google's bow, but by offering almost complete spec parity with its latest phones for a lower-than-usual pricepoint, Apple is clearly trying to make inroads into the same sector of the market it flirted with when it released the iPhone 5C a few years ago.

Whether this grand gesture will pay off or simply cannibalize sales from the XR and XR Max remains to be seen, but out of the three phones announced last night, I can't help be feel the XR is the one to get really excited about.