Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus Review

Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus Review

A near-perfect smart phone and a decent phablet

The recent release of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus has been like a shock to the system, with Apple selling over 10 million of the handsets over the opening weekend alone. These devices impact the mobile market—and really, the wider world too—in ways that can be frustrating for fans of rival systems. But Apple has long made terrific hardware. The big change this year is that it now has more open software and services to match.

And if you're Samsung, Microsoft/Nokia, or any other competitor in the devices space especially, that means you're on notice: Many—but not all—of the advantages you had over Apple are quickly disappearing. This, I think, is the real story of this year's iPhones. Apple, finally, is answering its critics and addressing the holes in its strategy in ways that make sense for real users.

By comparison, Apple's iPhone-related releases last year were more mixed. The firm updated the year-old iPhone 5 design into the predictable iPhone 5S, which contained one major hardware advance, the Touch ID-based home button that will now slowly make its way across all of Apple's devices. It shipped a second new iPhone model for the first time, the plastic iPhone 5C, which was basically a year-old iPhone 5 in a cheaper body, but was not actually an inexpensive device. And it rocked the user base with a radical new version of its mobile OS, iOS 7, which utilizes many of the same design cues Microsoft pioneered in Windows Phone back in 2010.

This year, everything is different.

Yes, iOS 8 looks and works almost exactly like iOS 7, leading some to believe this isn't a major update. But don't be fooled: Under the covers, iOS 8 is a full embodiment of Tim Cook's new, more open Apple, with extensibility hooks for health, inter-app sharing, keyboards and more. There's no single major feature, just hundreds of smaller, but very important updates. Put simply, iOS 8 is huge.

iPhone 6 Plus (left), iPhone 6 (middle) and iPhone 5S

And with its new iPhones, Apple is likewise opening up, albeit in a different way, by actually answering the clarion calls of its user base—and, more important, those who had held out on iPhone for various reasons—but giving the people what they want. Sleeker designs with no hard-edge metal edges and glass backs. Larger—much larger—screen sizes that match those of the Android competition.

Before proceeding, please check out my previous iPhone 6 articles. Rather than repeat myself, I'd rather focus on some more general observations here in the review.

Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus Preview
Apple iPhone 6 Plus First Impressions
Apple iPhone 6 Plus Second Impressions
Apple iPhone 6 First Impressions
10 iPhone 6/iOS 8 Features I'd Like to See in Windows Phone

First up: How to choose between the new iPhone 6 models.

There are two new iPhone models again this year, the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. The smaller of the two, the iPhone 6—which is always about $100 cheaper than a comparable iPhone 6 Plus—is the better buy and the better phone, and the obvious choice for iPhone upgraders. The device itself is thinner and lighter than the iPhone 6 Plus, of course, and hits a nice balance that is close to the 5-inch smart phone nice sweet spot.

iPhone 5S (top), iPhone 6 (middle) and iPhone 6 Plus (bottom)

The iPhone 6 Plus is simply too big. It's just about as big as the Nokia Lumia 1520, which features a 6-inch screen, and elicits the same startled gasps from onlookers. Except in this case the question isn't "what the heck is that thing?" so much as a disbelieving "Is ... that ... the new iPhone??" It's still a beautiful device—and thin and even light given its size—but it's not for everyone.

Lumia 1520 (left) and iPhone 6 Plus

But I am curious about the use case here. After all, phablets are a popular and growing segment of the smart phone market, a crossover device that can serve as both a phone and a mini-tablet. So in my travels over the past two weeks, I used the iPhone 6 Plus like that, loading it up with games, rented movies, e-books and audiobooks, news apps, and so on, trying to see whether this one device could serve as two. And it can. Sort of.

The issue, of course, is that the iPhone 6 Plus is too big for a smart phone. It's hard to pull out of your pocket, hard to use with just one hand, and awkward in general. It can't really fit in a shirt pocket and will fall out if you bend over.

As a mini-tablet, the iPhone 6 Plus is conversely too small, and since Apple doesn't provide a Smart Cover or Smart Case for this handset, you need to either hold it or figure out a third party solution for propping it up when watching content. Subtitles and captions in videos are small and hard to read. These are big problems on a plane, for example, but not so much if you're lying in bed.

That said, I give Apple major props for the battery life of the iPhone 6 Plus, which is absolutely the best I've ever seen in a smart phone. I didn't try this while traveling, but in regular use at home—where it replaced my Kindle and was used every day throughout the day—I was routinely able to get over a day and a half of life before the battery needed to be charged. I've never seen a modern smart phone last more than a day.

As for iOS, Apple has made some interesting advances in iOS 8—including some good iPhone 6 and 6 Plus-specific features, but it's still not addressed the central issue of its now overly-simplistic user interface. If you look at your iPhone home screen, you see a grid of icons and some of them have little number notifications on them (Mail displays the number of new emails, for example), but that's it. There's no real dynamic content, and certainly nothing like the "glance and go" of Windows Phone's Start screen.

I've been harping on this for years, so I won't drag this review down too far here, but let me provide one obvious real world example. In Windows Phone, I can pin the Weather app's live tile on my Start screen, resize it and position it as I like, and just glance at my screen to see the forecast. I can likewise take advantage of unique app platform features in Windows Phone to pin the forecast for other locations on my Start screen. I could have 10 Weather live tiles on my Start screen if I wanted.

Windows Phone live tiles support dynamic displays, like the Weather app forecasts seen above

In iOS, there's a weather app. You can configure multiple locations, sure. But you can't see the forecast for your current or any other location unless you actually launch the app or pull down the Notification Center and navigate to the Today view if it's not there already. If you just glance at your screen, all you see is a static Weather icon. It doesn't even change based on the weather. It's just a cloud with a sun behind it. Even when it's snowing.

iOS icons, like Weather on the right, are static

In Windows Phone, these capabilities work for Mail, for Calendar, for Facebook, for any app that chooses to use them. It makes the system more efficient, and more enjoyable. In iOS, you're always going in and out of apps. In and out. In and out. I call it "whack a mole." You need to memorize icon designs and placements. You do the work. Not the phone.

It's only a matter of time before Apple fixes this serious issue. (Android has a partial solution with its widgets, though those are inconsistently implemented and not ideal.) In the meantime, iOS 8 has a number of advances that I like quite a bit. The system is now extensible—which I'm sure has Steve Jobs rolling in his grave—so third parties can add to the Share functionality, extend the browser, or even replace the onscreen keyboard. There's an integrated Health platform that I'm sure will quickly squash rival systems, as will Apple Pay, the mobile payment platform that finally (appears to) get it all right. (It doesn't launch until later this month.) And the coming Apple Watch will redefine wearables, I'm sure of it.

If you're a Microsoft user, all the apps are there, though I'd like to see the option of using Office for iPad on this iPhone 6 Plus, which is just about big enough for that to make sense. (You get the same Office Mobile we see on Windows Phone, Android and iPhone.) This is a much better platform, for now at least, for the Microsoft user than is Android. And some Microsoft apps, like the recently announced Office Sway, are iPhone-only or iPhone-first. This is not a second class experience.

One of my big complaints about previous iPhones was phone call quality. When I used to call my wife from busy and loud locations—a city street, or a Las Vegas casino, for example—she would complain that she could hear the background sounds more than me. Switching to Windows Phone fixed that, as she immediately noticed and commented on four years ago. But this past week in San Francisco, my wife asked me which phone I was using. When I told her it was the iPhone 6 Plus, she couldn't believe it. "But I can actually hear you," she said. "And the call sounds great."

The camera is excellent. I did some quick tests trying to figure out how or whether the optical image stabilization that is unique to the iPhone 6 Plus (for some reason) put that version of the camera over the top, but to no avail. Both cameras take excellent photos, on par with the iPhone 5S but still well below what is possible with the Lumia 1020, 1520, or Icon/930. But the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus camera has many advantages over any Lumia, including a lightning-quick shutter, built-in slow-mo, time lapse, and panorama modes, and built-in filters that the Instagram set will love. Ultimately, the high-end Lumias are better cameras, quality-wise. But the iPhone 6 camera is a better camera for normal people.

You can view my iPhone 6 Plus photos on Flickr.

So. Should you buy an iPhone 6? Or iPhone 6 Plus?

There's been a lot written about these phones, and it's unlikely I will do much to convince anyone to buy or ignore either one. But I'll add this, with the understanding that I've owned almost every iPhone ever made, used the original iPhone, an iPhone 3G, and two iPhone 3GS models regularly before switching full-time to Windows Phone: These are fantastic, leading edge smart phone handsets. They are well made, and are supported by the best app, game and content ecosystems on earth. I'm not a fan of the overly simplistic user interface, but whatever, it works.

Both of these phones are gorgeous and expensive to match. Unless you are absolutely positive you can handle the larger iPhone 6 Plus, go with the iPhone 6. It will save you a bit of cash and provide a better experience.

Folks, the days of the laughably small iPhones are just about over. (Apple still sells the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C for the cash-constrained.) And if those tiny screens turned you off before, it's time to take another look. Combined with the advances in iOS 8, the iPhone 6 in particular is arguably the best smart phone currently available.

The iPhone 6 is highly recommended. The iPhone 6 Plus is recommended, but only if you really understand the sheer size of this beast.

 

Note: Looking ahead, I'll be using the iPhone 6 Plus to assess Apple Pay, the Apple Watch, and future Microsoft apps and app updates on iOS. But I will personally continue to use Windows Phone.

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