Apple iPhone 6 Plus Second Impressions

Apple iPhone 6 Plus Second Impressions

It's getting better all the time

While I usually follow up a first impressions article with a full review after a few weeks of real world use, I wanted to circle back quickly on the iPhone 6 Plus, which is an unusually important mobile release for a variety of reasons. My first impressions were mostly about the hardware. This time, I'd like to discuss my initial thoughts about the overall user experience.

Which, by the way, is mostly excellent.

Moving (temporarily, perhaps) from the Lumia 1520 to the iPhone 6 Plus, a few things stand out immediately.

Not surprisingly, the form factors are similar. Both are large devices, with softly curving edges that making holding them easier than would otherwise be the case. (Had Apple gone with the hurty, hard-edged iPhone 5/5S design on these new devices, that wouldn't be true, so kudos to the firm for the new design.)

In use, however, there are differences that are important.

Like the Lumia 1520 (to Nokia), the iPhone 6 Plus is Apple's first phablet. And there are challenges when you visually scale a UI to this size screen. Nokia didn't really do anything to make this easier/better, in part because Nokia wasn't then part of Microsoft. But Apple did. It supports a display zoom feature which makes content bigger. It supports a landscape view on the desktop and in key apps, something I'd like to see expanded.

And most crucially, it supports a feature called Reachability that ... shocker ... actually works.

I've seen some griping about Reachability in various reviews of the iPhone 6 Plus, but this feature is truly useful, and it addresses two important issues, one specific to iPhone 6 Plus and one general to iOS.

The iPhone 6 Plus is common to all phablets: If you're holding your phone normally with one hand, there is no way to reach the upper left quadrant of the screen with your thumb. And the general iPhone issue is something that's bugged me since the initial iPhone release and comes directly from the overly-minimalistic mind of Steve Jobs. There's no hardware back button.

You trigger reachability by double-soft-tapping on the iPhone's Home button. (A normal double-tap brings up the multitasking screen, as before.) When you do so, the screen display moves visually down so you can interact with the top half of the display using your thumb; in other words, the top half of the screen is now within thumb reach. This solves the screen size issue, of course, but since most apps use iOS-standard navigation controls, where a software Back button is at the top left of the app display, it also lets you go back.

Reachability is not about scrunching down the whole display; some have complained that you can't reach UI that is on the bottom of the app's display when in this mode because those buttons and other UI elements are now hidden. Right, that's by design. Double-tap again to get back to the normal display.

Double-soft-tapping introduces an additional step, yes. But it's more convenient than shifting to two-handed use, which is what you're forced to do on the Lumia 1520 and other phablets.

One thing Apple hasn't done is address how the iOS home screen could be more usable with all that onscreen real estate, but then they've been making iPads for over four years, so this is perhaps unsurprising. You're presented with yet another grid of icons here, with minimal on-icon notifications (new email counts, etc.) on both app and folder icons. These are not quite totally useless, but close.

With the Lumia 1520 and other Windows Phones, you get a more expressive and useful grid of live tiles. Tiles for apps that display lots of information—weather, in particular, but also things like email, calendar and the like—can be made quite big, while tiles for apps that are not expressive—Settings, Maps, and so on—can be made very small. With Windows Phone, you can really customize the Start screen and design it so that you don't even need to launch apps to get at lots of information. With iOS, you're pretty much stuck with a wallpaper choice and then how you want to arrange icons and folders. There's no real glance and go.

iPhone 6 Plus home screen customized and in landscape mode

Put more simply, I prefer the Windows Phone approach. If Apple ever figures this out—and I do think they will—they may put the final nail in the coffin of meaningful end-user advances in Windows Phone that still outshine anything in iOS. I'm used to icon grids—it's basically like that in Android too, though Google also offers more expressive widgets—but it's just inferior overall.

Regarding the camera, I went to Twitter yesterday and foolishly announced that "it's easily and readily apparent that the iPhone 6 Plus camera is no match for the Lumia 1020, 1520 or Icon/930." I'd like to clarify that statement now.

I was referring to overall camera quality there: With their superior 41 megapixel (Lumia 1020) and 20 megapixel (Lumia 1520, Icon/930) cameras, Microsoft's high-end Lumia handsets can produce better photos than can the iPhone 6. But camera quality isn't just about picture quality. And the iPhone 6 Plus's camera in particular can take excellent photos while offering a number of advantages over the high-end Lumias. In fact, it's pretty clear that the iPhone 6 Plus is the better overall choice for most people.

Regular shot, iPhone 6 Plus

Same shot, zoomed in to 100 percent

The reasons for this are many, but let's start with picture quality, which I'd place just below those Lumias but above any other smart phone I've ever used, including the iPhone 5S. I'll provide more information about this, and including comparison shots, in my review, but most people will be quite happy and excited by the general results they get from this camera.

The lack of optical zoom means that the iPhone 6 Plus camera suffers from the same issues as other smart phones (100 percent zoom)

Moving beyond that, the iPhone 6 Plus also takes pictures much more quickly than the high-end Lumias. In fact, you can take shots as rapidly as you can press the on-screen button, which is amazing, and with the optical image stabilization on the Plus, they're usually not blurry too. (I'll test the normal iPhone 6 when that arrives in October.) Part of the reason it can do that is that the iPhone 6 Plus is writing only a single fairly small file to disk each time you take a photo, whereas those Lumias are writing two files, one of which is humongous. And while future firmware updates will minimize the lag for the Lumias, they will never be this fast. Advantage Apple.

The iPhone camera app also includes built-in modes for panorama (which requires a separate app on Windows Phone/Lumia), square photos (for you Instagrammers), slow-motion video, and time-lapse. None of this is available in the Windows Phone/Lumia camera app, so you'd need to find separate apps for each.

I'll be spending more time on the camera later, but I wanted to get that out of the way. It's already obvious that the iPhone 6 Plus camera is fantastic. But I do want to be clear that it's also probably a better fit for most people's needs, too.

Regarding the camera bump, whatever. I've got a case on the way that will prevent that from sticking out, as I always use a case with Apple's very breakable devices. But I used the Lumia 1020 with its enormous camera bump for well over a year, and that never bothered me in the slightest. And of course the Lumia 1520 and Icon/930 have smaller bumps as well. Nothing to see here, folks.

I've only been using iPhone 6 Plus for a day, but I've already noticed that the battery life is fantastic. I used it all day yesterday and didn't charge it overnight and it made it past noon this morning too. I'll be looking at this more closely, obviously, but I can't recall a smart phone with that kind of staying power.

I've had some weird issues with the iPhone 6 Plus. Landscape mode wouldn't engage for quite a while, but a few reboots later it suddenly started working. And I've seen some weird freezes. I know from using almost every iOS-based device that Apple's ever made that the firm always ships an OS update very quickly after the initial release, and I suspect these issues will clear up over time. And I don't have any reason to believe this is an endemically poorly-made product like the iPhone 4, which I skipped because of its reliability issues. But they're still troubling coming as they do from the "it just works" company.

Now that I've got most of the apps I need on their and configured, I can get busy with actually using the phone regularly. I'll report back when I've got more to say, but I think it's fair to note that most people would be quite happy with the iPhone 6 Plus or, if they're not interested in a phablet, the smaller iPhone 6. This is a wonderful smart phone overall.

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