iPhone 6 and 6 Plus Review: Big vs. Extremely Big

Photograph by Brent Murray

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a new iPhone. Two, actually. The iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus.

This isn’t just a regular phone release from the cats in Cupertino. With the new devices, Apple enters a market in which it has literally been unable to compete: the market for big, big devices, currently dominated by Korean giant (and Apple nemesis) Samsung Electronics and its Galaxy S line of Android phones. According to court documents revealed earlier this year, Apple executives lamented the company’s lack of a larger phone in a marketing slideshow. “Consumers want what we don’t have,” read one slide as it showed the growth of the jumbo-phone market.

Well, so much for that problem.

The new iPhones are bigger than any previous version—their displays measure 4.7 inches for the 6 and 5.5 inches for the 6 Plus. They’re also awesome. They are beautifully engineered machines, more useful than ever. These aren’t just the best iPhones ever made—they might be the best phones ever made. Period. The only question you really have to answer is: Which one?

From left: iPhone 5, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus
Photograph by Brent Murray

First, some basics. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are significantly redesigned compared with last year’s iPhone 5S and 5C. Both devices utilize an ultrathin unibody aluminum enclosure, one that bears a startling resemblance to the original iPhone from 2007, and the devices can be bought in “space” gray, silver, or gold. The iPhone 6 is just 6.9mm in thickness (in comparison the 5S seems flabby with its 7.6mm profile), while the 6 Plus is only 7.1mm. Both feel svelte and lean in your hand—solid, with good weight, but incredibly skinny. Though I must say, while the iPhone 5S stood out in a crowd of Android smartphones with its chamfered edges and Leica-esque controls, you might not know the iPhone 6 next to the latest Galaxy S5 or the HTC One. And while the design is still impressive, some details feel a bit off. The bold antenna lines that run around the back of the devices and the protruding camera lens make the phones seem slightly less disciplined compared with the company’s previous work.

HTC One (left) and Apple iPhone 6
Photograph by Brent Murray

As you would expect, Apple has made all of the appropriate improvements to the guts of the phones as well: faster processors, better cameras, and of course higher-resolution screens. Apple will tell you that these are the fastest mobile devices it’s ever made, and it wouldn’t be lying. These phones scream.

New features such as Wi-Fi calling, voice over LTE (VoLTE), and a new near-field communications (NFC) wireless chip are present, though not everyone will be able to take advantage of those features right off the bat. Mind you, Android devices have been able to take advantage of some of the features for a while (Wi-Fi calling on T-Mobile, for instance), but it’s nice to see Apple making an effort.

Battery life has been improved in the two models, but I’m sorry to report that even a big iPhone 6 doesn’t deliver an all-day charge if you’re a heavy user or in an area without strong wireless signals. It is better than the 5S, and the iPhone 6 Plus yields better results thanks to its size. This is a notable whiff given the fact that so many iPhone users have complained about the current model’s battery, and I think most consumers would have sacrificed some thinness for a more robust daily life span. I experienced several days during the review period where I barely made it to the charger before the phone lost power.

iPhone 6 Plus
Photograph by Brent Murray

On the plus side, the iPhone camera continues to be in a class by itself. The improvements Apple has made prove that the iPhone isn’t just a fantastic smartphone with a camera; it’s a fantastic camera, period. The 8-megapixel shooter might not have the super-high resolution the latest Samsung or Nokia phones tout, but it was able to take consistently beautiful photos in almost any setting, light or dark. Apple has improved the software side of picture-taking as well. In the Photos app, there are more powerful editing features, and you now have the ability to search your images. I’m encouraged by Apple’s new handling of photos (as well as its use of iCloud as an off-device storage solution), but Google still does a superior job with Google+, which stores all of your pics and video in the cloud automatically and offers search of not just the people and places in the content, but objects themselves.

Photograph by Brent Murray

And while I know it’s fantastically uncool to use a phone for its phone functions, it should be noted that the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus offer remarkable sound quality, both through the earpiece and out of the speaker at the bottom of the devices.

Weirdly, even though these phones are much bigger than any previous iPhone, using them wasn’t a very new experience. To counteract the issue of having a screen in your hand that is far too large for single-handed use, Apple has created a new feature called Reachability. You simply double-press (that’s a light tap) on your home button and it brings the top of the screen down to reach your thumb. It sounds like a clever trick, and in practice it works, though it looks and feels a little clunky—a very version 1.0 experience. Is this really the best solution for dealing with a big screen?

Sept. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Bloomberg's Sam Grobart reviews Apple's new iPhone 6. The smartphone is bigger, thinner, with more storage and a longer battery life. So should you upgrade from your older iPhone or Android? (Source: Bloomberg)

Apple is now bundling an app called Health with iOS 8, which can tap into health-related apps and also biometric data from your doctor or hospital. I was unable to test the feature given the fact that no software was available at the time of this writing, but you can bet this app will get plenty of attention as Apple gears up for its Watch release next year.

On the OS side of things, the company has updated nearly every one of its core applications, making Mail easier to use with new swipe actions (a move clearly ripped from popular e-mail client startup Mailbox), adding quick selfie and voice memo gestures to the Messages app, and introducing easier document management through an improved iCloud interface. All around iOS 8, Apple has sought to make things more connected, simpler, and more modern.

iPhone 6 Plus
Photograph by Brent Murray

In the multitasking screen you now have access to your most recently used contacts. When you get a notification in a banner, you can take action on it—like responding to a message without leaving the app you’re in, declining or accepting a calendar invite, or deleting an e-mail without opening Mail.

The company has redesigned its keyboard and now offers a feature called QuickType, which will make word suggestions based on what you’ve previously typed (kind of a pre-crime, Minority Report situation for your texts). It’s similar to what Google has done in the latest versions of Android, though in my experience not as accurate or fast. More significant (and thankfully), the company is allowing third-party keyboard developers like Swype to create iOS 8 keyboards and have users install them as the primary input method on phones.

But perhaps the biggest changes to the operating system come from what third-party developers can now do with it. The company is allowing all sorts of applications to tap into core functionality of the phones by letting developers add custom sharing options (meaning in addition to Twitter and Facebook, you’ll finally be able to share directly to apps like Pinterest or Instagram), and offering “Custom Actions” to third parties. Custom Actions open up a plethora of new options, like the ability to add third-party camera filters to an image you’re editing. Developers can now also create widgets that can live in the Notification Center or lock screen, and will have deeper control over what they can do with Apple’s camera software.

This kind of deep customization is something of a sea change for Apple. The fact that it’s letting developers tap into deep levels of its mobile operating system suggests an openness and willingness to experiment that we haven’t seen from the company in a very long time. Personally, I would like to see Apple extend this kind of thinking and allow users to set default e-mail, browser, or music applications on the device. Isn’t it time the company had enough confidence in its software that it didn’t feel the need to lock users into a single experience?

There are other annoyances. Even on the new, larger phones, Apple insists on interruptive notification banners that obscure important areas of applications. Though it has given developers new ways to access data across apps, it buries the options for users in hard-to-find, off-screen menus. With new complexity comes new ways of doing things, and Apple has yet to really crack the code on how to make every new feature feel intuitive and natural.

Photograph by Brent Murray

Minor software nitpicks aside, there’s not much to complain about here. So the real question is whether you want the big one or the really, really big one.

While consumers are already clamoring for the larger of the two phones, I found the iPhone 6 Plus too large and unwieldy to use as my daily driver. It does offer better battery life and an improved camera stabilizer compared with the iPhone 6, but its size proved to be more than I wanted to grapple with on a regular basis. Do the math: The iPhone 6 Plus’s body is over 6.2 inches tall and 3 inches wide, which means one-handed use feels messy even with Reachability, and holding it up to a normal-size head looks slightly absurd. Maybe there are legions of Galaxy Note fans in the world just waiting for Apple’s take on the phablet, but I’m not one of those people.

On the other hand, the iPhone 6 feels like the perfect phone in my hand. Not too big and not too small. Its thin frame still makes the device seem compact, but the added display real estate is a breath of fresh air if you’re coming from an earlier model. Yes, this is an iPhone 6 in my pocket. And yes, I am happy to see you.

With the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple has proven that not only can it make a bigger phone, but it can make a bigger phone better than anyone else in the marketplace. Between the slick software, killer hardware, and deep integration into Apple’s amazing ecosystem, the iPhone is back in the spotlight.

Let the performance begin.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE