At last, the iPhone has reached a point where it can match everything its competitors offer — and then some.
Do you want a bigger screen like all of those fancy Android phones? The iPhone 6 has you covered. Do you want the freedom to install third-party keyboards and widgets? Those are among the best new features in iOS 8, which shines on the iPhone 6.
Apple even managed to find a practical use for NFC, that perennially pie-in-the-sky feature for wireless payments and data transfer, by building its own mobile payments platform. (It hasn’t launched yet, but Bank of America couldn’t wait to email me about what I could do with it. Bank of America!)
When I reviewed the iPhone 5 two years ago, I predicted that Apple couldn’t go much beyond a 4.3-inch screen size and that there was little room for left to innovate. I was only slightly off with my screen size prediction — the iPhone 6 has a 4.7-inch screen — but I stand by my innovation prediction. (Yes, I also failed to see how big the phablet phenomenon would get, which led Apple to release *another* premium phone, the iPhone 6 Plus. Look for a full review on that model soon.)
There aren’t any massive surprises or upgrades in the iPhone 6 (starting at $199 on contract), just the stuff you’d expect — a bigger screen, a faster processor, and a slightly revamped design. But, as always, Apple’s talent isn’t necessarily in innovating first — it’s in innovating best.
The smartphone, perfected
Every major iPhone redesign feels like a bold statement from Apple: This is what a smartphone should be.
Sometimes that involves reshaping an entire industry, as with the first iPhone. Sometimes it’s about breaking new ground in design and specifications, like the iPhone 4’s metal and glass retro-future aesthetic and its gloriously sharp Retina Display (which eventually pushed Android phones to high-res displays). And sometimes it’s just about catching up with the competition, like the iPhone 5’s slightly larger screen and 4G LTE support.
With the iPhone 6, we once again see Apple adapting to the times while including a bit of casual innovation that could ultimately be huge (see: Apple Pay).
It’s certainly not the first smartphone with a large screen, and it’s not even the most comfortable (last year’s Moto X also had a 4.7-inch screen and was much more compact). But on the whole, Apple succeeded in crafting a phone that would appease loyalists as well as consumers used to Android phones with big screens.
If you can imagine squashing an iPhone 5 down into a pancake-like form, you’d have the iPhone 6. Instead of the flat edges first seen with the iPhone 4, Apple went back to the curved edge design from the earlier iPhones. Its back case is also made of metal, which feels like a reference to the metal case of the very first iPhone.
All of the design changes make for a phone that, while much larger than any iPhone before it, fits into your hand nicely. Whereas the iPhone 5S felt cold and sterile, the 6 feels warm and vaguely organic, like a pebble smoothed down by a river over decades. In its design and feel, it reminds me a lot of HTC’s most recent One smartphones, especially this year’s One M8.
I’m sad to see the flat edges of the past four iPhone models disappear (they made it easier to balance the phone on flat surfaces), but I can understand why Apple returned to the curved aesthetic. When I asked about the design change, an Apple representative said that it was difficult to make a big-screen phone with flat edges feel comfortable — it would often feel like the phone was digging into your hand. (Indeed, that was one of my biggest issues with the iPhone 5S.)
As a consequence of having a much larger screen and frame, it’s more difficult to use the iPhone 6 with one hand than previous models. I got used to reorienting the phone with one hand while on the subway, and you can also double-tap (not press) the home button to drop everything from the top of the screen down. That’s a feature that I used far more often in the bigger iPhone 6 Plus, but it’s still nice to see in its smaller sibling.
The iPhone 6’s minor one-handed usability issues are overshadowed by everything else it brings to the table. Its larger screen makes viewing photos, videos, and games much more engrossing. And I also found it more comfortable for reading long pieces of text.
The new display is brighter than the iPhone 5S, and it works better in direct sunlight and with polarized sunglasses. It also features much wider viewing angles, which, coupled with its new slightly curved glass edges, almost makes what you’re viewing on the iPhone 6 look as if it’s painted directly on the glass. It’s a subtle effect, but one that shows just how far we’ve come in mobile displays over the years.
As for other design changes, I didn’t mind the sleep button being moved from the top of the phone to the right side. It’s just too hard to get your finger to the top of the phone with such a tall frame. I also didn’t have an issues with the plastic bands on the rear of the phone, which help with antenna reception. (If it bugs you that much, get a nice case.)
In terms of battery life, the iPhone 6 performed about as well as the iPhone 5S did for me. It lasted through a typical work day, but I’m still going to keep my external chargers handy just in case.
What iOS 8 was made for
While iOS 8 brings a lot to the iPhone 5S and a few other past models, it was clearly built with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in mind. (You can check out my full review of iOS 8 for specifics on what makes it such a good update.)
The iPhone 6’s bigger screen makes some of iOS 8’s features, like the new keyboard’s predictive text and new interactive notifications, feel less cramped. The predictive text feature took up precious pixels on the iPhone 5 and 5S, which didn’t have much screen space to waste.
iOS 8 on the iPhone 6 also makes it clear just how much effort Apple has spent catching up to Google this year. In particular, Apple is opening up to developers in a big way this time around, with support for third-party keyboards, widgets, and inter-app communication. Yes, those are all features we first saw on Android.
I didn’t notice much of a performance difference between iOS 8 on the iPhone 5S and 6 — we’ve definitely reached the point where mobile devices are so fast it’s hard to tell the difference. I was able to launch hefty apps and games like Infinity Blade 3 in about the same time on both phones (around 30 seconds to a minute, depending on the phone’s mood). The iPhone 6 also kept up with me as I juggled multiple apps at once — typically Twitter, Gmail, Convo, Evernote, and Spotify — though again, it felt about the same as the 5S.
Unfortunately, most iOS apps out there can’t yet take advantage of the iPhone 6’s larger display properly. Many apps run a scaled up version of their resolution on the iPhone 5, which makes their interface look comically huge. It’s not nearly as bad as the black bars we saw on older apps when the iPhone 5 launched, but it’s likely going to be a while until all of your favorite apps adapt to the new display size. (Even if an app claims it’s “iOS ready,” that doesn’t mean it’s ready for the bigger phones).
You can also choose to run the iPhone 6’s entire interface with the zoomed in look, which could be useful for seniors and others with eyesight issues.
The best iPhone camera yet (almost)
The iPhone 6 is a good reminder of why smartphone makers need to stop chasing the megapixel myth. Its camera is still 8 megapixels, just like the iPhone 4S and on, and it still only shoots 1080p HD video (which also started with the 4S). But when it comes to actually taking photos and video, it’s a noticeable improvement over the 5S.
One major addition, arguably the most important this year, is the iPhone 6’s new “Focus Pixels,” which allows for near-instant focusing. That may not sound very exciting, but it means that the iPhone 6 is ready to take a picture much faster than the 5S, which in some instances could be the difference between getting and losing a great shot.
In my testing, the iPhone 6 was definitely able to focus much faster than the 5S. Note, though, that all of the major Android smartphones implemented similar features this year. Still, Apple’s implementation worked more reliably than others I’ve seen.
Apple has always shown a particular talent for camera technology in its phones, and the iPhone 6 didn’t disappoint. I was able to focus and take great looking photos in daylight and low-light easily. I noticed a particular improvement in low-light photos, which had less noise and generally appeared clearer than with the 5S. It also felt like I was able to take more pictures than usual because the autofocus is so much faster.
The iPhone 6 can also shoot slow-motion video at 240 frames per second (at 720p), which is even smoother than the 120 fps slow-motion feature in the 5S. (The faster the camera can shoot, the silkier the slow-motion looks.)
When it comes to shooting video, the iPhone 6 also includes new software-based stabilization. It basically smooths out the video to alleviate nausea-inducing shaky-cam. The feature worked pretty well from what I could see, but like all software stabilization methods, you’ll occasionally see warping and other video anomalies.
Below, check out a sample of video from the iPhone 6 while walking around my neighborhood, as well as an example of what the new slow-motion feature can do.
As great as the iPhone 6’s camera is, it doesn’t include optical image stabilization (OIS) like the iPhone 6 Plus. That’s a hardware feature that stabilizes the phone’s camera when taking photos, and it’s particularly helpful when trying to shoot in low-light. The iPhone 6 still performed decently in low-light, but it feels strange that such a flagship device doesn’t have the highest-end hardware. (Both the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus use software stabilization for video, so don’t make OIS a big selling point for the 6 Plus if you’re mainly concerned about video.)
Here’s a great video showing off what the iPhone 6’s camera can do compared to the iPhone 6 Plus.
What’s yet to come
Unfortunately, I couldn’t test out Apple Pay, the company’s mobile payment platform because it’s not launching until next month. It relies on the iPhone 6’s NFC (near-field communication) chip for wireless payments in stores, just like Google Wallet, Isis, and other Android-powered payments platforms.
So far, every mobile payments initiative has flopped, but there’s plenty of reason to believe Apple Pay could succeed (check out our lengthy feature on that here). Apple has experience reinventing stale industries, and it’s also enough of a consumer powerhouse that people might actually consider using their phones instead of their credit cards. It’s selling Apple Pay as a far more secure option than a typical magnet striped credit card. After the recent Home Depot and Target hacks, that could be a compelling argument.
I also couldn’t extensively test Apple’s Health app, because there seems to have been some last-minute snafu with its integration with other health tracking apps.
Storage remains an issue
Once again, Apple is offering its base iPhone with just 16 gigabytes of storage, while most Android competitors are now offering around 32GB. You can pay an extra $100 to upgrade to the 64GB iPhone, which is $100 less than the pricing last year, and Apple is for the first time offering a 128GB option. But given that there’s no longer a 32GB unit, it’s pretty clear that Apple is simply protecting its margins by sticking with a 16GB starter model.
16GB leaves you with little room to store music, and you’d have to be extra careful about taking photos and video. It simply makes for a worse user experience, which seems antithetical to Apple’s philosophy.
With many Android phones offering expandable storage these days, Apple has little excuse to be so stingy with storage in 2014.
The iPhone Android fans have been waiting for
The iPhone faithful were likely sold on the iPhone 6 sight unseen, but Apple has also managed to craft a device that could easily tempt over Android fans. It’s got the tech specs and software flexibility to match what most Android fans like about that platform. And that should have Google and the plethora of Android phone makers out there worried.
At this point, if you’re looking for a high-end phone, there’s little reason to consider anything other than the iPhone 6. Even the iPhone 6 Plus isn’t as appealing to most consumers (my full review on that is coming soon).
Android phones, despite all of the bells and whistles they advertise, still can’t get cameras right. And while Nokia’s Lumia cameras are pretty great, they’re not enough to make Windows Phones compelling.
For now, the iPhone 6 is the new standard.
Update: Added details on iPhone 6’s potential storage issues.