The Big Picture
A few days into testing the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, I accidentally left my personal iPhone 5S on a desk next to the iPhone 6 Plus. While my back was turned, the Plus tried to eat my 5S. It’s a monster.
I kid, but only sort of. The 6 Plus is ginormous. And it wants to be your only mobile device.
Last week after the announcement event, Apple provided me with review units of both iPhones 6 (a white/gold regular 6 and a white/silver 6 Plus, both running on Verizon, which allowed me to pop my personal SIM card into both phones for testing). I spent the first three days using the 6 Plus as my full-time phone, and the next three days using the 6. I wish I’d had more time with both phones before writing this, but my high-level take is very simple, and would not change with more time:
If you simply want a bigger iPhone, get the 4.7-inch iPhone 6. That’s what it feels like: a bigger iPhone.
If you want something bigger than an iPhone, get the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. It feels more like a new device — a hybrid device class that is bigger than an iPhone but smaller than an iPad Mini — than it feels like a bigger iPhone.
If you don’t want a bigger iPhone — and in recent weeks I’ve heard from numerous readers who still pine for the 3.5-inch display iPhones — you might be disappointed by this year’s iPhone lineup, and should consider sticking with the iPhone 5-class models. (Note that Apple is continuing to sell two models of the iPhone 5S: 16 GB for $99, and 32 GB for $149. That 32 GB model to me looks like a hedge on Apple’s part.)
The Plus is a remarkable and striking device. Its 401 PPI display is the first display I’ve ever used on which, no matter how close I hold it to my eyes, I can’t perceive the pixels. Typography has rendered great on all retina displays to date; type looks perfect on the iPhone 6 Plus. I’m jealous that the 6 Plus camera has optical image stabilization. The bigger physical size makes the Plus a pleasure to thumb-type on.
But I have no desire to use an iPhone 6 Plus as my personal phone. I ordered an iPhone 6 for my own use. And if the iPhone 6 Plus were the only new iPhone this year, I probably would have stuck with the iPhone 5S.
But some people are going to absolutely love it. Like I wrote at the outset, the 6 Plus wants to be your only mobile device. If you want to leave the house — or at least just leave your desk — with just one computer, the iPhone 6 Plus is it. For many people, it might replace not just an iPad, but a MacBook, too. It’s that big, and iOS devices are getting that powerful.
Me, I don’t want that. One week in and I’m still unsure about the size of the iPhone 6 relative to that of my iPhone 5S, but I’m very sure about the size of the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus: it’s too big for my taste.
Here’s what I wrote two years ago, reviewing the iPhone 5, the first iPhone with a larger display:
There is no argument that some people really do like these big
closer-to-5-than-4-inch Android and Windows phones. I was in a
Verizon retail store yesterday (long story; don’t ask) and
overheard a relatively small woman buying a Galaxy S III. A
companion asked if she wasn’t worried that it was too big, and she
said no, big was exactly what she wanted, because she doesn’t have
a tablet and wanted to do a lot of reading on whatever phone she
got. She even said she was thinking about the 5-inch Galaxy Note
(which Verizon doesn’t carry). It was like a conversation out of a
Samsung commercial. Such people surely think the iPhone 5’s
display remains too small. But, trust me, there are going to be
many long-time iPhone users complaining that it’s too big after
In an ideal world, perhaps Apple would offer two iPhone sizes —
like they do with products such as MacBook Pros, MacBook Airs, and
iMacs. A smaller one with the classic 3.5-inch display, and a
larger (say, 4.5-inch?) one for people who want that.
That holds up pretty well, except that my personal bias1 towards smaller devices skewed my proposed sizes. Roughly 4.5-inches isn’t the big iPhone in a two-size lineup, it’s the small one. But what was clear to me even two years ago is that no single size could please everyone; the iPhone needed to come in at least two sizes. In my piece two years ago, I continued:
But there’s another factor. I believe many people would choose
poorly. Bigger looks better. It’s like the old chestnut about TV
sets in big box stores — side-by-side, standing in the store,
people tend to choose TVs that are oversaturated, the ones with
the boldest colors, rather than the ones with the better, more
accurate colors. I can’t help but think that many people would
choose the big-ass iPhone in my hypothetical two-sizes scenario,
and later regret it with tired thumbs sore from stretching. (My
thumbs feel sore just by looking at photos like this one of
the LG Optimus G.) Design is making decisions, and Apple has
always decided what the best size is for an iPhone display.
After spending a week with both phones, I think my concerns above were premature. When people see the iPhone 6 Plus in the flesh, their opinions are polarized. Either “Wow, that’s huge. I would never want a phone that big,” or, “Wow, that’s huge. I can’t wait to get one of those.”
As for Apple making decisions so we don’t have to, I think the difference between the two devices is so vast, so obvious, that it’s not really an issue. To me, choosing between the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is far easier than choosing between the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs, or the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. It’s more like choosing between a 13-inch MacBook Pro and the old 17-inch “lunch tray” MacBook Pro.
Again, they’re more like two different device classes than two variations of the same device. My understanding, talking to people at the event last week, is that Apple’s industrial design team mocked up prototypes of every single size between 4.0 and 6.0 inches, in tenths-of-an-inch increments, and from those 20 sizes selected the two that best hit the sweet spots for “regular iPhone” and “ginormous iPhone”. We might never see new iPhone sizes again — or at least not bigger ones.
How Big Is Too Big?
The most important question regarding both of the new iPhones is the same: Is it too big? If you want a ginormous iPhone, one that’s almost as much “iPad Nano” as it is iPhone Plus, I don’t think the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus is too big. My guess is that it’s just right — but I really do just have to guess, because this device class is not for me.
The more pressing question for me is whether the iPhone 6, at 4.7 inches, is too big to serve as the standard-sized iPhone. “Too big” mainly pertains to two separate issues: one-handed usage and pocketability.
One-handed usage has been the rallying cry for me, and other fans of smaller phones, for years. So centered on it was I that it almost wholly informed my (clearly wrong) prediction that Apple would never make an iPhone bigger than 5 inches. But here’s the thing: one-handed usage isn’t everything. I needed to remind myself what I so often remind others: design is about trade-offs. No doubt about it, one-handed usability suffers greatly on the iPhone 6 compared to the iPhone 5 series — and the 4.0-inch iPhone 5 displays are themselves less one-hand-able than the classic 3.5-inch iPhone displays. But there are advantages to the larger display of the iPhone 6. I find myself typing much faster and more accurately. That’s a function of physical size, not any improvements to the keyboard in iOS 8, because I’ve been testing iOS 8 on my iPhone 5 all summer long.
In short: the increased size of the iPhone 6 makes it worse when using it one-handed. But it makes it better when using it two-handed.
For people with anything smaller than extra-large hands, the iPhone 6 Plus is only usable two-handed.
Reachability — the new feature that pans the whole screen down to better enable you to reach buttons at the top of the display — is pretty clever. It’s a one-handed shortcut, not a mode, and that makes a big difference. When the screen pans down, it only stays down there for one tap. Reachability might make it possible to do everything you want while holding the 6 Plus one-handed, but it’s nothing at all like using a 3.5- or 4.0-inch iPhone in one hand. (Clever detail: Reachability on the 6 Plus moves things further down the display, percentage-wise, than it does on the 6 — it’s all about moving the top of the display to a typical thumb’s length from the bottom of the device.)
Pocketability is going to vary based on your pants and pockets. (I’ve been wearing Levi’s jeans every day I’ve been using both phones.) With the regular iPhone 6, I haven’t had any problems. The fact that it’s so much thinner than the iPhone 5/5S, and now has curved sides, makes it easy to slide into a pocket. The overall volume of the device just doesn’t feel that much bigger in hand or pocket.
The iPhone 6 Plus, however, makes itself felt in your pants pocket. It is pocketable, at least for me, and I wouldn’t call it uncomfortable. But when I switched back and forth between different phones this week, I’d never forget when the iPhone 6 Plus was in my pocket. (I would sometimes forget whether I had my 5S or the regular 6 in my pocket.) For security purposes I don’t think Apple Stores (or carrier stores) let people try putting display models in their pockets, but in the case of the iPhone 6 Plus, maybe they should. It’s going to be an issue for some.
An additional pocketability problem: I found myself inadvertently toggling the silent switch on the 6 Plus while pocketing and un-pocketing it. This happened several times, and even after I became conscious of the problem, it kept happening — particularly while pocketing/un-pocketing while sitting down.
In summary, I don’t know how to say it better than I did at the outset.
The regular iPhone 6 feels like a slightly bigger iPhone. I’m not entirely used to it yet, but I suspect after a few more weeks, I will be, and I’ll be perfectly satisfied with the tradeoffs involved with the larger size. Being able to see more emails, more tweets, more text at once is really nice. I’ve never been one to read e-books on my iPhone, but I might start. 4.7-inch feels a little bit more practical as a “small page” for reading.
The iPhone 6 Plus is fascinating and gorgeous — I’d love to have the higher pixel density on the regular iPhone 6 (but I totally understand why it doesn’t: see my section on battery life below, and note that the iPhone 6 Plus is already on a 3-4 week backorder) and it pains me to think about the optical image stabilization in the camera — but it feels like a new device, bigger than the iPhone but smaller than the iPad Mini. One size doesn’t fit all, and a 5.5-inch display is just too big for my taste.
iPhone 5S: 112 grams
iPhone 6: 129 grams
iPhone 6 Plus: 172 grams
Those are the numbers from Apple’s own tech specs. In practice, however, the iPhone 6 doesn’t feel any heavier in hand than the 5S — I think because it’s less dense. It’s kind of uncanny comparing them side-by-side. The 6 Plus is obviously heavier, but only in a way that feels commensurate with its vastly increased volume.
The rounded sides and pill-shaped profile of the iPhones 6 is a sharp departure from the right-angled puck-like form factors of the iPhone 4(S) and 5(S). It’s been a while since I used a rounded iPhone. It’s nice. With the iPhone 6, I’ve found myself reverting to a habit I formed back in 2007 with the original iPhone: slowly spinning it around in my hand, over and over, side over side, like one of those “worry stones” that were popular back in the 1990s. It just feels nice in your hand. (The 6 Plus is too big for me to do this with.)
There’s one use case where I think I prefer the flat-sided iPhone 4/5 design: using the iPhone as a camera. In hand, the flat-sided iPhones simply feel more like thin cameras. And, those flat sides allow the iPhone to be carefully stood on its side. On the whole, though, rounded feels better, and also feels nicely unified with the current iPad lineup.
The rounded glass edges of the iPhones 6 are a great touch. It’s very hard to feel the seam between glass and aluminum. Examined closely, it’s just a phenomenally nice enclosure — tolerances seem tighter than ever before.
After seven years, it is hard, really hard, to get to used to the new side placement of the sleep/wake button. Clearly it’s the right place to put it for the 6 Plus, and I see the appeal of matching the placement on the regular 6, but man, reaching for the top right corner of the phone to hit that button is too hard a habit to break in just seven days. Long-time iPhone users should expect to be weirded out by this change.
The regular iPhone 6 has a 1334 × 750 pixel display, and to apps it reports itself as 1334 × 750. Like all other iOS devices, in other words, the display is what it claims to be, from an app’s perspective.
The Plus, though, works differently. Physically, it is a 1920 × 1080 display with 401 pixels-per-inch. Virtually, however, it appears to apps as a 2208 × 1242 display with 463 pixels-per-inch. Those latter numbers should sound familiar to regular readers. The iPhone Plus automatically scales the 2208 × 1242 interface to fit the 1920 × 1080 display. This on-the-fly downsampling sounds crazy — it sounds like something that might be slow, and that might lead to fuzziness on screen with small text or fine lines. In practice, it just works. Text and fine lines appear sharper on the 6 Plus than on the regular 6 (or any other iPhone with a 326 PPI display, like the 5’s). 401 pixels per inch is high enough that things still look great even if they’re not pixel-perfect. I was deeply skeptical of this on-the-fly downsampling when I heard about it, but having used it for a week, I’m sold.
(When you take a screenshot on the iPhone 6 Plus, you get a 2208 × 1242 image — you get a screenshot of what the app thinks it is displaying, not a screenshot of the actual pixels on screen. If you really do care about pixel-level precision, I’m not sure how you can tell what is being rendered on screen other than to examine the actual iPhone display using an optical loupe.)
But why is Apple doing this? It’d be simpler, for sure, to just use an actual 2208 × 1242 display and to continue rendering truly pixel-perfect interfaces. Well, simpler conceptually. In practice, though, there would be trade-offs. More pixels would consumer more energy, and higher density displays are harder to manufacture. There are diminishing returns to packing more and more pixels per inch — and having used the iPhone 6 Plus for a week, I can’t complain about a single aspect of this downsampling design. I can definitely tell the difference between the pixel density of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. I’m not sure at all that I’d be able to tell the difference between the actual 1920 × 1080 6 Plus and a hypothetical next-generation model with an actual 2208 × 1242 display.
(There is one thing I’ve seen where animation on the iPhone 6 Plus sometimes gets jittery: the animation in Safari when you hit the Show Tabs button, and all open tabs glide into a scrollable 3D view. Sometimes, but not usually, this animation has jittered slightly on the 6 Plus. I haven’t seen the same thing on the regular 6.)
As for other display-related topics, I don’t know what to say other than that both displays look incredible. Colors are bright, vivid, and accurate. Viewing angles are noticeably improved over the 5S. The new polarizing filter works like a charm — previously, if you wore polarized sunglasses, iPhone displays would often suffer from all sorts of gross color shifting and banding. With polarized sunglasses and the iPhones 6, everything on screen pretty much looks just like it does wearing non-polarized sunglasses.
I’ve seen some speculation that Apple might have somehow cheaped out by going with a 1920 × 1080 display. That line of thinking goes something like this: 1920 × 1080 is the standard size for 1080p, so Apple probably just bought these commodity-sized displays because they’re cheaper, and now iPhone 6 Plus users, who paid a $100 premium for their devices, are being forced to suffer scaled graphics because 1920 × 1080 doesn’t work out well as a native (non-scaled) display size for a 5.5-inch iPhone. This is misguided for several reasons. First, as outlined above, the on-the-fly scaling looks great. It doesn’t look like a scaled UI, it looks like a crazy super-high DPI UI. I don’t know if it’s distinguishable with the naked eye from that of a true 2208 × 1242 display, but it’s certainly the best display I’ve ever used. But more importantly, Apple doesn’t use off-the-shelf displays. 1920 × 1080 is a common display size, but I don’t believe any other phone on the market has a display like this.
It’s interesting to me that Apple is referring to both iPhone 6 displays as “Retina HD”, even though only the iPhone 6 Plus display is running at a higher pixel density and using @3x UI graphics. That they’re already qualifying the iPhone 6 display as “Retina HD” makes me more dubious that we’re going to see a 2001 × 1125 4.7-inch display with @3x graphics in the next iPhone generation than I would have been if they’d only used “Retina HD” to refer to the iPhone 6 Plus display.
Both models of iPhone 6 offer a new feature: display zooming. Go to Settings → Display & Brightness, and there’s a new option: a choice between Standard and Zoomed. The difference is the numbers of points (not pixels) used to render the display. In standard mode, the 6 Plus runs at 2208 × 1242 virtual pixels, which at @3x resolution works out to 736 × 414 points.
The regular iPhone 6 in standard mode runs at 1334 × 750 pixel resolution, which at @2x resolution comes to 667 × 375 points.
In zoomed mode, the 6 Plus acts like a virtual iPhone 6 (non-Plus) display, albeit running at @3x instead of @2x retina resolution: 2001 × 1125 (virtual) pixels. Divide by 3 (because it’s running at @3x), and you get: 667 × 375 points.
In zoomed mode, the regular iPhone 6 acts like a virtual iPhone 5(S) display: 1136 × 640 pixels, 568 × 320 points.
In short, zoomed mode makes each iPhone show the same UI as the standard mode of the next smaller iPhone, scaled up to fill its bigger display. It’s a great solution for anyone who wants a bigger iPhone to show larger content instead of more content. On the iPhone 6, zoomed mode looks a little fuzzy to my eyes. Not bad at all, just a little fuzzy. It should be unnoticeable to anyone whose vision is such that they’d want to use this feature. On the iPhone 6 Plus, it looks nearly perfect. I’m not sure I detect any fuzziness at all. Just like with the downsampling technique that allows the 1920 × 1080 display to masquerade as a 2208 × 1242 display in standard mode, in zoomed mode, the 401 PPI density and @3x retina graphics allow it to just work, and look nearly perfect, in a way that the 326 PPI/@2x display on the iPhone 6 can’t.
When you run existing apps that have not yet been updated for iOS 8 and adaptive display layout, you simply get a scaled up version of the 1136 × 640 version of the app. It actually doesn’t look too bad, even on the 5.5-inch 6 Plus, where they’re really getting scaled quite a bit, and at @2x instead of @3x. But it doesn’t look good either, and scrolling is a bit weird, and the keyboard is too tall, which makes typing feel wrong. With apps that are updated to support these larger displays, typing is better on both new phones than it was on the 5S, simply as a function of the keys being larger targets, but not so large that you have to move your thumbs too far to get to them. With scaled apps, the keyboard is too tall, and it does feel like you have to move your thumbs too far to reach the top row.
Visually, these scaled apps are far better than @1x apps running on the first retina iPhone (the 4) back in 2010. And they’re less annoying spatially than the letterboxed apps running on the first 16:9 iPhone (the 5) back in 2012. But simple scaling does not magically make them look sharp or feel properly sized. Developers should update their apps to support these new displays as soon as they can.
(Games shouldn’t matter as much. No rush there, I think.)
Phil Schiller only spoke for about 30 minutes at least week’s event. That’s all the stage time that the iPhones 6 got. And an inordinate amount of that limited time was spent talking about the iPhone 6 cameras. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’d rather have an iPhone that couldn’t make phone calls than one that couldn’t take photographs. It’s far more of a camera to me than it is a telephone, and I think that’s true for most of us.
A full camera review is beyond the scope of this review, but suffice it to say, in my testing, everything Apple has proclaimed about the iPhone 6 cameras is true: they focus faster, they work better in low light, and they shoot better video. 240 FPS slo-mo footage is really pretty cool.
Ah, but then there’s The Bulge. Both iPhone 6 models have a camera lens that protrudes from the back of the phone. It’s noticeable, and, let’s face it, a little gross. But this was foreseeable given that the presciently-designed iPod Touch from two years ago had one too. (The iPod Touch is just 6.1mm thick, thinner even than the iPhone 6.) This is a conflict with the laws of physics: image quality improves when the lens is further away from the sensor (which allows for physically larger sensors), but devices feel better in hand and weigh less when they are thinner. Apple’s only options for the iPhone 6:
Use a camera with worse optics that would sit flush with the rest of the case.
Make the entirely device thicker to sit flush with the camera lens.
Allow the camera lens to protrude from the back of the camera.
The first choice is unacceptable. Image quality is too important to allow it to suffer — and Apple certainly couldn’t allow image quality on the iPhone 6 to be worse than on the 5S. So the choice was between #2 and #3, and as a fan of smaller thinner devices, I can’t say I disagree with Apple’s decision to go with #3. It’s reasonable to argue that the iPhone 6 would have been better if Apple had gone with #2 (and filled the additional volume with a slightly thicker battery), but that’s not really Apple-like.
Things I Didn’t Get to Try
Apple Pay isn’t going live until October, and though Verizon is supposedly set to enable VoLTE when the iPhones 6 ship, it’s not enabled yet. I do think regular voice calls sounded better than usual, but that could be my imagination or just good luck finding a strong signal.
I didn’t run any battery-specific tests or comparisons, and I’m curious to read the results from other reviewers who did. I simply used both phones, extensively, for three days each. Battery life for the iPhone 6 seemed as good or better than that of my iPhone 5S. Battery life for the iPhone 6 Plus seemed noticeably improved. I was in San Fransisco for a few days after the Apple event. All-day battery life in the SOMA neighborhood, without any mid-day recharging, is pretty unusual for me, but the iPhone 6 Plus did it, without even reaching the red zone. For anyone on the fence between the 6 and 6 Plus regarding physical size, the 6 Plus’s extended battery life may well prove the deciding factor.
As I suspected before the product announcement, I don’t think the iPhone 6 is large enough to fit a battery that supplies sufficient energy to power an @3x retina display. I hope that changes eventually, but I don’t think it’s possible today.
I don’t know if it’s that the nerves on my right thigh have started dying through over-stimulation or what, but I miss an awful lot of notifications and sometimes even phone calls when my iPhone 5S in my pocket in Silent mode. The iPhone 6 has a noticeably stronger vibrator to me, and with the iPhone 6 Plus, it’s so powerful it’s actually a bit noisy — the sound made by the 6 Plus vibrator is so strong, I wonder if there are going to be complaints that it’s not “silent” at all.
As someone who runs his iPhone in silent mode much of the time, I definitely appreciate the stronger vibrator.
I never had many problems with Touch ID on the 5S. It worked pretty well for me right from the start, and it got even better after a few updates to iOS 7. Touch ID on both new iPhones 6 is even better. Faster to set up, and more accurate and faster to unlock on a regular basis.
Widescreen Split Views
In just about every built-in iOS app where it makes sense, in landscape mode on the iPhone 6 Plus, apps use an iPad-style two-column split view. Two-column view is available in Mail, Messages, Notes, Reminders, Calendar, and even Settings. At first I thought it might be a gimmick, but after playing with it, I think it’s legitimate. But the thing is, I personally almost never use my iPhone in landscape orientation.
The extra keys on the keyboard in landscape mode are cool, but the regular iPhone 6 gets many of them too. Most notably, the left/right arrow keys for precisely moving the insertion point. (Pro tip: Engage caps lock and the arrow keys will extend and shrink the text selection. This doesn’t work while pressing and holding the Shift key, for some reason.)
I’ve used an 11-inch MacBook Air since 2011, but just this week ordered a new 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro to replace it. I wanted the smallest possible MacBook with a retina display. I’ve used an iPad Mini as my iPad for the last two years. ↩