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Apple's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus smartphones reviewed

Supersize me

Apple's iPhone has unquestionably shaken the foundation of the computing world since its introduction, and, like many folks, I've carried one in my pocket for years. Even so, we here at TR haven't focused too much of our attention on smartphones. We've preferred instead to focus on larger computers, from tablets to laptops and, of course, hulking desktops with multiple teraflops of computing power. Thing is, smartphones keep maturing and advancing, thanks to huge profits being plowed back into their development. They're becoming incredibly compelling and downright impossible to ignore.

Consider the iPhone 6 Plus my breaking point.

Apple has, at long last, caved to market pressure and given the people what they want: iPhones with larger screens, including one in the kinda-sorta ridiculously large "phablet" format. The move to bigger touchscreens is a transformative step in the smartphone's evolution, in my view. Smartphones have long been incredibly useful computing devices of last resort, but they are becoming something more than that.

Screen size is only one reason for this shift. Apple's latest iPhones have made substantial advancements in CPU and graphics performance, still and motion image capture, display quality and—blessedly—battery life. The eighth-generation iOS improves usability and offers new freedom for apps to interact with one another. And these phones have a robust array of sensors and wireless communication standards, one of which, near-field communication (NFC), enables a new payment service called Apple Pay. The bottom line is that premium smartphones now offer a distinctive computing experience that can't easily be duplicated with any other sort of device.

None of this has happened in a vacuum, of course. Apple's early lead in smartphone tech has been eroded by the ascendancy of Google's Android OS and the phone makers deploying it. Choosing between premium smartphones these days can be daunting, difficult work. One good friend of mine, a life-long computing enthusiast and Mac owner, has been stuck in wrenching indecision between the new iPhones and the Android-based alternatives for weeks, and I can relate. With that difficulty in mind, we've decided to turn our full scrutiny toward a pair of smartphones for the first time. What better place to start than Apple's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus?

iPhone 5
iPhone 5S
iPhone 6
iPhone 6 Plus
SoC Apple A6 Apple A7 Apple A8
Display size & resolution 4" 1136x640 4.7" 1334x750 5.5" 1920x1080
Flash storage capacity 16GB, 32GB, 64GB 16GB, 64GB, 128GB
Coprocessors - M7 motion coprocessor M8 motion coprocessor
Primary camera resolution 8 megapixels (3264x2448)
Optical image stabilization? No No No Yes
Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n 802.11a/b/g/n/ac
Other connectivity Bluetooth 4.0 Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
Battery 1440 mAh 1560 mAh 1810 mAh 2915 mAh
Price (with contract) - 16GB $99,
32GB $149
16GB $199, 64GB $299, 128GB $399 16GB $299, 64GB $399, 128GB $499
Price (no contract) - 16GB $549,
32GB $599
16GB $649, 64GB $749, 128GB $849 16GB $749, 64GB $849, 128GB $949

The larger 4.7" and 5.5" displays are the most obvious enhancements in the new iPhones, but Apple has made progress on a host of fronts. The highlights include a brand-new A8 SoC with higher performance, support for the 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking standard, and an iSight camera whose eight-megapixel resolution belies substantial improvements.

Also, Apple has finally raised the flash storage capacity of the two higher-end models to 64GB and 128GB. Unfortunately, the bottom rung of the lineup remains at 16GB, which seems rather paltry in late 2014. I suppose the net effect of these changes is to make 64GB the point of entry into the iPhone 6 lineup for power users.

Another potential weakness in the spec sheet is Apple's decision to hold steady at 1GB of main memory in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Although iOS and Android admittedly use memory quite differently, many premium Android smartphones now ship with 2GB or even 3GB of RAM. Among iOS devices, only the iPad Air 2 has surpassed the 1GB mark.

Design and build quality

From left to right: The iPhone 5, 6, and 6 Plus

iPhone 5
iPhone 5S
iPhone 6
iPhone 6 Plus
Height x Width x Depth 4.87" x 2.31" x 0.30" 5.44" x 2.64" x 0.27" 6.22" x 3.06" x 0.28"
Weight 3.95 oz/112 g 3.95 oz/112 g 4.55 oz/129 g 6.07 oz/172 g
Available colors Black, white Silver, gold, space gray
I/O ports Lightning connector, 3.5mm headphone

The new iPhone enclosures are noticeably taller and wider than the prior generation, but they retain Apple's iconic design cues, including durable glass-and-aluminum construction. The build quality is up to Apple's usual standard, with no apparent gaps, flex, or other imperfections. Our examples are clothed in the "space gray" color scheme.

The iPhone 6 (left) and 6 Plus (right)

The only two ports on these phones are a 3.5-mm headphone jack and Apple's wonderfully reversible lighting connector. After using a Lighting connector and micro USB on a daily basis for the past couple of years, I'm unquestionably sold on Apple's approach here.

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (left) and the iPhone 6 vs. 5 (right)

By the numbers, the 6 and 6 Plus are thinner than prior iPhones, but this is the first generation of Apple phones whose sapphire lens covers protrude from the back of their enclosures.

Except for the home button, all physical controls are on two sides of the case

The new phones' volume controls and vibrate toggles are right where one would expect, but the sleep/wake button has migrated from the top edge of the case to the left edge, aping the placement used in many Android devices. This change is eminently sensible given the increased size of the enclosure. Leaving the button up top would make for an awkward reach, especially on the relatively gigantic 6 Plus.

One other change of note isn't apparent in the pictures above. The iFixit teardowns have revealed internal rubber gaskets surrounding the buttons on these phones, likely improving their water resistance versus prior models.

About the size issue
I don't think there's any question Apple made the right move by introducing larger iPhones. After all, these devices are pocket computers first and foremost, not just phones, and with touch-based interfaces, screen real estate is at a premium. Typing, browsing the web, using apps, playing games—everything is easier and more comfortable on a larger display. If anything, this move comes a couple of years later than it should have.

The iPhone 6 Plus (left) dwarfs the regular iPhone 6 (right)

Fortunately, Apple has seriously committed to these larger form factors. With its 4.7" screen, the iPhone 6 is easily roomier than the iPhone 5 and 5S—and the 5.5" iPhone 6 Plus feels like a mini tablet.

For those of you wondering which one to get, I've spent quite a bit of time with both of the new iPhones, and I think the answer is clear. The iPhone 6 is undoubtedly the sane and proper size for a phone that will be carried on your person pretty much constantly. Practically speaking, it feels no bulkier than an iPhone 5 while stowed away in a pocket. When out of the pocket, the 6 fits well into one hand. Despite that infamous iPhone 5 commercial a couple of years ago, I can easily tap any spot on the screen with my thumb while holding the phone in the same hand. The iPhone 6's size seems obvious and logical.

And the iPhone 6 Plus you see tested in this review, I confess, is the one I bought for my own personal use. I saw it in the store, with its big, bright display, and caved to the temptation of overcompensating for two years with my too-small iPhone 5.

Now that I've committed to it, I can tell you that the iPhone 6 Plus really is quite enormous. Even for a phablet, it's relatively tall, in part due to the the large physical home button that most other phablets lack. If you're a dude, this thing will test the depths of your front pants pocket. For you ladies, well, you can probably forget the pockets. You'll want to store the 6 Plus in a purse, most likely. Having spent several weeks toting this massive slab around, I realize that I've made a terrible mistake.

....that I really, really enjoy. As soon as I pull it out to use, the 6 Plus magically transforms from an oversized pocket tumor into a wondrous convenience. Typing on it in portrait mode finally makes touchscreen keyboards seem sensible, and the roomy screen feels much less confining. Among other things, this device may just be the ideal e-reader.

The biggest wonder of all, though, isn't the 6 Plus's technology or design; it's the fact that, somehow, it's now become socially acceptable to carry a mini-tablet around in your pants. People even have complimentary things to say about how large your phone is. I'm not quite sure how that happened, but I'm not going to question it. As a card-carrying computer nerd, I'm just going to ride this wave quietly while it lasts.

I dunno how much any of that will help you pick the right size for you, but I do have one other impression to offer. Whichever model of iPhone 6 you choose, after you've spent a little time with it, older iPhones will feel like silly, miniature toys by comparison.