Review: Apple iPhone 6

by on September 29, 2014

As another fall begins, there are a few certainties—most of America will become madly obsessed with the NFL, Starbucks will begin selling its Pumpkin Spice Latte (and others will sell their versions), and Apple will release new iPhones. This year was no different, as Apple introduced the eight generation of its popular product a little more than two weeks ago. Now, with over ten million in the hands of users, the big changes are starting to sink in.

I’ll admit, unlike most reviews, I can only comment on the iPhone 6 as a device by itself and in the context of past iPhones. While I recognize other products exist from competitors, I haven’t tested the nitty gritty details to really compare, so most of this review will come from the perspective of an iPhone 5 user who made the jump to upgrade, which seems to be a common theme. Prior to my iPhone 5, I had an iPhone 4, and a 3GS.

Did I even need to upgrade? Honestly, no. The iPhone 5 was a fantastic product, due to its design, capabilities, and longevity. While the 5 itself was only sold for a year, before being replaced by a more powerful version in the 5S and a reskinned version in the 5C, it still felt like a very capable product after two years. Contrast that with the iPhone 4 which felt long in the tooth towards the end of 2012. Still, progress marches on, and I thought I’d take a chance on Apple’s newest gadget, especially for the speed and camera improvements.

When it came time for a preorder, I was torn between a few different models—as someone who uses an iMac all day and a MacBook Pro as my personal machine, I appreciate the black-glass-and-aluminum motif, and really like Apple’s Space Grey color scheme on the iPhones. I also like the lighter silver aluminum that has been on iPhones since the beginning (and other Apple products) and the white does remind me of my first iPod. Then there was the question of screen size—I already was getting a bit more space with the iPhone 6, but could I try to outright replace my iPad with the iPhone 6 Plus? I opted against that and also picked white and silver as a last-minute decision and waited for my iPhone to show up and hoped there were no issues with AT&T. A week later, it showed up on time, and I had a bit of issues activating it. As it turns out, the iPhone 6 uses a different nano SIM than prior iPhones and it’s coded differently in AT&T’s system. Some think this has to do with the NFC chip and how AT&T handles mobile payments (Android devices with NFC require a different SIM, too). My iPhone 5’s nano SIM worked, but I got a couple of system-generated error text messages suggesting I get a different one.

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Redesigned

Getting back to the device, Apple has really de-emphasized the design in their marketing. While the iPhone 4 was all about the black glass, clean lines, and just being a more luxurious product than the iPhone 3GS it replaced, and the iPhone 5 taught us about diamond-cut chamfered edges, the iPhone 6 is sort of just there. Some might feel a bit of disappointment, but I think that it was wise that Apple cut away some of the hyperbole and BS of design and let the product speak for itself. Sure, the design is great, but they’re really focusing on the improved hardware features (most are not gimmicks like some competitors). While I was sad to see the slab-edges of the most recent iPhones go, this new iPhone design makes sense—not only does it feel like the logical sibling of the iPad and iPod touch, but it also feels like some alternate-timeline evolution of the original iPhone.

Adjusting to the larger device dimensions was not a problem—it reminded me a lot of my transition from the iPhone 4 to iPhone 5. This time, the device is a bit wider, a bit taller, and a bit thinner. I can see the argument for those with small hands having trouble using the device. Although mine don’t compare to your average NBA center, holding the phone like I did previously mostly works—the upper-corners are tough for a thumb to reach, though. I also am finding myself trying to use my phone without Reachability (not because the name is stupid, but because I see it as a bad compromise). I have not moved my app around too much (as some have), but did take advantage of the extra row. I left the bottom row free as I have for years.

Speaking of software and the bigger screen, I’m using it at its native resolution, and really enjoy the extra real-estate (although the same pixel density). I know some competing products are packing 1080p displays in this same space, and I’m a little disappointed Apple didn’t go this route from a spec-nerd perspective, but I also don’t know if that would’ve really mattered that much and might have come at the cost of CPU/GPU cycles. For apps that have updated, they work the same as they always have. For apps that haven’t been updated, the scaling isn’t terrible, but it’s something I still wish would go away soon. There’s a bit of blur on interface elements, and the keyboard is blown up to fit—it has different dimensions than the standard keyboard and that is a pain from a muscle-memory perspective. Still, this adjustment is a lot less terrible than going from non-Retina to Retina graphics, and then the letterboxing on the iPhone 5. I do find that there are moments where it is tougher to balance the phone one-handed, often having to nudge it over to reach all items, but it’s still not unmanageable. It would have been with the 6 Plus.

The concern over fragmentation has been brought up a few times, and I don’t really see this being a problem. While there are more iOS device screen sizes, the iPhone 4S-sized one will probably disappear within the next year or so, especially if developers require iOS 9 (and that’s guessing it won’t work on the iPhone 4S), and so it leaves various sizes of a 16×9 aspect ratio. I’d like to think that Apple is going to stick with the two flagship screen sizes for the foreseeable future, although developer tools are now making flexible screen sizes more common. Until then, I’ll be anxiously waiting for some of my favorites to get updates.

Going back to hardware, the new iPhone takes visual cues from just about every other Apple mobile product that has been for sale for awhile—the overall shape of a scaled down iPad mini or iPad Air, the the same speaker and microphone cutouts of the iPhone 5C, and the camera of the iPod touch. While the camera sticking out of the back of the phone is a bit odd, Apple had to compromise between thin and the requirements for how cameras work. I wouldn’t have minded Apple making the iPhone a tad thicker to incorporate a bigger battery, but this also doesn’t seem bad—although Apple did de-emphasize it in their marketing materials. The sapphire lens should keep it just as scratch-proof as its predecessors and since most people use cases, it’s sort of a non-issue.

The pill-shaped buttons were an interesting change from the circular ones we’ve seen since the iPhone 4. They feel great and give good audible feedback when clicked. Apparently there are rubber gaskets around them to further prevent dust and liquids from entering. I do find myself reaching for the top-corner to put my phone to sleep, and things like screenshots have taken some getting used to, but that just takes some adjustments.

I could talk about how the new iPhone features a faster processor, more LTE bands, faster LTE, 802.11ac, or some other technical specifications, but most places have already covered that. If not, you could always visit Apple’s Technical Specifications page to get the whole story. I’d much rather share how the new iPhone fits into my daily routine and what observations I’ve made over the past week of ownership.

Eric Uses an iPhone 6

Transferring content from my old iPhone was easy—I’m still old-school and do it through iTunes. I opted for the 64GB version because I normally go for the 32GB ones and find 16GB too small. Now that I have so much extra space, I actually put my entire photo library on my phone, downloaded a few more playlists and albums from iTunes Match and grabbed a few more games. That still didn’t put a dent in things. If Apple had made the base model 32GB, which I think they should’ve, I probably would’ve saved a bit of money, but I certainly am not complaining about getting double the space for the same price as before.

One of the first things I did was train Touch ID—I missed out last year, since I skipped the 5S and I find it quite impressive. It works almost instantaneously and accurately. I rarely have misreads and have programmed in my thumbs and pointer fingers. It took a couple of days to force myself to use that instead of swiping for a passcode, but I’ll learn eventually. With iOS 8, I also like that I can use this for other applications. Right now only Discover and Amazon seem to be allowing it, but I know more will soon.

Speaking of throwing money out the window, I’m excited about Apple Pay and look forward to giving this feature a try. I currently use Passbook more than the average person does (I just decided on that statistic), and find that it works really well for buying coffee, Target coupons, store loyalty cards, and electronic tickets. Throw in my credit cards and I’ll be all set for more places. Some have criticized and questioned Apple having credit card information, but they’ve had mine for about a decade with iTunes—I’m not blindly trusting things, but I also feel pretty positively about the technology. I also like the randomized card number setup with Apple Pay. Citi has offered this through their web site when doing online purchases, but it will be nice to be able to do this automatically.

Although I’m not a health nut by any stretch of the imagination, the M8 motion coprocessor intrigues me. Being able to gather data in the background all day and see how much I actually move is pretty cool, especially when it doesn’t come at the cost of battery life. I’m mostly using Pedometer++ and Nike+ Move right now, but might check out some other apps, especially those that work with HealthKit.

I have used the camera for a few shots and it does seem to be much happier in low light conditions and the various apps that give additional controls are handy if you want to be a fiddly photographer. If you don’t, I’ll back up what Joe Steel says about Uncle Bob shots—it takes good pictures with minimal effort. Although my other camera is a Panasonic Micro-4/3 model that does have a few advantages still, my iPhone is always with me, so a better camera is a much-appreciated improvement.

Some have wondered if the camera will be much worse than the one found in the iPhone 6 Plus, due to the lack of optical image stabilization, but in some very unscientific tests, I think most would be happy with either and not notice the difference. I really couldn’t in a few shooting conditions when looking at a friend’s 6 Plus.

The vibrate motor also has had some changes—it seems to be moved lower in the phone, and so it’s a completely different sound and feel than the iPhone 5. It gives off a very consistent and sturdy feel and sound, but also doesn’t seem to rattle the phone. Apple has tinkered with different kinds of motors before, and it’s nice to see them finding something that has a quality feel.

As the week has gone on, my phone has gotten more use as my go-to device as before and less “I need to play with my new iPhone” use. I’m still trying to find the best place for some apps, and things may change with Apple Pay and a functioning Health app. I did install iOS 8.0.1 and then promptly went back to 8.0.0, so the week wasn’t completely drama-free.

Finally, the new iPhones can take advantage of the extra juice (2 amps) provided by iPad-compatible chargers. While Apple hasn’t advertised this, a number of other sources have confirmed it. Prior iPhones only took what they needed (1 amp), much like using an AC adapter intended for a 15” MacBook Pro with a MacBook Air. I have found that the iPhone 6 seems to have trouble with the tiny car charger I use, especially when using GPS, Dash, and playing music. I suspect that it’s more power hungry, and also using nonstandard cables might play a role. I can’t fault the iPhone for this, but more the lack of a proper Lightning-to-USB-and-3.5mm line out cable. Still, if you’re using a cheaper car charger, your iPhone 6 may require some additional juice.

What Next?

In the case of the iPhone 6, Apple produced a seemingly solid update worthy of the iPhone name. While it is quite different than its predecessors in a number of ways, it still feels like a logical next step. As Stephen Hackett mentioned in wrapping up his review:

There’s a lot of talk online — and in my personal text messages from my Android-carrying friends — about how Apple’s just now moving to bigger screens, and had to make an accommodation on the camera thickness like many Android OEMs have had to do.

As many have written, Apple is usually not the first to market with a feature or product. The company is content to sit back and watch other market players slug it out until a clear winner or direction takes shape. […]

I think that is what gets under the skin of Android fans; Apple just strolling into a room on their own timing and setting up shop is one thing, but to have “the sheep” suddenly singing the praises of a feature that’s been available for years from non-Cupertino-based companies is just too much.

He’s right with this conclusion—Apple is making iPhones with larger screens because that’s become popular and customers have been wanting it. If they had released a 4.7” iPhone in 2010 or even 2011, it would’ve seemed ridiculous. Samsung may take the credit for making people okay with a larger screen, and that’s fine. I just think that Apple had to study the market long and hard to figure out the best way to grow its iPhones without alienating too many who prefer the smaller size.

That has been the whole point of the iPhone 6—update features, add new touches, but keep the general formula the same. Even the shipping box does away with product photography and instead has an embossed silhouette of the iPhone and only its key components—the rounded rectangle shape, earpiece “strip”, and home button. Initially, I commented that Apple was almost reinforcing that the design was iconic, much like the “contour bottles” used by Coca-Cola. With the iPhone 6, most people know what they’re getting into, just an overall better version.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

Apple makes the truest-to-original iPhone update yet, but also manages to increase the screen size in a way that is still manageable.

Pros: Bigger screen, Apple Pay, faster CPU, great design
Cons: Awkward camera bump, large chin/forehead bezel

The Facts

4.5/5Product: iPhone
Company: Apple
Two-Year Contract Price: $199 (16GB), $299 (64GB), $399 (128GB)
Unsubsidized Price (Approx): $749 (16GB), $849 (64GB), $949 (128GB)

This post has been filed in iDevices and Reviews