After years of mocking rivals for producing ever-bigger screens, Apple finally caved in this year, introducing not one such model, but two: the iPhone 6 with a 4.7in screen, and the iPhone 6 Plus with a 5.5in screen. It’s quite a climbdown, but Apple had little choice: another year with only a 4in screen on its flagship phone and consumers would have voted with their feet, trickling away to Samsung, HTC, and LG’s larger-screened alternatives.
In reality, we don’t think Apple shouldn’t have been so cautious about making the move, because neither of the new phones feels out of place in today’s large-screen-obsessed smartphone market.
Size and design
The iPhone 6, the smaller of the two phones, is the one that works best. Apple has reverted to rounded edges this time around, moving away from the dead-straight sides of the previous four handsets (the edges of the glass on the front are slightly curved, too), and this works to create an impression that the phone is smaller than it is. The unit is comfortable to hold, doesn’t feel too slippery in your hand – an accusation we could level at the iPhone 5 and 5s – and the 4.7in screen size is just right.
If you’ve been worried about the jump from the 5s’s 4in diagonal, you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about once you get your hands on the device. Yes, the iPhone 6 is taller, wider and a touch heavier than its predecessor, but it’s far from unwieldy.
In fact, the extra size means it’s easier to use in some respects: typing accurately, for instance, becomes far simpler thanks to the more sizeable onscreen keys.
The sheer thinness of the handset makes it more comfortable to hold, too. It measures only 7.1mm from front to back, 0.5mm slimmer than the iPhone 5s, and in the current smartphone market it’s out-skinnied by only the skeletal Huawei Ascend P7 (6.5mm).
For those who still have a problem with the extra size, Apple has an elegant fix: a light double-tap on the home button slides the whole screen down, allowing one-handed access to icons, buttons and address menus located in the top half of the screen.
Aside from the size, there are a couple of other physical changes of which to take note. The power button has moved from the top edge of the device to the side, simultaneously making it easier to reach and also more likely to hit by mistake when picking up the phone. The volume buttons are long and slim instead of circular, which makes them simpler to locate when relying on touch alone, and there’s now a single speaker grille on the phone’s bottom edge, where the iPhone 5s had a pair flanking the Lightning interface.
The oddest change to the design, however, is to the camera lens, which protrudes around a millimetre from the rear of the case. In everyday use, it won’t be particularly noticeable, but we have concerns about how it will fare in the long run with the lens bearing the brunt of the impact every time you slap the phone down on a flat, hard surface.
The sleek design is accompanied by a swathe of upgrades to the hardware inside, but it’s the screen that makes the biggest impact. Along with the increase in size, Apple has boosted the iPhone 6’s resolution to 750 x 1,344, giving a pixel density of 327ppi (a mere fraction higher than the iPhone 5s’ 326ppi) – and it looks pin-sharp.
Brightness, contrast and colour accuracy are exemplary, with the iPhone reaching a maximum brightness of 585cd/m2, gaining an eye-popping 1,423:1 contrast ratio, an impressive Delta E of 1.74, and sRGB coverage of 95%. That contrast ratio is remarkable, and a huge improvement on the 5s’s 972:1, lending onscreen images more depth and dynamism.
There’s one small caveat, however. On our sample model, we noticed a dim strip around 5mm thick running along the top of the screen. Initially we didn’t spot it thanks to the clutter of menus, but it became apparent when we dropped into the full-screen reading view on the Kindle app. This is a shame, since aside from this the iPhone 6’s display is the best we’ve seen on any smartphone.
Behind the screen, the changes are even more dramatic. The iPhone 6, along with its big brother, sports a new dual-core A8 CPU, with 1GB of RAM, upgraded graphics and an improved M8 motion co-processor. There are models with 16GB, 64GB and 128GB of storage (but, notably, no 32GB model), and interestingly Apple has added a barometer to the phone’s line-up of sensors, for more accurate reporting of relative altitude and atmospheric pressure.
It comes as little surprise to find that the iPhone 6 feels completely smooth in general use. We noticed no judder or hitching while moving around in iOS 8, browsing graphics-
Moving on to the slightly more demanding Peacekeeper benchmark, we saw a score of 2,533, which is way out in front of every other smartphone we’ve tested. It’s the same story in Geekbench 3, where a single-core score of 1,631 wipes the floor with everything else; the multi-core score was only marginally beaten by the quad-core Qualcomm hardware in the Samsung Galaxy S5. Given that the iPhone 6 has half the number of cores as the Samsung, it’s still a seriously impressive showing. As for the GFXBench T-Rex HD gaming test, there’s no competition: the only phone capable of beating the iPhone 6’s 51fps is the iPhone 6 Plus, which averaged a silky-smooth 53fps.
Battery life and other features
Perhaps more importantly, battery life is also excellent. The new, more efficient 20nm CPU clearly helps here: playing a 720p video with flight mode on and the screen set to a brightness of 120cd/m2, the battery depleted at a rate of 7.5% per hour, while streaming audio continuously from our SoundCloud account over 3G with the screen off reduced capacity at 1.7% per hour. The former result isn’t all that special: plenty of other phones we’ve seen perform at this level or better, notably the Sony Xperia Z2 (5.6%), Samsung Galaxy S5 (5.2%) and the HTC One M8 (6.5%). However, none of these handsets can match the iPhone 6’s results in the 3G streaming test, a figure that points at highly impressive standby performance.
Even in continuous use, the iPhone 6 is a trooper. In one morning, we saw the battery dip from 100% to only 84% during four hours of heavy testing. In that time, we streamed a podcast for 1hr 32mins, downloaded and installed the Facebook and Twitter apps, ran the Peacekeeper benchmark twice and the SunSpider browser test once, received a short phone call, and replied to a handful of texts. The display was also continuously on throughout this period. This is a phone that will easily get you through a day and a half of moderate to light use and, if you’re careful, two full days isn’t beyond its capabilities.
As with most smartphones, battery life does depend on your usage, and one thing that hits it hard is gaming. In the GFXBench battery test, which loops a 3D OpenGL animation for around half an hour and then estimates total runtime, the iPhone 6 achieved 2hrs 29mins. That’s an improvement over the iPhone 5s’s 1hr 52mins (impressive given how many more frames the phone is rendering), but it still indicates that graphics-heavy gaming will lead to a significantly shorter time span between charging sessions.
Elsewhere, Apple has added NFC to the iPhone 6, which is used solely for the Apple Pay touch credit card-payment system. It’s an interesting development that could eventually see you settling the bill for your morning coffee by tapping your phone to a card reader; it uses the phone’s Touch ID fingerprint reader in conjunction with your credit card details to provide increased security.
We’re much more interested in the move from 802.11n to 802.11ac. Connection speed is a maximum of 433Mbits/sec and, at close range using the FileBrowser app to transfer a large movie file from shared NAS storage to the iPhone, we saw roughly twice the speed from the iPhone 6 over the 5s, with transfer rates hovering between 7MB/sec and 8MB/sec compared to 6MB/sec and 7MB/sec for the 5s.
On paper, the camera isn’t a huge upgrade from last year’s flagship. You get an 8-megapixel 1/3in backside-illuminated CMOS sensor with 1.5u photo sites, and an aperture of f/2.2 – the same as the 5s. It’s accompanied by Apple’s True Tone flash, so indoor shots don’t look horribly washed out and ghostly.
However, the camera now sports a number of phase-detect autofocus pixels on the surface of the sensor, in a similar fashion to the Samsung Galaxy S5 and many enthusiast and high-end SLR cameras, enabling much faster autofocus.
In practice, what this means is that the iPhone 6 will almost instantly transition from focusing on a subject that’s far away to one that’s really close, where the iPhone 5s would take a second or so. This isn’t such a dramatic upgrade for taking photographs, but it makes a big difference to video: the effective digital stabilisation and super-quick focusing combine to produce stunning Full HD videos, with much less need for focus-hunting.
Alas, the other major upgrade – optical image stabilisation – is restricted to the iPhone 6’s big brother, the iPhone 6 Plus. Even there, Apple is restricting its use to low-light conditions and stills. It isn’t used in video mode, presumably to save on battery life.
What this all boils down to is that most of what we said about the iPhone 5s’s rear camera holds true of the iPhone 6’s. It produces clean, detailed and well-exposed photographs in most conditions, but isn’t quite as good as the Nokia Lumia 1020 in low light. Its digital image stabilisation remains excellent, producing smooth, shake-free videos. The only difference is that the iPhone 6’s improved processing engine tends to apply less aggressive noise-reduction settings, leading to slightly grainier but more detailed photos in low light.
The front-facing “selfie” camera also benefits from a small improvement. Although resolution remains the same at 1.2 megapixels, the aperture is now a wide f/2.2, which lets in “81% more light”; there’s also a burst mode to help capture your best side. It produces more detailed, cleaner self-portraits in low light, but in brighter conditions you’ll struggle to tell the difference between the iPhone 6 and the 5s.
To round things off, Apple has added a handful of features to the camera front-end. Top of the list is a time-lapse video feature, which produces top-quality sped-up footage, and there’s also an additional Slo-mo mode, which captures video at 240fps – twice the frame rate of the iPhone 5s. This is quite an achievement for a smartphone camera, and the resulting videos look incredible.
The Apple iPhone 6 is a pleasure to use. An iPhone with a larger screen works very well indeed, so much so that we wonder why the company didn’t do it sooner. But the question is: has Apple done enough? In some respects, we’d say it has: battery life is excellent, the display largely superb, the camera as good as any we’ve seen bar the Lumia 1020, and when it comes to performance, the iPhone 6 kicks every other smartphone on the market into the long grass.
But, once again, it’s undermined by Apple’s intransigence on price and upgradability. Supplying only 16GB in a phone that costs $869 and commands a huge premium on contract is mean beyond belief, and the fact that there’s no storage expansion simply compounds the issue. We wouldn’t consider shelling out on anything less than the 64GB iPhone 6 and, at $1129, that’s substantially more expensive than any other flagship handset out there.
Yet, despite those qualms, the Apple iPhone 6 is so accomplished that to not give it some sort of acknowledgement would be churlish. All-round it’s a superb handset, and at least as good as anything on the market right now. If you can afford to pay the price, you won’t be disappointed.