iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus review: Bigger is in fact better (in the right hands)

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On the iPhone 6 Plus, Apple has updated several of its apps, including Mail and Notes, so that they also behave differently when they’ve got the ultra-wide field of view in landscape mode. Both apps switch to a two-column view, with a list of items on the left and a preview or editing area on the right—the same behavior that you’d see when you rotate those apps from portrait to landscape on the iPad. Even the iPhone home screen has gotten into the action, rotating for the very first time on the iPhone 6 plus. (The Dock, you’ll be interested to know, slides to the right side of the screen rather than stretching out across the bottom a la the iPad.)

But for all the features a large screen can bring, the fact is that it’s very hard for someone using the device one-handed to reach the top of that screen. Apple’s creative solution is a new feature called Reachability. Put simply, Reachability slides the top of the screen down to where your thumb can reach it. To activate Reachability, you tap twice on the home button (without pushing—the touch ID sensor can tell when you’re just touching). Everything on the top half of the screen slides down, bringing it within reach.

Reachability isn’t the most elegant concept I’ve seen Apple develop, but it does make the size of these phones more manageable when you’re using only one hand. After a few days, Reachability became something that I used without thinking, and it generally did what I needed it to. However, I did find it to be a bit inconsistent. The iPhone home screen doesn’t slide all the way down, for instance—it scrolls the main icons down, leaving the dock and the top bar where they were. No other app interacts with Reachability in this way.

iphone 6 landscape mode

The iPhone 6 Plus is the first iPhone whose home screen rotates in landscape orientation.

I also found that in some cases, the contents of the screen immediately snapped back to the top when I tapped something. In other cases, there was a pause of a second or so after a tap, enough time to tap something else, or scroll, or interact with the interface in other ways. I don’t like this inconsistency, and in general I think it would be better if the iPhone always waited a second to make sure everything’s done before turning off Reachability. Right now, I never really know what’s going to happen when I tap something when in Reachability mode, and that’s not good.

Sharper focus

Every new iPhone model generally brings an upgraded camera. This year’s models haven’t improved on the iPhone 5s in terms of megapixels—these phones still have 8-megapixel cameras—but add a raft of new features intended to improve the photo- and video-taking experiences.

Focus is improved in several ways. Apple says that it’s added dedicated “focus pixels” to the camera, which help it autofocus faster. Face-detection algorithms have been improved. And there are improvements to autofocus performance on video. The focus behavior in video is the feature I noticed the most—video focus has never been really been one of the iPhone’s strong suits. But the focus in the test videos I shot with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus were clear and smooth, never seeming robotic or jarring.

The super slow-mo feature means you can now shoot at 240 frames per second, allowing for smooth action that runs at one-eighth the speed of normal video. That feature, combined with improved video stabilization that makes videos feel surprisingly smooth, should make videos of skateboard tricks and swimming pool dives more impressive than ever before.

The major difference between the two cameras is really only a factor when in low-light situations. The iPhone 6 Plus camera has the added ability to do optical image stabilization, where the camera hardware actually moves as you do in order to minimize blurriness in dark situations where the camera’s sensors need more time to absorb light in order to get a viewable picture. There are also software techniques Apple uses in low-light situations, but only the larger camera actually has physical stabilization hardware.

The bottom line

Make no mistake: The most important new thing about the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus is their size. While their processors run faster and their cameras focus more exactingly, the real story is that these are larger phones with larger screens. That’s better for displaying photos and videos, of course, and often for just allowing more information to fit on the screen. But there’s also a cost: The smaller your hands are, the harder these phones are to handle.

I’ll wager that for most iPhone 5 users, the iPhone 6 will be a solid upgrade, and after a few days of adjustment, they’ll never miss their old iPhones. As for the iPhone 6 Plus, it’s a device that will undoubtedly find its adherents. They might be people who use their iPhones constantly and also need as much battery power as possible, or people with large hands, or people for whom it will be the only computing device they’ll use every day. Samsung and other competitors have showed that there’s an audience for extra-large phones—and that’s now an audience that can buy an iPhone. That’s the whole point.

Jason is the former editorial director of Macworld, and has reviewed every major Apple product of the last few years, including the original iPhone and iPad as well as every major version of Mac OS X. Check out Sixcolors.com for his latest Apple coverage.

[Updated 9/22/14 to remove statement regarding processor speeds, which had been based on erroneous Geekbench data.]

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