I like the iPhone 6 so much that I may not buy a new Android: Review

The demand for larger phones has risen since 2011, and many wondered how long it would take Apple to join in and offer a comparably larger iPhone. It did so this month, with two new models: The 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus.

I have one of each — I bought the 6 for myself (starting at $199 on contract, $649 off-contract) and my son got a 6 Plus. I’ve used my new [company]Apple[/company] iPhone for the past week (I’ll talk more about the larger model in an upcoming post) and due to the hardware redesign and Apple’s slightly more open software approach, I’m actually rethinking my typical annual plans to buy a new [company]Google[/company] Android handset this year. Let me explain why.

A new look and a size that’s overdue

Obviously, with each new year, Apple improves the iPhone hardware, and this year is no exception. A few items stand out, however. First is the redesign.

Apple's iPhone 6. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom
Apple’s iPhone 6. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

As the leaks and rumors suggested, the iPhone 6 is shaped more like an iPod touch, which is actually one of my favorite devices because it does so much while being so thin. This year’s iPhone 6 is 6.9 millimeters thick and has rounded corners, similar to an iPod touch. I didn’t care for the hard edges of the prior iPhones, so I see this as a big improvement: It’s easier to reach across the display without feeling the edges. However, the thinness can make the phone a bit hard to hold; I haven’t dropped it yet, but there are times when I feel I might.

iPhone 6 thin

Then there’s the 1334 x 750 resolution display. It has the same 326 pixels per inch as last year’s iPhone 5s [BUT?] has 38 percent more viewing area, and my eyes have been crying for that extra screen space for a while now. I’m used to a 4.7-inch display, because the Moto X — my primary Android phone for 13 months (a record!) — uses the same size of screen. But even though it only has a slightly higher pixel count, the iPhone 6 display is noticeably better in terms of brightness, contrast and viewing angles. There are times when the screen output looks as if it’s painted on the glass, almost like it’s a still image and not a dynamic screen.

It’s no surprise I quickly got used to the 4.7-inch screen, then, since that’s the size display I’ve been using since last year. I wish Apple had used this size a year or two ago; many people will find it to be a good compromise between size and usability. I do find the overall phone a bit tall, however; that’s due to Apple keeping the top and bottom bezel identical in size. With the Touch ID home button, the bottom bezel can’t be shrunken but the top one could use a little diet. I doubt that will change, though: Symmetry is and has been prevalent in the overall iPhone design.

iPhone 6 back

Moving the power / wake button from the top to the size was a good move; it’s a more natural place for a phone of this size. Little else has changed on the outside, although the new TruTone LED flash fits within a small circle now.

What’s inside the thinner, bigger phone?

Apple says its new A8 chip has a 25 percent faster CPU and 50 percent faster GPU than last year’s phone. It’s also smaller because it’s built on a 20 nanometer process, meaning more transistors are packed in tighter. This can help with battery life, although I’m generally seeing about the same run-time on a charge as I did with the iPhone 5s. Most days, I’m getting by with just one charge but if you use the iPhone 6 heavily, a full day may be tough without a late afternoon recharge. There is a new feature to show you which apps are using the most juice.

ios 8 battery usage

I’ve run some basic benchmark tests and the iPhone 6 does test faster than previous versions: The SunSpider test for JavaScript, for example, is a spritely 355.7 milliseconds, compared to 419 milliseconds from my iPhone 5s. Rather than re-create the wheel, I’ll point you to what I think are the most all-compassing suite of tests performed by AnandTech if you’re into benchmarks. More important to me is: How does the iPhone 6 perform in typical use?

Unsurprisingly, it’s generally a step quicker than last year’s phone but there’s not a huge gain in speed. Apps open fast and are very responsive and although I’m browsing the web on a mobile device, it sometimes feels as fast as surfing on a traditional computer. The camera can snap crisp images nearly as fast as you can tap the shutter button. All in all, this phone is as fast as anything out there, if not faster.

Apple also upgraded the low-power chip for sensors: The new M8 keeps the same sensors as last year and adds a barometer to measure air-pressure changes. This comes in handy when counting how many flights of stairs you climb daily, which can be tracked automatically by Apple’s Health app.

Apple Health iOS 8

Wi-Fi now supports 802.11ac networks and my home router supports this faster Wi-Fi protocol. Wireless speed tests from nearly anywhere in my house on the iPhone 6 consistently show faster speeds, sometimes equalling the 75 Mbps home broadband connection I have with wired devices. I’ve also seen better signal quality in general, although with the latest software update the Wi-Fi doesn’t seem as stable as it was.

The iPhone 6 can work with Voice over LTE on Verizon and Wi-Fi Calling on T-Mobile. I have an AT&T model, however, so I haven’t been able to test either of these services. My voice calls have been no different from last year’s iPhone. Bluetooth 4.0 and GPS are also supported, as you’d expect.

What sounded like a minor camera upgrade is actually impressive

Apple’s choice of camera sensor first disappointed me when I heard about it. The camera is still an 8 megapixel sensor with the same f/2.2 aperture as last year’s model. After using the camera in a range of situations, though, I’m impressed with it and my initial disappointment is long gone.

The new phase-detection autofocus is very fast and generally accurate. Aside from a few times, the camera quickly picked out the object I was shooting and focused in fast. Continuous autofocus when shooting video is excellent to have. And the new 240fps slo-motion capture has created some interesting videos; here are two of me trying to keep up with my dog as he runs around outside in circles — he’s quick! — and another of an outdoor fire that’s mesmerizing.

A professional photographer has already shown the capabilities of the new iPhone 6 camera so if you know what you’re doing, you can capture stunning images. The front facing camera is improved, particularly if you want to take HDR selfies. (I do not, but that’s just me.)

Are there better smartphone cameras on the market today? Certainly. I’d say most of the Lumia handsets will meet or exceed the iPhone 6 in some situations, for example. But for most people, Apple’s phone will take better pictures than they’d expect. Put another way: For a wide range of photos and videos, this is a great camera that’s pretty simple to use. Here are a number of stills I captured using the standard Camera app with Auto HDR and a single type of edit — the auto-enhance feature native to iOS.

Hardware is only half of the story and iOS 8 has some big changes

Some of the aspects of Android that I preferred over iOS are no longer an issue, as Apple changed a few things. Apps in iOS can now work together thanks to extensions. Instead of being able to share web content only with the apps that Apple says you can share with, you can now share with nearly any other app. And in a way, it’s even better than how Android handles this.

So I can now share interesting articles from the web to Pocket, for example, because the newest version of the app supports extensions. That means Pocket automatically appears in my list of apps to share from Safari. Yes, the same happens in Android, but eventually you get an unwieldy list of sharable apps. In iOS you can enable or disable sharing on each individual app, creating a customized list. That’s handy. You can also use image filter apps directly in the native Photos app.

share pocket ios 8

Apple also added widgets in iOS, but they’re a bit more limited. You can’t put them on the home screen; they appear in the Notification Center with a swipe down from any screen. You can rearrange them there and you can enable or disable them, but it’s a limited implementation: fine if you use just a few widgets, not ideal if you want many. At this point, I’m only using the Yahoo Weather widget, which was automatically installed with the weather app.

yahoo weather widget in notifications

Apple has also opened up its stance on third-party keyboards even as it improved its own. That’s another Android-only feature that is no more: Most of the top-tier keyboards for Android have quickly made their way to iOS, although I’ve seen some instability on a few. Give them time to work out the kinks for this new platform — new to them, at least — and they’ll get better. For now, I’m using Apple’s own keyboard, which has pretty solid word prediction to save taps and time.

I am a bit disappointed in Siri. Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana provide more robust, contextual information, even though Siri has been on the market longer. If I had to pick one thing I’d miss the most by going all-in on iOS, it would be this area. Siri is helpful for getting information that you ask for, but not for proactively notifying you, something other smartphone platforms are quite good at.

There’s a host of other tweaks and changes in iOS 8 — more than I can cover here and some that will be coming later, such as Apple Pay next month. Suffice it to say that the bigger changes are reflected in Apple opening up the software for apps to work better together. Hardware is more open too as developers can use the Touch ID sensor (which I find is better at reading fingerprints) for app and purchase authentication. Apple did all of this in its own controlled way, of course, but it’s still a step toward more freedom in how you use your iPhone.

Is bigger better, and who is this for?

If you’re simply not a fan of iOS, there’s not much here that’s going to convince you to buy Apple’s latest iPhone. There are plenty of other good choices on the market for you.

Did you leave iOS because the iPhone was too small? That problem is gone with the iPhone 6 and it’s well worth the look. For me, the 4.7-inch screen is super for one-handed use and fitting in a pocket. Even if the screen feels too tall, you can always double-touch the home button and iOS will slide the entire screen down for you.

Reachability on

I’m not sure that iPhone 5s users need to make the jump right now, unless you simply have to have that larger display and rounded edges. If you have an iPhone 5 or below, then this is a no-brainer. Go check out the iPhone 6 and make sure you like the size and feel: You’ll get a nice performance boost in just about every area.

To close the circle on my own decision, I may just keep my older Android phone and not upgrade to the latest that runs Google’s software. (Note: I’m currently reviewing a 2014 Moto X, so I reserve the right to change my mind!)

Apple’s iOS platform works with every app and service I need, and the new phone is the perfect size for me based on my Moto X which has similar measurements. The bigger input to my decision though is the philosophical change Apple made in iOS 8, finally allowing a bit more openness for developers and users.

iPhone 6 and Moto X
iPhone 6 on left, Moto X on right

The only thing I’m really missing on the iPhone is Google Now, which works to a limited degree through the Google Search app for iOS. And there will always be some function or feature that works on Android, or another platform, that isn’t possible on iOS, or is limited in some way. The functions I need are generally available on the iPhone 6, however, and in hardware that’s more than capable with plenty of screen to work with. And I’ve always suggested that people purchase the mobile device that best suits their needs.

Yes, Android is far more customizable and easier to tinker with, but the main aspects I enjoy from it have now come to iOS in a bigger phone. As a result, I just might save myself some money and make the iPhone 6 my only phone purchase this year.