Apple was in no rush to start making big-screened smartphones. But now that the company's first phablet is here, was it worth the wait? Let's take a look, as Gizmag reviews the iPhone 6 Plus.
The iPhone 6 Plus just might be my favorite Apple mobile device to date. It takes that years-old gap between tiny iPhone and huge iPad, and obliterates it – even more than the iPad mini did. With the 6 Plus, we finally have an iOS device that can serve as both phone and tablet. One iDevice to rule them all.
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That isn't to say that it's perfect. Pick it up, realize how awkward it can be to use in one hand and you'll likely agree. But, to me, the perks outweigh the compromises.
The iPhone 6 Plus has an outstanding display. On paper, a 5.5-in 1080p screen sounds like well-trodden ground. With Android phones covering that base a year or two ago, and now moving into Quad HD land, the 6 Plus' display could have easily been yesterday's news.
It isn't. The colors are vibrant and accurate, contrast is excellent and the sucker gets very bright. I'm not sure if I'd describe this as the very best smartphone display I've seen, but it's in the conversation.
The phone's design is classic Apple, and, as far as I'm concerned, a step in the right direction. In place of the last four iPhones' angular edges, we have smooth curves. The front glass panel gently slopes off near the edges, bleeding into those rounded sides. In hand, it feels smooth.
And yes, the design is identical to that of the iPhone 6. With a couple exceptions, this is the same phone – just bigger:
Like every phablet before it, the iPhone 6 Plus straddles that line between phone and tablet. And like its predecessors, it has the same set of pros and cons.
On one hand, you get a display size that absolutely dwarfs every pre-2014 iPhone. It gives you 89 percent more screen than the 2012-13 iPhones did. And we're looking at 129 percent more screen than the first five iPhones gave you. Put two iPhone 4s side-by-side, and you still have less screen than you'll get on the 6 Plus.
The flip side to that is that it can be a little awkward to hold. Samsung deals with this problem by embracing the Galaxy Note's two-handed nature and adding a stylus. If you're going to need two hands anyway, why not put a plastic pen in one of them?
Apple is far too anti-stylus (not to mention anti-Samsung) to go that route, so you're left with a device that you're best off holding like a tablet. But since it's much smaller than a tablet, you have this sort of hand-crunching thing going on – at least in portrait mode. You're either gripping either side of the phablet or cradling it in your secondary hand while you tap on it with your dominant one (in other words, using it just like you'd use a Galaxy Note – minus the stylus).
In many ways, the 6 Plus works best in landscape mode. I've never used a smartphone in landscape for anything other than watching videos or playing games, but the 6 Plus could change that. The only problem is that, right now, many key apps that support landscape on the iPad are portrait-only on the iPhone (Flipboard, for example).
But just look at what Apple did with its own stock apps. The Mail app is just like it is on the iPad:
There's nothing terrible about holding the 6 Plus, and this is the same dilemma that every phablet-maker has stared down. But it is a compromise, and one that I'd recommend trying out on a display model before throwing down for the Apple phablet.
Fortunately it's pretty much the only compromise to be found on the iPhone 6 Plus. Apple has always tried to make the experience of using its devices as airtight as possible. The company would rather leave features out than deliver watered-down or buggy versions of them (MobileMe, Siri, Apple Maps and the iPhone 4's antenna are obvious exceptions). With this year's pair of iPhones along with iOS 8, Apple's smartphone ship has fewer holes than ever.
A month ago, my biggest gripes about using an iPhone were their small screens and being forced to use Apple's tap-only keyboard. But with the two iPhone 6s and iOS 8's third-party keyboard support, suddenly both of those problems are kaput. I don't have any more big reservations about jumping into the deep end of the iPhone pool.
There are still some kinks to work out before the 6 Plus reaches its full potential. Most third-party apps, for example, still haven't been updated for its larger screen. Nothing looks horrible, but you can notice some pixelation in upscaled apps that were designed for the older iPhones' 640p displays.
It's an annoyance that harkens back to the iPhone 4's launch back in 2010 and the iPhone 5's release two years ago. Until developers get up to speed with the new hardware, you're playing a waiting game.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the 6 Plus' current supply constraints were traced directly back to that: give developers time to bring out the best in the device before making it readily available. Just a theory – but it would, in a way, make a lot of sense.
In my experience, the iPhone 6 Plus has very good, though not quite the best, battery life. In our benchmark, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness set at 75 percent, it lasted 8 hours and 20 minutes. That falls about an hour short of the Galaxy S5 and HTC One (M8) in the same test, but it's still very good. It's also over two hours longer than the iPhone 5s lasted.
As far as smartphone cameras go, the Plus' is among the best. It's fast, shots are clear and colorful, and it has a few fun tricks up its sleeve (240 fps slow-mo video is a blast).
The camera's only downside is that its 8 MP resolution starts to show when you do close zooming or cropping. On Nokia's 20 MP Lumia 1520, for example, I can zoom in on a tiny section of a shot and it will still look pretty good. On the iPhone, zoom in just a little and sharpness quickly goes downhill.
Since I use a DSLR for any remotely serious photography, I never get too excited about smartphone cameras. But, apart from that minor nitpick about zooming and cropping, there's nothing to worry about – and a lot to like – here.
Overall performance on the 6 Plus is smooth. Apple is the only company in mobile that can take a dual-core processor and 1 GB of RAM, and turn it into a seamless, buttery-smooth experience. UI transitions are instantaneous and even, without the slightest bit of lag or jitteriness.
That 1 GB of RAM has backgrounded apps and browser tabs reloading (once you return to them) more often than I'd like. But I can live with that more easily on an iPhone than I can on an iPad – which I'm more likely to use for work.
The iPhone 6 Plus is a terrific mobile device. As long as you can find a comfortable enough way to hold it – and don't mind waiting for developers to fully support it – there's really no reason to hesitate. It's the first iOS device that can stand as your one-and-only iOS device. It's as much of an iPad mini-mini as it is an iPhone maxi.
I'd recommend keeping that in mind when looking at the iPhone 6 Plus' price (it starts at US$750 full retail, or $300 on-contract). If it lets you sell your iPhone 5s and your iPad Air, then that pill is much easier to swallow.
If you aren't completely invested in Apple's ecosystem, and you aren't in a rush to upgrade, then it couldn't hurt to wait for the Galaxy Note 4 to arrive. I still think the stylus fits the phablet form factor like hand in glove. If that pen and notepad approach appeals to you, then you might have a tough decision come mid-October, as the Note 4 has a more sensitive pen than last year's model and a sharper screen than the 6 Plus.
Gizmag highly recommends the iPhone 6 Plus to anyone looking for a kick-ass mobile device that can serve as both big phone and small tablet. If you're already a happy citizen of Apple's walled garden, then I'd say go and buy one right now. If your platform preference is a bit more flexible, then you still can't go wrong here – but it also couldn't hurt to wait and see how the Note 4 sizes up.
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