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Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 1:20 pm 23/10/2014

Apple has steered clear of tablet-sized phones for a while now, leaving it to Samsung and other manufacturers, but now Apple is here with a phablet of its own. Is the iPhone 6 Plus the best big phone of the lot?

Features

Apple’s first big big big phone is here, as the iPhone 6 Plus borrows much of the design and specification from the iPhone 6 and recreates it on a bigger scale, with two exceptions: side and camera.

As such, most of the features and specs are the same as they were in the iPhone 6, so if it feels like we’re doubling up in this section, we apologise.

For starters, there’s the chip from the iPhone 6 used here, called the A8 and running on a 64-bit architecture at 1.4GHz.

This is paired with 1GB RAM, and matched with either 16, 64, or 128GB of storage, a size that is determined at the point of purchase and will not be upgradeable due to there being no upgradeable storage in any iPhone. Apple’s iOS 8 exists on this phone out of the box.

Connection options are relatively standard, especially for a flagship phone, with the 4G connection from the iPhone 5S brought up to speed to Category 4 4G LTE, making it support as high as 150Mbps downloads on compatible network connections, while WiFi can now take advantage of the high speed 802.11ac WiFi provided you have the new 802.11ac routers in your home or office.

Wireless also works with Bluetooth 4.0, as well as GPS with GLONASS, and while Near-Field Communication makes an appearance in this phone, it is only for the sake of Apple’s payment system “Apple Pay” which has yet to be utilised in Australia.

The camera has taken a minor increase from the iPhone 5S, keeping the 8 megapixels on the back, but changing the sensor to support more light, increased aperture to f/2.2, and support of Apple’s “Focus Pixels” for advanced auto-focus technology.

Video is also possible here, and Full HD has been brought up to 60fps, while a slow motion mode now works at both 120 and 240 frames per second, with a time lapse video mode thrown in too.

Unlike the iPhone 6, however, the video side of the iPhone 6 Plus supports optical image stabilisation, something only the Plus seems to have the honour of receiving.

Meanwhile, the front camera remains the same, with Apple including the 1.2 megapixel FaceTime camera from before.

This technology sits underneath a 5.5 inch screen, running the Full HD resolution of 1920×1080, a change for Apple which has previously supported distinct resolutions specific to its products, such as is the case in the Apple iPhone 6.

In the Plus, however, the Full HD display used on a 5.5 inch screen shows a pixel count of 400 pixels per inch, higher than Apple’s previous 326 pixel per inch count used on every Retina iPhone since the first one marched out of Cupertino, the iPhone 4.

The screen is protected by some form of scratch-resistant glass, though Apple hasn’t specifically said what type — we’re assuming a version of Corning’s Gorilla Glass — with a different scratch resistant glass covering the camera, Sapphire glass in that case.

Beyond this, there’s the design, and here it’s an evolution more of the iPod Touch than of previous iPhones or the iPad, with a thinner design sporting a soft curved edge and a screen that follows that curve ever so slightly.

Like previous iPhones, the buttons are small in number, with a power button, volume rocker, mute/vibrate switch, and a home button up front with a fingerprint sensor built into the button called “Touch ID” to let you unlock the phone and pay for things using the unique print on your digits.

Button location is a little different from previous iPhones (not the 6), with the volume buttons and mute switch retaining the left edge position, while the power button has been moved from the top to the right edge.

Ports are all found along the bottom, however, with a 3.5mm headset jack on the far left, Lightning dock for charging and data transfer in the middle, and a speaker grill on the right.

One slot can be found on the iPhone 6 Plus, allowing you to load your SIM — a nanoSIM, in fact — and ejected with one of Apple’s pin-based ejector tools, which is included in the box.

The iPhone 6 Plus is available in three colours, with silver, gold, and space grey.

The battery for the iPhone 6 Plus is rated at 2915mAh.

Performance

In September of 2014, Apple did what the world expected and released a new phone.

It was to be the iPhone 6, a model that had been rumoured to be getting a size increase for over a year after owners of the Apple smartphones were quite literally crying out to the company to make something bigger, just like its competitors.

We’ve heard the tale many a time how an iPhone owner was going to make the jump because it felt like Apple wasn’t paying attention to its customers, as they desperately wanted a big iPhone.

And so on September 10 in Sydney (September 9 in America), Apple did just that: it released a bigger iPhone, and a bigger bigger iPhone for people who asked, who cried out and practically demanded that it happened.

The new iPhone 6 is 4.7 inches, giving a screen size closer to that of flagship smartphones from all manufacturers, which presently sit around 5 inches in screen size, but the iPhone 6 Plus is different.

Rather, this model is Apple’s first phone-sized tablet and even offers competition against the iPad Mini, providing a 5.5 inch smartphone which would normally go against the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, the HTC One Max, Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra, the Nokia Lumia 1520, and any other big phone made to replace both a tablet and a smartphone.

It is Apple’s first phablet, so how does it fare?

Take the phone out of the box and into your hand, and if you’ve yet to feel Apple’s inspired-by-iPod Touch design, it’s lovely.

Soft metal along the back curving around 7.1mm thin edges to meet a piece of glass in a transition that seems almost impossible, as if the phone itself were made from one object, even though there are two distinct materials at play.

It’s a design that is typically Apple, and feels like a hybrid between the iPod Touch and the iPad Air, and it works, feeling great in the hands, even though it is obviously so big.

So big that it’s very hard to hold with one hand, and that if you’ve come from an iPhone in the past, you’ll probably need some time to get used to this design and feeling that Apple has put forth.

Over time, it will grow on you, and over time, it will likely make some dents in your pants, as it’s just that big, but it is a nice feeling, and exudes the quality you’ve come to expect from an Apple smartphone.

Next is the performance, and given that we’ve seen the iPhone 6 already, reviewing it around a month ago, you probably won’t be surprised to find that the iPhone 6 Plus is practically identical in performance, throwing up the odd bug here and there, but otherwise providing solid speeds as you jump from app to app.

Most of the apps ran quickly, near instantaneously, and it’s good to see the A8 processor really working away, making the phone fly through games and apps.

Mobile performance is also solid, with the 4G LTE providing speeds in ours tests ranging from 30Mbps all the way to 60Mbps, though higher is definitely possible depending on what telco you’re using, while home networks with 802.11ac technology used will see faster downloads in the home as well.

While we love 4G, we’re really quite thrilled to see 802.11ac embraced, especially when we expected it last year, as it provides that much needed network range and boost many home users have been looking for.

Apple’s attention to detail on the screen is solid too, with a gapless design producing near perfect viewing angles, solid colours, excellent contrast, and a pixel clarity putting the phone into a similar area to other flagship smartphones.

Forget the Retina resolution level of 326 pixels per inch, we’re talking ever so slightly above 400, perfect for those who like to talk about numbers and how our eyes can actually see the pixels in smaller screens.

If that’s you, you’ll be delighted to see such a high quality screen employed on an iPhone, as it allows you to read smaller text on websites that haven’t quite updated their designs or moved to something responsive, clearing up text and other minute details so that your eyes don’t ache every time you focus on something small.

The camera is also excellent, and this is one of those features that actually is ever so slightly different from its iPhone 6 sibling, with optical image stabilisation thrown in on this model, but not the iPhone 6.

Why?

We’re not sure, to be honest. It could be that the extra body size gives Apple a way of inserting different technology, but it’s probably also to give another reason for people to invest in the bigger phone, rather than just go with the 4.7 inch. A nudge, if you will.

Image sample from the iPhone 6 Plus camera

As for the camera side of things, as has been the case for Apple for some time, the camera software is easy to use, with a simple touch to focus and then a camera button to fire the image.

It’s about as easy as it gets, though is possibly a little less easy than Motorola’s “just touch here to fire” mechanism, which currently sits across the Moto G, E, and X smartphones.

The interface also has its layers of complexity, allowing users to swipe up or down to send the camera into square crop shooting modes, video, slow motion, and time lapse, with image filters also available, in case you don’t feel like sending your photo through Instagram.

And if you feel like controlling your photo just a little more, you can focus on a specific point and change the light for the photo around that specific selection, dragging a brightness cursor up or down along the side, changing the light balance for that specific selection.

While this control box isn’t an offering of full manual control like some smartphone cameras have — devices like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and HTC One M8 — it’s enough to make both amateur and enthusiast phone photographers (is there even a professional phone photographer?!) happy, as it can increase the quality of a basic shot.

Tested in daylight, the image quality is excellent, even though the megapixels haven’t taken an increase, with solid colours, relatively crisp and sharp details, with the camera roll available to most of your apps from inside the that part of the app.

We say “most” because Apple seems to be having some troubles with Instagram, and for some reason won’t send the photos straight to Facebook’s retro-inspired social photography network, but you can open the images straight from Instagram if you want to use them here, so that’s a workaround until that bug is fixed.

Image sample from the iPhone 6 Plus camera

At night, the image quality is still impressive, and Apple’s use of optical image stabilisation shows up with some often sharp details and decent colours, while keeping the shadows solid and the image relatively balanced.

On the front side of the phone — you know, the one with the screen on it? — there is also another camera, but outside of a lens change, this one doesn’t feel like it’s moved particularly far, with the 1.2 megapixel shooter feeling noticeably weaker than some of the other offerings out there.

Not a huge deal, once again, because in daylight, the front-facing selfie camera is still fine — just like it was in the iPhone 5S — but if you’re looking for more light to take selfies of you and your mates at the club on a Saturday night, this one won’t help you much, plunging you into the pixilated shadows.

Video has changed, too, though, like it did on the 6 Plus, with slow motion modes for 120 and 240 frames per second, which can help you get creative with the world around you, snapping things in slow motion that you might not normally think about, while a time lapse mode will compress sequences down for you so that the world looks like it is zipping by.

Full HD video is also possible, though we’re a little surprised there’s no support for 4K Ultra HD here.

Perhaps Apple doesn’t think smartphones are there, or perhaps the storage doesn’t really cut it for big apps, games, music, photos, AND big videos shot in 4K, which is fair, especially since the iPhone 6 Plus is locked to specific sizes, namely 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB (we’ve already said something on this matter in the iPhone 6 review, but frankly, if you’re thinking of buying one, don’t bother with the 16GB as you can’t expand it and the storage size is way too small to be useful).

Beyond this, there are the little things that help make the iPhone 6 Plus stand out, such as Touch ID, which first appeared in the iPhone 5S and is finally being used for more than just unlocking the phone and paying for apps and music, as other services begin to take advantage, too.

A landscape mode is also included, allowing you to control the phone’s menu in the horizontal form, and even pull up the mail or writing apps with an extended interface or slightly larger keyboard, though be warned, even though Apple includes a rotation lock, it’s only for portrait mode, and won’t provide you with a way to keep using the iPhone 6 Plus in landscape only.

Then there’s the app ecosystem which is still the among strongest in the world, with games and apps aplenty, as well as magazines that actually boast interactivity, which is one area where Android is struggling to catch up in.

The Bluetooth is also fairly strong, and we noticed fewer dropouts on the iPhone 6 Plus with Bluetooth headphones than we did on most of the Android phones we’ve played with.

The Apple interface in landscape.

We’re even intrigued by the inclusion of “Continuity” in Mac OS 10.10, the latest version, now called “Yosemite.” Together, the two devices talk, sending your phone calls and messages to the desktop, making it possible to answer the phone using your MacBook or iMac (or Mac Pro, even), and even respond to an SMS far more quickly using the keyboard of your computer.

This is one feature that greatly impresses us, and while Samsung has tried to implement it for Samsung phones on its Galaxy Tab S, and LG has tried a similar version in its own tablets, neither nail it in the way Apple has done here.

And yes, there’s that lovely design, which so few phones manage to nail, making the iPhone 6 Plus feel brilliant, even though it’s obviously very big.

But there are also moments when that design gets to you.

Sure, it’s typical Apple, with soft metallic curves and a screen that follows the flow of the design all the way around the body in a way that just feels excellent.

But it’s also so wide and so flat that there isn’t enough of a gentle curve at the back to make the phone fit comfortably in your hand.

So when you take the phone out of your pocket, if you don’t buy a case for it, you get to feel that awesome metal back that we love so much on Apple’s and HTC’s products, but unlike the aforementioned HTC, you don’t manage to have a phone that curves into the hand, but rather slides out of it, and that’s because there is no curve, no palm facing slope, as it’s just flat, wide and flat.

No curve means your palm can’t nestle the phone, and like the iPhone 6 — which is smaller yet cast from a similar mould — the phone can fall right out of your hand.

Sure, it's hard to grip, but the screen performs very well in sunlight.

But owners of the iPhone 6 have one advantage over those with the 6 Plus, and that’s grip: with a body that isn’t as wide, the iPhone 6 is so much easier to make sure you’re holding, while the 6 Plus feels like you’re holding a wide metal notepad — remember those things you used to write so much in with a biro? — one that doesn’t like to be held so much.

Maybe it’s not an overly emotional phone, because holding it with one hand seems a little passé.

Rather, you’ll want to hold it with two, and this confuses us, as it smacks the original Apple mentality in the fact that a phone could and should be held and used with one hand, giving your thumb enough of the phone to make use of without having to drag your other hand out of its pocketed resting place and put it to work, or heaven forbid have it do something else.

Unfortunately, the iPhone 6 Plus doesn’t really follow this philosophy, and generally requires two hands to use comfortably, with one to hold and one to operate.

It’s not a bad thing, either, and there aren’t many big big phones that can be used successfully by all people with one hand.

Android devices like the LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 try to get around the size issues by bringing in left and right handed modes to make one-handed calling a possibility, as well as a use-case scenario that doesn’t necessarily mean holding the phone at the very bottom.

Apple has tried this as well with “Reachability,” a unique feature that allows the home button to be tapped twice rather than pressed twice. Pressing twice — hard clicks of the button — will activate the multi-task switch, letting you jump between apps. This is specifically different from the double tap — light tap without the hard click of the button — which brings the iPhone 6 Plus screen down half way down the screen inside any app.

On the home menu, it makes sense, and puts the top rows within reach of one hand, though it’s likely the hand struggling to hold the phone from the bottom of the handset (but that’s another issue).

But load it in any other app and it might just make operation of that app confusing, with Instagram, Apple’s Calculator, and even the phone dialling system all throwing up road blocks for use when Reachability is used.

Frankly, we’d just suggest using the big iPhone with two hands. It’s safer, easier, and won’t be confusing.

Reachability works well for the menu, but not so much for the phone dial pad or the calculator.

There’s also less risk of you dropping the phone from the awkward hand hold it needs with one hand, unless of course you’re the Incredible Hulk and have humongous hands.

Another weak point is that Apple has limited your use of Near-Field Communication, but this is the case across both the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus.

Why has Apple done this?

Mostly to keep the tech suited for its “Apple Pay” wireless payments system, but it’s a particularly frustrating thing to know that technically, the technology is in place for iPhones to connect to gadgets wirelessly using Near-Field Communication — devices like speakers, headphones, and cameras — but that this is locked up and being made for use with a payment system that we don’t even have access to.

One more thing: the battery.

This has been a complaint of pretty much every iPhone owner for years, and we’ve heard quite a few customers complain that their iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, and iPhone 5C handsets were barely lasting through the day.

On the iPhone 6, we managed almost a full day of surfing, writing, social networking, web surfing, a bit of gaming, photo taking, and listening to music. That’s not the experience most iPhone users would want, so is it any better on the 6 Plus?

Yes. Yes it is.

If you use your phone sparingly, you’ll find the 2915mAh battery can offer a day and a half to two days of life, but if you’re a moderate to power user, bring that battery life to a full day and you’ll have it.

We were able to stretch ours to a day and a half, but in testing it on other days beyond the main testing day, we found that the iPhone 6 Plus could handle itself over a period of 24 hours, but that it would need a nightly charge.

Given the screen size, that’s not a hugely successful battery life, and puts the iPhone 6 Plus on par with another phone sporting the same screen size, LG’s G3, which too could have had better battery life.

That said, the Apple iPhone 6 Plus has the best battery life of any iPhone we’ve ever seen, and if you power through the handset regularly, you’ll appreciate every inch and hour of juice this phone’s extra large battery can push out, but we’d still charge it nightly just to be safe.

It's a big phone, and shows up in pants when you flex the leg. Especially if your pants or jeans are tight, and these aren't particularly tight jeans.

Conclusion

I must admit, I didn’t expect I’d like the iPhone 6 Plus.

When it came out, this journalist saw the almost identical specs and the not-so-unique screen size, and almost brushed it off, feeling like it would be one of the first “me too” products Apple had built in years, or ever.

But after almost a week with it, the extra larger iPhone 6 Plus is growing on me.

Sure, it’s slippery, and sure it doesn’t conform to the size of my hand, and sure I’m finding it irritating that it doesn’t quite fit my pocket and always feels like it’s going to fall out of my shorts when I sit down, but despite these issues, there’s something about the iPhone 6 Plus that I still like.

Perhaps it’s that it feels substantial and so well built. Perhaps it still feels better constructed than half the phones we see, even though some owners are reporting bends from stress in the body, or that it’s catching hair or beards in its gaps (we have a fairly long beard, and it never caught ours).

Perhaps it’s a lot of these things, but we still like it all the same. Its aluminium body is excellent, and while we love the HTC One M8’s use of aluminium and the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact’s reliance on glass, the 6 Plus just leads with an almost perfect curvature of the screen to the body.

That said, the phone isn’t for everyone, and the iPhone 6 Plus is a big phone, so big that it gives other similarly sized phones a good run for its money.

Honestly, we’d put this in your hands before deciding, and we’d put it in your pocket and see if you can sit with it comfortably, and hold it to your head comfortably because, yes, it really is that big.

But it’s also quite good, and quite work taking a look at, especially if you’ve loved the idea of a big iPhone for some time, but wasn’t sure if it would stack up.

Price (RRP)

$$999 (starting from): $999 for the 16GB model; $1129 for the 64GB model; $1249 for the 128GB model; Available on plans from Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, and Virgin;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

A phablet from Apple for those who want big phones; Exudes that Apple well-built quality; Great screen that is actually better than Apple’s own “Retina” screens; High-speed 802.11ac WiFi is appreciated; Works with Apple’s “Continuity” features and hands messages to computers with Mac OS X Yosemite; Great camera with decent low-light;

Product Cons

Next to impossible to use with one hand; Slippery; NFC can’t be used by conventional NFC gadgets like headphones or speakers; Battery could be better; Fixed storage with no way of upgrading; Front-facing camera could have a little more oomph; No 4K video support;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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