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iPhone 6 Plus review

Big things have enormous beginnings

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I have really big hands.

It’s not something I usually think about; you don’t ever really think about your hands. Those are my hands, you might idly remark to yourself from time to time. I wonder if I can use them for anything good.

But using a smartphone with a huge screen, like the iPhone 6 Plus, forces you to constantly consider the size of your hands. This phone looks huge, even in my admittedly large hands, you might think to yourself. Or: Dammit, I can’t reach that button without using my other hand.

Or: If my children and my children’s children and their children and all the children after that keep contorting their hands to use phones like this for generations, will our hands evolve to have gigantic thumbs?

It is not often that a new iPhone threatens to alter the course of human evolution, is what I’m saying. But here we are.

I have really big hands.

Also: read our iPhone 6 review

The iPhone 6 Plus isn’t beautiful the way the iPhone 4 was beautiful. No one’s going to hold it up and say it reminds them of a gorgeous old Leica camera. It’s not sleek and dangerous-looking, like the black iPhone 5. It’s not flashy like the gold iPhone 5S. My review unit is silver and white, and with its rounded edges and aluminum back it reminds me of nothing so much as the first-gen iPhone, scaled up. The white front panel makes the phone seem even bigger than it is; the space gray version has a black front panel that blends more seamlessly into the frame, which makes the entire thing appear smaller. But there’s no escaping the sheer size of the thing. The screen itself is bigger than an entire iPhone 5S, and it dwarfs even the new, larger iPhone 6. I found myself carrying it around almost like you’d carry a Moleskine notebook, tucked into the curve of my fingers. After a while you begin to realize that Apple had no choice but to move the sleep / wake button to the side of the phone; you’d never be able to reach it otherwise.

The iPhone 6 Plus is a big phone because it has to be; Apple made a big phone in 2014 because consumers have demanded big phones. Samsung’s empire is built on gigantic phones that keep getting bigger — the Galaxy S5 is 5.1 inches, while the Note 3 and Note 4 are 5.7 inches — and while Apple initially derided screen size as an unworkable gimmick, it turns out that bigger sells. (Steve Jobs famously called big phones "Hummers," but it turns out that’s only an insult in California.)

Big phones like the Note 3 work because they defer almost the entire front of the phone to the display; you don’t need to put a lot of stuff around a screen that big. But the iPhone 6 Plus has large top and bottom bezels that make a big phone even bigger. Apple’s tied to its iconic round home button, while Samsung can get away with a rectangular home button that takes up less space.

The extra height increases the surfboard-like nature of the 6 Plus — it’s a well-balanced package, but it’s so long it can feel top-heavy if you don’t grab it in the middle. It’s less stable to hold in one hand than Samsung’s Note 3, which is a bit more squat and squared-off. It’s a tiny difference in spec-sheet dimensions, but in day-to-day use the Note 3 definitely feels smaller. (Samsung’s upcoming Note 4 is a tiny bit taller and skinnier, but it’s not out yet, so it’s hard to judge.)

Huge phones get to have huge batteries, and the iPhone 6 Plus is a huge phone with a huge battery: I consistently got about two days of battery life from the 6 Plus in regular daily use — slightly more than the day and a half we got from the iPhone 6, and basically the same as the Note 3. iPhone battery life tends to fade quickly, however, and I dread the day I inevitably stuff the 6 Plus into a battery case and make it even bigger.

Apple manages to make up for the slightly more awkward dimensions of the 6 Plus with finer materials than the weird fake-leather plastic of the Note 3. The back of the iPhone 6 Plus is a smooth aluminum, marred only by the protruding camera lens and an ugly set of plastic lines at the top and bottom that allow the phone’s various antennas to speak to the world. That aluminum feels quite nice, but it’s also a little slippery, especially when you factor in the size of the phone and its rounded sides. The iPhone 6 Plus is the first iPhone that looks and works better in a case — I’ve been using Apple’s leather sleeve and it makes the phone easier to hold, evens out that camera bump, and hides the weird lines on the back.

But enough about sides and backs; let’s talk about the screen. Where the iPhone 4’s Retina display was a quantum leap past the competition, the Retina HD Display on the 6 Plus is more of a thoughtful step around.

I haven't seen another phone display that looks this immediate

The 6 Plus has an absolutely stunning display. It’s a 5.5-inch, 1920 by 1080 panel, which works out to 401 pixels per inch. That’s the highest-density display Apple’s ever shipped, but there’s a whole range of Android phones out there with big and great-looking high-density screens: the 5.1-inch Samsung Galaxy S5 at 432ppi, the 5-inch HTC One M8 at 441ppi, the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4 at 515ppi, and the 5.5-inch LG G3 at an insane 538ppi.

Of course, it’s debatable whether your eyes can even perceive any of these higher pixel densities, and driving all those extra dots takes a toll on battery life. Apple seems to have aimed firmly at the middle ground with the iPhone 6 Plus: it’s a great-looking display that’s plenty sharp, but it’s not so crazy high-res in the service of specs that it needs a bigger battery to keep it lit up all day.

Apple’s using some other tricks to make the display look amazing, though: there’s a new polarizer that makes the phone easier to see in sunlight, wider viewing angles with more accurate color reproduction, and overall higher contrast than previous iOS screens. And perhaps most importantly, the entire display stack is thinner, so it looks more like you’re touching the pixels directly than ever before. It’s like the screen is painted on. This, more than anything, is what makes the iPhone 6 Plus display pop — I haven’t seen another phone display that looks quite so immediate. It would be nice if there was a spec-sheet number to describe this quality so the rest of the industry could race to improve it; that seems to be how these things work.

The bigger screen comes with a tradeoff, though: it’s a totally new resolution for an iOS device, so apps that aren’t updated for the 6 Plus simply get zoomed up to fit the screen. Apple says the 6 Plus has a "desktop-class scaler" to make this all work seamlessly, but if you’re paying attention you’ll spot the difference between scaled apps and updated apps every time: the status bar at the top of the screen gets way bigger when a scaled app is open. YOU HAVE THREE BARS OF AT&T LTE, announces the iPhone 6 Plus when you open an older app. IT IS 11:07AM AND YOUR BATTERY IS AT 65 PERCENT. It’s comedy gold, if you think big things are funny. (They are.)

The app scaling also affects various apps differently, and most of them definitely need to be updated to look better. Twitter looks fine, with sharp text and only moderately soft icons. (It’s hilarious that you can only see four tweets at a time, though.) Instagram photos look terrific, but the text is a little soft. Facebook and Gmail are pretty fuzzy all around. Text in the Kindle app is headache-inducing soft; it definitely needs an update to be readable. FIFA 14 looks solid, but Madden Mobile glitches out with a totally misaligned screen on load. Whoops.

But you have to be looking to spot these flaws, and it’s a safe bet that popular apps will be updated in short order. In the meantime, even scaled-up apps benefit from simply being bigger: Instagram is awesome on the iPhone 6 Plus. So are Facebook photos. Watching video on the 6 Plus is tremendous — the display is almost as big as the iPad mini showing 16:9 videos since the mini has to letterbox those videos to fit its 4:3 screen. I watched a lot of football using the Sunday Ticket app last weekend; I never once wanted to find a TV. I could spend days banging through YouTube and Vevo on this thing. If you’re a traveler who carries an iPad just for movies on the road, the 6 Plus is going to be your best friend.

But while the screen is terrific for videos, the speaker situation on the iPhone is starting to get a little silly. There’s still just the single mono speaker on the bottom, right where your hand goes when you’re holding the phone in landscape mode. The iPhone 6 Plus already demands that you contort your hands when you’re actually using it, but having to adjust your grip so you can hear the speaker when you’re watching a video or playing a game is asking a little too much. HTC and Motorola have solved this problem by putting stereo speakers on the front of their phones; it might be time for Apple to take that cue from the competition as well.

Apple’s built a few new hooks into iOS 8 that let updated apps lift a few ideas from the iPad when the phone’s in landscape mode: there’s a new two-paned mode for apps, a new keyboard with dedicated arrow keys and formatting buttons, and even a new landscape home screen. These are all interesting ideas, although only Apple’s apps make full use of them right now, and some of the implementations are frankly a bit messy. I’m not sure Apple put a huge amount of effort into how this iPad mini-mini should actually work, and it shows in various ways. For example, starting an email in landscape involves a new-document sheet sliding up along with the busy landscape keyboard, leaving the screen a mess of inactive interface elements. Safari is pretty crashy in landscape, especially on responsive sites like The Verge, and some apps like Weather don’t take advantage of the extra space at all. The 6 Plus could be the start of an entirely new platform for Apple, but it’s going to take a little more work to get there.

The landscape keyboard also requires some serious adjustment; I kept hitting the right arrow key when I mean to hit delete, and the emoji and numbers buttons are swapped from the portrait keyboard and iOS 7 landscape keyboard, which is just cruel. And let’s not even talk about the paste icon, which is ridiculous. First of all, it’s a glue bottle. Second of all… look, let’s just move on. Having a better landscape keyboard is a great idea, but this one needs a lot more work.

iPhone 6 Plus screenshot A better landscape keyboard is a great idea, but this one needs a lot more work

Apple’s also built in a small concession to using the phone one-handed called Reachability. Double-tapping (not pushing) the home button slides the screen down so you can hit buttons at the top more easily. It sounds silly — and it is — but once you get used to using it, it’s nice to have, and easier to understand than Samsung’s tiny-one-handed-phone mode on the Note 3.

The other new software features on the iPhone 6 Plus all come courtesy of iOS 8, which will be available on many other iOS devices as well. iOS 8 is a welcome update to the ambitious sweep of iOS 7, which redesigned much of the familiar iPhone experience but left some jagged edges in place. Everything about iOS 8 is smoother and faster, and it especially flies along on the A8 chip in the 6 Plus. There are loads of features small and large and a new sense of openness about the system that make iOS 8 perhaps one of the most important iOS updates ever. You can quick-reply to messages from the notification shade (small) and you can replace the stock keyboard entirely (huge). You can send quick audio messages to your friends (small) and when the next version of OS X comes out you’ll be able to seamlessly switch from working on iOS to working on a Mac using Continuity (huge). You can now use Spotlight to search across the web and various services like Yelp (small) and you can share all your iTunes purchases with up to six family members (huge).

You get the idea. There’s so much to iOS 8 that we’ll have a full separate review shortly; it’s that big.

The iPhone 6 Plus camera is the best smartphone camera I’ve ever used. Apple’s holding firm at 8 megapixels while everyone else is racing to put ever-bigger numbers on spec sheets, and it feels like the right decision: the iPhone 6 Plus focuses faster, works better in low light, and generally produces the best photos I’ve ever seen from a phone.

The 6 Plus has the same basic shooter as the iPhone 6, but it adds optical image stabilization to the mix, which improves low-light performance even more. It’s not going to help you when you’re shooting anything that moves, like people, but for sunsets and skylines, it’s clutch. It basically lets the camera hold the shutter open a little bit longer than it otherwise could without causing a blurry image, so more light hits the sensor. If you’re like me and you mostly find yourself taking photos at dusk and in dark rooms, you’ll end up with many more usable shots. Until you take too many shots and everything gets blurry regardless.

The best smartphone camera I've ever used

The iOS 8 Camera app is also much improved; I love the feature that lets you instantly adjust exposure by dragging up and down on the screen. And the new time-lapse and 240 fps slow-mo modes are pretty fun — slow-mo works really well, and while the time-lapse mode isn’t quite as good as Instagram’s Hyperlapse app, it’s still pretty good. There’s also a new feature called "cinematic stabilization" that does an impressive job of smoothing out unwanted motion in video clips; it’s strong enough to make a meaningful difference but subtle enough that you won’t notice the effect until you’re looking for it.

It’s also easier to take photos and videos with a huge screen helping you frame your shots. No wonder people insist on using their tablets to take photos; having a screen this large paired with such an excellent camera is revelatory. The iPhone has long had a better camera than just about any Android phone, and it’s always had a better ecosystem of editing and sharing apps than any other platform. The iPhone 6 Plus should just increase that lead.

I’m going to buy an iPhone 6 Plus. I’m taken with it; it feels like an entirely new kind of device for Apple, and it has such a killer camera I can’t say no. It’s every bit as good a phone as the iPhone 6; I’m docking it a little because Apple has a few software glitches to clear up. But I’m confident that will happen.

There’s nothing here that competitors aren’t doing with their big phones — Samsung in particular is pushing the envelope with its S Pen stylus and multiple-app features — but the overall package is so good it’s hard to ignore. The smaller iPhone 6 feels like just the next iterative update to the iPhone, but the 6 Plus feels like something else entirely; with a few more software tweaks and some love from developers, it could really be my main computer. It’s as much iPad as iPhone.

But while Apple’s early attempts to bridge the iPad and iPhone experiences on the 6 Plus are a little hit-or-miss, they point to a future where the regular-size iPhone, a bigger iPhone like the 6 Plus, and the iPad all turn into very different things. I can’t see myself ever using my iPad mini again after having the 6 Plus, and it’s getting harder and harder to justify pulling out my iPad Air. With the right software changes, I could basically use an iPhone 6 Plus all day long, for everything from sending messages to editing documents to watching videos. A do-everything phone like the 6 Plus would eventually allow Apple to push the iPad even further towards becoming the true laptop replacement it was always meant to be.

It’s all just potential right now, but it’s extremely obvious potential. And if Apple doesn’t do it first, it’s pretty clear Samsung is headed down that road as well.

We’re going to need bigger hands.

Photos by Michael Shane