I thought the iPhone 6+ was too big; I was wrong

What happens when a reviewer buys a new phone sight unseen? Mistakes were made.

iphone 6 size comparison

The iPhone 6 lineup has introduced iOS users to new smartphones with bigger (and bigger) displays. I was ready for a larger screen, so quickly opted to buy an iPhone 6 last month, thinking it would be the best match. And indeed I found the iPhone 6 to be gorgeous and well-built, and felt that the 4.7-in. display was right at the edge of what was comfortable for me.

But after spending a week with an iPhone 6 Plus, I'm now not so sure. The only thing that's clear is that my next iPhone purchase won't be so easily decided.

A month after hitting shelves in the U.S., the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus have proven to be enormous hits. Apple sold a record-setting 10 million phones during the first weekend they were available, and the company reported on Monday that it sold a whopping 39.3 million iPhones in the last quarter ending Sept. 30.

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus feature slick, thin aluminum housings built around the largest displays ever included in an iPhone lineup (the aforementioned 4.7-in. screen and the larger 5.5-in. screen in the 6 Plus). Both iPhone 6 models feature a second-generation 64-bit chipset, a second-generation motion processor called the M8, updated camera systems, a new sensor for measuring air pressure, and hardware support for Apple Pay. The new iPhones come in three colors -- gold, space gray or silver -- and in 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB storage capacities.

iPhone 6 Plus Apple

I really love my iPhone 6, which I've had now almost a month. But when given the chance to use a 6 Plus for a while, I jumped at the opportunity.

First impression: This thing is a monster. I was just growing accustomed to the iPhone 6 and its feel in hand when the 6 Plus arrived; this model absolutely dwarfs my iPhone 6.

Why I disliked big phones

Some background: I was never a fan of larger phones. I thought them bulky and unwieldy, and found them ridiculous looking when using them for phone calls. But, in my defense, that's only because most bigger phones were actually bulky and unwieldy, especially the first ones to hit the market a few years back. Despite the better specs in the 6 Plus -- battery life and upgraded camera -- I opted for the iPhone 6 largely based on size.

The 6 Plus shares the hallmark iPhone look, with the Touch ID-equipped Home button centered below the display, and the FaceTime camera, sensors and speaker centered above. The volume up/down and mute switch is still on the left, but, just like the 6, the sleep/wake button has been moved to the right side of the device. The flat sides and chamfered edges of the iPhones 4 and 5 have been replaced with a sleek, thin aluminum chassis that seems to form itself around the phone's display; the curves influence all of the materials, including the glass, giving the new iPhones the look of a science fiction movie prop.

The 6 Plus measures 6.22 inches high, 3.06 inches wide and it weighs just over 6 ounces. But the case design allows for a phone that, despite its size, does not feel bulky in hand. In fact, the thin aluminum and glass materials makes the iPhone 6 Plus feel luxurious. The only drawback: I grip these phones a little tighter than before. The  sleek aluminum at these sizes gives the impression of a slippery surface, even with a two-handed grip.

Apple iOS 8 messaging features on the iPhone Apple

To compensate for the screen size, Apple has implemented Reachability. It scrolls the top-most onscreen elements down closer to your thumb after you lightly touch the Home button twice. Despite my doubts, I've grown quite accustomed to one-handed operation on the iPhone 6 Plus with Reachability. Of course, getting the phone to sit just right in your hand takes a little maneuvering, and using Reachability adds an additional step or two. But it's clear to me now that the iPhone 6 Plus's size becomes something you notice less over time.

Impressive screen

Now, about that big display: I thought the iPhone 6 screen was impressive -- mostly, because it is -- but the 6 Plus is flat-out better. Apple calls both iPhone 6 displays Retina HD, and the 6 Plus is the best iOS device available if you want to show off that feature. Featuring a full 1080p resolution, the 6 Plus screen has 401 pixels per inch, a 1300:1 contrast ratio, and, like the iPhone 6, dual-domain pixels that produce wider viewing angles.

It's not just the hardware, it's also how the software reacts to changing conditions. One thing I noticed in the new iPhones is that Apple's software does a great job compensating for display brightness based on ambient conditions; the display looks great in low light or even in direct sunlight, with the adjustments made on-the-fly. iPhones have always done this, but the new models respond to changing conditions remarkably well. Overall, images are sharp and bright. As with my iPhone 6, I had to dial back the brightness setting on the 6 Plus a bit more than I did with the iPhone 5S in low-light situations.

I loved the enhancements to the rear camera of the new iPhone 6, and the same applies to the 6 Plus. There's the 8-megapixel camera with 1.5µ pixels, ƒ/2.2 aperture, True Tone flash, burst mode, geotags, panoramas up to 43 megapixels large, image stabilization, five-element lens with IR filter, on-the-fly exposure control, and more. The one thing you don't get on the iPhone 6 that is featured on the 6 Plus is optical stabilization, which really helps when shooting photos in low-light situations by reducing handshake. The result: sharper photos.

A great camera made better

The iPhone 6 Plus also has the same video capabilities of the iPhone 6. You can shoot 240-frames-per-second slow motion, 1080p footage captured at 60 frames per second, continuous autofocus in videos, time-lapse abilities and the cinematic video stabilization, which helps videos look smoother. They're not quite steady-cam silk, but much smoother than without this feature in place.

The only drawback to the rear-facing camera is that it isn't flush with the casing, protruding just enough to cause slight rocking when the iPhone is lying on its back. The lens is made of sapphire, though, so the chances of it getting scratched are pretty slim.

The front-facing FaceTime camera has also been improved, and is now capable of 1.2-megapixel photos. It featrures a ƒ/2.2 aperture, 720p video recording, burst mode, on-the-fly exposure control, and HDR for photos and videos. The sensor has been improved, as the FaceTime camera now sports a backside illumination sensor similar to the better-specced iSight camera.

Battery life bump

Another area in which the 6 Plus outshines the iPhone 6 is battery life. Apple says the bigger phone will get 12 hours of use for Wi-Fi, LTE, and 3G web browsing, 14 hours when watching HD video, 24 hours of talk time over 3G, 80 hours of audio playback and 16 days of standby. In my use, the iPhone 6 Plus lasted several hours longer than the iPhone 6, which lasted a couple of hours longer than what I typically got per day with the iPhone 5S. I've been traveling with the iPhone 6 Plus, specifically using GPS and the camera features, and using it constantly to stay in touch with friends and family via messaging, social media and email. I also spent a lot of time making video clips with my eight-year-old niece and editing them in iMovie for iOS.

(In a short time, the Plus has also become my niece's favorite gaming device, and she often reached for my phone even when iPads were within grasp. "It's perfect," she told me. "It's a mini iPad mini!")

Through constant use, I've had the Plus nearly last an entire day without plugging in; I suspect that for many people, the Plus will last much, much longer. There are reports that some owners managed two days straight without a recharge, which is pretty good for an iPhone.

The iPhone -- despite its gorgeous and fast hardware -- still relies on iOS 8 to work well. In that sense, Apple has optimized iOS for the iPhone 6 Plus display, which uses the additional screen real estate to support iPad-like flourishes when the phone is held horizonally. There's split-pane view in apps like Mail, Notes, and Messages, a non-fixed and rotatable Home screen and a Safari that mimics features found on the iPad and Mac, including pinch-to-zoom-out to tab view, and a tab menu you can swipe through. The experience brings a bit of iPad functionality to the iPhone.

The keyboard also uses the additional real estate in landscape mode to display more characters, including dedicated cut, copy, paste buttons.

Apple iOS 8 on the iPhone Apple

About iOS 8...

About the software -- when I reviewed the iPhone 6 two weeks ago, iOS 8 was new and buggy and Yosemite had yet to be released. Therefore some great features like Continuity hadn't yet arrived. Since then, Apple has officially released Yosemite as well as iOS 8.1. That iOS update included numerous bug-fixes and went a long way to improving the stability and overall experience of using the iPhones. iOS 8.1 also enabled all of the Yosemite features of Continuity, including SMS relay. I've been recommending the 8.1 update to anyone who asks.

iOS 8.1 also introduced Apple Pay, which I was able to try just hours after upgrading the iPhone. I admit that I drove to a McDonald's and ordered a couple of hamburgers, just to see how ApplePay works. The process was dead-simple: When I went to pay, I held up my phone and the attendant reached out with a rather bulky NFC reader. I held the top of my phone to the terminal and the iPhone's display awoke to the Lock Screen and showed a graphic of my default card. I touched my thumb on the Home button, a TouchID fingerprint graphic on the screen filled in -- indicating transaction in progress -- and a second later, the fingerprint graphic showed a checkmark and the phone vibrated to let me know the payment succeeded. (It takes longer to describe the process than it takes to actually make a purchase.)

Simply put: Apple Pay is as easy to use as Apple said it would be. This is going to be a big deal.

Final thoughts

I've now spent time with both the iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus, and what I wrote between deciding the two still stands: the iPhone 6 Plus has the better specs, but the iPhone 6 is still a bit more totable. However, what has changed in my time with these devices is my sense of priorities regarding my smartphones. After spending time with the 6 Plus, I can absolutely see the appeal of a larger screen device, and better understand the perspective of Android users that have been touting larger screens for years. It was the 6 Plus that changed my mind, because the larger display, as implemented here, makes the size of the devices less intrusive than I expected. The iPhone 6 Plus balances out need for portability with the usefulness of a big screen really well. Trust me: I packed my fitted jeans for my trip, and the iPhone 6 Plus had no problem fitting in my pocket.

The iPhone 6 Plus is no monster; it's a beautiful big phone with great battery life and an unmatched software and hardware ecosystem. I wasn't sure I could get used to a device with a display this size, but the Plus has won me over. I'm happy with my iPhone 6, but the next time I upgrade, the iOS device with the larger screen won't be easy to avoid.


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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