iPhone 6 Plus

With WWDC just less than a month away, I’ve been thinking about Apple stuff with reasonable frequency recently. While most of it has been development related, thinking about programming for iOS always leads me back to thinking about the iPhone 6 Plus. We’re 7 months after launch now, so nothing I’m going to write is going to be news, but nobody really revisits a new smartphone months after getting it these days, and some small details only come out after using it for much longer than the average reviewer. Maybe I’ll write something new for you if you’re thinking about getting one yourself.

It took me a while to get a 6 variant, and it’s the first iPhone I didn’t get within a week of general UK release, ever since the iPhone was released back in 2007 (although the original iPhone doesn’t count; I had one of those before they were available here, by buying in the United States). Initially I was disappointed there wasn’t a 4" iPhone, and held out for about a month because of that. I followed the review cycle as always, though, and repeated reading about it changed my mind. Yes they were larger, but most people seemed to get used to the iPhone 6 after extended use, coming from iPhone 5 or 5s, so I became convinced I’d be happy with that one. I wasn’t sure about the 6 Plus, though. Who in their right mind wants to carry around a 5.5" phone? I have an iPad, so I’d quickly talked myself into deciding that the smaller 6 was the one to get and I could carry on switching to the iPad when I was at home, as I’d become very used to doing.

When it came to buying one, though, availability was spotty. I didn’t want the 16GB one because I had a 64GB iPhone 5s with big music and photos collections that would need active management to get them to fit on the much smaller phone. I didn’t want the gold one either, which sometimes seemed to show up with some 64GB or 128GB availability. So I was stuck. I refreshed the product page a couple of times a day over the course of a few days, to check, but I couldn’t get what I really wanted: a black 64GB iPhone 6.

Every time I checked, I also had a quick look at the Plus, even though I didn’t want one, I think to see if there was any correlation between 6 and 6 Plus availability in certain colours and storage size combinations. Then one day I just bought one. I can’t really remember why exactly, but I remember justifying it to colleagues as, “I want to try the really big one as an experiment this time. I think it’s going to be awful.”

And awful it has been in some ways. But in almost every other, it’s been awfully fantastic. The greatest trick a large phone first plays on you, if you’ve come from something much smaller, is convincing you within as little as a couple of hours that it’s exactly the right size and that your old phone is some relic of the technological dark ages and you can’t fathom why you were so against something so big in the first place. Your subconscious will play tricks on you to justify any purchase that’s expensive, but in my experience with the 6 Plus it really does end up that way in the end. Bigger is definitely better for the vast majority of my own uses of a smartphone.

The size pays dividends in so many ways. The first is that I don’t reach for my iPad any more when I’m at home. So much so that I let Christine’s little sister just outright take it recently, because her iPad 2 was getting increasingly slow and unfriendly to the games she loves to play. So I’m an iPad Air down in the house and I honestly haven’t cared. That’s because the screen size is excellent for all of my common uses, be it games or browsing the web or organising my life in the apps that I use. It stands to reason that for a given amount of portability that you need, and that you get from the device given its entire form factor, a bigger screen is always going to be nicer to use.

You don’t have to strain and squint at a small screen, the increased resolution means I can see much more compared to the iPhone 5s I used to have, and it bridges that gap I mentioned where I found myself never really reaching for the iPad Air and its own excellent 9.7" screen any more. Every time I get it out of my pocket or lift it off the beanbags on my desks at home or at work, and the screen activates and shows me what I want to look at, all of the downsides to a device that size just melt away.

The next big benefit is the screen size has let Apple install a battery with usage-changing capacity. By that I mean it has, every day since I got it, cruised easily through long working days without needing to go anywhere near a charger. I frequently don’t charge it at night any more, even though I use Sleep Cycle while I’m sleeping, which keeps the phone more active and alert than it normally would. If I’ve got less than 20% when I hit the hay, I charge it. Otherwise I can’t be bothered fishing down the side of my side of the bed for the Lightning cable and I charge it on my desk instead in the morning (always from iPad 12W chargers, since it seems to go much faster than with the standard plug you get with the phone these days).

I’ve taken a couple of trips to the US since I’ve got it, and with a mostly full battery it’ll easily let me play the games I like to play — recently Alto’s Adventure — for the entire flight, with juice left over to get through SFO immigration and navigate to the hotel on the other side. The battery capacity is easily one of the best things about the 6 Plus, compared to every other iPhone I’ve had in the last 7 or so years (wow, it’s really been that long!).

There are downsides, though. One-handed use for me is almost always an exercise in frustration; I’ve got small hands and I frequently struggle to hit Send and some other keys on the right side of the keyboard in Messages, when holding it with my left hand. I really wish the URL bar in Safari was down at the bottom of the screen, too. For whatever reason, though, I haven’t really trained myself to make use of the feature where a soft double tap on the Home button will bring the top of the UI down to the bottom half of the display. I’ve dropped it a handful of times because of the awkward one-handed use, so it’s definitely a two-handed phone for someone like me, and that’s an annoying downside coming from all of the other iPhones I’ve had previously.

Then there’s the in-pocket experience. Its weight and dimensions mean it’s impossible for me to forget that I’m carrying it in my jeans. I don’t own a single pair of anything where I’d pocket a 6 Plus and not know it’s there. It makes it more awkward to get into and out of my car because it pushes on my leg, to the point where I have gained the subconscious ability to get it out of my pocket before opening the door now. Sitting down in any low-ish chair or seat without getting it out of my pocket sees me stand straight back up to do so.

It’s objectively, at least compared to the prior iPhones, since the Android world became comfortable with larger smartphones a good while before Apple gave it a shot with the 6 Plus, just pretty terrible in the pocket. I wouldn’t really trade it for another 5s though, or even the iPhone 6. I’ve used a 5s here and there since switching, and it just feels wrong to use now. What used to feel so right, now just feels wrong. I miss the design of the 5s way more than I miss the size.

The performance boost over the 5s is excellent, too. Despite sharing a reasonably identical system architecture to the A7 chip in the 5s, the A8’s main IP blocks have all seen great upgrades versus their A7 counterparts, especially CPUs and GPU. It’s objectively, even 7 months after launch, one of the highest performance smartphones you can buy. It’s been overtaken in raw performance by certain devices recently, but not by much. Those devices have more caught up than truly overtaken, and I would argue that they’ve only really overtaken in terms of the instantaneous, bursty workloads that phones tend to experience, rather than sustained usage models like you see in games. Those bursty workloads are a major component of smartphone use though, so it’s hard to begrudge anyone designing for those kinds of usage patterns and user experiences.

There are other things that I’ve really come to enjoy, too. The camera is excellent and I’ve found myself exploring its features a lot more in this revision of the iPhone, compared to previous generations. High-framerate shooting (although I wish that didn’t always have to come with slo-mo) and the low-light performance are very much appreciated these days. It’s the first generation of iPhone where I’ve explored 3rd party camera applications, because the quality has been great enough that I use it for photos all the time, and Apple don’t expose everything the camera is capable of in the stock application.

All in, I’ve loved it so far. It’s a beast, physically, but the benefits the dimensions now bring in terms of the screen, battery life and performance levels are well worth the downsides in portability and one-handed use. While I’m sure I could go back to a smaller phone, the bars that the 6 Plus has raised for me versus other smaller devices will be very hard for a smaller phone to get close enough to, or beat, for me to consider them in the future. It feels like a viewpoint that Apple will have intrinsically been looking for users to establish, as they designed it.