Six years ago, I sat on my girlfriend's couch, casually flipping her new iPhone 3G end over end. I was pondering why anyone would buy an iPhone over my clearly superior T-Mobile G1 handset. Yes, I was an Android nut, a former Sidekick owner who believed that smartphones should have physical keyboards and be held horizontally for maximum effect. In other words, I wanted a laptop that fit in my pocket, looks be damned. When I realized her iPhone couldn't even let me type comfortably — hands bunched around its tiny portrait keyboard — I eyed it with disdain.
But today's iPhone 6 Plus is nothing like the phone I rejected in 2008.
At a glorious 5.5 inches diagonal, Apple's giant new handset has practically everything a modern Android lover adores: a giant 1080p screen, a crazy-fast processor, an impressive camera, a battery that doesn't quit, and yes: a landscape keyboard. If you're already an Apple iPhone owner lusting after a Samsung Galaxy Note-sized screen, there's little question that you should buy an iPhone 6 Plus. But what if you're coming from Android? I decided to find out.
You know what, former self? There's a lot to love.
(You can click here for our review of the regular iPhone 6.)
It's So Big
So let's get this out of the way: the iPhone 6 Plus is big. Not bigger than a Samsung Galaxy Note — though it is a tad taller — but definitely bigger than the LG G3, both of which have roughly the same size screen. More to the point, it's uncomfortably wide and tall for me. It's not particularly heavy at 6 ounces, and it's actually quite thin at 7.1mm thick, but you know what you get when you have a thin, wide, tall, expertly polished aluminum phone with beautifully rounded edges? It slips right out of your hands. Unlike the Note 3, with its grooved plastic edges and faux leather back, there's just no comfortable place for your fingers to grip.
I already knew from my early hands-on experience that this would be a problem, so I came prepared: I ordered Apple's official $50 leather case so as to leave nothing to chance. Not only did it solve the grip issue, it protects my iPhone's protruding camera from scrapes. Honestly, buying a case is a simple enough solution, and the extreme thinness of the iPhone means the added case thickness isn't a big deal. Still, every time a stranger asks to see my phone without the case, I get genuinely scared I'll break it. I'm the guy who never uses a case because I never drop my phone, and suddenly needing one is WEIRD.
But you know what the case doesn't solve? Actually using this sucker with one hand. As the proud owner of a 4.7-inch original Moto X, I'm used to pulling a phone out of my pocket and getting things done with a single paw, but I quickly found the iPhone 6 Plus won't let me do that. I tried four different ways to grip the phone, but none of them let my thumb reach everything.
Apple actually includes an intriguing software tweak called Reachability that anticipates this very issue: you just double-tap the Touch ID sensor at the bottom of the phone, and everything on the top half of the screen basically kneels down to be closer to your hand. Fine in theory, but you know what? In order to hit that Touch ID button in the first place, you need to be holding the very bottom of the device, an extremely awkward position where most of the phone's weight is far above your grip. I had to stick out my little finger in the cocktail pinky position just to keep it from tipping back… and infuriatingly, I still couldn't reach everything from that compromised hand position.
Even when I did successfully double-tap the Touch ID sensor and stretch my thumb way, way up to hit that Photos icon, the whole screen went back to normal again before I'd had a chance to pick out a video. And again once I'd picked out the video before I could actually hit play. It took me a total of six taps on that Touch ID sensor and three taps on icons to get a single video started with one hand. That's pathetic.
So you know what? I gave up. I started using two hands for everything.
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The 5.5-inch Tablet
Once I'd accepted the iPhone 6 Plus was too cumbersome for me to use with one hand, things became so much easier. I started actually enjoying all the device had to offer, and I was genuinely surprised how easy it was to convert from Android.
So much of my life is in the cloud these days, and the cloud is easy to sync: Chrome bookmarks, Evernote documents, Dropbox files, my Netflix queue, and my Twitter and Facebook feeds were all just an app download and a login away. And hey, look, there's the LastPass app I need to help me remember those usernames and passwords. My contacts were automatically imported from my Google and Facebook accounts after a few simple prompts. Even Apple Maps wasn't as terrible as I feared.
And though practically every app bombarded me with permissions when I fired them up, I'm actually starting to think Apple's way makes sense. Not only do I know when apps are trying to take advantage of my precious smartphone's resources, but Apple's notification system works better for me as well. When I swipe down from the top of the screen, I see a neatly organized running history of all the things that need my attention, rather than a jam-packed notification bar.
The Gmail experience on iOS is definitely crappier, only part of which is due to the app needing to be updated for the iPhone 6 Plus's more pixel-dense display, but horror stories I'd heard about Gmail only notifying you about new email every 15 minutes were blissfully out of date. And though I haven't yet synced my Google Apps work calendar with the native iPhone calendar (the personal one was a breeze) I hear there are instructions on the internet. But I was too busy watching Netflix on the iPhone 6 Plus's incredible screen to care much about that.
DisplayMate wasn't kidding when it said the iPhone 6 Plus has the best LCD screen it's ever tested: this 5.5-inch, 1080p IPS LCD display is terrific. I put it right up next to the 5.7-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen in the Galaxy Note 3, and though the Samsung's blacks were a little deeper and colors were a little more vibrant (as one expects from OLED), the crispness of Apple's panel is insane. It reminds me of the first time I ever saw a retina iPad, except finally the aspect ratio is perfect for watching 1080p movies without crazy amounts of letterboxing. I don't have a Galaxy Note 4 for comparison, but I'm pretty sure I'm now holding the best miniature movie screen in the world.
It's just a damn shame that Apple hasn't gotten wise and put great speakers on the front of the device like the HTC One M8 and new Moto X: the iPhone's single driver is not only inadequate, it's far too easy to accidentally muffle when holding it up in bed.
Then there's the camera. Oh lord, what a camera. In many ways, it's the best camera I've ever used. Not just the best smartphone camera, mind you, but the best, period. And before you fly into a photographer rage, my opinion has very little to do with image quality and everything to do with how you shoot.
With the iPhone 6 Plus, I don't need to think, I don't need to get lucky, I don't need to try over and over again to get great pictures and video thanks to an incredible combination of technologies. Apple's amazing 1080p screen acts as a fantastic viewfinder, showing me fine detail before I snap the shot. The Focus Pixels built into the camera's sensor lock onto my subject even in a dark room. Not only does the iPhone seem far smarter at setting white balance and exposure than my trusty Canon DSLR, but I can just swipe my finger up or down to change that exposure on the fly. If the shadows are too dark or the highlights too bright, HDR automatically kicks in to save my heinie.
Here's some HDR:
And here's a panorama, if your browser can handle the 15MB file. (Be sure to download the image for the full effect.)
And all the while, the iPhone 6 Plus's ridiculously good optical image stabilization (not to mention digital stabilization) keeps your images and video incredibly blur-free. When I flew to Los Angeles, I had the camera lock onto the wing of the plane during takeoff, my hand jittering uncontrollably as the wheels left the ground.
Look at the footage, though, and you'd swear I had elbows of steel or a Steadicam of some sort. As you can see, the iPhone also takes fantastic pictures of tiny black dogs, one of the most notoriously difficult subjects to capture.
Sure, the Lumia 1020 can take far more detailed images, and so can my DSLR. But now I can easily take photos and video with my phone that were difficult if not impossible for me before. You know all those people who hold up iPads to take pictures? This is the phone they want.
These days, a day and a half of solid battery life is par for the course for Galaxy Note-sized phablets, and I can't say I got much more than that out of the iPhone 6 Plus. But that still makes it one of the longest-lasting phones I've ever used — another weight off my shoulders.
Taking the phone off the charger at 7:30AM, I used it heavily for most of one day, downloading apps, playing games, accessing websites and dealing with email, plus an hour of turn-by-turn GPS navigation with the screen on. Without charging the phone, I still had 30 percent remaining at 9:20AM the next morning. After taking some adorable photos and video of our little Shih Tzu puppy, there was only 9 percent battery left by 11:14. But that 9 percent, left idle for emergencies, lasted seven more hours without dying. And after just two hours back on the charger, I was fully juiced once again. I've seen similar results in the days since.
To me, the most impressive part is how quickly the 6 Plus charges: in a pinch, you can get 10 percent charge in just 10 minutes. Keep a Lightning cable in the car and your phone will never go thirsty.
Surprisingly, it's the landscape keyboard that's the weakest link in the iPhone 6 Plus's formidable chainmail facade. Yes, the feature I had most hoped would be fantastic is the one that didn't quite work. Despite having all the extra horizontal real estate, Apple chose to fill it up with shortcut keys for copy / paste operations and common punctuation instead of actually making the basic letters any larger or easier to reach with thumbs. You can't invoke a split-keyboard like the iPad, which is a shame. Still, you can now install your own custom keyboards, and SwiftKey works pretty well in landscape.
I'm also ashamed to say I'm actually growing really fond of the iPhone's portrait keyboard, the one I mocked way back in 2008. Now that the iPhone hardware itself is finally wide enough to accommodate both my thumbs at the same time, I'm actually enjoying the responsive, clicky feeling. After only a few days of testing, I already feel like I can touch-type a whole variety of sentences without looking at the keys.
Overall, the iPhone 6 Plus is the best tablet I've ever used. With it on my person, I don't feel any need to own a Nexus 7 or iPad mini.
The build quality is fantastic. My Netflix movies look incredible. I never worry that I'll miss capturing an amazing moment with the camera, or that the battery won't last the day. I also don't worry about whether the phone will bend: this is a pretty solid, rigid piece of kit, and unless you have Chun Li thighs or have a major mishap I don't see it contorting easily.
It's also a fantastic attention-grabber and conversation-starter. People stop me to ask about the phone, and they're stunned by the crazy stabilized shots, beautiful panoramas and hilarious slow-motion videos it can create. (Cute puppies may also have something to do with it.)
I love Touch ID. It's fantastic not to have to enter passwords to purchase new apps, not to mention every time I want to quickly bypass my lock screen.
Lastly, coming from Android, I'm really growing to appreciate the selection on the iTunes App Store. In particular, iOS has better access to games, but there's also something to be said for just knowing that the store will have the app you're looking for.
I constantly worry that I'm going to drop the damn phone. I've dropped it three times already, thankfully onto carpet, and thankfully only while it was inside a case. I just can't find a good way to use it with one hand, which rules out using the phone any time I need to be multitasking. I guess that's okay. And while the 6 Plus does technically fit in all my pants pockets, it creates such a huge bulge that I worry it will tip off thieves. After all, I can barely hold onto the device with a single hand, so I'm going to be pretty damn vulnerable for that split-second when I pull it out of my pocket.
I hate having to use a case. I also hate the incredibly ugly plastic antenna lines on the back of this phone, though, so I suppose it's doubly necessary.
Other than a decent grip on its giant surfaces, the other thing I miss from Samsung's Galaxy Note is the active stylus. Split-screen multitasking, pinpoint control, and the ability to quickly capture and annotate screencaps are useful features even if you aren't fond of drawing or handwriting.
Call quality was not particularly great for me. I'm not normally a T-Mobile customer, so I don't know if it has anything to do with that, but I do know that the iPhone 6 Plus's earpiece doesn't get nearly as loud as I'd like. People didn't seem to have trouble hearing me.
And, so far, I prefer Google Now to Siri. Having to plug in the iPhone in order to activate Siri with my voice is an annoying extra step, and Google seems a teensy bit better at understanding my sentences.
For the life of me, I have no idea why Apple only allows you to download apps smaller than 100MB on a cellular connection. It wasn't a big deal after a few days, but when I was first downloading apps for my phone I couldn't grab some of them until I got home, which was never a problem on Android. It feels arbitrary.
Should I Buy It?
Occasionally, during the time I was testing the iPhone 6 Plus, my other phone would ring. I'd reach into my pocket and pull out my 4.7-inch Moto X, and immediately wonder what the hell I was thinking using this iPhone monstrosity. The Moto X just fits so perfectly into my palm, works so wonderfully with just a single thumb, that I don't know why I'd need anything else.
But that's the thing about the iPhone 6 Plus. You don't need it, but you might want it anyhow. As far as I'm concerned, it's a tablet, and to me tablets are optional computers for when you want more real estate than you can fit in your pocket but also want something you can carry around. They're fantastic for entertainment, and sometimes decent for productivity. Now, you can get one with a great portrait keyboard and an incredible camera too.
But if you don't have oversized hands and pockets and primarily need a new phone, I'd recommend something else. I'm impressed enough with iOS 8 that I might try the regular iPhone 6. If that's not the ticket, I'll go back to my Moto X.
iPhone 6 Plus Specs
• Network: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile
• OS: iOS 8
• CPU: A8 with M8 motion coprocessor
• Screen: 5.5-inch 1920×1080 IPS LCD display (401 ppi)
• RAM: 1GB
• Storage: 16GB, 64GB, 128GB
• Camera: 8MP rear with optical image stabilization / 1.2MP front
• Battery: 2915 mAh Li-Ion
• Dimensions: 3.06 x 6.22 x 0.28 inches
• Weight: 6.07 ounces
• Price: Starts at $300 with a two-year contract for 16GB, $750 off-contract