I'd rather get this out of the way up front: the iPhone 6 is the best smartphone you can buy. In fact, it's better than that. The iPhone 6 convinced me to switch back to Apple.
It feels strange to say this, but the last time I owned an iPhone, it was a 3GS. That wasn't intentional; it just sort of happened. Like many a tech journalist, I hopped onto Windows Phone to familiarize myself better with what was then a brand-new platform, then Android to check in on its rapid progress. I stuck with Google because of last year's Moto X. And in all that time there hasn't been an iPhone so compelling that I had to switch back. Until the iPhone 6.
That's partly because of what Apple's done, and partly because of what everyone else hasn't. But mostly it's because the iPhone 6 is the single best smartphone you can buy.
(You can click here for our review of the larger iPhone 6 Plus.)
The short version is that the iPhone 6 is largely just a bigger iPhone 5S, and that's true in some important—and at times frustrating—ways. It also ignores some very deliberate compromises Apple had to make while sizing up. Buttons have relocated and elongated; antenna lines are more pronounced. The tweaks are subtle, but they're there.
First, the similarities. This phone still looks and feels exactly like an iPhone. Someone who's been cryogenically frozen since the iPhone 5 launch could recognize the iPhone 6 as an Apple device from across a crowded room.
That's a good thing! It's popular to characterize Apple's design progression as boring, but that's just a grumpy way of saying it's consistent. It would make about as much sense for the iPhone to change dramatically from year to year as it would for the Orioles to send a horse to the mound this October. Stick with what works.
In practice, that means that the iPhone 6 has that same long, lean feeling, the same gently rounded corners, and the same cool (as in just shy of cold, not Fonz) coloration— unless you go gold, in which case I salute yet don't fully comprehend your independent spirit and life choices. Touch ID is right where you left it, as is your Lightning port and headphone jack and the majority of your buttons.
One less welcome carryover from last year is how strikingly tall the iPhone 6 is relative to its screen size. A device with this much zip and finesse shouldn't feel this lanky; at times it's like a point guard caught in Shawn Bradley's body. The reason for this is the oversized top and bottom bezels, and the reason for those is to accommodate that thumb-sized Touch ID button. It's ultimately a fair trade, because Touch ID works like magic, and will even more so now that it can play more nicely with third-party apps.
As for what's changed? A mix of necessity and whimsy. The power button, previously within fingertip's reach at the top of the iPhone 5S, has relocated to the upper right-hand side of the much taller iPhone 6. Gone are the chamfered borders of the previous generation, replaced by gently sloping glass that runs from edge to edge and makes your thumb feel like it's slaloming away on each long sideways swipe. You might find it overly bubbly; I found it more approachable than the hard stop the iPhone 5S presented.
Changes abound on the back as well. Antenna lines grace the top and bottom of the iPhone 6's rear; they look like the beginnings of a poorly planned mummy costume. And the camera lens juts out ever so slightly, putting your iPhone off-balance when you place it on its back, like a wobbly table at a restaurant. Neither of these curiosities makes the iPhone 6 unsightly, although they do make it more reasonable than ever to drape your Apple device in a case. Goodbye antenna lines, hello flush camera lens.
All of which is to say that the differences between an iPhone 6 and iPhone 5S are basically like discovering what puberty did to someone you went to camp with a couple of summers back. It's larger, and maybe a little more awkward in some places, but still recognizably the guy who puked on the rope swing.
As for how the iPhone 6 compares to the wider universe of smartphones, it's probably easiest to talk in terms of size, since so much else depends on your personal preference for dimples and leather. And what you need to know about size is this: While the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 is significantly larger than previous iPhones, it still has the smallest display of any flagship you can buy. In fact, now that the Moto X has ballooned to an unwieldy 5.2 inches, the only other halfway decent, recent phone this far south of 5 inches is the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact.
But you don't want a Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. You want an iPhone 6.
Don't be afraid of the bigger size, at least not on the iPhone 6 (the 6 Plus, you're on your own). You should still be able to reach everything you need to with your thumb, you should still be able to engage in one-handed Twitter refreshes. Your pocket won't be overstuffed. You've just got more room to play.
And so much to play with! Well, eventually, anyway. iOS 8's most impressive new tricks aren't fully engaged yet—see you soon, Apple Pay, and Continuity, and Handoff, and Extensions—but the ones that are here make big differences. My first two downloads were SwiftKey and Swype (I prefer SwiftKey at the moment), because after using Android for so long the thought of tap tap tapping every. single. letter. on the stock iOS keyboard seems like madness. I also use universal search in Spotlight more than I thought I would; it saves a step over opening up mobile Chrome or Safari, and searching my phone's contents offers the occasional reminder of all the junk I've compiled and forgotten about. Hello, Friday Night Lights, where've you been!
And Apple's "widgets," which are really just beefier notifications, are... well, they're trying. I end up not using them much at all, and when I do pull them up I find myself wishing they were more like Android's true, information-packed widgets, or even Windows Phone's live tiles. iOS 9, maybe?
There are other things I miss about Android, or more specifically about the Moto X. If there's one feature I'd nominate Apple borrow in an upcoming release it's active notifications; having to press a button to see the time and who's messaged me feels downright Paleolithic. (That won't happen until Apple switches over to an AMOLED display, for which I am not holding my breath). Likewise, having to plug my iPhone in for the privilege of Siri responding to my voice feels like having a genie that only comes out of the lamp if you rub it on alternate Tuesdays.
As for the apps that you already enjoy day to day on your adorably petite iPhone 5S, don't worry about the size bump. They scale just fine, even though most of them have yet to be optimized. They're fast, too, thanks to that new fancy new A8 processor, with no perceptible lag playing Badlands, no slow-loading video. If you're looking for a turbo-boost over the iPhone 5S, though, you're not likely to find it here. Both work quickly enough that you'll never notice them not working, which is all you really need.
I found similar comfort in the battery life; even with all kinds of video-watching, app-using, and game-fiddling, the iPhone 6 has made it through the entire day for me. Again, don't expect a marked improvement over the iPhone 5S—Apple itself said the two devices would be roughly on par, which is what I've found—but it's enough to get you to your nightstand.
It's funny, in the broadest possible sense of the word, that for all the discussion around the display's size, there's not much to say about its performance. It's certainly good, but at a resolution of 1334×750 it's essentially the same experience that Apple's offered since it went retina with the iPhone 4. You can read a rigorous technical breakdown here if rigorous technical breakdowns are your thing, but the short version is that the iPhone 6 display is improved in all the ways that matter—viewing angle, contrast, brightness—and lags behind the competition in ways you won't notice unless you place it side by side a 1080p monster. Which you probably won't! Who has the time.
I never use my phone's speakers and suggest that you not either, but in the name of comprehensiveness I blasted some tinny Taylor Swift from the iPhone 6. It mustered noises loud enough for my toddler daughter to dance to, but you wouldn't confuse it for anything you'd want to listen to (regardless of your feelings towards "Shake It Off"). If you're buying a phone for its speaker, you're better off with the new Moto X, and also should re-examine your priorities.
iPhone cameras have consistently been among the very best smartphone cameras you can buy, and while the competition has caught up in the last few years—particularly if you embrace Windows Phone—this year's is no exception.
You can see a more thorough breakdown of image quality comparisons here, but the main takeaway is that the iPhone 6's 8MP rear shooter is very good at everything even if it doesn't stand out at any one task. That's not a knock; it's the best overall camera you can find in a smartphone that's not called Lumia. But enough talk! Here come the sample shots.
And here's a look at what HDR can do for you:
As well as a 100% crop:
And panorama mode at work:
Again, overall you can't do much better, especially now that the iPhone can shoot 240fps slow-motion video, which still doesn't quite sublimate beyond novelty act but is a fun diversion. And honestly, what are phones for if not to divert?
There are caveats, though! As our resident photo guru Michael Hession points out, the flash is still pretty unfortunate, and the noise reduction can be too aggressive in daytime shots.
See? Flash isn't so hot, not that you should be using flash, but sometimes you can't help it.
It also feels like it's time for the Camera app's controls to grow up a little bit. There's not much control over color, andthe UI for controlling adjustments can be a little confusing. It's great if you just want to pull out your phone and shoot without having to think about it, but if you're the type of person who likes to micromanage a shot, you're right to hope for better.
Almost everything. The iPhone 6 is one of the best-built, best-performing smartphones you can buy. You can find a sharper display, you can find a better camera, god help you, you can find better speakers, but you can't find all of them together in such a capable package. But I suspect you knew that, because this is an iPhone, and because that's the bar that Apple has set for the last seven years. Also, that's not why I'm switching back.
Do you know why I really like the iPhone 6? Because at this point it's the best phone—really, practically the only phone—that doesn't look like it's having a severe allergic reaction. We've gone beyond size creep; we're in full-on size bloat. This big iPhone is holding the line for people who don't want to turn writing an email on your phone into a palm de deux.
That might sound silly, to let so much ride on such a narrow thing as size. But what else am I really giving up? Google apps on iOS are excellent, so no huge loss there. When iOS 8's lagging features finally kick in, having an iPhone to play along with my iMac and iPad and Apple TV will be more convenient than ever. And most importantly, I can't shake the understanding that no matter what you're doing with your phone, you're holding it. And the iPhone 6 is the last, best phone that's still a pleasure to hold.
I wish widgets were more than just notifications-plus. I wish iOS 8's marquee features were here; this and any review is going to be incomplete without them. And while the iPhone 6 is a handsome device, it has some distinctly unattractive features, like those antenna lines and that camera bulge. Yes, I can (and likely will) cover them in a case. But I'd sure rather not feel like I had to.
A couple of other odds and ends stand out; call quality was fine but not great. Siri is no Google Now. The phone itself is a little lanky for my taste. File those under quibbles.
Otherwise, there just aren't many holes in Apple's argument. If you're feeling peckish, you could call it boring. But it's boring in the way Ruth and Gehrig's Yankees were boring. Of course they win championships every year, you say. But wake me up when they innovate beyond pinstripes. Ridiculous.
Should You Buy It?
Do you already own an iPhone that you're happy with? Then yes, you should buy the iPhone 6 just as soon as you're eligible for your next carrier subsidy. That was easy!
Are you on Android or Windows Phone and considering the switch? That's a tougher call. If you enjoy rooting and sideloading and looking under the hood of your device, you already know your answer. Get outta here and camp out for the next Nexus. If you must have the best smartphone camera in the whole wide world, stick with your Lumia, but think about the trade-offs long and hard.
But if you, like me, are simply looking for the best smartphone, the one that does everything well and that isn't bigger than a taco? Buy the iPhone 6. You won't regret it, and you won't be missing out.
iPhone 6 Specs
• Network: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile
• OS: iOS 8
• CPU: A8, M8
• Screen: 4.7-inch 1334×750 LCD display
• RAM: 1GB
• Storage: 16GB, 64GB, 128GB
• Camera: 8MP rear / 1.2MP front
• Battery: 1810 mAh Li-Ion
• Dimensions: 2.64 x 5.44 x 0.27 inches
• Weight: 4.55 ounces
• Price: Starts at $200 with a two-year contract for 16GB, $650 unlocked (T-Mobile only)
All photography by Michael Hession.