REVIEW: Apple iPhone 6

Apple's "iWay or the Highway" approach to smartphones is finally at an end, as Cupertino concedes that size does matter. The result is a breathtaking new iPhone, although it might leave Android lovers underwhelmed.

StackingUp

For a tech company that sees itself as a class above the rest, it's surprising how often Apple sits back and lets others lead the way. The Apple faithful paint this as a virtue, while Android fanboys criticise it as a weakness. Steve Jobs famously mocked large smartphones, but with the slick iPhone 6 and 6 Plus it feels like Apple is conceding that bigger is better.

Design

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, it's hard to believe that there wasn't demand before today for an iPhone beyond 4 inches. If you're a long-time iPhone user then you'll take to the iPhone 6 quickly. It sports a 4.7-inch screen but is only 8.4 millimetres wider, which is barely noticeable unless you have extremely dainty hands. Alternatively if you're a long-time Android user you'll shrug your shoulders in indifference, as all have when I've handed them my review unit to hold.

iPhone 5 owners will adapt quickly to the iPhone 6 thanks to the fact that it's thinner and lighter, plus it has curved edges to help it sit comfortably in your hand. Turn the phone over in your hands and you discover that the power button has moved from the top to the right-hand side, level with the volume button – exactly where it sits on a Samsung Galaxy S. It's the first of several adjustments Apple has made to help ease the transition into the brave new world of large Apple phones.

Screen

To get a rough feel for the size of the iPhone 6's screen, look at an iPhone 5 and imagine that the screen extends to the very bottom of the handset. Then allow for the standard bezel and button.

With the larger 4.7-inch screen Apple has also bumped up the resolution to 1334x750 in order to maintain the same 326 ppi pixel density as the iPhone 5, so it looks just as sharp. The screen is simply gorgeous – it's brighter than the iPhone 5 and offers whiter whites, improving the contrast when reading text on a white page. It still offers the same impressive colour accuracy but extends the viewing angles.

The iPhone 6's screen is a tad less reflective which, when combined with the increased brightness, helps combat outdoor glare. When the iPhone 5's screen was already one of the best you'd find on a smartphone, it's impressive that Apple could improve on it so much with the iPhone 6.

Performance

The iPhone 6 packs Apple's new A8 powerplant, building on the A7's shift to 64-bit architecture with the iPhone 5s. You'll still find 1 GB of RAM under the bonnet. This all keeps the phone feeling fast and responsive under heavy load, while the benchmarks attest to its true potential.

The iPhone 6 completes the Sunspider browser benchmark, designed to test JavaScript performance, in 350 milliseconds – making it roughly twice as fast as the iPhone 5 and 1.3 times as fast as the iPhone 5s. Sunspider is considered a judge of the CPU, but graphics benchmarks tell a similar story – with the iPhone 6 delivering an impressive performance step up from the iPhone 5s, but not as great as the leap between the 5s and the 5.

As for wireless connectivity, the iPhone 6 adds 802.11ac wi-fi to bring it into line with many of its Android rivals. To take full advantage of this you'll want an ac-compatible wireless router.

When you're out on the road, you've the potential for 150 Mbps download speeds thanks to support for LTE Advanced (but not 300 Mbps as promised by Samsung's new Galaxy Note 4). The iPhone 6 also takes advantage of the 700 MHz bands, reclaimed from analog television broadcasts, which can travel further and better penetrate buildings.

Australian telcos are starting to roll out both LTE Advanced and 700 MHz networks. Right now you'll only find a few patches around the country from Telstra and Optus, but they're set to expand significantly in the next 12 months.

Even without LTE Advanced the iPhone 6 still delivers a slight performance boost compared to the iPhone 5, hitting peak download speeds of 72.4 Mbps from Telstra – when across the road from a mobile tower – compared to 69.7 Mbps on the iPhone 5 in the same spot. Both clocked an impressive 31.5 Mbps upload speed.

New features

While the camera remains at 8-megapixels, Apple has revamped the sensor and lens to increase the aperture and reduce noise. It's a subtle improvement which is most obvious in low-light conditions where there is considerable less grain. It's a shame Apple couldn't do more with the front camera, which still sits at a lowly 1.2 megapixels. The addition of a 3 or 10-second timer makes it easier to capture good selfies at arms length.

Apple has also extended the phone's built-in sensors, adding a barometer to track air pressure and help the iPhone know when you've climbed a flight of stairs. It's part of Apple's health kit as it tries to compete with wearable fitness tech like the FitBit and prepare the Apple Watch to take on its Android rivals.

The most interesting addition to the iPhone 6 is an NFC (Near-Field Communications) chip for short-range wireless interactions, although unfortunately Apple has locked down access. For now it's only designed to support Apple Pay contactless payments, letting the phone act as a tap-and-go credit or debit card with existing PayPass and payWave point of sale terminals. As an extra security precaution, you need to keep your finger on the phone's button as you swipe, to confirm your fingerprint.

Cupertino has struck Apple Pay deals with Visa, AMEX and Mastercard in the US, but there's no word as to when it might come to Australia.

iPhone fans hoping for a more rugged handset will be be disappointed that the iPhone 6 still doesn't offer an IP67-certified dust and waterproof design to match the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S5. It's unlikely to come any time soon, as Apple has proven reluctant to compromise on design aesthetics even if it compromises overall performance

Apple's obsession with style has also impacted on the iPhone's major Achilles' Heel – battery life. The iPhone 6 does offer a step up from its predecessor, but on a heavy day you'll only squeeze an extra hour or so out of your phone (the iPhone 6 Plus will last longer). If Apple wasn't so obsessed with making each iPhone thinner than the last then it might leave room for a larger battery – a compromise that many iPhone owners would certainly be prepared to make.

So what's the verdict?

The iPhone 6 is a great leap forward from the iPhone 5 and still a considerable improvement on the iPhone 5s. If Steve Jobs were here he'd perhaps say the iPhone 6 is the iPhone you didn't know you wanted, but it's actually the iPhone that many people have wanted for a while but Apple wouldn't give them.

You get the impression that Apple deliberately holds back on hardware advances so the move to a new model number never feels like an incremental upgrade, unlike the smaller jumps between Samsung Galaxy S models.

Even if you've never looked on in envy at larger Android smartphones, you'll fall for the iPhone 6 once you get your hands on the slender body and gaze upon the large, bright screen. The option of stepping up to the hefty iPhone 6 Plus might even win back reluctant Android converts who left in search of extra screen real estate. It's great to see Apple finally admit that size does matter.