REVIEW: iPhone 6 Plus

Apple's phablet is a killer content consumption device but those expecting exciting new features in iOS 8 for the device will be left disappointed.

Graph for REVIEW: iPhone 6 Plus

Steve Jobs once famously described big phones as hummers and said that no-one was going to buy them. However, the smartphone market ain’t what it used to be.

Android now makes up 80 per cent of the market and phablets are the fastest-growing segment of the mobile market. In fact, according to IDC, smartphones with screen sizes from 5.5 to less than 7 inches are expected to triple in sales over the next four years to nearly 600 million units worldwide in 2018.

While Apple stubbornly stuck to a 4-inch display size, the Android competition satiated customers’ appetites for bigger screen smartphones with 5-inch flagships and Samsung continues its domination of the phablet segment with the Galaxy Note and Galaxy Mega line.

Apple has finally responded to market demands by bumping up the core iPhone 6 model to 4.7-inches and by releasing the first Apple phablet, the iPhone 6 Plus, which features a full HD 5.5-inch display. But is it worth the wait?

Best LCD display on a smartphone

The LCD panels that Apple uses on their iPhones have always been at the leading edge of mobile displays, delivering in critical areas like colour accuracy, brightness, wide viewing angles and a high contrast ratio.

Apple continues that tradition with a 5.5-inch full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution display on the iPhone 6 Plus. It mightn’t pack as many pixels as the Quad HD competition like the LG G3, but it outperforms it in every other respect. The display comes equipped with 100 per cent sRGB Colour Gamut support, 1400:1 contrast ratio and maximum brightness rating of 566 nits.

This means that regardless of whether you’re using the phone to browse the web, watch video, play games or to perform more advanced tasks that require accurate colour, like photo editing, the display on the iPhone 6 Plus is more than up to the task. 

Screen visibility under bright ambient light is a particular highlight, holding up incredibly well in direct sunlight and the polarised coating means that you won’t have any problems viewing the display while wearing sunglasses.

A side benefit of having a full HD display is the fact that you can finally mirror your iPhone to your HDTV in full-screen without any black borders.

While the iPhone 6 Plus’ LCD display can’t quite match the knockout AMOLED panels of the Samsung Galaxy S5 or the upcoming Galaxy Note 4, it does edge out other smartphone displays that have come before it.

Sleek but slippery construction

As you would expect, the iPhone 6 Plus looks exactly like a taller and wider version of the iPhone 6 with the same premium feeling aluminium chassis, slim profile and elegant metal curves that seamlessly meet the edges of the glass screen.

At a slender 7.1mm, the iPhone 6 Plus is one of the thinnest smartphones on the market next to the smaller iPhone 6 (6.9mm) and Sony’s own phablet, the Xperia Z Ultra (6.5mm). The 8MP rear camera does protrude slightly from the body, however, the lens is protected by sapphire glass making it resistant to bumps and scratches.

While the iPhone 6 Plus is thinner than most of the Android competition, it’s also quite a bit taller (158.1mm) and wider (77.8mm) than other smartphones in its class.

The LG G3, for example, which also comes with a 5.5-inch display, is noticeably smaller at 146.3mm x 74.6mm and fits snugly in the palm thanks to its thin bezels and swooping curved back design. Had Apple taken a similar design approach, it would have gone a long way in making the handset feel more comfortable to hold and operate in the hand. As it stands, the smooth brushed metal finish offers little in the way of grip and this coupled with the sheer size of the handset makes the iPhone 6 Plus prone to drops. So a case would be a wise investment. The excessive use of plastic antenna lines on the back, which look a little garish particularly on the gold and silver models, is another letdown.

But despite the design missteps, the iPhone 6 Plus is a well-constructed smartphone that’s worth the premium price tag.

Camera

The iPhone 6 Plus uses the same 8MP sensor and 1.2MP front facing camera from its predecessor, however, Apple has brought about some improvements to the optics including phase-detection auto-focus for sharper photos and Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) hardware for better low light performance.

We took hundreds of shots both with the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 6 Plus to get a gauge on actual real world performance improvements and we found some interesting results.

Surprisingly, while pictures produced by the iPhone 6 Plus were brighter, they came at the cost of shadow detail which was muted in comparison to the contrasty pics from the iPhone 5s.

The iPhone 6 Plus also had a slower burst rate (triggered by continuously pressing the capture button) than the iPhone 5s. The iPhone 6 Plus, however, is much less likely to take a blurry photo thanks to its superior auto-focus system.

The low light performance on the other hand, is where the iPhone 6 Plus trumps last year’s model. Night-time shots were sharp and detailed with limited image noise.

On the video side, there is now the ability to capture footage at 240fps for some dramatic slow motion video and you can also shoot in full HD at 60fps for those that prefer the hyperreal ‘soap opera’ effect in their home video. OIS also does an excellent job of removing camera shake from recorded video.

Overall, the camera on the iPhone 6 Plus is better than most other smartphones but it’s really more of an incremental improvement from the 5s than a huge leap forward.

Battery life

A larger phone means more space for a larger battery and that’s exactly what Apple has done here packing in a sizeable 2,915mAh capacity battery which is almost double the 1,570mAh battery in the iPhone 5s and 1,810mAh battery in the iPhone 6.

As a result, the 6 Plus is the first iPhone that will easily get you through a whole day and well into the next under normal use (continuous syncing of multiple email accounts, social media, light web browsing, occasional picture taking and music playback).

Under heavy use (lots of streaming video, taking a high number of pictures and gaming), we were left with 25 per cent at the end of the day, while under normal use we ended up most days on about 60 per cent.

Unfortunately, the device takes a painfully long time to charge, taking over four  hours to go from completely flat to full charge. It’s a shame that Apple didn’t include any form of quick charge technology like on the Galaxy Note 4 which can go from 0 to 50 per cent in 30 minutes and to full charge in 99 minutes.

A killer content consumption device but nothing more

Those expecting exciting new features in iOS 8 for the 6 Plus will be left disappointed.What you get instead are minor additions like support for landscape mode on the home screen and in select apps, allowing you to view things like email, for example, in a two-pane interface with the inbox on the left and the content of the selected email on the right. There’s also a new wider keyboard with extra keys including dedicated cut/copy/paste buttons.

‘Reachability’, is Apple’s software attempt at solving one handed operation on the 6 Plus, by effectively sliding down the top part of the display to the middle, with a double tap of the home button. The idea is that app controls like the URL bar in Safari will become accessible without the user having to attempt to stretch their thumb to the top of the screen or use a second hand. The problem is that the mode cuts off access to the controls at the bottom of the screen like the tab and bookmark buttons in Safari. The other empty half of the screen gets filled with a big black block and the whole system feels like a bit of an afterthought.

The 6 Plus delivers what you would expect from a phablet - a big beautiful screen and excellent battery life. It also doesn’t hurt that the camera happens to be one of the best on the smartphone market. Couple that with an extensive app library which continues to get new content first and you have the makings of a killer content consumption device. And for many that’s likely to be enough as long as you’re willing to look past the unwieldy form factor.

However, those expecting something more will be left underwhelmed. There are no notable new features on the 6 Plus that take advantage of the larger screen real estate, instead what we get is just a really big iPhone.

What’s missing here is a rethink on how people should use big phones and given Apple’s storied history, that’s a disappointment.