iPhone 6 deep-dive review: A major new step in design and performance

The iPhone 6, marks a major new step in design and performance, although there have been some OS 8 problems.

Let's be honest: the past few weeks haven't exactly been the easiest for Apple. From the glitchy livestream during its product announcement to the problematic preorder launch of the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, to the public-relations headache-inducing "Bendgate," to the outright catastrophic iOS 8.0.1 software update (which was nearly immediately pulled and replaced days later with an 8.0.2 update), the last few weeks could have gone much smoother for the California-based company.

But that hasn't stopped iPhone fans from going after the new devices. The iPhone 6 (with a 4.7-in. display) and the iPhone 6 Plus (with a 5.5-in display) both feature sleeker case designs (in silver, gold or gray), a second-generation 64-bit chipset, updated camera systems and several other notable improvements. The new iPhones support faster LTE (up to 150Mbps), Voice over LTE (VoLTE), low-energy Bluetooth and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

Prices for this year's models are in line with last year's, but storage capacities have been tweaked. If you're going for a subsidized service plan with a two-year contract, the iPhone 6 costs $199 for the 16GB model, $299 for the 64GB model and $399 for the 128GB model. The iPhone 6 Plus is priced at $299 for a 16GB model, $399 for a 64GB model and $499 for a 128GB model. The new lineup drops the iPhone 5S to $99 and $149 (with 16GB and 32GB of storage, respectively), while the 5C is being offered for free. Unlocked prices are much higher, starting at $649 for the iPhone 6 and $749 for the Plus.

As usual, the iPhone comes with a minimal set of accessories. In the box you'll find a set of Apple ear buds with built-in mic and audio controls, a USB/Lightning cable, a wall plug, a set of Apple logo stickers and very sparse documentation.

Of the two models, I chose the iPhone 6, and so this review is of the smaller 4.7-in. model. (If you're still trying to figure out which one is best for you, I recently wrote a piece that may help.) I've since spent over ten days with it -- including using it during a camping trip, where the iPhone tracked our progress during a hike to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Form-factor and display

At first glance, the iPhone 6 is very much an iPhone: There's the glass-covered front with the display framed in white or black and the obligatory Home button, which also doubles as the Touch ID fingerprint scanner.

However, the feel is certainly different. The back of the device is crafted from anodized aluminum; the chamfered edges introduced with the iPhone 4 have been replaced with smoother and sleeker curves that call back to the original iPhone design. With the exception of the rectangular display beneath the subtly curved glass front, all of the hard angles have been softened -- which felt great in my hand while simultaneously provoking me to grip it tighter than previous models. (And no, I didn't experience any of the warping that was part of "Bendgate.")

And when you look again, there are other signs that the iPhone 6 is different. Besides the relocated power button, which is now on the left side of the device instead of at the top, the iPhone appears stretched compared to previous models. That's because it is: A necessary design tradeoff to accommodate the new larger screen size.

The new iPhone models feature what Apple is calling its Retina HD display: a fingerprint-resistant 326ppi screen with 1334 x 750 resolution, a 1400:1 contrast ratio and wider viewing angles. Marketing-speak aside, the display is impressive. As I noted in my initial look at the iPhone 6, there is a slight color shift when viewing the display off-center, but the colors retain a credible consistency from even extreme angles. Overall, images are sharp, clear and bright; so much so that I have the brightness dialed back more than I did with the iPhone 5S.

More impressive is the performance of the iPhone 6 display in direct sunlight: During a recent hike, I never had to shield the display from ambient or direct sunlight to read the screen. (DisplayMate, which creates tools for optimizing and testing displays, was also impressed.) As I said in my first look, the iPhone 6 doesn't have the most pixel-dense or largest screen out there, but what it does have won't bring in complaints from new owners. HD videos, photos and content look great on this phone, and that's really what matters for most.

But there are a couple of drawbacks to having the larger screen.

First, any applications that haven't been written to take advantage of the additional screen real estate appear slightly blurry, because the content is being scaled up to fit the screen. There's nothing you can do about this: If your apps are showing this behavior, you just have to wait for an update.

But there is another drawback for iPhone users unaccustomed to the larger displays, and this one is much harder to work with. At 5.44 x 2.64 x 0.27 in. and weighing 4.55 oz., the iPhone 6 is wider and taller than previous iPhones (for example, the iPhone 5S is 4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30 in. and weighs 3.95 oz). As a result, I found the iPhone 6 just a little past my limits of comfortable one-handed operation, and I tended to shift my grip much more while operating it.

To try to compensate for this, Apple has implemented a feature it calls Reachability, which is activated by touching (not tapping) the iPhone's Home button twice. Doing so slides the top-most onscreen interface elements closer to the center of the screen, within thumb-tapping distance for most people. It's true that Reachability adds an extra step, but if one-handed operation is important to you, this feature will be, too.

Improved photography

The camera located at the rear of the iPhone no longer sits flush with the case, but instead protrudes a few millimeters (which I didn't find a problem, even though I always put my iPhone down with the screen facing up). The camera was the one feature that I was looking forward to on my recent hike up Pikes Peak -- and it didn't disappoint. The iPhone 6 still features a rear-facing 8MP iSight camera with 1.5-micron pixels and an f/2.2 aperture, but this year's models include an Apple-designed image signal processor, enabling a feature called Focus Pixels that provides much faster auto-focus than before.

The camera includes several improvements to video as well. First, the iPhone 6 can finally shoot 1080p video at 60fps. This helps reduce motion stutter and also produces better slow motion than what can be achieved at 30fps.

And speaking of slow motion, the iPhone 6 can now shoot 720p video at 240 frames per second. Frankly, I love this feature; it's like getting a brand new perspective on everyday occurrences. The only problem with slow-motion video is that it requires a well-lit source to get proper results.

Surprisingly, the digital stabilization really helps in achieving great results. I'm not a fan of digital modifications like zoom or stabilization in general -- I prefer optical zooms or optical stabilization options when given a choice. (Actually, I feel so strongly about this that I was initially leaning towards the iPhone 6 Plus just for the optical stabilization.) But after shooting different subjects at different locations, I have to admit that the cinematic video stabilization feature compensated very well for slight camera shakes.

I was disappointed that, due to the rounded shape of the phone, you can no longer use the flat edges to keep it propped. This is too bad, especially when you consider that a self-timer is one of the feature additions in iOS 8.

The front-facing camera has been improved, too. It now features a ten-shot-per-second burst mode, timer, high-dynamic-range video, and improved face detection. FaceTime calls between iPhone 6 devices now use the more efficient h.265 codec for better performance.

Other new features

Performance-wise, this phone is no slouch. With both new iPhones, Apple ships its second-generation 64-bit chipset coupled with a custom-designed A8 processor. The new chip uses a 20nm process, making it 18% smaller and more energy-efficient than the previous A7, but with over 1 billion more transistors (for a total of 2 billion). In real-world performance, that means slightly shorter loading times for browsing the operating system and launching applications.

The speed increase is much more noticeable when using processor-intensive apps -- for example, when rendering video from Action Movie FX or Super Power FX.

Touch ID is a little faster at recognizing your fingerprint. This is a good thing, what with iOS 8 now allowing third-party applications to use the Touch ID results for authentication. (Your fingerprint data never leaves the device; anything that uses Touch ID receives the result of the scan as a yes or no, and nothing else.)

The iPhone 6 also includes a new sensor called a barometer. This gauges air pressure so the iPhone knows when you change elevation; useful for fitness fans trying to get a more accurate picture of workouts. The Health app tracks these changes in elevation under the Flights Climbed dashboard widget.

There is the inclusion of NFC for a new initiative called Apple Pay, but I can't comment because I've yet to use it; an update to enable this will be out some time in October.

Battery life

According to Apple the iPhone 6 will get about 11 hours of use when browsing the Web using Wi-Fi and 10 hours when using a cellular connection. HD video is supposed to last up to 11 hours, while audio playback will net you 50 hours.

During a day of normal usage, the battery life of my iPhone 7 lasted on average about two or three hours longer than the 5S. For example, during a recent four-hour flight, I was able to write much of this review on my iPhone using a Bluetooth keyboard at the same time I streamed music to a set of Bluetooth headphones. Even though I started with a 28% battery, the phone lasted the entire flight.

(If you are looking for the best battery life on an iPhone, you might want to take a look at the iPhone 6 Plus, which claims up to 12 hours of Wi-Fi browsing and 14 hours of video playback.)

Dealing with iOS 8

Unfortunately, the iPhone as it ships now has one major weakness: iOS 8. When I wrote Computerworld's review of iOS 8, I really liked the features, the feel and the overall design -- but, frankly, in its current form (version 8.0.2), it's buggy and makes iPhones sometimes perform unreliably. I've had apps just stop accepting touch input without cause, and the only way those apps responded again is if I quit out of the app and restarted it.

Other problems include random iCloud password prompts, crashes that bring up the Apple logo and several other minor, yet completely annoying, software glitches. A bug that actually deletes iWork documents from iCloud Drive made me pull my documents from iCloud -- which isn't a ringing endorsement of Apple's services.

I mentioned several times in my iOS 8 review that the software contained some lingering issues, but that they could be gotten around. However, after a few weeks of using the final build and after speaking to colleagues and friends (as well as receiving email complaints and requests for help), it's clear that the bugs are more numerous than I originally thought. Making matters worse, days after the iPhone 6 and iOS 8 were released to the eager public, Apple engineers let loose an update to iOS 8 (version 8.0.1) that disabled Touch ID and cellular connectivity on the new phones.

Well, enough is enough. Apple users have always loved that things "just work" -- but Apple's software missteps are doing a lot to damage that reputation. Apple leadership owes their customers quality, and if Apple engineers are biting off more than they can chew, then leadership needs to push for more accurate and realistic deadlines than the ones they keep imposing on themselves in order to capitalize on the holiday season. Software (and hardware) should be released when ready, not due to some arbitrary and unrealistic schedule.

Bottom line

That being said, I love the hardware: it's sleek, gorgeous and incredibly well built. The way the glass subtly curves to meet the aluminum casing shows its quality, with tolerances and materials that make many rival phones feel cheap and toy-like. While the iPhone 6 may not have the densest pixel count or biggest screen, the display still hits high marks as one of the best LCDs available on mobile devices, featuring great viewing angles, as well as vibrant and uniform colors (even in direct sunlight).

So despite problems with the OS, I can still whole-heartedly recommend this phone. I'm sure that iOS 8 will continue to improve as regular updates come down from Apple. As it stands, the hardware is phenomenal, and in concert with the iTunes app ecosystem, future integration with Yosemite (the next operating system for the Mac) and the potential of Apple Pay, the iPhone 6 should be another winner for Apple.

It's just unfortunate that Apple's subpar execution is getting more news cycles than the best iPhone lineup the company has ever shipped.

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