Apple iPhone 6 review: The iPhone grows up

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CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars Outstanding
  • Overall: 8.8
  • Design: 9.0
  • Features: 9.0
  • Performance: 8.0
Review Date:

The Good A bigger, crisp display, improved LTE and Wi-Fi speeds, better camera autofocus, bumped-up storage capacities to 128GB at the top end, and NFC Apple Pay mobile wallet features on the horizon.

The Bad In early tests, the iPhone 6's battery doesn't fare any better than last year's model; some Android phones fit an even-larger 5-inch screen into the same size frame; it lacks the optical image stabilization of the bigger, more expensive 6 Plus.

The Bottom Line The iPhone 6 delivers a bigger screen while remaining easy to handle, with plenty of features to satisfy everyone -- and the promise of Apple Pay on the horizon to potentially sweeten the deal even further.

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I'm sitting on my sofa. I pull out my phone to check sports scores. Wait, which phone was it again? I'm starting to lose track. For a second, I think it's the 6 Plus. Wait, it's the 6.

I've been using the iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus side by side for a week, and I can tell you this: both of Apple's new iPhones have better, big displays. And both make the iPhone 5S' screen seem small. But I'm having a hard time picking which one I prefer. And that's pretty frustrating. But at least I know this: the iPhone 6 is a lot like the Plus...minus a few features.

For years, Android phones have shipped with displays in expansive, 5-inch-ish sizes, but Apple has stubbornly insisted on the necessity of a small screen for one-handed operation. The iPhone 5S, while powerful, hit a wall in viewing room: its 4-inch screen was among the smallest on the market, and, frankly, I found it limiting.

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The iPhone 6 (left) and the 6 Plus CNET

No longer. Now, Apple has created two larger iPhones, one big, the other even bigger: the iPhone 6 sports a 4.7-inch screen, while the iPhone 6 Plus goes the full phablet route with a 5.5-inch display. Both of the new iPhones boast flatter designs, ship with somewhat faster A8 processors, slightly improved cameras, speedier Wi-Fi and LTE, better voice quality if you're using voice-over-LTE, and more onboard storage. Both 2014 models also incorporate Apple Pay, the new and potentially revolutionary NFC-powered payment system that turns the phone into a credit card. Apple Pay could be the biggest feature on these new iPhones if it works as advertised; stay tuned for more on that when it launches in October.

Between the two new iPhones, the iPhone 6 feels best in my hand. It's thin, elegant, performs really well, and has many of the features I need. But it lacks extra battery life and optical image stabilization, which I care about. And yet, to get those features, do you go with the more expensive, larger iPhone 6 Plus? I wish I didn't have to debate between two levels of nearly similar premium phones. (You can also check out CNET's full review of the iPhone 6 Plus.)

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The iPhone 5S, the 6, and the 6 Plus. CNET

6, or 6 Plus?

See, here's the problem: Apple has added two phones at once for the first time. And they're both pretty similar. So which one do you pick?

The good news is that the iPhone 6, which feels great to hold, has nearly all the same features as the 6 Plus. The iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus both have larger screens than previous iPhones. They both have new A8 processors. They both have 16, 64, or 128GB of storage. They both come in three colors: white/silver, white/gold, and space gray, which is black/darker silver.

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The differences between the two aren't that tremendous, but they're important. The 6 has a 4.7-inch, 1,344x750 display. The 6 Plus has a 5.5-inch, 1,920x1,080 display, plus optical image stabilization in the camera and the ability to run more apps in horizontal-landscape mode, with split-screen effects like an iPad. It's also a lot bigger, and weighs more -- but it also has a longer battery life.

You're not losing anything much with the 6. But it's not the absolute top of the line. Maybe that bugs you. If it does, get the 6 Plus.

For potential buyers of both phones, here's how it breaks down:

For owners of older iPhones looking to upgrade, these new iPhones are massive leaps in screen size. The 4.7-inch iPhone 6 will probably be more than enough, but the 6 Plus may be downright intimidating unless you're looking for a mini-tablet.

For Android owners who once jumped ship from iOS and want to come back, this is the iPhone generation you've been waiting for. It's the best iPhone since the iPhone 5. Back then, LTE and an improved screen and camera made the difference. This time, a larger screen, a fast processor, NFC via Apple Pay, additional customization features of iOS 8, and bumped-up storage tiers go a long way to close the feature gap with current top Android phones.

For iPhone 5S owners or habitual iPhone upgraders, think of the chief advantages as a bigger screen and the potential of Apple Pay. The improved processor, camera, LTE and Wi-Fi speeds, and possible battery life gains are steps up, but not massive leaps. In other words, if you don't have a strong desire for the larger screen, you could easily ride your iPhone 5S (running iOS 8) for 12 more months, and wait for the inevitable iPhone 6S and 6S Plus in 2015.

For hard-core Android fans, well, there are Android phones that cost less, have higher-resolution screens, sport better battery life, have removable SD card storage, and even removable batteries. You won't find all of these on an iPhone 6, but this is the most attractive iPhone yet. You can't have everything in Appleland.

Apple iPhone 6 Apple iPhone 6 Plus Samsung Galaxy S5 Motorola Moto X (2014)
Base price with two-year agreement $199 $299 $199 $99
Display size/resolution 4.7-inch 1344 x 750 IPS (326 ppi) 5.5-inch 1,920x1,080 IPS (401ppi) 5.1-inch 1,920x1,080 Super AMOLED (432ppi) 5.5-inch 1,920x1,080 AMOLED (423 ppi)
PC CPU 1.39GHz Apple A8 (64-bit) 1.38GHz Apple A8 (64-bit) 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (Krait400) 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (Krait400)
PC memory 1GB 1GB 2GB 2GB
Internal storage 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB 16GB, 32GB 16GB, 32GB
Expandable storage No No Yes (microSD) No
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system iOS 8 iOS 8 Android 4.4.2 Android 4.4.4
Carriers AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon AT&T and Verizon

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CNET

Design

My favorite-feeling 4.7-inch phone, the one that proved larger screens could be made in compact sizes, was the 2013 Motorola Moto X. Does the iPhone 6 pull off the same hand feel? It's close, but different.

The new iPhone design may seem bold and different, or even a bit like the HTC One M8's curved metal, but it's also still very Apple. In fact, it's kind of like the iPod Touch design, or how the iPads are made. This iPhone is slightly thinner than before, but it feels a lot thinner; part of that's the increased screen size, and partly it's the curved design. Glass from the front folds ever so slightly around the edges, and the sharp industrial hard edges of the iPhone 5 and 5S are completely gone.

It also feels a bit like the original iPhone, which had a curved design, too.

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CNET

The new iPhone feels good to hold and feels beautifully solid; the metal back and glass front have a smoothed, comfortable design that's a little like that of the original iPhone. But it also has a slight aura of fragility; maybe it's the extra-slim look, or the massive pane of curved glass on the front. I instantly wanted to slip it into a case just to be safe.

Also, the slightly protruding camera lens on the back of the iPhone 6, while similar to the one on the fifth-gen iPod Touch, made me worry about placing the phone down on rough surfaces...regardless of the sapphire lens.

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The volume buttons, which were round, raised buttons before, are now elongated like those on the iPod Touch and iPad. The top-right power/sleep button has shifted to the right, like you find on some Android phones. It takes some getting used to, but it's easier to press now that the phone is bigger.

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CNET

A round Touch ID home button remains at the bottom, and works the same as on last year's iPhone 5S: a simple press unlocks your phone, and it works amazingly well most of the time. This year, iOS 8 and Apple Pay will allow you to do a lot more with Touch ID, making it an even more essential feature. But reaching that home button isn't quite as easy with one hand as it was before.

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The 2013 Moto X (left), iPhone 6 (center), Nexus 5 (right). See what I mean? CNET

If I have one problem with the new design, it's the bezel around the display. It's still big; bigger than most Android phones. It means that an iPhone 6 with its 4.7-inch screen is the same size as some 5-inch screen phones. For instance, the iPhone 6 is about the same height and width as a Nexus 5, which has a larger 5-inch screen, but larger than last year's Moto X, which fits the same 4.7-inch display into a more compact body. Both the Moto X and Nexus 5 are thicker, but the iPhone 6's thin design also means a larger, flatter body. The iPhone 6 measures 5.44 by 2.64 inches, and 0.27 inch thick (13.8 x 6.7 x 0.69 cm). It weighs 4.5 ounces, or 127.6 g.

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CNET

Can that bezel be reduced next time, perhaps? Sure, the Touch ID home button needs to fit below the screen, but the extra space on top could have been been shaved down a bit (assuming Jony Ive can live without a symmetrical design).

Yes, the new iPhone 6 is still one-hand friendly, and a whole bunch more so than the iPhone 6 Plus. There's even a sometimes useful but weird software feature called Reachability that pulls the top half of the display down to midscreen with a light double-tap of the Home button, for easy thumb access. It's helpful for one-handed use. I just wish the whole phone was a little less big...or that it could fit a slightly bigger screen in the same chassis.

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CNET

Display: Improved, but good enough?

The iPhone 6 has an increased 4.7-inch display, a similar screen size as last year's Moto X. It's big for Apple phones, but still on the smaller side for Android phones, which have moved, lately, to the 5-inch territory.

iPhones have always had phenomenal displays, in terms of brightness and color quality both: David Katzmaier at CNET has tested the last few, and they've been among the tops in smartphones.

We haven't done full display testing on these new iPhones yet (stay tuned for that), but the iPhone 6's 4.7-inch IPS display looks vivid, rich, and as good as that on the iPhone 5 or 5S, just bigger. But not that much bigger. The display's 1,344x750 resolution is higher than the iPhone 5/5C/5S' 1,136x640, but it has the same 326ppi pixel density. It's a nice step up, and a big help for nearly anything you'd use your phone's screen for. A grid of six-by-four apps now fits on each page plus the four in the dock below, for 28 total: on the 5's 4-inch display, it's 24. There are more pixels horizontally and vertically, unlike the merely vertical lengthening of the iPhone 5. That also means the aspect ratio's the same, and videos and Web pages scale similarly.

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A handy comparison of all iOS screen sizes: 4S, 5S, 6, 6 Plus, iPad Mini, iPad Air. CNET

There aren't any optimized apps that take advantage of the extra pixels other than Apple's core preinstalled apps, but older apps still scale up and fill the space without black bars. The results are mixed: the Kindle app and Netflix actually looked great, and text and video were crisp. Many games look great, too, even without updating: Badland, Riptide GP2, Unpossible, and text-based games like Device 6. Some apps, however, have icons, keyboards and buttons that end up looking too large in the magnified display size. App updates will likely take care of this for most situations in the weeks to come, but right now it's not a perfect transition.

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CNET

The iPhone 6 Plus has an even more impressive 1,920x1080 5.5-inch display and 406 pixels per inch, but it's also a lot larger of a phone. For my tastes, I'd go with the 4.7-inch iPhone 6. My opinion might change as I slowly accept ever-larger phones. I still think a lot of people will find this 4.7-inch screen to be perfectly good, and perfectly functional while still being portable. But in the world of modern smartphones, the 6's screen resolution is a step below ideal.

It's a lot better than older iPhones, though. After a week using the iPhone 6, my iPhone 5S screen looks like the one on a first-gen iPhone.

Performance: Faster still

How fast do we need our phones to be? The potential of last year's crazily-fast-on-paper A7 processor still hasn't been fully tapped. The new A8 processor on the iPhone 6 isn't quite the quantum leap as the A7 was. It's a 64-bit dual-core processor just like the A7, but Apple claims a 25 percent boost in speed and 50 percent graphics boost over last year's iPhone 5S. On our tests (see the benchmarks below), we found that the A8, while faster, is nice bump rather than a giant vault. Depending on which benchmark test you look at, the new A8 processor was either above other phones (SunSpider 1.0.2, Linpack) or more in the middle of the pack (Geekbench 3, 3DMark).

These don't necessarily tell the whole story, but the A8 isn't a leap over the competition; it's more of a step forward year-over-year from the A7, while mobile processors keep getting faster all around. But really, what you want to know is, how do apps feel? The UI and app-launching speed of the new iPhone is zippy as always. What will really prove how things feel are apps optimized for the new display. Those aren't really here yet in time for this early review, but stay tuned for future impressions with iPhone 6-tweaked games and apps. Also, keep in mind that Apple's new Metal coding tool for gaming could help iOS games perform even better with the A8 than what these initial benchmarks suggest.

3DMark Ice Storm -- Unlimited (in frames per second)

Apple iPhone 5S
13,858
Apple iPhone 6
17,374
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
17,565
Motorola Moto X (2014)
19,802
Samsung Galaxy S5
19,802
HTC One M8
20,669

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench 3 (in frames per second)

HTC One M8
869
2409
Apple iPhone 5S
1412.2
2,562
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
1619
2881
Apple iPhone 6
1627
2924
Samsung Galaxy S5
949
2934
Motorola Moto X (2014)
1001
3052

Legend:

Single-core (Blue)
Multi-core (Red)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Weight 4.55 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4.7 in
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