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Apple reveals iPhone 6 Plus with 5.5-inch screen, starts at $299 (hands-on)

At its highly anticipated keynote today, Apple went "big" and announced a larger iPhone, the iPhone 6 Plus, with a 5.5-inch screen. Pricing starts at $299 in the US with a two-year contract.

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For Apple, bigger is indeed better. On Tuesday, the company unveiled the iPhone 6 Plus at its media event, delivering a jumbo-size variant with a 5.5-inch screen in addition to the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 model.

The larger iPhone is basically a phablet, or phone-tablet, like other big phones such as the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

The iPhone 6 Plus starts at $299 for the 16GB version. There's also a 64GB ($399) and a 128GB ($499) version. That's a $100 premium over the standard iPhone 6. Those prices require a 2-year service contract. Off-contract pricing for T-Mobile in the US is listed as $749.76 (or 24 monthly payments of $31.24); $849.99 (or 24 monthly payments of $31.25 with $99.99 down); and $949.99 (or 24 monthly payments of $31.25 with $199.99 down) for the respective memory capacities. Click here for more information about the device's US pricing.

In the UK those prices are £619, £699, and £789 respectively, with all major networks set to offer it on various contract deals. In Australia, it's AU$999 for 16GB, AU$1,129 for 64GB and AU$1,249 for the 128GB model, with carriers including Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and others offering it too.

Apple's phablet will be available in space gray, silver, and gold. Preorders for both new iPhones begin September 12, and they'll hit stores in the US, UK and Australia on September 19.

Design

The bigger screen has a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, which is higher than that of its 4.7-inch cousin. That's a welcome upgrade but not as ultra-high-res as phones like the Quad HD Note 4. Apple is calling the new screen Retina HD, touting its extra sharpness.

As for what this bigger screen implies, historically, the gap between the old iPhone and the smallest 7.9-inch iPad used to be vast. With its 401ppi iPhone's display amounts to higher pixel density than any previous iPhone or Apple device, so it could become the new Retina standard.

According to CNET's Scott Stein, both phones feel good to hold and have excellent build quality. The metal design and curved lines feel, in a lot of ways, like previous iPod Touch models and a bit like the iPad. Because the new iPhones are thinner and flatter, they feel more waferlike in the hand, especially when compared with the HTC One M8, which is bulkier and denser. (For more on how the 6 Plus stacks up against its competitors, check out our spec chart.)

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The newly announced iPhone 6 (left) and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. James Martin/CNET

Core features

Bigger phones mean bigger batteries. The device is rated at 24 hours of talk time on a 3G connection, an extra 10 hours from the 4.7-inch iPhone 6. That's a great upgrade, although Samsung Galaxy fans will be quick to point out that they can always swap out the battery for a fresh one -- Apple doesn't offer hot-swappable batteries.

Another difference between the two new iPhones is in the camera. Both have an 8-megapixel camera with some key upgrades, including faster autofocus and slow-motion video up to 240 frames per second, double that of the iPhone 5S. The camera on the iPhone 6 Plus has optical image stabilization, unlike that of the iPhone 6. This appears on other phones, too, like the Galaxy Note 4, and helps steady a shaky hand.

It also offers a one-handed mode and more apps that take advantage of a horizontal orientation.

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Though "big" in terms of any iPhone before it, the 6 Plus is still a comfortable fit. James Martin/CNET

Otherwise the handset has many of the same features as the 4.7-inch variant -- including iOS 8 and the same 64-bit A8 chip. The new processor is said to allow 50 percent faster graphics and offer a 25 percent faster CPU. That's less of a leap than the 5S provided, but should be more power efficient.

But even despite the new processor, reasons to upgrade to the new iPhone over last year are harder to find. The improved speed and graphics gains don't seem as dramatic as last year's A7 on paper. The camera has some upgrades (for example, a new sensor that could offer better focus and image quality), but the rear camera's still 8 megapixels.

Upgrading to the iPhone 6 family would be tempting, however, with Apple Pay. This new iOS feature streamlines the retail and online purchasing experience and takes advantages of the built-in near-field communication (NFC) chips and the TouchID fingerprint scanner. You need one of the newest iPhone 6 models to take advantage of it, which works via Passbook and generates secure codes for transactions.

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The handset also has an 8-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization. James Martin/CNET

Storage size will be an another temptation: finally, mid- and high-end configurations will get double the storage over last year, up to 128GB.

Outlook

If you've been waiting since the 5, crave a larger screen, or want to try Apple Pay, the iPhone 6 handsets have it. Plus, you can't beat that excellent design. But keep in mind that these new devices are more like evolutions from the previous generation, and not exactly major leaps in the phone landscape.

In addition to the two iPhones and Apple Pay, Apple also introduced the Apple Watch, its first smartwatch.

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