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Apple iPhone 6 review: iPhone 6 sets the smartphone bar

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Editors' note: On September 7, 2016, Apple debuted the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and discontinued the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus remain available, however, and Apple has increased the storage capacity of the entry-level models to 32GB and lowered their prices to $549 and $649, respectively. The full iPhone 6 review, first published in September 2014, updated to include a CNET Editor's Choice designation in November 2014, and then updated in Summer 2015, follows.

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9.0

Apple iPhone 6

The Good

The iPhone 6 delivers a spacious, crisp 4.7-inch screen, improved wireless speeds, better camera autofocus, and bumped-up storage capacities to 128GB at the top end. iOS remains a top-notch mobile operating system with an excellent ecosystem of apps, and Apple Pay is a smooth, secure payment system.

The Bad

Battery life isn't much better than it is on last year's iPhone 5S. And there's wasted space: an even larger screen could have been squeezed into the same housing.

The Bottom Line

The iPhone 6 is an exceptional phone in nearly every way except its average battery life: it's thin, fast, and features the excellent iOS operating system. It was the best overall phone introduced in 2014.

In 2014, Apple forked its iPhone product line, simultaneously introducing the next generation of its flagship model -- the iPhone 6 -- and debuting its super-sized sibling, the iPhone 6 Plus. The iPhone 6 is an exceptional phone in nearly every way but for its middling battery life. The iPhone 6 Plus is also impressive; larger and thinner than other iPhone models, and with the capacity for far more endurance on a single charge than most comparably-sized and smaller competitors.

When choosing between the 6 and 6 Plus, in the end, it's a matter of personal preference. I know several people who love the iPhone 6 Plus, with its larger screen size and better battery life. But the iPhone 6 feels best in my hand. It's thin, elegant, performs really well, and is considerably less expensive than the 6 Plus. For that reason, I think the smaller iPhone 6 is the way to go for most people.

Design

The iPhone 6's thin, all-metal aesthetic makes for one of the sleekest designs in the smartphone universe. This iPhone is only slightly thinner than the previous model but feels more so; this is due to the increased screen size and curved design. Glass from the front folds ever so slightly around the edges -- a departure from the sharp industrial edges of the iPhone 5 and 5S. It also feels a little like the original iPhone , which had a rounded design. But that phone was chunkier, with a far smaller screen. It felt like holding a pebble. The iPhone 6 is flat and thin, like a slab.

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The iPhone 6 feels good to hold, beautifully solid, with a smooth, metal back and glass front. But it has an 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. Early reports of bending iPhones may have been overblown. Consumer Reports' testing found that the new iPhones can withstand less pressure than the iPhone 5, LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 , but are about as equally durable as the HTC One M8. In other words, it's not exactly delicate, but, like any other phone, it can be damaged -- so handle with care, and get a case for it.

Best iPhone 6 cases and iPhone 6S cases

See all photos

The camera lens on the back of the iPhone 6 protrudes slightly, which made me worry about setting the phone down on rough surfaces, despite the fortitude of the sapphire lens. Again: using a case will alleviate any concerns.

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Watch this: A closer look: iPhone 6, 6 Plus design

The volume buttons, which were round and raised on previous iPhones, are elongated on the 6, similar to those on the iPod Touch and iPad. The power/sleep button has shifted to the right, making it easier to find in my experience.

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A round Touch ID home button is located underneath the display; a simple press on the fingerprint reader unlocks the phone, and works amazingly well most of the time. While this feature is no longer as novel as it was when it debuted, Touch ID remains quicker and more reliable than the fingerprint detection capabilities we've seen on other smartphones. And with iOS 8, you can use fingerprint access for a wide variety of apps beyond the lock screen and iTunes Store.

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

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If I have one problem with the new design, it's the bezel around the display. It's still big -- bigger than that of most Android phones, which means that the iPhone 6, with its 4.7-inch screen, is the same size as other phones with 5-inch screens. For example, the iPhone 6 runs as tall and wide the Nexus 5 , which has a larger 5-inch screen; it's also larger than the 2013 Moto X, which fits a comparable 4.7-inch display into a more compact body. (Both the old Moto X and Nexus 5 are thicker, however.) The iPhone 6 measures 5.4 by 2.6 inches, and 0.3 inch thick (138 by 67 by 69mm). It weighs 4.5 ounces, or 128 grams.

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Though the iPhone 6 is basically one-hand friendly (and certainly more so than the iPhone 6 Plus), it comes with a 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 easier thumb access.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The screen

iPhones have always had phenomenal displays, both in terms of brightness and color quality. In CNET's battery of tests, we found that the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus's screens are even better than those on previous iPhones, with superior grayscale and contrast levels.

Though phones with OLED displays, like the Samsung Galaxy S5 , deliver more vivid contrast and slightly richer, if less accurate, color, the iPhone 6's 4.7-inch IPS display is excellent: vivid and rich. The display's 1,344x750-pixel resolution is higher than the fifth generation's 1,136x640, but it has the same 326ppi pixel density. It's a good step up.

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 is the same (16x9), 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.

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Native apps look fantastic and nonoptimized apps scale up well, too: games and streaming video services designed for a smaller display still fill the screen and have crisp text. I still think many people will find this 4.7-inch screen to find the right balance between functionality and portability. That noted, the iPhone 6's screen resolution is a step below ideal.

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Performance: Faster still

The iPhone 6 is among the fastest phones around. It comes equipped with the A8 64-bit dual-core processor, which Apple claims delivers a 25 percent boost in speed and a 50 percent graphics boost over the iPhone 5S; this claim was confirmed in both our benchmark tests (see below) and hands-on testing. Navigating the UI and launching apps is zippy, and the phone runs nearly all tasks at a silky-smooth clip.

Apple's Metal coding tool helps some iOS games perform even better than the benchmarks suggest. Games that have been iPhone 6-optimized look great and load and run quickly, but the difference isn't as dramatic as you might expect. (Read about Apple's Metal-related announcements from its Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2015.)

3DMark Ice Storm -- Unlimited

Apple iPhone 5S 13,858Apple iPhone 6 17,374Apple iPhone 6 Plus 17,565Motorola Moto X (2014) 19,802Samsung Galaxy S5 18,305HTC One M8 20,669
Notes: In frames per second; longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench 3

HTC One M8 869 2409Apple iPhone 5S 1412.2 2,562Apple iPhone 6 Plus 1619 2881Apple iPhone 6 1627 2924Samsung Galaxy S5 949 2934Motorola Moto X (2014) 1001 3052
  • Single-core (Blue)
  • Multi-core (Red)
Notes: In frames per second; longer bars indicate better performance

Linpack multithread

Motorola Moto X (2014) 803.175HTC One M8 814.815Samsung Galaxy S5 869.416Apple iPhone 5S 975.92Apple iPhone 6 Plus 1358.2Apple iPhone 6 1378.2
Notes: In MFLOPS; longer bars indicate better performance

SunSpider 1.0.2

Motorola Moto X (2014) 776.6Samsung Galaxy S5 769.2HTC One M8 635.1Apple iPhone 5S 416.6Apple iPhone 6 Plus 381.9Apple iPhone 6 345.2
Notes: In milliseconds; shorter bars indicate better performance

The iPhone 6 features 802.11ac Wi-Fi and improved LTE antennas, which allow for faster Web browsing on both Wi-Fi and LTE.

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Call quality

The iPhone 6 supports high-quality audio via voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) and can route calls through a Wi-Fi network when a cell connection is weak. Performance varies depending on location and carrier.

TODO

FaceTime calls looked better on the iPhone 6 than the 5 because of improvements Apple made to the front-facing camera. Voice calls sounded clear, though somewhat softer than calls made on the iPhone 5S.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Camera

The iPhone 6 features an 8-megapixel rear iSight camera; though it has the same megapixel count and flash as the previous model, the autofocus has been improved for both still photos and videos. Apple says its new sensor uses "focus pixels," and I've found that the camera is better at avoiding out-of-focus shots. (Though the iPhone 5S captures great photos, it sometimes takes an annoyingly long time to focus.)

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I tried the 6 out at Jets-Packers, at Lambeau Field, at dusk.

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The iPhone 6's front and rear cameras have the same megapixel count (8 on the back, 1.2 on the front), LED "true-tone" flash, and sapphire lens as the 5. The still shots I took using both models looked more or less comparable.

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Sample chicken photo taken with rear iSight camera.

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The iPhone 6 shoots great video; the phone captured clear footage of my crazy kids, aged five and one and a half, running around in my living room.

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Watch this: Super slow-mo on the iPhone 6

The iPhone 6's video-recording speed can be set as low as 60fps now, which helps maintain the crispness in high-speed action. Slow-motion video recording can be set as high as 240 frames per second; this results in large files sizes but you end up with highlight clips that feel like "Matrix" outtakes. And the panorama mode takes clear 43-megapixel photos that allow you to zoom in for more detail.

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Selfie from Lambeau.

Scott Stein/CNET

FaceTime front-facing photos feature an f2.2 aperture, HDR sensors and a quick-burst mode (first added to the rear camera with the iPhone 5). It's noticeably better for selfies in low light and for FaceTime calls, too. The FaceTime camera is located slightly to the left of the speaker, which helps line up your face with the lens in landscape mode.

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Watch this: Apple iPhone 6 vs. 6 Plus camera comparison

The iPhone 6 Plus features optical image stabilization for photo and video recording, where the iPhone 6 provides digital image stabilization. In practice, there's not much difference between the two.

The iPhone 6's camera is better than the iPhone 5's, especially its auto-focus performance; the 6 and 6 Plus are more or less a wash. Read our full comparison of the camera performance on the iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus for a more detailed analysis.

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Storage boost: Onboard and on iCloud

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The price of Apple's iCloud storage plans, which allow for seamless online backup of mail, documents, and photos, have also fallen down to earth. The first 10GB of storage is free, and you can pay to add up to 1TB. Though there are cheaper cloud storage plans on the market, iCloud is increasingly competitive with services like Dropbox.

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Health: A possible breakthrough iOS 8 app for medical records.

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iOS 8

Before Apple delivers iOS 9 this fall, iPhone users have access to iOS 8, which can be installed on any iPhone (model 4S and later), iPod Touch (fifth generation) and iPad (model 2 or later). The operating system is quite similar to its predecessor, iOS 7 , though with a deeper focus on extended functions: third-party keyboards, plug-ins, expanded notifications, and a new Health app that aims to knit in measurements and medical reports from other apps and sources, as well as HomeKit for smart-home connectivity (though you may need an Apple TV to serve as a hub in your home). You can find more details in our iOS 8 deep dive .

iPhone 6 versus the competition

The iPhone can't compete with all of the myriad unique and often deliberately boundary-pushing features on many Android phones. The quad HD super-high-res screen on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 . The waterproof Sony Xperia Z3 and Samsung Galaxy S5 . From removable batteries to microSD cards to smart styli, the iPhone 6 lacks some bleeding-edge -- and even just merely useful -- features.

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CNET

Still, the iPhone 6's construction quality, camera quality, overall system and graphics speed, and software-hardware integration is a formula that remains hard to beat. The iPhone is increasingly surrounded by equal-footed alternatives, but it's as good, easy-to-use and full-featured as any of them.

Except, maybe, for battery life.

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Battery life

Our CNET video-loop battery test, which plays video in Airplane mode with the screen set to half brightness, ran for 10 hours and 38 minutes; an iPhone 5S running iOS 7 lasted 11 hours. I noticed the same minimal difference in my own casual use that included downloading, Web browsing, endless social-media checks, taking photos, streaming videos, and all the stuff I normally do.

So: not bad, but not great; the iPhone 6 delivers enough battery life for part of the day, not all day. ( Color me disappointed.) The iPhone 6 uses the same Lightning cables as before and requires about 2 hours to fully charge an empty battery. (Note that Apple promises longer battery life from the next version of its operating system, iOS 9 , due out in fall 2015.)

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Conclusion

The iPhone 6 makes a very solid upgrade for any owner of an earlier model iPhone. It's an excellent phone overall, one of the very best you can buy, with the annoying exception of battery life, which is merely adequate. That noted, if you're looking to buy an iPhone with outstanding battery life, the iPhone 6 Plus , which also offers an elegant design, a fantastic camera and the same user-friendly OS as the 6, is certainly among our favorites.

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9.0

Apple iPhone 6

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 9