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Apple iPhone 6 review: iPhone 6 sets the smartphone bar

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

Connecting to the Internet is fast on the iPhone 6. LTE browsing on an AT&T iPhone 6 in several locations (including San Francisco; New York City; Montclair, New Jersey; and Green Bay, Wisconsin) delivered download speeds that were slightly faster than LTE browsing on an AT&T iPhone 5S; upload speeds were a little more impressive. In Green Bay, I averaged 5.09 Mbps download and 10.6 Mbps upload speeds in the Lambeau Field parking lot for a Jets-Packers game, compared to an average of 4.3 Mbps download and 6.2 Mbps upload speeds on an iPhone 5S. From a restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey, I averaged 8.3 Mbps download and 4.6 Mbps upload on the iPhone 6, versus 8.4 Mbps download and 3.3 Mbps upload on an iPhone 5S.

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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.

In the past, Verizon iPhone users could not simultaneously use voice and data application; they now can, as long as both parties are using VoLTE-compatible phones in VoLTE-compatible coverage areas.

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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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.

Scott Stein/CNET

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.

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.

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

Apple offers a maximum of 128GB of storage for the iPhone 6. The $199 on-contract iPhone 6 ($649 off-contract) provides 16GB of space, which is OK if you don't use your phone to shoot lots of video. The 64GB model costs $299 ($749 off-contract), and the 128GB model costs $399 ($849 off-contract).

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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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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