Looking at specs alone, it’s a miracle Apple sells any iPhones.
Wave after wave of Samsungs, Sonys, LGs and HTCs have surfed on to shelves and into our hearts, each toting a bigger screen than last year’s model.
Not only that but these Androids have got bigger and better in every other way too. BIGGER cameras! FASTER processors! LONGER-lasting batteries!
Meanwhile Apple has stubbornly refused to enter the smartphone arms race, hopping from a 3.5in screen to the 4in iPhone 5 and staying there for the 5s. Until now.
Enter the iPhone 6 with its 4.7in screen, A8 brain, iOS 8, NFC and bigger battery. Finally, Apple has an iPhone to compete on specs. And industrial design. And apps. And ecosystem.
It promises to be the best iPhone ever. So let’s find out if the reality lives up to the dream.
Predicting Apple can be a risky business, but so far it’s followed a regular approach to design updates: we've had them every two years from the iPhone 3G onwards.
So, after last year’s iPhone 5s, we expected to get something wholly different this time around. And different is what we got. iphone6
Obviously the increased screen size is the main change, but it's far from the only visual difference. Like the HTC One (M8), the iPhone 6 has all-metal back with curved edges front and back rather than the flat, 90-degree edges on the 5s. The result is a phone that’s super-smooth in the hand with the joins between glossy screen and matte back almost unnoticable as you hold it.
And you’ll want to hold it – it feels amazing.
The curves make it superbly comfortable in use despite its increased size, while its thin profile also helps; it’s just 6.9mm thick, so substantially skinnier than the 7.5mm 5s.
On the downside, the camera lens does now protrude from the phone’s case, which may not please everyone, while the distinctive light-coloured lines on the back at top and bottom won't be to all tastes either. The latter, at least, are present for practical as well as aesthetic reasons: with a metal-backed phone it’s hard to scoot the signal in and out, and the flush rubberised lines sort this. Certainly call quality on the iPhone 6 is strong and reliable.
Overall, it's a beautifully built bit of kit. Where the Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G3 have to make do with plastic shells - albeit metal-style plastic in the case of the latter - the iPhone 6 feels wholly premium. Only the M8 really runs it close, and that's a far bigger handset. Every iPhone since the 4 has been a thing of beauty, and the 6 is no exception.
A screen dream?
The iPhone 6's headline feature is its 4.7in display. And with good reason: Apple had only ever upped its screen size once before, and that from 3.5in to 4in. But let's not get carried away here - by anyone else's standards, 4.7in is not a huge screen. The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact - note the word 'Compact' - is only a smidgeon smaller at 4.6in. Compared to the Samsung Galaxy S5, LG G3 and Sony Xperia Z3, the iPhone remains a pixie in a land of Android ogres.
For many people, 4.7in will be the ideal size: big enough to offer a better viewing and gaming experience, without being so big that you can't use it properly. Of course none of that matters if the quality isn't there too.
Fortunately, it is.
The iPhone 6 is no match in screen resolution terms when compared to the G3 (534 pixels per inch) and Galaxy S5 (432ppi). Apple’s screen has just 326ppi, the same as the iPhone 5s. But stats aren’t the whole story and one glance at the iPhone 6 confirms this.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 has arguably the best screen on the market: rich, vibrant and unbelievably detailed, although the LG G3 runs it very close thanks to the extra pixels on its 2K display. And the iPhone 6 deserves to sit in that exalted company.
It’s lower-resolution than its rivals, but more than dense enough to look glorious. It also lacks the occasionally over-saturated look of the S5; the Samsung display, though unequivocally beautiful, can still tend to the garish. As far as the LG goes, those extra pixels only really make themselves known when you’re reading the tiniest of writing.
However we'd be lying if we said that we hadn't hoped for more. The 6 Plus has a full HD 1080p screen, as does almost every one of the iPhone 6's main rivals. While the 6's display is easily one of the best 720p efforts we've used, the differences between it and a full HD screen are visible if you look for them.
However, for day-to-day use, there’s a limit to what you can see - or at least to what matters. And in those terms, the iPhone 6 is as good as its keenest rivals. Plus, it’s just right there: the display seems so pressed up against the glass it’s like you’re making direct contact with the pixels.
As the millions of sepia-toned hipster-food-photos posted hourly to Instagram prove, the camera is one of the most important things on any phone. So you might have expected Apple to want to match the 16MP sensor of the Galaxy S5 or the 20.7MP on Sony’s Xperia Z2 and Z3. But no, it’s stuck with eight megapixels. Eight.
Fortunately for Apple, the combination of a good lens, advanced image processing and sublimely simple camera controls in previous iPhones has served it very well. Plus, there's more to a good camera than lots of pixels - after all, the HTC One (M8) takes great shots with a mere 4MP sensor.
Part of the M8's success is that although it uses fewer pixels, they're individually bigger than those on most rivals at around 2 microns. The iPhone can’t match that, but at 1.5 microns, the Apple pixels are bigger than those on the Samsung Galaxy S5 (1.12 microns).
Anyway, that's the specs out of the way, let's get back to the real world...
Innovations this time around include Focus Pixels. These are called phase detection pixels by other manufacturers and a couple of rival handsets share this feature, notably the Galaxy S5. Phase detection is faster than the more commonly used contrast detection and means nippier autofocus - which in turn should mean snappier snaps with greater sharpness. Last year’s iPhone 5s took pictures with no discernible delay anyway, but the iPhone 6 sure is fast. Quality-wise, there's not a huge amount of difference from the 5s - which means it's still one of the best out there.
Where Apple’s camera is consistently better than rivals is in its superbly simple ease of use. No white balance to adjust, no extra granular controls to fiddle with. Now, though, you can deliberately over- or under-expose shots. But don't fret that this'll be an unwelcome distraction from the point-and- shoot ethos. In fact, it’s wholly intuitive: press on the screen until the yellow exposure box appears. Next to it is a little sun icon with a line through it. As you draw your finger up and down it shows you how dark or light the final pic will be. Easy as pie.
Video recording is also improved, with HD filming at 60 frames per second and enhanced slo-mo (now double the frame rate of 240 per second). But there’s no 4K video as found on some rivals. Apple’s skill has rarely been to be first, so we're not exactly surprised as its absence. Still, it would have been a nice thing to have. Quality-wise, footage is smooth and looks striking.
Screen: 4.7in 720x1334 IPS LCD (326ppi)
Processor: 1.4GHz Apple A8 processor
OS: iOS 8
Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC (Apple Pay only), 3G/4G
Performance is always a tricky thing to judge on iPhones. Look at the stats alone and most high-end Androids leave it in the dust. But use one, and it'll often feel like the fastest thing since Usain Bolt's sliced bread. The iPhone 6 is no different.
The new iPhone has an improved processor, namely the A8, and whizzes through tasks without the slightest of pauses. The previous A7 was shockingly fast thanks in part to the new 64-bit architecture that arrived on that chip, and that's obviously retained here. And while the new model doesn’t feel any faster, it has more pixels to move around and is probably doing more in the background to boot.
There’s also a new motion co-processor, the M8, not to be confused with HTC’s flagship. The co-processor now measures altitude thanks to a built-in barometer, so it can monitor when you are climbing or descending stairs. Health apps will make much of this and Apple’s own Health app has a dashboard to record your steps, cycling and more, made possible by the new hardware.
A bigger Battery
Fact: most smartphones have terrible battery life. Just try leaving home in the morning without having charged up overnight. And the more you use your phone, the more quickly the battery drains.
It's a recipe for disaster, and one from which previous iPhones have hardly been immune. The iPhone 5s lasted a Standard Smartphone Day (SSD) - by which we mean you could just about get away with only having to charging it nightly, so long as you didn't really hammer it during the day. Otherwise, you'll have wanted that spare charger at work.
Happily, the iPhone 6 just goes on and on. In regular use, the phone performed for a full day and well into a second – a leap forward compared to the iPhone 5s. Additionally, iOS 8 gives you handy warnings about apps which are constantly making data connections, so you can turn the beggars off.
We'll be doing a full battery run-down test soon, at which point we'll compare it to flagship Androids such as the LG G3, but for now we'll just say that it lasts longer than any other iPhone.
The new hardware is faster and more powerful, some of it to service the bigger screen and updated iOS 8 operating software. Eventually, it will lead to more sparkly games, faster and more powerful apps. Already, Apple has added its own Health app, of which more below.
Sadly, some of the newest, spangliest of features on the iPhone can’t be reviewed yet. One of the most striking is Apple Pay, which uses a combo of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor and a newly arrived NFC chip in the phone to turn the handset into a contactless credit card. Demonstrations we saw in Cupertino were certainly seamless and speedy, so assuming Apple is able to do the deals with Indian banks and credit card companies that it’s done in the States, this could be a very big deal.
Other phones have fingerprint sensors, too, but the Apple model is superb not least because it’s effort-free. By resting your thumb or finger on the home button as you would to wake the phone, the Touch ID feature is invoked. The Samsung Galaxy S5 by contrast requires a swiping movement to make it work - definitely a little less intuitive.
Similarly, there's VoLTE - that’s Voice over LTE - which promises to deliver voice calls through 4G data; handy if your 2G signal is weak at home, say. It needs both handsets to be on VoLTE and for networks to play ball. The feature is partly made possible by a faster LTE chip which can deliver up to 150Mbps downloads, when the networks can match this.
The iPhone 6 arrives running Apple's new iOS 8, available on all iPhones from the 4s onwards in addition to various iPads and iPod touch models.
It looks mostly like last year’s radically restyled iOS 7, but if 7 was all about design changes, 8 is all about openness, customisation and communication.
There are immediate benefits to apps such as Messages, which will now let you easily send voice files, photos and videos at the touch of a button in the text area. And below that you'll find the all-new predictive keyboard, which aims to guess which word you’re about to type before you’ve keyed in the first letter. This is splendid and works well. Third-party companies such as the excellent Swiftkey are also now able to produce their own keyboards for the iPhone – something Apple hadn’t permitted until now.
Bigger improvements still include Handoff, which enables you to start tapping an email out on your iPhone keyboard and then carry it on seamlessly on a Mac using the latest Yosemite software. This also means that when a phone call comes in you can answer it on your Mac or on another Apple device – handy if your phone is snuggling on the windowsill where the mobile phone signal is strongest while you’re ensconced next to the TV in the other room. We weren't able to test these features, as Yosemite is still in beta release mode, but we'll update this review as soon as we're able.
Most importantly of all, there’s the new Health app, which allows other apps to contribute to the fitness monitoring that Health collates. This is another feature that’s in its early stages and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens if you have multiple fitness devices which report different step counts, for example. Apple stresses that each app only takes part if you give it permission.
Still, the basic app looks pretty neat, with the restrained, classy styling you’d expect, though Samsung's S Health app looks spiffy, too and both are outclassed by the LifeLog software on Sony’s phones.
And finally there’s iCloud Drive, which brings Apple up to date with the document-sharing capabilities other platforms already boast. Just as with iCloud, which syncs your contacts, calendars and more across multiple devices, iCloud Drive saves documents across all of your Apple gadgets and on icloud.com.
In order to really judge the iPhone 6 you first have to consider what it's not.
It's not a mega-screened wannabe phablet. It's not a 2K-display-packing pixel king. It's not the most powerful phone ever, it's not the most megapixelly phone ever, it's not even the longest-lastingest phone ever. The best Androids still beat it on all these counts.
But that's just specs. What it is, is the best iPhone ever.
It's a real looker, with an amazingly slim and deeply attractive build. It feels lovely in the hand, despite the extra size. It has the best screen of any iPhone - big enough to be useful, with gorgeous colours. It's the most powerful iPhone ever, even if in use all you'll know is that it feels very fast. It has the best battery of any iPhone ever, lasting well into a second day. And it also packs some of Apple's biggest software innovations in years, although we'll have to wait for the likes of Apple Pay to make their way over here.
The iPhone 5s, for all its qualities, didn't do enough to put Apple back on top. It just lagged too far behind its Android rivals in key areas.
But the iPhone 6, with its combination of fresh new form factor, the upcoming links to desktop via Yosemite and the promise of Apple Pay, might just do the trick.