Apple iPhone 6 Plus (review): Bigger display, longer-lasting battery steals the show

Apple joined the big screen smartphone competition last week and those whose lives are enhanced by large displays will love this device.

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Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

Never have I been able to get through a full day of charge, from waking to sleeping, with any iPhone — until today. 

I chose to shell out $850 for the iPhone 6 Plus on T-Mobile, first and foremost, for the reported battery life. After more than four full days of use, it's clear to me that Apple has finally found a way to get its users through a full day of charge. Granted, it wasn't by any type of battery wizardry, but by simply putting a bigger battery in a larger device.

Apple iPhone 6 Plus: In pictures and screenshots

Apple's track record of device build quality and attention to detail remains untarnished. Although the iPhone 6 Plus is larger, there's been a considerable effort to maintain the hands-on usability factor. It's thin at 7.1 millimeters, and has rounded edges, making it easier to hold. The iPhone 6 Plus's power button shifted away from the top of the device, where it was located on earlier versions, to the right-hand edge, avoiding any need to overreach. 

The software enhancements in iOS 8, along with its vast and near-limitless app ecosystem, make the iPhone 6 Plus the best "phablet" in my entire smartphone buying history.

Earlier this month, I questioned whether my busy work life necessitated an iPad mini . After extensive use, the iPhone 6 Plus can (and has) met and exceeded both my smartphone and small tablet needs and expectations, both personally and in the enterprise.

Specifications

  • Processors: Apple A8 64-bit processor and M8 motion coprocessor
  • Display: 5.5-inch LED with 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (401 pixels-per-inch)
  • RAM: 1GB, same as iPhone 5s
  • Internal storage: 64 GB (16 GB and 128 GB available)
  • Cameras: 8-megapixel rear with optical image stabilization (OIS), and 1.2 megapixel front facing
  • Radios: up to 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, near-field communications (NFC), GPS
  • Special call features: VoLTE, Wi-Fi Calling
  • Sensors: Touch ID fingerprint scanner, barometer, 3-axis gyroscope, proximity, ambient light
  • Battery capacity: 2,915 mAh (iPhone 6: 1,810 mAh; iPhone 5S: 1,820 mAh)
  • Dimensions: 158.1 x 77.8 x 7.1mm, and 172 grams

On the hardware

Modern smartphones are often referred to as black slabs. The iPhone 6 Plus defines and celebrates that reference. While Apple offers three colors — including gold and silver — only the space gray option has a black front. With this, along with its new glass design with overflowing curves, the entire display rolls over the edges. I admit that I cannot stop staring at this design aspect. 

The home button with integrated fingerprint sensor remains positioned below the 5.5-inch display, with the earpiece and improved FaceTime camera above. Apple minimized these areas considerably compared to previous models. The side bezels are reasonable in thickness, giving you just the right amount to grasp the phone securely with your thumb and fingers.

The iPhone 6 Plus' fingerprint sensor for Touch ID performs flawlessly, providing the ability to securely and quickly unlock the device, make purchases in the App Store. Thanks to improvements in iOS 8, it can now be integrated with third-party apps. My two thumbprints were enrolled, unlocking at various angles without issue. Thinking back to experiences with the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One Max fingerprint scanners, it's almost laughable to even consider comparing them.

Pros Cons
High quality design, fit, and finish No water resistant rating
Impressive 1080p display Limited NFC use
8-megapixel camera with OIS Single, bottom-facing speaker
Long battery life Apps are yet to be updated to take advantage of the display
Big, but manageable, due to combined design and software Health app is nearly useless at this point
Flawless Touch ID performance  

Apple Pay, the device's new short-range wireless payments system, which integrates with Touch ID, will land later this year in a software update.

Apple moved the power button from the top and dropped it down to the upper right side. The nanoSIM card slot is below the power button. The left side houses the ringer switch and volume buttons, just like existing iPhone models. The physical ringer switch is extremely convenient, especially when popping in and out of meetings at work all day.

Like Apple's previous models, the smartphone comes with a 3.5-millimeter standard headset jack, bottom-edged microphone, and integrated data and battery-charging Lightning port. The loudspeaker was tightened up from two panels on either side of the charging port in the previous iteration to one small six-holed panel on the right-hand side of the device's lower edge.

The new 8-megapixel camera is improved, albeit marginally. But, in a somewhat unusual move for Apple's design ethos, the sapphire glass-protected camera lens protrudes out from the back by a fraction. It's said to offer improved camera performance, but the additional depth no longer makes the device smooth on both faces.

Plastic antenna bands are positioned along the top and bottom rear face, then wrap around to the sides. These bands do stand out from the back metal shell, but they're not unattractive, particularly on the space gray model. 

The device hardware is strong and appears durable. It's no surprise that the iPhone 6 Plus is the most expensive phone currently available in the U.S. market. When you consider that millions will use it every day for work and play, it becomes easier to justify the expense of a phone that impresses in nearly every capacity.

On the software

Apple's latest smartphones wouldn't be complete without the latest software, iOS 8. This was my first exposure to using this new version of iOS and it is clear that parity among iOS, Android, and Windows Phone is being reached. That is a good thing, given that user feedback and analytics help define what works best for smartphone owners.

Notifications are now actionable, allowing users to reply to texts, respond to appointment invitations, and acknowledge reminders without having to leave the app they're in. The notification area became cluttered and annoyed some users in the past. Now, the vast majority of notifications are actionable outside the pull-down menu.

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Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

In addition to notifications, the "Today" screen supports dynamic, updatable widgets. Developers can feed information from their apps into a convenient, easy-to-ready display. Simply scrolling down to the bottom of the "Today" view allows the user to edit which widgets appear. Prior to iOS 8, widgets were limited to select Apple-built apps, like Weather, Calendar, Reminders, and Stocks. Some third-party apps, like Evernote, Yahoo! News Digest, and Amazon Kindle, have widgets enabled as standard in their recently updated apps. 

Android owners have had alternative text input keyboards since the beginning; Windows Phone just added it a few months ago ; and now Apple, finally, has joined the game. The default Apple keyboard does not support swiping input, but it was updated with QuickType technology so that contextually appropriate words appear above the keyboard.

While the improved Apple keyboard and alternative text input methods are a significant step forward towards third-party "openness," the number row and quick access to characters remain absent. 

The iPhone 6 Plus is more of a tablet than a phone. Apple provides some tablet-like features that support this use. Rotate the device into landscape orientation, and you see the home screen in full widescreen format, with the four apps or folders normally found on the bottom now placed on the right side. 

Apple offers several landscape-enhanced native apps that blur the phone-tablet line, including Calendar, Weather, Apple Maps, Clock, Safari, iWork suite, Mail, Contacts and Settings.  Mail and Calendar are particularly well-suited for landscape use.

Very few third-party apps I tested support landscape, so having to rotate your phone for every app you open can be a bit irritating. 

Developers have been slow to update their apps (or to have their apps approved by Apple) to be optimized for the large, high-resolution display. For example, Chrome looks poorly put together on the iPhone 6 Plus, unless your eyesight is failing or you have a preference for huge fonts. Safari, the device's native browser, remains my preferred browser, especially with the cascading tab interface. 

For those who have an iPad or a Mac, Apple now has a technology based on iCloud called Handoff. Handoff lets you pick up where you left off on one device and supports apps such as Mail, Safari, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Maps, Messages, Reminders, Calendar, and Contacts. The iPhone 6 Plus is the only Apple device I have at the moment so I was unable to test Handoff.

Apple Health is actually a bit stunning, but not in a good way. Launching the app presents you with an overwhelming number of categories related to your health. Apple has not yet opened up the ability for third parties to tie their health and fitness apps into this central repository so data collected is restricted to just information that Apple's new iPhone 6 Plus can collect with the M8 Motion Coprocessor.

Time will tell if it Health turns out to be a standard platform that helps its users live healthier and more productive lives, but at this time there is little value in opening it up. Apple is known for simplicity. Health feels as though it's a direct contradiction to this philosophy. 

Here's what iPhone 6 Plus offers business users and consumers

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Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

On using the iPhone 6 Plus in the enterprise

Smartphones can be a source of fun and entertainment but most of us will at some point use them to get work done. As a professional engineer, a naval architect and marine salvage engineer, I find that the larger display and the higher-quality camera alone can be crucial for this kind of work.

The Force Effect app on the large 5.5-inch display makes it far easier to verify and validate free body diagram checks.

In order to ensure that accurate drawings are developed, and that shipyard specifications are correct, shipchecks are performed by engineers. With drawings loaded on the iPhone 6 Plus into AutoCAD 360, annotations can be made while crawling through the bilges and internal structure of ships and barges. 

Photos and videos might not be crucial for many, but for my work they can be vital. They're essential for capturing conditions. With the improved camera software and hardware combination, the images are far larger and sharper. Optical image stabilization, a unique feature of the iPhone 6 Plus, helps the user capture clearer photos in challenging situations.

That's just a taste. In addition to these unique business functions, Mail, Messages, and Calendar apps are core enterprise functions that work even better on the iPhone 6 Plus.

On using the iPhone 6 Plus as a consumer

While your business life can be bolstered and improved with an iPhone 6 Plus, there are also many ways to enjoy the device after work. Business travelers wanting to unwind will like the larger display — which is optimized for widescreen video — for movies, games, and music.

For hitting the road and staying in touch, it's tough to beat this smartphone with the new-and-improved Messages app, which thanks to iOS 8 improvements now lets you name your group conversations, share your current location, and add voice and video to your conversations. 

FaceTime video calling can be another convenient way to stay in touch with family and friends while traveling. The "selfie"-camera has also been bumped up with brighter, better quality videos. 

The iPhone is arguably a camera first and phone second to millions of people. Apple previously said the iPhone is one of the world's most popular devices for image capture. With new improvements to the rear-side 8-megapixel camera, you can now take higher-resolution panoramic shots of up to 43-megapixels in size. Time-lapse features have been added, and even slower-motion video options are available.

Siri is now sassier than ever. With the iPhone 6 Plus plugged in and charging, the voice-activated assistant responds to the phrase "Hey Siri!". Our sister-site CNET demonstrates how this works. Check your favorite sports score, find a movie or restaurant, post to social networks, set reminders, send a text or email, check the weather, get directions, and find things. Almost nothing is outside Siri's bounds, thanks to the improved software.

Previously, third-party apps were necessary to have your social networking sites update your device's contact list photos. iOS 8 now integrates this as standard. 

On browsing, Safari remains an excellent web browser with some improvements. One of the more notable features is the Reader icon, which lets you read content only — similar to how Windows Phone 8.1 culls the ads and distractions.

On using T-Mobile as a carrier

T-Mobile remains a key partner for Apple at its launch. There are five good reasons why it could be the best of the U.S. carriers.

Wi-Fi Calling, which provides coverage in your home or office when a cellular signal may be weak or non-existent, may be the number one reason. Integrated next-generation voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) calling also provides high quality calls over the long-term evolution (LTE) data.

Also, free in-flight texting through the carrier is supported. On a flight from Seattle to New York, this functionality was key to keeping in touch with friends and family on the ground.

Pricing and availability

The iPhone 6 Plus sold out quickly, with many seeing current shipping times for later in October for most U.S. carriers. Sold in white, gold, and space gray, it comes in three different storage sizes: in 16 GB, 64 GB, and now the larger 128 GB, previously reserved for iPads.

The subsidized prices from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint means you will generally still pay the full price over time, as the carrier hides the recurring costs in your monthly fees. Prices begin at $299, $399, and $499 for the respective capacities.

The true, full prices of the iPhone 6 Plus are $749, $849, and $949 before tax.

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Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive

The competition

The 5-inch and larger smartphone category is getting more and more crowded, thanks to efforts by rival phone makers. But many of these devices are in fact smaller than the iPhone 6 Plus, making the larger Apple smartphone in this year's line-up one of the biggest on the markets.

By comparison, competitors with 5.5-inch or larger displays include the LG G3, Nokia Lumia 1520, Huawei Ascend Mate 2, and Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

The LG G3 is noticeably shorter in height, narrower, and thicker than the iPhone 6 Plus. It's lower in price, but offers both memory expansion via a microSD card and a removable battery for heavy device users. Meanwhile, Nokia's Lumia 1520 and Huawei's Ascend Mate 2 are larger than the iPhone 6 Plus. The Samsung Note 4 is slightly shorter and thicker.

Conclusion 

Out of the 10 best smartphones for the 2014 holiday buying season , the iPhone 6 Plus can now comfortably remain at the top. That likely won't change anytime soon.

All phone makers offer their own flagship features. Samsung offers enhanced functionality with its Note lineup. Nokia, and others, simply offer devices with larger displays. Apple offers a large screen, but also provides the improved software features and enhancements that all but make the larger iPad mini tablet redundant. 

Apple's iPhone 6 Plus is not perfect — no smartphone ever is. But it's as close as it gets in my view. The iPad mini was never an essential device, but the iPhone 6 Plus fills in the gaps. It provides business users with tons of functionality in form that makes it tough to put down.

Contributor's rating: 9 out of 10