Living with the Apple iPhone 6: long-term review

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Introduction


It’s been nearly four months since Apple released the iPhone 6 in September, and in the meantime one thing has become abundantly clear: the new iPhone is breaking sales records and is extremely well received. After the initial lines and short supply, the iPhone 6 is finally well-stocked and available for everyone to buy. What this means is that it is about time for a long-term review of Apple’s dearest.

I have been using the phone off-and-on for months now, but in the past month I've dedicating myself to four weeks of intense exploration of all of its hidden avenues. It's above all a personal journey: I have been put off by Apple's decision to stick with small screens prior to the iPhone 6, and in the past couple of years, my list of daily drivers consists of Android devices solely. A larger iPhone, however, calls for a deeper look back at Apple's ecosystem and all its different aspects.



In this iPhone 6 long-term review you'd find a summary of my most essential personal impressions from this four-week intensive exploration of Apple's latest flagship. Read on.

Design can make or break a product


The iPhone 6 is a result of the adamant focus and discipline that Apple has imposed on itself throughout the years. After spending a few months with Apple’s iPhone 6 darling, I can say that the new aluminum-body design has withstood the test of time and comes out as being very practical and good-looking at the same time. Multiple factors intertwine in a singular feeling of premium experience with the iPhone 6: the thinness of the phone makes it stand out (only the Sony Xperia Z3 comes close to the slim profile, all other phones seem terribly chubby in comparison), the exquisite color options and the extremely stylish gold version in particular make it very desirable, and the attention to all the little details is admirable (the well-crafted and responsive volume buttons, the presence of the useful mute switch, the lock key that is positioned conveniently right next to your thumb).

Apple’s reality distortion field is said to funny effects on people, but I can't say this widespread admiration is unjust: every time I pick up the iPhone 6 after using most any other phone, I felt wowed by the thinness and the sturdy design. I've felt in a similar way about few other devices in the past: the HTC One S was one such phone, and in most recent years, the HTC One (M8) has taken a special place in my heart also, but it's a place reserved for few phones, and the iPhone 6 seems to have found it. I've also found the aluminum of the iPhone 6’s back not as prone to scratches as on the 5s and earlier 5. I'd still prefer carrying the phone with an ultra-slim case when I know I'll be on the run and I am afraid it might slip out of my pocket, but I did find myself poaching it out of its case not once to have a more direct contact and appreciate its thinness. In those cases, I made sure I placed it in a pocket where it won’t mingle with keys and other pocket lint. After a month of intense use, the iPhone 6 still looks brand new, without a single scratch.

Display: the underdeserved hype around resolution, and the overlooked importance of color accuracy


Lately, smartphone makers have gone on a wild race to increase the resolution of smartphone displays: we saw displays with a resolution of 720 x 1280 (720p), then 1080p, then quickly another jump to a Quad HD (1440 x 2560 pixels) resolution, while Apple - puzzlingly for some - sticks with a 4.7” display with a resolution of 750 x 1334 pixels. The average spec-counting crows are quick to summon hell and high water on Apple for such allegedly short-sighted decision that seemingly puts the iPhone in the stone edge of technology. The truth, however, is more complicated than that, as mathematical analysis shows that the human eye finds very little visible difference between resolution going over pixel densities of 320ish ppi (the iPhone 6 has 326ppi).

What gets much less attention - while at the same time being a factor with such huge variances with big significance for the quality of an image - is the color accuracy of displays. Apple's iPhone 6 display delivers very good color with none of the plaguing issues like ghosting that are typical of some AMOLED displays. Comparatively speaking, it is among the best smartphone displays in terms of color calibration. 

This does not mean it's perfect: being an avid night reader, I've found the level of minimum brightness on the iPhone 6 to be too bright, which makes for an uncomfortable, eye-strain-inducing experience. Also, color saturations are slightly off and the screen is just slightly bluish, whereas I would prefer seeing Apple stick closer to the industry standard color temperature with less of that cold tonality.


iOS 8: the agony and ecstasy


We've already done a comprehensive review of iOS 8, so there is no need to repeat things all over again here. A very quick recap is that iOS 8 features a beautifully simple interface that just works, with some quirks that we’ll speak about later on.

There is, however, one feature of iOS that has gotten little attention yet I feel is crucial to the usability of Apple's platform. That one feature is the iPhone spotlight search that you bring up by swiping down anywhere on the home screen. Spotlight search is basically the mobile alternative to the Windows Start menu, a way to quickly search for apps, contacts, and more, a universal search bar of sorts. There is a similar feature on Android with the Google search box, but I find the one on iOS to have some key advantages. First, it's extremely fast, while Google's search bar takes a split second to load and that lag could get irritating; secondly, Apple’s spotlight search has the right information density as it is capable of showing mulitple results. For instance, in Spotlight search you can easily type a single letter like M to get all apps that start with an M (like Mail, Messenger, etc), so you can just tap on the app you want to open it up quickly. Google’s search bar in comparison prioritizes Google search results, and while it does also search for apps, you will usually see just one result, so you need to scroll, and the whole exercise becomes too slow to be of much use.

At the same time, it is still surprising for me as someone with an Android habit to see how ridiculously tedious it is to do simple things on iOS like changing the wallpaper or adding a new ringtone.

Customization as a whole remains a sore spot for the iOS platform: you don’t have true live wallpapers (you have Apple's dynamic images, but those are hardly a full-blown alternative), you don't have true widgets (again, iOS 8 adds widgets to the notification bar, but not to the home panel, which feels like a half-baked solution), you don’t have the option to change the appearance of icons, and - naturally - you have zero of the complete overhaul capabilities of Android launchers and custom ROMs.

Is this a real problem? Despite Apple's community denial, fact remains that Apple has been consistently behind Android in terms of customization options, and the company is now playing catch-up: it has done so with the adoption of an Android-like notification center, it has done so by allowing custom keyboards, and it seems that Apple is slowly but surely moving towards giving more and more customization options to its users.


Camera specs: what is it that really matters?



The iPhone 6 features an 8-megapixel main camera. That's less than the 13-megapixel shooter on the LG G3, less than the 16-megapixel cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note 4, and it's much less than the 20-megapixel cameras on Sony's Xperia Z3 and earlier flagships. Does this make the iPhone 6 an inferior camera? Some may shout out a confident 'yes' - in the general case, having less megapixels translates into less fine detail into images, but detail is just one aspect of an image, and arguably, one of the less important ones (unless we're speaking about landscape images that professional photographers capture and use for gigantic prints). If you want a proof, just look at our camera comparisons and polls where the 20-megapixel Xperia Z3 consistently loses to cameras with much less megapixels.

It's important to understand that Apple is not just saving money by not including a camera with a higher megapixel count, but - just like with its decision to use a dual-core chip rather than fall for the octa-core trend - the 8-megapixel resolution of the iSight camera is a conscious and rational decision. Camera theory is a complicated matter, but one generally accepted rule is that pixel size does matter in many occasions. Apple makes a point that its camera features 'large 1.5-micron pixels', and that's an important distinction from all the rest smartphone makers that use much smaller, 1.1-micron pixels (save for HTC at the moment). There are some physical limitations related to pixel size, and most importantly when a camera packs a lot of pixels on a small sensor it becomes very susceptible to the negative effects of diffraction. We have also seen cameras with high megapixel count generally perform less than ideal in low-light.

The takeaway from all this is not that 8 megapixels of resolution is the end-all be-all of smartphone cameras, but that looking at resolution tells you very little about the actual quality of the images that has much more to do with the way the camera exposes, captures colors, the easy of use so that a skilled photographer can frame and shoot quickly, and not miss the magic of the moment that great photos are all about.

Battery life


The good news? I found that this difference mattered less than I expected in my personal use, and what is very likely to be the common use case for many people. I am not trying to justify Apple for its decision to put such a small battery in its flagship, but fact remains that on a typical 9 to 5 type of a job, the phone does last a full work day off the charger and then a little more. Basically, the iPhone 6 has just enough juice so that you get to charge it nightly, and while other phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 do last a bit longer, chances are that the difference is just not that big and you still have to charge them overnight every day.

I approached this four-week living with the iPhone 6 experiment with a lot of caution because of what I knew would be sub-par battery life on Apple’s flagship. My fears, however, turned out to be blown out of proportion. Interestingly, this experiment has made me reconsider priorities. I found little real-life change to my habits: just as I plugged in my Android phone (I've recently lived with the Galaxy S5 for a few months, also a few weeks with the Note 4) overnight, I did the same with the iPhone.

What was particularly revealing is that my mind kept coming back to remind that it was not battery longevity, but another feature that contributed most to my satisfaction with how satisfactory the smartphone experience is: re-charge time. Being able to go for a quick pit stop, and have your phone recharged to some 75% in just half an hour is what contributes most to my feeling of an untethered, truly mobile experience. And if there was one feature I would wish for most in the iPhone 6s it would not be a larger battery, but something different: fast recharging times. Currently, and somewhat strangely, it is an exotic phone from China that excels in this: the Oppo Find 7, with its ultra-fast, VOOC charging technology.

minutes Lower is better
Xiaomi Mi 4
126
Motorola Moto X (2014)
176
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
208
Sony Xperia Z3
235
LG G3
120
Google Nexus 6
98
HTC One (M8)
207
Samsung Galaxy Note4
95
Samsung Galaxy S5
122
Apple iPhone 6
147
OPPO Find 7
88

Conclusion


Whether you like it or not, the iPhone 6 has got the sales to prove it's an unprecedented success for Apple and a factor to be reckoned with. My impressions with it remain mostly positive. If I had to sum up any sore gripes about the iPhone 6, most of them will be related to iOS 8 and the user interface: customization options are lacking, many elements seem inappropriately sized and simple things like changing the wallpaper or clearing all of your notifications is an unnecessarily complex process.

On this scale of things, the positives outweigh the negatives by a large margin: the excellent sturdy and sleek design, the camera that is the fastest on a smartphone and also one to take great pictures, the industry-leading CPU performance, and finally the smooth and (mostly) lag-free iOS 8 are things that make a difference that can be felt in everyday use. Add to that the robust ecosystem of apps and games, many of which arrive first and often exclusively to iOS, and you begin to understand why so many people are switching over to the Apple iPhone 6.
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