Despite other companies’ attempts at mocking them, the launch of a new iPhone is an annual cultural event. No other yearly product launch creates as much buzz or has the masses talking like a new iPhone. For good or for worse, the new iPhone is always the next big thing.
However, the current state of the smartphone industry in 2014 is not the same as it was five years ago. Whether it’s the LG G3, the HTC One (M8), or the OnePlus One, there are actual serious competitors with the iPhone out there. This new class of Android smartphones isn’t just a group of big, fast, and feature-filled devices—these are smartphones that are smartly designed, made of high quality materials, and the very best software.
Apple has made its move on Android by increasing the size of the iPhone, but is that enough? We all know that the iPhone 6 will fly off the shelves faster than they can even be manufactured—in fact, it already has just in pre-orders alone. But is the iPhone 6 a smartphone that stands out as a standalone product or is it just running off the steam of the brand Apple has built around it?
Whether it was the all-in-one iMac, the intuitive iPod, or the beautiful unibody MacBook Pro, Apple has always thrived as a company who understands industrial design. Technical specs and functions don’t make it to the end product unless they fit into the overall design aesthetic. This no-compromise approach to design has always been the thing that has separated Apple products from the crowds of lookalikes and imitators. That’s exactly why some of the imperfections on the iPhone 6 seem like glaring oversights rather than forgivable errors.
The iPhone 6 is no doubt a high quality, premium smartphone that was executed really well. However, I want to talk particularly about the two highly debated elements of the iPhone 6’s design. First, the protruding camera that just barely juts out from the back of the otherwise flat back (by only 0.2 mm). It might seem like an awfully small thing to make a big deal about—after all, it’s not nearly as large as the monstrosity that is on the back of something like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and only barely make the device tilt when laying on its back. What’s more, the iPhone 6 is impressively thin. It just might be the thinnest smartphone ever made.
However, it’s telling—especially considering the very average looking design of the forthcoming Apple Watch. With the increasingly difficult burden of again making the iPhone 6 thinner than its predecessor, Apple chose to compromise the integrity of the device’s design to adhere to hitting some kind of technical spec. On the other hand, the iPhone 5s is already thinner than every other flagship smartphone at 7.6mm and even with the additional 0.2mm, the iPhone 6 would have been thinner than both its predecessor and its competition. My best guess is that the mistake is indicative of Apple’s sense of confidence in the mobile phone industry as large Android phones take more and more of its share of the market.
The camera itself has the same size sensor that’s found in the iPhone 5s, once again proving that a higher megapixel count does not always equal sharper photos. While the standard for flagship Android smartphones in 2014 has become 13 megapixels, Apple is more than happy to hold on to its six megapixel sensor and keep improving its top notch imaging software. When I get to the software end of things I’ll talk more about it, but you should know that the iPhone 6 somehow blows every other smartphone camera out of the water and renders pretty much every point-and-shoot camera nearly irrelevant.
The second “glaring oversight” is a bit more subjective—but in my mind, could be a bigger issue in the long run. Overall, the iPhone 6 is a really well designed product. It’s as close to unibody as you’ll find on a smartphone (alongside the HTC One), and full metal finish feels incredibly premium. The part of the design that doesn’t agree with me is the two lines that cover the antenna bands on the back of the phone. I don’t have a grand explanation about why, but the design is the first that had me missing the looking of its predecessor. Again, I can’t help but feel like in its attempts to achieve the full unibody look, Apple has compromised on the design aesthetic and lost some of the creative high ground it has always had.
On the front side of the phone, you won’t see much difference between the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 5s. That same sapphire glass Home button is still there, along with pretty the same size bezels proportionally. The main difference is the display, which still reproduces colors better than most and has the highest pixel density count of any smartphone Apple has ever made. Apple calls it a “Retina HD” display, which is Apple’s slight marketing jab at Quad HD and Ultra-HD displays. The larger size of the iPhone 6 makes it that much more impressive and for the first time won’t have you envying your friends with large, flashy Android phones.
The part that Apple has nailed perfectly is the size and feel of the iPhone 6. With the jump up in size, not scaring off long time supports was most certainly Apple’s biggest problem to solve. By making the 4.7-inch device not as wide as some Android devices of a display size, Apple has managed to make it feel pretty nice to hold—even in one hand. In fact, moving from an iPhone 5s to an iPhone 6 won’t require much adjustment at all and pretty much makes it the ideal size.
Along with the bigger size comes a bigger battery, which should have iPhone users everywhere rejoicing. The battery life of Apple’s past couple of generations of phones were some of the worst of the flagship smartphones available. The iPhone 6 has an 1810 mAh battery, which is a nice improvement over the iPhone 5s’ 1560 mAh battery. Although the battery is still significantly smaller than those found in competitors’ devices (such as the new similarly-sized Moto X, which has a 2300mAh battery or a bigger device like the LG G3, which features a massive 3000 mAh battery). But a larger battery doesn’t always equal extended battery life and the engineers at Apple have always been particularly good at optimizing their proprietary software with the limited specs they often have.
Times have changed and so have smartphones. Despite some of the design missteps, the way Apple has handled this new size jump proves that the company still knows simultaneously give customers both what they want and what they need.
The iPhone 6 comes with the newest version of Apple’s operating system, iOS 8. Apple made its giant leap into the world of flat iconography, transparent textures, and simpler design with iOS 7 last year. Rather than another massive upheaval of iOS, this time around Apple has made smaller adjustments and tweaks to the look of iOS. Animations have been sped up (most notably, the app opening “zoom-in”), more shading has been added to the bare minimalism, and Apple has pulled back the reins a bit on the indulgence of its UX. For people who were a bit skeptical about Apple’s drastic visual change last year, they’ll be happy to know that iOS 8 feels significantly more refined and polished than iOS 7.
One of the more notable things they’ve fixed in iOS 8 is the redesigned pulldown search, which doesn’t pull down all your icons, but instead replaces that animation with the familiar “frosted glass” texture. While it doesn’t look quite as nice, it fortunately makes the animation a lot faster. Most importantly, the new search is a universal search that will pull up queries from Bing or Wikipedia—as well as all of the local data on your device.
There are hundreds of new features in iOS 8 that we’ve gone into more detail elsewhere, but the biggest new thing is called Apple Pay. Apple has finally reversed its decision to not include an NFC (near-field communication) chip in its devices, but only to serve its new mobile payment system, Apple Pay. A number of retailers (including everyone’s favorites like Walmart and McDonalds) have already jumped onto the system and will soon have Apple Pay systems in all their stores. Although it seems like Apple is really trying to push get behind it, the effect that Apple Pay will have is still very much in the air. Previous attempts at digital payments systems like Passbook never quite took off in more than a few isolated situations (paying for your drink at Starbucks, namely).
The next part of the software that gets a notable boost is the camera app. As noted about, the iPhone 6 still has the same 6-megapixel camera that the iPhone 5s had, but still manages to vastly improve how photos look on a consistent basis. Lowlight shots have never looked sharper and focusing is now incredibly fast thanks to the new sensor in the camera that Apple calls Focus Pixels.
Along with the nifty additions of an improved 240 frames per second (fps) Slo-Mo mode and a new Timelapse mode, Apple has also finally separated focus from exposure. After all, just because you want a certain subject in focus, that doesn’t mean you want that tap to change the exposure of the photo. You now have the option of a separate slider that can adjust the exposure independent of whatever happens to be in focus. But here’s the bottom line on the camera: the iPhone 6 shoots better than any other smartphone on the market. Better than the LG G3, better than the Samsung Galaxy S5, and better than the Nokia Lumia 1020.
Unlike the iPhone 6 Plus, there isn’t much in iOS 8 that is unique to the iPhone 6. The iPhone 6 has a new camera sensor, the NFC chip for Apply Pay, and a larger, higher-res display—but not much on the software side of things. Using an iPhone 6 with iOS 8 won’t feel much different than using an iPhone 5s with iOS 8. You’ll still get the option of third party keyboards, you’ll still get iCloud Drive, and you’ll still get to reply directly to iMessages without having to switch apps. The tweaks and small features in iOS 8 returns some confidence that Apple may know what they’re doing after all.
In my mind, iOS 8 makes returns Apple to the forefront of smartphone software design and reminds us that they are a company that gives us what we want just as much as they give us what they think we want. The best part is that we haven’t even fully experienced features like Continuity and Handoff, which seamlessly integrate iOS with OS X Yosemite. The future of the Apple ecosystem is just beneath the surface of iOS 8 and I can’t wait to see how it will enrich the experience of using these products together.
Despite how good iOS 8 feels, how promising Apple Pay is, and how incredible the camera shoots, the iPhone 6 might be the first new iPhone release that has left me feeling uninspired by its design. It’s certainly the first iPhone that made me wish it still looked like its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still got a design that’s a mile ahead of most of its competition based on materials and build quality alone. But with Android devices like the HTC One M8 out on store shelves, it’s hard to look at what Apple has done with the iPhone 6 and marvel at its innovation. Perhaps it’s just the competition catching up—or perhaps Apple really is starting to lose some of its magic touch.
Either way, the iPhone 6 is still one of the best smartphones you can buy—if not the very best. Apple can still rest easy knowing that it’s successfully caved and given people a bigger iPhone without sacrificing anything that makes these devices so special. But if the trend continues with Android phones, Apple may need to have more up its sleeves than just a thinner, bigger iPhone come next year.