iPhone 6 review: thinner, faster and slightly cheaper

Iphone 6

According to Apple chief executive Tim Cook, the reason iPhone users have had to wait until now for a 4.7in (12cm) and larger screen is because Apple wanted to do it right: keep the phone thin and light, and keep the screen quality up.

Without doubt the iPhone 6 achieves this. The screen quality is excellent, both for brightness and colour quality. The battery life is better than the iPhone 5S. And the phone is even thinner than its predecessor, and pleasant to hold. Before the iPhone 6, the nicest phone I have held was Nokia’s Lumia 800, its first model, which had rounded side edges, and was instantly at home in your hand.

But the Lumia 800 had a flat top edge; the iPhone 6 does it better. It’s rounded everywhere. There are no sharp edges. What Apple does, and what it charges for: design. Jony Ive’s team has had eight previous goes at designing phones, and now they’re getting a real design language together, particularly about roundedness.

Spending a day or two using the iPhone 6 makes its predecessors feel overweight. The most noticeable thing, besides the thinness, is how smoothly the curved screen rolls over the edges - so swiping from the left edge to the right, or from the right edge to go left (which we do at many navigation points, including in Apple Mail) is a tactile pleasure. On the 5S and the 5C, that gesture finds the chamfered or plastic edge - but at least it isn’t uncomfortable. On the 6 and 6 Plus, it’s lissom.

Compare that to the new Moto G, Samsung Galaxy Alpha or LG G3, and the differences that set Apple’s design apart are revealed.

The Moto G is fabulously cheap and with high specs, but the plastic back feels as though it’s made from recycled milk containers. The Galaxy Alpha has been described as Samsung’s “most beautiful” phone because, well, because it has metal edging? The edging shaves away your fingers, the backplate apparently uses the “dead flesh” that graced the buttons of the ZX Spectrum keyboard, and while it is nominally thinner than the iPhone 6, that’s achieved by allowing unsightly bulges for the headphone jack, micro-USB port and camera on the back, which looks like a metal wart.

Sure, the iPhone 6’s camera protrudes - by about a millimetre, and that bothers some people. But overall, in comparison to the iPhone 6, the Alpha feels like it came out of a cut-price Christmas cracker.

The LG G3? Far nicer, and beautifully finished. But the front edges are still aggressively sharp, and while it’s less wide than the iPhone 6 Plus (the 5.5in model) it’s also thicker, which means you can’t stretch your hand around it (say, to hold and swipe) as on the larger screen.

As expected, the power button moves to the right-hand edge because it would be unreachable on the top, but somehow manages to feel the same size as the previous 5S - until you pick up the 5S, at which point you wonder how you used such a small screen. Anyone with smaller hands may disagree, and struggle with the width of the handset - in which case the smaller iPhone 5S and 5C are still on sale.

Specifications

Screen: 4.7in, 1334x750 326ppi LED; 1400:1 contrast ratio
Processor: A8 64-bit ARM with M8 motion coprocessor
RAM: 1GB
Storage: 16GB, 64GB, 128GB
Operating system: iOS 8
Camera: back: 8MP with 1.5micron pixels, f2.2, Optical image stabilisation, 240fps video, sapphire lens cover, auto-HDR, face detection, 43-megapixel panorama, burst mode 10fps; 1080p video at 30fps or 60fps. Front camera: 1.2MP (1280x960), f2.2, 720p HD, burst mode.
Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0 with BLE, NFC; VoLTE (voice over LTE) capability, Wi-Fi call handoff capability
Dimensions: 138.1 x 670 x 6.9mm
Weight: 129g
Others: TouchID fingerprint sensor; NFC payment capability for ApplePay

Much of the iPhone 6’s differences are actually brought about by iOS 8 - which will be available for phones going back to the iPhone 4S from 2011, so read the separate review for iOS 8.

Can TouchID this

Apple’s TouchID fingerprint sensor is now on all the phones it makes except last year’s plastic 5C (which is still on sale, at a lower price); one might anticipate it coming on iPads too. Unlike other fingerprint sensors which require swiping or wiping, TouchID requires just a light pressure on the home button with whichever of five fingerprints you’ve registered. I’ve found that the only thing that upsets it is if your finger is actively wet (not damp). Given that this is how Apple is tying authentication into its ApplePay mobile payment strategy, the effectiveness of TouchID is important.

Camera

The iOS 8 update brings a number of new features to the camera such as an exposure meter and time-lapse filming. The iPhone 6 has a far more detailed camera than the 5S, despite the lack of sheer megapixels, because the sensors are larger.

iPhone 6 camera sticks out
The camera on the iPhone 6 protrudes very slightly from the back. Photograph: Guardian

One oddity: the camera housing protrudes - about a millimetre - from the back of the phone. You’ll barely notice it even on a flat surface, and you have to squint to see it in the flesh. It didn’t trouble me; certainly compared to the awful compromises in the Samsung Alpha, it’s invisible.

Barometer high

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus add a barometer - ostensibly for motion tracking (so that you can feel virtuous about all those stairs you’ve climbed), though it’s a sure bet that apps like OpenSignal will start using it to generate crowdsourced weather. (Samsung first put a barometer in the Galaxy S3 in 2012, so this is another late arrival.)

Screen low

The screen is now taller than previous models which means that some people won’t be able to reach the top left of the screen with their thumbs, but Apple has made one particular concession to that. It has introduced an extra gesture - “quick double tap” - on the home button, which pulls the top of the screen down to half height. That means that even in the apps which haven’t yet implemented the “swipe right to go back” gesture (like Apple’s Photos app) you can reach the top left “back” button easily. To reverse it, double tap again or touch somewhere else in the page.

For those who recall Apple’s ad a while back about how you could reach everything on the iPhone with your thumb, this is a continuation of that thinking. Apple calls it “Reachability”, which sounds like something out of an unsuccessful Mad Men all-nighter.

ApplePay

After insisting it didn’t see the point in NFC, Apple has done an end-run on Android rivals by including an NFC-driven payment mechanism in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It also has an API for online payments which has PayPal worried enough to run adverts in US papers stating: “We the people want our money safer than our selfies.”

Apple insists that ApplePay doesn’t store your credit card details - not in iCloud or even on your phone. Instead, American users (and at some undetermined date European users) can add the credit card they use on the iTunes store to the “pay” function on their phones. (You can also add it by taking a photo of the card.)

However, the phone doesn’t store the credit card number. Rich Mogull explains it here:

  • Via Apple, the phone makes a one-time secure connection to the card’s issuing bank, which then replies with a “device account number” (DAN) - in effect, an encrypted token of the card that is then stored on the phone. Like a one-way hashed password, it’s essentially impossible to work back from the token to the card.
  • The DAN is stored in the “secure element” of an NXP chip in the phone. When you come to make an NFC payment, you unlock the secure element via TouchID (thus providing a “cardholder present” authority to the issuer) and the DAN is sent via the retailer to the bank.
  • The bank checks the DAN is valid (by hashing your stored details to see if that matches the transmitted one), and if it is, replies to the retailer confirming the transaction. Apple isn’t involved; it doesn’t keep any record of the transaction. But the bank does give Apple a cut (reportedly 0.15%) of transactions made using its issued DANs.

This differs from Google Wallet in a significant way: in Google Wallet, your card details are stored by Google, which effectively wraps them into its own giant credit card. When you make a Google Wallet transaction, Google’s card in effect gets charged, and it then charges it back against your card. So Google sees what you do and when.

PayPal, meanwhile, might have something to worry about if developers start picking up on ApplePay - which might be significantly cheaper because it is a “cardholder present” transaction, which is cheaper for retailers than “card not present” transactions.

Processor and battery life

Apple is now in the second generation of 64-bit processors, though it hasn’t upped the RAM in its phones. This is almost certainly to preserve battery life: the more RAM, the more juice you use.

That said, iOS is so aggressive in closing down unnecessary background apps that might be using energy or memory, the lack of RAM doesn’t show as a problem. Whether the arrival of Extensions, which add capability to apps, will put extra strain on that isn’t yet clear, but in some months of testing iOS 8 on an iPhone 5C I didn’t hit any problems.

Unsurprisingly, battery life on the 6 is better than on the 5S - because more of the phone is battery. I easily got one day’s use, and sometimes much of a second day. Comparisons are difficult, though, because they depend on network availability (when out of range the phone amps up its output to try to contact a mast) and screen brightness.

How long? I generally got about 30% more life out of the iPhone 6 than the 5S. That should take you from one end of the day to the other quite handily - much further if you use plug-in battery packs; I don’t agree the wails calling for replaceable batteries. The only downside of the bigger battery is that it takes longer to charge, though it’s still quicker than LG’s or Samsung’s comparably-sized models in my testing.

Price

The iPhone 6 starts at £539/$649 for 16GB, and comes with 16GB, 64GB or 128GB of storage - cheaper than last year’s iPhone 5S, which started at £549/$649.

Verdict

A beautifully made phone that finally reaches the screen size that many have hankered for from an iPhone, without sacrificing quality. The iOS 8 software adds a lot of key functionality - and NFC allied to TouchID has huge potential for offline and online payments.

Pros: beautiful edge-free design, improved battery life, excellent camera, TouchID system works perfectly, integrated NFC offers payment possibilities, has adaptations to make one-handed use easier, iOS 8 software allows third-party keyboards and extensions

Cons: expensive

iPhone 6 Plus review: it’s a very big phone - and it feels great

Apple iPhone 6: thinner, faster and slightly cheaper - review

iOS 8 review: the iPhone and iPad get customised, extended and deepened

Updated: corrected name of Samsung Galaxy Alpha (from Ultra); added that the iPhone 5C does not have TouchID; added the price of last year’s iPhone 5S.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Charles Arthur, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 17th September 2014 19.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010