After months of ignoring Myke Hurley telling us that the iPhone 6 Plus was great, a bunch of my friends have all tried it recently, and many have converted. See these podcasts:
And these blog posts:
I finally tried the 6 Plus myself as well, having recently taken two trips to the British Isles in the span of a few weeks. I wanted to get a local SIM, and my only unlocked iPhones were my old 5S and the 6 Plus I bought for development and testing that has sat mostly idle for months. I didn’t want the 5S’ worse camera and smaller battery, so I chose the 6 Plus.
The results surprised me.
What’s better about the 6 Plus
- Battery life: In my use, I’d estimate that it lasted about 50–75% longer than the iPhone 6, which is usually the difference between sometimes needing to charge it mid-day and reliably being able to last all day even in heavy usage.
- Camera: The 6 Plus’ image stabilizer is a minor difference outdoors, but a noticeable difference indoors when it can select a lower ISO, resulting in less noise.
- Typing: For whatever reason, the keyboard size on the 6 Plus (in portrait orientation) fits me better than the 6, resulting in far fewer errors. I’m already typing more accurately on the 6 Plus than I ever could on the 6.
- Screen space: It’s nice when reading books, reading web pages, and showing photos. But the additional screen space is a relatively minor benefit to me overall, as most iPhone software doesn’t make good use of it.
This combination makes the 6 Plus unexpectedly awesome for traveling. The battery is so large that you can effectively use GPS and cellular data as much as you want. And you’ll want the best camera available to capture and share photos with all of that battery power, GPS, and data.
I didn’t bring an iPad at all on the trips I spent with the 6 Plus, and I didn’t miss it. There wasn’t a single time when I thought, “I wish I had been carrying 2 pounds worth of an iPad and its accessories all this time so I could do X on a larger screen right now.” (To be fair, I hardly use iPads anymore regardless.)
Being accustomed to the iPhone 6, the 6 Plus doesn’t feel as huge as it did when it first launched and we were all accustomed to the 4-inch iPhone 5/5S. It stopped feeling huge in my hands within the first few hours of use.
The 6 Plus is indeed worse than the 6 for one-handed use, but not by nearly as much as I expected — both are poorly suited to it.
The 6 Plus also shares the 6’s unfortunate sleep/wake-button placement opposite the volume-up button, which I presume is a victory of visual symmetry over usability. Many months into ownership, I still sometimes accidentally hit both buttons.
Grip is about the same, too. Both lack side-grippability and feel precariously slippery when used without a case, even though I’ve never needed a case for any previous iPhones. The case-edge design (on both models) is so poor that I was very uncomfortable using the iPhone 6 until I got Apple’s leather case a few weeks later. Unsurprisingly, I have the exact same opinion about the 6 Plus: it’s too slippery without a case, but feels great with the Apple leather case.
A common theme among other reviews is that the 6 Plus is a “different kind of device” that inspires a different usage pattern, more like a tiny iPad than a large iPhone, with more two-handed and/or landscape-orientation usage. I haven’t found this to be the case. Maybe that’s because I’ve never been a heavy iPad user, but the 6 Plus doesn’t feel like an iPad or a new kind of device at all to me — it just feels like a huge iPhone.
In fact, the iPad-crossover enhancements mostly annoy me, and I’d disable them if I could. The iPad-style treatment of split-view apps and slide-up modal views in landscape orientation feels cramped and hacky at best — it just feels like a too-small iPad, rather than a too-large iPhone. I’m also constantly rotating the home screen unintentionally, requiring me to use portrait lock regularly for the first time.
What’s worse about the 6 Plus
Having expected huge downsides in grip and one-handed use that simply didn’t materialize, the 6 Plus’ benefits have been almost “free” over the 6. The only significant downside has been the 6 Plus’ physical dimensions.
The biggest problem I’ve hit is that it just feels uncomfortably huge and awkward in my pocket more often than the 6 (which did have this issue sometimes as well, but not as often), and it’s clumsier to insert and remove from pockets.
At first, I didn’t think its pocket size was a problem. But I’ve found myself often taking it out and putting it on the desk or table in front of me, which I’ve never regularly done before. It also feels uncomfortable in my pocket if I’m moving around a lot, and I find myself always trying to slide it to the side of my leg instead of the front.
Two compromised phones
Overall, the 6 Plus is a major compromise, and it never lets you forget that — but so is the 6.
The 6 Plus’ battery life is the biggest advantage to me by far. While that’s a nice (and mostly unadvertised) bonus for the 6 Plus, it’s also a condemnation of the iPhone 6 and Apple’s apparent belief across iPhones, iPads, and Macs that battery life is good enough already and doesn’t need significant improvement.
Apple’s obsession with thinness as the top design priority, spending most of the technical progress that accumulates over time on size reduction rather than increased battery life, is also likely to blame for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus’ worst design flaw: their slippery sides, which exacerbate their unsuitability for one-handed use. (The tolerable but unfortunate camera bulge is another victim of thinness-above-all-else design priorities.)
Having used an iPhone 6 full-time from its launch until these 6 Plus experiments over the last few weeks, I can confidently say that neither phone is extremely well-designed. Both have nontrivial and completely avoidable flaws. But the 6 Plus has bigger advantages over the other phones, while the 6 seems to sit in a mediocre middle ground.
CGP Grey summarized the difference well in the aforelinked Hello Internet episode: “I am more and more convinced that the iPhone 6 is the phone for nobody; it’s the in-between phone that has all of the disadvantages of both [the 5S and 6 Plus]”.
An iPhone 6 thick enough to have 50% more battery capacity would be a better overall iPhone than the 6 or 6 Plus. The increased thickness required for the battery would likely be more grippable and more usable without a case, and would even eliminate the camera bulge. It would be a bit heavier, but I don’t know a single iPhone 6 owner who wouldn’t accept that trade-off.1
Apple chose not to offer such a device. Instead, today’s iPhone lineup requires that you choose:
- iPhone 6 Plus: The only choice for great battery life, and the best camera, but huge pocket size
- iPhone 6: Neither great battery life nor great one-handed use nor ideal pocket size
- iPhone 5S: The only choice for great one-handed use and pocket size, but older hardware and mediocre battery life
I wish we didn’t need to make this choice. But given the options we have, I can see why so many of us are choosing the 6 Plus.
The 6’s relative mediocrity is probably why so many of us are looking around and trying the 6 Plus — which shares many of the same design flaws, but provides more substantial advantages. I’d still rather use an iPhone 6 than a non-iPhone, and the larger screen and better camera have spoiled me enough that I don’t want to go back to the 5S, but I don’t think anyone will look back fondly on the iPhone 6 in a few years. Ultimately, beyond any particular feature concerns or battery capacities, I hope the next iPhone doesn’t have as many physical design and usability flaws as the 6 series.
In the meantime, I might stick with the 6 Plus. It’s probably easier to buy pants with bigger pockets than to convince Apple that a bigger battery is a more welcome improvement on the next mid-sized iPhone than an extra millimeter of thinness.
Third-party iPhone batteries and battery-cases can approximate this ideal device, but only poorly. Battery packs are great for travel but extremely clunky for daily use. Battery cases are better, but even the thinnest cases require much more bulk to deliver a given battery capacity than simply building it into the phone. And personally, I find them all hideous in pocketability, operation, and appearance. ↩︎