An in-depth look at the benefits, not features, of Apple’s iPhone 6

I pre-ordered Apple's new smartphone on 12 September, and it wasn't easy. A few months back, I went "Microsoft All-In" for the summer, purchasing the Nokia Lumia Icon on contract from Verizon in the US. So I didn't qualify for the discounted, upgrade price. But where there's a will, there's a way - and a generous family member helped me out when it came to buying the phone.

So this iPhone 6 piece begins with such disclaimer. Like iPad Air, I paid for the device. Apple didn't send me a review unit, but I did ask, and I am not on the preferred list of writers who get early access to "iDevices" and who presumably are more likely to rave. Such qualification is necessary, because iPhone 6 is an exceptionally satisfying handset, and I don't want to be mislabelled as a fanboy for stating such. That's a brash conclusion coming from someone abandoning a competing smartphone with better specs and a satisfying user experience.

Why I'm "all out"

For nearly two years before this summer, Chromebook was my primary - and often only - PC. But Microsoft nagged my subconscious. I built my tech writing career covering the company, around which there remains a considerable audience. With Windows 8.1's release, a new CEO's tenure, the firm's cloud offerings' maturity, and Surface Pro 3's launch, Microsoft intrigued all the more. Something else: In early Spring, I developed serious vision problems (by August they were healing, and now are mostly resolved), and Microsoft offers exceptionally readable font technology. So I dived all-in, with hopes of staying there.

Let me say this: Surface Pro 3 is excellent - as far as the hardware goes. The hybrid tablet-PC concept is a winner. But I consistently rammed against a wall: Available apps and the way I want them (in Modern UI). Additionally Windows 8.1 is quirky, and many of the problems are cloud-sync and service related. The experience particularly jarred coming from Chromebook, where management is easy and sync is smooth. Ongoing software and services usability problems sapped my time and productivity until finally enough was too much.

So, at the end of August, knowing back-to-school would be a good time to sell, I sold my Surface Pro 3. The device got a good home with a University of California San Diego freshman, giving up just $200 (£123) equity before tax on my original purchase price. I took the cash down to DC Computers, which is in my neighbourhood, and bought a used 13in MacBook Pro Retina Display. At the time, I planned to keep the Icon, and the Mac would be a more compatible companion than the Chromebook, which better fits "Google All-In".

I really like the Nokia phone. By most measures that matter to me, Windows Phone 8 exceeds its desktop sibling. Performance is smoother, sync surer, the user interface more uniform, the availability of meaningful apps is better, and built-ins like Mail superior. Then there is the hardware, where the the camera and videocam are showpieces. But the supporting platform ecosystem is inferior to iOS, which is reason enough to go Apple for computing, mobile, and supporting cloud services. Perhaps later I will regret not waiting for Windows 10.

How I ordered the iPhone 6

Deciding to switch is one thing, but making it happen is another. Because my budget is super-tight, I needed to fund my iPhone 6 purchase without paying full, non-contract price - an option not obviously available for pre-orders starting 12 September. My local Verizon store rep had a solution: Buy a $250 (£155) Ellipsis tablet, the 4G LTE line of which would be eligible for immediate upgrade. Out-of-pocket expense would be $200 (£123) less than the iPhone 6's full price. Just to make sure there would be no glitches, the rep offered to manually switch the device to a flip phone in Verizon's system, ensuring no last-minute hiccups.

The problem was I don't need another Android tablet and nothing about the Ellipsis piqued my interest. My sister came to the rescue. She works for a company that provides tech services to enterprises - the majority using Microsoft software and services - and needed an off-contract Verizon phone. She already agreed to buy the Icon, which looked to better sync with her lifestyle, but also wanted a tablet. Sis scooped up the Ellipsis, too, while I agreed to pay the $10 (£6) a month service fee. Her two purchases and the sale of an older camera on Craigslist provided just enough funds.

As Midnight PDT approached on 11 September, I staked out the Apple and Verizon websites. Around 23:58, refreshing the Verizon page brought up the order option. I chose the 128GB space grey model and had the pre-order completed by 00:03, even before the Apple Store came back online. The phone arrived early afternoon on 19 September, after which I drove down to the carrier store for activation on my line and to square up the other for the tablet, which I mailed with the Nokia smartphone to my sister the next day.

First impressions

At a time when 1080p screens with 400 pixels per inch (or more) are the standard among high-end smartphones, Apple's device is little better than 720p (1334 x 750) and 326 ppi, which is same as the old iPhone 5S. While most newer high-ends pack 5in or larger screens, the iOS device is 4.7in. When 16 megapixels is increasingly standard for mobile cameras, Apple's handset is 8 megapixels. By these and many other metrics, the iPhone 6 offers less than competing handsets - Nokia's Lumia Icon among them.

But by measure of benefits, Apple's smartphone is in many ways superior. As such, this article is organised by evaluating benefits rather than features of the iPhone 6. My metaphor for the difference: The sleeve placed around a Starbucks cup is a feature. Protecting your hand from burning is a benefit.

Aesthetics

The design of both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is reminiscent of the iPhone classic - the original sold starting in June 2007. The rounded corners and curvy frame are the visible characteristics they share. Other reviewers point to iPod touch similarities, which is true of thinness, but the prominent aesthetic - rounded corners - harks back to the original.

But the similarities only begin there. iPhone 6 finely balances benefits against features in ways much like the classic did. In 2007, Apple stripped back features available on other phones, such as 3G and SMS, to balance others: battery life and responsive interaction of the new sensors and touchscreen.

Balance is the overall design aesthetic and priority is placed on delivering benefits before the fanciest features. By the specs, the iPhone 6 is inferior to the newest handsets from HTC, Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung, among others. Android and Windows Phone fans are quick to point out the lower specs, such as the "Welcome to 2012" meme referring to Google's Nexus 4 features.

However, my experience favours Apple's decision to deliver more by giving less. The iPhone 6 is extremely enjoyable to use, and joy is a benefit often overlooked in tech design. How you feel using a device matters much more than how you think about features. There, balance - how all the features fit together to deliver benefits - and the device's design mean everything.

The iPhone 6's design is understated, which is a long-standing Apple aesthetic (see this article I wrote from 2005). I've seen some complaints online about the plainness and calling the top and bottom back bands ugly. Picky, picky.

iPhone 6 with Apple case

Plainness isn't the problem. Apple is sometimes guilty of putting form before function, and this is where aesthetics can undermine usability. How a phone feels and how well it stays in hands and fingers are intertwined benefits. While I find that the iPhone 6 feels quite good to hold and can be operated with one hand, the surface is too slick. I can't get a good enough grip, and the curved rather than flat frame is one reason why. This is the first iPhone for which I strongly encourage some kind of case. This baby will eventually slip from your hands otherwise, and Apple should be faulted for squandering benefits.

Sight

The screen delivers some of any smartphone's most important benefits. As such, I obviously wondered what the experience would be like stepping down from the Lumia Icon, which has a 5in display boasting a 1920 x 1080 resolution and 441 ppi. Great, surprisingly. iPhone 6's screen is brighter, offers greater contrast, and is more viewable outdoors - which is unexpected because the Nokia is quite usable in bright sunlight. These are benefits set against others, such as providing satisfactory battery life.

Nice touch: Standard and Zoom modes. However, even for my ailing and aging eyes, Standard is just fine.

Pretty much anything viewed on the iPhone 6 looks superb. People upgrading from iPhone 3/G/GS or 4/4S might be overwhelmed by the spaciousness, while most 5/5S users will be pleased. If I can go down in screen size and resolution and be satisfied, surely someone moving up will be, too.

That said, my satisfaction somewhat slumped seeing the iPhone 6 Plus inside the Apple Store. The differences are immediately obvious. The larger phone's screen is crisper, the glass seemingly less reflective, and the desktop so vivid it looks painted on. I actually had to check to ensure I hadn't picked up a dummy phone with a paper mock-up pasted on.

Some people will wonder why 1080p is Plus-only. Welcome to the Apple way. Since Tim Cook came on as COO and continuing as CEO, the company finely tunes product SKUs, often offering less in one place and more somewhere else to maximise margins on the front-end of the manufacturing cycle. Later, as the product lifespan extends, Apple iterates, by downstreaming capabilities from costlier iDevices or adding features that match or catch competing devices. Think of it as the "little better" strategy. Apple makes each new device a little better until the next, big release then resets and starts again.

I explained the concept five years ago in a post on my personal site: "How Does 'Incremental' Define Apple?" Here's an excerpt:

Apple engages in tried-and-true retail practice. It’s good business. Clothing stores take a similar approach. There are teens who must have the newest wears from Aeropostale, American Eagle, Gap, or Hollister at full price; they can't wait for sales. They want to be cool...

The iPhone 6 is just that. The Plus offers a little better, and the iPhone 6 will get a little better during the next upgrade cycle. Meanwhile the 5S with 16GB of storage sells for $99 (£61) on-contract, or half what it did before its successor launched.

Sound

The iPhone 6 gives great audio - if you attach headphones or speakers. But the tinny, internal single speaker lacks much, particularly when smartphones like the HTC One M8 offer so much more. That said, placement on the bottom frame (in vertical orientation) assures that notifications and phone rings can be heard. With the Lumia Icon, by comparison, a case can largely silence the back-facing speaker.

iPhone 6 back view

Connected to headphones, Beats Music or iTunes streaming sounds fantastic. There's an immediacy to the fullness and breadth of soundstage that's good to a fault. With quality cans - Grado RS1e - I hear imperfections in the encoding, which on some tracks my ears perceive as over-modulation or muffled vocals.

Photography

More megapixels is meaningless, as I have asserted for years. Apple wisely sticks to 8 megapixels, which is the reasonable limit, because cameraphone sensors are tiny (I would prefer 5 megapixels). The greater packed the sensor with pixels, the more artifacts and other aberrations appear in photos. Like the iPhone 5S, the 6 offers 1.5 micron pixels, which, among other benefits, let in more light than the standard 1.1 micron pixels, which are tightly packed on 16 megapixel phone shooters.

The f/2.2 aperture lens is good choice, and in my testing finely balances with sensor and software. I can't emphasise the importance of the latter enough, and choices made when shooting and post-processing. In 2012, I used the 5 megapixel Samsung Galaxy Nexus to shoot San Diego Comic-Con. One reason: The phone produced surprisingly good photos in low light, mainly because of the superb balance of features and wise settings choices made in auto mode. Something else: Google promised and the smartphone delivered instant-shutter response.

The catchup capability is one of the iPhone 6's best photography benefits, particularly in HDR mode. Shutter response is fast. Immediate. But there is more: In my early testing, the iPhone 6 smartly chooses aperture, ISO, and shutter speed - and that's best observed in low-light settings.

Still, something bugs me. Like earlier iPhones and many Androids, the handsome photos are more balanced than realistic. I don't feel the images are what my eyes see. Maybe I need to fiddle with the settings. In comparison, the original Moto X, which has a camera that is inferior overall, produces colour and contrast as I see them - or what I expect in the images. That's a matter of taste, where I prefer photos that are less saturated than the iPhone 6 produces. Colour accuracy is generally spot on, despite my complaints.

Most people are not professional photographers. They wouldn't know f-stop from exposure compensation. Rather than presenting confusing controls and numbers, Apple provides a nifty slider for adjusting exposure - the lightness or darkness the user sees in the screen preview. Just tap the display. Other niceties, many carried forward from the iPhone 5S and iOS 7 or long available elsewhere, include auto stabilisation, face detection, and panorama mode.

iPhone 6 camera app

However, optical stabilisation is only available on the iPhone 6 Plus, which is an instance where "a little better" means a lot. The technology is rather nifty, using the gyroscope in conjunction with the lens, which position changes, to reduce camera shaking that often blurs photos. Getting this benefit means buying a considerably larger and heavier iPhone.

Reality check: Nokia phone cameras are legendary - and for good reasons. While the Lumia Icon and iPhone 6 both produce excellent photos, differences matter - such as optical stabilisation on the Lumia, which boasts finer control when shooting images, offers (via DNG) a RAW option, produces superb images despite the 20 megapixel handicap, and provides better post-editing options using Nokia software, such as the ability to blur the background (e.g. produce bokeh) after taking the photo. The Icon also has a dedicated shutter button. However, the device is a slower shooter compared to the iPhone 6 or Google Nexus handsets.

Most people will find iPhone 6 photography to be satisfying if not more. There are no non-pro compact cameras with fixed lenses - meaning without telephoto - that I would recommend over this smartphone. That said, in another form before function move, the handset's body is thinner than the camera can accommodate, such that the lens juts out from the enclosure. It's an unacceptable design compromise that puts the lens at greater risk of damage and is, unfortunately, another reason to buy a back-fitting case. By contrast, Nokia insets the lens on the Icon and Lumia 930.

Videography

Apple delivers some nifty tricks shooting videos, and one is a desperately needed catchup: Continuous focus, a feature found on the Lumia Icon and Nexus 5, for example. Fixed focus is one of the older iPhones' biggest videography handicaps. On the 5 and 5S, you can tap to focus to start but there's trouble if you or the subject moves. In my testing, the iPhone 6 adjusts focus as promised. Finally!

A neat trick: Slow-motion at 120 fps or 240 fps, with the latter the default but only 720p. Slo-mo is super fun, but good luck easily exporting clips and keeping the slow speed. I'm struggling to get it right thus far, although note that phoneArena offers a helpful how to guide.

The videocam can capture 1080p at 30 fps or 60 fps, and the latter is beneficial for shooting moving objects or finer editing later on. Time-lapse videography enables other creative options, and Apple claims something called "Cinematic Video Stabilisation", which supposedly lets you GoPro without buying one.

I haven't yet conducted extensive tests of the audio, which for some strange reason is something too often overlooked by phone designers. C'mon, if the video is going to look good, it should sound that way, too. Nokia claims four directional microphones on the Icon (and 930) that can produce some smashing sound when shooting videos. If the iPhone 6 audio with video is as good as the 5S, it's enough.

Some advice: If camera and videography matter most to you, and nothing else, the Lumia Icon and near-identical Nokia Lumia 930 (the latter of which is available in the UK) are my recommendation, rather than the iPhone 6 or any other smartphone (even Nokia's 41 megapixel shooter). However, as will be explained shortly, considerations like apps availability and supporting ecosystem make Apple's device the better choice for most people. By the way, for anyone wanting 4K video shooting capability, most major phone makers offer it, including Samsung and Sony. The iPhone 6 won't satisfy your 4K dreams.

Longevity

A question everyone should ask about a smartphone: "How long can I use it before the battery dies?" Strangely, I don't have an answer after nearly two weeks of using my iPhone 6. My best response: Long enough. The time period between charges is so great, I can't keep track.

iPhone 6 camera lens

Apple claims a 24-hour talk time over 3G, 14 hours watching videos, or 12 hours internet over LTE or Wi-Fi. I care about shooting photos and videos and uploading them to the cloud, while rumbling across social networks or using mapping programs. These functions are more meaningful measures - and in my random, incomplete testing I easily get through the day with juice left over.

Responsiveness

Performance is an important benefit, and subjectively either elicits joy or generates frustration - and the latter emotion is one every manufacturer should avoid. I smile and assume you will, too: the iPhone 6 is speedy enough, even though it's short a couple of cores compared to most other high-end smartphones. Either scrolling or opening apps and browsers is fluid and fast.

Benchmarks are for geeks hung up on comparing features rather than looking at benefits. What matters more: How the device does daily tasks that are most important to you. By that measure, I have no complaints about subjective speed. However, I would say the same about the iPhone 5S. If you own the latter device and performance is your major buying criteria, expect to be surprised by how similar the subjective speed is.

Sizing up the digital lifestyle

Smartphones are not isolated devices. If they were, I would use Nokia Lumia Icon today for photography and videography benefits. Companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft sell lifestyle platforms around which someone builds stuff. Windows Phone is the weakest among the majors - Android and iOS being the other two. App choices aren't as mature, and cloud offerings are comparatively meagre. For example, homegrown Apple and Google apps and connected services are absent.

Don't like Internet Explorer on Windows Phone? Suck it up, there's no Chrome for you. But Google's browser is available for iOS. YouTube? Google Now? Google Maps? Nada, nada, nada. But all are available on iOS as well as Android, and, honestly, they look and work better on Apple's platform. Sure, Google sometimes sprinkles more features into Android apps, but in my testing the iOS counterparts give better benefits.

Apple is the Switzerland of mobile apps and cloud computing. I call iOS the "eat your cake and have it, too" platform. You can jump into the Apple lifestyle, while choosing from Google's and Microsoft's too. Meanwhile, the majority of the newest, third-party cloud-connected lifestyle apps are available for Apple's platform first.

Google groupies will cite the comparable number of Android apps and selection. But it's not how many but which ones that matter. Number of apps is a feature, while meaningful selection is a benefit. The most useful Android apps are also available for iOS, or exclusively. These factors greatly influenced my decision to abandon the Icon for iPhone 6 - and I could have easily picked an Android device, too.

Let's cherry-pick pieces from the Apple lifestyle, which would be relevant to any iPhone 6 buying decision:

Command me. iOS boasts good speech-to-text capabilities, like Android and Windows Phone, but Siri still sucks. If she was a living employee, the company would have fired her long ago.

Even without Cortana, the Windows Phone 8-packing Lumia Icon gives meaningful and helpful answers to voice requests. For example, my 92 year-old father-in-law is at that age where someone thinks lots about the past. So we look together, every day. When I ask Windows Phone for "This day in history", Bing search produces a relevant list, the first link to history.com. If I say exactly the same to Siri, she often brings up the address for a museum in another town.

But I have little praise for Microsoft here. In the past, when Siri couldn't directly answer a question, I relied on the web searches she presented. But with iOS 7 - and sadly carried forward to iOS 8 - Bing is the search engine. Sorry, Google delivers more meaningful results.

Griping aside, Siri will get you around town and provide relevant, contextual information - and Apple Maps is a help rather than hindrance (no more misdirections). She's not as proactive as Google Now, but as such not as snoopy. There's something stalker-like about Big G's app/service that creeps me out.

Call me. iPhone 5S offers HD calling, which T-Mobile supports. Successor 6 serves up Voice over LTE, which on Verizon is oh-so-much better. There are two benefits when the feature is enabled in Settings:

  • CDMA users can call and use the internet at the same time (something GSMers have done for ages).
  • Call quality is crystal clear - such beautiful voice, the person on the other end sounds like a radio announcer.

Additionally, Apple claims support for "up to 20 LTE bands", Wi-Fi is AC, and Wi-Fi calling is available (from carriers offering it).

Granted, talking is the last thing many people do on cell phones any more. But those who do will delight in these benefits.

Cover me. As the Switzerland of mobile platforms, iOS offers the best cloud cover of them all. These benefits aren't exclusive to the iPhone 6, but I would be remiss ignoring them, since they're core to any digital lifestyle. Simply stated: Connected apps are aplenty.

For simplicity's sake, let's focus on the Apple Way. New to iOS 8 is iCloud Drive, a feature you shouldn't enable unless using Yosemite beta on a Mac, which I am. Doing so will cause problems accessing stuff stored on iCloud from other devices. The service is almost simple to a fault, because it's not obvious on iOS devices; access is from apps rather than a file manager (which is available on Yosemite or iCloud for Windows).

iCloud Drive finally catches competitors offering content access anytime, anywhere, and on anything (well, for the latter it has to be an Apple-supported platform). Sync is excellent, in my limited testing. "Set it, and forget it" is the design ethic, an attribute that made the original iPod so compelling. Simple sync is a huge benefit, and it works well with other Apple apps and services, such as calendar, contacts, and mail.

I'm puzzled by Apple selling new iPhones with so much storage while offering so many benefits in the cloud. I'll reason that one out for a future analysis, perhaps.

Share me. With this platform release cycle, Apple introduces a very useful feature that surprisingly is overlooked in press coverage and reviews: Family Sharing. Think of it as "fair-use" applied to personal, digital content. I've complained for years about ebooks, music, movies, and the like being tied to a single account and not easily shared. Hey, mom can buy a CD or DVD and let the kids watch or lend it to grandma - but not her digital downloads. Sharing is a humungous benefit.

According to Apple: "Once you set up Family Sharing, family members get immediate access to each other’s music, movies, TV shows, books, and apps. Download what you want with a tap anytime you like. All without having to share an Apple ID or passwords".

This benefit alone is reason to consider the iPhone 6 or another iOS device, and is Apple's reward to long-time content buyers. Six people can share.

Pay me. I haven't tested Apple Pay yet, because the feature isn't available but supposedly releases this month in the US. The iPhone 6 includes an NFC chip for the Touch ID-to-pay system, for which there is surprising support. My bank and credit card are on board, as well as some of my favourite retailers. It's anyone's guess whether or not this thing will succeed, but you will want either of the new iPhones to use it in the States (it's not clear when it will come to the UK, incidentally).

One more thing

I could go on and on with this lengthy list of benefits, but I won't. Instead, I end with a surprising admission: If this was "Groundhog Day" or "Edge of Tomorrow", I would reset and not buy the iPhone 6. I would purchase the iPhone 6 Plus instead.

For most Apple customers upgrading from older models, the Plus will be too big. I thought the same applied to me, until handling one in the Apple Store. My first impression was fabulous, starting with the screen and how the device feels in the hand - namely, not too large at all.

But the iPhone 6 Plus isn't an option. The device is sold out everywhere. My local Verizon store says none are expected there until late October or sometime in November, which is well outside my 14-day return window. Oh well. I'm satisfied with my iPhone 6 and believe that most buyers will be, too. Well, unless they wanted the Plus and couldn't find one.

Some commenters will label me a flaming fanboy for liking the iPhone 6. I refer them to other commenters calling me anti-Apple. Take your pick, but pay attention to this: I am first to concede that by the specs, the iPhone 6 falls short of most major competing devices, including the Nokia Lumia Icon my sister now loves. Specs don't matter and distract from what does.

A smartphone isn't the sum of its features but a balance of benefits. Apple understands this principle and handsomely applies it to the iPhone 6. Google gets it, too, which is why Nexus devices are so good. Android's answer to Apple comes soon. Which will win? You tell me.

Editor's Note: I own the space grey iPhone 6 and used it to shoot pics of a borrowed white-and-gold model, which photographs better.