So the iPhone 6 Plus held its own against nearly every major flagship in terms of low-light images, but how did it (and its 4.7-inch twin) fare in the daylight? Shots taken by the Lumia 1020 were far more detailed and had a slightly more accurate white balance and color representation outside; but while it did a fantastic job capturing the shadows, the highlights were typically more blown out than they were on the iPhone. The GS5 is a respectable contender in the daylight as well, offering more detail, but the iPhone generally produced more accurate colors. The G3 appears to be overexposed by default and the dynamic range is not as wide, so shadows are incredibly dark and whites are slightly blown out. Finally, the iPhone bested the HTC One in dynamic range, detail and color.
The iPhone camera may not always be the best in every circumstance, but it's consistently near the top in almost every scenario. The autofocus locks quickly; each shot contains all of the detail you'll need (unless you have to zoom in incredibly far); dynamic range is great; and color representation is sound. And although there weren't a lot of drastic improvements to the new iPhone cameras over the 5s, I know that if I need to snap a quick picture, it's going to turn out well.
(Note: Full-res images are now available: iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. I also have uploaded albums with samples from other flagship devices.)
Performance and battery life
Last year, Apple rocked the boat by announcing that the iPhone 5s would be the first phone with 64-bit support, thanks to its A7 chip. This year's bump to an A8 chipset isn't quite as dramatic, but the company is claiming that the chip comes with a 25 percent uptick in CPU performance and 50 percent in GPU output. It packs 2 billion transistors, which is a number that few other companies boast in product launches; by comparison, Intel's Haswell desktop processor has around 1.4 billion. Apple seldom dives into more specifics, but benchmarks reveal that we're looking at a 1.4GHz dual-core processor.
I get why Apple would rather discuss the experience than the actual numbers -- it's because a 1.4GHz dual-core chipset with 1GB RAM doesn't sound as good as a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon or an octa-core MediaTek with 2 or 3GB RAM. But I've never had any problems getting iPhones to handle heavy loads, and the 6 and 6 Plus are no different. Games load and run smoothly and multitasking works great.
When it comes to benchmarking, it can be difficult to compare Apples to Androids. There are a few cross-platform tests, however, so I decided to take a look and see how the iPhone 6 holds up to a pair of Snapdragon 801-powered flagships, the Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8. As you can see below, the iPhone does better in some areas and worse in others. On SunSpider, it produced the best scores I've seen on any smartphone. It does well on single-threaded activities in Geekbench and keeps up with the Snapdragon in multi-threaded tests. It does significantly better in Basemark X, but not in 3DMark. The long and short of it is that you shouldn't feel like switching from one flagship phone to another simply because it has more cores; Apple holds its own against the strongest competition, and it still has the advantage of having 64-bit support on both hardware and firmware for at least a short period of time -- at least, until Android L comes out and more chipsets integrate 64-bit support.
The iPhone 6 series also comes with an upgraded motion coprocessor called the M8, which adds barometer support in addition to the accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. Since barometers can sense the variance in air pressure, this means you can now measure changes in elevation. Those measurements, in turn, will get added to the new iOS Health app.
Another interesting side effect of the size difference is how they manage thermal heat dissipation. Since it's the smaller of the two, the iPhone 6 got noticeably toastier than the Plus when playing games -- in fact, I rarely had any problem with the Plus getting warm.
If you're having trouble choosing between the 6 and its extra-large twin, battery life may be the ultimate deciding factor. It's no secret that the Plus comes with a larger battery and therefore longer runtime than the 6, but how much of a difference will it make? Turns out, a noticeable one. In our video-playback tests, the 6 lasted 10 hours and 19 minutes; that's actually worse than the 5s results from last year, which managed to go for 10:50. The iPhone 6 Plus, on the other hand, still had 14 percent battery left when the 6 died. All told, it lasted almost 12 hours. Both of these results are lower than Apple's claims, but likely are the outcomes of different testing methods.
But tests are tests: Real-world performance is where it's at. And this is where the Plus truly shines. In my usage tests, I do a little bit of everything on the phone: calls, games, email, social networking, e-book reading, the works. After all that, I got through a full 17-hour workday with just 3 or 4 percent battery life remaining. On the 6, I managed to squeak out around 13 hours. With moderate to light usage, you should expect to see the Plus get roughly a day and a half, if not more.
(Update: iFixit tore down the iPhones and discovered that the battery on the Plus is 2,915mAh, while the 6 is 1,810mAh.)
Both iPhones come in two versions with different sets of wireless frequencies, so you'll want to be aware of the differences. The first option comes with support for 16 LTE bands, while the second takes the same 16 and adds four more bands for a total of 20. This is the most I've ever seen included in one specific model. I usually list out which bands are covered on which devices, but let's face it: If the 20-band option doesn't include your specific needs, very few other phones likely will. The latter will ensure the most coverage globally, and will be sold in more places; in the US, however, you'll only find this version on Sprint and US Cellular. Every model will come with penta-band HSPA+ and quad-band GSM/EDGE, and there's also a CDMA variant that comes with those frequencies as well.
The new iPhones also support WiFi calling with 802.11ac compatibility (in addition to the usual a/b/g/n), both of which have been a long time coming. WiFi calling, which offers high-quality phone calls over your wireless router, is a carrier-dependent feature. T-Mobile is the only network that currently supports it in the US, though AT&T plans to support it sometime next year. Meanwhile, 802.11ac compatibility ensures that your iPhone isn't a network bottleneck like it once was; its theoretical max speed is now 433 Mbps. Most customers don't get speeds this fast from their ISPs, but at least the speed limit is no longer low enough to have a negative impact on your internet experience.
At 4.7 inches, the iPhone 6 is still technically smaller than most modern-day flagships. Samsung's Galaxy S5 is 5.1 inches; the HTC One M8 is 5.0; the new Moto X is 5.2; and the LG G3 is 5.5, just to name a few. So if you pine for a top-of-the-line phone that's larger than the iPhone 5s, but smaller than any of the aforementioned heroes, the iPhone 6 will be a great fit.
If you're looking at the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, however, the competition is fiercer -- at least, if you care less about the OS and more about what you can do with the screen size. The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is coming early next month, and since it'll have a 5.7-inch Quad HD display, it'll be a tad shorter, wider and thicker; however, it'll also have straight sides, which provide a firmer grip than the rounded edges on the 6 Plus. You can also get the LG G3, which has a higher-resolution 5.5-inch Quad HD display. Heck, if you're extremely adventurous, you could get a Lumia 1520, which is a 6-inch Windows Phone with even sharper edges than the Plus.
Eventually, both iPhones will be available globally, but it's only coming to a handful of countries at launch. Each one will come in three color choices (space gray, silver and gold) and three storage sizes: 16GB, 64GB and 128GB. The latter storage option is the most I've seen built into a smartphone (internally, at least) though the mid-tier should be plenty for most users -- especially now that it's doubled in size. The iPhone 6 will start at $199 on-contract ($649 retail) for 16GB, and go up to $299 ($749) and $399 ($849) for the 64GB and 128GB models, respectively. The iPhone 6 Plus is $100 more than its smaller sibling, so prices start at $299 ($749) and go up to $499 ($949).
For the first time, iPhone fans can enjoy something Android users have taken for granted: choice. Until this year, buying a high-end iPhone wasn't a tough decision. You either bought it or you didn't. Now there are two to choose from, and while they look identical, each has its own set of trade-offs that you need to weigh: The 4.7-inch iPhone 6 features a respectable display size and a comfortable in-hand fit; it's also my personal favorite after using both for several days. The 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, on the flipside, isn't as easy to hold in one hand, but you'll want it if you're hoping to get an iPad-like phone with great battery life and a lot more screen real estate.
This year's iPhones aren't groundbreaking, nor are they perfect. But they demonstrate something far more important to Apple's success in the long run: freshness. Apple ditched the tried-and-true square design (which I've always been fond of) for a more rounded, modern look; it added features that should've been there ages ago (NFC, anyone?); and it made the phones large enough to start competing in a hotly contested space. No doubt about it, the iPhone needed to grow in size and function, and it did just that. Fortunately, it made the leap before it was too late.
Photos by Will Lipman. Art Director: Joseph Volpe