The Wirecutter had a chance to try the new iPhone 6 and 6+ as well as the Apple Watch. After a day of sober thinking about the new gear, here’s what we think of them (and Apple’s mobile pay system), which could be important tech you may very well want to buy or use in the future.
In two words: They’re bigger. They have larger, higher-resolution screens, and they are physically larger than their predecessors. The regular 6 is about the size of last year’s Moto X and a bit smaller than the Nexus 5 at around 4.7 inches, while the 6+ is about the size of a current Android phablet like the Samsung Note 4 at 5.5 inches. The screens make it much harder to use with one hand.
The other major difference is that the lock button has moved from the top to the right edge of the phone to make it easier to press given the larger size of the screen. As far as the rest of the design goes, the phones are thinner (as expected). Also, Apple opted to return to the rounded edges of their earlier iPhone designs as opposed to the boxier bodies we’ve become accustomed to with the iPhone 4 and 5. Otherwise, things are largely the same as far as physical features go—if you’ve used an iPhone before, you’ll be able to understand how to use an iPhone 6 or 6+.
Processors, wireless systems, the battery, and cameras have all been upgraded over the iPhone 5s, but only slightly. Apple has also added the ability to make payments when shopping in retail stores (using an NFC chip) and online as part of the iPhone 6 launch (which we’ll also discuss below), though this feature has been extended to iPhone 5, 5c, and 5s as well when paired with the Apple Watch.
Beyond that, most of the changes you’ll notice will be in iOS 8, not the phones themselves.
For more nitty gritty on specs, check out Apple’s tech specs page.
Most likely. Regardless of whether the larger screen improves the user experience, it’s what customers claim to want. Apple’s reasoning behind the smaller screens of previous generations of iPhone was that it enabled easier one-handed use. While millions of people continued to opt for the (smaller) iPhone for various reasons, it appears that they were doing so despite the smaller screen, not because of it. The allure of more immersive video and photo viewing, easier-to-read text, and more space for playing games was enough to lure people away from iOS in droves. Now with the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6+, people will no longer have to choose between a bigger screen and Apple’s stuff.
The iPhone 6+ is another story. Yet even larger than the iPhone 6, the 6+ has a 5.5-inch Retina HD display that packs almost 150% of the pixels as the iPhone 5s, a landscape-oriented interface and slightly more battery life. The iPhone 6+ may have appeal to certain kinds of users who want something that is more tablet-ish than a phone, but aren’t quite into something like the iPad mini—but we weren’t particularly taken by its size or how it felt in the hand. Most of us have average-sized hands, and it just wasn’t easy to reach different parts of the screen one-handed, not to mention that the seemingly huge device can barely fit into standard pants pockets without feeling uncomfortable if you bend at the hips while sitting. And remember, we tried these phones out without cases, so they’ll be even bigger with protection.
As part of the iPhone 6 and 6+ launch (along with iOS 8), Apple has introduced a software feature called “Reachability” that attempts to answer some of these concerns. By double tapping (but not clicking) the home button, what you see on the screen slides halfway down so you can reach the top corners more easily with your thumbs (like back buttons in the browser, or menu items in the top left corner). The implementation is a bit campy and it feels like a feature that shouldn’t have to exist, but in practice, it works fine. Our initial take is that we’re not jumping for joy about having to use this feature at all, but it functions as expected and users with smaller hands will likely appreciate it.
Because of the physically larger space in which to cram a battery, Apple also advertises that the iPhone 6 and 6+ have slightly better battery life than the 5s, though these improvements are not huge between the 5s and the 6. (The bigger screen is mostly to blame.) For example, Apple’s estimated Wi-Fi browsing time on the 5s is 10 hours; it’s estimated as 11 hours on the iPhone 6. Browsing via LTE is the same for both devices (10 hours), and standby time remains 10 days for both. Apple claims the iPhone 6+ has 12 hours of Wi-Fi and LTE browsing time and 16 days of standby.
We expect the battery life to “feel” mostly the same as what you’re already used to, though if you get an iPhone 6+, you may notice that you don’t need to charge your phone as often as you did previously.
As we explain in the app-alternative section of our Fitness Tracker guide, the current generation of fitness apps are a bit too limited in scope to replace a dedicated device for those truly interested in fitness tracking. That could change with the 6/6+’s inclusion of the new M8 motion coprocessor. Whereas the iPhone 5s’s M7 chip was limited in tracking step counts, the M8 is can also track elevation (via barometer), distance, and distinguishes between walking, biking, and running. And if you add an Apple Watch, it’ll track your pulse as well. That gives it more advanced tracking capabilities than any currently available fitness tracker.
Ideally this means third-party fitness apps will be able to improve significantly. That said, we are still hesitant to recommend using a phone for fitness tracking over a dedicated fitness tracker device for a number of other reasons—chief among them the fact that running with a fragile $600+ device that contains your entire digital life is a risky proposition.
Still, for those who don’t need or want to spend the extra money on a fitness tracker or Apple Watch but otherwise want to get a view of how they are doing physically, the M8’s new capabilities mean that the iPhone 6 and 6+ will be better suited for fitness tracking than the iPhone 5s.
It will technically be faster, but it probably won’t be noticeable to you. This may come as a surprise given that previous new iPhones almost always saw significant speed boosts over their predecessors, but the 6 and 6+’s larger screens mean they require more processing power to run normally. So while the new A8 processor in the 6 and 6+ will be faster and more efficient than the 5s (Apple claims 25% faster CPU performance and 50% faster GPU performance over the old A7), the real world performance increases will likely be minimal if at all noticeable.
In terms of megapixels, the camera specs on the iPhone 6 and 6+ are the same as that on the iPhone 5s: photos are 8 megapixels (at a resolution of 3264×2448) with an f/2.2 aperture. But what the new phones gain largely translate to improvements in usability and the end-product, thanks to an improved sensor and better autofocus. Many of us with older iPhones are familiar with the “lens wobble” that takes place when the device tries to focus on something and seems to go back and forth before settling on an object.
This should no longer be the case thanks to “focus pixels,” which ultimately allow the phones to quickly and automatically identify what needs to be focused on without delay or interaction from you. Apple claims the new phones can autofocus twice as fast as the 5s, and in our brief hands-on, we found this to be a believable claim. The user is still able to tap to focus on a specific item, but it’s not needed for the phones to figure out on their own what’s the most appropriate thing to focus on—and fast.
The camera in the 6 and 6+ have digital image stabilization, but the 6+ also has optical image stabilization, which should aid in low-light shooting.
As for the front-facing camera, Apple upgraded the sensor so photo quality is better and added the ability to take “burst selfies,” allowing you to take a series of front-facing photos and choose the best one. And when it comes to video, the iPhone was already able to take video at 1080p, but now gains the ability to take video at 30 or 60 frames per second, and it can now take slow-motion video at up to 240 fps. iPhone 6 and 6+ owners can now also take time-lapse video.
Basically, it depends on how much you’d flinch at the cost and how heavily you use your phone.
But if you’re a heavy phone user, and because the cost of a handset is far less than the cost of a carrier service plan over a few years, it makes sense to upgrade from an iPhone 5s/5c if you use your phone heavily on a daily basis and can shoulder the cost without flinching. (Our founder wrote about this reasoning in depth in The New York Times.)
If you own a phone that’s older than the iPhone 5s, like the iPhone 4 or 4S, or if you’re eligible for a carrier subsidy, you’ve got no excuse to avoid upgrading. Every aspect of the phones, and especially the larger screen sizes of the iPhone 6/6+, will feel like upgrading from an apartment to a house (and we say this despite our own skepticism of huge screens). Plus you’ll be able to better notice the performance benefits of the upgraded processors and wireless speeds. And if you own something prior to the iPhone 5, you won’t be able to use Apple’s payments system in retail without a newer phone.
Will you get one? Should I?
We usually like giving you direct answers to these sorts of questions, but it’s far too early to give you a solid opinion of the Apple watch. It’s not coming out until 2015, and none of us at the Apple event really got to use final software or hardware, or even interact with a live interface on the Apple Watch. So we can’t really say whether or not it’s something we think people should get just yet.
Still, we’re happy to share our hunch with you. Our instincts are—after getting a demo of the interface, trying on the watch, considering the price, and thinking deeply about how it will and could possibly work with our iPhones—as a whole we’re pretty sure we’ll be trying one out with careful optimism that it will change our live for the better.
Some of the veteran seniors at the Wirecutter are not so optimistic. They question the functionality for the price ($350 and up; as much as a premium smartphone) and if it’s any better or different in essential function than what the cheaper and less fancy Pebble or Android Wear smartwatches can do. We have to be honest and say that we worry it might just be another thing that is even better at distracting you from real life than a smartphone.
But, yeah, we’ll try one out with an open mind. For the things we know it can do, and the things it might one day do.
Should you get one? Let’s get into that a little later.
What could an Apple smartwatch do for me?
We’re not going to get into a spec by spec or feature by feature recap of what you can read on Apple’s website. We’ll just get into the heart of the matter.
First and foremost, like any smartwatch, it can just let you know what your phone is buzzing in your pocket about without making you pull it out to check. That’s both not a big deal and sort of a big deal at the same time.
Of course it’s possible to just pull your phone out of your pocket. But how many dozens or hundreds of times a day are we doing that now? And how disruptive is that action to our real life relationships when we’re doing it in the middle of meals and conversations? While Pebble and Google smartwatches have been able to do this for awhile, Apple has the potential to do it in a slicker way than most others (at a higher cost, too) and in a way deeply integrated with the iPhone, which is good news for iPhone owners. And if the whole point of a smart watch is convenience—giving you access to the internet from a thing you can glance at and wear rather than pull out and hold—then click execution is a very big deal in whether or not this thing does what it is supposed to do.
For example, using the watch as a remote viewfinder for an iPhone camera, an Apple TV, or remote. Or being able to use it as a quick remote speakerphone and passing those calls to the phone for longer calls. Using it for mapping and directions so you’re not wandering down the street staring at your phone every 5 seconds looking like a tourist. Giving you a way to quickly glance down at your wrist when it “taps” you with its gentle haptic feedback system, instead of feeling a buzz in your jeans and having to whip out your handset to see what you missed. Or having a casual way to tell friends and family, hey, I’m thinking of you by sending them a little sketch, an emoji, or even your heartbeat by tapping your wrist a few times. Or acting as a walkie talkie.
But the bigger picture answer is that we don’t really know what a smartwatch will eventually be able to do for us, yet.
The future of what this watch could do with Apple’s app makers and partners at other businesses is much bigger than the simple things the watch will do at launch. Apple’s laid out some creative use cases with big businesses that could change our lives if they work out and become popular enough. Like paying for things using Apple Pay through the watch at places like Whole Foods; or unlocking hotel rooms; or seeing how long it’ll be until your plane boards without having to check a phone or airport information display; and having your watch turn into your boarding pass so you can board with bags in both hands and your phone or ticket in your pocket.
Sooooo….doesn’t it just do what my phone does, but on my wrist?
Yes and no.
These examples above might prompt a solid criticism for the $350+ watch that the most cynical person might say—and we’ve said this in the past: there’s really no need for a smartwatch because almost anything you can do on a smartwatch you can do on a smartphone by simply pulling it out of your pocket. It really is hard to argue with that, on a certain level.
Now that all of us have seen the concept for the Apple watch, we may be wrong about that sentiment in the same way that people who thought a iPad was a big iPhone were wrong, because the size differences and emphasis on the screen size made it fundamentally better at reading and watching videos and essentially for chilling with it on the couch. Here, the watch does a lot of what the iPhone can do, but with the wrist mount, interface and smaller size and sensors, the watch becomes a few degrees more personal and accessible than even a phone, making everyday interactions that you’d have with your phone much easier. That could create a situation that is very likely going to make things much more convenient in terms of checking those push notifications and incoming messages without having to stop the flow of whatever we’re doing in real life.
What things did you not like about it?
The watch, like all smartwatches, is designed to make the interactions we typically would have with our phones less intrusive, but the easy accessibility could make our notifications more invasive, too, in a way.
Beyond that, just some nits. We don’t like that it needs to be charged nightly, where in our fantasies it would have been self-winding. And the photos app seems dumb.
But overall, is it cool?
It’s pretty cool. That’s the other thing going on here—this is as much an object of lust as it is an object of function. Even if you don’t need one like you might need a laptop and smartphone, or even as much as you might need (to a lesser degree) a tablet, the Apple Watch’s want factor is higher than any other Apple device I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. Partly that is because it looks good on a wrist.
Yes, the hardware choices for the watch are all beautiful and cover the different styles and lifestyles of a good number of types of people, with stainless steel, aluminum, gold, leather and rubber as material choices. And it wisely comes in 38- and 42-millimeter faces, which mean it should fit and look not-clunky on most people. And we’re sure aftermarket watch bands will be really interesting to get into. The taptics feedback are subtle as someone gently tapping you on the shoulder, actually a lot more pleasant than the horrible BZZZZZZZ an iPhone makes on a hard surface. The crown dial, single buttons, and touchscreen interface seem solid enough, too.
Yes, it’s cool because the software works well, and switching up watch faces is as fun as switching out watches on your wrist (and cheaper). And the ideas behind the cooperation between the phone and the watch are solid, too, able to hand off tasks between the watch and phone easily when you really want to get into a lengthy response or call or message.
Partly it’s cool because it promises to make technology a few steps more invisible and slick; if it does that well, we’ll be happy living with one.
So, again, would you get one if you were me?
We really can’t answer this question, and it’s academic and hypothetical until next year, but we’ll try.
You should consider one if $350+ isn’t too much money for you to put your everyday phone use on your wrist instead of from your pocket. You should consider one if you want to see if you can find a way to stare at your smartphone a little less when you’re hanging out with loved ones, but still want to be on top of your connections in real time. You should consider one if you want to find a new, more casual, and yet intimate way of staying in touch with your closest friends from afar without checking your phone. You should consider one if you like the idea of wearing a watch but can’t get into ones that just tell the time and date.
You should not consider one if don’t want another thing to charge or lose. You should not consider one if you are completely satisfied and have no interest in streamlining your mobile phone experience day to day, and don’t mind all the buzzing and beeping your phone makes in an attempt to coax you to pull it out of your pocket. You should not get one if you’re worried about yet another glowing, pretty, shiny screen that is always threatening to pull your attention away from real life, and you don’t care about staying connected to the second.
Apple Pay: what is it?
Put simply, Apple Pay is a system that allows you to pay for purchases at physical stores (and online via supported iOS apps) using just your iPhone 6/6+ or Apple watch. (Since watches won’t come out for awhile, we’ll focus on the phone.)
In the real world, this means you will eventually be able to walk into supporting retailers and make purchases without ever having to pull out your wallet or scan a credit card. Instead, during checkout, you’ll be able to tap your phone or watch on a nearby wireless scanning device and it will automatically transmit your stored payment information. The idea is to make things more convenient for you to pay for things, but also make things more secure (more on this in a bit) so you don’t have to worry about your credit card info being compromised at a store or if your phone is stolen.
This could be super cool because it means paying for things could happen super quickly and securely.
Apple Pay works with an iPhone 6 and 6+ through a combination of wireless NFC, Apple’s TouchID that allows you to scan your thumbprint on the phone’s home button, and a feature Apple calls “Secure Elements.” It also works with the use of an Apple Watch if you own an iPhone 5s, 5c, or 5.
How will this work? And how will my payment info be stored?
Upon registering for Apple Pay, Apple asks if you want to use your iTunes credit card as a baseline. You can also take a photo of your credit cards via the iPhone’s built-in camera, which will read the info and store it in your iPhone’s Passbook app. You can store as many credit cards as you’d like within Passbook.
However, the numbers on your card and your direct credit information is not actually stored on the device—and this is why Apple Pay is kind of cool. Instead, when you make purchases in stores, Apple saves and transmits a temporary card number for that transaction, handling the money exchange with your bank on the back end. Your phone itself—and the store in question—never directly interact with your actual credit card information.
You may have seen temporary or “virtual” credit card numbers being offered through your bank over the last few years (Chase is one prominent bank that offers this), but their use is not very common, as they are largely used online (instead of in real life at retail stores) and can be somewhat inconvenient. Apple is basically taking this concept and turning it into something functional with real-life usage, making it an option that you don’t need to think about.
Is it secure?
Because of the use of temporary or “virtual” credit card numbers, Apple Pay is likely to be more secure than using your physical credit card at retail stores. The recent data breach at Home Depot—and seemingly every other major retailer over the last 5-7 years—is one example of why our existing credit cards are not very secure. We’re all familiar with having to cancel cards simply because the data leaked or was lost or stolen. Because Apple is not using your direct credit card info and is instead using temporary, retailer-specific numbers for every purchase, if one of those retailers has a similar data breach, your original credit card info is not compromised. That’s a win for users.
It also means that if your phone is lost or stolen, even if you don’t have TouchID or a PIN enabled (shame!), your financial information won’t be compromised either. A potential thief won’t be able to access your real credit card information through your phone, and you will be able to disable it remotely in the event of a phone loss.
Theoretically, of course.
Will I use it?
It may or may not be a feature you make use of right now at launch, but we feel confident in predicting that Apple Pay will spread among the retailers we all shop at the most. According to Apple, “Apple Pay supports credit and debit cards from the three major payment networks, American Express, MasterCard and Visa, issued by the most popular banks including Bank of America, Capital One Bank, Chase, Citi and Wells Fargo.”
That said, even if you don’t shop at physical retailers, you’re still likely to run into Apple Pay via supported apps. Apple is making its system available to third-party developers, meaning certain apps will begin to offer one-touch buying that can circumvent the need to enter credit card and login information. Instead, you will be able to use TouchID to identify yourself to the app, which can then access the credit cards you’ve authorized and stored in Passbook. When it comes to online buying experiences, think more like “App Store” than “Amazon.”
There has also been a question as to whether you’ll receive credit card rewards by going this route, since you’re not using your direct credit card number when you pay for things through Apple Pay. Without being able to test just yet, Apple’s site says, “Apple Pay works with most of the major credit and debit cards from the top U.S. banks. Just add your participating cards to Passbook and you’ll continue to get all the rewards, benefits, and security of your cards.”
Originally published: September 10, 2014