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iPhone 6: The little things make it a real star

iPhone 6: The little things make it a real star

"I really like the iPhone 6 as a device"

The iPhone 6 is the first major redesign of the Apple iPhone since 2010's iPhone 4. The design is new, with the aluminum side band gone and the glass and aluminum halves directly welded for a sleeker, less-industrial look. The iPhone 6 is also bigger, a long-desired improvement in screen real estate. That's normal change in the smartphone world.

The iPhone 6's hardware is (mostly) excellent

I really like the iPhone 6 as a device.

First, the iPhone 6 is simply a pleasure to hold. The wraparound aluminum is almost velvety, and the glass front melds seamlessly into it. The screen is bright and colorful, without crossing the line into garish as some Android phones do (Galaxy S5, I'm talking to you). There are a few other nice-feeling smartphones, like the HTC One M8, but the iPhone 6 is a cut above.

Under the hood are Apple's new chips: the A8 processor and M8 motion coprocessor, as well as a souped-up graphics subsystem. The iPhone 6 has as much power as some PCs, and you can feel the better performance.

The screen is brilliant and bright, more so than Apple's previous iPhones, whose images were crisp and true but a bit subdued. In the iPhone 6, Apple has increased brightness without making the colors artificially garish, in that unnatural, pumped-up "Miami Vice" style that Samsung favors. It works great for navigation while driving with the new Siri hands-free mode (yes, Apple Maps is a lot better now).

Apple says the iPhone 6's viewing angle is wider -- well, yes and no. It's a tad wider than my iPhone 4's viewing angle, but not meaningfully more. What's different: At an extreme viewing angle, the iPhone 6 retains most of its brightness and color accuracy, whereas older iPhones dimmed and the colors shifted darker at wide viewing angles.

The iPhone 6's cameras have been upgraded. They're basically as good as SLRs and camcorders, but that's par for the course in high-end smartphones. One interesting change Apple made is adding support for high-FPS, slo-mo video capture, a trick sure to be popular. In my tests, it worked great in natural light but not in artificial lighting, such as a room illuminated by halogen or LEDs. (I don't have standard incandescent or fluorescent lighting to test under.) At least in LED- and halogen-lit spaces, I got a very unpleasant strobe effect when shooting in slo-mo.

The other big internal change is support for NFC (near-field communications) that will enable contactless mobile payments in the forthcoming Apple Pay service. Apple Pay doesn't work yet an iOS 8 update planned for October is required, as are Apple Pay-compatible sales terminals in stores so I could not test it. NFC may have other uses in the future, but for now Apple is tying it to Apple Pay to ensure security.

The iPhone 6 is not perfect, of course. There's one hardware change I'm not a huge fan of, and one change I wish Apple had made:

Apple moved the Sleep/Wake switch from the top of the iPhone to the right side, so you can reach it with your thumb when holding the device. But it means you can't quickly dismiss an incoming call during a meeting by double-pressing the button in your shirt pocket you have to pull the phone out of your pocket to dismiss the call. I've found no alternative quick-dismiss method on the iPhone 6 for those of us who carry our phones in our shirt pockets. Apple should add a timed option for Do No Disturb so that we can silence the phone in a meeting but not leave it silenced through forgetting to turn it back on, as is now required.

Apple did not move the audio jack to the top of the phone, where it's more convenient when carrying your iPhone in your shirt pocket (and where the iPhone 4 series had it, though not the iPhone 5 series). To listen to music while on the train or walking down the street, you have to put the iPhone in your pocket upside down to connect your earbuds which exposes the speaker and Lightning openings to the outside elements. OK, the goal is to avoid the lint in the bottom of our pockets -- still.

Also, the sleeker new case is, well, slicker -- making the iPhone 6 more likely to slip out of your grip than it should be, a little like last year's Moto X was. I had my iPhone 4 for nearly four years without needing a case or bumper to keep it secure in my hand, but I won't take that risk with the iPhone 6. I just need to find a bumper or case that doesn't hide or sully its beautiful design.

The software is what makes the iPhone 6 so compelling

But where the iPhone 6 really shines is in its iOS 8 software. The new OS is full of small but useful improvements, especially for business users, as I've described in my survey of its enhancements to email, contacts, calendars, and texting. But it also includes general improvements that make the iPhone 6 experience much more compelling.

Thank you for the new Middle-Aged view mode. A bigger screen still leaves text hard to read for many middle-aged folks like me. We want bigger pixels as much as we want more of them, so the iPhone 6 offers what I call Middle-Aged view mode (the real name is Zoomed view, available in the Display & Brightness pane in the Settings app), which makes everything bigger, essentially blowing up the iPhone 5s's screen into the larger physical size of the iPhone 6's screen. The graphics subsystem does the scaling, so there's no display lag as I found when Samsung tried a similar capability via software in its unwieldy Galaxy Note Pro 12 tablet earlier this year.

Widgets now can live in the Notification Center. The revamped Notification Center has a separate pane, called Today, for widgets. It shows a summary of the current weather and your day's calendar. To that you can add more widgets; scroll to the bottom of the screen and tap Edit to add or remove them. All apps that have widgets dozens already do, from Evernote to Dropbox automatically add those widgets to this screen. A lot of widgets are just quick launchers for their apps, but a few are actually useful, such as those for Yahoo Weather and iTranslate.

iPhone widgets The Notification Center's Today screen is where widgets can be added to or removed from.

Keyboards go crazy. Speaking of widgets, iOS 8 also supports extensions, which lets apps interact directly under iOS's supervision. The Box and Dropbox cloud services now have extensions, so app developers can more easily enable direct file access to their services, for example. But the early extensions are mainly alternative keyboards. I don't get the obsession some folks have over custom keyboards, but what the hey now you can get them.

Speaking of keyboards, a change I really dislike in iOS 8 is the new emoji keyboard that's enabled by default. The key appears near the spacebar, where it's easy to tap by accident. Unless you live in social media, it's more junk to wade through. You can remove it in the Settings app's General pane's Keyboard section. (I did.)

iOS 8 also offers the QuickType feature that suggests words above the keyboard as you type, so you can select the one you mean before typing it out. It's a feature you'll love or hate, because it can be as distracting as it is helpful. (To disable it, set the Predictive switch to Off in the Keyboards section of the Settings app's General pane.) Here's a tip: You can temporarily hide the QuickType bar by dragging it down, then drag it back up when you want it again rather than disabling it.

The Handoff feature is subtler than you might think. The big foundational new capability is iOS 8's Handoff, enabled by default in the Settings app's General pane. I love the idea of Handoff, which lets you start an activity on one device and pick up where you left off on another a key enabler of the emerging trend I call liquid computing.

But Handoff works subtly, and it's easy to overlook. First, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have to be turned on, and any devices you want to use it with need to be signed into the same iCloud account. The devices must also be in Bluetooth range of each other. When you start an activity in a compatible app on one device, the other devices "know" that and offer to take over that activity.

That's where it gets subtle. On a Mac, the icon for those apps appears on the left side of the Dock (or will, once OS X Yosemite ships next month). But on an iPhone or iPad, there's no such obvious if unobtrusive notification while you're working. As the figure below shows, Handoff announces apps you can take a handoff from in two places:

Through a tiny, easily overlooked icon at the bottom of the lock screen. Swipe up to open it.

In the App Switcher, if you swipe to the left. (Double-press the Home button to open the App Switcher.) Tap the app to open it.

When you open that app via Handoff, any data you're working on is carried over from the other device, such as an event you're adding in Calendar or a message you're composing in Mail. The feature works, if you know to look for it. I think Apple should provide the option for Handoff alerts in the Notification Center to give people more awareness when an app handoff is available.

The extras Apple has for only the iPhone. iOS 8 brings to the iPhone 4s and later several extras beyond core iOS 8 that I really appreciate.

One is the new Health app, which collects health data from apps and devices that you connect to your iPhone via Bluetooth, such as fitness monitors. But like the iPhone 5s, the iPhone 6 itself is a fitness sensor, so you can immediately capture information like how many steps you've taken and how far you've walked. Most fitness monitoring gear sits unused after a few months, but your iPhone is almost always with you. For those of us who should be more active, the iPhone could be a more realistic way to do so.

I also love that the Health app stores your critical medical info and can make it available to anyone via the lock screen's Emergency button. For example, if you're incapacitated, a caregiver can get vital information immediately. What a great idea!

Another cool feature is the new iPhone Cellular Calls feature (enabled in the Settings app's FaceTime panel). If your phone rings, any iOS 8 or OS X Yosemite device you have within Bluetooth range will also ring, allowing you to take the call from it. On an iPad, iPod Touch, or Mac, the phone call is sent via FaceTime over Wi-Fi. There's a lag of a second or so when using this feature, as the voice traffic gets sent between the iPhone and your other device, but it's a great way to pick up a call when your phone is not at hand.

The iPhone Cellular Calls feature is not part of Apple's new Handoff technology, so it works with more old Macs (as long as they run OS X Yosemite) and old iPads and iPod Touches (as long as they run iOS 8) than Handoff does. (Handoff is restricted to Lightning-equipped iOS 8 devices and 2012-and-later Mac models running OS X Yosemite.)

The iPhone 6 also supports automatic sending of phone calls over Wi-Fi rather than the cellular networks. This saves bandwidth for the carriers and provides phone access for you when a cellular signal is not available but a Wi-Fi network connected to the Internet is. However, only T-Mobile in the United States and EE in the United Kingdom have turned on that capability in their networks, so I could not test it. Both AT&T and Verizon say they'll have it in the United States next year. Sprint's network supports the technology, but the company has been silent about enabling it for the iPhone 6, and the store staff I asked had no clue.

Security for work and home

The iPhone 6 and iOS 8 together are a powerhouse when it comes to security if tied to a mobile management server such as those from Citrix Systems, Good Technology, MobileIron, or any of several other vendors. In addition to supporting Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies:

iOS 8 has more APIs for security and management than any platform, BlackBerry excluded (when using its BES server).

iOS 8 provides a broader set of management capabilities, such as for e-books, than just security management.

It has vastly more user privacy controls than any other platform personal security is anathema to Google's business model and not a concern in other mobile OSes, but should be.

It has hardware-protected biometric security and now credit card security no one else provides.

iPhone privacy settings Nothing comes close to iOS 8's privacy controls over the data gathered by the iPhone's hardware and accessed by apps.

For corporate security, iOS 8 and BlackBerry 10 are essentially tied when used with a management server. Nothing matches BlackBerry's backbone network security, but even those backbones are open to national governments' spy agencies. Most businesses long ago decided they weren't so worried about the backbone anyhow.

What iOS ostensibly lacks is support for the notion of separate device personas, but that's more style than substance given the internal separation possible in iOS between personal and corporate assets. It's telling that persona-separation technologies such as BlackBerry Balance, Divide for Android, and Samsung Knox for some Android devices have gained little uptake despite massive attention.

About the supersized iPhone 6 Plus ...

I was unable to buy an iPhone 6 Plus to test, and Apple declined to loan InfoWorld one for review. But I spent a few minutes with one at Apple's Sept. 9 launch event and a few minutes more with units at several stores this past weekend.

What's different about the iPhone 6 Plus is the size and rear camera. In every other respect, it has all the positives and minuses of an iPhone 6.

The screen measures 5.5 inches diagonally, and the device weighs 6.07 ounces that's 1.52 ounces, or 33.4 percent, more than the iPhone 6's 4.55 ounces. The rear camera's lens has an optical stabilization feature meant to help overcome the inevitable jitters from trying to hold such a monster device steadily in motion photography. (I could not test that.)

That extra time with the devices didn't change my opinion that the iPhone 6 Plus is too big. It's too much of a handful even with Apple's one-handed display trick (which also works on the iPhone 6): Double-tap the Home button to bring down the screen, so you can reach the top of the screen with your thumb. In most apps, you can scroll down in that diminished screen but not in all.

iPhone 6 one-handed mode The iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6 (shown here) let you double-tap the Home button to pull down the app so the top of its screen is more easily accessed by your thumb when controlling the iPhone with one hand.

The iPhone 6 Plus sticks too far out of a men's shirt pocket. That's great for surreptitious video recording, but I'd be constantly worried about it sliding out and falling to the floor any time I bent forward.

However, it's cool that apps can be designed to use all the extra screen real estate in landscape mode on an iPhone 6 Plus, switching to double-column view on Mail, for example, as if they were iPad apps. That's a smart accommodation of the "ablet" part of "phablet," and I wish Android phablets did the same.

I know there are people who love phablets, and who are comfortable using it with two hands all the time. And I know many of the Android makers are falling all over themselves to make each new model even bigger than the last, leading to really grotesque phone sizes. Seriously, people: A 4.7-inch screen is the optimal size for viewing, carrying, holding, and manipulating.

If you really want a micro tablet more than a smartphone, rather than use both an iPhone and an iPad, then I get the appeal of the iPhone 6 Plus. But try out an iPhone 6 Plus in person to see if it's right for you.

The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are available from the major U.S. carriers AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon as well as from major carriers in Japan, Australia, and much of Europe. (Apple's still waiting for regulatory approval in China.)

The iPhone 6 costs $649 for the 16GB model, $749 for 64GB, and $849 for 128GB the pricier models offer more capacity than the predecessor iPhone 5s did. Some carriers will subsidize those prices with a $450 discount if you agree to a two-year contract. The iPhone 6 Plus has the same capacities but costs $100 more for each model. The casing colors are the same as for the iPhone 5s: silver, gold, and dark gray. Gone is the M&Ms color scheme of last year's iPhone 5c.

Samsung has derisively congratulated Apple for the new iPhone models, saying "Welcome to 2012." It's true that the iPhone 5 series was too small at 4 inches, and most iPhone users have jealously regarded those bigger competitors. But the iPhone 6 is a much better smartphone than the competitors' offerings. Much of that is because iOS 8 is a vastly superior operating system to Android 4.4 KitKat, and Apple's customizations of iOS 8 for the new phones is smarter and more sophisticated in most cases than what Android smartphone makers have done.

No one can match Apple when it comes to the total package once Apple commits to that total package. Although a good smartphone, the iPhone 5s was clearly an interim product. The iPhone 6 is the total package and a great smartphone.

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