Metro Weekly

Specs Appeal: Why the 6 Plus took my iPhone virginity

Apple’s larger iPhone enticed a longtime Android fan to sample its fruity wares, but left a bittersweet taste

iPhone leads

In the Metro Weekly office, there’s something of a common theme. At meetings, a cool, white glow washes over the table as we plan the next issue of Washington’s most-read LGBT publication. Its source? The numerous, illuminated Apple logos that line the table, fixed to the aluminum shells of the various MacBooks most of the staff use. Beside them, of course, sit iPhones, some naked, some in cases, the perfect pairing of Apple products in one delightful, unified ecosystem.

Unfortunately, I somewhat disrupt this altar to all things Steve Jobs. Breaking the flow of fruity tech is a magnesium Surface Pro, or a brushed metal HP laptop. Beside either of those devices sits any number of non-iOS phones. I bounce between several different handsets — on my nightstand there are two Windows Phones, two Android smartphones and a BlackBerry Passport. All have their strengths and weaknesses, each has several unique talents which endear them to me, none of them are perfect. The one glaring omission? An iPhone.

I have no trouble admitting that I’ve long admonished iPhones. After a lengthy love affair with a second-generation iPod Touch last decade, I’ve neglected to own any Apple products except for a brief fling with the iPad 3. Apple’s smartphones failed to ignite desire. They were too small, too restricted, too light on features, and I resented the smug attitude of many who stubbornly believed their devices to be the crème de la crème of the smartphone world. I’ve owned various flagship devices, the majority of which have run Android. Google’s OS has always suited my tastes, with its open, easily-customized interface, peerless multitasking and deep integration with Google’s own services. Android sated my need for the latest and greatest in technology, with specs to make any geek drool and devices that run the gamut from tiny to gargantuan.

None of this, of course, explains why I now own an iPhone 6 Plus. With hands too accustomed to large screens to consider Apple, I now find myself with an iPhone as part of my rotation of devices. It sits next to Google’s Nexus 6 on my nightstand. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fantastic device. However, even Apple’s best still isn’t the halo device I’ve been looking for.

I decided to buy into Apple’s ecosystem for two reasons. First, the size. Since HTC’s HD2, whose 4.3-inch screen seemed vast in 2009, I’ve been a complete technological size whore. With phones, the larger the better. I’ve own every iteration of Samsung’s Note series, and Nokia’s 6-inch Lumia 1520 was my main device for most of 2014. With the introduction of the 6 Plus, with its 5.5-inch display, Apple finally had a device which wouldn’t seem cramped compared to my other devices. That it finally had a resolution to match — 1080p, up from the iPhone 5S’s sub-HD display — was a welcome bonus.

My second reason was that I’ve become increasingly frustrated with finding one device to do everything I need without compromise. Yes, it’s the definition of a first-world-problem, but I’ve been left relatively underwhelmed with the numerous flagships available today. Sony’s Xperia Z3 — a gorgeously made phone — is hampered by a pitiful camera. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 would be perfect were it not for its horrendous, lag-prone Touchwiz software. Google’s Nexus 6 comes close to matching my needs, but is let down by a hit-or-miss camera and less-than-stellar battery life. Nothing in the Windows Phone camp excites me the way 2013’s Lumia 1020 and Lumia 1520 did, and BlackBerry’s Passport has improved dramatically since I reviewed it last year, but its ropey implementation of Android apps still leaves a lot to be desired. And so, with that in mind, I thought it time to grab an iPhone, and see whether I had finally found the best smartphone available.

Spoiler alert: I haven’t — but that’s not to say that the 6 Plus doesn’t come close. Indeed, much like Samsung’s Note 4, it’s a perfect smartphone save for one area: its software. On a list of compromises, it asks less than many others, but it certainly isn’t the perfect device.

So what’s good about the iPhone? The most obvious answer is hardware. Apple has built a stunning device. From the smooth aluminum shell to the glossy, curved-edge glass front, the 6 Plus looks fantastic. However, it seems that in the race to be thin, Apple has sacrificed form over function. Without a case, the 6 Plus is a slippery beast, and more than once I found myself having to rescue it from a dramatic meeting with the floor. While it feels solid, with a welcome density, it also feels woefully fragile thanks to its slender frame. Once in a case, however, it not only becomes easy to handle but still remains thinner than many naked smartphones.

Its display is also up there with some of the best. Yes, Android may have moved onto Quad HD while Apple has only just reached Full HD, but 1080p is still excellent for web browsing and consuming media. Colors are rich and accurate and it’s plenty bright enough when outdoors or shooting photos. Media consumption is aided by a surprisingly capable mono speaker — though I wish Apple would adopt the stereo, front-facing speakers of many rivals. Under that display, Apple’s Touch ID sensor is everything they claim it to be and more. It detects my fingerprint nine times out of ten, and usually when it fails it’s because I’ve done something wrong. Compare that with Samsung’s Note 4, which registered my swipes seemingly whenever it felt like it — which wasn’t often — and Apple clearly is the one to beat here.

Apple deserves incredible praise for its camera, which uses Sony technology that’s been tweaked by the folks in Cupertino. It may only be 8MP, but it’s one of the most well-rounded cameras I’ve ever used on a smartphone. The inclusion of optical stabilization and extremely fast autofocus means that, much like Touch ID, nine times out of ten you’ll get the result you want. Yes, the software may be overly simple, choosing the settings it thinks you want — but I often prefer that to having to manually adjust several settings just to get the photo I want. With the 6 Plus, I know I can take the photo once and it will be perfectly usable, something that can’t be said of many other devices. Add in excellent video capture (though the fact that it only records mono audio is a little ridiculous) and it’s a fantastic package.

Unfortunately, it’s iOS where things start to slip. The software itself is perfectly stable. I’ve experienced no crashes, very little lag and every app has worked well — save for the few still waiting to be updated for the 6 Plus’ larger screen. Setup is simple, the ease of paying for apps with my fingerprint is dangerous for my bank balance, and every app I enjoy on Android is here in some variation or other — usually with a much nicer aesthetic. Using it regularly, though, can become something of a chore.

Naturally, iOS is a beautiful operating system. Apple’s design chops again come into play, and using apps — be they Apple’s own or made by a third-party — is a mostly consistent experience, unlike on Android or Windows Phone, where quality can vary wildly, even from established brands. The tight leash Apple keeps developers on results in great stability, and overall navigation is usually some variation on a similar theme: either swipe from the left side of the screen or tap a button in the top corner to move back in an app or exit an opened photo, for instance. However, moving around inside an app isn’t the easiest on the Plus as, unless the app implements that swipe function (many don’t), you’ll be constantly reaching to the top of the screen. It may not sound like much, but with the Plus’ larger screen, it becomes cumbersome if you’re using the device one-handed. Every competing OS offers either a proper back button or gesture (BlackBerry, surprisingly, is more consistent in this regard than Apple), which makes this process much easier on other large-screen phones. That’s not the only area in which navigation feels somewhat backwards after coming from other operating systems, however.

With Android, Google’s intelligent multitasking keeps apps in the background, with the ability to instantly resume. I know that these apps will continue to sync data and refresh and work as normal whenever I jump back into them. On iOS, I didn’t have that same confidence. Yes, you can give apps permission to run in the background, and many will, but that didn’t mean that they always would. OneDrive kept thinking that WiFi had been switched off whenever I moved to another app. Gmail (which I use for work and personal email) and Inbox (Google’s new app which I’ve become addicted to on Android) would stop showing notifications, with the former taking ages to reload whenever I jumped back to it. Spotify, which, on Android, instantly connects and plays over BlueTooth when I jump into my car, will only connect if it’s one of the last apps opened. If it’s more than a couple apps away, the iPhone will open iTunes instead, which I don’t use. Also, double-tapping the home button and scrolling sideways to see recent apps is laborious compared with Android’s software-based key and vertical list. It’s a very small foible, but it’s there, and a problem Windows Phone also shares with its side-scrolling cards. The upside of that tight control over apps, though, is excellent battery life. With the screen off , the iPhone sips battery at such a tiny rate that it makes most other devices seem addicted to the juice as they hungrily consume data and processing power. Again, though, on devices with batteries larger than the iPhone’s 2,915mAh unit, I can have my cake and eat it — there’s enough battery power to sustain the better multitasking through one or two days of use without needing to charge.

Widgets are also an area that can’t stand up to competitors. The only one I use on the 6 Plus is Yahoo! Weather — both Android and Windows Phone have better ways to present snippets of information. Notifications are great, and come through just as quickly as on other phones, but I wish there were a faster way to clear either all notifications at once, or individual ones within groups. Control Center is also another bugbear: yes, it’s convenient, but unlike Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry, which access their settings from the top of the screen, Apple’s bottom-up implementation makes it tricky to access when you have the keyboard open. Speaking of the keyboard, third-party implementation is a buggy mess, and while Apple’s software for grammar and sentence structure is mightily impressive, after years of swiping around letters on Android and Windows Phone, tapping words out feels painfully slow — especially in one-handed use.

I could go on. Why can’t I set Google’s apps as the default? Why can’t I share between any apps that I choose? Why can’t I organize my homescreen the way I want? Why are most app settings not in the actual app? Why is the audio recording quality in iMessage so terrible? But I’ll stop, lest this dissolve into ranting or I be labelled a fanboy.

Let me say this: the iPhone 6 Plus is a mightily impressive device, despite the gripes I’ve listed above. As a complete package, it asks for less compromises than many other smartphones, particularly when design, camera and battery life are factored in, but it’s the software that ultimately stops it from being my perfect device. I emphasize that because it really is entirely subjective. There are those who love iOS 8, who are deeply embedded in Apple’s many services, such as iCloud, and for whom it can do no wrong. That’s fine, but as someone who has gone to the other side of the river and sampled the wares on offer, it only serves to highlight that my quest for the perfect device is perhaps a fruitless one indeed. While it’s easily more proficient than Windows Phone and BlackBerry OS, Apple has failed to match the usability of the latest version of Android. But, only a handful of devices running Google’s OS can offer as few compromises as the iPhone. It may not be perfect, but the many things the iPhone does exceedingly well ensures it stays in my rotation of devices — even if it can’t supersede them.

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Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's online editor. He can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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