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iPhone 6 Plus Review: How Big Is Too Big?

Apple has finally joined the phablet party. How does it stack up?

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Maybe I’m getting old, and my eyes are getting worse. Or maybe I’m stuck in Apple’s reality-distortion field (help). But something strange happened this week.

I started to like a phablet.

Okay, okay. Apple hates the word “phablet.” So let’s call the iPhone 6 Plus what it is: A jumbo smartphone with a 5.5-inch diagonal display.

It is a novelty, because Apple has never made a smartphone this size before; but it’s also not new at all, because electronics makers like Samsung and LG already offer phones this big. These phones are, in fact, incredibly popular in some parts of the world.

I’ve tested giant phones before, including the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the Samsung Galaxy Mega. In each instance, I concluded that I wouldn’t buy one for myself, mostly due to size. It’s not you, it’s me! I scribbled in a breakup letter to the Note 2, using the smartphone’s stylus pen. The 6.3-inch Mega seemed to suffer an identity crisis, and I wrote that it would have to be returned via flatbed truck.

There are a couple of reasons why the Apple iPhone 6 Plus might also be too big for me to purchase. But I have to admit it: I’m tempted. I really like this phone. And to people who actually prefer huge smartphones: You are going to like this phone, too.

That’s mostly because it’s not just a smartphone; it’s a statement phone. What Apple is doing isn’t even especially innovative — “Us, too!” the company is shouting, as it chases after that flatbed truck filled with phablets — and yet, they’ve made this big phone feel fresh and desirable.

The iPhone 6 Plus, which opened up for preorders last week and hits stores Sept. 19, starts at $299 with a two-year wireless contract. The 64 gigabyte and 128GB models cost $399 and $499, respectively, and the unsubsidized prices for the phone range from $749 to $949.

For that price, most consumers would probably ask: How does it compare to the iPhone 6, how does it size up to the new Galaxy Note and how does it feel compared with a smaller smartphone that neatly fits in your pocket and palm?

If you’re wavering between the larger iPhone 6 Plus and the “regular” iPhone 6 — which are both larger than earlier iPhones, and have the same powerful A8 chipset — then you’ll want to read Walt Mossberg’s full review here. (You should also read Katie Boehret’s column on iOS 8, which will be released on Wednesday, and Bonnie Cha’s keyboard review here.)

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to test the brand-new, Android-based Samsung Galaxy Note 4, so I can’t compare the two. But you can check out the chart below to get a sense of the Note 4’s impressive technical specifications versus those of the iPhone 6 Plus.

What I can tell you about 6 Plus is how it feels, and where it does and doesn’t fit.

First off, the iPhone 6 Plus is easy on the eyes, in more ways than one. I tested a bling-y gold model; it’s also available in space gray and silver. Its anodized aluminum back is cool to the touch. While I had to stretch my hand to hold the phone, the curved edges felt smooth against my palm and finger fat.

The iPhone 6 Plus’s Retina-display resolution is actually not as high, nor its pixel density as great, as some of its competitors. But the display still looks clear and bright. (I’m not convinced that the average human eyeball can really detect much of a difference in PPI past a certain point.)

As with the iPhone 6, there are now two display modes — Standard and Zoom – and the ability to adjust text size. This means that I was able to wake up in the morning, grab my phone and clearly see messages and emails, without eyeglasses.

Both new iPhones now work in landscape mode, but one difference between the two is that landscape mode in the iPhone 6 Plus is a little more tablet-like. So when I held the phone horizontally and opened Messages, I could see my list of recent messages on the left and a dialogue box on the right. Same with Mail. And the virtual keyboard shows extra keys.

Another small difference between the two is that the iPhone 6 Plus has better image stabilization in its 8-megapixel rear camera. Apple claims its sensor-and-software combo help capture better pictures when either you or your subject is moving. It also allows the exposure to remain open for longer in low-light settings, and not have the photo come out totally blurry.

I took a few dozen photos at the beach and in a dark restaurant, and they all looked better than photos taken with my iPhone 5s; though, to be honest, I feel it was a combination of all of the new camera features that made these photos look more professional, not just the optical image stabilization.

Oh, and if, like me, you rarely get a full day out of your current iPhone’s battery, this might excite you: In my tests, which involved setting the display brightness to 50 percent and cycling through my regular routine of apps and phone calls, the iPhone 6 Plus would last from early one morning until evening the following day. (Calls sounded great, as well.)

To that note, I barely used my tablet while I was testing this phone. Instead, I used the 6 Plus to watch videos and read in bed at night. Draw whatever conclusions you want from this about the possible convergence of large-screen phones and mini-tablets.

Of course, there are downsides to a phone this big.

It didn’t fit well in pockets. And it was too big to hold in my hand, or even wear on my arm, during fitness activities. This is key for me.

I usually take my test phones on at least one distance run; with this one, I didn’t even try. I did carry it during a hike, and it slipped out of my hand and hit the dirt before I hit the two-mile mark.

Could something like a sport-focused smartwatch supplant my phone while working out? Sure, it’s possible. But right now it seems that the Apple Watch will be very much tied to the iPhone. (It’s brilliant, really, if you think about it: Jumbo-phone makers have tricked us into being walking advertisements by making phones so large, and now I’m wondering whether to buy a wearable to go with it.)

Oddly, there were a couple instances where core apps on the iPhone 6 Plus froze up, and the graphics in Messages appeared mixed up once while I was switching from upright to horizontal mode. Apple says this is a bug, and the company is working to fix it.

Finally, the iPhone 6 Plus doesn’t come with a stylus. Samsung’s Note phones have stylus pens, and some people really like them. But Apple is standing by Steve Jobs’s theory that the best styluses are our fingers.

Stylus or not, some other jumbo phones have felt like plastic toys to me. Apple has designed a giant phone that offers a few key large-screen features without overwhelming the senses, and it has a pretty good camera, to boot.

More importantly, it feels sleek, and carries the cachet of being a “big iPhone” — if that’s what you’re into.

Just don’t call it a phablet.

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