With iPhones of every size, now you can feel what fits best

Originally published Sunday, September 28, 2014 at 12:04 AM

Instead of dictating what a smartphone shall be, Apple is easing up and offering iPhone buyers a variety of choices.

Seattle Times technology columnist

The big and slightly bendy Apple iPhone 6 Plus is a remarkable device that may be seen as a turning point for smartphones in the U.S.

Not because it's huge - Apple is playing catch-up in the jumbo-phone department. No, what's really bending here is Apple. Instead of dictating what a smartphone shall be, the famously intransigent company is easing up and offering iPhone buyers a variety of choices.

This is partly a changing of the guard.

Steve Jobs would have told Goldilocks which phone felt just right. His successor, Tim Cook, is trying to win over the bear family with different models sized and priced for Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear, too.

Apple now sells iPhones with three different screen sizes: the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 'traditional' 4-inch 5S and 5C. Counting all the different colors and memory options, there are now 29 different models.

This creates a difficult choice for the millions of people in the U.S. who have come to look to Apple for a simple answer when trying to figure out which phone they should buy next. There's no longer a simple answer.

Most phone buyers shop around. Apple has about 40 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, but only about 12 percent globally, according to comScore and IDC research.

Apple's global share has actually fallen by a third since 2011, the year Samsung introduced its first jumbo Galaxy Note phone. Sales of these 'phablets' - phones approaching the size of tablets - have soared ever since, and are expected to grow 210 percent this year, compared with 13 percent for smartphones. By 2018 they're expected to account for half of smartphone sales, according to IDC.

On a recent trip to Asia, I saw phablets all over the place. Hawkers in Taipei night markets used them to watch videos while waiting for customers; teens in Myanmar huddled around Galaxy Notes in the evening.

Phablets feel unwieldy if you're used to a small phone, but they may be just the thing if you're looking for a small tablet, a big phone or something in between.

Apple's version isn't cheap. The base model with 16 gigabytes of storage costs $749, or $299 with a two-year wireless contract. Models with 64 or 128 gigabytes of storage are $849 and $949, or $399 and $499 on contract. They come in silver, gold and 'space gray.'

The iPhone 6 Plus has a 5.5-inch diagonal screen in a case that's about 3 inches wide and 6.25 inches tall. It can feel like you're making calls with a car's rearview mirror but the extra real estate is nice if you're tired of squinting and zooming to read text on a tiny screen.

As on other phablets, such as the Galaxy Note and Nokia Lumia 1520, the screen is big enough to serve as a decent e-reader, watch a TV show or render a letter-sized document without having to zoom or scroll around much.

Making calls, I had to slide the Plus around a bit to get the speaker close to my ear. Fortunately the polished glass feels supple and smoothly tapers into the aluminum frame.

Apple did away with the chamfered edges of the previous generation iPhones and instead gave the 6 series the same rounded edges used on the iPod Touch. This makes them appear less massive but they are harder to grip - there are no crisp edges that catch in the hand - and seem more likely to slip out of the hand.

On the model I've been using, the power port has a sharp edge that scrapes my pinkie, which I use to hold up the 6-ounce slab when using it one-handed.

One-handed operation is tricky but that's the trade off with a big screen. Even browsing takes two hands, unless you've got Uma Thurman-size thumbs that can reach across the screen to the back button.

Apple made a few concessions to the size. It moved the power switch from the top to the side of the case, and added a 'reachability' feature that pulls material on the screen halfway down when you tap the power button. I rarely used this unless I hit it by mistake.

When rotated horizontally, a special keyboard with additional keys surfaces on the Plus. It's nice to have cursor keys finally but the letter keys are small and centered, requiring a big reach with your thumbs to type this way.

The awkwardness of these big phones is partly why Samsung and now Apple are building 'smartwatches.' They start to make sense when you think of them as remote controls for the big phone in your pocket or purse. Instead of pulling it out, you can handle messages, view headlines and control media from your wrist.

Some apps are disjointed on the big screen of the Plus. Microsoft's 'Wordament' game, for instance, has a 1-inch gap under the game tiles, putting it out of reach of the thumb you use to play.

Apps that were optimized for the 4-inch iPhone, such as Instagram and Twitter, scale up to the big screen and didn't do anything special with the extra space. It would be nice if there was an adjustment control so you could, for instance, show a lot more tweets per screen.

Battery life is good but not spectacular. With moderate use on AT&T's LTE network in Seattle, the Plus would run a day and a half.

Apple upgraded the camera but continues to use an 8 megapixel sensor. It takes nice pictures, particularly close ups, but in my cursory tests they weren't as dazzling as those taken by upper-end Nokia Lumia phones.

The phone runs a nicely upgraded version of Apple's iOS operating system. Additions include convenient new tricks for handling messages, such as the ability to swipe sideways to delete a message.

At least, it was a nice upgrade until an update last week crippled the phone capability on some models. Apple issued a fix a few days later, but it was an inexcusable error.

Perhaps it's just as well the first batch of iPhone 6 Plus models is largely sold out. The software should be sorted out by the time shelves are restocked.

That will also give people time to handle one in stores and see where Apple and the phone industry is heading.

If you've been waiting for a really big iPhone, the Plus may feel just right.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com


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