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APPLE'S NEW PHONES

Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus reclaim the innovation lead from Android

4.7- and 5.5-inch screens, slim designs, better hardware, and mobile payments consumers might actually use

Published: September 09, 2014 06:30 PM

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Apple's smart phones have gone through years of conservative, incremental updates, but the Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus catch up to and even surpass technically advanced Android rivals from Samsung, LG, and others.

Let's start with what gets fixed with the Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. The revamping includes a larger 4.7-inch screen for the iPhone 6 and a 5.5-inch one for the iPhone 6 Plus. Both phones, which are less than a quarter-inch thick, have the A8 processor that Apple claims is 25 percent faster than the iPhone 5s' already-fast A7 processor. This tweak, and their larger size, coud help the Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus address a longtime iPhone weak spot: battery life.

The other big news along with the new Apple Watch is a new mobile payment system called Apple Pay. One critical advantage Pay appears to have over other mobile payment systems is that Apple is taking near-full control of the transaction process and has already lined up major retailers and financial institutions to support the system. (This is reminiscent of the reason that the iTunes and the iPod were revolutionary: The technology only matters once the business relationships and user experience are in place.)

The other advantage is Apple's Touch ID fingerprint reader and other encryption hardware built into the phones themselves, which promise a safe transaction while eliminating the need to type in a PIN or perform other cumbersome steps that have thus far dampened interest in other e-wallet schemes.

The new phones are slimmer than the iPhone 5s.

Here are more details on the phones, the new payment system, and the user interface.

Payments

For its new Apple Pay system, the company lined up support from American Express, Mastercard, and Visa, along with dozens of major retailers, including Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Walgreens, Staples, and McDonald's. It is promising more than 200,000 locations when Apple Pay rolls out in October.

How it works: Your account is stored with iTunes, but your credit card numbers are never shared with the merchant. Instead, Apple stores the information as Device Account Numbers (different for each account) and transmits a special security code for each transaction you initiate with your supported Apple device. On the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, each payment will be authorized when you press the device’s Touch ID fingerprint scanner, which prompts the device to send an NFC signal to a special terminal on or near the register.

According to Apple, none of that transaction information is stored on the phone, and your thumb-print data is encrypted in such a way that it can’t be accessed by third parties. The two main advantages of this system is that you won’t have to type in a PIN and that should your iPhone become lost or stolen, you won’t have to cancel your credit cards. Of course, we’ll be able to better assess the merits and possible drawbacks of this system after it rolls out. One mystery: Apple says Pay will also work with the 5s, 5c, and 5. But only the 5s has a fingerprint scanner, and none support NFC. We’ll have to see how that works.

Camera

The new iPhones' camera resolution remains at 8 megapixels. But as Consumer Reports has often pointed out, that megapixel figure might not mean much. In our tests, iPhone cameras are among the best, particularly for video, handily beating other cameras with several times their resolution.

New features and capabilities promise to make iPhone’s top-notch camera even better. These include being able to shoot 1080p video at 60 frames per second, which should make the image look noticeably smoother when either the subject or the camera is moving.

Still-camera improvements include the ability to snap photos more quickly in HDR mode, and Phase detection autofocus—a system typically found on SLRs that allows the camera to focus quickly and increases your chances of taking better pictures under low-light conditions.

The camera also provides advanced face detection plus advanced blink and smile detection. And Apple is promising a smoother process for stitching together a quilt of photos into a panorama, which is supposed to result in better images. The 6 Plus adds an optical image stabilizer. In our tests of other phone cameras, that feature has made hand-held shots less blurry.
 
Finally, the front-facing camera should be able to take better selfies. Apple says it will let in 81 percent more light, and it can now take burst shots.

Interface

The new iPhone displays make good use of their extra real estate. You can now get a split-screen view in email and other apps when you turn these phones on their sides for landscape mode. In this mode, the keyboard expands and rearranges itself to make typing easier, while the document or app behind is easier to see. Double-touch the home button and it slides the entire display down. There’s also a Wake button on the side of the phone.

Read our coverage of the new Apple Watch—including some hands-on time at the Apple event—and use our advice on picking a phone plan.

Voice quality

The Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus phones support Voice over LTE for high-definition conversations on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, when the carriers begin to offer such services. The phones also support Wi-Fi calls, which can allow smaller carriers like T-Mobile to seamlessly transfer your call to a local Wi-Fi network when you slip our of range of its cell towers.

Sensors

Sensors include an accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, and a new barometer. They can estimate your steps, distance, and elevation to track your position, say on a set of stairs.

Battery life

Apple says you an expect 14 hours of talk time on the iPhone 6 and 24 hours for the 6 Plus, which would put the 6 Plus in the company of top-scoring Samsungs and LGs. Standby time for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are 10 and 16 days, respectively.

Availability

Preorders for these hot new phones begin on September 12. They ship on September 19. Pricing is estimated follows with a conventional two-year contract:

iPhone 6: $199 for the 16GB model; $299 for the 64GB model; $399 for the 128GB model.

iPhone 6 Plus: $299 for the 16GB model; $399 for the 64GB model; $499 for the 128GB

You can pick up last year’s iPhone 5s for $99. The 5c is free.

We'll have more on these interesting devices as the details unfold.

—Mike Gikas

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