Commentary

Struggling To Be Phab

The first thing to realize about the iPhone 6 Plus is that it is not an iPhone so much as a different category of communications device. It must be handled differently from any other iPhone, and even the most popular Android devices. Within minutes of picking the device up you hear Steve Jobs’ dictum about one-handed usage in your head. He was right. Mobility as we have known it up to now really depended on optimum portability and one-handed usability for most of us. The Plus is working in a wholly different universe.

Fundamental aspects of everyday use seem to change. Admittedly, I have only been forcing myself to accommodate this behemoth for a week, but some things are clear from the start. This is not something you whip out blithely from your pocket for a quick glance down at time or messages. On a simple physical level, a device like this takes greater care and management, and that impacts how and how often you pull it out. It is not actually easy to pick up from a flat surface, and it needs two hands just to position the thing correctly for typing. I find myself using it more like a tablet and leaving it on a flat surface rather than in hand. This orientation makes Touch ID less handy. I have had to register many more digits with OS to accommodate the many different ways I turn the thing on now.

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The one-handedness, or lack thereof, is a major issue for the uninitiated. While my wife is a two-handed mobilista even on her iPhone 5, I am not. I am persistently fighting away the impulse to cradle the Plus in my hand and navigate with my thumb. This is a dropped iPhone just waiting to happen. Clearly for this user, the only way the Plus is going to work is if I successfully get my head out of old notions of what mobile navigability and casual use are. Some have argued that the wider portrait orientation allows for better two-handed typing. I have found the opposite to be true. I can’t get a firm grasp on the thing with two fists around the keyboard in portrait mode. Worse, the height of the Plus throws off its balance. Top-heaviness is one of the main challenges I encounter with this phone.

But I admit I am in just the first stages of accommodation. I got the Plus specifically because I wanted to try the Phablet form factor in everyday use to determine how it works for me and how my overall mobile behaviors and usage might change.

In general, the inconvenience of a jumbotron phone is what first impresses me. It is forcing me to make the hardest kinds of behavioral changes -- psychomotor ones.

Lovers of the larger phone tout superior productivity. So far I am not seeing it, at least for my work patterns. I respond to only the most pressing emails on devices anyway, still leaving the bulk of that work to laptop/desktop. I loathe typing for any extended period on a touchscreen, even in two-handed mode.

The main upside to this jumbotron is, well, the jumbotron. For me at least, the main selling point of an iPhone 6 Plus or any larger phone would be superior media consumption. It almost goes without saying that a screen this size and of this saturation and pixel count is an absolute joy for video. Viewing those Netflix TV series and flicks my wife refuses to watch with me are that much less of a compromise now on this thing.

Likewise, this screen size passes an important threshold of credibility when it comes to ebook reading and tablet magazine editions. Ebooks, as much as I love and use them daily, require too much interaction on a smartphone screen for this reader to fall into the page and really read. The Plus expands the page real estate just enough to make an ebook feel more book-like.

For me the tradeoff is clear. The Plus offers an enticing media experience anywhere. That display is gorgeous, even if it does suffer the usual Retina Display malady -- uneven illumination and color balance. And I am not sure the A8 processor in this beast is really up to the task of pushing around all those pixels. There is considerably more stuttering going on than I expected. But that IMAX-in-your-hand vibe, attractive as it is to a mediaholic like myself, competes against the behavioral and attitudinal shifts the Plus requires -- at least of me.

In one sense, the iPhone 6 Plus, and its many comrades at the high end of screen sizes, reflect in screen size the increased importance of devices in our lives. By agreeing to the little inconveniences of jumbo devices we admit that these gadgets have become connectivity lifelines and extensions of ourselves. Their size reflects their importance -- something we might have been embarrassed to admit only four or five years ago, just as we would have cringed at the idea of holding a surfboard like the Plus to our ear in public to make a call. And we ourselves are on the cusp of this change. I wonder how many new Plus owners quickly put the device to their ear and asked a companion if they looked silly. In a larger sense, the real question is whether we all still feel a little bit silly having made connectivity -- the need to carry the Internet with us -- such a priority.  

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