Now that everyone from Alcatel to ZTE has discovered that people are trying to replace phones and tablets with single hybrid devices, Apple has grudgingly decided to step into the space with the $749-and-up iPhone 6 Plus. The result is a very big iPhone that will satisfy people who want a very big iPhone, but which doesn't necessarily add to the conversation. We're giving it a high rating on AT&T, but it's falling short of our Editor's Choice.
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The AT&T iPhone 6 Plus is actually the as the Verizon iPhone 6 Plus (and, for that matter, the T-Mobile iPhone 6 Plus). There are really only two iPhone 6 Plus models: one for Sprint, and one for everyone else. So for most of the details on the iPhone 6 Plus, read the Verizon Wireless iPhone 6 Plus review.
But there are some differences worth highlighting here: banding, pricing, and the competitive landscape.
Let me also address the bending thing, which developed between my first 6 Plus review and this one: It is totally inappropriate to put a 6.2-inch long phone in your back pocket and sit on it. I understand the psychology here. With its relatively small phones, Apple trained its users for years to put its phones in back pockets. But the 6 Plus is just not a pocketable device. It's not that it doesn't technically fit in a pocket. It does, but it pokes out, distorts your clothes, and can potentially fall out at any time (never mind bending). It's like putting a tablet in your pocket. Just stop. If you want an iPhone you can fit in your pocket, the iPhone 6 and 5s are both available.
Is this "you're holding it wrong" all over again? It might be, but you are.
AT&T's pricing is very similar to Verizon's, and it offers several different ways to buy your iPhone. You can pay $299-$499 up front and sign a two-year contract, based on whether you want the 16GB, 64GB, or 128GB models.
You can also sign up for AT&T's confusing Next plans, which charge nothing up front, but tack $27.09 to $42.50 monthly onto your bill in exchange for letting you hand back the phone in either 12 or 18 months and receive a new model. While these plans are generally more expensive in the long term than selling your phone on eBay, they're a boon for people who never get around to selling or handing down their phones.
If you buy an on-contract or AT&T Next phone, it will be locked to AT&T. If you get it unlocked from AT&T, you can move it to T-Mobile or (with some trickery) Verizon. If you want a factory-unlocked iPhone, buy it straight from Apple, and it'll work just fine on AT&T. Unlocked iPhones cost $649-$849.
Network and Voice Calling
AT&T currently has the most primitive voice-calling setup of any of the major carriers; in most of the country, it lacks both HD Voice and voice-over-LTE. As a result, call quality on the iPhone 6 Plus was just okay, as I saw on the Verizon model. It's not up to the enhanced clarity and noise cancellation of the Samsung Galaxy S5 or BlackBerry Passport.
That may change soon, though. AT&T is trying out both HD-quality calling and VoLTE in a few parts of the Midwest, and the iPhone is supported. The carrier also intends to launch voice-over-Wi-Fi in 2015, and the iPhone will likely be supported there, too. So you'll see call quality steadily improve on your iPhone 6 with time.
If you've been experiencing slow AT&T speeds with previous iPhones, a new iPhone will help—down the road. The iPhone supports carrier aggregation, a strategy AT&T will use next year to start knitting together disparate chunks of spectrum into a broader, single highway. Older iPhones, even the 5s, didn't have this ability.
The new iPhone also supports Band 29, a new chunk of 700MHz spectrum AT&T purchased, which is designed to speed up downloads nationwide. The LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy S5 Active also support Band 29. No previous iPhone had Band 29. This won't have an immediate affect on your speeds, alas; AT&T has been coy about when it'll deploy the new spectrum, and it won't be until the beginning of 2015 at the earliest. But it's there, and it'll help when AT&T turns on the new airwaves.
Comparisons and Conclusions
The specters of the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4 both lurk over any iPhone 6 Plus purchase decision. The 6 Plus opens up the iPhone experience for anyone who may have thought previous iPhones were just far too tiny. But owners of older iPhones may not be prepared for just how big the 6 Plus is. This isn't a phone for your back pocket. And while we haven't fully reviewed the Galaxy Note 4 yet, from our early trials I expect it to have a superior phablet experience with its higher-resolution screen, S Pen, and more potent multitasking. The Note series thinks more like a tablet, while the iPhone 6 Plus, right now, is stuck being a really big phone. You can see that from the limited list of iPhone 6 Plus apps we've found so far; developers just haven't explored the 6 Plus's more tablety features yet, while the Note is a more mature platform. Several months down the road, that may change, but we're not there yet.
As for choosing AT&T as your carrier, take a look at our Fastest Mobile Networks results. AT&T came in the middle of the pack this year; it doesn't have Verizon's fast XLTE speeds, or Sprint and T-Mobile's low prices. What it does have is better LTE coverage than the two lower-cost carriers, especially in rural and suburban areas—upstate New York and New England, for instance, have much better AT&T than T-Mobile or Sprint coverage. Remember, if you buy an unlocked phone up front, you can try out several carriers until you find the right mix of coverage and service for you.