This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2015-01-20 at 9:43 a.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/15354
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Accessibility Showdown: iPhone 6 vs. iPhone 6 Plus

by Steven Aquino

It seems almost comical in hindsight, but when Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone in 2007, he described its 3.5-inch screen as “giant.” And it was giant — at the time of the keynote, I had a flip phone with a postage stamp-sized display that was difficult for me to use, given that while I can see, I’m legally blind (for more on this sort of impairment, see Mariva H. Aviram’s series, “Computing for the Visually Impaired [1]”). The first time I saw the iPhone in person, I was awestruck by its large, high-resolution screen. Like so many others, I eventually got one.

Beginning with that original iPhone, I came to love the iPhone’s form factor, first with that initial 3.5-inch screen and later with the 4-inch display of the iPhone 5s. Not only were those screens big and high-resolution (for their time), but the iPhones were easy to hold in my hand and carry in my pocket. That’s a big deal for me — along with my visual impairments, I also suffer from cerebral palsy [2], which hampers the strength and mobility of my fingers. Other conditions that might cause similar problems include arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and previous fractures.

When rumors started swirling that Apple had two larger iPhones in the works, I was worried, and initially resolved to hold off out of fear that the sweet spot of usability and portability would be compromised. But after playing with the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 in person, I gave in and bought one. Despite its larger size, it maintained the balance of easy to see and ergonomics that I adored about my previous iPhones.

Yet, despite being content with the iPhone 6, I remained intrigued by its larger sibling, the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. I was keen to find out how, as a sort of a “phablet” (that crudely conjoined word describing larger smartphones), the iPhone 6 Plus would impact accessibility. To help answer my questions, Apple provided me with a review unit of the iPhone 6 Plus, which I’ve compared to my personal iPhone 6 over the last two months.

There are two main factors to consider when evaluating the accessibility of the iPhone 6 Plus: the size of the display and the size of the phone itself. This is true for anyone, but the importance of both are magnified for those of us with physical disabilities.

The iPhone 6 Plus Hardware -- There is both good and bad with the iPhone 6 Plus, hardware-wise.

First, the good. The obvious benefit for someone who’s visually impaired like me is that the iPhone 6 Plus’s screen is gigantic. I was amazed at how vast (and wonderful) the difference is between the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in terms of their displays. I immediately preferred the iPhone 6 Plus, based on screen size alone. If you have any kind of visual impairment, check out the iPhone 6 Plus; it is a revelation in the truest sense of the word. But that generous screen size comes with its own tradeoffs, as I’ll explain shortly.

In this context, bigger truly is better: it allows for more content to be shown, and the 401 pixels-per-inch (ppi) screen is so bright and crisp that I find myself rarely squinting to read text. The screen is so good, in fact, that text is easily viewable for me at normal size (my preference, though it can also be set to show less content at larger sizes). The advantages of the iPhone 6 Plus’s screen are such that I experience less eye strain and fatigue than on my iPhone 6, whose screen is “only” 326 ppi.

Alas, the sheer physical size of the iPhone 6 Plus hardware makes for a polarizing user experience. As wonderful as the screen is, the dimensions of the iPhone 6 Plus make me yearn for my smaller iPhone 6. The iPhone 6 Plus is a monster, making it cumbersome both to hold and carry in my pocket. Even getting it in and out of my pocket takes more effort than the iPhone 6, and it’s much more obvious in my pocket as well.

This isn’t just personal preference. Sure, my hands are small, but my cerebral palsy makes holding the iPhone 6 Plus awkward and uncomfortable, forcing me to adjust my grasp constantly to maintain control over the phone. Holding it to my ear during phone calls is hard too, because it’s so smooth and hard to grip, and the size makes it weird to hold against my ear. (This is also true of using the iPhone 6 Plus in landscape orientation — it just doesn’t feel right to me.)

On the whole, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the iPhone 6 Plus. Its display is spectacular for my eyes, but its physical dimensions aren’t conducive to my motor needs.

The iPhone 6 Plus Software -- Using iOS 8 on the iPhone 6 Plus’s larger screen is interesting, because it feels more like an iPad than it does an iPhone. From an accessibility standpoint, the greatest benefit that iOS on the iPhone 6 Plus offers is that it’s running on a big screen.

What I said in the hardware section deserves mention here, too: the more stuff on screen, the better my eyes feel. This is because information is ready at a glance, without the need for much scrolling and, subsequently, eye tracking. It’s a fine detail, to be sure, but as someone with a visual impairment, the less energy my eyes need to work, the better my vision will be.

Worth noting, too, is the Display Zoom feature in iOS 8, which shows less content on screen, but makes everything bigger and thus easier to see. I don’t use Display Zoom on the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus; instead, I find showing more content and using pinch-to-zoom to enlarge text to be sufficient for reading. You may prefer to use Display Zoom, if you suffer differently from low vision.

What makes iOS on the iPhone 6 Plus so iPad-like is that, like the iPad, it displays certain apps in landscape orientation. (This isn’t true of the regular iPhone 6.) This added functionality should in theory be useful, but it isn’t. The problem is, at least for me, again, the iPhone 6 Plus is uncomfortable to use in landscape orientation. Typing on an iPhone has long been an issue for me [3], and it’s even worse on the iPhone 6 Plus. My thumbs aren’t nimble enough to travel across the wider keyboard, so doing anything text-related is an exercise in futility. (In fairness, I have the same issue on my iPhone 6, though to a lesser extent.) As a result, I’ve used the iPhone 6 Plus almost exclusively in portrait orientation; even then, I have to resort to hunt-and-peck typing.

Another issue is reaching the upper corners of the screen; my fingers are simply too short. The Reachability shortcut (activated by double-touching the Touch ID sensor) does help remedy this — when I remember to use it. Plus, although Reachability brings distant interface items down to thumb level, it still doesn’t make it possible for me to use the iPhone 6 Plus with one hand. Using my phone one-handed is a big win for me — I can do so on my regular iPhone 6 — and the iPhone 6 Plus fails in this regard.

The Verdict -- As I was testing the iPhone 6 Plus and taking notes for this review, the phrase that kept coming to mind was “good enough.” The regular iPhone 6 is substantially larger than any iPhone before it, but it still feels like an iPhone. From an accessibility perspective, its 4.7-inch screen is plenty big and bright, but the iPhone 6 is also more manageable to hold and carry around. It has some issues, but it’s good enough.

John Gruber made this point in his “high level take [4]” of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus:

If you simply want a bigger iPhone, get the 4.7-inch iPhone 6. That’s what it feels like: a bigger iPhone.

If you want something bigger than an iPhone, get the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. It feels more like a new device — a hybrid device class that is bigger than an iPhone but smaller than an iPad mini — than it feels like a bigger iPhone.

Still, I struggled to determine which mattered more to me: screen size or hand feel. I so enjoyed using the iPhone 6 Plus’s glorious screen that, for a brief time, I contemplated trading up to the iPhone 6 Plus, but I decided that the iPhone 6 Plus isn’t appropriate for someone like me with motor disabilities. Given my circumstances, I need to balance the visual against the physical. In other words, to choose the iPhone 6 Plus based on screen size alone would make no sense, since the screen doesn’t represent 100 percent of the experience. The kinesthetic value matters too [5], an angle that’s especially important for users with special needs.

Overall, I liked the iPhone 6 Plus a lot, but I’ve sent my loaner back to Apple and happily returned to the iPhone 6. I can see the iPhone 6 Plus being terrific for someone who is dealing only with a vision impairment, but that someone isn’t me. As much as some who don’t have physical disabilities may gripe about the iPhone 6 Plus’s extremes, they’re even more of a nuisance for a person with challenges like mine — and there are a lot of people in that category.

The regular iPhone 6 is, at least for me, the right choice.

[1]: http://tidbits.com/series/1290
[2]: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerebral_palsy
[3]: http://www.macworld.com/article/2044544/pecking-order-typing-with-cerebral-palsy.html
[4]: http://daringfireball.net/2014/09/the_iphones_6
[5]: http://www.imore.com/hardware-often-overlooked-aspect-accessibility