This is kind of a tough exercise, but look at the image above, which displays every currently shipping iPhone, and try if you can to momentarily disregard the size of each, as well as their respective technical specifications. If you can pull that off, then ask yourself which of these four models looks the newest, the most sophisticated, the best designed?
If like me you answered the third from the left, the iPhone 5s, then you understand the quandary I’ve been facing since the newest models were announced a few weeks ago. I’m ready for an upgrade but, aesthetically speaking, neither the iPhone 6 nor the iPhone 6 Plus strike me as upgrades from my aging iPhone 5.
That line, which debuted in 2012, still looks fresh and exciting today, still looks like a significant improvement over every other phone on the market, even the ones that have debuted in the intervening two years—including its would-be successors. The iPhone 5’s lines are sophisticated and modern; each bevel or corner or detail seems unique, well considered and essential. I still marvel at its beauty when I hold it in my hands.
By contrast, the iPhone 6’s form seems uninspired, harkening back to the dated-looking forms of the original iPhone, and barely managing to distinguish itself from the countless other phones that have since aped that look. This lack of inspiration is particularly evident on its backside, where plastic antenna runners unimaginatively mar the clean metallic surface, or where the camera protrudes out from that surface, making it effectively impossible to lay the phone perfectly flat except on its face.
These are surprisingly conspicuous misjudgments from a team with a long, nearly unbroken string of iconic industrial design successes. In some ways, they suggest a conflicted design process, perhaps one riddled with ambivalence over these new models’ frankly absurd screen sizes. What exactly happened? We’ll never know until Jonathan Ive writes his memoirs, I suppose.
But I think that feeling of creative flinching is what bothers me so much about the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus. If there’s a single thread that runs through nearly every piece of Apple hardware, it’s conviction, the sense that its designers believed with every fiber of their being that the form factor they delivered was the result of countless correct choices that, in totality, add up to the best and only choice for giving shape to that particular product. Apple hardware has always looked utterly convincing because they have always been brimming with conviction.
Looking at these two iPhone 6 models, I can’t truly bring myself to believe that that’s the case. These models look competent, maybe even elegant, but they don’t look like they represent the very best that Apple can do. Others may feel differently, but that disconnect has left me surprisingly unenthusiastic about the prospect of owning one.