The new Apple iPhones going on sale this week, the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, have crisper screens, faster processors and sharper cameras.
And, as you might have heard, they are also bigger than previous iPhones - the 6 Plus by a long shot - joining the stampede toward bigger handsets. But after almost a week of trying the phones, it became clear that the hardware was not the best part of the package. In its quest to deliver bigger phones to a market clamoring for them, Apple has made one phone that is actually a little too small and one that's a little too big.
The best part of the new phones is actually the new software inside, which is available for some older models, too, starting on Wednesday. The software, iOS 8, combines some of the advanced features of Android with Apple's ease of use and reliability.
Because of the software, it's hard to see many iPhone fans straying from Apple, even if they don't buy new iPhones immediately.
Those dimensions make it slightly smaller than the top Android and Windows devices on the market, helping it fit easily in jeans pockets. Compared with a Samsung Galaxy S5 or the HTC One (M8), though, the iPhone 6 screen feels constrained. The iPhone 6 starts at $200 with a new contract.
The iPhone 6 Plus is a behemoth. It has the same size display as the LG G3, at 5.5 inches, but is significantly taller. It's longer even than the Galaxy Note 3, which has a 5.7-inch display. It starts at $300 with a new contract.
Both the 6 and 6 Plus get thinner, flatter and more rounded shapes than their predecessors, losing the squared-off sides on the more recent models. The effect looks sleek, but feels slippery. Dropping seems imminent as you stretch your thumb across the larger screens.
Apple takes some small steps to mitigate the finger stretch with a feature called Reachability, which lets you touch (not press) the home button twice to shift the screen down to the bottom half of the display.
The feature works nicely for one-handed scrolling and finding app icons, but it doesn't do much else. If you're in an email, for example, you can't get access to any actions like Reply or Archive.
Apple could have taken a cue from other makers of so-called phablets (a blend of the words "phone" and "tablet") and come up with powerful ways to take advantage of those bigger screens.
For example, the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 4 will let users resize app windows using a finger or stylus and view multiple windows simultaneously on its 5.7-inch display, as on a desktop computer. The 5.5-inch LG G3 lets you open two apps at once and resize them as you like.
The iPhones do include some tricks created for bigger phones, like a zoom feature that lets you subtly increase the size of app icons and text in native apps.
And when you turn the phones sideways, into landscape mode, the keyboard in the built-in apps like Mail and Messages has more options - a microphone, undo key, period and comma and others on the iPhone 6, and even more on the iPhone 6 Plus, like dedicated copy and paste keys.
Those extra iPhone 6 Plus keys disappear if you choose the zoomed display, however. And the iPhone 6 Plus is so big that in landscape mode, I had a hard time reaching the keys to type.
As for the features that people love about their iPhones, they only get better. The iPhone 6 cameras, for example, are outstanding.
Both rear-facing cameras have new sensors that deliver faster autofocus, better face detection and the ability to capture high-resolution panoramas. The faster focus is immediately obvious, even in casual use.
The iPhone 6 Plus in particular uses optical image stabilization to deliver better photos in low light and reduce overall shake and blur. Sadly, that nice feature is not on the iPhone 6.
And filmmakers are swooning over the iPhones' high-definition video, faster frame rates (which lead to smoother video) and higher-quality slow-motion capture. Cinematic video stabilization helps smooth out video taken while moving and a time lapse mode snaps a shot every second or so and stitches them together.
Of course, all the videos and photos look great on the bigger screens, especially the iPhone 6 Plus. For camera buffs, that bigger phone is likely to be a must-have.
Call quality on the new phones is excellent and I found battery life on the smaller iPhone 6 to be impressive. I went almost two full days without a charge. Battery life on the iPhone 6 Plus is more like a day of constant use and not much more, but that's not terrible on a phone that size.
The real magic, though, happens because of Apple's new operating system.
The iOS 8 software doesn't look greatly different, but many refinements make it more powerful and flexible. Some of the features catch up to competitors and some are totally new.
The upgrade adds iCloud Drive, for example, which lets you more easily share documents across devices, as you can with Dropbox or Google Drive. A Family Sharing feature will let you share your purchased books, movies, music and some apps with up to six family members, so they don't have to log in to your account to watch a movie or use an app you have purchased.
After OS X Yosemite, the new operating system for Macs, is released in October, Apple's Continuity feature will let you view incoming text messages across all devices, hand off documents between a phone and computer and send a text or make a call from your Mac.
Smaller improvements - expiring messages and voice memos, Spotlight searches that include Web results, and recently used contacts that show up when you double-press the home button to switch between or close apps - add up to a refined mobile OS.
Some of the features aren't perfect, and many of the sexier features are still down the road. Right now, for example, the Health app simply doesn't do much. It depends on integration with third-party apps (scheduled for release with the phones) and the coming Apple Watch.
The new operating system comes on the new phones and can be installed this week on the iPhone 5s, 5 and iPhone 4S. People who have those phones and whose two-year cellphone contracts have not yet expired can rest easy. They will get many of the best features of this year's upgrade cycle.
The slim new iPhones aren't a big-screen slam-dunk, but they work well, as we have come to expect from Apple. Ultimately, it's what's on the inside that keeps them just in front of their competitors.
© 2014 New York Times News Service