Many people are a little unkind when it comes to the so-called ‘S’ years, the years when Apple updates the Iphone but doesn’t change how it looks, sells that whilst secretly working on something even flashier that will debut 12 months later, not exactly fair. The ‘S’ years are usually the time when Apple adds in the best technology, Siri? Touch ID? Both valuable additions to the Iphone platform that have gained a lot of importance.
This year we get 3D Touch, a potentially amazing way to interact with Iphones, a device’s worth however is not just tied up in one feature, it is about how all of those moving bit work together. This is why the new 6s and 6s plus are such great phones, the combination of improved hardware and polished software makes this years release far more than just a modest refresh.
The iPhone 6s has the same design as the iPhone 6 but includes better cameras, faster processor and 3D Touch, a smart way to get things done in fewer steps. The combination of iOS 9 and well-built hardware helps to make the 6s one of the best iPhone ever, even if it is a shame it does not have some of the 6s Plus’s niceties.
The iPhone 6s Plus has the same 3D Touch, iOS 9, powerful A9 chipset and improved cameras as the normal 6s but has a longer lasting battery and optical image stabilization for the rear 12-megapixel camera which helps give it a slight edge over the regular phone but it is a shame it is not a bit easier to hold.
No you have not been deceived, your eyes are right, the 6s and 6s Plus look identical to their normal 6 counterparts from last year apart from a shiny new rose gold color option that oscillates between vaguely lavender and shiny new penny dependent on the light. The sleek, rounded aesthetic may not raise as many eyebrows as it did last year but is still definitely one of the best iPhone designs made, aside from the new color the other changes are not really noticeable.
Both phones are now constructed from 7000-series aluminium, an alloy used in the aerospace industry which makes for a sturdier and lightweight design. The regulatory icons that used to adorn the back have been removed also leaving behind a small ‘S’ logo so people know you have upgraded.
The same 16, 64 and 128gb storage options of last year remain and you will almost certainly plumb for the one of the latter two, it is a shame Apple have not given the old 16gb model the shove and made 32gb the norm nowadays. Economies of scale aside, iOS 9’s smaller footprint and new developer tools like app slicing make the 16gb iPhone a little easier to make do with. Although with a 12-megapixel camera, 4K video shooting and animated live photos which are turned on by default means you will have a tough time keeping free space available.
The Touch ID fingerprint scanner lives in the home button but this year’s model is a clear improvement, Apple claims it to pick up fingerprints twice as fast as before, it is hard to measure an actual speed the app works at but it is extremely fast now, I can’t recall a time it did not work on the first try either, it is so fast I have had to change a few daily habits as a result of this, I am one of those people who will tap the home button to check the time or change music tracks, this doesn’t work anymore as the 6s range picks up all but the very fastest home button taps.
Both phones are a little bit thicker and heavier than before but are still comfortable to hold, the thickness increase is nearly unnoticeable. The 6s and 6s Plus do feel a bit heavier, the 6s weighs in at 143g, up from 129, whilst the bigger 6s Plus comes in at 192g, up from 172, not a totally bad thing. This is one of the few times an iPhone has got chunkier and it is actually quite pleasing, there has to be a limit to how thin a phone can get and still be comfortable to use, it would be much more productive for companies to abandon the whole notion of achieving the thinnest phone possible and make use of the sizes they have already achieved. Bigger batteries for starters.
Speaking of which………….
The battery cells in these new models are actually smaller than before, 1,715mAh in the 6s and 2,750mAh in the 6s Plus, there is a reason for this downgrade. That new 3D Touch screen is to blame, to give you a little background, the display crams 96 pressure sensors into the backlight layer of the phones’ Retina HD displays, along with a Taptic engine that gives subtle vibrations when bearing down on the screen.
The engine took up some extra room near the bottom edge of the phone where the battery sits, the time saved from 3D Touch seems worth the slight battery downgrade but hopefully Apple will figure out how to shrink down the necessary parts so as not to compromise on battery size.
New Display And New Way To Touch It
You probably wouldn’t notice the difference with the IPS screens on the 6s and 6s Plus as they are the same sizes as before (4.7 inches and 5.5 inches respectively) with the same pixel density (326 ppi or 401ppi on the Plus), you probably would not even notice the improved glass on them until you drop them, please don’t do this. With a keen eye however, you may notice that the screens are a touch brighter with slightly better color reproduction, the 3D Touch is the more important thing at play here and is the biggest change with iPhone interaction since Siri.
How it has changed
Let’s start with the broad strokes, if you press your finger down on an app icon, you get a small menu of quick actions that usually require you to be inside the app to use, you will also receive a small vibration as a kind of thumbs up from the Taptic engine. Applying forces to your iPhone screen will take some getting used to. It is made trickier by the fact it is initially easy to mix up a 3D touch and a long press (like the one used to rearrange app icons), it didn’t take long to remember how much pressure to use to make 3D Touch work.
Those 96 touch sensors can also take precise measurements as you push down and release, imagine being able to accelerate past the chump by pressing the screen on a racing game? An exciting future if that is where smart phones are headed.
The big 3D Touch thing
There is a whole new vocabulary around the 3D Touch screen. Pressing down to preview something in a little pop-up window, a web link or an address someone messaged you is what Apple calls ‘peeking’. A bit more pressure will bring up the usual phone full-screen app view, in this case a Safari window or location in Apple Maps. You have just ‘popped’ something. You can’t use all the same 3D Touch action if you are using a 6s Plus in landscape mode. Pressing down on app icons still brings up the expected menus but you can’t peek/pop addresses or hyperlinks in Messages or Mail whilst the phone is sideways.
Apple has already laid out plans about how developers should implement 3D Touch and are basically centered one key idea, 3D Touch is about helping users do things faster. Most apps don’t yet support 3D Touch but the ones that do take a different approach to the things you can take a peek at. things like Twitter and Instagram let you press down on the app icons to bring up quick actions for near-instantaneous tweeting and photo sharing.
Other things like Dropbox offer file previews when filenames receive a long-press in a filelist but there is no app icon interaction. OpenTable takes a hybrid approach, you will get both an app icon menu and the ability to peek at restaurants locations in Maps as you are scrolling through the culinary options.
This may all sound complex but it really isn’t, as more developers get on board with it, people will be able to zip around their home screens and just do things as opposed to just jumping in and out of apps, it is also a very useful tool for getting quick bits of context.
It’s all in getting used to things
After getting used to 3D Touch, going back to a normal screen on the iPhone 6 was almost painful. Even if you use either the 6s or 6s Plus full-time, most developers have not had the chance to build 3D Touch support into the apps as yet. I have lost count of the number of times now that I was reading something on Twitter only to click a link and nothing happen, this just shows how powerful 3D Touch really is, it seems a bit gimmicky at first but soon becomes something you can’t do without.
I have already done several thousand words on iOS 9 and it’s focus on cohesiveness and efficiency make a great match for the new iPhones. Most software tweaks on the 6s and 6s Plus are centered around the 3D Touch system, there is also another trick only available on these. It involves delving into Siri’s settings and looking to see that you can enable ‘Hey Siri’ which will turn on the always listening mode, even when not connected to a power source, this feature works best with the new M9 co-processor, great when you want to talk to your phone and put it in airplane mode or change the station.
A great feature from the recent iPads that has reached the new iPhones is 3D-touching the keyboard whilst pecking out a text turns it into a trackpad for precise placement of the cursor for when that annoying typo pops up. All these features along with all the other tweaks in iOS 9 means a tightly integrated package that attempts to give us the apps and info we want at just the right time.
Camera And Live Photos
iPhones account for a huge amount of photos taken each day so it comes as no surprise that Apple takes the camera business pretty seriously. Finally after several years, Apple has traded in it’s 8 megapixel sensor in favor of the 12 megapixel main camera, it is not just the higher resolution that matters either, it is all the other technical bits that go with it to help improve picture quality. Cupertino went for smaller, more densely packed pixels which make for higher resolution shots with the added potential for more noise.
This is where Apple’s ‘Deep Trench Isolation’ comes in. The company managed to separate the sensor’s photodiodes to stop incoming photons bringing interference to the surrounding diodes, not something you really need to worry about though, it just means your photos should come out nice and crisp. Pair this with a five-element lens and a familiar f/2,2 aperture and you have a serious camera contender.
How do the photos look?
Pretty great, colors look nicely saturated and naturally so whilst the standard photo mode handles dynamic range and exposure better than expected. This becomes more apparent in landscape shots, the 6s or 6s Plus blew out the sky on bright days which made for some great shots on very bright sunny days. When you get a bit closer to your subject though, things start to go a little awry. nearly all the photos shot with the 6s or 6s Plus’s main cameras were crisp with clear color separation, zooming in didn’t reveal much more detail than photos taken with the normal iPhone 6, the photos are no worse than last year’s model just not quite what I was hoping for.
Photos taken on the 6s Plus are pretty much on par with the normal 6s but fares a little better in low-light shots due to the optical image stabilization. People with very steady hands might not notice a difference but it comes in handy when shooting a video. On a plus note, the front facing camera has received an overdue upgrade at last to a 5-megapixel sensor so it comes as no surprise then that selfies came out much clearer and more natural looking and the software-based screen flash does a decent job of lighting up faces in bars.
What about video?
The 6s and 6s Plus can shoot in 4K video, not that most people have 4K screens in their homes yet. The resulting footage is very sharp with colors true to life. This does come at a price of course, 4K will eat up space faster than you can imagine which is why Apple did not set it as the defaults recording setting.
The Live Photos feature however is enabled by default. You have probably seen the demos already, when you snap a photo, the camera records a little bit of audio and video before and after the shot is taken, a lot like the Living images found on the new Lumia phones. The end result is a neat, gimmicky way to capture enhanced pictures, evocative at best and a bit lame at worst, artsy types though will get a kick out of concocting cool live photo scenarios and sharing them about.
They can be shared with anyone with the latest Apple phone, watch or computer system, they quickly spring to life as you thumb through your camera roll and can be set as live wallpapers too, just apply a quick 3D Touch to run through the animations on the lock screen.
Altogether then, the 6s and 6s Plus have great cameras, the only thing is the competition hasn’t just sat back and left Apple to it’s own devices though, devices like the Galaxy S6 line and Motorola Moto X Pure editions are powerful pocket cameras in their own right. Sadly the Apple phone cameras are not the best on the market but their strong options stack them up nicely against the greats.
Performance And Battery Life
Upgraded cameras and a new touchscreen are one thing but what about the upgraded chipset running under the hood? This time there is a new 64-bit A9 chipset in both phones which appear to be made up of dual 1.8Ghz Typhoon CPU cores, the GPU and updated M9 co-processor. Apple has never publicly said how much Ram their phones have but recent tests have shown the new Iphone to have 2 GB, just like the recent Ipad Air and Ipad Mini, all told it is the biggest performance increase over a generation and it shows.
I spent a lot of time testing the 6s and 6s Plus by restoring them from recent backups of and iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus and using them side by side. The difference is obvious, launching apps, starting up web pages and multitasking were all smoother on the newer phones. The performance gap can still vary a little bit, older iPhones would occasionally get close to the 6s speed but never fully caught up, the 6s and 6s Plus are noticeably better at handling graphically intensive tasks like playing games, no dropped frames, stuttering or jankiness.
Is it all good news though?
More power and smaller batteries usually means bad news but the 6s and 6s Plus fared pretty well in most tests, with screen brightness set at 50% and a video looping indefinitely with Wi-Fi on and connected the 6s lasted 10 hours and 4 minutes whilst the 6s Plus with it’s bigger battery managed 12 hours and 37 minutes, just beating it’s predecessor, I didn’t expect any iPhone to match last year’s results but whatever Apple is doing they seem to be getting it right.
You probably aren’t spending over 10 hours per day watching the same video over and over and thankfully the iphone does a great job of doing everyday tasks too. My typical day of use involves messing around on social media, plenty of messages in Outlook, intermittent voice calls and the occasional bathroom break playing a game like Pokemon Shuffle.
With that kind of use, the 6s made it through an 11-hour day with around 15-20% battery life remaining, if I then switched to low-power mode I got another couple of hours out of it before charging was required. If your requirements are more demanding or you don’t like the idea of being tethered to a wall socket then the 6s Plus might be a better option for you, usually giving about 18 hours between charges.
It is an easy conclusion to come to and claim this is the best iPhone ever made, but this is true every year. Like I mentioned above, a device’s worth is not tied to any one feature, the important aspect is how all of it’s components, design flourishes, features and interactive elements fit together as a collective whole.
The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus mostly nail this, they are great phones, well-built, thought-out and brimming with potential. If you are already on an older iPhone 5s and are itching to chop it in then now is a great time, even if you own the iphone 6 or 6 Plus it is still a worthy upgrade but you could be forgiven for waiting another year. If you don’t mind a bigger device and want the best iPhone money can buy right now then the iPhone 6s Plus is for you. If you not bothered or do not want a bigger phone and don’t buy in to all this ‘bigger is the future’ stuff then the normal 6s will suit you perfectly.