Apple iPhone 6S and 6S Plus Review
“Apple’s most substantial S upgrade to date”
“The only thing that’s changed is everything,” according to Apple with this years iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. With the iPhone quickly approaching it’s 9th anniversary, Apple is striving to break the perception that the “S” upgrade comes with minimal deliveries. After all, in the past some “S” upgrades have been minimal. Despite that fact, Apple still continues to not only keep the iPhone relevant in the smartphone world, it continues to dominate the industry and fly off of the shelves. This year we get a pair of very familiar devices, but don’t be fooled by the fact that they almost look identical to their predecessors. Looks can be deceiving, but these are very different iPhones than last years. Let’s dive into the inside of these devices and find out exactly what has changed.
Hardware and Ergonomics
If you’ve seen or held an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus you’ve more or less got an idea of how these phones look and feel. It may seem indistinguishable at first, but look and feel a little closer and there are some notable differences. Both the iPhone 6S and the 6S Plus are ever so slightly larger and heavier than their predecessors. We’re talking fractional differences at most, these new phones are wider, longer, and thicker than last years. I personally did not notice the measurement differences. It still slips into a pocket very well, though you may struggle a bit fitting the iPhone 6S Plus into your pocket but that’s to be expected for a large phone. However there is a noticeable difference in the heft of both devices which I particularly like. Now just to clarify these new phones are in no way heavy or uncomfortable to hold. I’m definitely one of those people that thinks a phone or any mobile device for that matter can be too light. It’s a completely subjective observation but I like my devices to feel substantial. Making a device too light to me can come across as cheap. The new iPhone feels like a device that comes with an equally hefty price tag.
Let’s elaborate a bit more on the weight difference. Apple claims that the changes in weight are due to the implementation of the new 3D Touch sensors, a new Taptic Engine, and the relation to the type of aluminum and glass used on these iPhones. We’ll touch base shortly on the new internal hardware components but I can say that the new iPhones do feel more solid than the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Apple is using much stronger glass with the addition of a pressure-sensitive screen and the aluminum is now the same as the Apple Watches 7000 series aluminum. Some might say that this is just the placebo effect, but I can testify that the new iPhones feel stronger than those of last year. Hopefully for the few “bendgate” issues that we all read about last year these newer iPhones can put that fear to rest.
Ergonomically both phones settle very comfortably in the hands although I prefer the one handed friendliness of the iPhone 6S over the 6S Plus. If you’re accustomed to using a two handed phone you’ll have no issues with the iPhone 6S Plus in daily use. The glass elegantly slopes into the aluminum giving a very continuous feel despite the bondage of glass to aluminum. One of the trade offs of this device however is that it can be a bit slippery in the hand and for some difficult to grip. I put a case on my daily driver anyway so I really don’t mind the curviness of the phones design. From a design standpoint the only two things that I do not personally care for are the way that Apple uses the “antenna lines” and the slight hump of the camera lens. For a device that is so attractive I feel that Apple could do a much better job at making the banding for the antenna’s mesh better with the aluminum. Apple sort of tries on the Space Gray models, as the bands on these models are slightly gray. On the Silver, Gold, and Rose Gold the bands are colored to match the white glass on the front. It looks like Apple took a Wite Out™ correction tape roller and ran it across the top and bottom. I mean you either love it or you hate it, but I really think that the bands should have been made to match the coloring of the back so they didn’t stand out so much.
In regards to the other ins and outs of these devices, you’ll find your standard 3.5 mm headphone jack on the bottom, a microphone, a lightning port for charging and other peripherals, and a single speaker. Sound quality from the speaker is adequate but it’s nothing to write home about. I personally love when the speakers are on the front of smartphones but at least Apple does not place the speakers on the back of the phones where your hands would normally cover them. On the left side of the device you’ll find a silent switch and volume control buttons. On the right there’s a power/wake button and the micro sim card tray. The home button to me felt a bit more clicky and snappy than it has on previous models. Noteworthy for this year you’ll notice a prideful “s” stamped on the back of the anodized aluminum back and the exclusion of the majority of the FCC and legal stampings which are now found in the software. Overall the fit and finish of both the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are top notch.
Colors and Capacity Variations
For this years iPhones, most of the color variations are a carry over: Space Gray, Silver, and Gold, with one new option: Rose Gold. Pictures of the Rose Gold versions would lead you to believe that it’s gold with a soft touch of pink. In person this color option is definitely more predominately pink than you may expect. Not saying that’s a bad thing by any means because it is a very pleasant shade of pink. The only occasion that it came across as Rose Gold was under dim lighting conditions. Just be aware that unless you’re a fan of pink you’re not going to care for this color.
As for capacities, sadly Apple, like many other manufacturers, have continued to start the capacity choices at 16GB. I think that the continuation of offering a 16GB phone moving into a world of 4K and millions of apps is absurd at this point. It really just comes across as a cheap and forceful ploy to make consumers spend even more on an already expensive phone. Apple is certainly not the only one guilty of this, but I was really hoping that Apple would break the mold and start offering either at 32 or 64GB for it’s base models. Either way, your choices remain at 16, 64, and 128 GB for both the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. Included in the box you’ll find a lightning cable, a USB AC Adapter, and Apple EarPods. I’m not quite sure why the past few years Apple continues to leave out a sim card key to make installation of other sim cards beyond the included one easier, but there is none to be found here.
Tech Upgrades and Screen
So I’ll bet by this time you’re wondering how these two new iPhone’s perform. I’m happy to say that both exceeded my expectations. In some cases internal upgrades can be considered very incremental and can come across as almost negligible in day to day use. However, this year Apple introduced a powerful new A9 Dual-Core chip clocked at 1.84 GHz, an improved M9 coprocessor, and 2 GB of RAM. Together all of these new additions make this iPhone blazing fast at just about any task. The A9’s CPU brings performance up 70% and the integrated GPU is up 90%, according to Apple. Plus the new M9 coprocessor takes care of all motion involved processing such as the accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, and barometer to take some of the stress off of the A9. The M9 also now enables you to wake your phone by simply saying: “Hey Siri”. I’ve also noticed an increase in accuracy and speed in using Siri. Pair these enhancements with double the RAM from last years iPhones and you have a notable improvement in overall performance. Everything that I did in my testings was very fast and fluid and in some cases almost instantaneous. It’s a noticeable improvement over the 6 and 6 Plus and those phones were no slouches.
The new Touch ID might be the single most obvious area of improvement that you will notice. It’s so fast at recognizing your fingerprint now, there’s no longer a reason to even wake the device with the power button. In most cases I was brought to my home screen before I could even take my finger off of the home button. It’s a feature that I instantly miss the second that I turn over my tasks to my iPad Air 2 which has last years Touch ID. Anyone that uses a passcode will immediately appreciate the upgrade in speed and accuracy to Touch ID.
Let’s get to the broadest stroke of the new hardware which Apple calls 3D Touch. 3D Touch is a new set of gestures that sense how much pressure you’re applying to the screen and react accordingly based on the amount of pressure applied. The screen can recognize a total of three levels of sensitivity. In the form of a tap which we’re all familiar with, a second level of pressure which Apple calls Peek, and the third and hardest amount of pressure which is referred to as a Pop. For example, when you’re on the home screen and you push just a bit harder on an app’s icon you’ll see a menu spring from that icon giving you a set of Quick Actions. Each action is there to save you time from what would normally entail multiple taps to get to that same feature. As that menu pops, you’ll feel a slight vibration from the Taptic Engine, which does a very respectable job of making it feel more like a key was pressed. It’s subtle but it does a great job of triggering actions. It’ll even vibrate just a bit longer, in a triple-vibration pattern, indicating that app has no Quick Actions available.
This new feature can be found all over Apple’s built in apps. 3D Touch on the camera app and you can go straight into the front facing camera to take a selfie. In the mail and messaging apps you can use it to Peek into a thread before you go into it. If you want to view the entire thread, all that’s required is a bit more pressure to make it Pop right into place. It’s incredibly useful for links, as you can preview a link before you actually tap on it to take you there. For the first few hours of using it I had to really remind myself that the feature was there. This is the first new gesture that Apple has introduced in a very long time so getting used to it takes a little while. But once you get accustomed to 3D Touch it’s a joy to use. I find myself disappointed now when I come across an app that does not make use of it. I’m sure that support for 3D Touch will come quickly as developers experiment with it more.
Since we’re on the topic of the screen I can tell you that both screens are beautiful. According to Apple, the new screens are a touch brighter and feature slightly wider color reproduction over last years. I’ve always found the screens on iPhone to be very color rich yet accurate and pin sharp. Sure there are sharper and brighter screens out there but in more cases than none those screens come with a sacrifice in battery life. Not to mention once you get beyond a certain resolution the pixel density is not even noticeable by the average eye. On the iPhone 6S you’ll find a 4.7 inch screen with a pixel density of 326 ppi, and on the iPhone 6S Plus you’ll find a 5.5 inch screen with a pixel density of 401 ppi.
Let’s face it, our smartphones have become our primary cameras in today’s world. Both of these new iPhones are making a stand alone point and shooter less and less relevant for the average user. This year, both iPhone’s got a major upgrade in the form of a 12 megapixel camera with larger apertures than last years along with 4K recording capabilities. Both have wonderful color reproduction, perform excellent in low light settings, and capture very crisp detail. The 4K video is truly stunning when you watch it on a 4K TV or iMac, capturing details that would otherwise be lost. The iPhone 6S Plus goes a step beyond the 6S and features Optical Image Stabilization like last years. I’m not quite sure why Apple does not bring this feature over to it’s smaller variant but for now it’s only featured on the 6S Plus. It’s not a night and day difference due to Apple’s intelligent camera software but it’s noticeable for fast movement instances or for people with very shaky hands.
Apple also gave the front facing camera a nice upgrade to 5 megapixels. The new front facing camera is ideal for selfies and it intelligently uses the brightness of the screen as a “flash”. When I first read about this I questioned how well that would work but in practice I’ve been very impressed with the results. FaceTime calling looks much better with the new camera, but I really wish that Apple would introduce the ability to FaceTime call with more than just one person.
In addition to the hardware upgrades Apple also introduced a new feature they call Live Photos. The concept is that when you take a picture it can now capture the last 1.5 seconds and the following 1.5 seconds of video and saves it as a short video along with the picture. It’s really great for those instances you would normally lose a great shot but otherwise it can come across as gimmicky. As a reminder I would use this feature sparingly as a Live Photo uses much more space than a standard photo, especially if you opt for a 16 GB iPhone.
Battery Life & Usage
In terms of the battery life, Apple claims that these new iPhones should perform the same as the previous models. I know that most of us were concerned when we found out that both the iPhone 6S and the 6S Plus would have smaller batteries with less capacity than last year. The iPhone 6S or the 6S Plus’s battery longevity is no worse than last years. In my tests I used the phones for voice calls and texting for a few hours of the day, checked email very frequently, viewed social networks, and used the browser and video viewing for hours. As with all smartphones, the only substantial difference in battery drain were the expected areas of video watching or gaming. If your entertainment consumption is mild I can’t see you having to charge it more than once a day. If battery life is your main concern you may want to go with the iPhone 6S Plus as it does have a larger battery than the iPhone 6S. Plus it’s got a larger screen which makes video watching and gaming much more enjoyable. There is also a new “Battery Saver” feature that you can enable to stretch your battery a bit further. Expect to be charging either one of these on a daily basis unless you’re a very mild user. Overall I averaged around 15% on the iPhone 6S, and around 25%-30% on the iPhone 6S Plus of remaining battery before putting them on the charger for the night.
My overall experience using the phones, considering all that has been covered, was extremely positive. iOS 9 is buttery smooth and polished on both phones and Apple’s done a ton of optimizations to ensure that it’s smooth sailing for the most part. Everything loads very snappy, giving me the fastest experience I have had thus far with an iPhone. While some of the specs may sound mild, these new iPhones are among some of the fastest that I’ve used. Apple went to great lengths in the hardware division for this years iPhones and it’s much appreciated. They do a great job of software and hardware balance and it shines on these new iPhones.
Probably to no surprise, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are the best iPhones that Apple has launched to date. I’ve got a few quibbles about minor design aspects and some of the tech choices that Apple’s made, but none of those hinder the overall experience. Yes, the iPhone is amongst some of the most expensive phones out there, but price is obviously not a concern considering how fast these phones sell. These iPhones provide a great experience with faster hardware and reliable robust software. 3D Touch fundamentally changes the way we use our iPhones and I personally can’t wait to see what developers do with it. Substantial camera upgrades make photo taking one of the best you can experience both on a smartphone or camera in general. I can say that if you have any concerns on whether this is a worthy upgrade you should put those to rest. No, I’m not saying this because it’s an iPhone. I’m a huge fan of all the smartphone ecosystems, because they all have something worthy to offer. I’m saying this because through and through, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are phenomenal phones.
If you’re coming from an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus and you’re on the fence, take the time to determine whether a faster and more refined version of the experience that your current iPhone gives you is worth the investment. Now if you’re coming from an iPhone 5S or older, the choice is obvious unless you desire to switch operating systems. For the most part Apple sticks to the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it…” mentality but this is the most substantial “S” upgrade to date. Thoughtful additions like 3D Touch, Live Photos, upgrades to Siri, substantial improvements to the cameras and overall hardware make this a meaningful upgrade for all. Don’t be fooled by it’s similarities in appearance with last years iPhones, they’re a substantial improvement. While maybe everything hasn’t changed, Apple changed exactly what it needed to make this an easy recommendation.
-Crazy fast performance all around.
-New Touch ID is much faster.
-Both new cameras are fantastic.
-3D Touch is very useful.
-Some questionable design choices.
-Starts at 16GB…still.
Rating: Buy without hesitation