So there are new iPhones. I see. Sure, they look the same as the last ones, but don’t let your eyes fool you: these new tiny rectangles are made almost entirely of Good Things.
Writing about the specs on the new iPhones gives me a weird sense of deja vu.
The iPhone 6s is a 4.7-inch phone powered by the new Apple A9 chip. The iPhone 6s Plus is a 5.5-inch phone also powered by that fast A9 processor. Both have 12-megapixel rear-facing cameras and 5-megapixel front-facing cameras. Both have second generation Touch ID sensors for faster unlocking. Both have the M9 Motion Coprocessor built onto the A9 chip for better power efficiency. Both run iOS 9, and both will cost you a sweet chunk of change.
It’s hard to explain, but the new iPhone is the same as the old iPhone, except it isn’t.
Not even close.
Your eyes are lying to you. Just by virtue of it looking the same, your eyes tell you it must be the same as the last one. But as soon as your fingers wrap around the 7000 Series aluminium (we’ll get to just what that is in a sec), you realise that you’re in for another brand new experience.
The reason it feels like that from the get-go is because the 7000 Series aluminium the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus is made out of is fancy. Very fancy. Aerospace-tech fancy. You’ve felt this weird alloy before if you’ve ever taken a look at the Apple Watch Sport, which uses the same kind of metal to keep it light while ensuring strength.
Apple describes 7000 Series aluminium as an alloy of its own design that is 60 per cent stronger than regular aluminium alloys. It feels different in your hands than traditional anodised aluminium that has been used in iPhones past. The metal is grittier, and as a result it’s grippier. It also feels light, yet with a strange balance to it. As someone who has held and carried an iPhone for the last six years or so, it’s weird to feel such a dramatic change in the materials used when your eyes tell you it’s pretty much the same device.
Another weird design touch I noticed when going hands on is that the odd ridge between the screen glass and the metal chassis has almost disappeared. The screen is almost flat to the chassis now, and that’s a Good Thing.
But enough about how it looks, what about how it drives?
We already love iOS 9, and you already know about it, so it’s not worth devoting huge swathes of text to tell you again that it’s good stuff that you should put on your iDevice when it comes out.
What is worth devoting column inches to is the fantastic new way you’re going to be using your iPhone from now on thanks to a feature called 3D Touch.
3D Touch is a bit like Force Touch on the Apple Watch and the new 2015 MacBook. A Taptic Engine underneath the screen glass cleverly figures out how much force you’re applying to the screen and responds with a relevant action. That’s how Force Touch works. 3D Touch works in a slightly different way: instead of mashing your finger hard against the screen to get it to do different things, you just hold your finger on a tap a little longer, and a contextual menu or window appears to make your life easier.
It works differently across loads of apps (both from Apple and third-parties) too. Push and hold on an app on your Home Screen, and the Springboard blurs, a small menu appears and it gives you shortcuts to actions you want inside that app. Camera’s 3D Touch menu allows you to jump straight into the front-facing “Selfie” camera; a long tap on Messages gives you a shortcut to write a new message or open a recent contact’s conversation; Instagram allows you to straight to your Activity feed and Maps allows you to select convenient route options like Navigate Home or Drop Pin so you can share where you are.
But it doesn’t stop there. 3D Touch also works inside your apps.
Long press on a Mail message for example and you get a hovering preview of what’s inside that email. Push down a little harder and it opens the message for you to view and action. That’s similar to your iMessage app as well: long press on a conversation to preview it, or long press on a highlighted piece of information (like a flight number, date or address) and the relevant app will give you a preview of the content it’s found for you. Say you were sent a flight number, long pressing with 3D Touch would trigger a Siri search to see what’s going on with that flight; say you were sent a URL, long pressing gives you a preview of that webpage; long pressing a date shows you your calendar for that day, and so on.
It doesn’t feel like a gimmick either. It genuinely feels like a new, hyper-productive way of using an iPhone and I have no idea what I’ve done for so long without it. Of course, it’s exclusive to the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, due to the new Taptic hardware required to run it. Don’t expect it on your iPhone 6.
The other big change Apple is trumpeting is the new camera functionality. It’s a 12-megapixel, rear-facing shooter this time around, and as usual Apple has obsessed over the hardware. That’s why I’ve always been impressed by Apple’s cameras. Sure, the sensors haven’t always been the largest, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that because Apple have end-to-end control over the hardware and the software, it’s always able to do more with less.
That’s the same with the iPhone 6s’ and 6s Plus’ camera: Apple has thrown loads of science at it to make sure the quality is as good as its customers have come to expect. I can’t accurately tell you whether or not it is better yet, but we’ll tell you in due time when we get a phone to review. I’m expecting big things.
What I can comment on is the new Live Photos functionality built into the camera. There are a few different aspects to this which need breaking down. Basically, by pressing one button on the Camera app, your iPhone will take a massive burst of photos when you press the shutter button and store them in the background. When you then go to view it in your Photos library, a touch of motion appears in the image as you swipe onto it. Long pressing on the image will trigger a 3D Touch action, presenting you with a fancy GIF (with audio) of that photo as it was taken.
Apple is at pains to stress that it’s not video, and it’s not really a GIF: it’s like a flipbook for your photos to “bring them to life”. Think the moving pictures in the Harry Potter universe and you’re there.
It’s worth pointing out that it’s strikingly similar to the Zoe functionality on the HTC One M8, only way less confusing, and way more functional. It’s a smoother experience than Zoe ever was, and that’s just a cool way of using your phone.
To be honest, that’s what the iPhone 6s is about. It’s about polish, but also Apple’s chance to make the iPhone fun again. Between playful colours, cool features and clever little gizmos like Live Photos, 3D Touch and performance that will knock your socks off, the iPhone feels less like a chore these days.
It’s your happy-go-lucky companion all over again.
Luke Hopewell travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Apple.
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