The iPhone has evolved — again. It now has 3D Touch, which adds the tactile, touchscreen equivalent of a right click to what was previously an all-or-nothing, tap-or-don't-tap device.
It has a massively improved camera, and the ability to shoot GIF-esque Live Photos that function primarily as still images, but that come to life with sound and movement when pressed. It has a much stronger chassis, more than twice as sturdy as the previous model. It's much, much more powerful and uses that power where you want it to, in the speed of Touch ID fingerprint unlocks and of apps loading.
All of these factors contribute to the iPhone 6s being, yes, the best iPhone ever.
We tested both the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus for the purpose of this review, and all of our conclusions apply equally to both phones. Apple has done an excellent job of making the two phones extremely similar in usability, and it's really a question of whether you like small smartphones or large ones in your everyday life. The 6s is slightly less expensive, and forgoes the 6s Plus' optical image stabilisation on the rear camera. Its smaller 1334x750p 4.7-inch screen has a slightly lower resolution and 326ppi pixel density versus the iPhone 6s Plus' 1080p 401ppi. Beyond that, the two handsets are almost identical.
What Is It?
New iPhones launched in Australia on Friday, the 4.7-inch 6s and larger 5.5-inch 6s Plus. Available for a starting price of $1079 for the iPhone 6s and $1229 for the iPhone 6s Plus, and available in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB capacities, the new phones can cost as much as $1379 and $1529 if you go all-out on internal storage.
- Processor: Apple A9, 64-bit with integrated M9 co-processor
- RAM: 2GB
- Screen: 4.7-inch 1334x750 (326ppi), 5.5-inch 1920x1080 (401ppi)
- Memory: 16/64GB/128GB, not expandable
- Camera: 12-megapixel rear-facing, 5-megapixel front-facing
- Connectivity: Category 6 4G/LTE (up to 300Mbps), Bluetooth 4.0LE, 802.11ac
And yes, there's a new colour — rose gold joins the existing silver, space grey and gold line-up, and it's already incredibly popular with most carriers showing it out of stock for quite a while. Apple will get you one within a couple of weeks, though, at the time of writing. Stock will improve as time goes on, of course, so if you're willing to wait then you'll be able to find whichever model you like most.
The iPhone 6s has a (nearly) identical design to the iPhone 6. It's defined by its single pane of glass across the entire, flat face, with its edges smoothly and consistently curving on all four sides and at the corners. On the Space Grey variant, the fascia is black, and it's white on all others.
The 4.7-inch 6s has a 1334x750pixel resolution, the 5.5-inch 6s Plus has 1920x1080pixels. Apart from the earpiece and (improved) front-facing camera, the only other design element on the iPhone 6s' front is the tactile, Touch ID-enabled home button — slightly recessed and therefore easy to find with a thumb or forefinger. And you'll find the same power button on the right, and volume controls and mute toggle switch on the left.
It's around the back that the first of a host of small, subtle, but extremely important changes is apparent. The iPhone 6s is the first Apple smartphone to wear an [S] badge etched into the rear, and that rear is constructed entirely of 7000-series aluminium, a material with the weight of standard, (previously 6000-series) mass-market aluminium but with the flexural strength of steel. Given the furore over (what was really a tiny number of) iPhones around the world being inadvertently bent in users' pockets, Apple's move to a stronger metal is a good idea, and it shows in just how sturdy the new iPhone feels — try and flex it as you might, and it just won't budge.
Up the top of that rear, there's a new 12-megapixel iSight camera — with improved image noise reduction, support for up to 63-megapixel panoramas, 4K video recording and 120fps 1080p slow-motion. You can also snap photos (at a reduced 8mp, the resolution of the video itself) while recording 4K. The 5.5-inch 6s Plus has an optically stabilised f/2.2 lens, while the 6s goes without. The same True Tone flash, too, makes for more realistic white balance when the flash is assisting ambient light, but the front-facing camera also benefits from a true tone screen flash, three times brighter than the usual maximum display luminance. At the base, there's a large eight-hole speaker grille, Lightning connector and 3.5mm headphone jack.
Inside, you'll find a brand new system-on-chip processor, the Apple-designed 64-bit A9. Apple promises "desktop-grade" performance, and seeing the graphs and charts that say it's more powerful than the Intel Core M in Apple's own 12-inch Retina Macbook in the Geekbench benchmark, and seeing the fundamental improvements to the rest of the operating system — like the speed with which Touch ID responds versus an older iPhone (effectively double) — I'd believe it. The new iPhone has double the RAM of the old model at 2GB, and that means switching between apps and multitasking is more fluid and seamless.
Beyond that, it's an iPhone — you know what it does and you know what it's like. It runs iOS 9, the latest version of Apple's operating system, which continues to get noticeable upgrades and overhauls in every new iteration. More than any other phone you can buy today, Apple's hardware is tied to the software that runs on it. At the risk of sounding like I'm drinking the Kool-Aid, there's a lot of sense to Apple's marketing catchphrase for the new iPhone. "The only thing that's changed is everything." The only thing that's changed — the changes are all small, unnoticeable to anyone who might compare them in the hand while switched off — is everything — the entire way you use the new iPhone is just different.
What's It Good At?
3D Touch is a revelation. It is, at both that hardware and software level, a fundamentally different approach to using an iPhone, and to using any kind of smartphone or mobile device. It's as simple as that. Having the ability to make a secondary selection just by pushing harder on the iPhone's touchscreen doesn't sound like it should be possible, had it only been explained in text and not in Apple's demonstration video. It's one of those things you have to see to believe. It's one of those things you have to try for yourself to understand the value of. At the moment, its implementation is relatively basic, but already it makes using an iPhone easier and faster and more versatile.
The value of 3D Touch readily becomes apparent from the iPhone 6s' home screen. Quick Actions are right-click functions that can be actioned on the icons of Apple's own apps like Messages, Camera and Notes — with them, by pressing into the iPhone 6s' screen rather than tapping on it, you're able to take a shortcut into a specific feature. In the Camera app, for example, you can Quick Action straight to the front-facing camera, saving yourself a couple of taps. In Maps, you can navigate home without having to open the app, hit the search box, and type in your destination. You can 3D Touch during sketching in Notes for thicker strokes, you can 3D Touch the iOS 9 keyboard to turn it into a trackpad to move the text cursor around.
The current go-to feature for my showing off 3D Touch to friends, though, is Peek and Pop. In Mail — and I get a lot of email across three different addresses — you can push an email that you'd otherwise tap to load, to take a Peek and bring up a preview of its contents. If it's worth further attention, press further and you'll Pop into it to browse as normal and respond. From Peek, though, you can swipe up to reply, forward or mark an email — all basic contextual responses. In Photos, Peek will show you a quick preview of the frame, and if it's video, it'll play as much as you want it to, and if it's a Live Photo you'll get a single play-through of sequential photos and accompanying audio.
The iPhone 6s' camera is significantly improved, too, from the already excellent camera of the 6 — a phone whose images held up against the LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ and other constantly updated and iterated smartphones that were released in the months after the now-year-old iPhone 6. The front facing camera enjoys a massive quality jump from 1.2 megapixels to 5, and it shows in the photos you take. But the back camera does the heavy lifting; at 12 megapixels it does capture more detail, shot for shot, versus the older model's 8-megapixels sensor, but it's also reliant on more powerful software that adds Live Photos into the mix.
Live Photos are a combination of the power of an improved 12-megapixel camera that takes better photos and better video, camera software that captures sequential frames after you hit the shutter button, and the 3D Touch pressure sensor that makes activating and viewing them easy. A Live Photo, enabled by default, captures a 12-megapixel image, but also a couple of seconds' worth of sequential photos and accompanying audio. It's almost like making your own GIF — it loops when done, and with a mostly-static object the effect is uncanny — and it's almost like shooting video. Especially for living, moving objects, it's a beautiful and unique experience both shooting and reviewing your photos.
Video recording, too, is a huge improvement in two key areas. Having 4K video recording isn't necessarily important for viewing on external devices like 4K TVs and monitors and the 5K Retina iMac; it's important for viewing on your iPhone, and zooming in while video is playing to see the intricate detail in what you focused on. Slow motion video, too, is a beautiful feature that's nice to keep enabled and then play with in post; the only downside is that you'll have to shoot in either 4K or 120fps 1080p, you can't have both. (And you'll have to have enough storage to keep these files stored locally, or a fast enough connection to offload them to iCloud or Google Drive or Dropbox.)
iOS 9 is innately tied to the new iPhone, and brings a host of features like faster Siri, improved battery life, a contextual back button, email attachment annotation, a much improved keyboard that doubles as a trackpad when Force Touched. It's the most stable iOS release I've ever used, with precisely zero crashes or obvious slowdowns in my week of testing. In terms of battery, Apple promises 11 to 12 hours of constant Web browsing on the 6s and 6s Plus respectively, or 11 hours and 14 hours of HD video playback; I'd say those numbers are pretty bang on the money from a couple of run-down tests using streaming Netflix and Stan and Presto over the weekend. A full day of heavy regular use is more than possible.
Here are some images from the iPhone 6s Plus' 12-megapixel iSight rear camera, downsampled to 1920x1440 pixels:
What's It Not Good At?
I don't think that the software support for 3D Touch is mature yet. That's both a bad thing — you don't get to use the brilliant feature to its fullest in the current state of being of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus — and a good thing — it's only going to get better, and more app developers are going to think up hugely inventive features for it both in games and on the iPhone home screen. As it stands, Peek and Pop are hugely useful features that offer a genuine incentive to use the iPhone hardware — I can blast through a list of unread email faster on a 6s than on my iPad by peeking — but the real killer app for 3D Touch is yet to come. I don't think it's far off, to be fair. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Dropbox — all are getting 3D Touch updates imminently.
Live Photos takes some getting used to. For the last three days, about half of my photographs-as-videos have a point at the end where I relax my arms and drop the iPhone back down from its shooting position, and the Live Photo turns into a blurry mess — it breaks the illusion a little. If there were a way to trim the length of Live captures afterward, that would help immensely, but it's really just a different experience — significantly closer to the scene-making of a video than it is to the instantaneous capture of a photo — that needs some training and hands-on experience to get through the learning curve. Sharing Live Photos, too, just doesn't happen — you'll only be sending that initial JPEG to your friends — and that's a pity.
Any other complaints I have with the new iPhone 6s are complaints with iOS 9 and Apple's hardware/software design agenda more generally. I don't like not being able to customise my home screen apart from moving app icons around in series and into folders. I don't like not having widgets on my home screen. I don't like the two-paned approach to notifications. But these are all sharp delineations between Android and iOS, and I'll readily admit I've become comfortable with the way Android has done things for some time now. There's so much I like about the new iPhone's hardware that I'm willing to overlook my few and minor dislikes within the software.
Similarly, because this is Gizmodo and because we have plenty of passionate and vocal Android readers, yes, the new iPhone does not have expandable storage nor a removable battery. (It's like a new Samsung smartphone in that way.) That's an Apple design decision, and one that is becoming easily defendable with the advent of streaming audio and video services, the ever-increasing speed of mobile networks, and the increasing ubiquity of always-available Wi-Fi services like Telstra Air. By the way, I no longer think a removable battery is necessarily a good thing. I'd much rather have a larger battery overall, crammed into any extra space possible, and fast charging and useful accessories that make charging simple.
Should You Buy It?
If you want an iPhone, then this is the iPhone you should get. One hundred per cent. At a hardware level, it's a quantum leap; it does things that just weren't possible before. It makes impossible things — a tap becomes a push becomes a press, which sounds impossible on a flat, non-tactile touchscreen — possible. 3D Touch is to the current breed of iPhone what the App Store was to the original iPhone seven years ago; it changes the entire way an iPhone and iOS works. And with that in mind, the iPhone 6s offers something that no other smartphone currently in Australia can do. If you want the features that 3D Touch offers, then you're going to have to buy an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus — it's as simple as that.
The iPhone is a flagship smartphone, and carries the requisite flagship pricing; Apple doesn't do mid-range or budget smartphones. (If you want a cheaper iPhone, you can buy last year's flagship.) That means it's directly in contention with the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge and S6 Edge+ — even the names are similar. But the new features — Force Touch being by far the most important and immediately useful, as well as the most likely to expand into something truly special, although the transformative power of a really good camera and really cool photo modes can't be underestimated — do an amazing job of selling the iPhone 6s. It doesn't feel like a waste of money, far from it.
The power of the new iPhone 6s makes it feel grown up. It works quickly and competently and without pause from the moment that you pick it up or take it out of your pocket, to when you unlock it, to when you talk to Siri, to when you Force Touch an app and jump straight into the feature you were looking for. Capturing a Live Photo is just about the most complicated new feature of the iPhone 6s, and that's a skill that's quickly learned in theory — if not yet in practice. It's a device that I'd be happy going on holiday with — no extra tablet, no extra laptop — and that's almost the biggest compliment I can give it.
The number and scale and scope of improvements to the iPhone 6s, over last year's iPhone 6 and the 5s before it, more than justify it as an upgrade purchase. It looks (nearly) identical, and it functions just as a normal iPhone should, but in those small things that we use our phones for every day — the note-taking that used to take half a dozen taps, the email reading that was half a dozen taps and swipes, the occasional selfies — it's entirely different. It has changed that process entirely, and I think Apple's competitors will adopt that technology on both a hardware level and a software level in the months and years to come. Just like the original iPhone was the first multi-touch smartphone that spawned an entire industry after it, the iPhone 6s will change that industry fundamentally and completely.