Apple iPhone 6s & 6s Plus review: You think you know them, but you don't

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Overview

"The only thing that's changed is everything" reads the slogan for the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. It's a tongue-in-cheek reference to the perception that Apple's 's' models aren't particularly exciting.

And yes, it's true that the 's' models generally look the same as their predecessors, but Apple's strategy actually makes a lot of sense. First Apple changes the external design, while evolving the internal components from the previous year's model, then the year after, the 's' update comes along with the same design, but with sweeping changes to the internals. We saw this when Apple launched Siri with the 4s, Touch ID with the 5s, and now 3D Touch with the 6s. This cycle of upgrades allows Apple to focus on updating one half of the iPhone at a time, essentially giving the internal and external teams two years each to develop and perfect their next generation technologies.

3D Touch isn't the only thing that's new in the 6s and 6s Plus. Apple has introduced a new 12-megapixel rear camera that supports 4K video (it's the first time in four years that Apple has bumped up the rear camera megapixel count),as well as a new 5-megapixel front camera, a much faster A9 processor, double the RAM, and an improved and more responsive Touch ID fingerprint scanner.

These are not the same phones as last year.

Design

Look at the specs and you'll see that the new iPhones aren't actually completely identical to their predecessors. Both the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are fractions of a millimeter wider, longer, and thicker than their iPhone 6 equivalents. Having said that, even with old and new phones side by side, stacked on top of each other, and scrutinized in detail, I couldn't tell the difference, and if you have a case made for the 6 or 6 Plus, it will fit the 6s and 6s Plus just fine.

What is noticeable is the change in weight. Both of the new iPhones are heavier than last year's models - due to the new 3D Touch sensors and the haptic feedback engine under the display - and while it's only 14g more for the 6s and 20g for the 6s Plus, you can definitely tell. Don't get me wrong, these aren't heavy phones by any measure, and you won't be able to tell without comparing old and new at the same time, but the extra weight is perceptible in a way the added dimensions aren't.

The new iPhones are made from a stronger 7000-series aluminium - the same material Apple uses on the Apple Watch Sport. The new aluminium is tougher than last year, which should avoid a repeat of #bendgate, but is otherwise indistinguishable. The front of the phone is tougher too. The new glass covering the screen uses a dual-ion exchange process that makes it less prone to shattering if you drop it and it's also more resistant to scratches.

Below the screen, the new iPhones are fitted with a second-generation Touch ID fingerprint scanner that is insanely fast. In fact, it's so fast I've had to re-train myself to use the power button rather than the home button if I just want to check for notifications on the lock screen or see what time it is. Otherwise, it's a race against the sensor to see if I can take my thumb off fast enough before it scans and unlocks my phone (spoiler alert: the phone always wins). The scanner isn't just faster either, it's more accurate and reliable too, except of course, when your finger is wet (pro-tip: add a wet fingerprint ID to overcome this issue).

On the rear of the phone, you'll find the same unsightly (but necessary) plastic antenna bands and unfortunately, even though the camera module has been upgraded, it still protrudes slightly from the body.

For the first time, you'll be able to get your iPhone in four colors: Space Gray, Silver, Gold, and the new Rose Gold, which is actually more of a metallic pink colour. Honestly, I didn't think I would like the Rose Gold, but it looks much nicer in person than in pictures, and isn't nearly as girly as I thought it would be. The colour is a beautiful, vibrant metallic pink. In fact, it's so nice, it makes the regular Gold look a bit washed out and dull in comparison. 

3D Touch

In terms of resolution and quality, the displays on the 6s and 6s Plus are identical to their predecessors - 1,334 x 750 pixels for the 6s (326ppi) and 1,920 x 1,080 pixels for the 6s Plus (401 ppi). On paper, the 6s' HD display is starting to look a bit dated, especially when you can get a phone with a Full HD display for less than S$350, and when Apple's rivals are moving to QHD displays and in the case of Sony, inexplicably, a 4K display. Having said that, the 6s and 6s Plus still look stunning with bright and accurate colors and great viewing angles. There's more than enough clarity here too and, unless you really scrutinize the screen, you won't notice much difference between the 6s and other higher resolution phones. But what really sets the 6s and 6s Plus displays apart from other phones is 3D Touch.

3D Touch is a feature you didn't know you needed until you actually start using it. Then you wonder how you ever lived without it. Similar to Force Touch on the new Macbook Pro's trackpad and on the Apple Watch (the actual technology used in 3D Touch is slightly different, thus the different name), 3D Touch lets the iPhone's display register varying levels of pressure. Where 3D Touch differs from Force Touch is that 3D Touch is much better integrated across iOS 9 than it is on Watch OS. On the Apple Watch the display is too small for touch interaction to be genuinely useful (which is why Force Touch on the Apple Watch is quite limited, and why it uses the digital crown or simple swipes for a lot of its interactions). But on the iPhone, 3D Touch is more like a right-click: a second way to interact with the display. You can use it to jump straight to your favourite features inside an app, or to preview web pages, messages, maps or images. It's integrated into every part of iOS 9, so that whatever you're doing, 3D Touch can make it quicker and easier.

On the homescreen, 3D Touch serves as a shortcut launcher. Press harder on an icon on the homescreen and a few shortcuts related to that app will pop up in a little menu - like taking a selfie with the camera, or calling one of your favourite contacts. Right now it's mostly just Apple apps that work, but some third party apps like Facebook have been updated as well (you can use it to jump straight to the status update page on Facebook). If an app doesn't support 3D Touch, you'll get a little vibration through the haptic feedback engine to tell you that nothing is going to happen.

Where 3D Touch really comes into its own is when its used within an app. Here, Apple has given you two main features to play with: 'Peek' and 'Pop'. Yes, those are terrible names and bring to mind 1970's breakdancing but hear me out. The basic idea is this: you can hard-press on an SMS message, an email in your inbox, an image you found in Safari, a website url your friend sent you or pretty much anything the iPhone recognises as a link of some kind, and a preview window (a "peek") of the thing you pressed will appear on the display. From there, you can read the entire message, then simply lift your finger off to quickly dismiss it. This makes it super easy and fast to scan through messages or emails without having to open each one individually. If you don't want to close the window you can press a bit harder to 'Pop' it, which launches the preview window into the relevant app for that content.

There are other options in the 'Peek' view too. Slide your finger up and options will appear. For example in Safari, you'll be able to open the link, add it to your reading list for later, or copy the url. If you're viewing an image, you can save that image or open it up in Safari. In email, you can slide up for a bunch of options, or slide left to mark it read, or right to archive it.

Oh and when you're typing an email, message, note or anything else that uses a keyboard? Hard press the on-screen keyboard and it will turn into a trackpad that you can use to quickly and accurately place the cursor where you want it. Let go of the screen and it turns back into a keyboard. Genius.

There are other things you can do with 3D Touch too. Apple has released the API to developers so anything that could be improved with the addition of pressure sensitive input (i.e. everything) will be able to take advantage of it. Personally, I'm looking forward to Pixel Toy's upcoming Warhammer 40k game, Freeblade, which will let you pilot a giant mech that shoots missiles out of its nose and has machine guns for hands (tap on the screen to fire the machine guns, or press harder to launch a nose missile).

When Apple announced 3D Touch earlier this month, I fully expected to find it gimmicky and was prepared to ignore or disable it after a few days (sort of like Siri - sorry Siri) but to my surprise I find myself using it more and more. It takes a day or two to remember that its there and that you should use it, but 'peeking' and 'popping' soon becomes second nature and honestly, it's so well integrated and simple to use, I expect everyone who upgrades to the new iPhones to fully embrace it.

iOS 9

Apple always releases a new version of iOS for its new iPhones and the 6s and 6s Plus are no different. iOS 9 is more of a refinement of 8 rather than a total overhaul, with most of the upgrades focusing on improved performance and smarter interactions. For example, the Search screen is much smarter now. Swipe left from the home screen to access it and you'll see the familiar search bar and, below it, a new panel called 'Siri Suggestions'. Siri Suggestions fills up with contacts and apps that Siri thinks you're likely to use, based on context and your previous activity. For example, if you always check Facebook as soon as you wake up, the Facebook app will show up on the Search screen first thing in the morning. If you always call your girlfriend in the evening, you'll see her contact appear there once the time comes.

 

The search bar itself is also smarter. You can do simple maths or unit conversions inside Search, and it accepts natural language questions too, like "What's the weather today?" or "What is zero divided by zero?" 

Notes

Notes has been revamped in iOS 9 and deserves a special mention on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus thanks to its interaction with 3D Touch. The new Notes lets you format your text, add photos, either through the dedicated camera button or just by inserting an image, add maps and URLs, create to-do-lists and best of all, you can use it as a sketch pad. Tap the sketch button at the bottom of the screen to begin drawing. This brings up a series of digital drawing tools (pen, highlighter, pencil and eraser), along with a ruler for drawing straight lines. Use two fingers to turn the ruler to any angle you want. Turn the iPhone to landscape mode and you'll see a range of colour options when drawing. The harder you press with your finger, the thicker the lines you draw.

Performance Benchmarks

Apple has a new A9 processor inside the 6s and 6s Plus. It's still a dual-core chip, but this time, the M9 motion co-processor is integrated into the chip itself. One of the benefits of having the M9 as part of the same chip is much better power efficiency, so when the M9 is doing things like counting your steps, it's draining almost no battery life at all. The other benefit of the integration is that the 6s and 6s Plus can now listen for a "Hey Siri" prompt at all times, not just when they’re plugged in to power like with older models.

The A9 processor itself is also quite a bit faster than the A8 found in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus with a new 1.8GHz clock speed. The new iPhones also benefit from 2GB RAM, twice as much as the 6 and 6 Plus. According to Apple, this results in a 70 per cent faster CPU, and 90 per cent faster GPU.

Here's how the 6s and 6s Plus line up against last year's models, as well as their closest competitors:

Sunspider Javascript

SunSpider JavaScript measures the browsing performance of a device. It not only takes into consideration the underlying hardware performance, but also assesses how optimized a particular platform is at delivering a high-speed web browsing experience.

Safari has always been well optimized for Apple's processors and it only continues to get better with the A9. Both the 6s and 6s Plus easily beat every other device. In actual usage, web browsing and interface navigation on the 6s and 6s Plus is hands down the fastest and most fluid smartphone experience available today. Apps open effortlessly and transition animations are as smooth as can be. Multitasking is practically instant too.

3DMark (2013)

3DMark (2013) is a synthetic benchmark consisting of two graphics tests packed with high quality textures and post-processing effects designed to stress the GPU performance of the device and a physics test to stress its CPU performance. With all of our devices easily maxing out the Normal and Extreme versions of this test, we'll just be looking at Ice Storm Unlimited, which is used to make chip-to-chip comparisons of different chipsets, CPUs and GPUs, without vertical sync, display resolution scaling and other operating system factors affecting the result.

We expected the A9 to be good, but not this good. The new iPhones easily outperformed last year's models, and surprisingly also beat reigning champion Samsung's Exynos 7420.

Camera Performance

The iSight camera on the back of the 6s and 6s Plus has been upgraded to 12-megapixels - the first time since the iPhone 4s that Apple has bumped up its megapixel count. As before, the Plus version also gets the added benefit of optical image stabilization, and this time, it works for both videos and photos - an improvement on the 6 Plus, which only worked for stills.

In addition to upgrading the hardware, Apple has introduced a new camera mode, called Live Photos, which are basically the real world version of the magical moving photos from Harry Potter. When Live Photos is enabled the iPhone will record 1.5 seconds of video footage before and after you hit the shutter button - it captures the before footage by constantly recording whenever your camera app is open and Live Photos is enabled, but only saves the footage if you actually press the shutter button.

When you look at your Live Photo later, you can press and hold the photo and it will turn into a three second looping video complete with audio. It's really clever and adds a bit of fun and context to your pictures. My only complaint is that the video quality is noticeably worse than the 12-megapixel still picture. Exporting the Live Photo as a .mov file shows that Live Photo videos are 1,440 x 1,080 pixels (so about 1.55 megapixels) and are only 15 frames per second, which is a bit disappointing, and spoils the magic a bit. Understandably, Apple didn't want Live Photos taking up too much storage space and, as it is, each Live Photo already takes up twice the storage space of a regular still photo. While that may not seem like much, Live Photos is on by default and the majority of your photos are unlikely to benefit from it (hello food pictures) so they can chew through storage space fairly quickly, especially if you have a 16GB or even 64GB iPhone. My suggestion would be to turn Live Photos off (by tapping the Live Photo icon at the top of the camera app), and only activate it when you know you want to capture something special.

By the way, if you want to delete just the Live Photo portion of a photo, select the photo, press Edit, then hit the Live Photo icon in the top left, then hit Done. Take note that once deleted, you can't restore the Live Photo part.

For those really special moments when you want video longer than three seconds, the new iPhones are now able to shoot 4K video (3,840 x 2,160). While a bunch of other phones already have this feature, it's nice to see Apple catching up. If you're planning on shooting a lot of video, you'll definitely want the 6s Plus, since its optical image stabilization now works on videos.

Speaking of catching up, Apple has finally embraced the importance of the selfie and upgraded the front camera from 1.2-megapixels to 5-megapixels. The front camera also supports Live Photos and HDR mode, and there's a new flash-mode that uses the iPhone's display as a flash, driving it up to three times brighter than normal and adjusting the colour of the flash to match the lighting for the scene.

As for the actual camera, image quality is excellent with great colour reproduction, contrast and lots of detail. Images are perhaps slightly soft towards the edge of the frame but it's generally not noticeable. Compared to last year's iPhone, we actually didn't see a huge difference in quality, but that's because last year's camera was already so good. Of course, the extra resolution helps for when you want to crop and re-frame later.

Battery Life

To compensate for the new 3D Touch technology taking up extra space inside, Apple has had to slightly reduce the battery sizes on the new iPhones. The 6s comes with a 1,715mAh capacity battery, while the 6s Plus has a 2,750mAh battery.

As always, our standard battery test for mobile phones has the following parameters:

- Looping a 800 x 480-pixel video with screen brightness and volume at 100 per cent - Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on - Constant data streaming through email and Twitter

Surprisingly, despite the smaller battery capacities, both phones lasted longer than their predecessors, a testament to the power efficiency improvements Apple has made with the A9 chip. In fact, the 6s managed to last longer than last year's 6 Plus, at over nine hours, and the 6s Plus lasted over eleven hours, only losing to the Samsung Galaxy Note 5.

Conclusion

I'll be the first to admit, when the 6s and 6s Plus were first unveiled, I wasn't thrilled. I already knew they were going to look the same as last year, and 3D Touch just didn't seem like that big of a deal. But you know what? I was wrong. 3D Touch is a big deal.

3D Touch introduces a completely new way to interact with your phone that is both intuitive and incredibly useful. After just a day or two, it becomes second nature and you start wanting that extra level of functionality in everything. I said it before, but I'll say it again: it's the single biggest improvement to the touchscreen since its creation. Just try to imagine life before you had right-click on your computer; that's the difference between 3D Touch and a regular smartphone.

And it's not just 3D Touch either, the upgraded cameras and processor, the expanded RAM, the better battery life, all of these combine for what is easily the best iPhone ever. And I know it sounds like I say that every year, but the fact that the 6s and 6s Plus improve on the 6 and 6 Plus shouldn't be a surprise. What is a surprise is just how much better they are.


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