Let’s be clear on at least one thing: the iPhone 6s is a good phone. A great phone even, and no shit, it’s the best iPhone yet. But if you’re upgrading from—or have ever spent 30 seconds with—an iPhone 6, it’s business as usual...until you get to 3D Touch.
The newfangled touch-sensitive display is obviously the iPhone 6s’ marquee feature. But with no visual design changes and just a few hardware nicks and tucks, is that feature alone enough to warrant a new iPhone?
Most obviously, the design is identical to the iPhone 6. It’s got the same rounded edges, same rounded corners, the same buttons, all in the same place. I even took the case off my old iPhone 6, and it snaps right on the new 6s. In fact, the only way I could tell my new and old phones apart is the slight increase in weight, probably thanks to the new 3D Touch screen and fancy Taptic Engine force-feedback. Granted, it’s not enough to be annoying because we’re talking about a measly 15 grams here. But yes, the 6s is a bit more hefty.
You won’t notice it, but there is one difference with the case. It’s now made of the same 7000-series aluminum alloy used in the Apple Watch Sport. That should make the phone stronger, which I’m sure is in no way related to those bendy iPhone 6es.
None of this is bad, it’s just not terribly exciting. Last year’s iPhone 6’s design was unobtrusively excellent, something the 6s continues. Amid a field of Android flagships that are screaming for attention with leather backs or two screens, the iPhone continues to be elegantly fine.
Yes, I continue to want a small phone that will fit in my stunted hands, but I’m also coming to terms with the fact that we live in an unfair world where leviathan corporations don’t really give a shit about the wishes of many 20-something bloggers. If I HAVE to have a bigger phone, a 4.7-inch iPhone is a decent compromise.
And because the 6s brings over the iPhone 6 design, it also retains the same bezel problems iPhones have been plagued with for years. There’s still room to slim down those bezels, and make the phone smaller while keeping the (admittedly nice) bigger screen, but with that iconic circle home button and the apparent need for design symmetry, that’s just not going to happen—at least not this year anyway.
Really, the only visual difference between the 6 and the 6s is the new color—rose gold. But let’s be real, it’s just light pink. Much has been written in surprisingly passionate terms about this new color, but the bottom line is that there’s now a pretty pink iPhone, it doesn’t look half bad, and if you’ve been waiting FOREVER for a pink iPhone (that wasn’t the 5c), you can now rest in peace.
There is one big thing that’s changed with the 6s, and that’s how you navigate around iOS. 3D Touch, as Apple dubs its pressure-sensitive screen and the software that goes with it, makes moving through the OS a much faster experience.
The 6s has pressure sensors lurking under its touchscreen, which allows Apple to introduce a few new ways of interacting with its OS. Pressing medium-hard is a ‘peek.’ Pressing more firmly is a “pop”. Depending on the thing you’re poking, those actions can do different things.
Peek on an email in the Mail app, and you’ll see a preview; press harder, and you’ll ‘pop’ into the message proper. (It’s the same thing in the Messages app.) My favorite 3D Touch interaction is probably with hyperlinks. ‘Peek’ on a link in Safari (or Mail), and you get a preview of that webpage. If you don’t like what you see, you let go, and return to your original page; press harder, and you link through.
It’s kinda like what a mouse hover-over does on a PC, but only better. As I was hunting for a couch on Craigslist (I live life dangerously). Being able to preview each listing, see each individual bedbug without having to click through and go back was a real time-saver.
3D Touch also lets you get at stuff faster from the homescreen. All of Apple’s apps (and an increasing number of third-party apps) offer shortcuts to simple actions if you press hard on them. It’s basically right-clicking for context menus but for your iPhone.
None of this is going to change your life, but it is immensely satisfying. You know the rush you get when you can zip through a desktop program with a well-orchestrated series of keyboard commands? Well, that’s what 3D Touch feels like. Going back to a phone without it feels a little like having to use Edit—> Copy all over again. In some ways, it’s the most PC-like iPhone ever.
Besides 3D Touch, the iPhone’s other “touch” branded feature, the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, also sees a big improvement on the 6. It’s much faster and consistently more accurate. With my iPhone 6, I’d roughly estimate Touch ID worked on the first try maybe half the time, so I was still entering my passcode several times a day.
With the 6s, it’s way faster and hardly ever fails me, even when my hands are wet (it happens, no snickering in the back). If I reach into my pants pocket to pull out my phone, and put my finger on the sensor, it’s unlocked by the time I even see the screen.
(This actually creates the most first-world problem in existence: the unlocking is so fast that I miss the lockscreen and its handy notifications half the time.)
Other than those things, using the 6s feels much like using its one-year-old sibling. There’s a much faster processor and more RAM inside, but day-to-day use is exactly the same. Also just like the 6, the phone is never lagging or struggling to keep up thanks to optimization between iOS and the iPhone’s hardware. So when it comes to iPhones, more RAM isn’t always the answer, which has been true of iPhones since time immemorial (ok actually 2011).
But don’t completely write off those better internals, though. Sure, both the 6s and 6 are zippy-fast right now, but give it a few years and a couple new software updates, and the extra power of the 6s will become much more helpful, as has been the case when looking back on the 5 and the 5s. Apple’s been better about giving users more longevity. Even iPhone 4s users can download iOS 9. Of course, can and should are two different things entirely.
Speaking of internals: the battery on the 6s is actually smaller than the one in the 6, but the processor is also less power-hungry. The result is a wash: you’ll still get a very full day of use, but don’t go dreaming about charger-free overnight trips.
The 6s excels at one thing, though—battery life when you’re not using it. On a couple lazy occasions, I left my phone unplugged at 80% battery overnight. By the morning, it had only dropped to 70%, more than enough to last through another day. A lot of that comes down to iOS 9’s battery improvement features, which are on every iPhone. But the bottom line is that the 6s’s battery life, especially if your phone spends more time in your pocket than your hand, is up there with the very best of the Android stable.
Our resident camera guru has already examined the 6s’s camera in depth, so if you’re a pixel-peeper, I’ll direct you there. I’ve noticed very little difference in the actual image quality. When I was taking drunken photos in a bar, I think the low-light performance might have been better. But equally, that could have been the third pitcher talking.
But the 6s brings some new stuff that isn’t directly related to the new camera module. I initially wrote off Live Photos—that one feature that captures a three-second video along with your photos—as a gimmick, but it brings a surprising new dimension to reliving moments.
Sure, it’s something that has been done before by Nokia and HTC, but Apple’s integration, always on by default, and the moving photo just one hard press away, makes a big difference. The appeal of Live Photos is that when you’re flicking back through your photos of said drunken night at bar, it does a better job of rekindling those memories. It’s the difference between saving a snapshot and saving a moment.
It’s also worth mentioning that with Apple’s user base and reach, Live Photos has more potential to make it big than any of its predecessors. The problem with ‘moving picture’ features on phones before is that you can’t really share them. But you can share Live Photos with anyone else using an iOS 9 device (so, the 50 percent of your friends that are probably using iPhones). More importantly, Apple is opening up a Live Photo API to third-party developers. Live Photos on Instagram, anyone? Facebook also just announced that short videos can replace your profile picture. We could even see Live Photos making its way there, too.
On the video front, the 6s can now shoot 4K video. It’s certainly not the first phone to do so, but just like Live Photos, Apple’s fanbase could be the trick to making 4K video mainstream. Once that happens, and everyone also has a 4K TV or computer display in their home, you might be able to appreciate the astoundingly detailed video you can get from the 6s’s sensor. Until then, it’s probably useless (not to mention space-consuming) for most of us.
Almost everything. The iPhone 6s doesn’t feel so much like a new device, but that’s not a bad thing. The iPhone 6 was a slam-dunk of a smartphone, with excellent features across the board with no deal-breaking flaws and Apple’s well-stocked App Store.
The 6s takes all of those positives and builds on them with a genuinely useful new interaction mode, more future-proof guts, and a camera that can keep up with the competition (at the very least). All the added perks, like always-on Hey Siri and the many small software updates that iOS 9 brought, make the overall experience even better.
At the moment, 3D Touch feels like a work in progress. With the exception of the already excellent ‘peek’ previews, it feels like untapped potential. It will take more app makers getting fully on board to make it more than just a glorified right-click. I imagine that much like widgets with iOS 8, we’ll see a steady stream of app updates in the coming months that take advantage of 3D Touch’s context menus, but right now it’s a little bare.
The same design quibbles that applied to the iPhone 6 obviously still apply. It’s too damn big, and not just in a I-don’t-like-big-screens way. Other phone makers have fit much bigger screens into the same size case. For example, 2013’s Nexus 5 (yes, two years ago) had a 5-inch screen in a 5.43-inch body. The iPhone 6s? Try 4.7-inch display in a 5.44-inch body. That is a not-so-great body-to-screen ratio.
Sure, the chunky bezels on top and bottom are an iPhone design hallmark, but they’re also an unnecessary luxury when you’re trying to make a phone that fits in people’s hands.
Should You Buy It?
If you want or need to buy a new iPhone, buy this iPhone. Everything else aside, the faster guts will make it last longer than any other before it. 3D Touch and Live Photos are equally fantastic. But they’re not reasons to upgrade from an older (but perfectly good) iPhone 6 or even 5s for that matter.
Compared to Android phones in the market, it’s a tougher question. I’d say the answer remains the same as it always has. People don’t buy iPhones because they want better screens or more RAM or zany extra features. They buy them because they like simple, good design. They like having every app in the world two clicks away. Most of all, they like having the best all-around smartphone that does everything perfectly well.
In that respect, if nothing else, Apple and the iPhone 6s hasn’t really changed anything at all.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images by Michael Hession