Apple‘s iPhone 6S is very much a case of smartphone evolution, not revolution. Building on the strong foundations of last year’s iPhone 6, this smaller sibling to the iPhone 6S Plus adds just enough improvements to stave off the rising Android onslaught, making the firm’s best a fair amount better.
There’s no groundbreaking new look or ‘how did we live without that?!’ new features, but then that’s not really Apple’s style nowadays, as it turns into a ‘greatest hits’ compiler par excellence. Instead, there’s a polishing of an already hugely impressive collection of components, some nice new software tweaks and the dawn of a new screen tech that you’ll begin to love when you least expect it.
- Still looks great
- 3D Touch display is transformative
- Strong battery life
- Impressive, quick camera
- Not Full HD screen
- Heavier than last year’s
iPhone 6S Design: Well, this looks familiar…
OK, so there’s no major visual overhaul this year, but when the iPhone 6 was arguably already the best looking handset on the market, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The 6S isn’t without a few subtle differences, although initially they’re probably not those you were hoping for: it’s fatter, heavier and, well, pinker (if you go for the ‘rose gold’ over the gold/silver/grey colourways, that is).
In an apparent bid to avoid a repeat of last year’s ‘Bendgate’ dramas, the iPhone 6S has been placed on an anti-Atkins diet, adopting a new, Apple Watch-inspired Series 7000 aluminium build. Helping add 0.2mm to the phone’s waistline – new screen tech has chipped in here, too – the tougher, less flexible metal has seen the handset grow to 7.1mm thick and 143g in weight.
But no need to grumble, this is still slim by any standard, with the phone’s increased portliness barely noticeable and the added 14g giving the phone a more reassuring heft. Easily the most well constructed handset on the market – despite increased competition from the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9 – the iPhone 6S’s cool-to-the-touch metal body and softly curved edges make the phone look and feel great.
iPhone 6S Screen: May the Force be with you
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: visually, the iPhone 6S’s screen is identical to that of last year’s handset, and that’s a little disappointing on the surface. The 4.7-inch panel features a 1334×750 pixel, 326ppi Retina display which, although impressive in its own right, fails to wow like the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+’s display, or even its big brother, the iPhone 6S Plus with its Full HD visuals.
Given that the wider industry has pushed the QHD (LG G4) and affordable Full HD (Moto X Play) envelope this year, this puts the smaller Apple on a slight resolution-based back foot. Of course, you’ll strain your eyes to notice – the screen is still bright and punchy, with text featuring clear, defined edges and video content offering impressive contrast ratios and fluid movement.
This seemingly similar screen holds a big secret, though: a new 3D Touch panel. An evolution in capacitive touchscreen tech, the pressure-sensitive display can determine between regular and firm presses, attributing different commands to varying levels of force. Think somewhere between the Apple Watch’s “Taptic” feedback and the Hover feature of the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, and you’re along the right lines.
The benefit? Well, it puts contextual layers of information and shortcuts just a single press away rather than half a dozen. At the time of writing, 3D Touch features are limited to Apple’s own-brand apps, but that’s about to change, and the benefits are already clear to see. Home-screen ‘Quick Actions’ offer shortcuts to apps’ most-used functions, but it’s within the app that 3D Touch comes into its own.
Previewing emails, checking web links from messages, viewing pop-ups of daily calendars – there’s dozens of benefits. You can even give the 3D Touch display a firm press while tapping out a text or email and your keyboard transforms into a trackpad-style cursor.
There is a definite learning curve, and a fine line between a 3D-friendly screen press and a traditional long press that will set your app icons jangling, primed for deleting or relocation, but stick with it and you’ll find it a winner. After a couple of days using the 6S, those long, firm presses become second nature. Switching back to a standard touchscreen display leaves you feeling like you’re missing something integral.
iPhone 6S Features and Performance: Incrementally yours
As we’ve come to expect from Apple’s ‘S’-suffixed handsets, the iPhone 6S goes through the traditional checklist of spec bumps rather than leaps: speedier A9 processor, improved connectivity options, enhanced battery life. Indeed, outside of 3D Touch, the phone toes the line of expected improvements without ever really pushing into uncharted territory. Again, this is not what Apple does.
While it may lack the raw specs grunt of many of its Android rivals, what it has instead is a harmonious, efficient collaboration of hardware and software that maximises the potential of each and every component. The A9 chip offers more power than you’re likely to need, taking us from firing off work emails to a serious 3D gaming session without breaking sweat. The M9 co-processor is now always running, too, helping Siri listen out for your commands in conversation without the need for those awkward first date-like button presses.
The ‘Hey Siri’ feature introduced in iOS 9 works a treat, letting you use the simple vocal command to trigger the personal assistant. This isn’t the only iOS 9-enabled Siri improvement either, with the talkative PA’s street smarts now letting you search geo-tagged images without endless gallery scrolling.
There’s a trio of storage options to pick from with the base-level 16GB model (£539) complemented by 64GB (£619) and 128GB (£699) offerings for the more ample of wallet. Sadly, unless you expect to stay light on your photo-taking, app-using and document-storing, that base storage model is unlikely to meet your medium- to long-term needs.
Battery life is unlikely to give you grief, though. The iPhone 6S’s battery’s size might have dropped from its predecessor’s 1,810mAh to 1,715mAh, but amazingly you won’t feel the cutbacks. Instead, the phone’s staying power is hugely impressive, seeing us through around 27 hours on a single charge without too much trouble. This isn’t playing gentle with usage, either, handling some serious web-browsing, email-writing, camera-using, game-playing action, the phone strolls through a full day.
There’s a new Low-Power Mode to help eke things out a little further, too, if even that’s not enough. A pull across from its Android challengers, this feature cuts background power usage from apps and mail clients when you drift below 20% charge. It works well, too, successfully tripling what would have been our last 2 hours of life support. Importantly, when the 6S does slump into the battery danger zone, recharge times are impressively speedy, returning to full charge again in a little over an hour.
iPhone 6S Software & UI: Refined by iOS 9
If you’ve got an existing iPhone or iPad, you’ve probably already downloaded the free iOS 9 update, but the iPhone 6S is the first handset to run the new operating system direct from the box, and as such makes the most of the software’s updates and intricacies.
Like the iPhone 6S itself, iOS 9 is an incremental update, based more around performance improvements than a major design refresh or killer new features. That’s not to say there aren’t useful additions, though. For one, Apple’s own mapping software has finally got transit navigation baked in, meaning those bus routes, Tube trips and train journeys no longer require jumping in and out of multiple apps.
The iPhone 6S is the most secure Apple handset, too. As well as its revamped Touch ID biometric sensor, which unlocks your handset and approves payments in double-quick fashion, digital passcodes have jumped from four to six digits in length – good job the fingerprint access has sped up, then.
Notes has come in for big changes, being transformed into a one-stop-shop for all things work and play. Adding checklists and picture support, the on-the-fly document creator now also supports annotations, with its collections of pens all playing nice with the 6S’s 3D Touch display, too. The harder you press, the thicker the line created. It’s just like using a pen and paper.
Notes aside, Apple hasn’t overpowered iOS 9 with 3D Touch features – the software must run on older phones too, remember – but the foundations are there for steady 3D-friendly growth going forward as more of the App Store’s apps make use of it.
iPhone 6S Camera: Forget the gimmicks, the camera is great
Touchy-feely screen aside, the camera is the iPhone 6S’s biggest point of differentiation over its predecessor. Those who crave specs-race evolution will be pleased to see the phone add significantly to its megapixel count, now rocking a 12-megapixel shooter around back (up from 8MP) and a 5-megapixel selfie shooter up front (formerly 1.2MP).
Megapixels don’t guarantee a decent shot, though, and while this adds a little extra detail to what was already a really impressive pocket snapper, the 6S’s camera’s true benefit is its high-quality lens, lightning quick shutter speed and DSLR-style phase detect autofocus. Given that smartphone cameras are all about capturing those can’t miss, here and now moments, this speedy snapper is a major boon.
Camera results are consistently strong. The iPhone 6S offers excellent levels of depth and hugely impressive, accurate colour management enhancing shots, while low-light is on the whole ahead of most of the competition. Alas, this smaller of Apple’s smartphone pair still lacks the optical image stabilisation of its Plus-sized brother, which has now added it to video almost as if to rub it in. It’s not a major loss for casual snappers, but it takes seriously steady hands to capture video content or avoid overly noisy post-sunset shots.
Apple has jumped on the 4K bandwagon, too, letting you plan for the future by capturing your own Ultra HD content, although unlike some of its rivals it doesn’t forcibly shut-down from overheating while it does, which is nice. Now, as the screen is a long way off 4K, enjoying this content to the best of its ability is going to require an external source. Not got a 4K TV or monitor? Well… time you did maybe.
Like 4K, Live Photos are another big camera push for Apple this year, capturing a couple of seconds of footage either side of a static image that can then be brought to life, GIF-style, with a bit of 3D Touching. This bright and breezy tech has been around for a while on Nokia handsets (indeed, Apple hired the guy who invented it) and can feel a bit gimmicky unless you’re a creative who heavily stages their photos, as ours tend to tail off to the ground as we inevitably turn our camera to the floor. We hear an update is coming to auto-stop this, but as Live Photos take up twice the storage space of a typical snap, we’ll need a bit more to leave it on by default.
That’s where the camera grumbles end, though, as the selfie camera is one of the best we’ve seen, with the screen-utilising ‘Retina flash’ helping aid those after-dark vanity shots without blowing out the white balance. It’s not quite primary camera quality, but your Facebook and Instagram feeds will have never looked as good.
iPhone 6S Verdict: Apple’s best just got a fair bit better
Apple as ever may not lead the market on individual points – its screen isn’t QHD, its battery is behind Sony’s Xperia Z5 and its camera is paralleled by Samsung’s Galaxy S6 – yet the iPhone 6S is a great phone. As ever, it’s not in specifics but in the overall package where the firm remains without rival, creating a comprehensive mobile powerhouse with the most comprehensive App Store and no major shortcomings.
While the 3D Touch screen may not be a reason alone to buy a phone in itself, it’s a very welcome addition to those who snap up the 6S for other reasons. From the phone’s stunning, high-end design to its effortless power, slick user interface and strong imaging abilities, the iPhone 6S is in the upper echelons of performance on every key facet, bar size – and we’re erring on the side of the 6S Plus this year for that very reason.
Of course, if you’re already an iPhone 6 owner, the validation for such a knowingly pricey upgrade is limited, and Android fans may be fluttering their eyes at the Galaxy S7 in their futures. But jumping from an older iPhone or any number of handsets, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more complete handset doing the rounds right now.