Apple iPhone 6s review: Pointing the way to a perfect ‘7’

Apple iPhone 6s

Cards on the table time, this is an unashamed review of the latest and greatest iPhone… from the point of view of a long time user of other platforms (Symbian, Android, Windows Phone). I’d argue that this gives me perspective, away from any possible reality distortion fields emanating from Cupertino – I switch platforms on a weekly basis and can evaluate the (mostly) good and (occasional) bad in the latest iPhone 6s. It’s everything you expect from Apple, but with genuine innovations and a little future-gazing thrown in, with the usual caveats over price and only a few tricks missed.

Surrounded by iPhone users in my family and extended family (Apple is taking over the world, hadn’t you heard?), I’m very familiar with the iPhone 6, even putting it as the number one phone in the world in a recent Phones Show ‘Top 5’. When asked by a normal phone user as to what smartphone to buy, recommending a 64GB iPhone 6 was almost the default, budget permitting – and with less chance of the user coming back to complain than on any other device or platform.

And now we have the 6s, the biennial ‘internals’ update from Apple, and true to form the only way you can tell that this is a different phone, short of turning it on, is that it’s slightly heavier, around 14g, thanks to the extra (3D Touch) componentry in the display, of which more later, and to the denser aluminium used in its construction. The former is to enable a whole new mode of interaction, the latter to fix the apparent mechanical weaknesses in the original ‘6’. Greater weight is good though, since the iPhone 6 design always felt too light and insubstantial to me, and the device now feels more solid.

Apple iPhone 6s

In fact, there’s quite a bit more, including higher resolution camera, faster Touch ID in the home button, and ‘Hey Siri’ all the time. Add up all the improvements and, contrary to traditional wisdom and my own preconceptions, the 6s could even be recommended for existing iPhone 6 users. Which will, no doubt, mess up a few user’s contract renewal cycles around the world.

Apple iPhone 6s - stylish and beautiful

Performance and battery life

Apple ship the 6s (and 6s Plus) in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB variants. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years reviewing smartphones, it’s that you can never have too much memory. Both in terms of storage (no expansion card support here, of course), in which case the 10GB or so available out of the box on the 16GB iPhones is a complete travesty. A month of use and a couple of medium game installs and the poor buyer will be sobbing into their empty bank account. The 16GB versions are purely there to act as a marketing push to get everyone to buy the 64GB version instead. Which is fine since, in 2015, this is about the optimum storage that the average iPhone enthusiast might need. But you do have to budget for this in the first place.

The ‘other’ sort of memory is RAM, of course, and even though Apple hates mentioning this statistic, the iPhone 6s does come with 2GB of RAM, double that in the iPhone 6. With iOS, RAM is used so efficiently that you won’t notice most of the time, but the more advanced interface in iOS 9, the higher resolution camera, the greater use of biometrics, all help eat up the extra RAM and ensure that the user gets a smooth ride from start to finish.

Take more RAM, a faster processor (Apple’s A9) and a smaller (at 1715mAh, down from 1810mAh) battery and you’d expect that battery life would be significantly worse, yet optimisations in the chipset and in iOS 9 mean that power lasts much as it did with the original ‘6’ – enough to get you through a modestly heavy day but with little left to spare. Still, impressive power management and engineering from Apple.

Apple iPhone 6s

It’s a pity there’s no real margin of error here, though. From experience over the last year, when heading out for an intensive day – say, at an event, and taking lots of photos and relying on mobile data – the iPhone 6 was always out of power by tea-time and we relied on using a Mophie case from the start or bringing along a pocket emergency charger. After a week of testing, the iPhone 6s is in much the same ball park – though the good news is that the existing Mophie accessory for the ‘6’ still fits. (The 6s is thicker, but only very marginally so…)

I’m not a fan of artificial chipset benchmarks, except to note that the iPhone 6s works out about half as fast again as the original ‘6’ for anything intensive. So iMovie rendering is roughly 50% faster, for example. But, in normal use I’m struggling to think of anything, from UI to web browsing to games to imaging, where a regular user will notice much of a difference – there are always other bottlenecks (e.g. bandwidth) and screen transitions to get through before the raw chipset makes an impact.

Apple iPhone 6s - bottom view, showing ports and profile

Design

As a fan of the original iPhone 4 (steel) design language and then gradually accepting and coming to like the aluminium version for the iPhone 5 range, I still find the pebble-like, all curved, unibody approach here on the ‘6’ range somewhat boring and generic. In fairness, this is partly because there are now so many iPhone copycats – a classic example is the ZTE-made Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 here in the UK, which is an iPhone 6 Plus in terms of form factor and cosmetics, yet made in cheap plastic and not premium metal.

One other drawback of the iPhone 6 design language is that all the curves, allied to the smooth aluminium, make the iPhone 6 and 6s insanely easy to drop. Most owners that I know keep their phones in a form fitting case of some kind, adding both grip and protection. Making Apple’s cosmetics something of a moot point. I’m hoping for the return of a straight edge or two on the iPhone 7 in 2016, if only so that the $800 smartphone can be held more securely without having to resort to a $5 TPU case from eBay.

The iPhone 6s display is as gorgeous as ever, of course. The raw resolution of 750p is now looking rather low compared to the 1080p and now QHD in competing flagships in the Android and Windows worlds, but don’t worry because it’s absolutely fine at 4.7” here, with the full RGB matrix providing a true ‘retina’ experience – certainly to my eyes.

Apple iPhone 6s - 12MP camera with dual tone LED flash

Cameras

Around the back, the camera looks the same but has been upgraded, now at a 12MP (MegaPixels) resolution, enough to do more software tricks (including shooting 4K video with a margin of error), and a figure which looks more competitive in a world where Android flagships costing quite a bit less are routinely quoting 16MP or more. Now, megapixels aren’t everything, of course, but 12MP with a 2015 sensor produces clarity and noise levels equivalent to those of an 8MP 2013 sensor, but with more detail, so it’s a natural move for Apple.

I’ll return to the subject of the iPhone 6s camera in a future comparison piece here on iPhoneHacks and on AndroidBeat, specifically looking at improvements from last year’s ‘6’, but I’ve been testing it against the best of the Android and Windows Phone world and it’s good but certainly not class-leading. Here are some example photos in a variety of light conditions, in each case with 1:1 crops and comments:

Sample iPhone 6s photo, rescaled for the web here, see below for a 1:1 crop from the 12MP image
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail and Apple's generally very good image processing
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail and Apple’s generally very good image processing, with sharpening that goes right up to, but not beyond, acceptable limits…
Sample iPhone 6s photo, rescaled for the web here, see below for a 1:1 crop from the 12MP image
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail and Apple's generally very good image processing
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail from a easily timed shot using what’s possibly the fastest phone camera in the world
Sample iPhone 6s photo, rescaled for the web here, see below for a 1:1 crop from the 12MP image
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail and Apple's generally very good image processing
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing gorgeous colours, great detail and decent natural ‘bokeh’ depth of field effect too.
Sample iPhone 6s photo, rescaled for the web here, see below for a 1:1 crop from the 12MP image
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail and Apple's generally very good image processing
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail in low light – noise levels are kept well within control – super image processing
Sample iPhone 6s photo, rescaled for the web here, see below for a 1:1 crop from the 12MP image
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail and Apple's generally very good image processing
In really low light, noise starts to become more apparent, but details are still crisp and there’s some accelerometer-based stabilisation going on, I suspect.
Sample iPhone 6s photo, rescaled for the web here, see below for a 1:1 crop from the 12MP image
1:1 crop from the previous image, showing pixel detail and Apple's generally very good image processing
The one area where almost every phone camera falls down – moving subjects in low light, perhaps at a party. Only a few of the old Nokias and a couple of Samsungs (with Xenon flash) cope with this use case, but it’s worth noting anyway. I’m on a one-man campaign to get manufacturers to improve results here!

An innovation for the 6s and 6s Plus is ‘Live Photos’, presumably using expertise from Ari Partinen, who was responsible for ‘Living Images’ over on the Windows Phone platform for Nokia before moving to Apple. The implementation is almost identical, with a conventional JPG photo and a lower resolution video file (in this case, 1080p in MOV format) packaged together, to give some video context to the moment the photo was taken.

While Camera is open and ‘Live’ mode is on (there’s a control for it in the left hand toolbar and an indicator at the top of the screen), 1080p video is taken continually and then the appropriate snatches (1.5s) from before and after the photo-taking moment are built into the MOV file. Then when viewing the photo later on in Photos (on the phone or on your Mac) or even as wallpaper on the phone, pressing hard using 3D Touch (of which more in a moment) plays the underlying movie and helps the image ‘come alive’.

It’s an effective system though note that you have to remember to stay still for one and a half seconds after taking each live photo, otherwise your ‘droop’ back to a rest position is also captured (Apple is going to fix this in software in a future update by using accelerometer data to curtail the capture, apparently).

In addition, there’s no way to get to any of these movie frames, should you prefer them to the actual photo. The original HTC One (M7) on Android (now obsolete) had a system whereby photos were being taken all the time in the background and, spotting a cute moment (e.g. with a baby), you tap the shutter button and know that the moment was grabbed before you tapped the screen, i.e. you could be a second or so late and get away with it. The system here seems similar at first glance and you can see the moment you want on the screen, you just can’t get at it. (In fact, you could extract the MOV portion on your Mac and then use software to lift out the appropriate 2MP frame, but the workflow is not trivial or ideal!)

In practice, live photos work best when you’ve got some control over the environment and subject. People posing for a photo are perfect, with some ad-hoc expressions before and after the ‘smile’. As are natural, ambient scenes – water, branches in the wind, that sort of thing. Stick any of these as your lock screen wallpaper and hard press to enjoy the animation.

Setting a live photo as wallpaper; and the video capture resolutions supported by the iPhone 6s
Setting a live photo as wallpaper; and the video capture resolutions supported by the iPhone 6s, of which more below…

Given the physical similarity with the frame of the iPhone 6s Plus, it’s something of a shame that the Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) from the Plus model is still not included in the 6s. Common sense says that this is to do with keeping the bill of materials down, but knowing Apple as we do, it’s far more likely that it’s Apple giving everyone another reason to lust after the ‘Plus’ model. In fairness, the digital stabilisation (for example, when capturing video) is pretty good, though OIS would improve things further and also allow longer, steadier exposures in low light when shooting stills. Maybe this will come for 2016’s iPhone 7?

Video can be set (buried somewhat in Settings>Photos & Camera>Record Video) to 4K at 30fps and quality is pretty good, with excellent software stabilisation, thanks to all the image processing power under the hood. Using both accelerometer data and real time frame analysis (what Apple calls ‘cinematic video stabilisation’), even 4K video is beautifully stabilised from typical handheld jitter and wobbles. Who needs a steadicam these days?

When shooting video at 1080p or 4K, footage is cinematically stabilised and you can grab stills as well, at capture time, using the bottom-right shutter control....
When shooting video at 1080p or 4K, footage is cinematically stabilised and you can grab stills as well, at capture time, using the bottom-right shutter control….

Although there’s no way, at least out of the box, to extract 8MP stills from 4K footage, you can grab full resolution stills as you go, in real time, in time honoured fashion, with the lower capture icon on the Camera viewfinder. Between Live Photos, a terrifically fast burst mode (around 6 full quality photos per second) and photos while shooting super-high-resolution video, it’s hard to think of many use cases where the iPhone 6s hasn’t got things covered.

For those that like to get creative with their videos, you’re able to record 120fps slow-mo video at 1080p, or 240fps at 720p on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus when using the rear-facing iSight camera. This can then be edited and exported directly from your iPhone, with no additional software needed.

The 5MP front facing camera is interesting in that Apple has opted to use the entire LCD screen backlight as the flash, rather than use a traditional single-point LED. In order to achieve this, there’s a special driver in hardware to pulse the LED backlight strip at twice the normal maximum brightness. The idea is to iron out any single point ‘shadows’ and unpleasant contrast artefacts, while not blinding your subjects (e.g. you and some friends), and it all works somewhat brilliantly, provided you’re genuinely within arm’s length. And provided that none of you are wearing glasses – I do, and you then get huge reflected rectangles of light in the ‘specs. Oh well.

Example front facing screen-flashed photo in pitch dark conditions - pretty good, though glasses wearers have to endure big reflections!
Example front facing screen-flashed photo in pitch dark conditions – pretty good, though glasses wearers have to endure big reflections!

Interface

iOS 9 is very well known by now, of course, since it’s a free upgrade for everything from the iPhone 4s onwards. Coming to the iPhone from Android, the static homescreens take a little getting used to, but the ‘Today’ dropdown view does a great job of providing context for, as the name suggests, your day ahead, and is customisable, even though it’s not as extensive as Google Now. And the application scene is second to none on iOS, with the latest games, the most polished applications, created by developers drawn to halo of glory that surrounds Apple’s iPhones. Need a utility to do something? An iOS developer will have created it already.

The familiar iOS 9 home screen and 'Today'' drop down....
The familiar iOS 9 home screen and ‘Today” drop down….
The swipe-up controls are still my favourite iOS feature, while Siri and Spotlight search pop up news stories and other suggestions - the OS has come a long way since 2007....
The swipe-up controls are still my favourite iOS feature, while Siri and Spotlight search pop up news stories and other suggestions – the OS has come a long way since 2007….

Where things get really interesting is with Apple’s big innovation for iOS 9 on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus – 3D Touch. While in principle this is standard technology (‘Force Touch’ from the likes of Synaptics), Apple has gone the extra mile with it in terms of implementation, with a brand new ‘Taptic engine’, using an over-sized linear oscillator that can be programmed to pulse in different ways and with different amplitudes, matching up with ‘peeks’ and ‘pops’ in the 3D Touch world.

Using 3D Touch to pop up quick actions for selected applications. Not a huge time saver, but a 'nice to have'....
Using 3D Touch to pop up quick actions for selected applications. Not a huge time saver, but a ‘nice to have’….

Essentially, some applications support detection of how hard you’re pressing on the layers in the touchscreen glass and then offer new views or actions. In a simple case, on the application screen, it can offer a ‘right click’-style context launch system (e.g. on the Camera icon, ‘Take selfie’, ‘Record video’, and so on). Within an application it can be used simplistically to measure pressure, so Notes and other graphical applications can increase pen width, for example, or to provide depth to the control you have over content on-screen, such as ‘peeking’ into Mail messages and then ‘popping’ them onto the screen as if you’d tapped them on them on the first place.

Peeking into an email with a 3D Touch and then swiping to the side to see one of the context-sensitive quick actions....
Peeking into an email with a 3D Touch and then swiping to the side to see one of the context-sensitive quick actions….

Little of which saves much time, to be honest, and in fact you lose time at first, for days and perhaps weeks(?), pressing in hard on a multitude of applications and screens (too long to list here) which do absolutely nothing because Apple or the developers haven’t coded them to support 3D Touch yet! However, there are glimpses of genuine usefulness here, with the realisation that you can drag a ‘peeked’ view of something up, down, left or right (depending, ahem, on how the application has been coded), to mark it read, delete it or share it, and so on.

Peeking at an image in Photos and (right) peeking at a link in Safari, then swiping up too, to see what actions are available....
Peeking at an image in Photos and (right) peeking at a link in Safari, then swiping up too, to see what actions are available….

Even more usefully, something of a revelation, is that you can press hard when the standard iOS keyboard is on screen in any application and the keypad turns into a laptop trackpad, for accurate cursor positioning. This is jaw dropping when you first try it and genuinely useful. There’s a secondary function where you partially release the pressure and then re-apply it, to activate a selection box, but this is way too fiddly for regular iPhone users and it’s so much easier just to double tap the word on-screen.

The 3D Touch 'trackpad', letting you position the cursor accurately and intuitively; (right) an example of one of the many built in iOS applications where absolutely nothing happens with 3D Touch - not even an 'oops' warning vibration. Early days for the technology!
The 3D Touch ‘trackpad’, letting you position the cursor accurately and intuitively; (right) an example of one of the many built in iOS applications where absolutely nothing happens with 3D Touch – not even an ‘oops’ warning vibration. Early days for the technology!

Finally, a 3D Touch hard press on the extreme left of the display provides a glimpse into the iOS 9 multitasking carousel, which can then be swiped into full view and navigated as usual. This is pretty intuitive and more satisfying than the double press of the physical home button – maybe it’s just me, but I always worry about wearing this out. In the last five years, my family has managed to scupper three iPhone home buttons and this remains a necessary weak point in the mechanical design. Apple are good at replacing phones where necessary, but as I say… it’s a worry.

Looking at multiple pen widths and pressures in the rewritten Notes application; (right) 3D Touching the left of the display at any point brings up the iOS 9 multitasking carousel....
Looking at multiple pen widths and pressures in the rewritten Notes application; (right) 3D Touching the left of the display at any point brings up the iOS 9 multitasking carousel….

It’s still very early days for 3D Touch though and there are more user interface misses than hits with the technology. But the situation will improve with every iOS update and with every application update, of course, so I’m optimistic that this can rise to become a smartphone staple, in flagships at least, by 2017.

In terms of durability, the jury’s still out, of course. On my brand new review iPhone 6s, pressing hard in most of the middle section of the phone produced a mechanical clicking sound, unrelated to 3D Touch, and it’s clear that there are significant challenges involved in making a phone chassis and screen strong enough to withstand force touching day after day for several years. Expect to see complaints of clicks and creaks from iPhone 6s users in the coming months – I expect that sufficient bracing and material tweaks can mostly solve the issue but it’s again slightly worrying. Or maybe I’m too much of a ‘glass half empty’ person!

Having already mentioned the home button, it’s appropriate to talk about another innovation of Apple’s – pioneering really fast and practical fingerprint recognition in smartphones. The sensor in the home button of the 5S was good, but speed and accuracy has been massively improving and recognition is now so fast that I kept having problems – from a locked 6s – getting through to Siri because I’d left my thumb on the button a fraction of a second too long. In other words, the 6s electronics was waking up, scanning and authenticating me, unlocking the interface and still having time to then count most of my thumb time as an attempt to long press the home button ‘because I wanted Siri’. All very impressive and… Siri’s not that bad once you get to know her!

Fingerprint training is fast and easy and you can have several trained - but leave a few for when you just want to know the time on the lock screen! (right) Recognition is so fast that I quite often found myself in Siri!
Fingerprint training is fast and easy and you can have several trained – but leave a few for when you just want to know the time on the lock screen! (right) Recognition is so fast that I quite often found myself in Siri!

Another of Apple’s ‘hold it back for the more expensive model’ moments comes when you realise that the home screen only works in portrait on the iPhone 6s, whereas you can use it in landscape as well on the 6 Plus. If you’re switching between applications that are all landscape (e.g. Safari, Photos, a game, and so on) then it’s a bit of a pain to have to keep rotating the phone. And there’s precisely zero technical reason why Apple couldn’t have allowed this, just as on the 6 Plus. it’s annoying, but maybe if enough people clamour for the feature then Apple will listen?

Hey Siri

I’ve done a lot of research across the various mobile platforms into the voice assistants and it’s fair to say that Google Now and Windows Cortana have caught up with Siri in terms of intelligence – certainly the two newer offerings do a better job of proactively suggesting information, while Apple’s iOS 9’s core UI is hampered to what can be shown on the ‘Today’ drop-down, as mentioned above.

However, Siri still does a great job when being interrogated – you know the drill, press and hold the home button and say what you need. Except that with the iPhone 6s you don’t have to touch the phone at all. And you don’t even need to have it on charge – the A9 chipset includes the low power DSP needed to be listening for a particular audio pattern (your rendition of “Hey Siri”) and then kick the main processor and OS into life.

And it works brilliantly. Shout across the kitchen “Hey Siri…. how do I make a cheese sauce?…. what’s 2kg in pounds?…. set an alarm for 20 minutes” And so on. Each person’s “Hey Siri” rendition is recorded and analysed several times during the initial set-up, meaning that in a noisy room there’s less chance of one person’s “Hey Siri” kicking off every other iPhone in the room. The system’s not perfect, and it would be nice if you could record any phrase of your choice, but screen-off voice recognition and intelligence can be a game changer in any environment where you’re allowed to use voice (so that’s libraries, open offices and train carriages out!)

To upgrade or not?

Ah yes, the 6 (pun intended) million dollar question. For all those people with Apple iPhone 6 phones and probably in the middle of a two year contract, should the existence of the 6s keep you awake at night? Probably not, the ‘s’ model has a litany of improvements mentioned above but unless one of them leaps off the page at you then I’d suggest waiting until the iPhone 7 and the renewal of your contract in late 2017. By then, 3D Touch will have been perfected and will have vastly greater application support.

If you have the iPhone 6 SIM-free and are flexible in terms of selling it and buying the new phone then it’s a tougher decision. If you can afford it then I’d suggest that the improvements (things like the 2GB of RAM, the any-time “Hey Siri”, the 4K video capture) all attract, whatever the state of 3D Touch.

And certainly anyone with a competing platform device or perhaps an old iPhone 5 or 5s is overdue for a look at Apple’s current vision of the future of smartphones. The iPhone 6s certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s pointing the way very clearly to a perfect ‘7’, coming from Apple next year. Why wait to jump onboard and smell the Californian coffee?

Check out our iPhone 6s video review:

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Update:

We’ve updated the post with the video version of this review, so we’ve pushed the post on top.

PPS. Thanks to MobileFun accessories for the review hardware.