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iPhone 6S review

For all its “fast moving innovation” the tech industry is a predictable thing sometimes. Every other year Apple puts an ‘S’ on the end of its last phone, buffs it up with a few tarty new features and delivers it to splendid applause.

That’s a horrific simplification, of course, but the general point stands. The iPhone 6S is that phone this year, and it adds some clever new ‘taptic’ features, camera improvements and a radically faster processor to last year’s iPhone 6.

You can get it in Rose Gold now if you fancy a change. But whatever your feelings on the matter, rest assured this another excellent phone from Apple.

IPHONE 6S – DESIGN & FEATURES

All ‘S’ phones look like their forbears and the iPhone 6S is no different. Even the screen is the same. It’s not the very best there is – Samsung’s OLEDs are in a different league in this respect – but it’s excellent for an LCD.

Contrast is great and colours are natural. Some might argue its 326 pixels per inch (ppi) isn’t sharp enough, but that argument doesn’t hold water with me. It’s plenty sharp enough.

Before I move onto the interesting stuff, however, it bears repeating what a successful design this is. Not only does the iPhone 6S look great, it’s naturally comfortable. Everything just fits.

iPhone 6S review

Having lived with the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ recently, it’s a pleasure to return to a phone that’s comfortable to use in one hand, and which has volume buttons I don’t jog accidentally in my pocket.

Beyond the flashy new features and new Rose Gold option, Apple gets the basics right. That matters.

But what is flashy and new? After all, if something isn’t new enough, then it’s rubbish, right? The undoubted highlight is 3D Touch. Like Force Touch, which Apple introduced on the Apple Watch, 3D Touch detects how hard you press on the screen, opening up new interactions for app developers to explore.

There are effectively three levels of pressure – the regular tap, a slightly harder press and one further level beyond it. Each one, depending on the context, will trigger a different action.

But the pressure is “analogue” in nature – 3D Touch doesn’t just detect three levels of pressure, but all the points between. This opens up some interesting potential, particularly in games, which I’ll expand on in a moment.

iPhone 6S review

Sadly, making room for the new Taptic Engine that helps power 3D Touch means a small, 5% reduction in battery capacity. Apple says that improved power efficiencies in iOS 9 and the new Low Power Mode ensure the iPhone 6S’s battery life is similar to the iPhone 6.

Other serious changes concern the cameras. Apple has increased the resolution of the iSight Camera (rear) and Facetime HD camera (front) to 12-megapixels and 5-megapixels. That’s 50% and over 300% more pixels respectively – not small numbers considering the 6S uses the same size sensors.

This means sharper, more detailed photos – read more about that in the iPhone 6S camera section. It also means the iPhone 6S can record 4K video at 30fps, which will be great for that 4K TV you (probably) don’t own.

Finally, we have a new processor – the A9. While there’s plenty still to learn about the inner workings of the new dual-core chip, a core speed bump from 1.4GHz to 1.8GHz heralds some serious performance improvements.

IPHONE 6S – 3D TOUCH AND THE TAPTIC ENGINE

First, though, 3D Touch. This is, without question, the defining feature of the iPhone 6S. As explained above, 3D Touch lets the iPhone detect different levels of pressure and trigger new actions depending on how hard you press.

It’s the kind of feature that demands exploration and experimentation from users and developers alike. At first, you’ll explore the home screen – pressing harder on icons to see what happens. Sometimes it’s nothing, which is frustrating, but sometimes you’ll be presented with shortcuts to specific actions.

For example, “3D Touch” on the Camera app icon – I can’t help feel “Force Touch” is a better verb – and you’ll get shortcuts to take selfie or shoot a video.

iPhone 6S review

Try it on the Maps app and you can quickly share your location or get directions directly home. The Music app will launch the Beats1 radio station; the Calendar app will create a new event; the Wallet app will show you your last transaction. You get the idea.

All these little shortcuts are useful, but it’s inside apps where 3D Touch shows real dividends. My favourite feature is pressing down on the keyboard to drag the cursor around accurately. It’s a simple thing, but it makes correcting mistakes and basic editing simple and effortless. You see, basics.

iPhone 6S review

The other key strand of 3D Touch is what Apple calls ‘Peek’ and ‘Pop’. In short, press hard to ‘Peek’ at the contents of an item (e.g. an email, message or hyperlink) and press harder still to ‘Pop’ that into full screen. Relaxing the pressure, meanwhile, sends you back to where you came.

It that sounds naff and pointless to you, I assure you it isn’t. Mail and Messages are the best examples of how useful Peek and Pop is. Peeking into a message previews its contents without marking it as read, which shortens the irritating flow of checking a message, leaving it and then marking it as unread again to look at later.

(I know that’s what ‘flagging’ is for but how often do you flag emails and just forget them? I do it all the time.)

iPhone 6S review

Peeking and then sliding the window upwards reveals further actions, such as sending a standard reply or forwarding it to someone else. It’s great for checking a link to see if it’s genuinely useful, or you can slide it up and select ‘Open in new Tab’.

Even in its infancy, 3D Touch is a great and convincing addition to the iPhone. It’ll only grow in potency as developers explore and discover new ways to use it, and they certainly will. The enduring strength of the iPhone is how developers seize upon new features and make them their own.

All of this is enhanced by the new Taptic Engine – a redesigned motor and software stack that delivers subtler, smarter taptic events.

iPhone 6S review

I like it even more than 3D Touch itself. The way the Taptic Engine delivers short, precise and gentle ‘blips’ adds a new dimension to notifications. You’ll quickly learn the pattern and character of these vibrations, so you can instantly discern what kind of alert you’re getting without looking. You can customise them to an extent, too.

It’s a far cry from the iPhone 5 and 5S, which rumbled fiercely with all the subtlety of a small, yappy dog. Once you’ve used the iPhone 6S and experienced the difference, you’ll wonder how you ever put with that racket. It’s great.

The only disappointing aspect of 3D Touch are Live Photos. Although nominally a part of the Camera app, it’s a barefaced tech demo for the 3D Touch feature. Basically, when enabled Live Photos record a short snippet of video along with a photo. Pressing on the photo activates the ‘Live’ version, but quickly grew bored of the feature and turned it off.

IPHONE 6S – ISIGHT CAMERA

On paper alone, there are legitimate reasons for disappointment with the iPhone 6S camera. While the bump from 8-megapixels to 12-megapixels is very welcome, Apple hasn’t upgraded the lens. Its f/2.2 aperture doesn’t sound that impressive sat next to the f/1.8 of the Galaxy S6 range, or the f/1.7 of the LG G4 – lower is better in this case.

This is important because a ‘wider’ aperture lets in more light onto the sensor. More light leads to better low light performance and superior ‘depth of field’ – where the background is blurred behind your subject.

The latter quality, often referred to as ‘bokeh’ – choose your own pronunciation of that one – is the desirable effect that gives photos that professional sheen. When veteran TrustedReviews contributor Andrew Williams describes something as “bokehlicious” you can be assured he approves.

iPhone 6S review

But wars aren’t fought on paper and neither are camera… erm, wars. Yes, it would be nice if Apple gave the iPhone a faster lens – my money is on the iPhone 7 for that one – but the iPhone 6S doesn’t seriously suffer for it.

It would be nicer still if the iPhone 6S had optical image stabilisation (OIS) as its ability to counter shaky hand motions would help low light performance even more, but that’s reserved for the larger iPhone 6S Plus for size reasons. This is arguably a greater loss than a faster lens, but you’ll only miss it when shooting in very low light, or for video.

Bottom line: The iPhone 6S is still right up there with – and sometimes leading – the best, though it’s a hotly contested (and disputed) field these days.

iPhone 6S Camera

This first shot shows some of the improvements in the iPhone 6S. First, there’s more detail. I’ve actually cropped into this shot to reframe it, yet it still looks great thanks to the excellent detail in the bud and petals.

iPhone 6S vs Galaxy S6Camera

Above is the Galaxy S6’s effort – also cropped. It’s a good shot and the S6’s faster lens and shorter focus distance creates a lovely bokeh effect that isolates the flower beautifully. However, Samsung’s preference for extra sharpening creates a couple of small problems – some odd fringing around the edges and some smudged detail in the flower petals.

iPhone 6S review iPhone 6S review

In comparison, the iPhone 6S controls noise a little better and retains the contours of the petal as a result. It’s all fine margins, but it’s a good start.

In part, this reflects Apple and Samsung’s differing approaches to photography. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, but the iPhone tends towards natural, softer and more ‘lifelike’ shots. Conversely, Samsung favours a sharper, punchier and more bombastic approach – an approach that can produce stunning results, I might add.

You can see this again in the following HDR composition. HDR is an especially useful technique that combines different ‘exposures’ of the same shot. This helps resolve extremes of light and dark that a single shot can’t. Both have Auto HDR, which means they’ll choose the best time to use it automatically.

iPhone 6S review

In the iPhone 6S example, it takes an even approach. The foreground isn’t outstandingly bright, but it’s clear, and the sky and distant building look exactly as they should.

iPhone 6S review

The Galaxy S6, meanwhile, supercharges the foreground but blows out the sky. I should point out that, in the interests of fairness, I chose the same exposure point for both shots.

This isn’t to illustrate why the iPhone 6S is better than the S6, though. Both approaches can be brilliant and flawed in different scenarios, and there’s no inherently ‘right’ way to expose this scene.

But it reinforces how the iPhone 6S remains an outstanding cameraphone. It renders colours faithfully with nice, smooth gradations that bring out the subtleties of shots, and it has excellent native dynamic range.

iPhone 6S review iPhone 6S reviewThe vegetable stand above shows this nicely where the pumpkins (centre of shot) transition from red to orange. The S6 captures richer colours, though, particularly reds, and its punchier contrast arguably edges this example.

It’s also much better in low light, which is the iPhone 6S’s primary weakness. The 6S is better than the iPhone 6, as the below shots demonstrate, but it can’t hope to match phones that have optical image stabilisation.

iPhone 6S reviewThe iPhone 6 produces a usable(ish) shot for social media, but it’s blotchy and struggles to control refractions from the bright lights.

iPhone 6S reviewThe noise in the dark sky of the 6S shot is much finer and controlled, and the lights don’t cause such serious problems. It’s a decent effort, but there are better.
iPhone 6S review

Despite some odd shards of light, the Galaxy S6 is the clear winner here. There’s more contrast and detail in the water and sky, while the buildings in the background are far clearer. This is the difference optical image stabilisation makes.

Needless to say, the differences between the iPhone 6S and iPhone 5S are more extreme. We’ll explore this in a future update to our iPhone 6S vs iPhone 5S comparison, but the words “no contest” spring to mind.

Beyond pure image quality, there are noticeable improvements in performance, too. The iPhone 6S focusses faster than the iPhone 6 for one as it spends less time hunting back and forth. Choosing between the iPhone and Galaxy S6 is impossible, though; they’re both lightning fast.

IPHONE 6S – FACETIME HD CAMERA

Apple has lavished the iPhone 6S with a serious front camera upgrade this time around. It’s up from 1.2-megapixels to 5-megapixels, a pixel increase that has more in common with the inflation rate of your average banana republic.

Apple’s also developed a method for using the screen as a flash for the front facing camera – a neater option than the HTC Desire EYE’s dedicated front flash. As Nigel Atherton, Editor of Amateur Photographer explained to me; this is clever because a large area flash like this should be softer and more flattering.

But this puts me in awkward position because I abhor taking selfies. But if forced at gunpoint to take some selfies, I’d be happy enough to use the iPhone 6S.

The ‘screen flash’ is handy in dingy indoor lighting, the primary locale for the selfie. Like the dual-tone LED flash at the rear, the screen uses a flesh tone to avoid turning you too ghostly. It’s effective, too, aside from the odd white spot on my nose. Is “shiny nose” a thing?

Incidentally, Apple’s resisted the trend for strapping wide angle lenses on the front of phones. This makes it tricky to take ‘groufies’ without one of those stick-o-ma-bobs (umbrella’s, I think?), but affords just enough space to show how awesome your holiday destination is while you gurn furiously in the foreground.

It’s beyond the scope of this review to say whether this is the ‘best selfie cam’ or not, but it has to be up there thanks to the flash system.

IPHONE 6S – VIDEO & 4K

Evan Kypreos will be exploring the iPhone’s video capabilities more fully in his iPhone 6S Plus review on Monday, including comparisons between the iPhone’s new 4K 30fps mode and that of the S6. He’s even employing his dubious DIY skills for the purpose – good luck with that, Evan.

For now, though, suffice it to say the iPhone 6S’s video capabilities are very good. It’s only held back, again, by the lack of optical image stabilisation, which is handy for suppressing shaky hands.

There are two video modes and six settings in total: 720p at 30fps, 1080p at 30fps, 1080p at 60fps, 4K at 30fps and the two slo-mo modes, 720p at 120fps and 240fps.

iPhone 6S reviewThe 240fps mode introduced on the iPhone 6 is especially fun – tech journos call it the “cat’s pajamas”, because that’s how we talk.

The 60fps 1080p mode is interesting since it delivers smoother motion, though be warned it’s unusable in low light. As is 4K for that matter. The default mode is 1080p at 30fps, which is perfect for most conditions.

Moreover, while it’s easy to dismiss the addition of 4K as “pointless”, don’t be too hasty. For one, downscaling 4K footage to 1080p will result in sharper footing than native 1080p. The adventurous can even use 4K’s extra pixels to reframe and ‘zoom’ into their footage at 1080p without losing detail – 4K is effectively four times 1080p, after all.

In the right hands you don’t need to transmit or watch in 4K for it to be useful.

Inexplicably, though, you can’t change the standard video and slo-mo options from within the Camera app. You have to delve into the Photos & Camera section of the Settings app to change the defaults every time, a decision so inexplicably stupid it defies belief.

It’s odd because the iPhone’s Camera app is impeccably designed otherwise – I tried using the Moto G (2015) camera app the other day and it was like being parachuted into a world full of stupid in comparison. Seriously, Motorola, sort that out.

iPhone 6S reviewIPHONE 6S – SOFTWARE & APPS

We have a well-appointed iOS 9 review by Max Parker that covers the numerous ins and outs of the Apple’s latest software update. As usual, it’s a healthy mix of good stuff – deep Spotlight search integration and improved Siri-ness – and other stuff that could stand to be better – i.e. notifications.

Actually, notifications are much improved in iOS 9, even if Android still does them better. They’re organised by day instead of by app now, and while you can’t dismiss the whole lot in one go, you can dismiss a whole day at a time. It makes it easier to review and then dismiss, which is good.

iPhone 6S reviewBeyond the 3D Touch features, which I’ve already discussed, one of my favourite changes is to the Battery section of the Settings app.

It’s split into ‘Last 24 Hours’ and ‘Last 6 Days’ views. But what makes the feature is how tapping on the list reveals how much screen time and background time each app uses. It’s a brilliant way to single out rogue apps sucking down more than their fair share, which I’ll get into more in the battery life section.

iOS 9, unsurprisingly, runs like an absolute dream on the iPhone 6S. Admittedly I’ve been testing on a fresh install – a good idea if you can face it – rather than recalling an old backup. All the same, iOS 9 and the iPhone 6S are as sprightly as a particularly lively sheepdog.

iPhone 6S reviewIPHONE 6S – PERFORMANCE

The iPhone 6S is hell-a-fast, which is apparently not as fast as “stupidfast” but is nonetheless pretty nippy. The new chip tops rivals in most benchmarks and is a good 50 to 60% faster than the A8 – a serious jump.

Apple’s upgraded A9 SoC (System on a Chip) houses a shiny new PowerVR GPU and two CPU cores clocked at 1.8GHz each, up from 1.4GHz, and there’s 2GB of RAM.

Yes, you read that correctly, the iPhone finally has two whole gigabytes of RAM. Without becoming too glib, it was about time. While I’m typically wary of the massed throngs complaining about such details, on this occasion they had point. Things were getting a bit silly.

Not because iOS didn’t run smoothly on 1GB, but because the Safari web browser couldn’t hold more than a few tabs at a time without reloading them. With the iPhone 6S, I’ve managed to switch between as many as 10 simultaneously loaded tabs without any reloads.

You could probably load a few more, but by that point I was satisfied. They’ll still reload if you leave the app and come back some time later, but in the time you’re active within Safari it handles the workload well. Praise be.

iPhone 5S and iPhone 6 owners will notice unlocking from Touch ID is faster, too, especially when the screen is already off. It’s only a small point, but each fraction makes the whole experience feel smoother and slicker.

There’s an enviable amount of graphics grunt on tap, too – not that any game I’ve found makes full use of it yet.

IPHONE 6S – BATTERY LIFE

“Battery life could be a problem,” was my first thought when I started my iPhone 6S review, and with good reason. Wonderful though 3D Touch and the Taptic Engine are, Apple had to reduce the battery capacity from 1,810mAh to 1,715mAh to fit them in. It made the 6S slightly thicker and heavier, too, though not enough that anyone should care.

The iPhone 6 didn’t have a stellar reputation for battery life, and while some of those complaints are overblown, they’re not without foundation. Certainly, the ‘Plus’ variant is the phone to go for if you suffer range “range anxiety”.

Through my week using the the iPhone 6S, I consistently managed 15 to 17 hours per day. Switching off Bluetooth and disabling the Facebook app’s background refresh made a big difference, though I always left Wi-Fi on.

For whatever reason, the Facebook app uses more background time than other app. Before the change Facebook was responsible for close to 25% of the phone’s battery drain, despite being on screen for just 20 minutes or so. iOS 9’s improved battery monitoring was a godsend here.

iPhone 6S reviewNavigation puts a big strain on the battery, though, particularly in built-up areas. One 15-minute walk with directions drained 7% from the battery. Streaming video over Wi-Fi burns through around 12% of battery per hour, depending on the quality and how bright your screen is.

The new Low Power won’t extend your life indefinitely, but it’s useful and effective enough. iOS prompts you to turn it on when your battery hits 20% and it turns off all background activity, while also throttling down the CPU and GPU.

The iPhone is already frugal when idle, but Low Power extends that further still – I once got five hours of very light use after passing 20%, which is handy if you’re staying out late. And you can turn Low Power on earlier if you know you have a long day ahead – the iPhone 6S runs fine when it’s on.

iPhone 6S review

Ultimately, while some management is needed from time to time, I never felt like I would run out before I got home, and it would only concern me if I was on a “night out” and got home late. In those cases, a few simple precautions will avert problems.

Power users who stream video all day, use navigation lots or play games often should look at the 6S Plus, but the 6S’s battery life is fine for the majority of people.

IPHONE 6S – SOUND & CALL QUALITY

There are no changes here. The iPhone 6S still has a single mono speaker. It’s a pretty decent one, though. It’s loud enough to enjoy in a quiet environment and delivers crisp, clear dialogue in videos or on speakerphone. It just won’t put a dent in the portable Bluetooth speaker market anytime soon, or ever.

Call quality, meanwhile, is excellent. This is doubly true if you’re on a network that supports Wi-Fi Calling or Voice over LTE (VoLTE). Both use these superior networks to deliver crisper, infinitely clearer call quality, though UK adoption remains patchy at best so far.

iPhone 6S review

OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER

Now seems a good time to mention a few things the iPhone 6S lacks, particularly in comparison to rivals. While the 6S gains 3D Touch, the Galaxy S6 has wireless charging. It’s a feature that’s made its way to many a mid-range phone, too, such as the Lumia 830.

Once Apple could have claimed it didn’t charge fast enough, but that argument doesn’t wash anymore. It works a treat on the S6 and there are IKEA lamps with it built-in. When IKEA is doing it you know people are ready. I won’t bet against it being an iPhone 7 feature.

The iPhone 6S also lacks fast charging, a near universal feature for any Android phone featuring any of Qualcomm’s top-end processors. It lets phone charge in as little as an hour and a half, sometimes less. It’s damned handy in a pinch.

This isn’t a huge problem for the iPhone 6S, though. It has smaller battery after all, and I timed a full charge at one hour and 50 minutes – hardly slow. The iPhone 6S Plus and it’s bigger battery, however, could be a different matter.

iPhone 6S reviewSHOULD I BUY THE IPHONE 6S?

Yeah, probably. While a small corner of the internet secretly hopes Apple will drop a clanger – or convinces themselves it already has – this time round it hasn’t. The better question is who should buy it?

iPhone 5S owners who don’t want to “upsize” should sign on the dotted line. You could wait for the iPhone 7 if you’re feeling patient, but the 6S is a great upgrade. 3D Touch is fantastic and the S6 is so, very, very fast.

The same applies to any older iPhone owners who can stomach the price, of course, but don’t rule out any of the excellent cheap Android phones on the market. The Motorola Moto G (2015) is a good place to start, but there are many good options in our best cheap phones round-up.

Potential Android switchers should take a long hard look at the 6S Plus, though, on the assumption you’re already using a ‘big’ phone. That said, if what you really want is something human hand-sized then the iPhone 6S crushes all comers.

VERDICT

Could this be the best ‘S’ phone Apple’s ever released? Maybe. Does it matter? Not especially. This is a great phone, simple as that.

 

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