iPhone 6s Review: Examining Apple's 2015 Flagship Release

Reviews Michael Grothaus 11:12, 8 Jun 2016

The iPhone 6s is Apple's current flagship handset and is also the first iPhone to not break sales records over a 12 month period

Typical Price: 
The fastest iPhone ever-by a long shot. Double the RAM and processing power. A Touch ID that works in milliseconds instead of second. Vastly improved cameras and video recording capabilities. And that 3D Touch display is going to change the way we interact with our phones.
Quick Actions via 3D Touch take some getting used to and only a fraction of apps support them for now. Live Photos, while cool, probably won’t be used much by most people.
No question about it: the iPhone 6s is the fastest, most advanced iPhone ever. If you are thinking of upgrading, now is the time. Apple might as well called this the iPhone 7.

Apple's been producing its "S" series of devices since its fourth-generation iPhone. Technically, we suppose, that makes the iPhone 4S the fifth-gen device and it's been upsetting the order of things with its leap-frogging through the iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6, and lastly to the latest iPhone 6s - the subject of this review. We still don't know what the S is supposed to stand for, but we do know that the S series is usually referred to as "incremental", because the major, non-S versions are where all the big, landmark changes and features get introduced.

Thing is, this incremental update 'ain't so incremental, as it happens. The iPhone 6s has some smaller, but no less significant tweaks which mark it out as going a bit further than "S" models of yesteryear. What's new this time round? A much faster processor, heftier camera hardware, and a brand new way to interact with the touch display in the form of 3D Touch -- check out the Best 3D Touch Apps

Apple's decision to make the iPhone 6s not the usual incremental update may have been part of a deliberate new shift moving forward - according to the latest comments from prominent and incredibly reliable KGI Securities analyst Ming-chi Kuo, 2016's iPhone 7 will not actually be the expected big overhaul as has happened in the past. According to his notes to investors, Kuo believes Apple is planning a HUGE revamp of the iPhone line inside 2017 with the iPhone 7s (as it may be called) seeing a complete ground-up rebuild,  featuring a new iPhone 4s style bodyshell made entirely from curved glass. This is also when it's believed Apple may shift to OLED display technology and introduce complex dual-sensor camera technology, similar to the LG G5 and Huawei P9.

Apple announced INSANE sales during the first week of sales, as well as record adoption elsewhere in the world. 13+ million shifted during opening week is nothing to be scoffed at -- no one else shifts this kind of volume in the mobile space (or anywhere else for that matter).

But while things did get off to a very good start, iPhone sales during late-2015/2016 have flattened out, and this is very good news for Samsung and its excellent Galaxy S7 phones.

“Apple sold 74.8 million iPhones during the final three months of 2015,” reports Alphr. “This is a record number but, relatively, not much above the 74.46 million sold in the same period of 2014, especially when you consider that the Q1 figure in the year prior to that was 51.03 million units. This apparent slowdown in growth is leading some analysts to claim the end of the iPhone growth era. Seeing as the iPhone accounted for 68% of Apple’s revenue in the quarter, that lack of growth is notable.”

Don’t get me wrong; Apple is still selling A LOT of iPhones. But when year on year growth flattens out and that particular product is your biggest earner, alarm bells will inevitably sound for investors and market watchers who have been dying for the iPhone to fail for years.

Apple confirmed reduced demand for all its iPhone models at its most recent earnings call, as well as decreased market share, and this downward swing is likely linked to iPhone 6/iPhone 6 Plus users waiting for the iPhone 7. 

The iPhone 6s wasn’t the only phone Apple released in 2016 and, no, we’re not talking about the iPhone 6s Plus, either. The “other” release was the iPhone SE, a 4in handset that looks like the iPhone 5s and features many of the iPhone 6s’ features and specs.

The iPhone SE is a solid phone, but one that can hardly be called exciting. It features a great camera, the same from the 6s, the same CPU and very, VERY impressive battery performance. The display is disappointing, as is the design, but overall the complete package is more than the individual parts.

In our iPhone SE Review, we lamented the pricing — the handset is very expensive, given the R&D and BOM costs — but it is an excellent option for those dedicated the Apple ecosystem that want a smaller, 4in handset without having to go with older, less well specced technology. I think Apple knew this ahead of launch, which is why it took the less risky root of repackaging the iPhone 5s and charging slightly less than its current flagship.

It is also highly likely Apple lost a few loyal customers to Samsung; the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 EDGE are exceptional handsets in every regard. The iPhone 7 will launch later on this year and, in a very un-Apple move, looks set to be a trio of devices in the form of the iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus and an additional iPhone 7 Pro model.

Here’s my full review of the iPhone 6s.

iPhone 6s review: Raw Specs

  • Display: 4.7-inch display with a 1334x750-pixel resolution at 326ppi, 3D Touch enabled
  • Dimensions: 138.3mm  x 67.1 mm x 7.1 mm
  • Weight: 143 grams
  • Storage: 16, 64, or 128GB
  • Memory: 2 GB RAM
  • Processors: A9 chip with 64-bit architecture and M9 motion coprocessor
  • Front camera: FaceTime HD camera. 5 MP photos and 720p HD video. Retina Flash
  • Rear camera: iSight camera. 12 MP photos. ƒ/2.2 aperture. 4k video. True Tone flash.
  • Battery life: Up to 12 hours mixed usage
  • Touch ID: 2nd generation sensor
  • NFC: yes
  • Colors: Silver, Space Grey, Gold, or Rose Gold

iPhone 6s review: Design

From the outside I will admit the iPhone 6s looks virtually identical to the iPhone 6. Matter of fact, I currently own both the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s and I can’t tell them apart when they are side by side. Yet while the designs are very similar, they are not identical. The iPhone 6s is actually a few tenths of a millimeter thicker than its predecessor. This has to do with the new layer of the display (which we’ll talk about later).

AND you will notice this difference too. The handset feels sturdier and more substantial in the hand. I always said the original iPhone 6 was a bit to0 thing and felt flimsy as a result. This goes doubly for the iPhone 6 Plus, hence bendgate. So, adding in the extra bit of girth was a wise move by Apple, despite the fact they had no choice in the matter -- every cloud has a silver lining! 

The iPhone 6s also is made from a new, improved type of aluminum–Apple calls it “7000 Series aluminum”. The company says it’s “the same grade of aluminum used in the aerospace industry”, which sounds impressive, if irrelevant. But the 7000 series does actually have a purpose: it’s to avoid the “bendgate” issues of last year. Bendgate referred to the fact that some iPhone 6 Plus’s got bent when people applied a lot of pressure to them or when they sat on them in their back pocket. Though Bendgate affected less than a dozen phones according to Apple, it was bad press and Apple wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again–hence the 7000 Series aluminum in the new iPhone 6s.

I’m sure it’s psychological, but I will say that the iPhone 6s just feels sturdier–more durable. It also is heavier by about 14 grams, thanks to the new aluminum. This extra heft is something I actually like, though, as it makes it the handset feel more durable and less likely to smash into smithereens should you accidentally drop it.

Beyond this there’s really not that much to get excited about, however, as this handset looks identical to last year’s model. Only a company like Apple could get away with this. In the Android space such a move would be considered heresy -- just look what happened with the HTC One M9 and Samsung Galaxy S4. Apple can and does get away with it though and this is mainly down to the fact that people who buy iPhone ONLY buy iPhone. In this respect Apple operates inside a closed market. Recruiting a few floating voters with each release is a bonus, adding to the company’s already HUGE user base.

There are two slight cosmetic changes to the iPhone 6s. On the back of it under the Apple logo you’ll see an “S” stamped on it. The iPhone 6s also comes in a new finish–Rose Gold–which is actually my favorite colour. It looks beautiful. However, I opted to keep with the Space Grey because I like my iPhones dark. The iPhone 6s also comes in Gold and Silver.

iPhone 6s review: 3D Touch Display

As with its design, from the outset the display of the iPhone 6s is virtually identical to that of the iPhone 6. It’s still got a 4.7-inch display with a 1334x750-pixel resolution at 326ppi. However there are two “invisible” differences. First is that the display is now stronger and less prone to breakage should you drop it thanks to a new dual ion‑exchange process used in the display of the 6s. Apple says this makes the iPhone 6s’ display “stronger at a molecular level and the most durable in the smartphone industry”. That’s not something I’m willing to test on my £700 iPhone though.

This is one area I am kind of disappointed in Apple. Updating the display resolution would have been an easy win for the company. But, no, Apple doesn’t follow trends until the very last minute. Just look at its attitude to display size or wearables or third party keyboards. The display is still decent, but compared to setups on the Galaxy S6 and LG G4 it really does pale in comparison -- 326ppi is SO 2010.

I came from a Nexus 6P to the iPhone 6s and, before that, I was using the iPhone 6 Plus. I noticed the drop in display resolution right away and even though I’ve been using the handset for a few months now I really do miss the crisp visuals of QHD and even 1080p panels compared to the iPhone 6s’ paltry 720p setup.

This has to change next year; Apple can not get away with releasing a phone with a 720p display in 2016 -- it’s bad enough in 2015 when most budget Android handsets rock 1080p screens these days. I get that display resolution isn’t as important to Apple’s core users as it is to Android users but still… fitting a 1080p panel wouldn’t have been all that difficult and the iPhone 6s is meant to be a NEW handset after all.

The second difference with the iPhone 6s’ display is, of course, that it is a 3D Touch display. 3D Touch is the next generation of multi touch. Not only can it sense multiple points of input, it can sense how much pressure the user applies to the screen. That means if you press lightly you get one action, and if you press harder you get another.

At first when Apple introduced the 3D Touch display I thought it was gimmicky, but after using it for a week it’s now obvious how useful it actually is. Matter of fact, if you need only one reason to upgrade to the iPhone 6s 3D Touch is it.

3D Touch adds another layer of interaction to your iPhone thanks to the software found in iOS 9. As I wrote in my 3D Touch explainer, the 3D Touch display adds three broad areas of interfacing technology actions to your iPhone.

The first is called Peek and Pop. Peek and Pop works within apps–both Apple ones and third party apps (if developers support 3D Touch, which they will in the coming weeks and months). As the name “Peek” suggests, the action allows you to quickly peek inside something. This something could be a link in an email or an email itself.

For example, if you open the Mail app you no longer need to tap on a message to read it. You can Peek on it by applying pressure to the message and a preview window will pop up with the content of the email. Peeking also works for web links (Peek on a link and see the page load in a window), addresses (Peek to view a map of the address), Messages, and more.

Once you Peek on an element above you can then “Pop” it into place by simply pressing even harder. For example, if you Peek into an address so a map appears, just press a little harder to Pop into the actual Maps app. Similarly, when Peeking into an email, press a bit harder to Pop into the actual message where you can interact with it.

Peek and pop works brilliantly. It allows you to navigate inside apps quicker than ever before. For example, a friend texted me an address the other day. I wasn’t familiar where it was. Normally I would need to tap on the address and would be taken to the maps app, see where it is, and then go back to the Messages app and tell my friend I had found it. But thanks to the 3D Touch display and peek and pop I simply pressed a bit harder on the address and a map popped up inside of the Messages thread.

Peek and pop is also very handy in Safari. I can press lightly on any web link to peek inside where that link takes me, then I can press harder to pop to the actual website if it looks good.

The 3D Touch display also offers something called Quick Actions. Unlike Peek and Pop, which work inside apps, Quick Actions work outside of apps on the Home screen. I liken Quick Actions to contextual menus found on desktop operating systems. If an app supports quick actions (Mail, Phone, Messages, Music, and a number of other Apple and third party apps like Dropbox and Twitter currently do) force press on the app’s icon on the home screen. There rest of the home screen will quickly frost over so only the app’s icon and a series of contextual menus appear. These contextual menus are Quick Actions. Tap on one to perform the action.

Quick Actions are nice, but they take some getting used to to use. That’s because we’re all so used to opening up an app and then navigating to the place in the app that we want to perform a task in. It takes a while to readjust to this new paradigm of interaction. My favorite Quick Actions are for apps I use a lot, like the Quick Actions for the Camera app, which allow me to jump right into taking a video, or the Quick Actions for the Clock app, which allows me to immediately start the timer. Some major third party apps also support Quick Actions–like Instagram–which allows me to jump right into the app’s activity timeline.

Quick Actions do have some drawbacks–first, not all Apple apps offer Quick Actions yet and some of the ones that do only offer a few actions (such as Search for the App Store). Also you can’t tell which apps offer Quick Actions just by looking at the icon. You actually need to force touch each icon and then remember which one has the Quick Actions in the future.

Then again, this isn’t such a big deal as the 3D Touch display works hand in hand with the iPhone 6s’s new Taptic engine. This is a new motor inside the iPhone that vibrates at different speeds when you force touch at different pressures. It provides great haptic feedback, which gives the force of your touch a physical notification that you have pressed a certain amount on the screen. If an app doesn’t offer a Quick Action and you force touch the apps icon, the haptic engine will alert you via a vibration that there will be no Quick Actions appearing on screen.

The 3D Touch display also allows you to have some other interactions with your iPhone 6s like creating a shortcut to the multitasking window, for one. But the final feature that deserves a brief mention is that if you force touch on the built-in keyboard it turns it into a trackpad so you can slide the cursor around on screen.

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