iPhone 6s Review: Big Price Cuts, BIG VALUE

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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 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.

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 1334×750-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).

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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.

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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 1334×750-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.

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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.

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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.

iPhone 6s review: Storage, CPU, and RAM

Yeah, this seems like a no-brainer, but it is backed up by manufacturing facts. Apple’s A-series chip manufacturing partners, like Samsung, have moved on from the 20nm process found in the A8 to a 14 and 16nm process for the next generation chip. The smaller size means more transistors can be fit on the same surface area. More transistors mean the chip will be both more powerful while offering greater power efficiency. In other words, the A9 won’t drain your battery as fast as the A8 did.

Apple says its next-generation A9 chipset is around twice as powerful as last year’s model — the one inside the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus — and far more power efficient, meaning despite not having a larger battery, this year’s iPhones will boast performance improvements of an hour or so over their predecessors. Additional reporting claims the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus now feature 2GB of memory as well — twice as much as 2014’s models.

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Unfortunately on the storage front there’s nothing new in the iPhone 6s. It still comes in 16, 64, and 128GB models. The latter two are fine, but the 16GB model is just stupid. You’ll use the space up in no time. How long? Put it this way: I filled up my 16GB review unit inside a week. Why still insists on marketing this handset is beyond me. 16GB in today’s market is pointless without microSD-support and, let’s face it, the chances of expandable storage ever appearing inside an iPhone are pretty damn slim. 

As for CPU and RAM, the iPhone 6s gets its biggest upgrade ever. It now features the A9 chipset, which Apple says is 70% faster than the iPhone 6’s A8 and has an astonishing 90% faster GPU performance. It has also doubled the RAM to 2GB. So how does this translate to real world use: well, frankly, it’s unbelievable. I only came from the iPhone 6, but even I can tell how much faster the iPhone 6s is. Apps open lightning quick–everything I do on the phone is lightning quick. Even graphics intensive games load in a fraction of the time that they did on the iPhone 6.

If the 3D touch display doesn’t give you enough reason to upgrade, the improved CPU and double the RAM is more than enough reason in itself. This is by far the fastest iPhone ever–some benchmarks have even pegged it as fast and powerful as the new MacBook.

iPhone 6s review: Cameras

The iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus use 12MP setups, as well as a new 5MP sensor on the front for selfies and FaceTime. The biggest leap here for many will be the front facing camera because iPhones of old have been, well, utterly diabolical in this regard, producing fuzzy, unusable photos. Now, however, you have a 5MP set-up completely with built in display-flash, whereby the display acts as a flash when taking selfies in low-lit environments. The 12MP setup on the back is important too, adding in the potential for more depth and detail. Ditto for 4K video, which the iPhone can now shoot and, importantly, edit live inside iMovies on the phone.

The FaceTime camera also gets a built-in flash via the iPhone 6s display. Called Retina Flash, the display itself lights up 3x brighter when you take a picture with the FaceTime camera. It works very well in my tests and selfie lovers are sure to love that they will now always be well lit.

But the biggest improvements come from the rear iSight camera. It now sports a 12MP sensor (up for 8MP in the iPhone 6). The extra megapixels do produce higher resolution images–and they do look better to the naked eye. But those extra megapixels are even more important due to a new photo feature of the iPhone 6s called Live Photos.

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Live Photos are still images that also record 1.5 seconds of video on either side. When you view them on the screen they appear still, but when you force touch on them they jump to life. It’s kind of like those moving newspaper photographs you see in the Harry Potter films.

I’ve taken a few Live Photos and they are really growing on me. At first they seem gimmicky, but they work well depending on your subject. Particularly they work great on shots without people. I took a Live Photo of leaves falling from a tree in a park and viewing it later seems magical. That being said, Live Photos doesn’t work so well on things that move fast like a car or sports. But if you want to capture the subtle movement of a moment, Live Photos are great.

The final improvement to the iSight camera is that it now records 4K video. Yes, this is cool, but honestly it’s a feature I’ll not use for a while–at least until 4K televisions come down in price. Unless you have a TV capable of 4K, what’s the point in recording in 4K? There isn’t one.

However, as those 4K television prices drop, it’s nice to know the iPhone 6s will be future proof. Do note, however, that recording in 4K takes up a TON of space–3 minutes of 4K video takes up 1GB of space! That’s just another reason you should avoid the 16GB iPhone 6s.

iPhone 6s review: Battery

The battery life is something I haven’t noticed any difference in between my iPhone 6s and my iPhone 6. That’s saying somethig too considering the iPhone 6s actually has a smaller battery (1,715 mAh) than the iPhone 6 (1,810 mAh). Matter of fact, in spite of the smaller battery, Apple says the battery life is just the same: up to 14 hours on 3G; up to 10 hours on 3G, up to 10 hours on LTE, up to 11 hours on Wi‑Fi; up to 11 hours of HD video playback; and up to 50 hours of audio playback.

Given that the iPhone 6s does have a smaller battery, yet has the same battery life of the 6, it’s obvious Apple has saved some juice by using more power efficient chips (the A9 and M9) and better software algorithms to conserve power. That most likely explains why I haven’t noticed any battery life difference between the two phones. That being said, I’m sure some people will notice some battery life difference. It just depends on how much you play around with your new iPhone and also how much you use some of the newer features like 3D Touch.

Battery Gate, however, changed all of this. According to multiple reports, the battery performance on Apple’s iPhone 6s can vary by as much as two hours depending on which chipset — Samsung or TSMC — it uses. This is a pretty big disparity and any iPhone launched wouldn’t be complete with some kind of insert-word-here-Gate disaster. Ars Technica broke the news, below The Guardian’s 2p on the issue:

“The A9 chipset,” reports The Guardian, “the lump of silicon that lies at the heart of the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus, is designed by Apple but manufactured by two independent contractors: Korea’s Samsung Electronics and Taiwan’s TSMC. The two chips interact with the rest of the hardware identically, based as they are on the same designs, but differences in their production is apparently having an effect on how efficient they are at doing their jobs.”

Even though Apple has achieved the same battery life with a smaller battery, it would have been nice if they would have kept the larger battery to give it even more juice–however, that wasn’t probably technically feasable because they needed to make space for the Haptic engine this time and the battery is the bigest space hog, so that was the most logical choice of what could be shrunken down.

Apple has now released its Smart Battery Cover for iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s. The chunky, ugly-as-sin case packs in an additional battery, hence the hump on its back, and gives you around three times the battery life of a standard iPhone 6/iPhone 6s.

The release of this cover is almost an admission by Apple that battery life performance aboard the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s is not satisfactory. Sure, it’ll get you through most of the day without requiring a pitstop, but, compared to the iPhone 6s Plus, it is positively awful — anybody that has used both will immediately understand this.

Apple is planning on making its iPhones even slimmer next year, and in order to do that it will have to, once again, make the battery inside its handsets smaller. This goes for both the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Is the release of an official Apple case for last year’s and this year’s iPhone a rouse to get existing iPhone 6/iPhone 6s users used to using a case on their iPhones?

iPhone 6s review: Improved Touch ID

The final thing I want to touch on (get it?) is the improved Touch ID sensor in the iPhone 6s. Now that Apple Pay has rolled out in the UK, the speed and accuracy of the Touch ID is more important than ever–and Apple knows it. They’ve worked hard designing an improved Touch ID sensor for the iPhone 6s–and it shows. It’s literally so quick now you don’t even realize your fingerprint is being read. Tapping the Home button from sleep will wake your phone and unlock it in less than half a second. And authenticating Apple Pay transactions? On the iPhone 6 the Touch ID took about a second or more to read my print. On the 6s it’s milliseconds. I’m also happy to report that the Touch ID in the 6s works reliably even if your fingers are a bit dirty or wet–something the Touch ID on the iPhone 6 couldn’t do.

But here’s the thing — I think the one aboard the Nexus 6P might be better. I’m currently in the process of getting to grips with Google’s new Nexus and positively loving it. The hardware is exceptional and so too is the performance. But what I really like — in this context — is the placement of the fingerprint scanner on the back of the handset. It is LOADS better. Also, the fingerprint scanner aboard the Nexus 6P is flawless in my experience, completely surpassing TouchID on my older iPhone 6 Plus — this was a BIG surprise to me.

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The fingerprint scanner can read fingerprints in about 600 milliseconds, according to Google. It also features full support for Google’s Android Pay service. Essentially, what Google has done here is take what Apple has done and raise the bar considerably. I’ve yet to experience anything even close to the how good the Nexus 6P’s fingerprint scanner is — even on Apple’s new iPhones. And THAT, dear readers, is saying something.

iPhone 6s review: Price and Verdict

The iPhone 6s, as expected, doesn’t look like much from the outside. It is exactly the same as the iPhone 6, save for the slight difference in weight, and Apple has largely left the aesthetics alone, meaning if you weren’t a fan of the plastic strip and nubbin-style camera sensor then, well, you’re not going to like this one all that much either.

The only physical change that is noticeable aboard the iPhone 6s is its new colour — rose gold. Beyond this the handset is simply a refinement of what came before. Apple has improved the camera, performance in general, thanks to the A9 chipset, and added in a bunch of new functionality with 3D Touch.

Is The iPhone 6s The Right Update For You?

This is quite a serious question because of the changing nature of how people update their phones. In Apple’s world there are two types of user: those that do NUMBER updates and those that do S updates. The former prefer big, sweeping changes while the later prefer to adopt the slightly more refined and slicker version of the BIG update that came before it. Example: iPhone 5s users have a BIG reason to want to upgrade to the iPhone 6s, while iPhone 6 users might be better off waiting for the iPhone 7.

In the context of the iPhone 5s user: when you upgrade you’re getting A LOT of big changes in the form of a new chassis, bigger display, vastly improved imaging and processing abilities as well as a full HD retina panel and more plentiful LTE options. In this context, the iPhone 6s is a mighty upgrade. But for the iPhone 6 user, well, it ain’t that bigger change. The iPhone 6s looks pretty much the same and, because the iPhone 6 was so damn good, a lot of people will be loathe to update right away, if at all — my iPhone 6s Plus is still rocking very nicely (and I’m not too fussed about 3D touch displays, if I’m that honest).

Nevertheless, I do quite like the idea of it, especially once third party developers get their mitts on it. Ditto for Apple’s new 12MP camera which promises to deliver even better performance than last year’s already awesome iPhone 6 Plus camera. I’m also very intrigued at the prospect of running 2GB on an iPhone; the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus were already very, VERY snappy. But the inclusion of double the memory stands to make a pretty significant bump in overall performance.

As is always the case with iPhones, they hold their value, so even if you do decide to update now from an iPhone 6 handset, chances are you’ll be able to sell it, get a great price, providing it is in good nick, and then put the money — likely £300-350 — towards a shiny new iPhone 6s. I’m still torn at present as to whether I’ll be upgrading my handset.

Should current iPhone 6 users upgrade then? I’d argue no, especially if you’re still happy with how your iPhone 6 handset is functioning. Ditto for iPhone 6 Plus users. Nevertheless, should you upgrade to the iPhone 6s I do not think for one second that you’ll be disappointed. Apple has tweaked a lot of things under the hood and they’re all pretty palpable when you pick up and use the handset. Even more so if you’re coming from an iPhone 5s or lower.

The iPhone 6s costs £539 (16GB), £619 (64GB) and £699 (128GB). No one should consider buying the 16GB model, but as for the other two: what are you waiting for? The iPhone 6s is the best S-series upgrade ever. The 3D Touch display, the pure speed of the device, and the major improvements to the camera and Touch ID–every single thing is leagues better than the iPhone 6. Matter of fact, they probably should have just gone and called this iPhone the iPhone 7–it’s that good.

Ouch. That’s gotta sting for Google and its crew. According to new data Apple’s latest handset, the iPhone 6s, coaxed more Android users away from Google’s platform than any previous iPhone model. The report comes via Consumer Intelligence Research Partners and shows that 26% of new iPhone 6s buyers were making a switch from an Android device, rather than being follow-up iPhone fans or first-time smartphone buyers.

Admittedly that’s not much higher than the iPhone 5s, which showed 23% of users switching from Android, but it is still an increase, interestingly the iPhone 6 only brought a 12% portion of mutineers.

CIRP Co-Founder Mike Levin said, “This says a little more about the very hot iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launch, which motivated more iPhone upgrades than in previous years. The share of buyers coming from the Android platform for this launch more resembles the long-term trend in Android and iOS switching.”

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Part of the switch might be due to the increasing appeal of Apple’s devices due to the enlargement of displays – traditionally these have been the territory of Android and users who prefer a bigger screen may have looked at the older 4in iPhones and decided it’s not good enough. With the emergence of a bigger iPhone 6 and even larger iPhone 6 Plus things may be on the turn, and it’s not surprising that this hasn’t kicked in until the “S” iteration as such movements rarely happen overnight.

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Interestingly, the switch to bigger displays now they’re on offer appears to also be coming in a surge from within the Apple faithful, a sector traditionally content with smaller displays and sometimes vocally opposed to the idea of larger ones in the past. According to CIRP data the iPhone 6s Plus accounted for as much as 37% of Apple’s total iPhone sales compared to 26% for the iPhone 6 Plus in 2014. Another factor may be the appeal of a larger battery cell.

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