Apple’s “S” iPhones always seem boring at first. It’s easy to get caught up with the fact that they look the same while all the real improvements are somewhat invisible.
This year feels different though.
By now, we’re used to Apple’s cycle of changing the design of the iPhone every other year, and there have been few complaints from the usual horde of tech pundits criticizing Apple for simply iterating on last year’s iPhone.
I think that’s because the new iPhone 6S has more significant new features than any other “S” phone. It’s faster. Both cameras are a lot better. You can take adorable animated photos. And, most importantly, the screen is pressure sensitive, which opens up an entirely new layer of control for your apps.
It also comes in pink if that’s your thing.
I’ve been using the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus for a week, and it’s nearly impossible to find anything to complain about. The 6S starts at $649 and the 6S Plus starts at $749. It's been eight years since the first iPhone launched, and no one can beat it. Simply put, it's the best phone you can buy.
There are three killer features everyone needs to know about, so I’ll tackle them one by one starting with 3D Touch, the new technology baked into the iPhone’s screen that can detect how hard you press down.
3D Touch is in its early days and most developers haven’t built it into their apps yet, so it’s tough to evaluate. But based on what I’ve seen from Apple’s preinstalled apps and others like Instagram, I think we’re going to see a lot of neat things in the coming months.
On the home screen, doing a hard-press on an icon brings up a menu of common actions for that particular app. For example, the camera app gives you the option to shoot a selfie, record a video, or snap a normal photo. It’s a neat trick that saves you a little time.
Antonio Villas-Boas/Tech InsiderBut the biggest benefit of 3D Touch is within apps. Links and other content like photos let you preview them without taking you into another screen or app. For example, if someone sends you a web link in a text message, you can press hard on it to get a preview of the page without leaving the Messages app. Pressing a little harder will launch the full page in the Safari browser. (Apple calls this function “peek and pop.”)
I found 3D Touch to be the most useful in Mail. I get hundreds of emails a day, which for someone as anal me is a real pain. Most of them are irrelevant and go straight to the trash, and I spend a stupid amount of time keeping my inbox neat and tidy. 3D Touch made it a lot easier. I could quickly peek at the contents of an email and swipe it away to the trash if I didn’t need it. And on the rare occasion I got an email worth reading and responding to, I could press down a little harder to view the full email and then reply.
The only thing holding 3D Touch back is its lack of support by most third-party apps. And many that do support it now, like Twitter, only added limited options from the home screen icon. There’s limited or no support inside the app.
Historically, when Apple adds a new hardware feature like this, it can take some time for developers to fully support it, so don’t expect 3D Touch to be ubiquitous for at least another year. (There are still plenty of apps that don’t support the larger screens on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, for example.)
Both cameras on the iPhone got nice boosts this year. The rear-facing camera now shoots at 12 megapixels, up from eight, and the front camera shoots at five megapixels, up from 1.2 megapixels.
I’m not a photography expert, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. The photos do look great, and I imagine the camera will be perfect for most people. But I don’t see a drastic improvement over last year. That’s not a bad thing at all.
Plus, my colleague Antonio Villas-Boas, who is way smarter than me when it comes to this stuff, tested the iPhone 6S camera against the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 camera this week and said the iPhone is the clear winner. It’s the best camera you can get in a phone.
It’s pretty clear when you see the photos side by side. The iPhone photo appears darker, but the colors are more accurate and the objects have more detail. The Note 5 photo is over exposed and too bright.
Antonio Villas-Boas/Tech InsiderThe camera also shoots video at a higher resolution called 4K. The feature is off by default, but it’s nice to switch on if you want to take crisper video. I imagine normal HD video will be fine for most people though. Plus, 4K takes up almost 400MB per minute of video, which could be a problem if you don’t have a lot of storage on your device. (More on that later.)
There is a noticeable improvement with the front-facing camera though. And as an added bonus, the screen doubles as a flash for the front camera, so all those selfies you take in dark bars will actually come out.
Steve Kovach/Tech Insider
The camera also records little snippets of video before and after you take a still shot. When you press down on the photo, it animates with a GIF-like effect Apple calls Live Photos. You can also set your wallpaper as a Live Photo you take.
It’s a cute and fun feature, but it's limited to Apple devices for now. I hope apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Google Photos start supporting Live Photos soon. (Facebook has already said support is coming.) It's also a trend we're starting to see more and more on other apps and devices. Facebook, for example, recently announced that you'll be able to turn your profile photo into a moving GIF soon.
Some other stuff
Most of the other new features in the iPhone 6s are invisible. It now has more RAM and a zippy processor, so overall performance will be smoother.
Battery life is also the same. Even though the battery is technically smaller than the one in the iPhone 6, it lasts just as long, which is still a problem for heavy users. I was able to make it through a full day, but I would’ve liked to see Apple improve battery life instead of keeping it the same.
Antonio Villas-Boas/Tech Insider
Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor in the home button, is also new. It’s a lot faster now. In fact, it’s almost too fast.
Since Apple introduced Touch ID two years ago, I’ve become used to unlocking my phone by pressing the home button and leaving my finger there for another beat so Touch ID would take me to my home screen. The updated Touch ID sensor is so good though that I don’t even need to wait another beat. It unlocks the phone almost as soon as the screen lights up. Ironically, there have been a few complaints that Touch ID is too good because it doesn't give you enough time to read notifications that hit your lock screen. I don't think that's a big deal though.
One big complaint
The entry-level iPhones start with just 16GB of storage, which I don’t think is enough for many (if not most) people. The storage tier structure of the iPhones (16GB, 64GB, and 128GB) essentially forces a lot of people to spend the extra $100 to get the 64GB model so they don’t have to freak out about running out of space.
Here’s Apple’s argument: It says it has data proving most people with 16GB iPhones don’t even come close to using all that storage. It says it now offers cheaper online storage services so you can keep your stuff in the cloud instead of locally on your device. It says future software updates won’t require a ton of free space to install.
Antonio Villas-Boas/Tech Insider
Here’s my argument: I believe that plenty of people have realized 16GB isn’t enough, so they’re spending more to get the higher-capacity models. Apple’s cloud services aren’t as reliable as others from companies like Google and Dropbox, and they essentially force you to pay Apple more money to get the most out of your device. Plus, two of the iPhone 6S’s major features — Live Photos and 4K video — are designed to use up more storage.
My advice: Unless you plan to use your iPhone just to casually browse through apps and send text messages, prepare to suck it up and spend at least $100 more to get the storage you need.
Should you get it?
The iPhone 6s is the best phone you can buy.
So yes, if you’re ready for a new phone, this should be your first choice. I don’t think it’s a big enough jump forward if you’re already using an iPhone 6. You’ll be fine for another year. But if you’re using an iPhone 5s or something older, then you should definitely upgrade.