iPhone 6s and 6s Plus review: 3D Touch is more than a gimmick, but is it reason to upgrade?
Apple's new iPhones are, as you might expect, better versions of the terrific pair of smartphones the company launched last year. Join Gizmag, as we review two of the best smartphones of the year, the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.
Like other "S"-year iPhone upgrades (iPhone 3GS, 4S and 5s), the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus look almost exactly like their predecessors. Same face, same basic design and same screen size – the upgrades here are all on the inside. This is the first time, though, that an "S"-year iPhone is thicker and heavier than the model it's replacing.
The difference isn't dramatic, but the iPhone 6s models do both feel noticeably beefier in hand: the 6s is 11 percent heavier than the 6, and the 6s Plus is 12 percent heavier than the 6 Plus. They're also 3 percent thicker than their counterparts, respectively.
The reason for that extra heft is 3D Touch. A more advanced version of the Force Touch technology found in the Apple Watch and latest MacBooks, 3D Touch lets you interact with smartphones in a fresh way.
Up to this point it's been all about taps, long-presses and swipes, but 3D Touch adds depth to the mix – actually two layers of depth. Pressing deeper on the display makes the phone do something different than pressing on the surface does, and in some cases pressing really deep makes it do something different than a regular deep press.
3D Touch basically gives iOS a right click, to borrow a mouse metaphor from the desktop. It's all about pop-up menus, shortcuts and quick previews.
Deep-pressing on the camera app icon, for example, will pop-up a little menu with shortcuts for selfies, videos, slow-motion videos or regular shots. Deep-pressing on an email in your inbox will pop-up a full preview of the message; release your finger to go back to your inbox, or and press even deeper to "pop" all the way into that email, full-screen.
3D Touch doesn't do anything that you couldn't already do on your phone; it just cuts a step or two out of the process. Combine this with the new iPhones' blazing-fast speed, and you have two phones that let you do what you want to do faster than ever before.
One of the coolest 3D Touch features is cursor control for the iOS keyboard (above). Do a deep-press on the virtual keyboard and a little desktop-like cursor will pop up, which you can move around (by sliding your finger while it's still pressed) to edit and select text. It's handy for replying to a text on the go, especially when you're only using one hand.
Our only gripe about this feature is that it isn't available on last year's iPhones. Not through 3D Touch, which they don't have, but by placing two fingers on the keyboard (that's how you activate the cursor on iOS 9-running iPads). Maybe it was to help sell iPhone 6 owners on the new models, or maybe Apple just thought dragging two fingers around a 4.7-inch or 5.5-inch screen was too cramped. Either way, cursor control would have been a nice addition to the 2014 models.
If past is prologue, then Android smartphone makers will probably start making their own versions of Apple's pressure-sensitive display over the next few years and these kinds of shortcuts will soon become the industry standard. Though 3D Touch doesn't have an immediate and radical effect on the smartphone experience, we did quickly get used to using it, to the point where we miss it (a little bit) when switching back to another phone.
Is 3D Touch worth upgrading for right now? Probably not. We tip our hats to Apple for (once again) creating a new feature that not only isn't gimmicky, but genuinely enhances the experience of using a smartphone (if only by a little).
But let's keep things in perspective: it's a set of shortcuts. Neat as that is, we don't think it's worth buying a new phone for.
Both new iPhones' displays look great, with an outstanding combination of white balance, brightness, color range and viewing angles. The smaller model's pixel density (326 PPI) is pretty dated by today's standards, so that gives the iPhone 6s Plus (401 PPI) the better-looking screen, but both look better than their resolutions alone would suggest. Apple lets the Android OEMs play the pixel density arms race; it hones the finer points.
The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus have terrific cameras, and now stand next to Samsung's latest at the top of the heap. Here are a few sample images (unedited, but downscaled for the web to 1,060 pixels wide).
We compared these 6s samples with identical shots taken with the Galaxy S6, and didn't see a huge advantage one way or the other. Low-lit results, like the last sample above, are very similar (both look quite good for smartphones).
In some settings, the iPhones' shots appear to "pop" a bit more at first glance, but when you zoom in close it looks more like the result of automatic post-processing than an optical breakthrough:
The iPhone's algorithms appear to be accentuating the highlights and color vibrance a bit more, making for a more dramatic effect. On close inspections, we don't see those areas as having captured any finer detail than the GS6, but for some users the iPhone could make for a slightly more striking first impression, no editing required.
As far as launch times go, we can fire up the iPhone's camera quickly: our best time going from sleeping phone to snapped pic was just under 3 seconds. That's better than last year's iPhones, and only second best to the Galaxy S6 (and the other 2015 Samsung flagships), which came in at under 2 seconds – thanks in part to their home button double-tap shortcut.
The new iPhones also have a Live Photos feature, which is basically Apple's version of HTC's Zoe: every time you snap a shot, it records a short video clip to animate your image gallery (you can turn the setting off if you want to save storage space).
Battery life is good. In our benchmark – streaming video with brightness measured at 25 lux at a distance of 10 inches (with an all-white image on the screen) in an otherwise dark room – both the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus dropped 13 percent per hour. That's the same result we got from the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 edge+ under the exact same conditions.
In experience, expect very similar uptimes to both last year's iPhones and Samsung's 2015 flagships.
If you own an iPhone 5s or older, then you get a dramatically better model this year in the 6s or 6s Plus. Upgrading from one of those models (assuming you want to continue roaming Apple's green pastures) is a no-brainer.
But if you own an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, then we think this is most likely a "pass" year. The 6s is a faster phone, with a better camera and the nice bonus of 3D Touch, but the year-old iPhones are still plenty fast, still take great shots of their own, and – trust us – you can easily live without those 3D Touch shortcuts for another year.
... and don't forget: the 2014 iPhones are lighter and thinner than the new models; in that respect, an upgrade would be a downgrade.
If you're more platform agnostic, then your decision gets a lot tougher. We've seen some truly awesome Android flagships this year, most notably Samsung's, and there are also a couple of Nexus phones launching later this month that we'll be keeping a close eye on.
We don't have a hard and fast answer for which phone you should pick, but the short answer in the iPhone vs. Galaxy decision is that the 2015 Galaxy phones have sharper displays, faster charging, wireless charging and relatively lighter and thinner builds (and, if you're into Oculus, badass VR capabilities). The iPhones, on the other hand, have 3D Touch and the countless subtle advantages that come from the same company making both the hardware and software. Consider cameras a draw.
The excellent, but not necessarily upgrade-worthy, iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are available now, starting at US$649 (6s) and $749 (6s Plus) full retail.
Product page: Apple