Apple presses forward
For the past three years, the most meaningful change to the iPhone has been the size of its screen. After years of sticking with a 3.5-inch display and watching Android-powered competitors bite off a piece of the market with ever-larger screens, Apple relented ever-so-slightly with the 4-inch iPhone 5 and 5S, and then finally gave in to obvious trends with the much larger 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and massive 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus.
Apple's tagline for the iPhone 6S is 'the only thing that's changed is everything', highlighting that the brand knows this is a phone that looks an awful lot like last year's model.
It makes sense that Apple would try its hardest to show that, despite the handset looking identical to last year's model, there have been loads of changes under the hood that make this an attractive phone in its own right.
So now we have an iPhone with a big screen, with skyrocketing sales. There’s no obvious reason to make it better; almost every major competitor has actually put out multiple high-end phones this year in an effort to compete and it still hasn’t been enough. What’s Apple’s next move?The chassis is stronger, the camera sharper – with a new Harry Potter-esque way of capturing your snaps – and there's even a completely new way of interacting with the screen. On paper, it's an impressive upgrade.
So now we have an iPhone with a big screen, with skyrocketing sales. There’s no obvious reason to make it better; almost every major competitor has actually put out multiple high-end phones this year in an effort to compete and it still hasn’t been enough. What’s Apple’s next move?
This is an S year for the iPhone, which means the basic physical design of the phone has remained the same while the internals have been substantially revised and made faster. S iPhones may lack the punch of a new design, but Apple says they actually sell better and last longer in the marketplace than non-S iPhones — these are the phones that stick around. This year there are also two changes to the exterior: the glass screen is now stronger and more shatter-resistant, and the case is made of a tougher aluminum that will presumably be less prone to bending.
But when it looks identical to the iPhone 6, people will be desperate to know if the iPhone 6S is enough of an upgrade to justify the price. While the upgrades seem great, is it worth going all the way up to the iPhone 6S, or would the 6 do?
In terms of raw price, we're in a weird situation now. Samsung and the rest of the Android crew have been slowly ratcheting up the price of their high-end phones to the point where they're actually eclipsing the iPhone 6S at launch.
However, Apple's once again been the victim of its off-kilter launch cycle, meaning it's putting its phone into a market where the Galaxy s6 is now significantly cheaper – and so the iPhone 6S has a higher price to live up to. That said, this new phone is just that: a new phone. That means some potential buyers will be enamoured with the notion of getting the latest tech on the market rather than a six-month-old handset.
That extra weight comes from 3D Touch, which is the highlight feature of the iPhone 6S. 3D Touch makes the iPhone screen pressure-sensitive, literally adding a new layer of interactions and information to iOS. The iPhone 6S is the third major Apple product line to gain pressure-sensitive touch after the Apple Watch and MacBooks introduced Force Touch, and it is by far the most successful at integrating the feature into the natural flow of the interface.
So what can you do? On the home screen, app icons can show quick actions when you push them. Pushing on a calendar entry shows you more information about it, and pushing on a map pin lets you jump straight to directions. Pushing on a message in Mail opens a preview that you can slide to either side to delete or archive, and pushing harder opens the message. It's the same in Safari: pushing lightly on a link opens a preview, and pushing slightly harder actually opens the page.
In the UK, that means between £50 and £100 upfront to get the phone for £36-£38 per month (if you want a decent slug of data and minutes) with the phone starting at £539 for the 16GB model, £619 for the 64GB model and £699 for 128GB.
It's starting at $649 if you're looking to pick it up off contract in the US, with the new $32.45 monthly cost if you're thinking of getting locked into Apple's yearly upgrade plan.
In reality though, the question of who this phone is aimed at isn't that hard to answer: for most people stuck on the iPhone 5S it's clearly the upgrade they're considering, and beyond that there's the disgruntled Android owner who's tired of looking at the slicker app experience Apple offers and seeing their own handset looking sketchy in comparison.
(Of course, there are a few people that tried Windows Phones as experiments, but they'd probably be happy with just about any other phone if they're still using a Nokia Lumia 930).
When you push down on the screen, the distance between them changes, and the phone can do things based on how hard you press, with precise bits of haptic feedback from Apple's Taptic Engine vibration system. Apple won't say exactly how many levels of pressure-sensitivity there are, but it's definitely so many as to feel almost analog, like the interface is reacting in real time to physical pressure — the homescreen blurs in and out in response to how hard you press on an icon, for instance. Perhaps most impressively, 3D Touch has accessibility built in — it can be activated by Assistive Touch, blind users can have VoiceOver read peek previews and quick action menus, and the force needed to activate it can be set to light, medium, or firm. This sort of impossibly tight integration of hardware and software is what Apple does best, and it is ridiculously impressive in action.
In actual use, though, it's kind of easy to forget about 3D Touch, because only a selection of Apple's apps support it right now. It’s kind of like right click on OS X — the interface is designed to be used without it, but once you realize it's there, it’s incredibly useful, and you want every app to make solid, consistent use of it. In that sense, 3D Touch won’t really be that useful or revolutionary until third parties really grab onto it. It's a feature that will be most useful to power users at first, and Apple's apps and services are the weakest part of the iPhone if you're a power user. Google's Inbox and Microsoft's Outlook are light years ahead of Apple's Mail app, Sunrise and Fantastical are far superior to Calendar, and Google Maps still wipes the floor with Apple Maps. If you're like me and the first thing you do with a new iPhone is hide all of Apple's apps away in a folder, it's going to be a minute before 3D Touch really does anything for you.
The only other changes to the iPhone 6S really and truly worth discussing in detail are the cameras. I've been interested in switching to Android for the better part of a year now, but there isn't a single Android phone that consistently takes great photos the way the iPhone does. Some take great photos — the Galaxy S6 and Note 6, LG G4, and Sony Xperia Z4 all have excellent cameras — but it's the consistency that matters. The iPhone takes excellent, realistic photos in virtually every situation, and no other phone comes close.
The screen on the iPhone 6S seems to be identical to last year's: we're talking a 4.7-inch affair with 750p resolution, which keeps it firmly in the 'Retina' range that the firm debuted all the way back with the iPhone 4.
It's hard to rate the display, as while it fails on resolution (quite spectacularly actually - phones a seventh the cost of the iPhone 6S offer 1080p screens, Samsung's cheaper phone has four times the resolution of the 6S and Sony has, inexplicably, just launched a 4K phone) it doesn't drop too badly on performance.
The iPhone 6S display is clear, bright, laminated to the glass and insanely colorful. The first time I saw it on the iPhone 6 I thought it was a fake picture stuck on top of a dummy unit, such was the clarity on offer.
So to use the same thing on the iPhone 6S makes sense - after all, the lower pixel count means it can be thinner and the battery can last longer, thanks to having fewer pixels to drive.
But there are some things missing: for instance, the contrast ratio (the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the screen) is still poor, with the black areas looking a little grey. Samsung's Galaxy range predominantly uses OLED technology, which offers 'true' blacks and high brightness and packs a much better visual punch, and would have suited the iPhone down to the ground.
The sharpness in side by side tests is clearly lower too - the 326 pixels per inch is very low even compared the 401ppi of the iPhone 6S Plus - and most other models are over 500ppi to bring really, really clear displays.
Given OLED technology is used in the Apple Watch - and admittedly it looks brilliant - it's a shame the same thing couldn't have been done with the iPhone 6S.
And Live Photos take up double the space of regular photos, so having every single photo you take include a short video seems like major overkill. I would play with it for a while then flip it off and turn it on when you need it. (It would be super rad if the iPhone intelligently turned Live Photos on when the camera detected a face in the scene and turned it off when it didn't. I have too many Live Photos of whiteboards, and not enough of people.
It shouldn't be any surprise that 4K video looks great — it's way higher resolution than what you're used to from a phone, and Apple is very proud of the fact that the iPhone’s A9 processor can do all of its stabilization and processing magic while shooting 4K. It's not a RED, but it's not too shabby either. If you're a video nerd, you're going to have fun with it — the 6S is even powerful enough to edit 4K video in iMovie. But 4K video isn't actually turned on by default — you have to very deliberately flip it on. In fact, Apple's taken resolution settings entirely out of the camera app and moved them into the Settings app, which seems awfully like the company doesn't want people with the 16GB iPhone 6S to easily flip the video camera to the 4K mode that eats up 375MB of space per minute.That's probably fair, since most people don't have 4K TVs or ultra high-res monitors, but between 4K video and Live Photos that eat up double the space of regular photos, it would be better if the richest company in the world took a little loss on its profit margins and sold phones with a reasonable amount of base storage.