WWDC 2016 reflections: Five iPhone 6s features that won me over this year

Each year, Apple's developer conference marks the beginning of the next cycle in operating system updates. David Gewirtz looks back on five iPhone 6s features that proved unexpectedly helpful this year.

There is a cadence to announcements and updates in the Apple world. New iPhones come out in the fall. Other new devices are introduced in the March timeframe. And then, around June, Apple peels back the curtain and shows a bit of its future plans at WWDC, the Worldwide Developers Conference.

This week, at WWDC 2016, we're bound to get a peek at features in the new Mac operating system update (which may wind up being renamed Mac OS), as well as new features coming in iOS. But for me, WWDC is often a time to look back and reflect on the past eight or nine months, and to think about what rewards I've had in my past year's journey with Apple.

This year marked a big switch for me. I moved back to the iPhone after spending nearly four years as an avid Android user. My favorite features of Android are well-documented, but there are five features I found after I moved to the iPhone last fall that have pleasantly surprised me. These are features I didn't expect to wow me (or even matter to me all that much), and yet they've turned out to be incredibly compelling.

4K video

When my wife and I bought our iPhone 6s Plus phones in October, I had absolutely no expectation of using the 4K video capability. I did not have a 4K TV and wasn't planning on getting one. And while I wanted to capture some video of my puppy, I saw no reason that I'd need 4K resolution.

But when I started working on the 3D Printing Discovery Series here, I had an epiphany. I needed to pan and zoom to shoot the accompanying videos, and because 3D printing takes a long time, it wasn't always easy to schedule the time to shoot those videos for when my wife was around and could operate the camera.

But then I remembered the iPhone shoots 4K video. What, I wondered, if I shot in 4K, and then cropped my video to what would be, essentially, a virtual viewport? Could I use the phone to give me operator-free pan and zoom?

The answer, as my article How to use iPhone 4K video to provide operator-free pan and zoom explains and demonstrates, was a resounding yes. I now use the 4K video feature on the iPhone almost every week.

Macro photography quality

One of the reasons I wanted to upgrade to an iPhone from my old Android Galaxy S4 was for an increase in photographic quality. I wanted to take better pictures of my puppy, Pixel, and the Galaxy S4 never was able to get the level of clarity I wanted.

While newer Android phones were purported to have better cameras, I'd seen the iPhone 6s Plus in action and I liked the result of the camera. So that was one of the reasons we got the phone.

But I didn't really pay too much attention to macro photography. I wanted to take some product shots, sure, but I didn't expect or think I'd need to get into tiny little details. And, certainly, without a macro lens on a DSLR, I didn't expect a phone would be able to take those pictures.

As it turns out, I was wrong about that. The iPhone takes exceptional macro images, as the image below shows. What you're looking at is a very tiny 2mm fastener on MakerBot 3D printer, and I was able to take the picture, and send it to one of the MakerBot engineers to discuss the design.

makerbot-closeup.jpg

Close-up of MakerBot control cable connection point, a very high quality macro image taken with an iPhone 6s Plus

There are a couple of things I want to point out about this picture. It was taken in a garage, in a very challenging position. I had to tap the screen and let the phone do the focusing because I couldn't actually see where I was shooting the image. It's also a black-on-black image, from the bottom of a carriage, in an area normally in shadow.

The quality is amazing. Once again, I find myself unexpectedly taken with a feature of the phone.

Battery life

I won't lie to you. I was very concerned about going back to a phone without a replaceable battery. Frankly, had the new Galaxy S6 come with a replaceable battery, I never would have considered switching back to Apple. But when Samsung nerfed one of the most compelling features of their product, it opened the door to their competition.

My wife and I bought our 6s Pluses for the larger screen, mostly, but also because we wanted a bigger battery. We were hopeful that the larger size of the battery wouldn't be completely consumed by the increased power needs of the larger screen. Frankly, given our old phones never made it through a whole day, we were hoping that, at the least, the new phones would get us from morning to night.

On average, the iPhone 6s Plus battery holds for almost 48 hours. I used to switch off phones at night for reading and other non-phone service related activities because my working phone just couldn't make it through the late evening. To have it ready for the next morning, it needed to be on the charger and untouched for most of the night.

Not the iPhone. This bad boy makes it all the way through the day, all the way through the night, and pretty much all the way through the next day and night.

Touch ID

I have been using PINs (personal identification numbers) on my devices for years. Decades, even, if you go back to the days when old alarm systems used PIN codes. I'm good at memorizing PINs. I've got the finger dexterity to type them quickly. Over the years, they've become so second nature that I don't even notice when I'm typing them in.

Well, at least until I got this iPhone.

That's because the new iPhone also includes the iPhone 6s' super-fast Touch ID. Touch ID has been around for a few iPhone cycles, but until the 6s and 6s Plus came out, there was still a noticeable delay in processing. With these two new models, Touch ID processing is so close to instantaneous that I don't notice any delay at all.

What makes Touch ID so valuable, though, is not its speed. It's that Apple actually opened it up so developers can make use of it. So, for many apps I have on my phone that I want to keep locked or the data encrypted, all I need to do is tap the home button and Touch ID unlocks them.

For me, then, Touch ID has made it easy to just go ahead and lock everything I use. Yes, when I had PIN codes for everything, I locked most items, but there was still a cognitive delay between needing to get at my data and actually getting at my data. That's gone with Touch ID.

One note: my wife is not as enamored of Touch ID. She has delicate fingers and for some reason, has a difficult time registering fingerprints. So Touch ID is somewhat hit-and-miss for her.

Finally, while the Macs prior to WWDC '16 don't support Touch ID (there's a rumor that will change with the next Macs released), you can still use Touch ID to unlock your Macs with a product called MacID. I wrote about that in March.

Lock screen functionality

Although there are other features of the iPhone I like, this one has a definite productivity benefit in how notifications are implemented on the lock screen. Although Android also has lock screen notifications, the feature there never seemed as smooth and easy to use as it is on the iPhone.

There are two different buttons to get used to. If you press the Home button, the locked screen lights up and you very (very, very) briefly see notifications, but because Touch ID is so fast, you really can't see anything that's there before you're dropped right into the iPhone's environment.

But if you tap the power button on the right side, the screen will light up and notifications are displayed. I have notifications set up so only the most important email messages are displayed, and only Hangouts and texts. As a result, if something is important, it will show up on my lock screen.

That means any time I want to know if anything needs my attention, I can just tap the power button and see, at a glance, what's going on. This is particularly useful first thing in the morning. After my alarm goes off, I tap the power button. If there are important messages, I see them in one spot. If there are no important messages, a cute picture of my puppy is on screen, and I know I can take my time waking up.

Also hugely helpful is the ability to reply to texts, iMessages, and Hangouts straight from the home screen. I don't have to open the app display, fumble for the right app, or otherwise dig around. If a message comes in, I just swipe and reply.

Wrap-up

So there you are. Each of these features was announced or shown at a previous WWDC and so I'm sure this week's event will show new features we're going to come to value (and a few, like live pictures, we're going to ignore).

Enjoy your week, and in September, we'll get a chance to take the new features for a ride after they're released.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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