Apple iPhone 6s review: More than just a speed-bump

iphone-6s-main.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    9.0 Outstanding
  • $649.99

Pros

  • Innovative 3D Touch technology
  • Faster A9 processor, with 2GB memory
  • 12MP iSight camera, 5MP front camera
  • Tougher aluminium case and glass screen

Cons

  • Expensive, and 16GB configuration is pointless
  • Battery life leaves room for improvement
  • Third-party apps must be updated to use 3D Touch

The tradition in recent years has been for each new generation of the iPhone -- such as last year's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus -- to be followed by a more modest 's' update. The 's' generally indicates a speed-bump, with the new model adding a faster processor and perhaps a few other refinements, but essentially sticking with the same basic design as its predecessor. And, true to form, Apple duly unveiled the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus earlier this month, with both models going on sale from 25 September.

iphone-6s-6s-plus.jpg
The 6s iPhone models come in 4.7-inch (6s) and 5.5-inch (6s Plus) versions, as in 2014. Image: Apple

But the iPhone is on a roll at the moment. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have been a great success, especially in emerging markets such as China. So rather than resting on its laurels, Apple has put its foot to the pedal and produced a far more extensive upgrade than many Apple-watchers had anticipated. At first glance, the 4.7-inch iPhone 6s reviewed here might look virtually identical to last year's model -- as does its big brother, the 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus. However, the new features go far beyond a simple speed-bump and should further consolidate Apple's dominance of the high-end smartphone market.

Bendgate begone!

There are, in fact, some very minor changes in the external design of the iPhone 6s. The screen remains the same, at 4.7 inches and 1,334 by 750 pixels (326ppi), but the iPhone 6s is 14g heavier -- rising from 129g to 143g -- and also grows a modest 0.2mm in both height and thickness. The handset is constructed from a tougher aluminium alloy (also available in a new pink-tinged 'rose gold'), while the glass screen is now claimed to be 'the strongest in the industry'.

Some brave souls out in the blogosphere have subjected the iPhone 6s (and 6s Plus) to some pretty harsh treatment, including immersion in bowls of water, and the new handset does seem to be sturdy enough to avoid a repeat of last year's 'bendgate' saga. However, harsh particles such as sandpaper or grit can still cause scratching on the screen and I'd still recommend some sort of screen protector -- especially if you tend to carry your phone in a trouser pocket with keys and other metallic objects.

'S' is for speed

As expected, the 's' update delivers improved performance, in the form of Apple's custom-designed A9 processor. Apple claims that the new processor provides overall CPU performance that's up to 70 percent faster than the A8 chip used in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, while graphics performance is as much as 90 percent faster. The iPhone 6s also doubles its RAM from 1GB to 2GB in order to capitalise on that improved performance.

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Among the noticeable performance improvements in the iPhone 6s is a faster autofocus. Image: Apple

Manufacturers often over-hype performance figures for their latest products, but our tests did produce some impressive results. The Geekbench 3 CPU performance benchmark produced an increase of 57 percent for single-core performance and 53 percent in the multi-core tests over the previous-generation iPhone. Graphics performance measured by the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test was a full 66 percent faster. That's a pretty decent speed-bump, and it allows the iPhone 6s to make the most of the other advanced features that are introduced with this model. The first thing I noticed was that the Touch ID fingerprint sensor now responds much more quickly, but the increased performance is noticeable in other areas too, such as a faster autofocus on the iPhone 6s's new camera. And, of course, games will benefit from increased graphics performance as well.

Battery life

Increased performance is always welcome, but battery life is just as important, and many observers have noted that the battery in the iPhone 6s is slightly smaller than its predecessor -- dropping from 1,810mAh to 1,715mAh. However, the recently released iOS 9 includes a number of power-saving features designed to improve battery life and Apple claims that the iPhone 6s can provide the same 10 hours of Internet use as the iPhone 6.

During our tests the iPhone 6s did manage to last for a full day, and that included running multiple benchmark tools and frequent wi-fi use. Business travellers who use their phones intensively on the road should be able to get a full day's use out of the iPhone 6s. Even so, you'll still need to charge it up again at the end of every day, and we'd argue that the iPhone's battery life remains merely adequate rather than impressive.

3D Touch

The big headline-grabber that Apple has introduced with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus is called '3D Touch'. In fact, this feature is more akin to the pressure-sensitive 'Force Touch' technology that Apple recently introduced with the trackpads on its latest MacBook laptops. In effect, the screen of the iPhone now acts like a pressure-sensitive trackpad, allowing you to launch apps with a simple tap, but also to perform additional tasks by applying different levels of pressure with your finger.

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Quick Actions options for the Camera, Mail and Maps apps. Images: Apple

There are a number of options here. When you're on the Home screen you can press down on an app's icon to display a Quick Actions menu that provides instant access to a number of that app's key features. Press down on the Mail app, for example, and the Quick Actions menu allows you to create a new email or check unread emails. When you press on the Maps app, the menu will offer you directions home from your current location or allow you to search for local points of interest. And, like the Apple Watch, the iPhone 6s includes a 'taptic engine' that vibrates to simulate a brief 'click' in response to the pressure of your finger (incidentally, it seems to be the addition of this taptic component that forced Apple to reduce the size of the battery).

iphone-6s-taptic.jpg
Real-time feedback to 3D Touch actions is enabled by the 'taptic engine'. Fitting this into the chassis means the 6s has a slightly smaller battery than its predecesor. Image: Apple

Peek and Pop

The 3D Touch technology also provides additional features when used within an app. Apple refers to these as 'peek' and 'pop'. If you press gently on the header of an email in your inbox you can quickly get a 'peek' preview of that email's content. Releasing your finger will close the preview, or you can press a little harder to 'pop' the email open to read it in full and use other email commands. Press on a business location in Maps and you'll be offered directions to that location, or a phone number to dial.

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Press gently to 'peek' at an email's content; press harder to 'pop' it open. Image: Apple

The 3D Touch commands are also useful for switching between apps. Press on a web link within an email and you'll see preview of that web page within the Mail app, while pressing harder will open the web page in the Safari browser. You can press on a date in an email to check that date in your Calendars app, or press on something like a flight number to check your departure time. This ability to hop smoothly between apps will be particularly appreciated by business users who constantly need to switch between their email, calendar and other apps. The only minor disadvantage is the fact that third-party developers will need to update their apps in order to use 3D Touch, so it may be a while before apps such as the iOS version of Microsoft Office adopt these new features.

Camera updates

Although the iPhone has proved enormously popular for photography, it has lagged behind its rivals in some respects. The 8-megapixel (MP) resolution of its primary iSight camera was quite modest compared to rivals such as Samsung's 16MP Galaxy S6, so the iPhone 6s now steps up to 12MP for the iSight camera, while the front-facing FaceTime camera increases from 1.2MP to 5MP. Other improvements include 'deep trench isolation', which provides more accurate colour reproduction for the iSight camera.

iphone-6s-video.jpg
The 12-megapixel iSight camera can now capture 4K video at 30fps, although it'll require 375MB of storage per minute. Image: Apple

We haven't had much time to experiment with the iSight camera, but our early impressions are that the detail and sharpness of the new camera are a real improvement. The increased resolution of the iSight camera also allows the iPhone 6s to record 4K video for the first time. However, this capability highlights a real weakness in the iPhone 6s line-up.

Price points

Like its predecessor, the iPhone 6s is available with either 16GB, 64GB or 128GB of storage. The good news here is that prices haven't changed, despite the new camera and 3D Touch technology, with the 16GB model remaining at £539 (inc. VAT), while the 64GB and 128GB models cost £619 and £699 respectively. Contracts with most mobile networks also seem to be largely unchanged. But with 4K video requiring 375MB of storage per minute, the 16GB configuration increasingly looks as though it's simply not fit for purpose. It's hard to recommend a 16GB smartphone that costs more than £500 but can't even store my music library, let alone a collection of high-definition photos and videos. In contrast, Samsung's S6 range now starts at £499 with a minimum of 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM. With no 32GB option available for either the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6s, the existence of the 16GB model simply looks like a cynical ploy to force people into buying the more expensive 64GB model instead.

Conclusion

Many iPhone users skip the iPhone's bi-annual 's' updates, preferring to save their money for whatever surprises Apple may have in store for the next-generation model. However, the iPhone 6s provides major improvements over my iPhone 6 in several areas -- performance, camera quality and, of course, the new 3D Touch technology -- and I'll miss it when our testing period comes to an end. Sales of the iPad may be slipping, but -- as noted earlier -- the iPhone is on a roll, and the iPhone 6s is just what Apple needs to keep its millions of worldwide users clamouring for more.

Specifications

Cellular
Technology CDMA2000 1X / GSM / WCDMA (UMTS) / TD-SCDMA
Type smartphone
Integrated Components audio player, front-facing camera, navigation, rear-facing camera, stereo speakers, voice recorder
Navigation GLONASS, GPS
Band WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900 / CDMA2000 1X 2100/1900/800 / TD-SCDMA / AWS 1700/2100
Mobile Broadband Generation 4G
Phone Form Factor touch
Service Provider AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless
Operating System Family iOS
Operating System iOS 9
Payment Technology Apple Pay
Intelligent Assistant Siri
SIM Card Type nano SIM
Input Device 3D Touch, Multi-touch
Phone Features
Phone Functions Speakerphone, voice control, call timer, conference call, flight mode, voice dialing, vibrating alert
Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, three-axis gyro sensor, digital compass, barometer
Additional Features Multitasking, FaceTime, AirPlay wireless streaming, AirPrint wireless printing, iCloud Photo Sharing, AirDrop function, Apple TV support (2nd, 3rd), MIMO technology, Wi-Fi Calling, iBeacon microlocation, CarPlay function, Family Sharing feature, QuickType keyboard, iCloud Keychain, Spotlight Search, Notification Center, M9 motion coprocessor
Security Devices Fingerprint reader
General
SAR Value 1.14 W/kg (body) / 1.14 W/kg (head)
Integrated Components Rear-facing camera, front-facing camera, audio player, voice recorder, stereo speakers, navigation
Body Color Space gray
Miscellaneous
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, barometer, digital compass, proximity sensor, three-axis gyro sensor
Color space gray
Color Category gray
Body Material anodized aluminum, glass, stainless steel
Included Accessories USB cable, power adapter, Apple EarPods
Messaging & Internet
Messaging Services MMS, SMS
Supported Social Networks and Blogs Facebook, Twitter
Display
Technology Retina HD display with IPS technology
Display Resolution 1334 x 750 pixels
Pixel Density (ppi) 326
Contrast Ratio 1400:1
Diagonal Size 4.7 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 11.9 cm
Smartphone Diagonal Size 4.7 in
Protection fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
Color Support color
Display Languages Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Catalan, Chinese (simplified), Chinese (traditional), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, UK English, US English, Ukrainian, Vietnamese
Features 3D Touch, Display Zoom, Dual-domain pixels, Landscape Views, Reachability (screen shifting)
Processor
Type Apple A9
Manufacturer Apple
64-bit Architecture Yes
Communications
Data Transmission DC-HSDPA, EDGE, EV-DO, GPRS, HSDPA, HSPA+, HSUPA, LTE, LTE Advanced, TDD-LTE, VoLTE
4G LTE Band Band 1, Band 12, Band 13, Band 17, Band 18, Band 19, Band 2, Band 20, Band 25, Band 26, Band 27, Band 28, Band 29, Band 3, Band 38, Band 4, Band 39, Band 5, Band 7, Band 40, Band 8, Band 41
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 4.2, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, NFC
Camera
Digital Zoom 3
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source LED light
Features 5-element lens, 8MP still photos while recording 4K video, Auto image stabilization, Burst mode, Cinematic video stabilization, Continuous autofocus, Exposure control, Focus Pixels, Hybrid IR filter, Improved noise reduction, Live Photo, Panorama, Playback zoom, Slow motion video, Time-lapse mode, Timer mode, True Tone flash, backside illumination sensor, face detection, iSight camera, photo and video geotagging, sapphire crystal lens cover
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards AVI, MOV, M-JPEG, MPEG-4, H.264, M4V
Supported Digital Audio Standards WAV, AAC, AIFF, PCM, Audible, MP3, Apple Lossless, AAC-LC, HE-AAC, Audible AAX, Audible AAX+, protected AAC
Environmental Parameters
Min Operating Temperature 32 °F
Max Operating Temperature 95 °F
Humidity Range Operating 5 - 95% (non-condensing)
Battery
Run Time Details Talk (WCDMA): up to 840 min
Standby: up to 240 hrs
Active online usage (WCDMA): up to 10 hrs
Active online usage (LTE): up to 10 hrs
Active online usage (Wi-Fi): up to 11 hrs
Playback (video): up to 11 hrs
Playback (audio): up to 50 hrs
Technology Lithium ion
Run Time Details Talk (WCDMA): up to 840 min
Standby: up to 240 hrs
Active online usage (WCDMA): up to 10 hrs
Active online usage (LTE): up to 10 hrs
Active online usage (Wi-Fi): up to 11 hrs
Playback (video): up to 11 hrs
Playback (audio): up to 50 hrs
Digital Camera
Digital Zoom 3
Lens Aperture f/2.2
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source LED light
Video Recorder Resolutions 1280 x 720 (720p), 1920 x 1080 (1080p), 3840 x 2160 (2160p)
Features 5-element lens, 8MP still photos while recording 4K video, Auto image stabilization, Burst mode, Cinematic video stabilization, Continuous autofocus, Exposure control, Focus Pixels, Hybrid IR filter, Improved noise reduction, Live Photo, Panorama, Playback zoom, Slow motion video, Time-lapse mode, Timer mode, True Tone flash, backside illumination sensor, face detection, iSight camera, photo and video geotagging, sapphire crystal lens cover
Header
Brand Apple
Product Line Apple iPhone
Model 6s
Packaged Quantity 1
Connections
Connector Type Headset jack - mini-phone 3.5 mm
Lightning
CE Input Device
Type touch sensitive screen (3D Touch), touch sensitive screen (multi-touch)
Features
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, barometer, digital compass, proximity sensor, three-axis gyro sensor
Phone Functions call timer, conference call, flight mode, speakerphone, vibrating alert, voice control, voice dialing
Security Devices fingerprint reader
Additional Features AirDrop function, AirPlay wireless streaming, AirPrint wireless printing, Apple TV support (2nd, 3rd), CarPlay function, FaceTime, Family Sharing feature, M9 motion coprocessor, MIMO technology, Notification Center, QuickType keyboard, Spotlight Search, Wi-Fi Calling, iBeacon microlocation, iCloud Keychain, iCloud Photo Sharing, multitasking
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards AAC, AAC-LC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, Audible, Audible AAX, HE-AAC, MP3, PCM, WAV, protected AAC
Supported Digital Video Standards AVI, H.264, M-JPEG, M4V, MOV, MPEG-4
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 128 GB
Optical Sensor
Sensor Resolution 12 pixels
Service & Support Details
Type limited warranty, technical support
Service Included consulting
Full Contract Period 1 year, 90 days
Front-facing Camera
Sensor Resolution 5 Megapixel
Lens Aperture f/2.2
Features Exposure control, FaceTime HD camera
Dimensions & Weight
Width 2.6 in
Depth 0.3 in
Height 5.4 in
Weight 5.04 oz
Service & Support
Type 1 year warranty

Topics: Smartphones, Apple, Hardware, Reviews

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Apple iPhone 6S (128GB, space gray)

Part Number: MKQE2LL/A

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