There aren’t many reasons to buy an iPhone 6S or 6S Plus at this point. They’re the oldest phones in Apple’s lineup, and, starting at $449, £338 or AU$600 for the 32GB 6S and $549, £415 or AU$735 for the 32GB 6S Plus, they’re simply not cheap enough to warrant consideration. For $100 more, respectively, the iPhone 7 and 7S Plus deliver way more bang for the buck — including a faster quad-core processor, a brighter screen, longer battery life and a superior camera.
The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus do have one minor distinction: they’re the only remaining iPhones with a built-in headphone jack. All of the newer models have Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector but also include a 3.5mm adapter that will fit legacy headphones, so — no big deal. There’s no discernible difference in audio quality or performance between the ports.
Bottom line: the 7S and 7S Plus are hands-down the best iPhone values on the market today. (If you’re looking for the absolute cheapest Apple phone, that’s the diminutive iPhone SE, which starts at $349, £265 or AU$465.) But if you can hold out until September, it’s highly likely that you’ll have a new batch of iPhones to choose from — along with lower prices for the iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X.
The full review of the Apple iPhone 6S, originally posted on Oct. 2, 2015 and last updated on Sept. 8 2016, follows.
When I showed the iPhone 6S to one of my wife’s friends, she got nostalgic. She waxed emotional about its predecessor, the iPhone 6 . It changed her life. Bigger screen, better camera, and Apple Pay. Everyone wanted these things. It was as close to a perfect phone as I’ve ever seen. All it ever really lacked was a better battery (Plus notwithstanding).
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I showed her 3D Touch, Apple’s newest technology on these iPhones. She pressed on the hypnotically-animated lock screen, a swimming fish. She watched it dance under her finger. And yes, she was impressed. But when I showed her everything else 3D Touch does, she said, “I’m not sure I’d really use this.”
This year’s follow-up iPhone, the iPhone 6S, doesn’t improve on that battery. And its newest features aren’t as instantly game-changing, at least not on the surface. That’s obvious: it’s an S-year iPhone, and Apple always uses these subtle every-other-year S upgrades to tweak design and ramp up processor speeds. It’s the phone for people who didn’t get the iPhone 6 last year. And for the past few years, S phones have introduced evolutionary changes that seriously evolved the phone; the iPhone 4S added Siri, and the iPhone 5S debuted the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.
The new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus look the same (except for the metallic-pink rose gold model) as last year’s iPhones. In a lot of ways they also feel the same. But there are hidden advantages at play. The newest, boldest tech is a new pressure-sensitive touchscreen technology called 3D Touch. There are lots of other improvements, too: better cameras. Better overall system speed. And always-on (and I mean always-on — unless you turn it off) Siri. And, something I didn’t even get a chance to test fully: a completely redesigned construction with a reinforced glass screen, which Apple promises is sturdier all-around. We’ll get to that in the next few weeks, but that alone could make a difference for a lot of would-be buyers.
3D Touch might be the “Next Big Idea” in touchscreens and interfaces. But does it make these new iPhones must-haves for that reason alone? I think it will, down the road, when more apps are here. But right now, its software advantages are subtle.
I spent a week with the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus (in rose gold and gold, respectively), taking them everywhere I went, from farmer’s markets in New Jersey to tailgating at a New York Jets game, to commuting on New Jersey Transit through the Meadowlands and to my kid’s meet-the-teacher night. I showed them to my friends, my family, anyone I met and got their opinions, too. (For on-the-fly impressions, check out my weekend diary.)
I might take the miracle of tiny, powerful smartphones for granted, but I can’t shake the feeling that the iPhone 6S doesn’t, at this moment, have the “one big thing” to make people want to upgrade from the 6. That doesn’t mean it’s not a better phone, of course it is. Right now, however, it’s a promising upgrade from the iPhone 6, not a revolution.
But if you’ve been holding off on getting an iPhone for a while, don’t wait anymore. Get this one (or its big-screen sibling, the 6S Plus). Just make sure you don’t buy the 16GB model.
3D Touch: Amazing hardware needs killer software
Press in on the iPhone 6S screen and new fascinating things happen. A pop-out window emerges. Little menus appear. You feel a buzz, or a light click. Much like the Apple Watch , these iPhones let you push in on the screen to accomplish small tasks. Apple calls this 3D Touch. And it’s the boldest new tech on these iPhones by a mile.
It’s a cool idea, but as I’ve discovered showing it to my family and friends, it’s not entirely intuitive at first. Yes, its promises could be vast. But 3D Touch ends up being used very tentatively in the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus software at the current moment: it mostly adds either pop-up “quick action” menus from apps on the home screen, or adds “peek” and “pop” to apps, expanding links or messages into previews that you can then open up fully, or tuck back away by lifting your finger. Some apps do a lot with these new ideas, especially Mail.
Peeking-and-filing emails can transform how that app is used. But a lot of people who try it for the first time don’t realize how to take advantage of 3D Touch. There’s no tutorial. And for the most part, 3D Touch isn’t essential yet. Until it starts to be incorporated into more apps — and in a more useful fashion — I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people forget that it even exists.
I like using 3D Touch to preview links, or to pop-up related apps. When I hold an app and see a menu of extra options under my thumb, it feels almost like a computer, not a phone (the latest MacBooks, which utilize a similar but less sensor-studded trackpad technology Apple calls Force Touch, have pop-up previews in Safari, too). Apple’s building a common language, and evolving what your phone-sized computer can do.
Pop-out previews are a really clever idea; links within Safari preview Web pages without any actual clicks. The ability to pull up menus in the iPhone almost feels like right-clicking on a computer and getting a contextual menu. It’s helpful, and surprisingly utilitarian. But you don’t need to use it, you can always do things the same old way as always, with regular touch controls. You can even turn 3D Touch off. And, those menus that pop up don’t offer all the options I’d want. They’re not all that customizable, either: what 3D Touch does, or doesn’t, do is mostly up to app developers. A good handful of apps have emerged to take advantage of 3D Touch, but it’s going to take a while before it feels widespread.
Maybe that’s why 3D Touch doesn’t feel essential yet in iOS. But the apps that are emerging to take advantage of it are slowly coming, and those could get really interesting. Imagine pressure-sensitive music apps. Art apps. Games. Remotes — controlling a drone with 3D Touch toggles to gently control directions, for instance. You could press down to change brush strokes when painting (the new Notes app already allows this). You could press down harder on virtual piano keys (Smule’s Magic Piano app added this function already). Racing games can get analog gas pedals (AG Racer added this, and it’s one of the best demonstrations of 3D Touch). I could see it working as a virtual dimmer for smart home remotes.
I want more. I’ve started 3D touching every icon, every menu; I want 3D Touch in all my apps, everywhere. It’s weird when it isn’t. I want smarter 3D Touch menus, smarter extra features. It’s legitimately better to have it than not have it, but I don’t expect its killer apps to emerge for at least a couple of months. And iOS could use splashier ways of taking advantage of it, too, like that animated lock screen. What if I could push through folders, or push-to-magnify, dipping in and out of views?
It’s not a really matter of whether 3D Touch is worth upgrading to now. You’ll upgrade to it sooner or later. Your phone will eventually have it. Do you want it later, or now? Down the road this is going to enable major, major changes in how iPhones and iOS work. Right now, it’s a subtle thing.
What my family and friends thought
Most of my friends and family didn’t necessarily care about the iPhone’s new features. My wife is long overdue for an upgrade from the iPhone 4S, but she didn’t care about 3D Touch. Or Live Photos, for that matter. She’s considering buying an iPhone 6. My brother-in-law just wanted Live Photos to help him go back and pick better photos, like Burst Mode. My mom already has an iPhone 6, and other than needing more storage for her photos she didn’t see anything new she needed, either. My kids thought Live Photos were cool, but didn’t recognize the difference between those and videos (down the road, I think that’ll be true for most people, and that’s probably the point).
What I think
If I were to buy a new phone now and didn’t get an iPhone 6, I’d buy this, easily. In 64GB or 128GB — never a 16GB (those smaller sizes barely hold enough photos and videos to get by if you’re the type of person who doesn’t delete). If I had an iPhone 6, I’d wait until next year…or, find a way to sell my phone and trade up without it costing me quite so much.
I think Apple, and the whole phone industry, are trying to change the “Should I upgrade?” question bit by bit. They’re trying to make it an “every year” thing, not an “every two years” or “Should I buy something new?” thing. Phone plans like AT&T Next, or Apple’s own yearly plan, are almost like leases. You can trade in your old ride and seamlessly move to a new one.
The 6S fits that model well; it’s enhanced and improved. Is it shockingly new or a vault forward? No…except for the concept of 3D Touch, which is brilliant hardware still in need of software which will make it truly shine. That software, from iOS itself and apps, will come, but maybe not right away. 3D Touch could build a new style of touchscreen app design, bleeding into iPads, the Apple Watch and maybe influencing the rest of the industry. Right now, just a week in, it’s still baby steps.
This iPhone is built for the future, but in the present it’s mostly a nicely improved iPhone 6.
A deeper look at the iPhone 6S
As we said, 3D Touch isn’t the only thing that’s new on the iPhone 6S. Here are more in-depth looks at the camera improvements, and the speedier internal processor and fingerprint sensor. Also, a look at how Apple’s smaller 4.7-inch iPhone model differs from its larger sibling, the 5.5-inch iPhone 6S Plus (it’s a bigger difference than last year). And finally, thanks to the major changes in how phones are sold (in the US, at least), we look at how the buying — or leasing — calculations change the purchase decision on these new iPhones, too.
The improved camera: Live Photos, 4K video recording and more
What do Live Photos do? Apple’s new camera innovation records a second and a half before, and a second and a half after you snap any shot on your phone, with front or rear cameras. I took a bunch of photos, and then forgot about it. Later on, I realized that all my photos had bits of video and audio attached. Press down, and I could see the photos become little videos, of sorts. Or animated GIFs with audio.
They don’t look like normal videos, exactly: they’re more like time lapses. The images skip a bit, like a flipbook. It has a bit of a magical, distancing feel. These end up seeming like little mementos.
If I forget to take a video one day, which I often do, these could act as substitutes. But where do I share them, how do I collate them? Apple is opening up ways to let these Live Photos be seen elsewhere. Right now you can send them to other iPhone users, make them your lock screen wallpaper, or send them to the Apple Watch. I want them on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat. I want these to be instant GIFs. Then I’d love them. They’ll come, eventually. (Facebook, Getty Images and Weibo are three apps that should support them soon) Right now, I feel like I wouldn’t really use them much; on the other hand, I could see a whole new subgenre of pet and kid photos — again, once the sharing problem gets resolved. But they might make me stop wanting to take so many short videos.
4K video recording doesn’t make a huge impact on your phone or when watching on most TVs. That’s because most people don’t have 4K televisions — yet. Thankfully, PC monitors do support 4K and so does YouTube. And adding the ultra high-def video format to the new iPhones puts them on better footing with GoPro cameras. That added 4K, and new extremely smooth wobble-free optical image stabilization for video (on the 6S Plus model only), push this iPhone’s video chops up another notch. The only trade-off is space: as with Live Photos, 4K video will take up more precious room on the phone’s internal storage. Yet another reason to avoid that too-small 16GB entry-level model.
The rear camera takes better photos, but I didn’t always appreciate much of a difference in everyday casual use. The front-facing camera, however, is miles better. Pictures are crisp! You can take flash selfies that really work, and don’t blind you!
Optical image stabilization on the 6S Plus, both for photos and videos, isn’t needed for normal everyday use. But it makes zoomed-in or dimly-lit photos crisper, and it keeps active videos moving a lot more smoothly. For pro use, or those who don’t own any other camera other than their iPhone, I’d get the 6S Plus. Most people would be fine with the 6S.
For lots more in-depth deep dives with the iPhone 6S Plus cameras, check out Andrew Hoyle’s selfie shoot-out, low-light camera test and outdoor camera test, where you can see more examples of how the 6S Plus camera fares. The 6S Plus front-facing FaceTime camera is identical to the 6S: the rear iSight camera looks a little better in low-light conditions.
The S stands for speed, as has been the case for years. The 6S does it several ways: a faster A9 processor, double the RAM, speedier wireless via improved Wi-Fi antennas and access to faster LTE data networks (LTE Advanced), and quicker Touch ID sensors on the home button.
Unlocking the iPhone from Touch ID is now so fast that I barely saw the lock screen at all. One click, you’re in. And if you’re running multiple apps at once, like I usually am, these new phones handle app-switching a lot more smoothly…while “remembering” your previous app’s status better. Jumping between Netflix, Geometry Wars 3 and Safari was a piece of cake.
Like many other years, these speed boosts mean the phone feels snappier. iOS 9 sometimes feels a tad un-snappy on the iPhone 6, while it runs buttery-smooth on the 6S. In terms of raw benchmarks, these iPhones are blazing fast: they’re faster than last year’s iPad Air 2. But of course, you’re using that power on a smaller screen, and with no true split-screen multitasking.
Battery life: Same as last year
One thing that really hasn’t changed is one something I’ve wanted more of for years…battery. The batteries are actually smaller in this year’s 6S and 6S Plus phones, but deliver similar battery life over a regular day of use. I needed to top off my iPhone before night on the 6S when using it heavily (and with a Jawbone Up3 and Apple Watch paired to it), just like I did with the iPhone 6. The 6S Plus can handle a whole day, and a bit more.
We ran our standard lab video-playback test, putting the iPhone 6S in Airplane mode, and got 10.5 hours of battery life. That’s not what you’ll use your iPhone for, but it shows that the basic battery potential lands similarly to last year’s iPhone 6 using iOS 8. On our iOS 9 battery tests across devices, we didn’t find that the OS upgrade affected the standard lab-based battery playback test. Its impact comes into play over everyday use.
There are new power-saving modes in iOS 9 that can eke out more use at the end of the day, and I found those to eke out a bit more of what I needed. Still, I found myself having to conserve by the time the sun set. Next year, I’d love to see batteries get a bit bigger…not the other way around.
Editor’s note: This year’s iPhone 6S A9 processor is made by two different manufacturers, and your phone either has one or the other. According to Apple, battery performance between the two variants (TSMC and Samsung) only varies by around 2 to 3 percent. We are doing our own testing, and will update this when we have definitive answers. Our review iPhones had processors made by TSMC, and didn’t exhibit any performance issues.
6S Plus: The pro phone
The iPhone I really want is the one that has the Plus features (battery life, better camera, higher-res screen) in a regular-iPhone size. Apple offers you the choice of one or the other, but not both. The 6S is sized right, and it’s more than enough for nearly anyone. The Plus offers something more like “Pro” features: meaning, it’ll be a better all-day battery workhorse, feel more like a tablet because of that larger screen size, and yes, it generally takes reliably better photos and videos.
I lived with an iPhone 6 Plus for months after using an iPhone 6, then switched back again. Optical image stabilization (OIS), which is only in the Plus, doesn’t make a big difference for everyday use in broad daylight, but can make for much clearer blur-free photos in darker conditions or when using digital zoom. If you rely on your iPhone as your everyday camera, especially for work purposes (as I do at press events), that makes a difference. And yes, it’s worth that extra $100.
Do you lease, or buy?
Phones are like cars. Some people really don’t think about what year their car is: they buy one and use it until they need a new one. Others lease their cars. They want a new ride all the time.
Apple offers a lot of options, and they’re all pretty good. Last year’s iPhone 6 remains a great phone, but if you’ve waited a while to buy a new phone, spend up and get the 6S: it has enough new things to easily make it worthwhile. If you want a 6S, get the 64GB or 128GB model. Live Photos and 4K video chew up storage space, and 16GB is not enough anyway. Want to save money? Get last year’s 64GB iPhone 6 instead for the price of this year’s 16GB iPhone 6S.
Get a 6S Plus if you’re really serious about photos and video, as in a professional, or someone who wants to record the very best family home movies since the Plus does take better photos and videos. It’s worth the extra $100 for that, the larger screen and better battery, but it won’t fit all pants (or budgets). Most people will still do perfectly fine with the 6S. I’d buy the Plus in a heartbeat if it was just a bit smaller. It’s really big, even compared to other large-screened Android phones.
The easiest recommendation: iPhone 6S, 64GB.
I haven’t mentioned Android phones to this point. What you should know is that the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are extremely fast compared to current Android phones, have cameras that are basically best in class (or close enough that it’ll feel like the same thing), and have screen sizes that are competitive. You’re picking an iPhone for its software-hardware synergy, the tuned design, and, of course, its apps and software. There are plenty of great Android phones. The iPhone is well above most of them.
Now, you might be the person who saves up to buy a new phone, waiting for the right time to upgrade. Or maybe you’re part of one of the increasingly common plans that allows you to get a new phone each year. If you’re the former, I’d say this: it’s an excellent time to buy, unless you own last year’s iPhone 6.
For the average person, the new iPhone 6S features won’t be shockingly new. You could use one of last year’s iPhone 6 models and be more than okay. Those are still great phones, too.
But under the hood, this iPhone’s got a much better engine. It’s got a lot of potential. It’s easily one of the very best smartphones on the planet. And it’s the iPhone to get if you’ve been waiting for an upgrade, or a phone plan that allows you to step into a new phone easily.
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