After a year of using the iPhone 6 Plus, I tried the “normal” sized iPhone 6s for a short while earlier this year.
I half expected to be won over by the more manageable size, but more than anything else the experiment taught me that I’m more than willing to give up some basic physical conveniences in favour of maintaining the battery life, screen real estate, and optical image stabilization of the larger iPhones.
I was relieved to return to my iPhone 6 Plus, and the leap to the iPhone 6s Plus felt like a natural, surprisingly significant step toward smartphone nirvana.
In many ways, the iPhone 6s Plus’ map of strengths and weaknesses is similar to its predecessor’s, but as we chart it you may discover—as I did—that this year’s update is one of the most significant in the device’s history.
A Big Phone
Perspective is everything. It’s easy to make fun of phablets when you start from the image of a phone. But the name doesn’t do justice to the reality of what we carry in our pockets and purses these days.
For years now, our smartphones have been so much more than phones that it seems ridiculous to put them in the same category. My iPhone isn’t a large phone, it’s a small computer. Yeah, it looks silly when I hold it up to my face during a phone call, but that accounts for less than 5% of what I do with it.
For some people, smartphones are still mostly phones, and of course the math works out differently then, but for many of us it seems wiser to find the optimal device for the majority of our usage.
From that perspective a small computer is suddenly a lot more appealing than a small phone.
Nevertheless, if you talk to people about it, their knee-jerk reaction tends to revolve around not being able to use it with one hand.
Effective one-handed use is important, but it turns out to be less so than most people assume: a 2013 study of phone usage patterns indicated that two-handed usage had taken the lead in popularity. That’s probably a reflection of the changes in phones more than changes in user preference though.
Apple’s own solution to this problem was Reachability, which we first saw in iOS 8 when the iPhones 6 emerged. By double-tapping the home button, you can slide the screen’s contents down to within thumb range. In theory, an excellent concession, but in practise Reachability has been among my least favourite and least used iOS features. I mostly trigger it by accident, and almost always regret it since I’m used to the speed and accuracy of holding my iPhone with two hands.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I was never a fan of using phones one-handed, even when they were small enough that such a thing was easy. Not only is it slower and less accurate, but I never liked the unstable grip. By definition any one-handed grip will be less secure than holding it with both hands, and I’m happy to wait a few minutes or pause whatever else I’m doing to properly interact with my device.
In my years of smartphone usage, I have never dropped a phone, so I feel like the notion of using both hands has some merit.
In any case, if one-handed usage is an important preference on your list of considerations, then the iPhone 6s Plus remains as unfeasible as last year’s model…with one small distinction: it’s grippier.
The difference is not night-and-day, but holding both phones will reveal a noticeable improvement in the texture of the new iPhone 6s series. That 7000 series aluminum is not only less fragile, but less slippery too.
Having spent a year with the 6 Plus, the size was a moot point for me. That includes the tiny extra weight imparted by the aforementioned new alloy.
The truth is that by now you probably already know how you feel about large phones, and this one won’t change anything about that. At least not because of its physical design.
The Layout Conundrum
The most immediate benefit of Apple’s Plus devices is the increased screen real estate. More than a year into its existence, this size class in Apple’s ecosystem has a healthy selection of apps that are optimized to take full advantage of the extra space.
That being said, allow me to depart from the conventional opinion and admit that the entire premise of more effective layouts on the larger screen has been underwhelming to me. I expected to find it useful, an improvement over the focused designs found on smaller screens, but that just doesn’t fit the reality of my usage.
For one thing, many of my most-used apps don’t have a Plus-specific layout: Spark, Overcast, Twitter, Music, Instagram, Basecamp, Todoist, Instapaper, Narwhal, YouTube, Feedly, Dropbox, Soulver…the list goes on. In some of those apps, it doesn’t make sense to have a different layout—they don’t even have a landscape view. I think this is perfectly fine.
Which brings me to the second aspect of this disappointment: Plus-specific layouts feel like a solution in search of a problem. You know where I want a more complete app experience? My iPad. On my iPhone, I don’t want the bigger screen to mean additional interface elements thrown in my face.
As someone who uses both an iPad and an iPhone (an increasingly common luxury), there remains a clear line between the way I use apps on each. The iPhone 6s Plus offers me a more spacious view than my 5s did, with a more comfortable typing experience, and the same focused app designs that let me get in and out quickly. My iPad is where I settle in, dig deep, and interact more intricately. That’s where I want more layout options, better use of the screen real estate, more powerful tools.
I understand that many people look to the iPhone 6s Plus as a replacement for their iPad, but that ideal isn’t for me. The iPhone 6s Plus is increasingly capable of doing what my iPad Air 2 does, but that doesn’t make it the better tool for those jobs.
In any event, I don’t discount the Plus-optimized layouts entirely—where they are implemented, they generally work well. But they don’t always work better than the non-optimized layout that just shows me more content in the same way.
Usually, that’s all I’m after.
For me, the single most exciting aspect of the new iPhone generation is the improved camera technology. Apple is at a point where it needs to consider its camera changes very carefully, because they’ve earned a certain reputation for offering the best smartphone camera experience.
I phrase it that way because they’ve never offered the absolute best image quality, nor the best specs, nor the most detailed controls. Their success has always stemmed from the iPhone’s incredible imaging consistency and predictable performance. Sensor technology at a smartphone scale doesn’t move especially quickly, so Apple has to make deliberate improvements without compromising the core of their camera’s appeal.
This year, they were finally able to bump the resolution to 12MP. With more resolution, you usually get more noise, but Apple has devised an interesting approach to sensor design that balances things back out. Besides larger images, a 12MP sensor and the improvements in storage speed (more on that later) allow for 4K video recording.
In practical terms, having shot with it for a while now, I’ve noticed two key improvements: the photos are more detailed, and dynamic range has improved noticeably. The former is an expected consequence of the higher resolution sensor, but the latter was a surprise to me. Photos where harsh sun would have blown out the highlights on my 6 Plus were suddenly fine on the 6s Plus. Pulling photos into my editing app of choice revealed an even greater range of recovery.
This allows for especially impressive panoramic shots, with properly exposed skies and natural looking landscapes.
For the first time ever, I felt comfortable making a large canvas print from one of these photos. The printer didn’t believe it, but I now have a 40×30” print hanging in my living room that was shot and edited on my iPhone.
The argument for owning a dedicated compact camera becomes more and more difficult to make each year.
As someone who works with video a lot, this is where the 6s Plus camera improvements really make themselves known.
There have been several occasions over the past year where I’ve been tempted to sneak iPhone footage into work projects simply because the footage was good enough to fit in. Now that the 6s Plus shoots not only 4K but optically stabilized 4K, the temptation will be even stronger.
The stabilization is where the 6s Plus pulls ahead of its regular sized sibling. While it enables cleaner, less blurry low light photos, it also works in tandem with the digital stabilization technology on the software side of things to produce video footage that’s unbelievably steady.
I could show off some carefully prepared scenes that are primed to show the iPhone off at its best, but that’s not how people really use them in the real world—they just go out and shoot some video.
So that’s exactly what I did.
That collection of shots came from a random walk I took the other day; it’s all handheld and entirely unprocessed. I just pulled it into iMovie on my iPad Pro and edited it together.
I can’t overstate how cool it is to be able to get smooth sweeping shots without a crane or crazy stabilization rig. Other things to notice are subtle affordances like the confident focus adjustment from foreground to background when I pan away from the bird feeder, or the comfortable handling of flares when I was shooting toward the sun.
Small things like jerky lighting adjustments in highly dynamic scenes can be worked around if you use manual controls or another video app, but the fully automatic video mode does an excellent job of producing useable footage in almost any circumstance.
If you’re patient, I highly recommend testing out the often-ignored timelapse mode in the camera app. You’re best off with a tripod or something to lean on, but the results are often beautifully cinematic.
The biggest problem with 4K footage is that it devours storage space. Dropping down to 1080p not only gives you a more manageable amount of recording time, it also unlocks higher frame rates for slo-mo shots. As far as video quality goes, the iPhone 6s’ 1080p footage holds up very well alongside the 4K. This short comparison illustrates what I mean:
Depending on what screen you’re watching it on, the additional detail in the 4K segment may be entirely invisible. It’s there, and you really appreciate it when you’re watching on a 4K-capable monitor or TV, but for most people the additional framerates are going to be more useful than the crazy detail, so I recommend keeping your phone set to 1080p most of the time.
We’ve already written about Live Photos in our iPhone 6s review, and Josh’s conclusions largely mirror my own. I found myself charmed by Live Photos to a much greater degree than I expected, and more importantly I’ve seen how this sense of surprise and delight translates to others I show them to.
Somehow Apple has managed to transform what other manufacturers executed as a gimmick into something more natural, more appealing. When you talk to techies about Live Photos, they ask “isn’t it just a video?” When you talk to friends and family, they say “holy crap, Harry Potter photos! Can I take some? Let’s try…”
I’ve given it quite a bit of thought, but I find that my initial impressions were correct:
Often what we want to capture about a scene is not the momentary arrangement of objects and people, but the nuances of how they’re interacting with each other. The latter is impossible with a still photo, and I say this as someone who adores photography as a medium. At best, we can hint at those nuances, giving our imagination and memory the handholds it needs to fill in the blanks for us.
A video, of course, captures everything, and much of the criticism of Live Photos centres around the fact that they’re essentially short videos. But video is fundamentally a different medium. A video demands more attention, more involvement. It carries more information, has different priorities. A video’s priority is to capture a sequence of events, a complete timeline of action. A photo captures a single moment, allowing our imagination to extrapolate the broader context.
Live Photos bridge the gap between the two. They’re more photo than video to me because the priority is still on capturing a moment—the execution just allows for that moment to be captured more completely.
Most of our improvements to camera technology have been about capturing moments with more accuracy, more dynamic range, more detail. Live Photos are Apple’s attempt to improve an entirely different dimension: time.
As I’ve spent more time taking Live Photos, I find myself treating them differently. They’re more for me, less for others. I happily share my normal photos on social media, but even if there were easy ways to share Live Photos natively (which there aren’t yet), I wouldn’t be tempted to use them.
Live Photos are somehow more personal, and I find myself wanting to revisit them myself, or with loved ones, rather than publicly.
This is normally the part where I tell you how amazing and smooth the iOS experience is on the iPhone 6s Plus. And I will tell you that, because it’s true, but before I do I will point out that getting here has been a bit of a process.
Apple has had a rough time getting iOS 9 to run like clockwork across its product range, and while most reviews paint a rosy picture, that conveniently side-steps the pain points that anyone who’s used these devices will inevitably notice. For instance, the multitasking view: stuttery on even the highest end devices until 9.1. Or the Spotlight pull-down: an uncharacteristic lagfest until 9.2.
Are these micro-delays deal breakers? Of course not. But let’s not get complacent and give Apple a pass when they clearly haven’t kept up the standards of usability and optimization that we’re used to.
And now the pendulum swings, and I can talk about how absurdly powerful the iPhone 6s Plus has become. Let’s set aside all the benchmark charts and skip to the key insights: the CPU and GPU have both taken the expected leap in performance, but this year Apple also revisited their storage controller system, which affects how quickly data is written and read from the iPhone’s drive.
We’re used to how the former adjustments affect the experience. The new computing horsepower means that things like iMovie exports are quicker than ever, even when you give it 4K footage to chew on. Anything computationally intensive will benefit, but just like every other year, the true scope of these improvements won’t become apparent for a few months yet. Developers need time to explore the new territory available to them as Apple continually moves the performance goalposts into traditional computing territory.
Meanwhile, the storage side of things has more immediate benefits. Things like installing apps, saving and moving files, and performing a sync are noticeably quicker.
Every year we say that the new iPhone feels faster (I mean…duh) but this year the improvements have been made on two fronts, which means it’s more noticeable than usual, and in more tangible, everyday ways that affect the average person, not just the power user.
Speaking of things that will take time to reveal their true potential, let’s talk about 3D Touch.
Every so often, Apple will reveal an innovation that, in retrospect, feels obvious. This is the best kind of design, and I’m coming around to the idea that 3D Touch represents the latest aspect of this habit.
I was let down by 3D Touch at first, and it wasn’t because apps hadn’t adopted it. It turns out that, like with any new interaction paradigm, it takes quite a bit of time to integrate into your usage patterns. No one became a touch typist overnight, after all.
A few months into the experience, I am still surprised by what 3D Touch means for different people. I expected the app shortcuts to be my most-used feature, but…they aren’t. I almost never use them. I love that they’re there, and some of them are genuinely handy, but I’m still undoing years of muscle memory—often I’ll remember the 3D Touch option only after I’ve already opened the app.
What I do use, and what has made the feature indispensable for me, is peek & pop. This small and obvious-seeming gesture saves me a lot of time, and I would much prefer that apps have peek & pop implemented before app shortcuts. Being able to quickly peek at the contents of a link in an email without leaving the message, or being able to dig into the details of a task in 2Do without losing my place in the list are mundane but significant examples that I encounter multiple times per day.
3D Touch, and pressure-based gestures in general, are definitely the next stage in the evolution of touch interaction.
Touch ID, Battery Life, and the Little Things
When I reviewed the 6s, I joked that I don’t know what my lock screen picture is because I’ve never seen it. You’ve probably read similar impressions of Touch ID 2, but where some have complained that the system is now too fast, I’m perfectly happy with it.
With my Apple Watch, I have no use for the lockscreen as a notification system. Notifications tap me on the wrist, so when I’m grabbing my phone to look at it, I always want it unlocked. With Touch ID 2, there’s no longer a delay between waking and unlocking. It’s all just one smooth event.
Unlocking my iPad Air 2 (which was always quicker than my old 6 Plus for some reason) now feels a bit sluggish.
The one thing on a smartphone that we don’t want shortened is battery life. Battery technology is frustratingly slow to evolve, so each manufacturer finds ways of working around it to deliver improvements year over year. For some, it’s a matter of offering larger phones with more room for a bigger battery.
Others, like Apple, opt to maintain a svelte figure and focus on software optimization. Of course, Apple’s control of both the hardware and software puts them in a fairly unique position when it comes to making these decisions, and while they’re by no means the market leaders in battery life, they tend to offer reliable longevity.
The iPhone 6 Plus was the first phone to relieve my battery anxiety entirely. The 6s Plus thankfully maintains the same battery potential, which for me translates to some pretty crazy figures. I get two days of use out of my 6s Plus without disabling any connectivity, and I have yet to resort to Low Power mode.
I suspect this has a lot to do with my Apple Watch, which has cut my phone usage dramatically, but even if I use it very heavily, I always make it to the evening.
It was the short battery life more than anything else that made going back to the normal-sized 6s impossible for me. It was a good experiment, but once you’ve experienced 6s Plus battery life, you won’t want to settle for anything less.
A New Computer
For most people, a phone upgrade isn’t a yearly event. All the plans and deals and discounts in the world don’t erase the fact that these are extremely expensive devices.
But it’s worth remembering that when you upgrade, you’re upgrading your computer, not just your phone. It may not be your only computer, but you’re improving what for most people is the single most used device in your life. We can’t upgrade how much time we get in each day, but we can make upgrades to help us make better use of the time we have. In that context, a few seconds shaved off of a task that’s performed several times per day adds up to real value very quickly.
People considering an iPhone 6s Plus upgrade probably fall into one of two categories: they’re either one generation behind, or more. The usual mantra for people on the previous generation is to sit tight and wait for the next one—then there will be enough changes to justify the transition.
This year, that narrative is skewed by the sheer number of transformative changes that Apple has made to the iPhone. New materials for those who want less fragile devices, a new camera system for the iPhoneographers, 4K video and the horsepower to edit it on the go for power users, an entirely new interaction layer with 3D Touch, a more attentive Siri, and the same crazy longevity that has made battery anxiety a thing of the past.
Anyone with an older device will probably be convinced of this generation’s technical and functional merits but be wary of the size. Many of my friends fall into this category.
The way I look at it, the 6s and the 6s Plus both push these people out of their phone size comfort zone, so if that’s going to be the case anyway, they may as well get the 6s Plus when they decide to upgrade. Given the two week return window that’s usually available, it’s a win-win.
You get to spend time evaluating how this new class of device (small computer, not large phone) fits into your life, and if the expansive screen real estate, optical image stabilization, and two-day battery life don’t sway you, you can trade it in for the 6s, which will suddenly feel nice and compact.
Either way, you go home with a remarkable piece of technology: a computer, a camera, a personal assistant, a notebook, a communication omnitool, a game console, a media player, a library, and yes—if you insist—a phone.