Mossberg: The iPhone 6S keeps Apple on top in the smartphone race
It’s an evolutionary model, but with enough new core features to justify an upgrade
Apple’s job every year is to bring out a new iPhone with enough improvements to justify an upgrade, a new purchase, or a switch from a competing phone. This year, the company has done it again with the iPhone 6S, adding core new features including a screen that detects the pressure of your touch and uses that knowledge to make navigation easier and faster.
The new iPhone 6S, which goes on sale Friday with its larger cousin, the 6S Plus, doesn’t have scores of big changes when compared to last year’s iPhone 6 series. In fact, the new model looks just like its predecessor, as is typical for iPhones in their every-other-year “S” model cycle.
But it does have a small set of new capabilities that I consider fundamental, core improvements. These are things that improve the quality of the phone while generally making a fluid, powerful product even better, and faster and easier to navigate and use.
They secure the iPhone’s place as the best smartphone on the market.
The new model’s most important new feature: the multitouch screen now gains a new system-wide capability — it reacts to the force of your finger, a feature called 3D Touch. For instance, if you press just a bit harder than usual on an email in a list, 3D Touch will give you a peek into its contents, including any photos it contains, and then, when you release your finger, you’ll be right back where you were.
This is one of those potentially huge user behaviors — like swiping, or pinching and zooming — that seem odd or minor at first, but which Apple historically is able to make deeply important and useful. And it’s not just a software tweak. It involved serious re-engineering of the display. It’s the kind of thing that’s Apple’s specialty: the company manages to do new things better, apply them broadly, and make them seem natural, because it has control over both the software and hardware platforms on which its products rest. No other big player does.
Another big gain: improved cameras on a phone that I believe already had the best. And boy is this new iPhone fast. All without compromising battery life.
After using it as my main phone all day every day for a couple of weeks, I believe the 6S is the best version ever of the best smartphone on the market, especially when combined with the new iPhone operating system, iOS 9, released last week and standard on the new hardware.
I did find a few drawbacks. And, as always, the new iPhone, which starts at $649 for the base model, is a premium product. There are lots of cheaper phones — a few of them, like the $180 Moto G, are pretty good. If your budget is tight, these may suit you better than the iPhone, though they can’t compare in quality or performance.
But, if you can afford it, the iPhone 6S is the smartphone to buy. In my opinion, its deep integration of hardware and software, and cleaner, more fluid operating system, make it the best choice for average, non-techie consumers — Apple’s prime audience.
(Note to jumbo phone lovers: I didn’t test the larger, costlier iPhone 6S Plus for this column. I decided to stick to the mainstream model. But it shares the hardware improvements discussed herein.)
Specs, Design and Speed
The iPhone 6S is about 11 percent heavier and a tad thicker than last year’s model, a difference I thought would matter, but in the end simply didn’t notice, in the hand, in the pocket, or even in a couple of tight cases designed for the slimmer iPhone 6. Although the new model also has stronger glass and a tougher grade of aluminum in the body, the added thickness is mainly needed to accommodate a redesigned screen assembly that makes possible 3D Touch.
But what was instantly noticeable was the 6S’s faster speed, courtesy of a new Apple-designed processor. It wasn’t that the iPhone 6 was slow, but this one approaches double the speed, according to Apple, and it sure feels that way, whether scrolling, swiping, or launching apps. This phone screams.
Most surprising to me was the greater speed of the iPhone’s fingerprint sensor, called TouchID, which is built into the familiar round home button. It’s now so fast that, if you use the button to wake up the phone and authenticate with your fingerprint, the process happens almost instantly. I often didn’t even see the lock screen.
However, there are two aspects of the iPhone 6 that I believe Apple should have taken the opportunity to change, and didn’t. First, the back of the phone can be a bit slippery, especially because it has rounded edges. That made the iPhone 6 the first model I have ever felt the need to use with a case, and the same applies to the 6S.
Second, and more importantly, the base model, at $649, still comes with just 16GB of storage, while some other premium phone makers, including Apple’s top rival, Samsung, now start at 32GB for about the same price. This can be an important issue, since you can easily run out of space if you have a lot of photos, and the photos from Apple’s new cameras will be larger. But Apple says that anonymous data its customers voluntarily provide show the vast majority of owners of the base model don’t run up against space limits. It also notes that it provides a service that stores the large version of your photos off the phone and in the Cloud.
Oh, and one more thing on design: the iPhone now comes in a new, fourth color, borrowed from the Apple Watch: Rose Gold — a sort of pinkish hue that, no, is not real gold.
In two weeks of heavier-than-normal use (because I was testing, testing, testing) the iPhone 6S never died on me before I was ready to end my day. Even after 15 hours, there was typically 10 percent or so of battery life left in the tank.
Also, as part of iOS 9, which is available for older models as well, Apple, like Android phone makers before it, has built in a "low power mode" that squeezes in an extra hour or so of battery life. It does this by cutting speed, brightness, and app activity in the background. You can still make calls, send and receive emails and texts, and browse the web in this mode.
Something like 3D Touch was tried with the Apple Watch and on some Macs. But, on the new iPhone, it does much more.
There are two basic use cases so far for 3D Touch. In one, when you’re on the home screen, you press a bit harder on an icon and up pops a context menu — much like what happens when you right click on something on a PC or Mac. For instance, if you press down on the Mail icon, a menu pops up that allows you to quickly get to your unread emails, or compose a new one, and do more. If you do the same on, say, the phone icon, a few common contacts pop up for quick calling. You know you’ve pressed successfully because you feel haptic feedback and the rest of the screen gets fuzzy and unreadable, drawing your attention to the pop-up menu.
The second use case happens within an app. As mentioned above, 3D Touch lets you get a rich preview of any email in a list of emails, without actually opening it. If you lift your finger, you’re back in the list. If you scroll up slightly, you can reply or perform other common actions right from the preview, which is called a "peek". From the "peek" preview, you can actually open the whole email, as normal, by pressing down harder, to a second level of touch. This is called a "pop."
Another example: in Apple Maps, if you press down on the icon, you get a menu offering directions home, nearby searching, and more. Inside the Maps app, pressing down on a pin gets you information about a business that might be located there, and a menu for directions, calling the business, or opening its web page.
One of my favorite features of 3D Touch is that, if you press down hard on the keyboard while writing or editing, it becomes a trackpad, for easy and precise cursor placement and text selection.
After a few days, I found 3D Touch natural and useful. But it feels like it’s just getting started. For one thing, it only works on Apple’s own apps for now, though it is available for third party apps, and I’m anxious to see what developers do with it. Games, in particular, could make great use of 3D Touch. Apple says Apps like Instagram, Pinterest, Dropbox and Facebook plan to support 3D Touch.
For another, I felt Apple itself could do more with it. For instance, some Apple apps which seem naturals for the feature, like Stocks and Weather, don’t use it at all. (Apple says to stay tuned.) Others use it inconsistently. In Music, pressing the icon lets you quickly go back to a song you had paused. But in Safari, a press doesn’t let you go back to a web page you were using.
I also found at first that I often pressed too lightly on an icon and wound up in the familiar mode where all the icons wiggle so you can delete or move them. But I fixed this problem by adjusting the sensitivity of 3D Touch in the Accessibility section of settings.
I believe that 3D Touch is a big deal and can be a bigger advance once developers, and Apple itself, starts expanding its uses.
The iPhone 6S has a new, 12 megapixel rear camera, up from the 8 megapixel shooter Apple has used for years. But more megapixels can produce worse photos unless the sensor is improved, and Apple has taken pains to do this. The result in my tests — always performed with out of the box auto settings — was sharper, more vivid photos than on the iPhone 6, especially at close distances and in low light.
But these improvements aren’t dramatic, since the previous rear camera was already terrific. Still, the new rear camera will maintain the iPhone’s position as the best smartphone camera around.
Videos are a different story. They can now optionally be recorded in 4K, rather than HD, and, in my tests, were uniformly sharper. Adding 4K is future-proofing, since there are still few devices that can display it. But it repeats a pattern from the past, when HD video on iPhones helped kill older, non-smartphones.
The bigger news is the front-facing camera, used mostly for photo or video selfies. It now has 5 megapixels of resolution, up from 1.2 megapixels which had been well behind some competing phones. Also, the front camera has a clever flash function: it flashes the entire screen at three times the usual brightness, and adjusts for the proper tone. In my tests, this resulted in much better-looking selfies, especially in low light.
The last big new feature of the 6S is something called Live Photos. These are regular still pictures which, when touched, show small bursts of motion and sound. Apple achieves this by recording 1.5 seconds of video before and after the still photo is shot.
It looks great in certain situations, such as when taking pictures of cute babies. I enjoyed it when I took a picture of a tree blowing in the wind, or of a busy coffee shop barista (in pretty low light.)
And you don’t need an iPhone 6S, or 3D Touch, to view these photos. They can still be viewed, shared or posted as regular stills, and Apple says Facebook plans to enable their full use this year. Also, any Apple product running iOS 9 or the new OS X El Capitan Mac operating system (coming Sept. 30) allows users to view the motion effects.
Live photos could become a standard. But there are other ways to take short videos, and I’m not sure this feature will have the legs that I expect from 3D Touch.
Plus, there’s a downside to Live Photos: they take up twice as much space as standard 12-megapixel shots. The feature is on by default, but can be turned off. This is another reason why it’s time Apple boosted its base-model storage to 32 GB.
As noted, the iPhone remains a premium product. The 6S ranges from $649 to $849, depending on storage. And the larger 6S Plus will run you $100 more at each storage level.
Most carriers now sell smartphones on installment plans, and these typically will run $27 a month for the new 6S.
But Apple is moving to lower the pricing pain itself, while encouraging upgrades and cutting out the carriers. With the iPhone 6S, it is introducing its own no-interest installment plan, at $32 a month (including warranty). If you use this plan, you’ll be able to upgrade an iPhone annually, and you’ll get an unlocked phone — which means you can change carriers at will.
The iPhone 6S is the best smartphone out there, period. If you already own last year’s model, you might not find its new features compelling enough to upgrade. But, if you own an older iPhone, or an Android phone you’re ready to ditch, this new iPhone will make you much happier.
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