iPhone 6s Plus review – don't be fooled by its looks
This is a brand new iPhone inside and out
It's easy to overlook the alternate 'S' year iPhones as they have the same casings as the models introduced the year before, but that would be a mistake. 'S' series iPhones have tended to introduce interesting and useful features that were overlooked or ridiculed at launch, but have gone onto influence the rest of the smartphone industry from Siri on the iPhone 4s to Touch ID on the iPhone 5s.
This year's iPhone 6s is no different. While it looks almost identical to its immediate predecessor, almost every aspect of this smartphone has been changed both inside and out.
We've tested the 5.5in iPhone 6s Plus phablet. Almost everything in this review applies to the smaller 4.7in iPhone 6s with only a few exceptions. Besides having a lower capacity battery and a lower resolution screen that's smaller but also easier to hold, the 4.7in iPhone 6s also lacks optical image stabilisation in its camera lens.
The most immediately noticeable change, by far, in the iPhone 6s Plus is its pressure sensitive screen. Apple calls this 3D Touch and it's an evolved version of the Force Touch pressure sensitive technology first introduced in the Apple Watch and the 12in Retina MacBook.
It's tempting to dismiss 3D Touch as yet another flashy screen gimmick in the mould of the curved screens on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge or the LG G Flex 2. But we found 3D Touch to be surprising useful. Depending on how hard you press the screen, different options appear.
For example, pressing hard on an app icon on the home screen summons a shortcut menu. The Phone app's shortcut menu shows our top three Favourite contacts as well as the option to create a new contact. The Apple Maps menu shows options such as getting directions home and sending your location to a contact. It's effectively the iOS equivalent of the contextual right-click menu on a Mac or PC.
Currently, only Apple's stock apps have shortcut menus, and even then not all of them – Music and Settings are among a notable few bereft of a shortcut menu. Cleverly though, if you press hard on an app icon that doesn't have a shortcut menu, a very distinct haptic feedback vibration lets you know that there isn't one and not that you did it wrong. In any case, we expect third party apps to gain their own 3D Touch shortcut menus in short order.
Another major 3D Touch feature is what Apple calls 'Peek' and 'Pop'. Pressing hard on an item in a list, say an email in Apple Mail's inbox or a note in Apple Notes, shows you a preview of that item. You can then either swipe left or right to quickly act on that item, such as swiping left on an email to mark it as read or swipe right to delete it. Or you can swipe up for a menu of more options. Alternatively, press a little harder and the item opens in full. 'Peek' and 'Pop' also work in some other contexts, such as previewing URLs in emails.
Our favourite 3D Touch feature is one that hasn't been trumpeted by Apple though. Pressing down hard on the keyboard turns it into a touchpad for quickly moving the text insertion caret in text fields. An almost identical feature on iPads (but not older iPhones) running iOS 9 works when you press the keyboard with two fingers, but we find the 3D Touch version of this feature to be more precise.
3D Touch was very accurate in our experience. Snafus such as the screen misreading a long press as a pressure-sensitive force press or vice versa happened only occasionally. You change how much force is required for the various levels of 3D Touch pressure sensitivity in the Settings app if need be.
We're already big fans of 3D Touch and it's much more useful than its equivalent on MacBooks, Force Touch, and it's much better thought out than the similar but rushed feature on the Huawei Mate S Android phone. It may sound like a bit of a faff to activate, but 3D Touch is genuinely useful. Force Touch is much like keyboard shortcuts on a desktop or laptop – they're an alternate, quicker way of doing things that you can ignore if you want or until you're ready to integrate them into the way you work.
Screen, casing and Touch ID
Apart from 3D Touch, the screen is unchanged from the iPhone 6 Plus. Measuring 5.5in diagonally, it has a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels so text looks sharp. It's very bright with accurate colours and good contrast. The screen's sheer size, combined with a slight weight increase to accommodate the sensors needed for 3D Touch, means this phone isn't a wise choice for hose with smaller hands.
As expected for an 'S' iPhone, the 6s Plus looks almost identical to its predecessor. There's a new colour option alongside silver, grey and gold – 'rose gold' or pink to the rest of us. It won't suit everyone, but it's surprisingly ungarish and almost looks like bronze under certain lighting.
The casing is now made out of a '7000-series' aluminium alloy while the screen is topped with Ion-X glass instead of Gorilla Glass. All this is supposed to make the 6s Plus sturdier and, reading between the lines, is an obvious response to the overblown bending problems that affected a small number of 6 Plus phablets.
In any case we wouldn't drop any phone, even the 6s Plus. This is especially so as the new casing's increased grippiness, as reported by some early adopters, is overblown. It's a very subtle difference in extra tackiness at best and if you're worried about dropping this phablet, then it'd be wise to invest in a case even though this would doubtless make it even larger.
Another overstated benefit is the increased recognition speed of the Touch ID fingerprint reader. While undoubtedly faster than before, not that it was ever slow to begin with, it's not so fast that we activated by accident.
The camera is a critical feature of any smartphone and while the 6s Plus's camera has improved over the camera included in the iPhone 6 Plus, it's not in the ways you'd expect.
The jump from an eight-megapixel sensor to a 12-megapixel sensor allows for a greater level of detail in photos. Most impressively of all, Apple has managed to do this without dramatically increasing the amount of noise present – especially in low light photos. There still is some noise present of course, but it's far less noticeable compared to photos taken on smartphones that cram more megapixels onto small sensors.
Dynamic range and contrast have improved after a slight dip in the move from the iPhone 5s to the iPhone 6, but the benefits this brings to low light photos are modest at best. Optical image stabilisation remains exclusive to the Plus and it's very welcome in giving low light image quality a small but noticeable boost over the bereft iPhone 6s. The changes to still image quality may be modest, but that's only because iPhone cameras are already so well rounded.
Apple has introduced a fun but somewhat gimmicky feature called Live Photos. Turned on by default, a short three seconds of video is recorded every time you take a photo. The image and video clips are then combined into a single 'live photo' - press hard on the photo and it animates briefly. Live Photos resemble an animated GIF or the moving portraits from the Harry Potter movies.
Live Photos are best at capturing an ambience rather than specific events or actions, if only because of the low 15fps frame rate of the recorded video. There are other caveats too. The paired image and video clips take up twice as much space as a standard photo and sharing Live Photos is currently limited to other iOS 9 and Mac users until third-party app developers include support for it.
Still image quality of the 6s Plus' 12 megapixel rear camera may only be a mild improvement over the rear camera on the 6 Plus, but it's a different story when it comes to video. 1080p video can now be shot at 60fps instead of 30fps for smoother motion and action, although it can also make videos look quite artificial.
Alternatively, you can record video in 4K or 3840x2160 pixels. This might seem like an extravagance given that the 6s Plus doesn't have a 4K screen and most people don't own 4K TVs or monitors. But the extra resolution not only future proofs your footage but gives you extra creative flexibility too, such as zooming in or panning. Bear in mind that you can't record slow-motion video at 4K resolution.
However, 4K footage consumes a lot of storage space – a minute of 4K video will consume 375MB of space compared to 130MB per minute for 1080p video at 30fps. If you needed another reason to skip the basic 16GB version of the iPhone 6s Plus in favour of a higher capacity variant then this would be it.
Interestingly, while iMovie for iOS can edit 4K video its desktop counterpart on the Mac cannot. If you want to edit 4K video on your Mac, and you will for more complex projects given the limited editing tools available in iMovie on iPhone, then you'll need to buy Final Cut Pro or another professional video editing program.
In any case, video quality was generally very good – especially as the 6s Plus can optically stabilise video. The original 6 Plus could only optically stabilise stills. Oddly, the 6s Plus uses digital rather than optical stabilisation for smoothing out otherwise juddery timelapse footage. It doesn't work as well as Instagram's very similar Hyperlapse app, but it's definitely better than nothing and useful in a pinch.
If you don't groan in despair at the very mention of selfies, then you'll be overjoyed to hear that that the 1.2 megapixel front camera has been upgraded to a five-megapixel camera. Along with far more detail, the screen can also act as a flash to make low-light selfies look better.
Performance and battery life
RAM has been boosted too from 1GB to 2GB. As well as providing a measure of future proofing for running future versions of iOS and the demanding apps of tomorrow, it provides a more immediate benefit too. The extra memory means it's less likely you'll need to constantly reload webpages in your browser when switching between multiple tabs open simultaneously.
At the time of writing we're working in Mexico City. When connected to Telcel's 4G network and used for web browsing, photography, GPS turn-by-turn navigation, Skype calls as well as accessing Box cloud storage, the battery lasted 18 hours. This isn't directly comparable to our more usual (and somewhat lighter) London-based everyday test, but it shows the iPhone 6s Plus can easily last a whole working day plus a night on the town too. We'll update this review with the results of our regular, more formal battery life tests.
New iPhones and new iOS releases go hand-in-hand as the new hardware features are dependent on the latest software needed to support them. The 6s Plus comes with iOS 9 pre-installed and we've covered the details of Apple's latest mobile operating system elsewhere.
As with the 6 Plus, most of Apple's stock apps take advantage of the 6s Plus's phablet screen by offering extra features such as more buttons on the keyboard or a sidebar showing more information, such as a list of your email folders in Apple Mail. Surprisingly, we've seen relatively few third-party apps that take similar advantage.
We wish that Apple had further refined its Reachability feature. By double tapping the home button, the top of whatever is onscreen slides down so your fingers can more easily reach controls or content at the top of the screen.
Reachability is a godsend if you have small hands, but there still aren't any modifications for making controls and content on the far side of the screen easier to reach. Even with Reachability, using this phablet is often a two-handed operation.
Although the iPhone 6s Plus runs iOS 9, don't expect to see the new multitasking features, such as Split View or Picture-in-Picture, which remain exclusive to the iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4 and iPad Pro. Although such features might seem like an obvious fit on a 5.5in phablet like the 6s Plus, we've found similar features on Android phablets to be quite cramped and fiddly to use.
Unsurprisingly, the iPhone 6s Plus is a great smartphone both its own right as well as compared to its immediate predecessor and the competition. Although we're not convinced by Live Photos, everything else about this phone is useful and well-designed – especially 3D Touch which we expect to become standard on all iOS devices sooner or later. We're curious to see if the vaunted camera in Google's newly announced Nexus 6P really can outshine Apple's class-leading camera, but for now the only phone camera that match the 6s Plus's is the one in the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.
Apart from Apple's insistence on offering a base variant with an increasingly cramped and inadequate 16GB of storage, our only real quibble is that Apple doesn't sell a 4in iPhone with 6s Plus levels of features and technology – only the iPhone 5s which, while still a perfectly good and desirable smartphone, is beginning to show its age.
Still, if you want a phablet then you'd be hard pressed to find one better than the iPhone 6s Plus.
OS: iOS 9 (preloaded)
Display: 5.5in, 1080 x 1920 (401ppi)
Processor: 1.8GHz Apple A9 dual-core 64-bit + M9 co-processor
Biometrics: Touch ID fingerprint sensor
Camera: 12-megapixel with autofocus, flash, five-megapixel front-facing
Connectivity: Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, 4G, GPS/GLONASS
Ports: Lightning connector
Dimensions: 158 x 78 x 7.3 mm (WxDxH)