iPhone 6s review: New phone looks the same but feels completely different

It's an "S" year, which means that the outside of the phone hasn't changed — but that doesn't mean that Apple is slacking

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The Independent Tech

So here we are, it’s an “Apple s” year — that is, the second year in the design cycle the company employs for its iPhones. In an s year, the new phone looks near-identical to the iPhone before, in this case the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

I’ve been using both of the new handsets for just under two weeks now. As last year, both phones share a lot of capabilities, so I’ll talk about both of them here and go into separate detail for the larger of the two, the 6s Plus, elsewhere.

Both handsets look similar to last year’s predecessors. But for the first time, hurrah, there are bigger visual differences. After all, you don’t want everyone thinking you’ve got last year’s edition. So the back of the phone has an S logo to indicate it’s new.

The other difference is a new colour, rose gold. If you want to be absolutely sure everyone knows you’re bang up to date, rose gold is the way to go. Plus, it’s an attractive, understated shade that is elegant without being exclusively feminine.

Otherwise, if you’re familiar with the look of the iPhone 6 – and a highly attractive look it is, which has done blockbuster business for Apple – you’ll know what the new phone looks like.

It’s fractionally heavier and thicker than last year’s models, though unless you have both together you’re unlikely to notice any difference. And the trade-off, Apple says, is a phone that’s tougher, front and back. Time will tell, though I’ve certainly not seen any sign of damage or, heavens forfend, bending.

In s years, Apple refreshes from the inside, beefing up processors, camera sensors and more. That’s the case here, and Apple says the changes are comprehensive.

Touch ID

It’s true. Look no further than Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor on the phones. It arrived with the iPhone 5s and was very efficient, making it quick, secure and easy to unlock the phone with a press of your digit. At least, it felt fast until you try this phone.

Here, it’s ridiculously quick. In fact, if you want to show someone your lock screen, you’d better be super-speedy. It’s the smoothest, fastest fingerprint sensor on any phone, even beating the slick Sony Xperia Z5. Though to be frank, Sony’s version won’t disappoint.

Touch ID is only one way in which the phone feels faster – the iPhone 6 was slick enough but this feels like an even snappier performer.

Live Photos

That lock screen is a show-off point because you can now use it to display Live Photos. These are curious but splendid photos which include in them three seconds of, not quite video, but a bunch of frames taken before and after you press the shutter button. They’re then assembled into a montage which brings the photo to life as never before. Think Harry Potter and the moving pictures that appear in the Daily Prophet and you’ll get the idea. These are images which are eye-catching and unique.

Other smartphones, most notably those from Nokia and HTC, have introduced video/photo hybrids, but this is the simplest to use. You take the photo entirely as normal and the phone does the rest. True, the natural reaction when you’ve pressed the shutter button is to lower your phone, which means the end of the montage is a kerfuffle of indistinct movement but a software update is on its way to sort this – it will sense when you lower the phone and not record these bits.

In the meantime the more you use Live Photos, the more you learn to leave your camera in place for the second or so after you’ve pressed the shutter, as that creates a better effect. A good tip: less is more – smaller movements work better. It’s not the same as shooting video.

To view Live Photos on the iPhone 6s or 6s Plus you press forcefully on the screen. On other iOS devices you need to be running the latest software, iOS 9, and on Macs running El Capitan. Note that if you send Live Photos by email they go as a jpeg only. To send them as Live Photos it has to be via iMessage, AirDrop, iCloud Photo Sharing or iCloud Photo Library. You bring them alive by pressing and holding on the screen of an earlier iDevice.

When you do, the image goes blurry and then plays the video-like frames. I’m not mad about the blur transition but it means there’s no sudden jolt from still to moving image. The overall effect is slightly strange but decidedly cool.

Even better, as you swipe from shot to shot in your Photos library on the iPhone 6s, you’re presented with a glimpse of the moving pictures as you go. This can be disconcerting at first – I now have a hundred pictures of my dog where the still suddenly comes awake as she turns to look at me. But the still image itself is still the prime element.

The lock screen also comes with Apple’s own Live Photo creations, a series of striking animations of colourful fish swimming away from the camera. Activating these can quickly become addictive.

Live Photo only works on full-frame photos, not square photos and the like.

3D Touch

That activation is done by the most striking upgrade of all: 3D Touch. This is an advanced version of Force Touch, found on MacBook trackpads and on the Apple Watch. It adds pressure-sensitivity to the capacitive touchscreen to create extra ways to interact with the phone.

When I first heard about it, I thought it would be too complicated, an interface too far. Do we really need things to be more complex than they are? But in use, it’s quietly revelatory.

There are multiple uses. First, there’s Peek and Pop. Don't be put off by the name.

Say you’re looking at the list of emails in your inbox. Instead of opening an email then having to navigate back to the list, a slightly heavier press lets you peek at the email. Release your finger and you zoom back out. It’s only a tiny time saver but once you have it, you won’t want to be without.

But if it’s a message you just must read, press harder and it’ll pop open in the normal fashion. Start using this and phones that lack this feature seem underpowered.

Then there are quick actions. These appear when you press hard on an app shortcut icon. On camera, for instance, it’ll offer you a shortcut menu to taking a selfie, taking a regular photo, recording video or slo-mo. Forcibly touch Apple Music and it’ll give the option to stream Beats One, the Apple internet radio station, instantly. Press an app that doesn’t yet have a 3D Touch shortcut, like Settings, and the phone pulses as though it were shaking its digital head no. That pulse comes from an improved Taptic Engine, you know the buzzy feedback you sometimes get when you touch the screen. But this is subtler and more precise than before, and you notice the difference.

There are other innovations, too. My favourite is the keyboard. When sending a text or email, a force press anywhere on the keyboard makes the keys vanish and instead as you move the finger left and right the cursor in the text box moves accordingly. Simpler than going to the text box directly. In the Notes app pressure can create heavier strokes as you draw.

This force-touching has already changed the way I use the iPhone. Some elements, like quick actions, are straightforward, others more complicated. When you’re Peeking at an email from the list an arrow appears at the top of the screen. Follow it by swiping up and a series of further options appear such as reply, forward or move message.

3D Touch is a radical hardware-based improvement to the user interface and it quickly becomes second nature. I’d say it’s the most important interface improvement for years and its uses will grow exponentially. Huawei has already built something similar, though it’s not as cleverly implemented – expect other manufacturers to add this to their handsets as soon as they can.

Camera

The new rear camera has had its pixel count boosted from eight megapixels to 12, promising reduced image noise, greater sharpness and realistic colours. I’d love to say I’d noticed a big difference but the truth is iPhone photos are so cleverly processed they have always looked stunning and been hard to beat. Now, there’s more detail, evident when you zoom in to a photo. But mostly the photos continue to look better, brighter and subtler than on most other camera phones.

Taking the shot is the key feature here: there are limited menus, few choices to make and little to distract you from the importance of point-and-shoot. It’s the simplest interface but the results are strong enough to persuade you that Apple is doing the heavy lifting in the background. There are more obvious benefits in panorama shots which can now add up to a whopping 63-megapixel image. And in video, where 4K recording is possible – though you need to choose this as your recording resolution in settings beforehand.

Most of us don’t have a 4K TV to play such high-resolution video back on, but not only does it look great on the iPhone’s screen, it looks stunning when you pinch-to-zoom during playback. Some recent phones with 4K video capability have shown a tendency to overheat to the point of shutting down but this isn’t a problem here.

The front-facing camera is now a five-megapixel model and has a flash. Handy, because the selfies you’ll be taking, you vain thing, will probably be in dim light conditions. Instead of a regular flash, though, it uses the display to flash brightly. The camera notes the ambient light and chooses the colour of the onscreen light to improve the result. It’s brighter than the display conventionally goes, but not as dazzling as a regular flash. Still, flash = bad, generally, so this may prove to be better.

 

 

 

 

Battery life

The battery may not be as big on these new phones as last year’s models but the improved processor and iOS 9 have meant that I haven’t noticed any drop in time between recharges. For the iPhone 6s I’m still getting a day’s use, though using it in conjunction with an Apple Watch means the phone battery is working to deliver data to the Watch and has a shorter life than without.

The iPhone 6s Plus also lasts as before, a full day and more, even with a Watch at its side.

One day, it would be great to say that the iPhone’s battery matches the two-day life Sony’s handsets often boast. For now, battery life is absolutely acceptable, but not outstanding.

Verdict

As you’d hope, the iPhone 6s is better than its predecessor with a few elements, like the battery, that are merely as good. The new features are strong, especially 3D Touch, whose usability will grow and is already transformative. The improved camera is welcome though iPhone users have rarely felt their phone’s snapper wasn’t up to snuff. And Live Photos, the more you use them, are tremendous fun. Though there are some features which rivals have and the iPhone does not – like wireless charging and widespread NFC use – the innovations Apple has introduced are useful, intuitive and just better, actually. The design may not have changed but the inner beauty has, and these are enough to put the iPhone out in front again.

Click here to buy the iPhone 6 from Carphone Warehouse and click to here to buy the iPhone 6 from Apple

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