Phones are evolving fast. This year’s flagship iPhone is a big step up in power and capability. The longer you use it, the more this becomes clear; the more you understand why it matters.

At first glance Apple’s iPhone 6S and 6S Plus1 look just like last year’s models. That is unless you’re holding one with the new Rose Gold finish 2.

Colours apart, the size and design seem unchanged. Yet the moment an iPhone 6 owner lifts the 6S they will notice something is different. The same applies to the 6 Plus and 6S Plus.

Every dimension on the new phones is a tenth of a millimetre or two larger than the older phones. Both the 6S and the 6S Plus weigh about 10 percent more than their 2014 counterparts.

The phones have more heft. They are more solid. Not that they ever were bendy.

Phones are such an integral part of our lives even minor physical changes are noticeable.

There’s another subtle, yet noticeable change. The new models are also made from a new kind of aluminium alloy.

Different feel

That makes for a different feel. Last year’s iPhone 6 models sometimes slipped from my hands, the new phones have better grip.

If you had told me, before I first picked up a 6S, that I’d notice such tiny differences, I might have laughed. And yet the changes were obvious.

Surface observations are trivial. Putting the snob value of Rose Gold to one side, external changes are no reason to choose an iPhone 6S over a 6.

What they say is more important. They tell you that there are internal changes. As it turns out, significant internal changes.

Changes

Apple’s advertising says: “The only thing that’s changed is everything”. It’s a typical Apple marketing slogan.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 2.05.22 PM

No doubt during the launch someone also said words to the effect that these are “the best iPhones ever”. Just as last year’s were and next year’s will be. The time to worry when new iPhone models are not better than those that went before.

You have to be careful with marketing-speak. While both statements are true, they are not valid reasons to spend a lot of money on a new phone. What matters is how the phones work in practice. In other words: do they bring anything new to the party?

The simple answer is that they do. Most of the important new capabilities lie inside. They will matter to existing Apple users more than people committed to alternative brands. Still, they are significant.

Touch a new dimension

Apple’s biggest innovation in the iPhone 6S is 3D touch. The phone can sense how hard you press when using the touch screen. This allows it to do new things.

If you’re on the home screen and you press an app icon, then apply extra pressure, it feels like pressing a button. There’s a slight vibration from the phone’s Taptic engine.

This is more than the usual phone vibration. Choose and press an icon for an app that is 3D touch ready and you’ll feel a single pulse vibration. You’ll also see a menu on screen offering what Apple calls quick actions.

Quick actions

There can be up to four quick actions. In some ways they are like right-clicking items on a computer. The specific quick actions depend on the app. In the case of the Pages word processor app, a single quick action allows you to open a new document.

If the app isn’t 3D touch ready, you’ll get a triple vibration. Your fingers soon learn to interpret this as a “nothing to see here, move along” message.

Written down, this may not sound like a big deal. Used daily, 3D touch and quick actions become second nature. The iPhone 6S starts to feel more responsive. The taptic engine is more than a cosmetic update.

Peek and pop

App developers can choose how to use 3D touch inside their apps. Many Apple apps already have 3D touch features. The most popular use something Apple calls “peek and pop”.

In iOS Mail, you can use the app as normal with the touch screen. Reach an interesting looking message, apply extra pressure and the message will highlight. Others fade into the background.

Press harder and a window opens in a similar way to Quick Look in the OS X Finder. This is the peek. It will show you a preview of the message.

Look inside

If you let go at this point, the message preview window closes. If, instead, you apply a little more pressure, the message opens in the normal way.

From an open preview you can move the message left or right, up or down. This will perform the normal Mail swipe actions like deleting or archiving.

All this sounds complicated and tricky. My first reaction when I read about it was to assume it would be something only keen Apple geeks would bother with. After a short demonstration I realised it’s going to be mainstream.

It took some getting used to this advanced user interface. That’s why I left it a month to write this review. I wanted to see if I was still doing these things after a few weeks. I am.

My only gripe about peek and pop is that it isn’t always there. At least not yet. Once you get the hang of it, you expect to find it in every iOS app.

That’s going to take some time. By the time the iPhone 7 rolls around most apps will use this more advanced user interface.

Processor

In general users don’t care much about the processor chips in their phones. The important point is whether a phone has enough power to keep up with the software. We care about responsiveness.

It is worth mentioning the A9 processor in the iPhone 6S. Apple says it is 70 percent faster than the A8 used in the iPhone 6 models [3].

The A9 also includes the phone’s motion coprocessor that can figure out if the phone is moving. Meanwhile Apple has doubled the Ram in the new iPhones.

In practice this means you can have many apps open all the time and switch between them without missing a beat. You can also open more browser tabs. The upshot is you can push the phone harder than in the past without running into problems.

Camera spec bumped

My work means I often have to take photos in poor light conditions. Three years ago phone cameras weren’t up to the job most of the time. That’s changed. Every phone that’s passed through my hands this year can take decent journalist-style shots.

Phone makers all emphasise the recent improvements made to their cameras. Apple is no different. The company upgraded the cameras on both the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus.

One thing I don’t like about the 2014 iPhones is the bump where the rear camera sticks out of the phone body. That hasn’t changed for the 6S and 6S Plus. You can read my review of six months with the iPhone 6 Plus here.

What has changed is camera resolution. Apple has boosted this to 12 megapixels. More pixels means being able to capture more detail. We’re at the point now where adding megapixels does little for picture quality. It does help with digital zoom. The downside is the camera captures more data, so phone memory runs out fast. Bigger pictures also chew through mobile data limits faster.

The iPhone 6s Plus now has optical image stabilisation for both video and still photos. The earlier 6 Plus model had stabilisation for stills.

My recent schedule has meant I haven’t taken many work pictures with the new phone. Most of the ones I’ve taken have been to test the camera. While stabilisation means an improvement, it’s not a dramatic step up from the iPhone 6 Plus. The difference is more noticeable with shots taken in low light conditions.

Let’s hope this works well when I have to move fast to shoot pictures on the fly.

One new feature that could help my work is Live Photos. These are short Harry Potter-style moving snapshots. In effect you capture a few seconds of movie footage, although Apple prefers not to use the M word in this context.

What I’m hoping to do with Live Photos, is, in effect keep the camera running when, say, someone is speaking. Then run through afterwards and pick out the best shot[4].

Minor niggles

The faster processor means a smoother iPhone experience. Although I never had trouble with the earlier iPhone 6 models, more speed is a productivity boost. There’s no reloading when returning to open apps after a long pause.

One persistent problem involves moving from landscape to portrait orientation. There are still times when the phone doesn’t re-orient the screen. My fix for this is to give the phone a shake. It doesn’t always do the trick.

On a similar note, some third-party apps fail to make use of the landscape orientation. That’s not something to blame on Apple. Over time this issue will fix itself.

In the past I’ve found Siri a struggle. While the software still has trouble understanding my hybrid accent, its performance is better on the iPhone 6S Plus.

Given the greater demands on memory from higher resolution pictures, a 16GB model seems like a bad idea. Unless you don’t take pictures or store music on your phone, this model seems like a non-starter.

Computer

The iPhone 6S and the 6S Plus are handheld computers that are also cameras and phones. That’s always been the case with smartphones. Until now they’ve not been able to replace desktops and laptops for day-to-day work. They weren’t powerful enough. They didn’t have big enough screens. They didn’t have the best mix of features. Now that’s changing.

Phones have already been our central productivity tool for years. There are people who use nothing else. While that’s not always practical, modern phones are able to take more and more of the burden.

Earlier this year I wrote a 1500 word feature on an iPhone 6 Plus. I tapped it out using my thumbs.

It isn’t as easy or as comfortable as doing the job on a laptop. Still, it shows that, at a pinch, I can rely more on the phone and less on the PC.

And that’s what’s happening. The iPhone continues to move centre stage. It is taking on a bigger and bigger role.


  1. Although I sometimes refer to the iPhone 6S in the text, most comments also apply to the 6S Plus.  ↩
  2. It’s no accident Rose Gold is this year’s most popular colour. It gives an outlet for those who want to make it obvious they are rocking this year’s model.  ↩
  3. Apple also says graphics are 90 percent faster. They are big claims.  ↩
  4. I’ve not yet figured out how to do this — it’ll be a project for a rainy day.  ↩
%d bloggers like this: