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Apple iPhone 6S Plus

Apple’s iPhone has always been more than just a phone handset. From the outset it has also been a pocket computer. The same is true for many Android and Windows phones [1].

While iPhones can’t do everything PCs do, they do the most important things. Modern handsets do them well enough for many people’s needs.

In the third world, phones are often people’s only experience of computers. It is how they use the internet. For them it is the computer.

Many of us living in richer countries have the luxury of owning more than one computer. That often means a desktop or laptop and a tablet and a phone.

Handset evolving role

Although the three have distinct functions, their relationship has evolved over the years. For Apple users the biggest step was last year when the IPhone 6 Plus arrived[2]

Its bigger, 5.5 inch display brought more screen real estate. That meant more flexibility in displaying information. More text can fit on a single screen. A split screen is practical.

The larger screen also makes for easy data input. Big displays mean better on screen keyboards.

It’s not the best tool for writing a thousand word story, but it can be done without discomfort. As I found out in practice. That wasn’t the case with earlier, smaller iPhone displays.

Last year the iPhone went from being a communications tool with some processing to being a productivity hub. Everything else now revolves around the phone.

Android fans will argue otherwise[3] but for me this is where Apple and Microsoft have an advantage. The phones integrate smoothly with laptops, desktops and other tools. They are much more than just phones.


  1. But let’s keep this simple, it gets tiresome writing or Android or Windows Phone ever other sentence.  ↩
  2. Apple wasn’t first to the big phone party by a long shot.  ↩
  3. Please do. I’ve not found Android’s integration with desktop computers to be as smooth or as productive as the alternatives. Yet it’s clear millions of people do work this way so it must work.  ↩

Apple iPhone 6S Plus

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.

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.  ↩

iPhone 6

Apple is working with publishers to add a new and fast-loading news app to iOS.

The app, called Apple News, will show up on iPhone and iPad home pages when iOS 9 arrives later this year.

Apple News pulls in news feeds from different publishers. It displays them in a magazine-style format like Flipboard. Readers will be able to filter their feeds so they can get the subjects they care about most.

The idea is that you’ll be able to quickly read the material you consider important from a variety of sources without jumping from one app or website to another.

In some respects it’ll replace RSS readers. They never recovered from the death of Google Reader.

Because it comes from Apple there’s an emphasis on how things look. Apple News is prettier than Google Reader replacements like Feedly. Although they set a low bar to beat.

The app will format material for iOS devices and will adjust for screen size. Most likely there will be something for Apple Watch owners too.

Apple has signed up publishers — including my technology news site. I’m curious to see how the model might work for publishers and writers.

We need fresh ideas. Few existing online publishing models work except for publishers with material worth putting behind a paywall.

Apple News will include advertising. At the same time the iOS 9 Safari browser will include optional ad blocking.

You could see this as Apple making life hard for publishers operating out the in the wild while offering something cosy inside the walled garden.

There’s another way of looking at this: Online advertising is a mess. Few publishers make more than a pittance from running banner ads, Google ads or indeed any kind of advertising. Ad sales stopped on this site because the revenue didn’t cover administering ad sales let alone other costs.

Things are extra hard for publishers when it comes to earning money from mobile readers. That’s where the audience is, but mobile ads earn a fraction of the money earned by PC browser ads. A small percentage of bugger all is not worth the effort.

It’s unlikely Apple News will do much for income, but it’s a publishing channel and business model worth exploring.

Can Apple will make it pay? That’s not a given. Remember the old iOS newsstand wasn’t a rip-roaring success. Remember how excited news publishers like Rupert Murdoch were about the iPad’s potential to save their broken business models?

Nokia 7.1 phone

New phone models arrive every month. The main phone makers all upgrade their main models once or twice a year.

You could almost set your watch by Apple’s annual iPhone launch event. It usually happens three or four months before Christmas.  Samsung and Huawei have two major launches every year. The two companies often schedule one launch for the Christmas run-up and another around the time of Mobile World Congress which takes place late in February.

Other popular brands run similar regular launch schedules.

Phone makers expect you to hang on to a device for at least two years even if they refresh their model lines every year.

Carriers agree. Their phone plans are usually two-year contracts. Remember carriers make money when you to buy new phones and roll over two-year contracts.

While two-year phone contracts are still popular, they’re not as common today as they were five years ago.

New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department depreciates phones at 67 percent a year. That implies a life expectancy of under two years.

We’re holding on for longer

No-one forces us to operate on a fixed timetable.

People hang on to phones for longer than they did in the past. Android phone users tend to keep their phones for less time than iPhone users. In  round numbers an iPhone stays in use for three years while an Android lasts about two years and eight months.

Compare this with five year-old research from Benedict Evans who said at the time that Android users keep phones for under two years. Apple iPhones stay in use for more than two years. There are interesting theories about this in the comments on Evans’ post. This may also explain why second-hand iPhones hold their value better than Android phones.

One reason people hold on to phones for longer is that each generation of upgrades is less dramatic than the past. Go back a few years and phones would change a lot from one year to the next. These days little changes other than camera upgrades and cosmetic makeovers.

Phone hardware can live for years

Phone hardware can last for ten years or more. There are no moving parts to seize up.

If you don’t drop your phone too often and it doesn’t pick up too much moisture, the battery is the first part to wear out. Constant use and charging cycles mean they degrade over time. After about three to four years use they hold as little as half the charge they managed when they were new.

You can replace most phone batteries, even those in sealed phones. The difference there is more work or the cost of paying someone to do the job. It may seem expensive, typically over NZ$100 if you pay someone to do the job, it’s a lot cheaper than buying a new phone.

Screen life

Screens tend to die somewhere between three to ten years depending on the underlying technology, the build quality and use patterns. Often it’s the screen backlighting that goes first.

There are times when a new model is compelling. I have an eye condition which means at times I squint at a tiny screen. For me the jump from the iPhone 5 to the 6 Plus wasn’t an indulgence, it was necessary.

There are other examples of when the move from one year’s model to the next brings a must-have feature. Even so, you can expect to get at least two years from a device. They should last for three or more.

iPhone 6

There are times when even the lightest, slimmest laptop is more than you want to carry. And times when there’s not enough room to use a MacBook Air.

Earlier this month I tried to work with my 13-inch MacBook Air while flying in economy class. Although the tray-table had room for the computer, there wasn’t enough space to type.

Break out the iPhone 6 Plus

I’ve been using the iPhone 6 Plus for six months now. It’s a good size for two thumb typing. The text shows large enough to check your work, although that depends on the writing app you use at the time. Best of all, the screen shows enough words for you to understand the context of what you are writing.

The iPhone 6 Plus is the best writing tool that fits in a pocket. I’ve used it to edit, update or finish off news stories while traveling on Auckland buses and ferries or sitting in cafes. This was the first time, other than artificial review-style tests, when I needed to write long-form journalism on the phone.

Normally I find the iPhone 6 Plus is fine for emails, admin and short bursts of text, but prefer something with a physical keyboard for longer writing jobs.

There were deadlines to worry about so I decided to push the technology beyond my comfort zone. I wrote a lengthy feature, two news stories and two detailed article outlines during the flight.

Plenty of good iOS writing apps

There’s no shortage of iOS writing tools to choose from. I had five loaded on the phone. So I took the opportunity to try them all.

All my iOS writing apps have clean user interfaces and all work with OS X as well. That last point is important.

Byword is the cleanest, perhaps that’s why it is my favourite. I find the simplicity is well suited to iPhone two thumb typing. It uses Markdown to embed codes like bold or headline levels in what is otherwise plain text. Best of all Byword documents are easy to read while you are editing.

Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages iOS app performed just as well in the cramped conditions. It’s good to know serious productivity is possible in such circumstances.

Sideways scrolling with Google Docs

Google Docs didn’t do as well. It’s clean and straightforward, but I couldn’t discover how to restrict the page width on the phone, so found myself continually scrolling right to left and back again.

Maybe that’s avoidable. Sitting on a plane isn’t the best place to learn how to use unfamiliar software.

iA Writer is an old favourite that didn’t fare well as expected in my enforced iPhone writing test. Although the software works fine, I found the typewriter-like font it uses is difficult to read on the small screen.

Thumbs up to iPhone 6 Plus writing in an emergency

To my surprise I managed to write more than 1500 words with my thumbs during the journey. There was barely any physical discomfort, despite writing in such cramped conditions.

The onscreen keyboard wasn’t a problem. In practice I found using the keyboard in the portrait position, that’s holding the phone upright, worked far better. When you tip the iPhone 6 Plus on its side there’s a bigger onscreen keyboard with more keys, It was harder to use and took up too much of the display to be practical.

The biggest annoyance was constantly switching between the working document and reference notes.

When I got to my hotel thanks to the magic of Bluetooth, Continuity, WiFi and iCloud my iPhone output was available on my MacBook almost immediately. Microsoft’s OneDrive was the laggard at synching. It took minutes while iCloud and Google Docs took seconds.

Error prone after MacBook Air

Some of the work looked just fine. However, I noticed a couple of plane-written documents were riddled with typos and other errors. This has always been my experience with iPhones, they cope well with simple writing, but the small screen makes them imperfect tools for proofreading. I make a lot more errors than when I type on my MacBook Air keyboard.

The Google Docs document was in worst shape. I put that down to the horizontal scrolling problem. That made checking my work on the go next to impossible.

Lesson: iPhone writing works, not ideal

Overall I was happy with the experience. Battery life wasn’t an issue, there were no ergonomic headaches, the device worked well in the circumstances. About an hour into the experiment I wondered if an external Bluetooth keyboard would help my productivity. An hour later I was convinced that wouldn’t solve anything and would undermine the usefulness of a writing device that fits in a pocket.

I didn’t get as much done as I might have done with the MacBook Air. But I got far more done that if I read a magazine or watched in-flight movies.

Better still, I managed to hit the deadlines. That wouldn’t have been possible without the iPhone 6 Plus. I estimate I worked at about three-quarters my normal speed, allow a bit more for the extra corrections needed and that’s still a productive flight.