Review: iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus

Many people look at the “s” model of the iPhone as a less significant release than the years Apple does a full design change, but that’s just not the case. This year’s iPhone 6s and 6s Plus is full of new features and is probably the strongest “s” model iPhone Apple has ever released. I’ve been using the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus for about a week and a half, having received the devices from Apple two days after the September 9 keynote.

While the outer design of the iPhone has remained largely unchanged, the way we navigate the device, the camera, photos, LTE, Wi-Fi, the processor, Touch ID, and lots more have changed dramatically.

Let’s jump in and look at one of my favorite features of the new iPhone.

3D Touch

It’s not very difficult to take a look at any mobile device these days and recognize the inefficiencies in navigation. You tap your way into an app; complete your task; and tap your way back out.

There are times when you don’t even need to look at something, say an email message, but we do because that’s the only way to see it. 3D Touch solves that problem.

3D Touch is a pressure sensitive action that allows you to “peek” and “pop” items on your phone. For example, let’s say you have a screen full of emails that you want to read. In the past, you would tap to go into the message, scan the contents, and make a decision to leave it read, change it to unread, reply, etc. Then you would move on to the next message and repeat.

With 3D Touch, I can press lightly on the message and it will open in the middle of the screen, allowing me a “peek” at what the content is. If I press a little harder, the message will “pop” open for me and I can interact with it as I normally would. If you let go of the message while it is peeking, the message goes back into the list and you can move on to the next one, without losing your place.

However, if I decide I want to deal with the message right away from the peek screen, I can just swipe up and a menu appears at the bottom of the screen allowing me to Reply, Forward, Mark, Notify Me, or Move Message. All of the things I would want to do with a message can easily be accomplished from this one screen.

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Peek and Pop work all over the place on iPhone. In Apple Music, you can use it to view albums and playlists; you can view Messages and texts; You can set calendar events, view flight info, view images and videos and all kinds of other things.

3D Touch is one of the handiest features that I’ve seen from Apple in a long time. It’s not just that it’s cool, it actually saves me time. It’s a new way to navigate the iPhone that’s quick, easy, and efficient.

This technology also includes Quick Actions. These are actions you can get to quickly by just pressing on an app icon. For instance, if I press on Mail, I get a menu of items including All Inboxes, VIP, Search, and New Message. Tapping one of these takes me right to that action in Mail.

A number of Apple apps have Quick Actions built-in. I found Mail, Safari, Messages, Phone, Apple Music, Calendar, Maps, Camera, Photos, Notes, App Store, FaceTime, Wallet, Find Friends, iBooks, Game Center, Contacts, and Reminders, all have some kind of working Quick Actions.

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There are Apple apps that don’t have Quick Actions yet. Those include, Weather, Settings, Watch, Health, Activity, Numbers, Pages, Keynote, GarageBand, Connect, iTunes U, Podcasts, Stocks, Apple Store, Remote, AirPort Utility, Find iPhone, iMovie, and Videos.

3D Touch and Quick Actions are definitely something you will have to get used to. There are things we’re used to doing on the iPhone, like pressing on an app icon to delete it, that will take a bit of practice to get right. I had a difficult time tapping on an Apple Music playlist to bring up the menu—it would always go into “peek” mode for me. It took a couple of days, but I finally got my thumb to do it properly.

I expect more third-party developers to adopt Quick Actions in their apps with the next round of updates. It’s very useful and something I’ll be looking for from them.

12 Megapixel Camera and Live Photos

Apple’s new 12-Megapixel camera is more than just a higher spec camera. Apple knows that higher megapixels doesn’t necessarily mean better pictures for the average user.

In addition to increasing the megapixels of the camera, Apple also included an Apple-designed image signal processor, advanced pixel technology, and improved noise reduction. All of these things together will give you some of the best pictures that you can take on a smartphone today.

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One of the things I’ve noticed in using the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus is that I can now take much better pictures in low-light situations. I’ve always found the iPhone camera to be lacking in this area, but the new one is much better.

I’m far from a professional photographer, so anything Apple can do to help me make my photos better is welcomed. What I’ve seen so far is impressive.

Adding to all of the technological advances is a new feature called Live Photos. With Live Photos, you take a photo like you normally would, but the camera will capture 1.5 seconds before, and 1.5 seconds after the shot. When you press on the picture in your photo app, the picture plays like a movie for those few seconds. It’s really cool to see what happened directly before and after you snapped the pic.

Live Photos is something else that you’ll need to get used to—if you drop the camera too quickly after taking a picture, it will capture that movement at the end of the photo. You need to keep the camera up until the “Live” indicator goes off your screen. It only takes a few times to get used to doing that and then you’ll remember.

You can also turn off Live Photos if you want—it’s right on the camera screen, so it’s really easy to get to. Having used it for a while now, I can’t imagine why you would want to though.

You can share Live Photos using iMessage, iCloud Photo Sharing, or AirDrop. The Live Photos can be viewed on OS X El Capitan, Apple Watch running watchOS 2, and of course, on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. You can even set a Live Photo as your wallpaper or lock screen.

Apple’s front-facing FaceTime camera also supports Live Photos and will take much better selfies now. Not only is the camera better, but it now uses the Retina HD display as a flash for your FaceTime HD camera. Here’s how Apple describes how this works:

When you snap a selfie, a preflash detects the lighting around you. Then a True Tone flash on the display matches the ambient light for a gorgeous shot with more true-to-life colors and more natural-looking skin tones. Retina Flash is powered by an innovative technology—a custom display chip that allows the display to flash three times brighter than usual.

In other words, amazing.

4K Videos

Of course, photos isn’t the only thing that changed with the new iPhone—you can now shoot 4K video.

You can shoot at 3840 by 2160—that’s four times higher than 1080p HD video. You can even zoom in while you’re recording or playing back your 4K video. 4K video supports video stabilization, continuous autofocus, face detection, and you can take an 8MP still while recording.

It’s not hard to see the difference when you record using 4K. This is one of those features that I didn’t think I’d use a whole lot, but I definitely changed my mind.

If you plan to shoot at 4K, you have to go into Settings > Photos & Camera and turn that on. 4K is off by default. You can also now record slo-mo videos at 1080p at 120 fps—the settings for this are in the same place as the 4K settings.

Of course, if you’re planning to shoot 4K video, you’ll want to edit that video and Apple has that covered too. The new version of iMovie on the iPhone can edit and even share to YouTube at 4K resolution. The new iPhones can even edit two streams of 4K video to create effects like picture-in-picture and split screen.

Finally, Apple made optical image stabilization, introduced in the iPhone 6 Plus for photos, available for photos and video for that device.

Touch ID

Apple’s fingerprint sensor, called Touch ID, was one of my favorite features when it was released. It allowed me to quickly unlock the iPhone using my thumb print. It’s safe, secure and easy to use.

So, how do you improve on that? Make it faster.

Apple made the Touch ID sensor so fast that when you tap to wake the phone up, it has already read your fingerprint and unlocks. Really, it’s that fast. In older phones, you would tap to wake the phone up, then rest your finger on the sensor—no need for that anymore.

The sensor is so fast now, I’ve had to change the way I touch the phone in order to see notifications. In the past, I could tap the home button, but it wouldn’t unlock, allowing me to browse through the notifications on the lock screen.

With the new iPhone I have to use a different finger, because the phone will unlock right away.

That’s not a complaint. It’s amazing how fast the new sensor is and I’m glad it works that quickly.

Design, A9, LTE, and Wi-Fi

It seems amazing that I’m putting things like design and an upgraded processor in the “other” category of this review, but I warned you in the beginning that there was a lot of changes in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

I mentioned earlier that the design of the new iPhone remained largely unchanged, but the materials did change. Apple is now using 7000 Series aluminum—the same grade used in the aerospace industry. The company also strengthened the glass using a special process to make, what it says, is the strongest smartphone glass in the industry.

The 64-bit A9 chip delivers 70 percent faster CPU performance than the A8 chip found in the iPhone 6. It also delivers 90 percent faster GPU performance. That’s a staggering performance increase in just one generation.

The new iPhone supports up to 23 LTE bands, allowing better worldwide roaming. The devices also support LTE Advanced (up to 300 Mbps). With 802.11ac with MIMO can deliver speeds up to 866 Mbps. I’ve never had many complaints about LTE or Wi-Fi speeds, but these types of improvements are always welcome.

Bottom Line

I expected the new iPhones to deliver faster components—the “s” models usually do. What I didn’t expect was the depth of everything else the iPhone delivered.

Quick Actions, 3D Touch, faster Touch ID, 4K video, better photos, Live Photos—these are all things that are going to make the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus even better for me as a user.

That’s what I expect from Apple—make the software and hardware fast and easy to use. Allow me to be efficient and get my work (or play) done quickly, and with an ease of use that they’ve become known for.

That’s what I expect and that’s what Apple delivered. In the time that I’ve been using the new iPhones, I haven’t found anything I didn’t like or that didn’t work as it should.

That’s quite an achievement considering how much has changed.



  • Jim McPherson

    Here’s what I’m worried about: I’ll get so accustomed to 3D Touch that I’ll try to do it on iPad, and fail, and get frustrated. Any experience with that?

    • William D

      I can only think that this will come to the iPad. Like TouchID it’s bound to drive us mad! I was surprised it wasn’t in the iPad Pro (Guess they didn’t want to overpack it with new features in gen 1 and make it even thicker and heavier)

    • johnnygo

      Have to concur with both: 3D touch has to be in all your devices, otherwise you will always be second-guessing how to press !

    • crichton007

      I think it will be similar to Touch ID. I have it on my iPhone but not my iPad. There were a few times, at first, when I waited for my iPad to recognize my finger print and realized that it couldn’t. After a day or two I just remember the difference.

      • Jim McPherson

        I still try to to Touch ID on my iPad Air once in a while.

      • I think it’s not quite the same as Touch ID. Touch ID is used for unlocking the device, but then 90% of your interactions don’t use it. This affects every user interaction in many UIs.

        That said, I really missed touch ID on my iPad when I got my touch ID-enabled iPhone. Things like 1Password unlocking really stood out.

    • This is one of the reasons that, despite being really interested in the iPad Pro, I’ll likely wait for it to get 3D Touch.

      • Umair Itrat

        Same

  • johnnygo

    Congrats Jim ! First review out ! Have to agree with you: Apple did change a lot in this “S” cycle and all for the better. Hopefully these changes will trickle down to other iOS devices (iPad) and software makers adapt their software to take full advantage of it.

    BTW have you run any benchmark ? The scores are out of this world: 50% better single core bmk vs iP6, >3x vs iP5/iP5c (3.5x !!!)

    • James

      Historically, the S model has added one major feature that stands the test of time – Siri (4s), TouchID (5s), and now 3D Touch (6s), hopefully. S models are definitely the way to go and this will be my first S model upgrade (still on the 5).

  • William D

    If I take a ‘Live Photo’ and then want to ‘down-convert it’ back to a normal, smaller sized, photo, can I do this after the fact?

    • James

      Great question…

    • Lef

      The photo and the video portions of the live photo are saved independently. Using image capture, you’d see two identically named files, one a JPG, the other a MOV.

  • I would have wished for a more detailed camera comparison between iPhone 6 and 6s (Plus). Especially from a “far from professional” point of view.

    Also, is it really true that Live Photos cannot be viewed on an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus? Just because it’s missing 3D Touch? No icon to tap on and animate the Live Photo? This sounds like an arbitrary limitation. Bummer! In my opinion every recent device should at least be able to view Live Photos to create awareness of the feature and the desire to record them yourself (helps Apple selling new iPhones).

    I did not yet try out the new Touch ID sensor but I believe I would be quite annoyed if every time I just want to check notifications the phone would unlock and I have to use a different finger to do so (have already registered 4 fingers with Touch ID). I would have to adapt to the phone where it should be the other way round.

    • Adrayven

      Incorrect. Any iPhone from 5s on up can VIEW live photo’s (read his comment on using messages).

      I think only the 6s can CREATE them.. because it took some tweaking of the camera to allow always capture pre-post photo of 1.5 second buffer.

    • Justin

      You can also bring up the lock screen by pressing the power button instead of the home button. Then there’s no chance of activating TouchID.

  • lkalliance

    When I’m shooting with my DSLR I often shoot rapid-fire, knowing I’ll just keep the best one and delete the rest. For the life of me I don’t remember if I do the same with my phone…perhaps I do sometimes (it’s something I just do, without thinking about it).

    How is that affected by Live Photos? Do I have to wait the extra couple of seconds after Picture X before I can release the shutter on Picture X+1?

    • Without having tested it I would assume that you’re going to shoot Live Photos if you just tap and burst photos if you tap and hold. The iPhone does this differentiation ever since burst photos were introduced.

    • James

      Good question. I think Oliver’s reply makes the most sense.

  • One Touch ID trick I use on my iPhone 6+ that I assume would be even handier on the 6S+: if I’m interested in seeing the lock screen and notifications, I press the button with the side of my finger, so that it’s not completely over the sensor. That avoids “errant unlocks.”

    Also, Reachability doesn’t need you to have the finger over the entire home button, you can just touch any part of the touch ID sensor twice and it’ll do the trick. You can even just “brush” the edge of the sensor twice.

    Between these two, I’ve found myself switching between full-thumb and half-thumb manipulation of the home button, which works well. That, and using the Notifications swipe-down more often when I miss a home screen notification.

    • Brad Fortin

      I usually avoid accidental unlocks by pressing with my fingernail instead of my skin. Seems to work so far.

      • James

        Cut your nails, man. Jk.

  • David

    Jim, can you try an iPhone 6 Apple leather or silicon case on the 6s? How does it fit?

  • Apple advertises “Time-lapse video with stabilization” for the 6S and 6S Plus. Does this feature work like Instagram’s Hyperlapse app, which uses the gyroscopes to stabilize the time lapse?

    • James

      I would imagine it uses the built-in OIS.

  • ann onymous

    A nice quick review, but I do wish people would stop just regurgitating the Apple PR line about 7000 series aluminum being from the ‘aerospace industry’. Firstly, the aerospace industry is massive and not necessarily any more advanced that the stuff Apple is doing in consumer electronics (just look at their machining and fit tolerances). Secondly, all sorts of grades of aluminum are used in aerospace. The 6000 series used previously certainly is, so it’s not a unique designation for 7000 series.

  • Phil

    Jim did you put that first screen shot just for me? Mötley Crüe!! Nice. ;-)

  • Phil

    So I am absolutely lusting after these “s” cycle phones…I’ve been on the “s” cycle since the 3GS. However, I guess I’m shit out of luck and will have to look else where for my 4″ smartphone with all of the modern technologies. Really disappointed that Apple see’s no room in their line up for an iPhone with 4″ screen. I absolutely find my wife’s 4.7″ iPhone 6 unusable and don’t even get me started on the ridiculousness of the 6+. >:-(

    • I’m sure Apple is not ignoring a large market idly, they have the sales numbers, as does every other manufacturer. I suspect the 4″ screens simply don’t sell when there are larger alternatives.

      I used to be a die-hard 4″ phone person with my iPhone 5, but decided to try and question that assumption (wondering why everyone went for larger phones), and found that I could fit the 6+ in my pockets, and bought it. It took some acclimation, probably a month or two. After that, though, I got it: once you get used to the larger screen, the iPhone 5 feels very small, and the iPhone 4 literally feels like a kid’s toy. Both feel useless now compared to my 6+.

      I’m not saying you should get a 6S 6S+, just that for any new device and form factor there is an acclimation period, where it may be uncomfortable, but advantages pop out with acclimation. The 6/6S (non-Plus) also are much thinner than the older iPhones which IMO make them feel smaller than they are. YMWV, of course.

      • Phil

        Janak, appreciate the thoughts but my feeling about the size of the 6/6+ are not uniformed. I have used my wife’s 6 fairly extensively and find its size to be outside my comfort zone. I’m almost exclusively a “one-handed” iPhoner. I use my 5s one handed without issue. I’ve nearly dropped my wife’s phone countless times trying to use it one handed like I naturally do with my 5s. The other issue is the 6 does not fit comfortably into my front pants pocket. While I love the more advanced technology in the new phones the size is just a deal breaker for me. I may have no choice though. I’ve researched 4″ phones and there really nothing even on the Android side in that form factor. Guess I’m stuck with my iPhone 5s.

        • Well, a grippy case + Reachability helps if you want to one-hand an iPhone 6. But, to each their own, of course; I certainly one-hand my phone less now and, for me, the large-screen benefits have (over time) have way outweighed one-handability.

          On the Android side, I’ve heard the Xperia Z5 Compact is at the forefront of small phones, but it’s not that much smaller than an iPhone 6 (although it may have slimmer bezels). The fact of the matter is that 4.5″-4.7″ phones are getting rare, let alone 4″ phones. I know folks who had the original Moto X that are lamenting that even Motorola went large.

          But I can’t be of help calibrating anymore. I find the Nexus 5, for instance, incredibly small and one-handable now. ;)

          • Phil

            Have never used a case on my iPhone and never will. I’m in the Gruber camp on cases. I don’t find Reachability all that helpful as the double tap on the home button conflicts with my natural instinct to double click on the home button for app switching.

            Finding that I’m pretty much SOL as there seems to be no one making smaller form factor phones anymore. And Android really isn’t an options as I’ve been in the Apple ecosystem since 1986 and in the iOS ecosystem since 2007. Just getting my rants out here as I realize I’m going to be forced into the 6s or 6s+ size regardless of the platform I go with.

            Ironically if I do buy a new iPhone I’m going to go with the 6s+. If I’m going to have a phone that I feel is “too big” I may as well just go all the way to the biggest screen possible and maximize that benefit. Also there is no possible way for me to use the 5.5″ phone one-handed so I won’t be tempt to try. I find that the 4.7″ phone is small enough that I think I can use it one-handed and that’s when I nearly drop it.

            Thanks for letting me vent. ;-)

          • I think this was kind of my feeling too when I switched to the iPhone 6+. Except… I learned to like it a lot. You just might find the same happen to you. Or not. ;-)

            (I do find the iPhone 6 frustratingly in-between, and paired with its slippery texture I can see why you find it frustrating. Rumor has it the 6S+ is a bit more grippy.)

          • Demonstr8r

            I’m a few days late reading the article and comments, but wanted to share my experience in case that helps you make a decision.

            I suggest going with the 6 or 6s (not the plus) this year, and then potentially going with the larger phone in a year or two, if you decide you want even more screen real-estate. This will help ease the transition.

            I never put a case on any previous iPhone, but decided to use an Apple leather case when I bought the iPhone 6 last year because of the thin and slippery feel of the phone. I’ve been very happy with it ever since. I like the look and feel. The only minor issue is that moving icons to a different home screen is occasionally a little awkward because of the small amount of leather that rises above the edge of the screen, but I can live with this knowing I’m far less likely to drop my phone.

            After a year with the iPhone 6, I’m ready for the larger 6s+ and getting a black leather Apple case for it too.

        • Another thought to my previous response, while I’m at it: I’ll add that the iPhone 5 was out of my comfort zone for pure one-handability anyway, compared to my iPhone 4, so perhaps that cushioned my transition.

          I think I gave up one-handability because my use cases have changed. In the old days, walking around New York calling people was my primary use case; one-handing was incredibly useful for that. Now I almost never call people, but rather text/etc., and for those, I’m usually two-handing anyway.