Apple iPhone 6s review: Solid, smart and reliable - but not the best

The iPhone 6s is a better phone than its predecessor in every possible way - another solid effort from Apple

15 Jul 2016
5
Price when reviewed 
539

Latest news: The Apple iPhone 6s is the best-selling smartphone in Britain the UK, but it may surprise you to discover that it’s popularity is on the wane in its home country, the United States of America. A recent report from Kantar Worldpanel shows that US sales of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus were overtaken by the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge in the three months to May, 2016.

With the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus accounting for 14.6% of sales and the S7 and S7 Edge gaining 16% of total sales, it’s the first time Samsung’s flagships have passed such a milestone. Remember, however, that the iPhone 6s is now nearly a year old, whereas Samsung's Galaxy S7 phones are fewer than six months into their life cycles, which goes some way to explaining the iPhone's slip in sales. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues when the next batch of figures is released.

In the UK, however, the iPhone 6s remains top dog, followed by the iPhone 5s, the Samsung Galaxy J5 and the iPhone SE (in that order), with the S7 not even appearing in the top four places.

Apple iPhone 6s review: In-depth

The iPhone 6s was always going to be a fantastic smartphone. Just as every 'S' edition iPhone released before it, it's a quicker phone that adds more features than its predecessors but does so within the same chassis. It’s likely more people than ever are going to buy it, too – and no, it still doesn’t have a microSD slot or a removable battery.

You could argue that this much was inevitable. Last year’s iPhone was equally impressive, and there’s no way that the slickest company in the world would put out a phone worse than last year’s. Simply put, it’s reliability incarnate.

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Those who want to skip straight to the specs will find all the details at the end of this review, in an easily digestible format. There, you’ll find sections on performance, battery life, screen quality and differences in design – everything you need to draw a direct comparison between the iPhone 6s, the iPhone 6 and its key rivals.

What those benchmark numbers and test results can’t tell you, however, is what Apple’s new phone is like to use. Because despite the fact that this is an "s" release – which is usually supposed to herald boosted performance, a better camera and little else – the iPhone 6s is something more. Thanks to 3D Touch, the iPhone 6s represents the biggest leap forward for smartphones since the very first iPhone back in 2007.

Apple iPhone 6s review: 3D Touch takes a bow

The reason for this is 3D Touch, Apple’s new take on touchscreen interaction. Put simply, the iPhone 6s is designed to respond not only to where and how long you press the screen, but also how hard you do it. To use Apple’s Phil Schiller’s own words, it's the next step in smartphone interaction, with Apple, in effect, attempting to sense “intent”, to draw users into a thoughtless action that is entirely intuitive.

It’s the sort of intention that’s at the heart of all good interface and hardware design – the thing Apple has made a habit of executing successfully over the years – and by gum 3D Touch pulls off exactly that trick. The pressure sensitive layer, coupled with a network of sensors behind the 6s’ slightly pliable glass, is able to measure the distance between the glass and the LCD beneath with pinpoint accuracy.

That means that not only can it sense you’re pressing the screen, but also how hard you’re applying said pressure. It isn’t the first time this feat has been achieved in a smartphone, but unlike Huawei, which beat Apple to the punch in launching the pressure-sensitive Huawei Mate S at IFA 2015, Apple has clearly thought long and hard about what to do with it.

In its most basic form, 3D Touch is effectively adding a right-click capability to the iPhone 6s. Press the icon of a compatible app on the homescreen a little harder than usual, and up pops a context-sensitive menu, offering options and shortcuts related to the app in question. The camera app gives you Selfie, Video, Slo-mo and Take Photo shortcuts; Safari offers up links to your reading list, bookmarks, as well as standard and private tab creation.

Apple iPhone 6s review: Context sensitive menu in 3D Touch

There are more sophisticated actions than this, though. Press the screen once – on a web link, for instance – and a preview of the webpage appears. Slide your finger up a touch and extra options for sharing and saving appear. Press a touch harder, and you pop off to somewhere else in the OS – Safari in the case of a web link. Apple calls these preview, then launch behaviours “peek” and “pop”, and while it takes a bit of getting used to, I soon found myself taking it for granted.

The list of places that 3D Touch is implemented across iOS 9 is extensive. It can be used in the email app to take a quick look at messages without leaving the list view, to view the new Live element of your photos (more on this later), and on the keyboard, where you can press then drag to reposition the cursor. In the Notes app, it’s possible to sketch with your finger and push harder for a heavier pen stroke, and in Apple Maps it can be used to get quick directions from your current location - by simply pressing down a little harder to launch the Actions menu.

From a hardware perspective, 3D Touch is beautifully implemented. You don’t have to press too hard to activate the first level of pressure sensitivity, and the iPhone’s new Taptic Engine provides a slight tickle of feedback every time you reach a pressure threshold, to leave you in no doubt over what action you’ve just performed. Even if you don’t get on with the way it’s set up initially, it’s possible to adjust the sensitivity in the Accessibility settings, although I had no problem with it at all with it at the default settings.

The implementation of 3D Touch is mighty impressive. It’s the sort of leap forward that may well transform the way we all use our phones in the future, much like the pinch-to-zoom and swipe-to-scroll gestures have revolutionised the way we interact with our mobile devices over the years. Right now, however, 3D Touch doesn’t feel quite finished, and in some places it isn’t implemented in a terribly consistent way.

Apple iPhone 6s review: 3D Touch in action

That will change over time as app and (most excitingly) game developers get hold of the new technology and try out new ideas. And, slowly but surely, developers are adding support for the feature. Instagram, CityMapper, Evernote, Trello and Shazam are among the big names that have integrated 3D Touch already, and in Badlands you also have a major game that's using it, too, to control the speed of characters on-screen.  

And there are some obvious missed opportunities, too. A two stage camera shutter button? Nothing to see here. How about a way to peek at apps in the new multitasking view. Nowhere in sight (although it is possible to now launch into the multitasking screen by hard-pressing the left-hand side of the homescreen). What about a heavier press on the keyboard to bring up numbers and symbols? No dice.

Fortunately, 3D Touch is due an upgrade soon, and although the current tranche of features is pretty slim, iOS 10 will bring more ways to use it. You can read our first impressions of iOS 10 here, but to summarise, the reach of 3D Touch is going to be significantly extended come September, when the next OS upgrade hits consumers’ smartphones.

One example of this is the newly redesigned Control Center. As well as being divided up into panels, it’s now 3D Touch enabled. Press down on the flashlight button, for instance, and you’ll see a popup menu offering you three different levels of brightness:low, medium and high. The camera icon offers options to take a photo, capture a slow-mo video, take a selfie or record a normal video.

Push down on the calculator button and you’re presented with the option to copy your last result to the clipboard. Finally, if you hard press the timer icon you’ll see four preset options: one minute, five minutes, 20 minutes or one hour.

3D Touch, even nearly a year after the launch of the iPhone 6s remains a work in progress, but Apple continues to back it, and soon it’ll become part of the fabric of the OS - something you can’t imagine you could ever do without.

Price when reviewed 
539inc VAT, 16GB £619, 64GB; £699, 128GB; from £125 on a 24mth, £39/mth contract

Apple iPhone 6s specifications

Processor

Apple A9 with integrated M9 motion co-processor

RAM

2GB

Screen size

4.7in

Screen resolution

750 x 1,334, 326ppi (Ion-strengthened glass)

Screen type

IPS

Front camera

5MP

Rear camera

12MP (phase detect autofocus)

Flash

Dual-LED

GPS

Yes

Compass

Yes

Storage

16/32/64GB

Memory card slot (supplied)

No

Wi-Fi

802.11ac

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 4.1 LE, A2DP

NFC

Yes (for Apple Pay only)

Wireless data

4G

Size (WDH)

67 x 7.1 x 138mm

Weight

143g

Operating system

iOS 9

Battery size

1,715mAh

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