The iPhone 6S Plus, Apple‘s second super-sized smartphone, is for all intents and purposes a souped-up 6 Plus. A year on from the #Bendgate brouhaha it’s been tweaked and tinkered with to make a more reliable PR partner for its smaller iPhone 6S sibling to take on the Android army. It’s sold out already, so it’s working.
The 6S Plus rights many perceived wrongs of the 6 Plus with a reinforced body, a souped-up camera, a lightly twiddled OS, some unexpected display and interface upgrades, and a host of new features swept up from around the tech world. Last year it felt like the oddity in the line-up, but in 2015, this feels like the flagship.
- A fine-looking phone
- Camera noticeably improved
- 3D Touch is a real plus
- Best app store going
- Solid battery
- Heavier than last year’s
- No split-screen multi-tasking
iPhone 6S Plus Design: If it ain’t broke, reinforce it
The iPhone 6S Plus is a phone we’re already pretty familiar with, what with it looking almost identical to last year’s well-received iPhone 6 Plus, in all its “slimmed-down original iPhone” glory. It’s still a super-slick device in spite of its 158.2mm x 77.9mm size, impossibly slender at 7.3mm deep, and aesthetically ruined by any case you enforce on it.
While it may still take a while for the smaller of hand to get to grips with its plus-size proportions (Samsung’s Galaxy S6+ Edge squeezes more screen into a smaller chassis), a year on and the iPhone 6S Plus feels far more manageable. Plus-size phones have long been the norm and Apple after being hesitant has certainly grown into the form.
A very pink rose-gold is the new colourway of choice – not to our taste but each to to their own – to go alongside the established trio of gold, silver and, as we’ve been handling, space grey. Among the many obsessive physical nips and tucks are the introduction of aerospace-grade series 7000 aluminium as the body material, to amp up protection and presumably nip Bendgate in the bud.
Another is a capacitive touchscreen dubbed “3D Touch”, which adds another layer of input at the expense of adding 20g to its 192g weight. It’s noticeable, as it is on the iPhone 6S, but, as we’ll find out, ends up earning its place as an addition.
iPhone 6S Plus Screen: A 3D Touch of class
The 5.5″ “Retina HD” display is now smothered in a more durable glass that we hope we’ll never have to put to the test. It makes it very shiny indeed, though, almost mirror-like in the sun, and an absolute fingerprint hoover, so you’ll spend half your day buffing it on your sleeve. But you’ll want to, as the screen is a star, a 1920×1080 resolution at 401 pixels per inch and vibrant and punchy for films and games. It’s absolutely massive, but that’s great – the need to turn to a tablet is becoming less and less.
The new 3D Touch screen input, at time of trying, had only been adopted by Apple’s own apps, yet the potential to change the way we interact with our handsets is still clear to see. It’s a cross between the Apple Watch’s “Taptic” feedback and Samsung’s Hover, giving you another menu layer with its own interactions if you push slightly into the screen, with physical feedback to boot.
Put a small amount of pressure on an app or item and it will preview a smattering of contextual info or options, which you can then jump to with a bit more force from your finger, or just opt out, occasionally saving you a fair bit of time. It takes a small while to attune to its benefits and not constantly try and delete all your apps, but it soon becomes second nature.
This is best when already in apps: glancing at emails without opening them, checking web link content in messages, assessing map directions in shop websites and viewing album track listings before playing. Pushing down the virtual keyboard to create a trackpad-style cursor to fly around your documents is already a thing we can’t imagine not having.
Less habit-forming is 3D Touch ‘Quick Actions’ on the home screen, which in theory jump to most-used app functions while you’re not actually in the app, but whose animations end up taking about the same time in practice. It’s a nice idea but needs speeding up, or used for harder-to-access functionality at least.
iPhone 6S Plus Performance: Upping the operational ante
As you’d expect for an annual update, performance has been tweaked throughout on the iPhone 6S Plus. Despite apparently only packing less than half the memory of Samsung’s latest Edge pair, the iPhone 6S Plus zips around while handling multiple tasks, the much-vaunted A9 chip motoring things along even when laden with the excessive contents of our 100GB+ media haul. It’s quite the performer.
Over both 4G and EE internet loading times are noticeably swifter than last year’s class, while FaceTime calls to the US over Wi-Fi are like the recipient is sitting next to you – particularly impressive as transatlantic chinwags was something the iPhone 6 seemed to struggle with. If Android handsets always ace raw specs, Apple remains happy with harmonising its tech advancements.
The M9 co-processor is now always running, which means no holding down buttons to get the Siri digital assistant to help out – you just say ‘Hey Siri’ and off you go. It can do an increasing number of contextual functions just from you asking, from bringing up photos based on dates or places if your geotagging is up to date, to setting reminders based on operations or locations. Asking your phone to do things still feels a little silly in public, but at home, it can be handy.
What’s most impressive is that despite the boosted power, constant co-processor and spied 1,715mAh battery (slightly smaller than last year’s model), the iPhone 6S Plus is as reliably long-lasting as before. We find we have to charge around every 30 hours on regular use, which for us is very good for a heavy load of writing, editing, web browsing, social networking, photographing, video watching, gaming, and a bit of Siri testing thrown in. It takes a couple of hours to charge it back up again, too.
Low-Power Mode is now on hand to boost it further, taking a trick out of Samsung’s book and kicking in a reminder when you hit 20%. Its reliable, too, knocking out mail updating and a few minor features to extend what would be 2 hours of use to a more comfortable 6.
iPhone 6S Plus Software and UI: Tweaking the best in the business
You may well have downloaded the newly launched iOS 9 on iPhone or iPad already – and, if so, no doubt have an opinion on its new font – but the operating system’s tweaks and touches are more subtle than ever. But with extended use, they bring themselves to the forefront, an iCloud Drive app on your home screen here (with Google Drive and Dropbox sync), a direct-call contact button there. We’ve collated the best tips and tricks for getting the most of iOS 9 here.
The operating system is slick if, again, not a huge design overhaul. What it continues to do is tap into the huge array of apps on iTunes, which are still the envy of the smartphone world and inevitably updated for the new system (Twitter was quick off the mark on tablet multi-tasking, while Instagram is straight on 3D Touch). News, Apple’s ‘RSS feed becomes magazine’ answer to Flipboard, however has been delayed in the UK.
As avid users of Notes, the introduction of checklists and image pinning has already changed our supermarket runs, while 3D Touch depth-sensitive sketching may get us arrested on the Tube. Speaking of which, “Transit” information comes to Apple Maps at last, which will be of most use for Apple Watch users, who still have no Google Maps option (WatchOS 2 has just landed in time to sync up, too).
Touch ID is noticeably quicker at reading your prints than before – the increase of pass codes to six digits has helped its case in the swiftness stakes, too – and Apple Pay sets up easily and works without a hitch. It’s a testament to how simple the latter is that it passes without need for a comment – it really does just work.
With 3D Touch only on the 6S and 6S Plus, Apple has been fairly conservative with its functionality in iOS 9, all apps having to work with and without the new input after all. But it’s one to watch in terms of how the interface could be built around it as more apps adopt it once it goes live. Like the shared landscape mode, we’d love for multitasking on the 6S Plus to ape the iPad’s new split-screen/picture-in-picture mode, but alas that’s just for the iPad Air 2.
iPhone 6S Camera: Bigger, better, faster, more
The iPhone 6 Plus had a pretty stellar snapper, with its DSLR-style phase detect autofocus function and optical image stabilisation boost over the iPhone 6, and the 6S Plus gives your pocket more image ammo with added exposure control. The 4-megapixel bump to 12MP on the rear camera will please raw spec fans, but the most tangible benefit out of the box is the increased shutter speed, ultra-responsive as it fires off snaps.
Scanning your camera roll quickly with a bit of 3D Touch action soon becomes second nature too. Images are bright, bold and detailed, with great depth. The 5-megapixel front camera is now no slouch either, with a clever “Retina flash” employed for when a selfie is absolutely necessary, using the entire display to illuminate you and your repertoire of ironic poses.
Video now gets the much-vaunted optical image stabilisation too for smoother time lapses, but a more headline-grabbing tweak is that the iPhone 6S Plus lets you shoot in 4K now as well, much like Sony’s Xperia range. Now, the 6S Plus display isn’t 4K, so the only way to scope this on the move is to zoom into your videos to see the improved detail. But it means you can edit multiple 4K streams on the fly in iMovie if you choose (that’ll pound your battery, mind), with a future-proofing measure like this, we wonder how long before a firmware update boots the new Apple TV up to 4K?
The Daily Prophet-esque Live Photos, meanwhile, sit halfway between still images and video, getting their animated GIF on and showing a few seconds of footage from either side of the snap when you hold your finger down. They’re fun but frivolous, similar to past efforts by Nokia and HTC that never quite captured the imagination, but then never had the weight of Apple’s marketing team behind them.
Of course the downside on all this high-deffery is that it lays a heavy weight on your storage. With a minute of 4K setting you back 375MB and Live Photos taking up twice the space of a typical snap, we’d rule the entry-level 16GB 6S Plus out of hand if you want to make the most of it all, and keep Live Photos off as ‘default’.
iPhone 6S Plus Verdict: The best Apple phone so far
The iPhone 6S Plus is in some ways a classic odd-year upgrade from Apple, upping the internal performance, functionality and outer materials having had 12 months to road test the chassis. But the 3D Touch screen makes it slightly more than that, too. If Live Photos whiffs ever so slightly of gimmick, this feels more like the start of something, worming its interface into regular usage when you least expect it. Importantly, you miss it when you’re on other devices and it’s not.
It follows that the iPhone 6S Plus is an all-round excellent smartphone, with an increasingly versatile operating system that has been iterated and evolved within an inch of its life, an impressive camera and the best app store around powering it. There are cheaper phones and there are phones with more features, but this is a very refined handset indeed and one that packs a consistent, long-lasting punch, if an expensive one.
With off-contract prices running from £619 for a 16GB handset up to £789 for a 128GB one, or from £50 if you don’t mind strapping yourself to a painful-sounding 24-month contract, you can see why two years tends to be the accepted upgrade cycle now. If you’re already ‘with’ iPhone 6 Plus, this is only for the most die-hard of want-it-nows.
But if you’re coming at it fresh, or thinking of jumping from an older iPhone or Android handset, all of the tweaks here make this the best Apple phone out there, and edges the 6S for us. As long as you stay clear of the 16GB entry models on both, which seems far too small a storage bay for what you’ll end up chucking at it, you’re sure to have a party.