Just as we expected, Apple announced the next versions of its best-selling smartphones, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, at its annual launch event in San Francisco. Also as we expected, the iPhone 6S looks identical to last year’s 4.7-inch iPhone 6, reserving its most important changes for the hardware interior.
The biggest, and most noticeable change to this year’s set of phones is “3D Touch,” a pressure-sensitive display technology that lets you push in to do new things on your phone. After getting a chance to check out the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus briefly at Apple’s San Francisco event, these were our impressions.
Design: Feels the same
No surprise, but the new iPhones have nearly identical hand feel and design. Put one in someone’s hand, and there’s no way they’d know if it was an “S” model or not.
True, there is a new color now, called rose gold (it basically looks like a blush pink, same as the new Apple Watch color option that the company announced). But as far as looks go, this extra shade is the extent of the changes you’ll be able to visually detect between this year’s and last year’s phones.
Apple’s emphasis on hardware upgrades over design development follows the pattern that the Cupertino-based company has long established: significant changes come in the even years and incremental updates in the odd. It’s a move that could alienate buyers as much cheaper “premium” handsets compete with titans like Apple for market share.
However, significant updates to the iPhone 6S’ camera technology, a new form of pressure-sensitive navigation called 3D Touch, and a faster processor all combine to keep the next-generation phone looking competitive enough to counter other top-tier handsets as we approach the year-end holiday rush.
Aerospace-grade aluminum and sturdier glass
Apple says that its phone may look the same as last year’s model, but its iPhone 6S duo has achieved more inner strength. This time it uses a different grade of aluminum for its chassis, one that’s also used in the aerospace industry. They call it Series 7,000, and it’s the same aluminum alloy Apple puts into its Apple Watch Sport. The company clearly hopes this reinforced material will help deflect against future “Bendgate” backlashes, where some customers complained that their 5.5-inch iPhone 6S phones “bent” after being sat on.
Apparently, a new type of chemically strengthened glass also tops the iPhone 6S, though the company hasn’t confirmed if this is cover material from Corning’s Gorilla Glass line or not.
Brand new ‘force’ touch: Subtle but effective
Apple has included a variation of Force Touch, which you find in different capacities on the Apple Watch and on some Mac trackpads. Called 3D Touch here, the iPhone 6S phones will adopt the same pressure-sensitive capability that calls up secondary menus and actions when you press and hold the screen.
Press down and you can pull up context-sensitive menus, switch apps, or examine photos. But it’s a subtle riff on what already exists on iPhones: tapping and holding.
Another use is to access shortcuts from the home screen for your most frequent actions, say messaging a friend. And if you’re in your email inbox, applying fingertip pressure to an element in the message will surface more information, like maybe the flight number on an emailed travel itinerary, for instance. (Apple called this concept “peeking in” during the live demo.)
Pressing harder on an app will likewise generate more options, like viewing all the photos of a contact’s Instagram photo stream. In the context of a game, pressing harder could zoom you in to get closer to the action.
We’re not sure why Force Touch was rebranded as 3D Touch, and it’s not necessarily a clearer term for what it does. But after using it for a bit, it’s undoubtedly something you’d want on every smartphone. In a couple of years, it seems like it would become as standard as multitouch. But the way it feels ends up coming across as pretty subtle. Menus gently pop up, photos slowly come alive. The iPhone throbs gently beneath via the Taptic Engine haptics, like on the Apple Watch. Pressing in didn’t cause a realistic, hard mechanical “click” in the same way that the new MacBook trackpads do. The implementation seems designed to feel invisible and comfortable, not weirdly magical.
New hardware inside
The biggest news here is the hugely upgraded front and rear cameras and video capability, but there are a few other tidbits here and there as well.
Cameras and video with more megapixels
A 12-megapixel camera is a huge jump for Apple, which has been holding onto its 8-megapixel sensors in its iPhone for years. Autofocus will pick up the pace, according to Apple, and color accuracy is a point of pride.
The 5-megapixel front-facing camera now brings the iPhone 6S on par with a lot of today’s competing handsets. Of course, it includes the company’s proprietary voice chat feature, FaceTime video. Here’s something wildly different, though. Instead of including a dedicated flash for the front-facing camera, which only a few phones do, Apple is using the home screen to light up instead. This is meant to increase the brightness of those selfies even in low-light situations.
A few test selfies taken in the demo rooms looked really good, with crisper, richer color and details than previous iPhones.
A new feature you’ll see in the camera, Live Photos is a default mode that turns stills into a video or GIF, basically, images that move. It’s an automatic thing; all you have to do is take the picture like normal. When we took some shots in the crowded demo room, the iPhone seamlessly added Live Photo motion and sound. The Live Photo motion came out more like stop-motion or time lapse, however, than true video. It’s also important to note that one Live Photo is about twice the file size as a regular photo. Couple that with the 4K video capabilities (more on that later), and you’ll definitely need more storage space to accommodate.
Apple also joins rival phone makers in including 4K video recording, at 3,840×2,160-pixel resolution. You’ll be able to take 8-megapixel camera photos while recording at this ultrahigh resolution. (The immediate benefit of shooting 4K video would be watching them later on a 4K TV.)
Just like last year’s phones, the iPhone 6S Plus is the only model here with optical image stabilization, which helps correct blur from shaking hands.
The second-generation sensor promises to snap open the phone faster than before. Hopefully fingerprint authentication will also speed up.
Under the hood, we have an upgraded, proprietary A9 processor that continues Apple’s theme of mystery when it comes to exactly what’s going on in there. Though it’s impossible to appreciate during our quick demo, what we do know is that this is Apple’s third-generation 64-bit chip. Apple claims that the A9 is 70 percent faster than last year’s A8 when it comes to the usual computing tasks (like opening an app, for example), and 90 percent faster at graphical tasks, like gaming.
Faster LTE, Wi-Fi connections
Apple says it’ll have the fastest forms of LTE Advanced, if that’s supported where you live, and will also include support for the latest, greatest Wi-Fi networks.
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