So the earth has lapped the sun once more and it’s time for me to hand down 2014’s weapon of choice, my iPhone 6 Plus, to my better half.
This years s model arrived like clockwork in the Cupertino tick-tock cycle we’ve come to expect. You may automatically consider phones with the ‘s’ moniker to deliver mostly insignificant updates, but that’s a false impression. Remember it was the 5s that introduced the Touch ID finger print sensor.
Behind the ‘strongest ever’ glass front lies a matrix of 96 sensors embedded in the backlit which detect the tiny changes in the distance between the glass and themselves. That new screen tech means the 6s+ is marginally thicker (0.2mm) than the 6+ and weighs around 20 grammes more. It’s stronger too with its 7000 Series aluminium body. The battery is slightly smaller but that’s offset by the efficiency improvements of the A9 processor meaning Apple quotes identical battery life to its predecessor. The battery on the 6 Plus has been fantastic, often getting me home with 80% on light use days and coping easily with days like this…
First business trip since getting iPhone 6 Plus. 13 hour day inc hour of video on flight. Home with 31% battery still http://t.co/HkZWU2Wvuo
— Automated Home (@ottomate) February 3, 2015
It’s early days but I’ve seen nothing to make me believe that the battery life on the 6s+ will be any different to the 6+.
The rear facing iSight camera gets an upgrade from an 8 to a 12 megapixel sensor – the first mp upgrade since the iPhone 4 in 2011.
Sample Photos: New 6s Plus Left – 6 Plus Right (click for full size)
There’s no doubt the iPhone is my most used camera so this is a welcomed bump in specs. Whilst these numbers aren’t the whole story in camera quality, there are advantages in having extra pixels, especially in being able to crop whilst maintaining quality. After a quick outing over the weekend with the 6s+ and the 6+ (check out the images above and the zoomed section below) there’s actually very little difference in the two – the 6 Plus already had a great camera and the upgrade seems marginal here.
The Plus model still remains the only one with optical image stabilisation for both stills and video (check out this comparison video between the OIS on the 6s Plus vs the 6 Plus). That video is 4K now so you’ll need plenty of space as the files are around 3 times the size of their 1080p cousins. That brings me to the sad fact that this ‘premium’ product still opens with a 16GB model rather than a 32. For the globes wealthiest company, that brings in the majority of the worlds smartphone profits, Apple can still be surprisingly cheap.
On a side-note, the new iPhones 4K abilities makes it even more surprising that the new Apple TV doesn’t seem to support it. It’s taken so long for Apple to bring the new streamer to market I can’t understand why not. Amazon’s new Fire TV box supports 4K Ultra HD at launch.
The front ‘FaceTime HD’ camera has a much more significant upgrade – now a 5 megapixel affair (up from a relatively nasty 1.2mp) and uses the screens backlight as a flash. It’s something I rarely use though so no real benefit to me, although the selfie stick brigade will be delighted no doubt.
As always there’s some fluff here too. ‘Live Photos’ is a new feature that builds in the 1.5 seconds before and after your snap into an animated jpeg /mov file with 45 frames. They are only viewable (un-converted) on an Apple device and take up around double the space of a normal photo. Meh.
The new A9 chip brings a CPU performance increase of up to 70% plus up to 90% improvement in graphics over last years models. The M9 motion coprocessor is now integrated directly into the A9 for better efficiency and Siri is now always on and can be summoned hands free with a ‘Hey Siri’. Tin-foil-hatters can switch this feature off, although Apple say your data is anonymised before leaving the phone.
With a 64-bit CPU looking like it might be a requirement for some apps in the not-to-distant future (it’s already a requirement for the Safari ad blocker in iOS9), Apple have made the 5s their lowest model still on sale (if you’re buying a new iPhone this year don’t consider anything other than a 5s or above).
Perhaps one of the most important of all the ‘s’ upgrades though is the doubling of RAM to 2GB. This seems way overdue with many competing Android phones sporting 4GB by now. It’s often quoted that Apple’s reason for keeping the RAM tight is its effect on battery life, but maybe it’s really just another way to save a few dollars on the millions of units they sell. Either way this is an important update which has real world benefits and should keep the 6s relevant for a good few years and iOS updates.
The combination of that RAM and the screaming A9 means this phone feels incredibly fast. Benchmarks show the speed increase between the 6 and the 6s is much greater than the 5s to the 6 and it’s performance is approximately on a power with the new 12″ MacBook!
The new 2nd gen Touch ID sensor is lightning fast too, to the point that it’s hard to click the home button without unlocking the phone now (you’ll need to use the power button if you just want to see the time now).
Apple now claim the most LTE bands of any current phone (23 bands with speeds of up to 300 Mbps on 4G LTE Advanced) making it probably the best phone for anyone travelling internationally. There are also improvements in WiFi too, now ‘up to’ 866 Mbps.
On the hardware side the stand out feature of the latest generation of iPhones, from a marketing perspective if nothing else, is that 3D Touch.
This is an advancement of the ‘Force Touch’ tech introduced in the Apple Watch. The 3D alludes to the fact there are different levels here rather than the binary sensor on the Watch.
One application of 3D Touch is as the equivalent to a right-click on the desktop, a way to access context sensitive menus. So you can press the camera icon for example and then slide down the resulting menu to choose to jump straight to say recording a video. Or in Messages you can press and slide to access your VIP contacts. This isn’t always perfect though, depending on the position of your icon, your thumb sometimes obscures the pop-up menu, requiring you to lift it off to read then press, rather than sliding.
Peek & Pop
Peek and Pop is a more sophisticated notion. A light press on the screen in your email app for example lets you ‘Peek’ to preview its contents (see the animation below).
Image Credit: pcadvisor.co.uk
Let go and you’re back at the message list where you started. But if you like the look of your preview and want to go all the way into that message then pressing a little deeper will ‘Pop’ that message up to full screen. You can use Peek in most list views and also in the Calendar app to quickly look into a day.
Each Peek and Pop is confirmed with a different duration of haptic feedback from the new ‘Taptic Engine’, hardware again introduced on the Apple Watch. That same hardware provides the vibrations for calls on silent and it’s much more of a feeling than a sound compared to the old phones.
3D Touch has made its way into many other areas of the iPhone UI. Pressing on the keyboard within apps like Notes, Mail, and Messages will turn that area of the screen into a mini trackpad which you can use to move the cursor more precisely.
You can also press the left side of the home screen to switch to multitasking view so you can swipe to find your app. Along with iOS9’s new BACK TO APP feature, it’s clear the double click of the home button to access task switcher is going to be used less and less.
It’ll take a while for 3rd party apps to support 3D Touch but some are there already (try Twitter or Instagram for example). It’s going to be interesting to see how game developers use the tech and will smart home apps start to take advantage of it too (press harder to dim faster?).
A couple of things sprung to mind when watching the 3D Touch demo at the Apple event earlier this month.
1. Couldn’t a lot of this just have been done with a long-press?
The short answer is probably yes, but the longer answer maybe not quite. Quick Actions could definitely be replicated with a long press. And you could also long press to peek followed by say a swipe up to pop. But long press means waiting and no matter how short that’s probably unacceptable to Apple. It would also be a pale imitation of the real thing. Long presses are currently used for copy paste, defining a word, re-arranging springboard icons etc etc and these would all have to be changed, along with the resulting disorientation for users.
2. Is this the start of a transition between iPhones with Home Buttons and future ones without?
If 3D Touch gestures can replace the need for this mechanical switch on the front is there any other reason to keep the home button? One more hurdle, the fingerprint sensor that lives there would also have to move to the screen as well. Luckily Apple have a patent for that standing by.
As I mentioned in last years review, the iPhone has a large chin to hold that home button and the laws of Apple design and symmetry that dictate the matching forehead at the other end makes it bigger than it needs to be. Removing the home button will reduce the size of future iPhones substantially without affecting the screen size.
The new iPhone 6s Plus looks and feels just like last years model, but there are significant improvements in nearly every aspect of it, inside and out. It’ll take a while for my muscle memory to retrain itself to use the new ways of 3D Touch and it remains to be seen what the world will make of it. Perhaps power users will get it and the masses ignore? Apple is bound to bring it to the iPad in the future too but will the years spent developing this technology go the way of the Apple HiFI or will it be the next must-have thing to be copied by those other phone makers. We’ll find out after another lunar lap or two.