iPhone 6s Plus review: more capability, more complexity
The new iPhone is here – and 2015 being an “S year,” the new iPhone is a lot like the old iPhone. That means it’s a solid device, simple yet capable. It’s the phone you recommend to your friends who can’t be bothered with constant optimizations, to parents who want something that just works, to those who take seriously Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy to “simplify, simplify.”
But with a new operating system and one of the most significant interface upgrades in Apple’s history, the supersized edition of the company’s 2015 flagship is perhaps the least simple iPhone yet. How much does the added complexity corrupt the “magic” of using an iPhone – and are the added capabilities worth it? The answer after the jump, in Pocketnow’s iPhone 6s Plus review!
Apple iPhone 6s Plus Review Video
Specs & Hardware
Externally, almost nothing about the iPhone’s design has changed since last year. The new 7000-series aluminum is more resistant to bending and it’s got a slightly rougher texture (possibly thanks to a reduced Teflon layer), but it’s still fairly slippery compared to most smartphones. That means you’ll probably want to put a case on it, and in our view you won’t be missing much in the way of looks. The iPhone 6s Plus retains last year’s wide-radius corners, pronounced antenna channels and bezels that look a little chubby next to some of the latest Android phones. While comfortable to hold, this beast isn’t likely to win any beauty contests, Rose Gold or no. That’s subjective, of course – as is whether you’ll be able to tell that the 5.5-inch display “only” comes packing 1080p resolution. We still consider a 401ppi pixel density plenty sharp for a smartphone of this size, and the reasons go beyond mere sharpness: we’ve spent the majority of this year testing phones with super-high-res displays and big batteries … and then being disappointed in their endurance.
Thankfully, the iPhone 6s Plus defies this trend. At 2750 mAh, it packs a small power pack for its size but its software excels at making the most of that limited capacity. We’ll save specific endurance figures for the Performance portion of this review, but the iPhone 6s lasted seven hours of grueling heavy use before giving up the ghost – the same kind of usage that torpedoed our Moto X Pure Edition in just five hours. In more typical conditions (and with the help of iOS 9’s low power mode) the 6s Plus got us through almost two days of moderate use without charging. That’s really solid endurance, and it helps make up for the fact that the iPhone has no wireless or rapid charging options like some of its competitors.
That’s not to say the new iPhone is without its toys. The new TouchID fingerprint scanner is so fast, it’s too fast: we almost never see our lock screen notifications because just grazing the home button is enough to unlock the phone. Also, while the side-mounted notification switch isn’t new, its convenience remains almost unrivaled, providing a helpful shortcut to mute the ringer with a single click. Do so, and Apple’s new Taptic Engine makes its presence felt as it transmits a subtle yet sharp vibration impulse through the phone’s chassis. If you’ve worn an Apple Watch, the feeling will be familiar; if not, you’re in for a tactile treat.
The Taptic Engine also comes out to play every time you use the new iPhone’s most famous new feature. Apple’s new 3D Touch is like the clicking touchscreen on the old BlackBerry Storm – except instead of mechanical it’s capacitive, and instead of terrible it’s amazing. 3D Touch lets you to press harder on the display to access a third layer of interactivity baked into iOS 9. Instead of just tapping the homescreen’s Clock icon to open it, for example, press firmly and you’re rewarded with a pop-up menu that lets you jump right into the stopwatch. Do it on the Evernote elephant, and you can start a new note with one tap. See how many messages are waiting from your VIP contacts; instantly start Shazam-ing a song; see what your next appointment is without opening the calendar. All of these interactions are accompanied by microvibrations from the Taptic Engine that make it feel as though you’re actually pressing a physical button even though the glass deformations that make 3D Touch work are microscopic in size.
You can use the iPhone 6s Plus just fine without ever discovering 3D Touch – indeed, the functionality is easy to forget if you’re not constantly using it during the first few days. That’s not because 3D Touch is useless or unnatural, but rather because it takes time for new interface methods to take root. Using a firm touch to “peek” into an email and then “pop” into the full version may not come in handy too often, but using the same actions to preview links in Safari is hugely useful. Ditto for repositioning a cursor in a text field by pushing down harder on the spacebar, which is somehow faster and more satisfying than doing the same with a long-press on some Android phones. 3D Touch is a very clever means of extracting more usefulness from a touch screen while keeping the interaction as simple as possible. And it’s a timely reminder that even in an S-year, Apple is capable of startling innovation.
The rest of Apple’s new software is a largely positive experience. iOS 9 brings a new multitasking screen that strongly resembles Android’s app cards, rotated 90 degrees. The new card deck makes it easy to shuffle between titles, and even with only 2GB of RAM we didn’t often find ourselves waiting for apps to reload from idle on the 6s Plus. Apple’s Reachability feature is still here, which makes using this big phone one-handed a little bit easier: a quick double-tap on the home key drops the entire interface down by half a page, making for a smaller stretch of the thumb to get to the top of the virtual screen. Spotlight search is still the easiest way to find or do basically anything: you just need to swipe down on the homescreen and start typing to execute a web search, find an app, or seek out a specific search term in an email. The new Proactive panel on the leftmost home screen is adept at delivering contextually relevant shortcuts and information, too – by the end of our 10-day review period it had gotten pretty good at guessing which contacts we wanted to talk to and which apps we wanted to use at any given time. And Apple’s swipe-up-from-the-bottom panel for media controls and system toggles is so convenient that every large phone should include it.
Nevertheless, there are some frustrations mixed in here – both old and new alike. For one, that easily-accessible control panel doesn’t include notifications. For those, you need to head up to the top of the screen, which is annoying even with Reachability. Notification Center is much improved these days, but alerts are duplicated via badges on the phone’s springboard icons, so unless you’re really good at maintaining a true “Inbox Zero” status (or willing to manually manage badges in the Settings menu), get used to seeing a lot of red splotches all over your homescreen icons. As for the springboard itself, that grid of icons and folders is just as inflexible as ever. You can change your wallpaper, drop apps into folders and rearrange them … and that’s about it. Voice dictation works really wonderfully, until it inexplicably stops working after a few sentences. Safari has some really confusing interface quirks that make it frustrating to use, like demanding an aggressive swipe to bring the URL bar out of hiding and not always clearly showing when a link has been tapped. The new back-to-previous app feature, while clever, takes the form of an ugly, hard-to-hit string of text blocking out the signal meter. The list goes on.
The upshot is that iOS 9 is a capable and intuitive operating system with some very cool new features, but it packs enough interface oddities and small bugs to make it less straightforward than previous versions of Apple’s software.
The iPhone has made a name for itself in photography, mainly thanks to a combination of solid optics and a dead-simple viewfinder. The 6s Plus is no different in that regard, though the hardware has seen an upgrade to a 12MP sensor with 1.22µ pixels, an f/2.2 aperture and optical image stabilization.
The most-talked about addition on the software side of the new iPhone’s camera is the Live Photos feature. Every time you snap a photo with the iPhone 6s Plus, the software automatically captures 1.5 seconds of video on either side of the capture moment. The resulting video adds a little life to the gallery when you swipe through your photos, animating each one for a fraction of a second with each swipe. Pressing harder on a picture will play through the entire 3-second “Live Photo,” and you can even set one as your wallpaper. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but the implementation here is quite elegant in its simplicity – and the 3D Touch integration is especially nice.
Conventional photos look quite nice courtesy of the new 12MP camera hardware. Some of our stills do seem a bit underexposed –especially compared to shots taken with a Galaxy Note 5 right alongside– but low-light photos are actually pretty solid, with or without the color-correcting dual-LED flash.
It’s the new iPhone’s selfie shooter that’s gotten the more significant update by far. The front-facing camera is now 5MP with auto HDR and 720p video capability, and it’s augmented by a clever display-based flash. When the iPhone 6s Plus detects a low-light scene, it overpowers the LCD backlight to 300% of normal and sets the color to a solid white, which is color-corrected based on the specific lighting conditions it detects. We’ve seen features like this in earlier phones and even seen a few dedicated front-firing flashes out there, but Apple’s more elegant solution leverages the phone’s existing hardware to produce a better picture most of the time.
On the down side, it’s a shame Apple once again failed to include a wide-angle lens here. Most of our sample photos below include a single subject for a very good reason: it’s difficult to fit more than two people in the frame with the iPhone’s front-facing camera. With wide-angle lenses and more advanced solutions becoming commonplace on the competition, it’s odd that Apple continues to consign its users to a friendless selfie existence.
Most of these conclusions hold true for the phone’s camcorder mode, with added kudos going to Apple for marrying its optical and digital stabilization approaches to produce exceedingly smooth video. As we opted for the 16GB tier for our iPhone review device (a purely economical choice we don’t recommend to anyone in the real world) we shied away from 4K video recording during our test period. Fortunately, the iPhone’s 1080p recording mode at 60fps was more than enough to kick out video worthy of sharing – and standout features like an integrated Time Lapse mode and free video editing via iMovie continue to keep it high on the list when it comes to the fun stuff.
As we covered in a recent episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, 2015 has been a banner year for Android camera phones. As a result, the iPhone no longer earns the automatic win it once did in the smartphone camera category; other OEMs have finally figured out how to produce excellent photos with a minimum of effort on the part of the user. Still, the iPhone 6s Plus camera experience is a tight one, with dead-simple software driving capable hardware to produce photos that hold up very well under most conditions.
For all the effort Apple makes to paint the iPhone experience as something supreme, the iPhone 6s is a surprisingly typical smartphone in day-to-day use. One only need look to the home button to discover that the fabled simplicity of iOS is long-gone: when the phone is asleep, double-clicking the home button opens Apple Pay; when awake, the same action opens the multitasking view; tapping it twice activates Reachability; and holding it down brings up Siri. Apple’s voice assistant is another monument to mediocrity: for all her recent improvements she’s still infuriatingly simple at times, significantly less able to cope with odd syntax than Android’s Google Now or even Microsoft’s Cortana.
Old frustrations continue to dog the experience, too. While misunderstandings are par for the course with all virtual keyboards, no auto-correct implementation is more infuriating than that of iOS, whose aggressive substitution engine is so often off the mark that it would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating. The iPhone 6s Plus’s cellular reception doesn’t seem quite up to par with other devices in our inventory either, and more than once we’ve found ourselves waiting longer for a GPS lock than with other phones (though Apple’s compass is always consistently excellent while Android phones often point us in the exact wrong direction). And the iPhone 6s Plus is just as guilty of underusing its large display canvas as its immediate predecessor: while iOS does offer a few multi-pane displays in landscape mode, there’s none of the split-screen capability that makes devices like the Galaxy Note, Microsoft Surface, and Apple iPad so useful for hardcore multitaskers. And then there’s that keyboard, which, well …
Given that it suffers from just as many handicaps and compromises as its Android-powered competition, then, why pay the premium for an iPhone? The answer, for many, is the same one it’s been for years: Apple’s ecosystem advantage. We’re not talking about the tired old app-count argument –in terms of the quantity of titles, Android is essentially tied with iOS– but “ecosystem” in its broadest sense. iPhone owners get a fuller sharing experience with other iPhone owners thanks to apps like iMessage. iPhone owners have a more unified, higher-quality selection of hardware accessories thanks to Apple’s Made for iPhone program. Some popular iOS titles launch first on the iPhone or, like the Facebook Paper app, never make the jump to Android. And in crucial areas like mobile payments, Apple got an early head start that’s now serving it very well. Using Apple Pay on the iPhone 6s Plus is absurdly quick and easy, and while it shares the same technology infrastructure as Android Pay, Apple’s solution is still accepted at more retailers in our native Boston. (Neither is as technically sophisticated or as universally compatible in the US as Samsung Pay, but that’s a story for another time.)
In short: Apple compensates for all the stuff it gets wrong by getting a lot of more important stuff right. The more people buy new iPhones, the more other people see how much easier life is for all the people using iPhones. (Even we tech geeks aren’t alone: almost no one at Pocketnow carries an iPhone as his daily driver, but those who do are often objects of envy due to their ecosystem edge alone.) It’s this positive feedback loop, combined with some very effective marketing on Apple’s part, that has propelled the company to the heights it currently enjoys.
Before we get to the wrap-up, we promised you a detailed breakdown of the hell-day we put the iPhone 6s Plus review device through. Check it out below, and note that while the phone did get warm during extended bouts of emailing, it did much better than the Moto X Pure Edition we tested with a similar day’s usage (the Moto X died before the iPhone even hit the 20% warning).
Off charger at 9:55a
(connected to Android Wear device entire day, initial display brightness set to maximum)
5 mins Apple Maps navigation
5 mins Spotify streaming via LTE
10 minutes email send/receive
(Display brightness busted down to 50% at 11:05a)
20 minutes radio streaming via WBUR app
35 minutes Apple Maps navigation
25 minutes YouTube streaming
55 minutes email send/receive with heavy text dictation
10 minutes social media (native Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat apps)
30 minutes email send/receive
5 minutes SMS send/receive
10 minutes web browsing via Safari
5 minute voice call
30 minutes near-continuous photo & video
(3:45pm: 20% warning, switched to low power mode)
75 minutes mixed use: photos, video, email send/receive
(5:16pm: 2% remaining, plugged phone in to charge)
Total usage (heavy): 7hr 21min
+ Biggest, most unified ecosystem in mobile
+ Fastest fingerprint scanner available
+ Excellent camera
+ Above-average endurance
+ 3D Touch opens new possibilities for interface design
– Phone and accessories expensive
– Aesthetics not for everyone
– Only average display
– Software offers very limited customizability
Pricing and Availability
The iPhone 6s Plus enjoys the usual wide availability in the United States, being offered in four colors by all four US national operators and directly from Apple at prices ranging from $749 to $949 full retail. Monthly installment pricing ranges from $25 to $31 for 24-30 months at the four US nationals, with Apple offering its own credit-dependent financing plan as well.
While choosing the right payment option will depend on your own personal finances, we offer one blanket recommendation that we think applies to most buyers: 16GB will not be enough. Due to the space requirements of iOS, only 11.5GB of that claimed storage is actually available to you out of the box on the entry-level iPhone 6s Plus – and it fills up rapidly. After four days of use, our 16GB review device was down to 6GB of available storage; at press time, we’re at 1.4GB. Yes, we’re using the phone quite heavily, but not unrealistically so.
The bottom line: if you’re buying one of these, do yourself a favor and spring for the 64GB model at least.
S-model iPhones are among the toughest smartphones to review because they’re often so difficult to get excited about. Rose Gold model aside, the iPhone 6s Plus is physically almost indistinguishable from last year’s 6 Plus – and some of the challenges of that model remain on this one. Despite this, the iPhone 6s Plus is still one of the most expensive smartphones you can find in the mainstream market today. That Moto X Pure Edition we trashed in the battery section above? Yeah, that phone costs $350 less than the iPhone 6s Plus.
But this year more than ever, the iPhone is much more than the sum of its parts. Its challenges –a steeper learning curve, less elegant software, and a year-old hardware design– are counterbalanced by great battery life, an incredibly deep ecosystem of apps and services, a new and innovative interface and a solid camera. The iPhone 6s Plus is not the most exciting smartphone of 2015 –not by a long shot– but it wasn’t meant to be; it was meant to be the best (oversized) iPhone yet. While that won’t always be enough to keep the iPhone afloat in a sea of ever-more-capable, ever-cheaper competitors, “the best iPhone yet” is more than enough to keep Apple healthy – and the iOS faithful happy.